Hard track workouts, long weekend rides, and double swim sessions: Those are the tools that triathletes use to prepare for big races. However, too often triathletes think increased volume equals increased fitness and when given more time to train, go longer and harder. But those repeated hard workouts—without sufficient recovery—can lead to overtraining or worse, injury. Not surprisingly, research in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that 85 percent of triathlon injuries were caused by overuse.
Triathlon training, and any kind of exercise, is considered a cardiovascular and muscular stressor, and how often and how intensely it's done will produce different responses. If done correctly the body will respond to training stress by adapting and improving fitness. However if the training stress exceeds the amount the body can handle, overload will occur rather than adaptation, leading to excessive fatigue or injury. Physiologically speaking, muscles, tendons and joints can only handle so much stress before tissues break down.
This principle is summed up nicely in a review of Ironman-distance training principles in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports: "Training relies heavily on the athlete's tolerance to repetitive strain." The authors of the study go on to say, "Repeated recovery care will ensure successful training sessions in the immediate future." In other words, recovery makes hard workouts and improvements in fitness possible.
It's important to remember that being prepared for a race means feeling energized and pain-free on race day. Doctor's offices and physical therapy clinics are filled with those that violated the rule of too's; too hard, too much, too often. Here are the ways to avoid a pre-race injury:
1. Taper: It's vitally important to taper training before a big race as it has been proven to increase performance and reduce the chance of injury.
2. Don't try anything new: The siren song of change can be strong, don't be enticed by the promise of new workouts, shoes, bike position or adding gadgets like swimming paddles in the month before a race. Also this is not the time to join that beer league softball team.
3. Recover: Listen to your body; if you have a big workout planned and you're still sore and fatigued from the last workout, consider modifying the plan by reducing the day's volume and/or intensity. In the big picture changing or missing one workout will not affect performance, causing injury will.
4. Warm-up: While stretching before exercise has fallen from favor, scientific research has validated warming up as a means to improve performance and reduce injury.
What To Do If Injured
If you do get injured, don't panic. It still may be possible to make it to race day using these steps.
1. Take it seriously. The little ache in your knee during a run or sharp shoulder pain in the pool will likely get worse if ignored. What's more, if the injury bothers you on a 5-mile training run, chances are it will be much worse during the 26.2 mile run of an Ironman distance race.
2. See a doctor...and a physical therapist. Chances are you don't fix your own car when it makes funny noises, so it stands to reason you shouldn't try to fix your own body when things aren't working right. Stay off of WebMD and consult a professional, get a diagnosis, and book time with a physical therapist to get exercises, stretches, etc.
3. Cross-train: The beauty of triathlon is built-in variety. Use it to avoid aggravating the injury while maintaining endurance.
In those last weeks leading up to the big race, it's important to have confidence in what your training has accomplished and not try and fill every minute with exercise. Fortunately, many injuries are avoidable and being defensive about preventing problems can get you to race day in one piece.
Search for your next triathlon.