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Changing Role of the Athlete and Coach

The past nine months have changed our societal, cultural and familial norms as we have previously known them. It has been a time of uncertainty, isolation, worry. It has also been a year of strength, perseverance and creativity. Like many of my personal athletes, I have spent days on end trying to find a new balance in my effort to support those I care about emotionally and physically while also taking care of myself . There has been a drastic change of perspective and routine in our lives. In my specific case, I am trying to find creative ways to continue coaching my athletes in a personal manner while following state mandates for Covid19. Now, I do so in conjunction with being at home and helping my sons learn remotely for school. This is challenging for me but luckily very doable given our personal circumstances. But, this is not true for everyone. The new balance some of you seek is much for difficult to obtain and much more frustrating to try to achieve. One of the most important parts of teaching and coaching for me is the interaction and bond I develop with those with whom I work. The transition to a completely distanced format has been hard emotionally and psychologically. I know this is true to for all of us. As the weather has turned cold and icy here in Colorado, I am now coaching sessions via ZOOM rather than outside. I miss the personal interaction. And, I know that my athletes are struggling with a lack of motivation and a feeling of isolation right now.

As the Covid19 vaccine becomes more available in the coming months, there is the hope for a new “normalcy” in our lives. We all look forward to resuming the things we love and to do so without the fear of Covid19. In the meantime, we can continue to build on the coach/athlete relationship and stay on track for future events and specific goals. I have some key takeaways which I find helpful not only as a coach myself but also as an athlete and a parent.

Find the Balance

There is a lot of stress in the world right now. It’s more important now than ever to take care of ourselves psychologically, emotionally and physically. Finding something you love to do and making it a priority in your life right now will help your mental health. Carve out the fun and embrace it hard. For me, I love the chance to see my friends and take walks in the neighborhood or hikes on the trails. I try to meet up with a friend and socially distance for an outside exercise date. The fresh air, companionship and exercise always makes me feel better. Yesterday, it was 20 degrees outside and the roads were super icy but my 4 mile walk with good friend Janet was an absolute highlight of my week. I came home feeling refreshed, calmer and happier. And, as a result, I was more productive! I worked for several hours on training plans and created workouts for my ZOOM strength and conditioning program. If you are feeling like you are living the movie “Groundhog’s Day”, try to change things up a bit and give your mind and soul a break from the monotony.

Be Adaptable

Many of us are used to a set routine and we like it that way. Endurance athletes are used to creating schedules and sticking to them like clockwork because we have a lot to get done- work, family, training, social life. For those triathletes who dedicate themselves to long course racing, training can take on the feel of an additional part time job. We schedule our workouts in advance and our weekends often become long training days. But, what happens when events are canceled and we are in the midst of a pandemic and we lose that focus? It’s uncomfortable and stressful. And, those are the feelings on top of all the other stressors we feel economically and emotionally due to the uncertainties of Covid19. Creating a more flexible mindset can help you work through this challenge. Instead of sticking to a rigid training plan focusing on a specific goal/event, I have adapted workouts to emphasize wellness and stress reduction. The focus is on staying fit for future specificity in training but doing so in a way which leaves my athletes feeling motivated, healthy and refreshed. These past 6 months have been a great time to work on limiters- more flexibility work, meditation and yoga for mindfulness, stability and strength routines, form focus runs, hikes and trail runs. Keep your body moving in ways which make you happy and make you feel good. As 2020 comes to a close, it’s looking like we might resume racing in 2021. Time will tell. Reach out to your coach and see when the right time is to start building back into your specific goals and intensity.

Challenge Yourself in New Ways

For those of us who are competitive by nature and have a harder time slowing down, there are options to satisfy that craving to race while restrictions are still in place. We all want to push ourselves and see what we are capable of accomplishing. That does not stop just because a pandemic hits. I have been riding on my trainer a lot the past few months and enjoying scheduled “Meet Ups” on Zwift with my personal athletes, team mates and friends. I have set some goals for myself in virtual events to keep me motivated and in shape since I have not been able to race in my scheduled 2020 events. This has not been a fun and helpful way to expand on my own capabilities. My personal goal has been “How can I make myself better during this time?”. I’m not talking about just as an athlete but even more importantly as a mother, wife, coach, friend, team mate. How can I support others through this time and help them find success? I decided early in this pandemic that if my children were going to be learning remotely, so was I. So, I have used this period of time to invest in myself and get two new coaching certifications and to work on my business programming. Choosing some new and different paths in my life has been rewarding and helpful these past six months.

