Being sidelined by an injury doesn't have to mean that your growth as an athlete is on hold. Coping with injury can teach you mental toughness skills as well as lessons to improve your form and strength.
My 2019 racing season came to a screeching halt on August 18 when I got into a bike crash. I was lucky enough to walk away from it alive and unbroken, but I did take an impact on my right hip which didn't heal and eventually required surgery. I had been training since last October for my A-race, Ironman Malaysia on October 26, 2019. This accident, and resulting surgery, forced me to have to cancel the trip to Malyasia and defer the Ironman to next year. This experience has been a crazy course of events - training accidents don't usually result in surgery. But injuries are a fact of life for ambitious athletes. Through this process, I've gained perspective on healing and mental toughness.
Here are some tips on the process of coping with injury, which I share because anyone taking on serious athletic endeavors will assuredly navigate an injury at some point during their quest.
Stay as active as possible during injury, even though this is not going to be fun.
I was fortunate to not be in too much pain after my crash, to the point that I could still swim, bike, and strength train. However, every session required that I dig deep mentally. Not because I was trying to gut out some crazy pain, but because it just wasn't fun. I knew my body was healing and it took some all out efforts to just hit my mid-level paces and power. Easy workouts are harder when you're injured because you're not getting the mental satisfaction that you are used when you are healthy. During these workouts, stop obsessing about your effort, pace, HR, power, or whatever and just know that you are gaining mental toughness by seeing a suboptimal workout through to the end, and appreciate the time to focus on your form.
Be confident in your ability to heal.
It helps to know that this is the road of an athlete. We do whatever we can to avoid it, and I've been proud lately of how I have not been injured due to over-training, but even when we are extra careful and pragmatic with our training, freak events happen (or, over-confidence and bad judgement in my case) that cause injury. I am healthy. I will heal.
Know that you will come back stronger than ever.
Maybe we're all overtraining anyway, and this forced break will make me stronger than ever. I've seen some amazing results - in myself, in the athletes I coach, and in friends - after injury. We get so obsessed with our training sometimes, pushing our boundaries so that we can grow as athletes, that it is easy to keep in perspective the fact that rest heals. It's possible we could all be better athletes if we trained LESS. But who wants to take the chance to try that? No one except an injured person, that's who. So, this is my little experiment to see if I can come back stronger than ever.
Injuries are life lessons that make us better at our sport.
If you get injured due to over-training, and are diligent with your rehab exercises, you likely will have learned to strengthen your body in a way that will make you stronger than you ever have been. If you are injured due to an accident, as in my case, it is a great reminder to always keep the basics of your form and safety top of mind. My accident taught me that I have some bike handling skills to learn. The accident was 100% avoidable and was caused by my over-confidence and stiff upper body. If I work on these things, I will become a better cyclist out of all of this.
Know who you are, and know that your sport should enhance this, not define it.
In 2015, I was sidelined with another stupid injury. When I was going through that, I went through a period of intense depression. I've been wondering lately why I've been so calm about this injury - even though it was a lot more serious than the last one and has taken me out of my game for much longer. The conclusion I have come to is that, in 2015, my training and racing was the bright light in my life. In a sense, it was the source of my happiness. Nowadays, I have so many amazing things going on in my life, and my triathlon training only enhances this happiness, it doesn't define it. This perspective has taught me that, even for professional athletes, coming to a healthy understanding of your goals and who you are as an individual is more important that any race results.