An avid triathlete for almost a decade, Sam Liese never had an overuse injury until this year. “As a collegiate athlete, I had my share of physical issues from overdoing it. Because of that experience, I am very careful to avoid getting into trouble.” When COVID lockdowns became reality, she was afraid that she’d have to abandon almost all training. However, it soon became clear that training was one of the few things she could do–and she did it a lot. “I fully admit that if I couldn’t get on my bike or go for a run, I rarely would have left the house. I truly think I would have gone nuts without it.”
The miles piled up along with her stress, and her training load surged almost thirty percent higher than normal over the last year, according to her Strava. This training helped Sam make it through the tough parts of the pandemic, but now she’s suffering from a nasty case of achilles tendonitis and hasn’t even raced yet this season. “I’ve waited almost two years to do this, and now I’m not even sure if I am going to make it to the start. It’s frustrating because I thought I knew better.”
RELATED: An Injury Guide For Triathletes
Explaining the return-to-racing injury boom
After two long years, this triathlon season is finally feeling like the real deal and many of us are revving our engines and raring to go. It feels great to get back to planning races, training with friends, and all of the not-necessarily-socially-distant fun that comes with it. However, many triathletes like Sam are noticing that they are a bit more tired, already verging on burnout, and maybe even injured heading into this season. If you have noticed this trend in your training group or even in yourself, you’re not imagining things. As three recent studies suggest, a mix of mental and physical health concerns may be burdening triathletes this year–even if we didn’t get the virus.
Dr. Megan Roche, coach, trail runner, MD, and Ph.D. candidate in Epidemiology is one of the researchers who became interested in how athletes were handling the COVID-19 pandemic. In her work as a coach, she noticed that many athletes were dealing with logistical changes, work and family challenges, varying degrees of motivation, plus real fear about the virus. Her research published in May 2022 certainly confirmed that endurance athletes were feeling significantly more anxious and depressed during COVID, but it also showed that they were increasing their training volume in response. Dr. Roche attributes the uptick in volume, but not intensity, to having a more flexible work-from-home schedule and a loosening up of training structure in the absence of races, but mostly as an attempt to manage mental health. “I think every athlete responds to stress differently, but when you boil it down to population means, a common and frequent response is to train more as a means of trying to control stress.” Her research found that athletes did not improve their mental health despite their efforts, but as the next study will show, they may have increased their chances of becoming injured.
A study published in February 2022 on 1147 runners during the COVID-19 pandemic echoed Dr. Roche’s finding that athletes added significant volume to their training, but also confirmed that athletes were more likely to become injured as a result. Researchers point to several factors for the increased volume, including mental health and weight management, plus an attempt to boost immunity (though this is not confirmed to have a scientific basis). This study may be particularly important for triathletes who did not have access to a pool or gym during lockdown and spent more time than normal running and riding. The findings suggest a need to be aware of this tendency in the endurance athlete community, not only for athletes and coaches but also for the doctors and physical therapists who may see more injuries in the coming months.
Our mindset may also play a role in the increased risk of injury this year, according to a study published in April 2022 on 1141 triathletes. This deep dive into athletes’ motivation in the wake of the pandemic revealed that participants reported feeling very motivated to “get away from everyday life”, “feel unity”, “develop passion”, and “maintain physical condition” this season. In particular, participants who contracted COVID were especially committed to the idea of “proving themselves”. No matter what we may have been through over the last couple of years, it would be difficult to find a triathlete who doesn’t identify with those concepts, but does that mean that injury or burnout is inevitable?
Return-to-racing injury puzzle: The physical piece
First of all, if you’re feeling a bit beat up and haven’t made it to a start line, don’t panic. Suzan Ballmer, a former professional triathlete and award-winning coach with over 30 years of experience believes that many of the post-COVID aches and pains are due to athletes having less access to massage therapists and PTs during the pandemic. She also notes that with increased time constraints, many athletes were less likely to focus on stretching and mobility work. She suggests getting back into a self-care routine as soon as possible. “Make a weekly or bi-weekly appointment with a massage therapist or other provider, start doing daily mobility work, ice as prevention, foam rolling, and stretching.”
Additional rest days, quality sleep, and good nutrition will always be a benefit to a tired body, but it may be particularly important to dial back into quality nutrition practices this year. Research on dietary changes during the pandemic indicates that many of us made less-than-optimal choices due to stress and anxiety. This might be the perfect season to check in with a sport-informed, registered dietitian to be sure that you’re fueling properly and recovering optimally.
Return-to-racing injury puzzle: The mental piece
It seems that the increased stress and anxiety that came with the pandemic isn’t going anywhere, but we can change our relationship to it as triathletes. Though Dr. Roche’s research shows that adding additional training isn’t likely to help, she believes that it’s important for athletes to ask themselves some important questions to get a better sense of their mindset. “I think it’s important to stay in tune with the “why” behind training. What’s driving the training? What are you personally getting out of the training? And how does training connect you with your broader sense of self and the broader community?”
If an athlete trains for personal fulfillment or to connect with the triathlon community through racing, they may be more likely to train conservatively. If an athlete trains to manage uncomfortable emotions or deal with stress and anxiety, they may be more likely to add additional sessions unnecessarily or even attempt to train through pain and injury. It’s better to know what our tendency is before we get into trouble. Of course, some of us will continue to struggle with sticking to a training plan and might need additional help to keep us honest. Both Dr. Roche and Coach Ballmer recommend working with a coach who can help us plan a race season with clear-cut training blocks, as well as clear-cut goals.
For those athletes who are feeling increased pressure to have the race of their lives this season, Coach Ballmer recommends going back to basics. “For many of my athletes, I think it may be the result of forgetting the process of competing and how it feels to gear up to a race. I have suggested that they jump into some small races initially just to remember what it all feels like, without expectations.” Athletes will likely feel more confident and relaxed, as well as remember that one race does not dictate their success or failure in triathlon–COVID, or no COVID.
How to adjust (and avoid injury):
Need to back out of your high volume and slowly add intensity? Here’s Coach Suzan Ballmer’s prescription:
- Cut mileage by 20-25% and start to add some intensity through repetitions on the bike and/or hills, track, tempo on soft ground for the run. Spread intensity sessions out so that there is ample time to recover.
- Begin to incorporate a brick workout each week – either a tempo bike/to tempo run, or repetitions of bike to run that are more intense.
- Aim for 1- 2 intense swim workouts per week.
- Overall, use macro cycles of 2-3 weeks build/1 week recovery (adding 2 days off and allowing adaptation to occur from the training).
Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.