By Nick White
Training the body for 140.6 miles of effort takes its toll on the body, especially when you’re trying to fit hours of weekly workouts around an already busy life where family and work are higher priorities. The stress of swimming, biking, running, and that thing called “life” can pile, on leading, sometimes, to injury. It happens, and outside of an accident on the bike, most injuries usually come from/affect running.
But I’m here to tell you that one of the beauties of triathlon is that rarely will an injury knock you off your game. By its very nature, the sport allows you to keep on training the other two specialties when you’re healing from one.
With running, some of the more common afflictions are stress fractures in the foot, painfully tight IT bands that run from hip to the knee, knee pain from inflamed tendons, and plantar fascia, a crippling condition affecting the tendons that stretch from your heel to the ball of your foot. In most cases, several weeks to a couple months of not running is the answer. Work with your doctor and/or your physical therapist to determine what the best protocol and timeframe is to get you back running.
Strengthen Your Weakness
Assuming you get the all clear from your doctor to continue exercising—just not running—you can certainly add more swims and time on the bike to your weekly totals. But prioritize them: if your bike training is already going well, then devote that extra time into the pool. Swimming is usually the leg that takes a backseat to biking and running anyhow. If you’re currently doing three swim session per week, do five—injury permitting.
Now don’t expect to turn into a Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin of triathlon. Even a few weeks of swimming like an Olympian might only shave a minute or two off your swim leg. And you’re not practicing for a medal here. However, those extra strokes will build your swim endurance and this should help you reach T1 with more in the tank for the rest of the race.
If you’re not feeling super strong or comfortable on your bike, now’s the time to address it. Devoting that extra time on the bike to be able to stay in the aero position longer, gain more familiarity with the bike on fast, twisting descents or hard cornering will pay dividends on race day. The 3-5 hours that your plan had you running can now be used on the bike. If you had one bike and one run interval session planned per week, you can do them both on the bike. If you used to have one long run and one long ride per week, both can be rides.
If you follow the guidelines above, you should be able to maintain your overall fitness while your leg or foot heals and arrive at the race in prime shape for the first two legs.
Remember to Rest
Staying out of your running shoes allows you to do, perhaps, the hardest thing for any IM athlete and that is rest. The biggest mistake even healthy IM trainees make is neglecting it—they have to fit so much training in their schedule, that they have very little time to rest properly. Having said that, you need your injury to heal, the doctor ordered rest, and you should take it. You don’t need to replace EVERY hour of running in your program with more swimming or cycling. Take an extra day or two off after hard workouts to recover and give your leg more time to heal.
Return to Running
Don’t freak out about losing your running fitness. CTS coaches have worked with marathoners who bounced back from stress fractures in their foot thanks to a switch to two months of cycling workouts during the recovery process. They started running again six weeks before their marathon, and while they didn’t blitz the race, they did finish it injury-free. [NICK: THIS WAS MY WIFE DIMITY’S EXPERIENCE WITH Ivana Bisaro] Go into your recovery with the same attitude—that the other legs of your IM training will support your fitness—and you might enjoy the same result.
Out of Time
Worse case scenario: you’re not healed by race day. Psychologically, it’s a crusher, but you’re not going to bag the race. Instead, you’re going to do an aqua-bike, the first two legs through T2. Why? First, you’ve paid a lot of money to enter the race. Second, you’ve spent nearly a year training for the IM—in short you’ve invested and sacrificed too much not to show up. Last, the experience you gain from traveling to the competition, getting yourself to the start line, and the race itself, will make the next IM you enter that much easier—and easier to train for, since you know what you’re in for.
Use the race to try out your nutrition strategy and see how you feel at the end of the bike. Do you feel raring to go or spent? See how quickly and effectively you get through T1 and T2. Yep, that’s right, go through the act of pulling on your running gear and heading out of T2 so your time is officially logged. These will set benchmark splits that you can refer back to in future training and practice.
As for the race intensity itself, hold yourself to your original goal intensities for the swim and bike. Don’t push yourself harder on the bike just because there’s no marathon waiting for you at the end. Why? You should be a couple degrees fitter for both legs thanks to the extra attention you paid to them while you weren’t running. That extra fitness should make itself apparent with faster splits.
Nick White is a Premier Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). He coached Craig Alexander to Ironman World Championships in 2008 and 2009; as well as 2010 Ironman St. George winner Heather Wurtele. CTS is the Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. For information on coaching, camps, and performance testing, visit www.trainright.com.