8 Ways to Prevent Injuries
Most of us have experienced one or more injuries in our athletic careers. While most of these setbacks sideline us for a few days or weeks, others can be career-ending. My triathlon life began when rotator cuff tendonitis abruptly ended my swimming career. This particular injury has left an indelible mark on my life.
My junior year of college was a pivotal one; I qualified for the Olympic Trials in swimming and was looking ahead to my senior year with huge anticipation. However, just weeks prior to returning for my final year at Brown, I began to experience pain in my left shoulder.
What I thought was a little problem led to four months out of the water, excruciating physical therapy, missing the Olympic Trials, and eight years later the shoulder still flares up with no warning.
This injury taught me the importance of listening to my body, not taking my health for granted, and being defensive in preventing injuries.
Fortunately, many injuries are preventable. The following list is intended to help you stay healthy through the current racing season and beyond.
Proper technique is important not only to swim more efficiently, but also to prevent injuries. I know first-hand how difficult it is to make stroke changes. I changed my stroke after 16 years as a competitive swimmer. When I was recovering from my shoulder injury, a Masters coach explained that if I still wanted to swim at age 30 (I was 23 at the time), I would have to bend my elbows more on my recovery and breathe bilaterally.
At the time, 30 seemed like ages away, but I took his advice and struggled to make the changes. Now I'm past 30, and I am happy to say that I am swimming faster now than when I was 23.
Tips to Improve Technique for Injury Prevention:
1. Will Make You a Better Swimmer">Join a Masters team. An on-deck coach can work wonders in improving your stroke.
2. Have somebody videotape your stroke. A moving image of your habits will actually help you visualize proper technique when working your way through the water.
3. Attend a swim camp or triathlon clinic.
4. Spend time alone in the pool. To better focus on technique, it is imperative to spend time at the pool without the pace clock and the competition of other swimmers. Pick a day, swim easy, and think about your stroke.
5. If you are tired or feel pain, or your stroke is falling apart, get out. Any of these three symptoms can create bad stroke habits that can eventually lead to injury.
Bike fit is important to maximize your strength and to decrease the chance of injury. I suffer severely from the Princess and the Pea syndrome; if my bike is off by just one millimeter, I will have an ache to show for it. I have been known to stop half a dozen times on a ride to adjust my saddle.
A few years ago, I spent several months toying with my position. When my stem was too long, my shoulder hurt; when my seat was too far forward, my knee hurt. I learned the value of proper fit the hard way.
Tips to Improve Bike Fit for Injury Prevention:
1. Have an expert look at your position to make sure that your stem length, crank length, seat height and seat fore/aft position are correct.
2. When you determine your optimal position, mark everything (with black electrical tape or the like), so if you take your bike apart or if something slips, you can readjust it back into its proper position.
3. Do not ignore your cleats; they too can come loose and shift, thus altering your position. Make sure the bolts are tight.
Running is the most injurious of the three sports. Running injuries are rampant, and I have certainly experienced my share. I have had the requisite stress fracture and knee aches, and several years ago I suffered from sesamoiditis (inflammation of the ball of the foot. Trust me, it hurts!).
Two of my injuries developed as a result of running in worn-out shoes. On my last orthopedic visit, I was told to change my shoes every 250 miles. That's a lot of shoes! In fact, Saucony informed me that only the Kenyans go through more shoes. Injury prevention, I responded.
Shoe and Running Tips for Injury Prevention:
1. Change your shoes often. This is not the area to be trying to cut costs. When in doubt, throw them out (or recycle them, or whatever--just don't run in them!). Unless you are running an average of 10 miles a week, six months is too long to keep a pair of shoes. Err on the side of safety and replace shoes instead of trying to squeeze extra miles out of them.
2. Keep at least two pairs of shoes in the rotation, especially if you are running several days in a row. Use your running shoes strictly for running; wearing them to the gym or to run errands will shorten their lifespan and zap their cushioning.
3. Determine what type of runner you are: neutral, pronator or supinator and find shoes that accommodate your type of running. The podiatrist at a good sports medicine clinic is an excellent resource in this regard, and might even be able to provide you with a list of specific running shoes suited to your biomechanical needs.
4. Use over-the-counter inserts for more cushioning and/or arch support.
5. Run on trails when possible. Your legs will thank you for the softer surface. Dodging rock, twigs and roots will help your dexterity.
6. If you are feeling achy, take a few days off or run in the pool.
And lastly, some general tips for injury prevention:
1. Always warm up. Prior to a workout or a race, it is crucial to ease into your effort. A warm-up helps loosen the muscles and gets rid of lactic acid left over from the last workout. A proper warm-up will diminish the chance of muscle pulls, and will also keep you stronger throughout your entire workout.
Start your workouts at a low heart rate, then gradually pick up the pace until you reach your target zone. Do not be afraid to spin easy, run for 10 to 15 minutes or jump in the water and swim a few strokes before a race. A pre-race warm-up will help you get rid of the jitters, and prepare your muscles for tough exertion.
2. Stretch regularly. The extra few minutes spent stretching will pay off in the long run. I usually stretch during or after a workout, not before. If I feel tightness during a ride, run or swim, I do not hesitate to stop and stretch out the aching limb.
3. Treat yourself to a massage. It's an expensive habit, but worth it. Plan a massage to augment key points of the season. Good times are after a hard week of training or after a grueling race. Massage greatly expedites the recovery process, and with regular stretching, it should keep you flexible and injury-free.
4. Watch for signs of over-training, a common habit among triathletes. If you find yourself sleeping poorly, not enjoying your training, having an elevated heart rate in the morning or you are constantly grumpy, chances are you are over-trained. The remedy for these symptoms is to ease back or take some time off. Every now and then, a nap is more beneficial than a workout. A particular training session will not make you better, but it could cause injury.
Train safely. Race hard. Have fun.