"I got a stress fracture"
"I tore my [fill in body part]"
"I got the flu"
"I got bronchitis"
Anyone see a problem here? This line of thinking may be one of the most overlooked training flaws in non-contact sports, especially in the endurance world. If you get injured or sick, you did something wrong. Period. However, that doesn't mean every injury or illness was predictable or preventable. Setbacks are inevitable, especially as we aim for performance. But each setback does offer an opportunity for reflection, and more often than not is traceable to previous training errors. Great workouts or midseason performances mean little if they later result in missed time. If you get hurt or sick, then by definition it is hard to justify the previous training as effective.
For age groupers/amateurs, I'm slightly willing to give leeway for the once-a-season "my kid brought home germs” or “my coworker came to work with the flu.” However, if you’ve lived in the world for any length of time, it should not be a surprise that we’re exposed to germs. It’s incumbent to plan appropriately for the world around us and build a buffer zone to handle these speedbumps. If one of them derails you, then evaluate where you went wrong and how you can improve for the future. Don’t feel sorry for “bad luck.”
World Champion Alaistair Brownlee, perhaps the most feared runner in the history of draft-legal triathlon, was recently diagnosed with a partial Achilles tear. Since then, he’s been relegated to wearing a boot on his foot, a mere five months before the Olympic Games in his homeland. The attitude out of the Brownlee camp is troubling, yet commonplace at all levels of the sport. Recently his coach spoke of his training as the “best winter training he’s ever had.” To call it the "best winter training he's ever had” borders on laughable. I can understand a coach wanting to keep the kid’s spirits high, but let’s be real: if training shreds a body part that prevents normal walking then something went horribly wrong, unless previous winters have also resulted in worse injury, which is not the case.
This statement is the kicker...”We were going to take some down time anyway”...Yeah, what's a torn Achilles between good mates, eh? Maybe walking is overrated to some people....
Another common problem is to isolate the injury from the rest of the body (“That pesky Achilles”). Injury results not only from tissue strain but also from other deficits: fatigue, nutrition, movement, sport specific mechanics, and mental state. The conventional approach following an injury is to keep the cross training load high and intense to preserve aerobic fitness. But ask yourself: is the body’s current overall state during the injury something you actually want to preserve, since it was the state that allowed the body to get injured? This statement doesn’t mean completely take time off, but musculoskeletal injury is sometimes an indication of an overstressed system that later manifests weakness via musculoskeletal breakdown. The body can break down other ways, but in some cases the musculoskeletal is the first to go. Musculoskeletal injury may also be a sign the brain is trying to protect us from further harm.
Vleck (2010) looked at five year data from (ironically) British National Triathlon team members and discussed injury patterns. They concluded:
“[C]ycle and run training may have a "cumulative stress" influence on injury risk. Therefore, the tendency of some triathletes to modify rather than stop training when injured-usually by increasing load in another discipline from that in which the injury first occurred-may increase both their risk of injury recurrence and time to full rehabilitation.”
In other words, just because a body part hurts, doesn’t mean the rest of the body is functioning optimally. Main (2010) found that the greatest correlation with Signs and Symptoms of injury in a sample of competitive triathletes resulted from psychological stressors. Don’t just blame the offending body part: evaluate everything.
It’s time to stop the denial and delusion when it comes to overuse injuries. No one can predict the future with certainty, but everyone knows the risk factors. When an injury or illness occurs, own up to the deficit or hold the offending coach accountable if they were negligent in their approach. Is "do no harm" such a hard rule to follow? An injury or illness is the ultimate failure of a training plan and deserves heightened vigilance of the athlete’s current physical state, and not a reductionist perspective to isolate an injury or illness from the rest of the body.
Main LC, Landers GJ, Grove JR, Dawson B, Goodman C. Training patterns and negative health outcomes in triathlon: longitudinal observations across a full competitive season. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2010 Dec;50(4):475-85.
Vleck VE, Bentley DJ, Millet GP, Cochrane T. Triathlon event distance specialization: training and injury effects. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jan;24(1):30-6.