Triathletes are unique in that they experience a broad spectrum of injury based solely on the multi-discipline nature of their sport. Since training involves swimming, running and cycling, all very repetitive motions, the muscles, tendons and joints tend to experience a high level of stress which can lead to microtrauma. Over time, the damage is unable to repair itself and unfortunately, weakness, pain and inflammation are often the result.
Since triathletes spend so much of their time training for events and races, pain and inflammation tend to go ignored. And yet, an overuse injury can definitely lead to weeks and/or months away from training or competitions missed entirely. The great thing about triathlon training is that if you have to break away from one modality due to injury, there are still two other activities you can be doing. Above all, you want to stay injury free from the get-go and proactively address any and all symptoms that come your way.
Truly, there are a multitude of overuse injuries to be had, but here are some of the most common:
- Iliotibial Band (IT) Syndrome: IT band syndrome is an injury involving a sharp pain or tightness that runs outside the knee. This band/sheath runs from beneath your glute, moves down your outer thigh and attaches just below the knee. When the IT band is aggravated it can cause crippling pain during running. This injury often crops up when increasing your mileage too quickly. Weak hips, i.e. hip abductors, are also to blame, but typically it’s the repetitive motion of bending and straightening your knee during longer runs.
- Shoulder Tendonitis: This overuse injury involves the tendons of your shoulder’s rotator cuff. Microtrauma occurs here when repeated shoulder impingement occurs. Typically, the symptoms involve a ‘clicking’ during movement, as well as pain when the arm is extended above shoulder height (and especially during a freestyle swim stroke). There might even be pain present when lying on the injured shoulder. Ideally, when a shoulder injury occurs a trained professional should assess posturing and form during swimming to make sure mistakes are not being made.
- Stress Fractures: Stress fractures commonly plague triathletes in their hips, feet or tibia. A stress fracture will most likely involve a high level of pain and inflammation. Stress fractures are the result of a dramatic increase in mileage or duration of training without proper adaption or adequate recovery. Being attentive to a pain that’s a whisper, rather than waiting for it to be ‘scream’ is key when dealing with stress fractures.
- Achilles Tendonitis: This overuse injury involves pain situated just below your calve but above your heel. There might also be redness associated or swelling in the form of a bump right on your Achilles tendon. Tight calve muscles are to blame for this one, which results in tiny tears in the tendon itself.
The most basic, but effective treatment for a lot of triathlon injury is RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation). If you’re dealing with acute pain and swelling in a specific area, start here! Next, you want to help heal and mobilize that soft tissue. A great tool is a foam roller (or even a tennis ball) to help massage the affected area(s). Integrating appropriate strength training and core conditioning is an effective way to strengthen muscles and tendons as a proactive approach to injury. Not to mention, cross training is a great activity to do when you must take a break from running, cycling or swimming. Before hitting the road again, especially if the overuse injury is so severe it warrants time off, also consider biomechanical correction. Having a trained specialist take a look at your stroke, gait or cycling form might be just what you need to avoid an overuse injury in the future!