Overcoming Injury: The Greatest Challenge an Endurance Athlete can Face

Triathlete resting from a run workout
August 11, 2015

Mike Ricci


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A few years ago, I attended a conference for strength and conditioning specialist coaches and trainers. The keynote speaker, a nationally recognized physical therapist, coach and business owner spoke about “training the endurance athlete.” What was really interesting, is that this particular coach was never an endurance athlete, much less a triathlete, most likely he had never run over a mile at one time in his life. However, he understood the demands of our sport, much like any other sport and most importantly, he was able to speak with clarity about endurance training. A few statements from this talk (in 2008) still stick out in my mind:

1. Athletes Train->Leads to Injury-> Leads to Rehab/PT->Leads to Training->Leads to Injury (the endurance cycle is the same as the injury cycle)
2. The endurance athlete conversation goes like this: “Are you training?” Answer is always – “yes” or “no, I am injured” or “well, I just got over (some injury) and I’ve been running in the pool…
3. All non-traumatic injuries are training related, all “itises” are do to overuse, if you didn’t fall off something or get hit by something, you did it in training.
4. Endurance athletes are fueling the PT’s, Chiropractors, Accupuncturists and Manual Therapists of the world. What these athletes need is some “Reality Therapy.” Does it hurt is a yes or no question. Any answer other than a no is a yes (not, it feels better once I loosen up or warm up, or only at the end of my workouts)

What was so compelling to me, is that as an endurance athlete AND a strength coach, I understood and AGREED to all of the above statements. Heck, I laughed along with the crowd during this talk- how could endurance athletes be so stupid that they won’t change their behaviors that lead to injury? However, just like many other endurance athletes, I shared in the cumulative injury cycle.Here’s the thing- we can’t change our personalities, we are endurance athletes because we love the sport, the challenge, and the excitement. So, what should we do?
1. Change our training: Instead of high volume with high repetition, think about focusing on interval training. After all, research shows that intervals develop aerobic capacity better than low aerobic training.
2. The fastest way to raise your VO2 MAX is through interval training, not long slow distance.
3. Less steady state long work. Athletes will see greater results with 20minutes of interval training (very high intensity) versus 90-120 minutes in lower HR zones.
4. Bottom Line: Endurance Athletes need to build a base of strength, just as they build a base for run, bike and swim training. Too often coaches and athletes forget that running is a highly plyometric skill that requires full hip extension, core strength, hip drive and ankle mobility. Yet, how many athletes are out there running with absolutely no strength? Endurance athletes need to work on stability to achieve the best strength gains. These strength workouts should be designed by a coach who has the knowledge about lower extremity training. Most “running programs” advocate for strengthening the upper body- but it’s the lower body and core that need the strength for running and cycling! Lower body lifting is key.

In summary, how do we overcome injury? Well, the factors that contribute to the injury are clear. First, we need to take a step back from training, look at the issues and causes of the injury. Then, we need to take appropriate steps to clear the injury- rest, ice, physical therapy, rehab and strength work. Then, we need to continue with strength work, corrective exercise and mobility exercises in order to avoid the same injury or any new injury. Most importantly, we need to adjust our attitudes to realize that we only have 1 body to live with. No race or training event is more important than preserving our bodies health. There will always be more races and more opportunities. The sooner you realize and accept this, the faster you will be on your way to a healthy training and racing lifestyle!

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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