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Body of Evidence: Training Lessons Learned While Injured

A Coach's Confession

By Lynne Tapper

When I hurt my back in August 2010 (my most recent back injury), my husband told me that I had to write about it, mostly, because it seemed like the finale of a cruel episode of “ER” starring my body.

multisport labI’d been plagued with various nagging injuries that summer. First, I had a terrible case of carpal tunnel in both wrists, resulting in painful numbness. Second, I found myself battling plantar fasciitis in my left foot. Lastly, I fell off my bike during an Olympic-distance triathlon where I was going nearly 20 miles an hour. I got up, finished the last half-mile of the ride and ran the 10k. Only once I’d finished did I discover how badly the entire left side of my torso was swollen and torn up. 

Two weeks later, my back went out. I was unable to move due to major nerve pain going down the right leg all the way to my right foot. It turns out that I had herniated two disks (L5/S1) that were pressing on my sciatic nerve.

Some of you may be thinking I’m a little (or a lot) nuts. Maybe you would have thrown in the towel somewhere between carpal tunnel and fasciitis. But, I also know that many of you reading this would have kept going, just like I did, until you couldn’t go anymore.

I now realize that I was not going to stop until, eventually, I had no choice. Despite the many signs telling me to slow down, I never listened. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t take a break after my bike crash at the Olympic-distance triathlon. Instead, I was counting the days until I could swim again. I had to let my forearm’s deep road rash heal to avoid infection from a pool or lake. For some reason, I couldn’t shift my brain from drive to park. In the end, the herniated disc was the only thing that got me to downshift. For that I am truly grateful.

Since last August, I have sought out many medical opinions, both surgical and non-surgical. I have been to orthopedic back surgeons, physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, personal trainers, massage therapists and even two psychotherapists. In the end, I decided to let my body rest and see what happened.

Having opted for the non-surgical route, I have tried to be a patient patient, listening to my body as it slowly heals. It was frustrating to miss three late-season races, but by listening to my body, I was able to recover and learn more about what had happened.  Ten months after the herniated disks literally stopped me in my tracks, I did a sprint triathlon and my only goal was to finish pain free. I ended up winning my age group.

For the past 10 years, I’ve practiced what I’ve preached and varied my workout routines and cross-trained. However, this recovery taught me even more about how I can extend my years of training and the best practices for staying injury free. Granted, there are no guarantees, but I’ve jotted down some guidelines that I think can benefit any athlete.

I hope that you can learn from my experience, and avoid the mistakes I made by placing a firm hand on the gearshift in your life. 

1. Warm up
We can all agree that warming up is a good idea, yet so few of us do it consistently because we just want to get the workout in. Well, that just doesn’t cut it. Whether you are swimming, biking, running or doing core conditioning at the gym, take the time to do something at an easy pace to literally warm up. Don’t just launch into a 5-mile run.

2. Vary Your Routine
For the past two years, I have been religious about not running two days in a row. Even if you’re on vacation and there is no other activity you can do, I recommend taking a long walk instead of running back-to-back days. Climb the stairs in a hotel instead of the elevator. You can also interject some interval running by varying your speed.

3. Cool Down
I try to end my run with a 5-15 minute walk. Walking at the end will give you time to cool down and let your muscles relax. Maybe you plan to stretch when you get home, but at least you’ve walked before jumping in the car or sitting at your desk.

4. Stretch
Have a 10-15 minute stretch routine that allows you to cool down after a hard workout. If time is tight, you can shorten the stretching, but don’t skip it. In the past I wouldn’t have stretched at all, now it’s the final part of the workout.

5. Try Yoga
Yoga adds a good balance to workouts. For me, yoga isn’t another tough workout on my body, it’s the opportunity to recharge and recover. I’m a big fan of Yin Yoga. I call it “forced stretching.” Check out Sage Rountree’s Yoga for Athletes. You will definitely get some good nuggets from her books and podcasts.

6. Breathe
Seems odd to have to remind yourself to breathe, right? Well, I find that it helps get the oxygen moving around to all parts of the body. Don’t limit your deep breaths to training; incorporate deep breaths to your daily routine when you are driving, watching television, reading or right before going to sleep.

7. Rest and Recover
The most underrated part of training is rest and recovery days. Usually you get a rest day if you’re travelling somewhere or you have meetings back-to-back and a workout is out of the question. Are you really resting? Try to find one day a week where you schedule a rest day. It’s OK if it’s also a work day, just make sure you’re not changing time zones. A good rest day will go a long way in a successful training program.

8. Less Is More
There are days when you might just need a short swim. That’s OK. Every workout doesn’t have to be the Ironman.  Mix it up.

9. Pain May Be a Distraction
One of the more interesting ideas I discovered during my recovery is based on the concepts of Dr. John Sarno. His basic premise is that some pain (e.g. back and neck pain) is more related to your emotional state than a physical trauma. Dr. Sarno claims that in certain cases, pain is your brain attempting to distract you from something going on in your life. The pain is real, but not due to an injury. This is a larger topic, but one worth researching if other approaches haven’t helped.

10. Smile
I truly love to train and sometimes, when the workout is hard, I forget that. If you start to smile, you will relax and realize you’re having fun, despite how challenging the workout may be. Recently, I was doing a workout on the treadmill and I started to smile and I ran faster and with more ease.

11. Listen
I believe that I have been given a second chance to train and race; pain-free. For over 20 years, I have been training for and racing marathons, half marathons and triathlons. During that span, I have had a few injuries that have sidelined me, but this recent hiatus was by far the longest. While it was frustrating, it did give me much-needed time to learn more about my body and also examine my exercise philosophy. In the end, it was a wake-up call that was sorely needed. More importantly, it was a wake-up call that I was finally able to hear. Make sure you listen to your body when it is trying to tell you something, especially so you don’t make an injury worse.

Lynne Tapper is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach as well as a Heart Zones certified triathlon coach and level 4 master trainer. She coaches with Team Training New England LLC, building athletes one team at a time. For more information visit http://teamtrainingne.com.

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