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How Athletes Can Deal With Illness or Injury

Suffering from illness or injury is something most athletes fear. When the unthinkable happens, there are a number of strategies you can use to come out the other side better than when you went in.


From the last two posts (here and here), you’ll know that I don’t believe that illness or injury are inevitable consequences of being an athlete. Unfortunately even looking after your health obsessively doesn’t mean that you’ll never get injured, nor does it mean you’ll never catch a bug of some sort.

After all, if you have a family and consequently spend your time with little people as I do, your immune system is going to have to deal with a lot of assaults. While you can overcome most of them most of the time, in times of high stress your immune system will be slightly compromised and you might come down that nasty cough your son brought home from school.

Annoying though it may be, once you succumb to illness or injury you’re going to have at least a few days when you’ll need to make adjustments. What do you do?

1. Calm down!

If you’re anything like me, getting ill gets you angry. Perhaps you get depressed, disappointed, disenchanted? As unhelpful as they are, all of these negative emotions are perfectly normal and you should recognise that if nothing else, they show that you care about your goal and the training you’ve committed to in order to achieve it. That’s a good thing.

Having recognised this, however, you need to stop wallowing in self-pity, getting angry or whatever your personal response pattern may be. It’s time to get pragmatic and make a few choices about how you are going to deal with the situation. Take some deep breaths and make a conscious decision to be rational about the situation if only for the time it takes to make a plan.

2. Assess what the illness or injury will allow you to do or not to do.

If your knee hurts, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to run and perhaps even cycling is a bad idea, but you’d be able to swim. If you’re not a triathlete and are a runner, you might want to get one of those pool running belts and do some deep water running - I know it looks ever so cool, but if you want to do something that looks like running...

Some infections will allow you to keep doing some low-level cardiovascular training and some won’t. The commonly accepted rule of thumb is that if it’s above the neck (as in “head cold”), you’re OK to do some recovery or base level training, whereas if it’s below the neck (on your chest or even a tickly throat), it’s best to skip the cardio. It’s your assessment, your decision and needs to be based on what you know about yourself (n=1). My experience is that if I have a "head cold” and I do much in the way of cardiovascular training, the infection ends up on my chest. This is probably because I inherited sinuses that don’t drain very well, but it’s something I have learned about myself and I stay away from cardiovascular training if my sinuses are blocked.

The good news is that there are few illnesses or injuries that preclude any exercise of any sort. You may, however, have to choose activities that you’d usually avoid.

3. Work on your weaknesses.

The most obvious application of this is for triathletes, where having a sore knee that rules out running might be a great opportunity to get some more time in the pool working on becoming a better swimmer. [A little side benefit of this is that the temperature of the pool water, even if it feels warm, is much lower than body temperature and thus even lower than any inflammation you have in your knee and will, therefore, have a bit of an anti-inflammatory effect.]

But there are many other areas which we neglect. Ask yourself when you last did any significant mobility work? Strength work? Visualisation or meditation? These are all examples of things we all know we should do, but we usually don’t. If you usually run for 6 hours a week and you can now not run for two weeks, just think about the positive effect that 12 hours of focused mobility work might have on your performance! That pesky illness or injury might just be the opportunity you need to make breakthroughs in weak areas.

4. If you can’t do enough to fill the training time, catch up on life stuff you never do.

This has always been a “go-to” item for me when discussing enforced time off with clients. Find the things in your life that have been neglected because of your sport and address them. That bedroom that has needed painting for the last year, paint it. Take a walk on the beach with your wife and kids, the walk you never take because Sunday morning is your 4-hour bike ride. Sit down and read that book you’ve wanted to read forever (I don’t recommend “War and Peace”, but “Les Miserables” or “The Count of Monte Cristo” both have superbly intertwined stories and are books I’m glad I read as part of a challenge, even though I didn’t look forward to either when I saw how thick they were!).

5. Spend time doing rehab for the injury.

Whether you see a bodywork professional or not, you need to spend time daily doing some rehab. Simply allowing an injury to get better whilst not using the injured part is no way to ensure best function when you return to training. Moving a joint through the available range of motion, gently lengthening injured muscles, working on motor control and the ability to get to end-range under control are all really important and often neglected activities when we’re injured and stuck in that emotional cycle described in #1 above. What's more, no rehab means you'll probably just get injured again, from the same cause if not in the same place.

 You can do your best to stay healthy, but sometimes stuff just happens. I mentioned previously that I couldn’t avoid shoulder charging the car that turned across my path as I did 30mph past the car park entrance. I could (and did) spend focused time working on the resulting AC joint injury, which I was told would stop me ever pressing heavy stuff overhead again. Six weeks later I did a strict one-arm military press with a 28kg kettlebell with no pain and have since pressed heavier too.


You could probably sum it up with a cliché: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"

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Will Newton

In over twenty years of coaching, Will has coached everyone from absolute beginners to world champions. His interest in getting the best results for athletes who compete for the love of the sport, rather than as professionals, drives him to find the most effective ways to get results.

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