by Steve Glowrey, EC Team Member
Followers of Endurance Corner will know the value that coaches such as Gordo and AC place in consistent training to build athletic capacity year on year. For those of us that remain in the sport beyond our first two years, we recognize this and often enjoy reaping the benefits that consistent training brings to our life. However, there are times that no matter how well we have structured our lives to facilitate consistent training and an athletic lifestyle, chance may take over. Our ability to train may be removed by injury or another non-exercise-related health issue. This can be a frustrating and challenging time, stressing about loss of fitness and possible weight gain. If you read any of the triathlon forums, you are sure to find posts from people concerned about their injury or illness and looking for ways to keep training.
Over the last 10 years, I have had more than 12 benign tumours removed through a number of operations including four laminectomies, two brachial plexus surgeries and sciatic nerve surgery. During this time I have continued to live an active life and have participated in the last nine Australian Ironmans (I completed my first ironman just over 12 months after two laminectomy surgeries). I have a condition called schwannomatosis which is part of the Neurofibromatosis (NF) family (see www.ctf.org for more information). For me, there is no one-off battle for victory. I will continue to grow benign tumours on peripheral nerves for life. Because surgical removal is the current treatment protocol when the tumours cause an issue, I have had to become very good at recovery.
While every injury or health issue is different and the response to treatment of each individual differs, I have outlined my approach to recovering from injury or illness below. These 10 pointers provide a foundation that could be applied to recovery from many injuries.
- Read and study: You need to be informed and play a proactive part in your recovery. Unless you have the resources to have full supervision (similar to those that exist in many professional sporting teams or national sports academies), you need to develop a sound understanding of your body and your specific injury so that you can drive the process. To study your issue effectively, you will need to learn to apply a good filter to information found on the internet. There are some government funded health organisations that provide huge amounts of information free on the internet.
- Discuss structural issues with your surgeon and/or physiotherapist: You need to understand what is weakened by your injury before discussing which exercises will be appropriate. A patient engaged in their treatment plan seems to prompt a more engaged physician/therapist.
- Recovery is hard work: The process is hard and will challenge you all the time. It may not feel as satisfying as a long training day, but it is just as necessary for you to be successful in achieving a high level of performance. For me, the hardest part of the journey is walking up and down a soccer pitch, occasionally jogging the length of the goal keeper's box, night after night during the winter. Or taking 20 minutes to get my trainer set up for a ride that lasts 10 minutes. But it is this hard work that makes the difference when you are fully recovered and back out there training and racing. The thought of that will hopefully help with the rehabilitation sessions during winter.
- Push the limits, in a conservative way: That may sound funny, but knowing when feeling not right means backing off or stopping is the key. This goes back to #1 and #2.
- Be honest with your medical advisors: The trust relationship with those treating your condition goes both ways. Even if you have done something that they may not approve of -- this is bound to happen if you follow #4 above -- they won't be able to help if they are not aware of what you have done.
- Long term adjustments may be essential: Since my first back operation (12 months prior to my first ironman), I generally keep my running to no more than two days in a row. I occasionally run three days in a row, but that is rare. This approach may not be the recommended guideline for running fast, but I have been able to run a 3:29 ironman marathon at Port Macquarie and managed to keep my body's issues in check.
- Recovery is hard work: I've repeated #3 because recovery really does wear you out. You will know whether you are someone who is after some social participation or to be the best you can be by the end of the process. From my experience, the hard work pays off in the long run.
- Don't stop doing the little things when you get back to doing the big things: If you stop the rehabilitation and strengthening exercises that you are given during recovery once you are back out running, riding and swimming, you may end up with some niggling injuries. This goes back to #6.
- If you can, work on your core: A strong core will help make up for some of the other deficiencies that may have developed in your form due to your injury. If you are anything like me, it might help you carry any extra weight that you put on following your injury. As for weight, I tend to gain up to an additional 6kgs (13lbs) during time off -- that's an 8 percent increase. This comes off pretty quickly when I get back to training consistently with some long days on the bike and regular running.
- Embrace walking: Walking is a great way to keep active, fit and healthy and get outside. When legendary Australian triathlete Brad Beven was injured in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics (he was hit by a car and missed the Olympics), it was reported that he was walking up to three hours a day in the months of rehabilitation that followed. While this may not be true, it is not out of the question for someone as dedicated as Beven. An hour a day of walking is a great addition to your recovery schedule and the time outdoors can provide a little bit of mental rehabilitation for the anguish that being injured might be causing.
Being able to return to participating in endurance sports can feel like an insurmountable challenge when you are in your initial weeks of recovery. It is never a straight path back to athletics -- there will be good days and bad days. Monitor your improvements from week to week rather than on a daily basis. Just like preparing for a race, set your goals, be flexible in your program and do the work.
Good luck with your recovery!
Steve Glowrey is an age group triathlete based in Melbourne, Australia. In addition to completing the last nine Australian Ironmans, Steve has undergone seven operations in the last 10 years to remove benign tumours that he grows as a result of a condition called schwannomatosis. During this same period, Steve has been able to take his Ironman time from 12:36 to a best of 10:11.