Training with Injuries: A New Perspective
By Sara Swenson
Posted May 2015
After a busy year of training and racing in 2013, culminating with my first full Ironman distance race at Mont Tremblant, I chose to focus on the Half Ironman distance, as well as take on my longest open water swim at the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim in 2014. My season began with a 50 mile mountain bike race near Richmond. This was my first try at a mountain bike race, and I was pleased with my effort on a challenging course. My next race was Shamrock Marathon in mid-March. I had completed most of my scheduled long runs on the treadmill due to the cold and icy conditions over the winter months, but I could tell that my fitness wasn't where it needed to be for an "A" marathon. I ended up barely finishing the marathon! I wasn't sure what had gone wrong, other than I was getting over a prolonged sinus infection, and race day was especially cold and windy. So I chalked up the lack-luster performance to a tough day of racing with a well-earned finish.
My 2014 season continued with three scheduled Half Ironman distance races, The Jim McDonnell Lake Swims, and the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. While I thrived in the open-water swimming events, as well as the swimming and biking portions of each long course triathlon, something was off with my running. I noticed unusual pain in my left heel and ball of the foot during and after runs; including those that were shorter and less intensive. My initial reaction to the pain was to ignore and accept it as a by-product of hard training and racing; something all too common for competitive triathletes. However, over time, I noticed that the pain in my left foot increased in intensity, even to the point that I would need to take frequent walking/stretching breaks during my runs.
With just one more Half Ironman race to go in late August, I checked in with my doctor to seek a diagnosis for my chronic left foot pain. My doctor suggested an X-ray, MRI, and visit to a podiatrist. The X-ray results were normal, and the MRI showed slight damage to my left calcaneus, which could be a stress fracture. I was fitted with a protective boot to allow the area to heal, and was forced to stop running. I wore the boot as much as possible for almost two months. However, the pain remained. I got a second opinion from another podiatrist, and was then fitted for custom orthotics (shoe insoles). After a month and a half of wearing the custom orthotics, I still felt no relief from the pain.
The cause of my foot pain was left unfounded and chronic. I attempted short runs on the treadmill and outside, but the pain altered my running form and forced me to stop. To make matters worse, I landed on my right shoulder during a mountain bike crash in December, and to this day, still have pain in my shoulder through the elbow.
The lingering pain remains frustrating, and it ultimately changed my training and racing plan for 2015. I decided to take a year off of racing triathlons and any running races. Instead, I will focus on cycling, swimming, and functional training. I was also inspired to register for a 10k open water swim race in late August (thanks to teammate Stephen Eid's post on available open water races in 2015)!
While my focus for 2015 is on cycling, swimming, and functional training, the following alternative exercises have helped fill the void of running: Using elliptical exercise machines, aqua-jogging, and hiking. I began using elliptical exercise machines at the gym as soon as my doctor and first podiatrist suggested that I take a break from running. the fluid movement of the elliptical is similar to running, yet the total impact felt on the feet and joints is minimal. The only time I didn't use the elliptical was when I was wearing the protective boot. I also tried aqua-jogging, which involves using a floatation belt, the deep end of a pool, and mimicking running movements in the water. Aqua-jogging takes coordination and patience, and I often found myself drawn back into swimming at the pool, as swimming has always been my go-to for mental and physical de-stressing. A final surprising and fun alternative to running is hiking. While hiking does involve repetitive stress to the lower body, it can be modified by terrain and pace to accommodate injuries. Some choose to run up mountains to elevate their heart rates and get a challenging workout, but it's equally a great workout to move slower and enjoy the scenery!
My boyfriend and fellow FeXY teammate Tom Manning and I have enjoyed many hikes in northern Virginia, as well as other parts of Virginia. Some of our recent favorites are Old Rag (with the famous rock scramble), Sky Meadows, and Sharp Top (on Blue Ridge Parkway). My foot injury is greatly aggravated by the pounding of running, but hiking allows me to more readily adjust my cadence and stride to manage the pain. We have several vacations planned for 2015, to including swimming and hiking at Smith Mountain Lake, hiking in Colorado, and taking on multiple long rides, and a few day hikes in the Adirondacks.
Time away from running and triathlon training has humbled me and left me to reevaluate my priorities. While fitness and competition remains important, I learned to appreciate the ability to spend more time with family and friends. It's all too easy to get sucked into training and take your support system for granted. My take-away from this awakening is to live in the moment and appreciate remaining fitness opportunities, as well as the support and camaraderie of my loved ones, friends, and teammates.