Know that You Are Not Alone

Finally, know that you are not alone. One of the most reassuring things I can do for my children right now is to remind them that they are not alone in their frustrations and fear and boredom and feelings of isolation. As a mother, I see the emotional toll COVID19 and life changes have taken on the younger generations as they navigate new norms. This very much carries over into all of our lives. All of us have personal worries about our children, our older parents and our friends. We have our concerns about our jobs and financial security. Simply reaching out and supporting one another during this time can make a huge difference. It’s so easy to self-isolate and let our emotions take over. Our mental health is suffering. Know that you are not alone. Reach out to others and lend support and reassurance. Listen to others. Listen well. Be sure to surround yourself with those who understand how you feel and are there for you. I had individual conversations with each of my sons last week and they all ended with tears being shed. My boys just needed to vent, to express their frustrations and fears, to let out all the emotions which were bogging them down. They each had different perspectives and different stressors and different reactions to what has been happening in their personal world. And, they all needed someone to listen. I am grateful to be that person to them. I try to do the same for my friends and my athletes as well. We all need people. We all need companionship. We all need support. I find this to be the most important part of my role as a parent and as a coach in this current pandemic – being a part of the support network and being available as someone who cares.

Thanks for taking the time to read today, friends. It’s been awhile since I have sat down at the computer and put my feelings into written word for this blog. It feels good.

The Disappointment of Injury and How to Stay Focused on the Long Game

One of the true downsides to aging is the fact that our body can not bounce back from training in the way it used to as a young adult.  It takes more conscious rest and recovery to remain strong and healthy to hit our start line. This is especially true during endurance training when the volume progresses to much higher loads and stress accumulates from physical training, family life and work. Trying to find balance is one of the biggest challenges we face. Long course triathlon magnifies the need for balance and recovery. Athletes are putting in especially long hours in the pool, on the bike and on the run. They often compromise sleep to complete early morning training before work or stay up late to get a trainer session in after the kids go to bed. Athletes might skip strength and mobility sessions because they just can’t find the time to do them. Even the most seasoned triathlete struggles to get it all done. And, sometimes, along the way, a little niggle pops up and it might not seem like something to worry about until it absolutely is……

Running is the discipline within which most training specific and overuse injuries occur. No one will be surprised when I say that running is hard on our body. When an athlete has a biomechanical form issue or is increasing mileage too quickly, it can be a recipe for injury if not corrected quickly and efficiently. If caught early, then mild symptoms can often be offset with reduced mileage, run gait analysis and strength training. The good news for triathletes is that they have three disciplines within which to train. If an athlete can not run due to injury, then the focus can shift to the swim and bike.  The same is true for the bike and swim. But, what happens if this injury takes you out of a discipline for several weeks or even several months?  There is no greater disappointment for an athlete preparing for race day.

Studies show that the more positive an athlete is about his or her recovery journey, the faster the healing process can be. One of the hardest challenges for an endurance athlete is to back off training and give an injury time to heal. When a big race is around the corner, all common sense can go right out the window. All too often, athletes push through an injury only to make it worse and possibly get sidelined for months. This is the time when the especially difficult decisions take place. Is it worth the risk to carry on and hope for the best? The biggest factor to be considered is the extent of the injury and whether or not racing on that injury will cause bigger problems for the athlete. Denial is a powerful emotion and will often cloud the judgement of even the most cautious and experienced of athletes. As a race date gets closer, anxiety grows as key workouts are missed. Denial turns into panic that this injury may end hopes of the race. After a year of focus, dedication, grit and hard work, that dream goal is out of reach. 

