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There’s no doubt about it: Injuries are frustrating, painful—and all too common. In a five-year study from Great Britain of a small group of triathletes, 72 percent sustained injuries, and rates were the same whether they were doing Olympic- or iron-distance training. Yet doctors, physical therapists and other experts say that too often, athletes make certain mistakes that help steer them right to the sidelines. Stay healthy the rest of your season by avoiding these common problems:
1. You go too far, or too fast, too soon
Injuries happen when the normal stress of training gets distributed to structures that aren’t designed to (or ready to) withstand it. If you don’t have good stability in your shoulder blades, for instance, stress is transferred to your shoulder.
One of the challenges with training for triathlon is that “the cardiovascular system is highly adaptable, but the musculoskeletal system takes longer to recuperate to adapt,” says Christopher Powers, physical therapist and professor of biokinesiology at the University of Southern California. “Many times, triathletes push themselves until they break down and get an injury.” If your training plan has you down for an easy day, respect it.
2. Your range of motion is about as wide as your tires
“Limited range of motion is a big problem, especially in the hips,” says Powers. Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners and director of biomechanics for Rebound Physical Therapy in Bend, Ore., agrees: “In my experience, about 80 to 85 percent of people don’t have adequate hip extension.”
Compelling reasons to increase it: First, it’s a power drain on the run, since it’s your hips that power the push-off. Second, it’s an injury risk. If you don’t have good range of motion, your pelvis will compensate. “People will get their foot behind them at the expense of arching their back,” Dicharry says. “If you don’t have good hip extension, your low back position will get cheated in all three sports.” And sooner or later, you’re in the doctor’s office.
In this case, classic hip stretches can increase your range of motion. So work on your range of motion with stretches like this one: Get into a lunge position, lower your back knee to the ground and tuck your pelvis underneath you until you feel the stretch in the front of your hip. Dicharry says to work on holding that for three full minutes every day.
3. You don’t have the stability to move quickly
“Our research has shown that hip and pelvis stability are important to running,” says Powers, who’s also co-director of the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Research Lab at USC. Without proximal stability, your hip can turn inward, pulling your leg inward with it and putting a lot of stress on the knee.
Instability may also cause you to arch your low back or pitch it forward. That not only predisposes you to lower-back issues, it perpetuates the weakness in your hip extensors—which makes you tilt your pelvis even more. “Working on stability training will improve the quality of your swim, bike and run workouts and let you tolerate high volumes without breakdown,” Dicharry says.
Stability has performance benefits, too: The more stable you are, the more mobile you can be—it’s the difference between trying to run with a body made of Jell-O versus one made of carbon fiber.
4. You build muscle instead of educating it
If a muscle is weak, it makes sense to strengthen it, right? Eventually, yes. But the step many athletes skip is the all-important first one, which is teaching the weak muscle to fire.
You can do squats all day, but if the muscles aren’t firing correctly, you’re doing … squat, explains Brian Krabak, sports medicine physician at the University of Washington. The muscles around it will compensate for the weak one that can’t keep up, even if it’s not their main job descriptions. That’s inefficient and ultimately energy draining. “At first, you have to isolate the muscle so it’s the only one working. You’re trying to get the brain to engage that muscle in the proper form,” he says.
That’s what those seemingly tedious physical therapy exercises do (such as clamshells, single-leg squats, and pelvic tilts), and it’s why they’re critical to your ability to prevent injury or recover from it and perform better. But you can’t just bang them out: “Success isn’t about who can do more of these or whose are stronger; it’s about the quality of how well you get the muscle going,” he says. While it varies from athlete to athlete, this type of muscle re-education generally takes about two to three weeks. Then you can move on to strengthening and integrating these new firing skills into your whole-body movement pattern.
5. Your connective tissue isn’t supple
A popular theory among bodyworkers is finding its way into athletics, and it’s the idea that connective tissue is a key factor at the root of injury. Connective tissue was once thought to be just the “packing material” in your body around all of your muscles, bones, and organs, says Sue Hitzmann, author of The MELT Method, the name of an at-home technique designed to prevent pain by increasing the health of connective tissue. But this seamless, web-like matrix throughout your body is now thought to be the environment in which most of your sensory nerves “live and work,” as Hitzmann says. The sensory nerves are responsible for proprioception, which helps your body do what you ask it to. But they rely on the connective tissue environment to remain stable so your brain gets accurate information from your body. Among its many other jobs, it also helps transport oxygen, nutrients and waste to and from your cells, she says.
