The sad reality of triathlon is that you either have or will have an injury that will keep you way from our sport for an extended period due to the demands that swimming, biking, and running places on the body.
The good news is that surgical technology and rehabilitative strategies have become so advanced that a full physical recovery from an injury that two decades ago might have been career-ending is now commonplace.
The bad news is that injuries aren’t just physical experiences. The mind gets “injured” as well. When you sustain an injury, you can experience a loss of motivation and confidence, feel stress and anxiety, become preoccupied with the injury and have trouble focusing, and experience a myriad of emotions including fear, frustration, anger, sadness, and despair. Yet little attention is paid to how the absence of “mental rehab” can prevent triathletes from returning to or improving on their pre-injury level of performance. Here’s what triathletes need to know about bouncing back from injury—body and mind.
How to mentally rehab a triathlon injury
Accept that getting hurt sucks and you will feel bad at times, especially early in your recovery when you’re more disabled than recovering. You will be in pain. You may feel frustrated, angry, and depressed. You’ll want to curl up in a ball and withdraw from life. These reactions are normal and, to some degree, healthy, as you must allow yourself time to grieve for your loss (because you never know how long your injury will last).
At the same time, if you allow yourself to stay in that funk for too long, you will surely slow your recovery by not following your rehab program and not taking care of yourself in general. So, after a short time, get over your “pity party” and get your mind on your recovery; keep focused on the present (“What can I do today to get healthy?”) and the future (“I will heal and get back better than ever!”).
Another part of keeping perspective is that your injury seems like a big deal now, but, when you look back on it later this season or in a few years (assuming it’s not season- or career-ending), this moment will probably be little more than a blip in your triathlon life. Think about the many professional and Olympic triathletes who have had serious injuries, yet had the determination, patience, persistence, and perseverance to put in the time and energy necessary to get “back in the race,” with no guarantees that it would ever happen.
Stick with your rehab program
If you follow your rehab program, the chances are very good that you will get better. If you don’t, you won’t. The problem is that rehab hurts – sometimes a lot. It’s also boring, tiring, and monotonous. That’s why so many injured triathletes end up either shortening or skipping rehab sessions, or not putting in their best effort. The result is slowed or incomplete recovery.
There is also a subset of injured triathletes who have the belief that more is better, so they do more sets and reps on more days than recommended by their rehab team. Unfortunately, this “more is better” mentality often results in overuse injuries and other complications, and a slowed rather than accelerated recovery.
My recommendation here is very straightforward: do exactly what your rehab people tell you to do, no more and no less. This will ensure you make progress physically, which will help you stay motivated mentally.
Find the silver lining
Getting injured can teach you to be tough, endure hardship, and really find your motivation for our sport. Injuries can also enable you to focus on areas of triathlon that have been weaknesses, but you simply haven’t had time to work on them. But it’s also an opportunity to figure out ways you can improve as a triathlete working around your injury. If you incur an ankle injury and can’t run, you can now focus on your swim technique and come back faster in the water than ever. Yes, an injury can prevent you from doing a lot. The goal is for you to return to triathlon a physically and mentally better triathlete than you were before.
Redirect your energy
One of the most difficult aspects of an injury is that you can’t do what you love to do – swim, bike and run. Injured triathletes are often at a loss how to expend that energy that builds up without an outlet of exercise every day. This feeling of being stuck can lead to lethargy, overeating, and other unhealthy habits. What amplifies this tendency is the absence of something that has been a source of self-esteem, validation, meaning, satisfaction, and joy in your life. It’s normal to feel like there’s a huge void.
Your best defense against this malaise is to find a new way to direct your energy. It can be anything – learning a musical instrument, cooking, reading, school, whatever. The important thing is to find something you can care about and that you can gain some satisfaction and fulfillment from, and then throw yourself into it just the way you threw yourself into triathlon. Not only will it bolster how you feel about yourself, but it will also take your mind off the disappointment of your injury and difficulty of the recovery.
Support other triathletes
Being injured can cause you to feel isolated and at a distance from the sport you love and the people you enjoy being with. This separation from your sport can also hurt your motivation because you aren’t experiencing many of the “warm fuzzies” that you get from triathlon. To counter this, look for ways to stay connected with our sport. Attend and help organize workouts with your triathlon team or club, or volunteer at races. The connections you maintain, the support you give and receive, and seeing others having fun and getting results will further motivate you to rehab and get back to our sport as fast as possible.
Develop a rehab imagery program
There is nothing more important to the mental recovery of your physical injury than mental imagery. Imagery is not just something that goes on in your head. In fact, it connects your mind and your body and, amazingly, activates muscles in the same way as when you are actually performing in a triathlon. Mental imagery, in a way, fools your body into thinking that you are really swimming, biking, and running.
Imagery has huge benefits to recovery from injury. Research has shown that you can improve your skills in a sport without actual practicing by engaging in regular mental imagery. By doing imagery regularly, you can maintain or maybe even improve your triathlon skills. Seeing and feeling yourself continuing to train and compete, in your mind’s eye, will keep your motivation up, your confidence high, and your mind focused. Imagery can make you feel like you’re still progressing as a triathlete, because in a way, you are.
The bottom line
When you get injured, it is a real bummer. But what is an even bigger bummer is not returning fully or as quickly as possible to our wonderful sport. For you to return to swimming, biking, or running as good or better than you were before your injury, you need to do everything possible to facilitate your recovery. That means, of course, following your physical rehab program to the letter. But it also means developing and following a mental rehab program as well, so that your body and your mind are fully recovered and prepared for the rigors of triathlon from the very first time that you return to training.
Dr. Jim Taylor is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of performance. He has been a consultant for the United States and Japanese Ski Teams, the United States Tennis Association, and USA Triathlon, and has worked with professional and world-class athletes in tennis, skiing, cycling, triathlon, track and field, swimming, football, golf, baseball, fencing, and many other sports. He is the author of Train Your Mind for Athletic Success: Mental Preparation to Achieve Your Triathlon Goals.