Big plans, big goals… and then a big injury that blows the whole thing up. Sound familiar? That’s been my year so far, Herd. I managed to get myself an entry for Challenge Roth this summer. A 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run. It’s arguably the most legendary iron-distance triathlon on the scene (perhaps second only to Kona) and a race that sells out faster than Glastonbury tickets… or freshly baked pain au chocolats when the Sunday group ride rocks up to the café stop. It’s been a race I’ve dreamed about doing pretty much since I first started doing triathlon 7 years ago, and it would be my third time taking on the 140.6 mile distance. Needless to say I started 2023 with big dreams and even bigger expectations. This year was going to be epic.
Fast forward to April, and I was getting the news that every runner and multi-sport enthusiast dreads: MRI scan results that showed a stress fracture in my right ankle. What’s followed can only be described as a bit of a bumpy ride. First: stubborn determination. I had 10 weeks until race day. 6 weeks off running, full commitment to the stylish boot and crutches situation while smashing the swim and bike training, then 2 weeks of intensive run training. I could totally still get on that start line, right? That – probably overly ambitious – plan was soon stopped in its tracks when, after 6 weeks, I was still in pain and categorically told by the physio that doing the race would be a Very Bad Idea. Next was frustration and a tough decision: did I try and force myself onto that start line knowing that at best, I was going to have a very painful, very long walk once I got to the marathon section? Or accept the feeling of “failure” (more on that later) that came with waving the white flag, letting go and pressing the dreaded ‘defer’ button?
I’m not going to lie to you, Herd. There has been a lot of tears and tantrums, but I’m now in a position where I’ve been able to have those honest conversations with myself. I’ve made the tough decision. And I’ve been able to accept that sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. And as much as that sucks – in the grand scheme, sometimes these unplanned detours can actually be a good thing. It’s an opportunity to shift your perspective, to identify what went wrong and to ultimately make the changes that are going to help you to come back stronger and to keep those adventures coming for years into the future. I’ve hit that defer button, and dealt with the brain gremlins that were telling me it wasn’t an option. I’ve processed a lot of the stuff that was holding me back (and that led me to this pesky injury in the first place). And so, Challenge Roth is in the 2024 calendar. And if anyone is racing Challenge Almere in September, see you on the start line! Just because you defer one goal, it doesn’t mean you can’t set another to keep you motivated.
Having your big plans and goals for the year snatched away from you by injury or other circumstances is rubbish. And as much as it’s “just racing” and “just a hobby” – we all know that we train and race for reasons far beyond a finishers’ t-shirt. So going through this process can be tough and mentally draining. If you’re in the same boat as me and you’re struggling to navigate the process of resetting your goals and re-adjusting your expectations – I hope that by sharing what I’ve learned, I can help you to turn your obstacle into an opportunity. We might be down, but we’re not out. Time to rise!
Four top tips to help you cope when an injury ruins your race plans
1: How to decide when to pull the pin
Just because you could doesn’t mean you should. When you’re injured, it’s really hard to let go of your determination and ignore the voice in your head that tells you that you should just push yourself to the limit to still get on the start line. The question to ask yourself here is: at what cost? And: will it still be fun? Sure, you might be able to drag yourself through the race. But is it really worth it, when you could be risking making the injury worse – or even taking yourself out of the sport completely? And, even if you’re not too concerned about competing or setting a killer new PB, if you’re racing purely for the fun and experience – is training and racing through the pain really going to give you a good experience? This is where you’ve got to have that honest conversation with yourself. Figure out why you want to race, what you want to get out of it and what risk you might be putting yourself at if you get on the start line. In my case, the answer became obvious. The risk was that I would give myself a far more severe injury that would take me out of the sport I love entirely. And fun for me isn’t limping to the finish line. It’s racing strong and giving my body the best shot to show me what it’s got. Only you will know the answer here – but if you’re stuck in that “should I, shouldn’t I?” limbo, asking yourself these questions is the best place to start.
2: A change of plans doesn’t equal a failure
Sometimes ‘quitting’ is actually the opposite of giving up. Letting go of all the pressure and expectations is hard, and doing so is brave. Setting your boundaries and doing what’s right for you takes strength. If you decide it’s time to pull the pin – you’re not quitting, you’re backing yourself and trusting yourself to recover and come back stronger. It can be so tempting to grit your teeth and force yourself to do an event because you’re worried about what other people might think if you pull out. Don’t ever let anyone make you feel that by protecting your energy, your health and prioritising what matters to you, that you’re somehow a failure. These are your dreams, and your goals – and you’ll achieve them in the way that’s right for you.
3: It’s okay to be upset and disappointed
Toxic positivity? Not in this Herd! Yes, we’re going to work through this setback to turn it into an opportunity to grow and come back stronger. But first, we need to give ourselves the permission to feel what we need to feel, and the time to process that. You might be angry and frustrated. You might feel sad about the adventure you’re going to miss out on. You might even feel a bit jealous and bitter when you see everyone on Strava going out running (or whatever activity it is that you can’t do right now) without you. And that’s okay! We tend to try and quickly squash down any negative emotions and force ourselves to immediately look on the bright side. But that doesn’t give you any space to process what you’re feeling and work through it. Instead, those feelings will stay tucked away right in your core and they’ll start to eat you alive.
I’m going to be a bit vulgar here, Goats, but think of it like holding in a fart in a public place: holding it in doesn’t make the fart go away. In fact, you’re just giving it time to get bigger and stinkier and pretty soon that little squeaker has turned into a great big pants ripper. Yikes. This is your official permission to let out all your emotional farts, Herd! Have a big cry. Have a bit of a rant and a rave. Let it all out, feel what you need to feel… and then you’ll be able to process and move forward.