When it’s healthy, “connective tissue provides joints their shock absorption, it keeps muscle timing in balance so muscles have better coordinated contractions and can help the joints be more stable,” Hitzmann says. The trouble is, too much of the same action (that would be swimming, biking and running) or too much inaction (sitting) can strain the tissue, pulling water out of the cells. It becomes stiff, inflexible, and less able to adapt to your movements. As a result, not only does it prevent the structures around it from functioning efficiently, it can’t transmit precise information to your body about, say, what’s underfoot. “Your muscle responses can become delayed, which can cause you to feel weak, uncoordinated or unstable,” she says. “And your joints are compromised because the connective tissue isn’t doing its job.”
Rehydrating the tissues isn’t a matter of downing water. It’s about getting the fluids moving again through rolling them on soft foam rollers or balls (roll on your “masses”—arms, feet, hands, rib cage, shoulder blades—not spaces like the belly, neck, low back, etc. where there are exposed nerves and organs). Hitzmann’s MELT method (Meltmethod.com) involves using specific types of rolling on specific areas of the body for no more than 10 minutes a day. Other connective tissue suppleness proponents say the key to rolling is to stay away from joints and work around pain, not directly on top of it.
6. You neglect your feet
“The foot is the No. 1 thing that athletes neglect,” says Anna Hartman, director of performance physical therapy at Athletes’ Performance, a performance training institute that has been associated with elite athletes including NFL players, Olympians, and All-Stars in every major sport. “They shove them in shoes and kind of ignore them. There are 26 bones and 33 joints in the foot. If you are holding tension in the foot muscles, the joints won’t be able to move. But if you can get the joints to be really mobile, it’s like having 33 little mini computers telling the body what’s going on when you touch the ground and how to adjust.”
She recommends taking five minutes before your workout to relax the foot and let go of tension. “Learn how to move your toes as you move your fingers,” she says. Lift them off the ground and spread them wide. Roll your feet over a small ball and feel all the edges in them, or even take your feet in your hands, move your ankle around in a circle. Or grab your heel in one hand and forefoot in another and “wring” them out like a towel, she suggests. “When you make the foot feel wider and increase your base of support, you’re inherently more stable. Because so many lines of connective tissue are in your feet, you’ll be surprised at how more feedback in your feet changes how other parts of your body feel, as silly as that sounds.”
7. You spend $5,000 on a bike but won’t spend $200 to get a fit
When it comes to injury, sometimes it is about the bike. The wrong bike can force you into a position that doesn’t necessarily work for you, as opposed to the bike supporting your natural position, explains Scott Holz, a Body Geometry Fit specialist and director of Specialized Bike Components University.
Even if you are on the right bike, you might need a new fit if an ache suddenly springs up. “That means something has changed,” says Holz. “It could be the equipment—maybe your shoes or pedals are worn out—or it could be a change in your body, such as a weight shift or change in your range of motion.” Often that change is an increase in training. “Something that didn’t bother you when you were riding 40 miles at a time might be a problem if you’re starting to train 60, 70 or 80 miles.” Fit is dynamic, he explains, and may need to be revisited as your body or the demands on it change.
Is a fitter or a doctor your first step when you feel pain? There’s no clear answer, Holz says. “But I think one of the definitions of a skilled fitter is when they know they’re out of their element and recommend that you see a medical professional.”
8. You think “rest” is a dirty word
“Rest is a four-letter word, but it’s a good four-letter word,” says Krabak. That is, as long as you know what “rest” really means. “Rest should be crafted to maximize healing and minimize deconditioning,” he says. So if you sprain your ankle, you can likely work your upper body while you’re healing (so if you think your rehab team is requiring total rest when you could probably be doing something, it’s worth getting a second opinion). But on the flip side, you have to accept that you’ll need to knock some things back. “I know a high-level athlete who had a sacroiliac injury and said he was ‘resting’ because he’d just done a marathon at an eight-minute pace,” says Krabak. Be careful with that: Lying to yourself won’t make you healthier.