Photo by Stuart Grout


The summer triathlon season is well underway, with many athletes already completing some of their major races and others counting down the days. Training plans are teeming with peak-week workouts, and emotions run the gamut from excitement to desperation as we take inventory of our ability to meet pre-established goals. During this intense period, it’s easy to fall victim to some of triathlon’s biggest performance roadblocks: overtraining and injury.

Whether you crashed your bike, twisted your ankle, or can’t seem to snap out of an ongoing state of fatigue, the result of injury and overtraining remains the same: you’re forced to take a “Time Out” during a critical period in your quest for the finish line.

Injuries get a bad rap because they sideline us from doing what we think we “should” be doing, but with a little creativity and a positive attitude, this down time can actually help you break new ground as an athlete. Why not change your attitude about supposed setbacks by thinking of them as set-ups for success?

injured foot

The Setback: A strict diet topples your training 
The Success: Use “rock bottom” to get “rock star”

When professional triathlete Amanda Lovato started the Paleo diet, she enjoyed eating the variety of fruits, vegetables, and meats the regimen included. Void of any processed foods, the diet was a great nutritional guideline to follow while training. But as her intensity increased, she realized the diet wasn’t delivering the fuel she needed and she started reaching for caffeine to get through her workouts.

“With the added caffeine, I stopped paying attention to just how tired I really was. Eventually, the training load caught up to me, my body was not getting adequate nutrients to rebound, and I became sick. My body forced me to stop what I was doing,” she says.

How we deal with obstacles defines who we are as athletes.

Lovato realizes now that feeling tired was a sign that her body wasn’t recovering from high-intensity training blocks, which eventually led her into an overtrained state. The Paleo diet, as she followed it, was good at making her feel full, though in reality she was falling short on some of the nutrients endurance athletes need to fully recover. “I never felt hungry—but I did feel tired a lot of the time.”

Lovato describes this nutritional shut-down as “one of the biggest holes I’ve ever been in,” but used the experience to find new ways to manage her fueling routine and increase her self-awareness in training—both contributing factors to being a rock star triathlete.

“I realized how important it is to consume a healthy dose of carbohydrates post-exercise, but I discovered that my pre-Paleo amounts of pastas, cereals, and other refined carbs were overkill. Basically, it taught me to find a more moderate middle ground. I now aim to eat approximately 75 percent Paleo, as well as 90 percent gluten free,” she says.

The Setback: Sore sacroiliac joint shuts down runner’s workout schedule
The Success: Alternative workouts unearth a professional triathlete

With a PR of 2:49:48 in the 1999 Chicago Marathon, professional triathlete Kristin White qualified for the 2000 Olympic trials and was accustomed to covering a lot of ground while training for running races. That is, until she began experiencing tremendous back pain during her workouts while pregnant. Eventually the problem was diagnosed as an inflamed sacroiliac joint, and she was forced to find alternative workouts to train for her races. Banned to the pool and bike by her coach, she spent the second and third trimesters of her pregnancy swimming and cycling to keep her fitness in tact.

“Initially I hated both swimming and biking, and I resented the fact that I couldn’t run, but by the end of the pregnancy I really liked swimming. It was one of the few things I could do when I was nine months pregnant that didn’t make me feel bogged down,” says White, who swam 3000 yards the morning her second child was born.

Like many runners who are led to swimming and cycling for rehab or cross training, White participated in a triathlon, but wasn’t hooked right away. “For the first two years I felt like a runner who showed up to do a triathlon,” she says, even though she won all five events she raced in her first season (before going pro this year).

“I now identify myself as a triathlete, and not a runner. My time was a minute slower than it was last year, but that’s OK,” she says. “I never would have gotten into triathlon if I didn’t get injured. Swimming and cycling have strengthened me in new and different ways, and now what’s important is how well I can run off the bike.” White adds that she attempts to find the silver lining in every injury by learning as much as she can about it to prevent future setbacks.

The Setback: A broken foot stops the momentum for a world-class marathoner
The Success: Trade the pavement for the pool and reap the benefits of adequate recovery

World-class runner Deena Kastor is another runner who is no stranger to the pool, after suffering from a broken foot while running the 2008 Olympic marathon in Beijing. Forced to take six weeks off from running, she was relegated to the pool to train.

Daily pool running kept her so strong that she was able to run the 2009 Chicago Marathon just 14 months later in 2:28:50. Though it was a few minutes slower than her goal time, it was good enough to put Kastor as the first American finisher, and name her one of the three fastest American women of the year along with Kara Goucher and Desiree Davila.

At the end of the day, training for a race is like going on a big road trip. We have a map that helps guide us from Point A to Point B, and a dashboard of information that tells us how we’re doing. Sometimes the directions we intended to follow must change, and we find ourselves taking detours, pulling off at rest stops, calling tow trucks and walking to the nearest gas station while the car sits idle. But how we deal with these obstacles defines who we are as athletes. Things seldom go according to plan, but as countless movies have shown, the best road trips come with a healthy dose of adversity.


Lisa Barnes is a USAT Level 1 coach and an Ironman athlete who lives and trains in upstate New York. In her monthly column “Life Trainer,” she helps triathletes balance daily life with their passion for multisport.