4: “Better not bitter”: How to turn this obstacle into an opportunity
Right. We’ve been through a journey. We’ve talked about farts. We’ve made the tough decision, we’ve stopped beating ourself up about it and we’ve let ourselves have a teenager style “it’s not fair” tantrum to get all that pent up emotion off our chests. Time to breathe (and to forgive me for using the word “fart” quite so many times). Now we’re ready to reset and start the process that will have us coming back from this setback feeling stronger and more resilient than ever. Ready? Let’s go.
Reflect on what caused the injury
99.9% of the time, nothing is really a failure if you can learn something from it. If your injury was from overuse or overtraining this is your chance to take a look back at what went wrong and take action to ensure it’s less likely to happen again in the future. This could be things like neglecting your strength training (guilty), not prioritising recovery (guilty, again) or ignoring niggles (you guessed it, guilty!). When you’re training hard, you’re always on a bit of a knife-edge between super fit and super injured. What you’re going through now will be a great lesson in the warning signs and the prevention techniques that you can take forward with you. This time off gives you an opportunity to have a bit of a reset, and formulate a training regime that will make you bullet proof.
Focus on what you can do right now – and enjoy it
It’s easy to dwell on what you can’t do, and forget to enjoy all the things you can do in the process. For argument’s sake, let’s say you can’t run… but you can still cycle. That’s awesome! With the pressure of an imminent race off your shoulders, and a bit more time now that you’re not doing any run training, this gives you a great opportunity to enjoy a bit more time in the saddle. Explore that new route, check out the café stop you’ve had your eye on. Join that Sunday morning group ride that didn’t fit into your training schedule pre-injury. Make the most of this time to just get out and enjoy riding for riding’s sake. You’ll have fun, and it’ll help you to stay fit and strong for when the injury has healed.
Obviously, depending on what injury you’re dealing with, you might not be able to do any form of training right now. If that’s you – I’m sending you a virtual hug because I know how much that sucks. But even if you can’t train, you can still take this time to find some other things you can enjoy. I don’t know about you Goats, but I can definitely suffer from a bit of triathlon tunnel vision and let training take over my life. That book you’ve not had time to read? Go and read it. That friend you’ve not managed to catch up with for a while? Give them a call. That Netflix series? This is primo binge-watching time my friends! It’s so much easier said than done, but if you look for them – there will be things you can do and enjoy while you’re having some time away from training.
Appreciate what the journey has taught you
Setbacks can help to make us stronger and more resilient. There will be something that the injury recovery process has taught you, that you can take forward and use. That might be training more efficiently and prioritising things that are going to make you a stronger athlete. It might be letting go of the fear that comes with not achieving what you set out to achieve, and realising that actually you’re still you and one setback isn’t going to change that. And it might be a renewed appreciation for things you didn’t really think twice about pre-injury. I can tell you that once I do get back to running, I’m not going to take the freedom of lacing up my trainers and heading out for a sunrise run for granted again.
Create a tangible action plan that will help you on the road to recovery
Learn about your injury and become an expert in recovery. Find out what things you can be doing to help the healing process, and get going. That might be mobility work, rehab exercises or getting disciplined and making yourself head to the gym when you’d rather be out on your bike every now and then to address any muscle weaknesses or imbalances that have contributed to your injury.
Work with your physiotherapist or doctor to have a clear idea of the steps you can take to help you on the road to recovery. Make doing your rehab exercises a priority and enjoy getting to try something a bit different. Take the time you’ve got away from structured to training to work on some of those finer details – such as nutrition – that will help to take your performance to the next level once you’re back into the swing of things.
It can be really hard to stay patient when you’re recovering from an injury, which can make it tempting to rush back to training too quickly. But treating your recovery a bit like a training programme in its own right can help you to feel productive and help the time to fly by.
Set new (realistic) goals
Don’t be afraid to let yourself hope and feel excited. Okay, so you might not be able to do that big race or event you’d originally planned for this year. But, once you know what you’re dealing with on the injury front, you can definitely get something realistic in the diary that will help to keep you feeling motivated, positive and give you something to work towards while you work through the injury recovery. It might be something completely different and out of your comfort zone that you can do pretty soon – for example a swim race or a sportive if you’re used to only racing triathlons. It might be something that you can look forward to once you’re fully back in action. It doesn’t even have to be a specific race or event: it could be as simple as setting yourself the challenge of exploring a new route on your bike every weekend. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sport related at all. Just give yourself something to aim for, with no rush and no pressure. Just pure joy and excitement.
Personally, as much I’m disappointed that I won’t get to race Challenge Roth this year – I’m genuinely so excited for my new ‘back-up’ race: Challenge Almere. I’ve got an opportunity now to do things differently, recover properly and go into that race with a whole new appreciation for the fact that I’ve made it to the start line. And the best part is – I now know that if I have further setbacks, if something goes wrong and I can’t finish the race… I’m strong enough to cope with it. That might not sound like much, but for me it’s kind of a big deal, and it’s something that will give me the freedom to race with a little bit more joy in my heart and a little less self-inflicted pressure on my shoulders going forward.
To my fellow injured goats, I’m wishing you all the best with your recovery! Take it easy, be kind to yourself and trust the process: you’ll be back out there doing all the things you love when the time is right.
Don’t forget, we’ve got a brilliant community in the form of the Stolen Goat Herd Facebook group, and the VeloVixen women’s cycling chat Facebook group. It can feel a bit lonely if all your usual training buddies are out adventuring without you, but chances are you’ll find someone who can relate to what you’re going through in these groups so don’t be afraid to reach out!