These are the thoughts and feelings which can really mess with an athlete’s head. This is when many will push harder because they get scared. They may try to run on the injury in a desperate attempt to get those final training miles in. They may tell themselves, “I am just going to race and then I will recover afterwards for as long as it takes”. Anyone who has trained for an endurance event like Ironman knows that it takes strength, sacrifice and true commitment to train for an event of this magnitude. It also takes a lot of courage to walk away from it. It is an individualized decision based on injury condition, personal goals and medical feedback.  Injuries are hard. They are painful physically and painful emotionally.  The comeback from injury is frustrating and disheartening. Push too hard too soon and you risk a setback. Don’t push enough with appropriate load and intensity and you can delay recovery. As athletes, we must find a smarter and a better way to train to allow healing while also keeping our fitness and sanity in place.

What is the safest way for an athlete to start back running after an injury?

  1. It’s important to make sure that you are giving yourself enough time and the best resources for recovery.  That starts with being honest with yourself.  What is the extent of this injury and what do you need to do to help heal yourself? Find the resources you need. Get your diagnosis, go see your doctor and your physical therapist. Gather a team around you who can help you make rational and medically sound decisions for your recovery so that your emotions do not hold you back from getting better.  
  2. Try to focus on the positives within and around you. The more you can look on the bright side of things, the better your recovery will go. I promise you. You will feel more motivated to stay active in the ways which you can and this will speed recovery for you. Whether it be specific strength exercises given to you by your PT, an easy swim in the pool, cycling on the trainer, pool running or any other lower impact option, this will increase blood flow to your injury and help promote healing.  It will also promote an emotional feeling of well being. 
  3. As they say, you have to walk before you run. Once your injury has healed enough and you get the okay from your PT, orthopedist and coach (if you have one), it is time to start back on your road to running. But, wait! Hold on! Don’t go strapping those run shoes on and just head out the door for your normal run. You should be able to walk for 45 minutes pain free before you add any form of running to your routine. Walking will strengthen and condition the soft tissue which has been recovering.
  4. Be patient.  For the endurance athlete who has been training consistently for years, the return to running may happen more quickly than for those who have not been running as long. This is simply a matter of fitness and physiology. The longer you have been running, the larger your aerobic fitness base. You have a higher level of mitochondria to produce energy and more red blood cells to deliver oxygen to your running muscles. Your fitness will fall during your break from running but it might not fall as much as you fear. But, you will lose conditioning in your musculoskeletal system- muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. This is where it can be tricky during the return to running and why it is imperative to start with a slowly increasing run program with adequate rest and recovery between run sessions. Your body needs time to adjust to new demands placed upon it after a break. Even with cross training during recovery, it may take weeks or even months for these soft tissues to get strong enough to sustain the run loads you once placed upon them. 
  5. Cleared to Run? I recommend sticking to very short and easy walk/run workouts three times a week to begin. These workouts will be on nonconsecutive days. Choose a soft surface to run on- a track or a treadmill will be more forgiving than a road and will also allow you to stay closer to home or your car in case you have any discomfort and need to shorten your run unexpectedly. You can try 5 minutes walking for a warm up followed by 4 x 30 sec jog/2 min walk with a 5 minute walk for cool down.  Ease into running slowly by adding the walk intervals from the get go and then gradually increase these run intervals each week until you are running pain free for a longer period of time. But remember the 10% rule and stick with it. Don’t increase your weekly mileage or pace by more than 10% week over week. You may need to even be more conservative than that in the beginning after a long break.
  6. Focus on a run specific strength and mobility program. The key here is to translate strength in the gym to your run via drills to help improve muscle coordination and biomechanics. Run form needs to be perfect as you start back into your sport to reduce the chance of re-injury. Running mechanics often fall apart as fatigue sets in with increase in distance or pace. Drills will help reinforce correct form and remind you to slow down as needed to perfect your run gait. Please make sure you are implementing mobility and core strength exercises into your program. This can come in the form of yoga, Pilates or general weight training.  Start gradually if this is something new to you and be sure to enlist the help of a certified personal trainer if you need guidance in this area.

I know it’s hard but do not allow a race or other big goals to encourage you to push too hard too soon. Your aerobic engine may be ready but it takes your legs much longer than your lungs to adapt to the running stresses you will be placing on your body.  Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have about your personal journey back from injury. I promise I can lend you a sympathetic ear and help you get back on your way in a safe and meaningful way.