5 lessons on injuries from the wrong kind of elite

— by Darren Cooney

In 2018, after many years of hard work, I think I have finally qualified for elite status. No, I am not the kind of elite athlete who completes a sprint distance race in under an hour and competes as a professional. Instead, have unfortunately qualified for the rare status of elite collector of injuries.

Shin splints became my nemesis the day I first put on a pair of running shoes as an adult. From my first duathlon, through to Running Room clinics and on to focused training with a coach, I have been dogged by aches and pains in my posterior tibialis muscles. In 2013, I had my first stress reactions – injuries that are essentially one step below micro fractures in your bones – in both shins. In 2016, I had a stress reaction in my upper left femur. In 2017, I added Achilles tendinitis (right foot) to my list and in early 2018 that injury was followed by plantar fasciitis (left foot). As I write this post, I have been sidelined for six weeks with an undiagnosed shin ailment.

It’s clear that my time in duathlon has not been a tale of linear progression and improvement, much as I wish it were! In fact, if my multisport career were a line graph, the ups and downs would resemble a trip through the Rockies.

In hopes that you can learn from my experience, I am sharing my top 5 lessons for preventing and dealing with injuries, all of which I learned the hard way. Just a reminder, I am neither a doctor nor a physiotherapist, so if you’ve got an issue, speak to the pros. (See tip #2!)

The best way to manage an injury is to prevent it in the first place. The big things to work on here are mobility, strength and recovery.

For mobility, I know my hips get very tight, so every morning I do hip opener exercises before getting out of bed. How flexible are you? Can you maintain your position on the bike? Help prevent injuries by adding stretches to your daily routine to offset these issues.

For strength, if you want the most pay-off for your time, you’ll want to incorporate sport-specific exercises that will not only help prevent injury but will also make you a better swimmer, cyclist and runner. For example, I do single leg glute bridges each morning to work on my butt, which is often weak in runners. You will find ideas in these two helpful books: Strength Training for Triathletes by Patrick Hagerman, and Running Strong by Jordan Metzl.

For recovery, invest in a foam roller and spend a few minutes at least every other day – daily, if possible – working out the kinks, aches and pains that may be developing over time. If you’re able, plan to get a massage a day or two following your races to help keep your body in fine form.

Get help from the experts! Do you have pain that is present during daily activities like walking? Does an ache throb when you’re lying down in bed at night? Are you compensating for pain when you’re exercising? If so, get attention ASAP. An expert can diagnose your issue, get you on a treatment plan to fix it and help you figure out how to prevent it from happening again. I’ve found an amazing sports doctor in Toronto, as well as a health and wellness studio that specializes in running – exactly what I need because that’s where I keep hurting myself.

Me receiving an electroacupuncture treatment to loosen up a locked ankle joint.

As mom used to say, “Finish your vegetables!” Eat a range of fruits and vegetables that contain anti-inflammatory properties, as they will help to prevent a number of the overuse injuries that plague endurance athletes. Make sure to have a healthy snack within 30 minutes after each workout, to replenish glycogen (energy) stores and repair muscles. Whether you realize it or not, you are an athlete and you need to make sure you’re eating enough to fuel your body – this includes carbs, fat and protein – as chronic under-fuelling in endurance athletes can lead to all sorts of problems.

The quickest way to an injury is to do too much, too soon and too fast – especially in running. This is where I usually mess up. While you may have cardiovascular endurance, your body needs time to adapt to the stress of the repeated pounding on the pavement. I’ve done best when I followed the 10% rule: add no more than 10% volume or intensity each week, while also taking an easier “recovery” week every fourth week. My problem is that with my hectic schedule, I will occasionally miss workouts and skip to the next one, without the progressive “step” in between them. My body doesn’t like that and lets me know it.

You may be wondering, “If you do all these things, why do you keep hurting yourself Darren?” Good question.

There is one final and most important lesson: listen to your body and act on its advice.

In chatting with my coaches, it is clear that my strong focus on my goals has drowned out the voice in my head that says, “This hurts. You’re pushing too hard. Slow down.”

This most recent injury made me realize that I need to focus on training with the long-term in mind. In other words, I need to get to a place where I can train on a consistent and sustained basis, even if that means pulling back a little (or a lot!) from the intensity.

I listened to this tea bag affirmation when I should have listened to my body!

I admit that it’s a hard lesson when I want to faster. My willpower and endurance levels are stronger than my lower body. But I’d much rather show up at a race happy, healthy and perhaps a little slower, than not show up at all, which is the situation I’m in now.

A final thought: if you aren’t able to race because you’re injured, it is truly disappointing, but I’ve found that one of the best things you can do for your mental health is to volunteer instead. You still get to take part in the action – from a different angle – by giving back to the Skechers Performance MultiSport Canada Series, which was given so much to all of us.

Come volunteer – you’ll be glad you did it!

We often learn the most through life’s setbacks, and that includes sports injuries. I hope that with these painful lessons I can relinquish this “elite” injury-prone title ASAP… and that you can avoid it altogether!  See you at the next race!

Be well!