Triathlon Magazine Canada
Reclaiming Your Body
CHANCES ARE TRIATHLETES in their later years have had to reclaim their body from one thing or another, and it may not always be a typical sport injury. Life happens, and along the way the challenges of illness, chronic degeneration or impact trauma can get in the way of reaching for athletic goals.
Many of the masters-plus triathletes interviewed have been there and back. Their stories illustrate that it takes hard work – both physically and mentally – to get through it and find their way back. Perhaps even more important was having a goal to work towards. Here are some insights taken from some of their experiences.
A proper diagnosis is worth the effort: Going after a second Kona qualifier became a challenge for a 68-year-old who developed gastrointestinal issues and began losing a considerable amount of weight. After trying to sort out the issue through trial and error, he consulted with a dietician who specialized in sport nutrition. He had raced well enough to be sponsored by a major nutrition brand which included ingredients that turned out, among other things, to be aggravating an undiagnosed food sensitivity. Her guidance turned everything around, and within weeks he got his qualifier without suffering from GI distress.
Become knowledgeable: “It won’t get better with ignorance,” states one mid-60 male, referring to dealing with injuries. That lesson applies equally to nutrition, training, recovery and almost everything else related to the body, including the head and heart. Recommended reading to drill further into this is The Brave Athlete: Calm The F*ck Down and Rise to The Occasion by Simon Marshall, PhD and Lesley Paterson.
Don’t let someone else tell you what your body can do: Athletes who experience degenerative conditions, such as osteoarthritis, are often advised that their sport days will be limited, or worse, over. One mid-50 multiple long-distance athlete who has bounced back from more setbacks than most was told that running was out due to arthritis in her ankle, so she would have to give up full-distance racing. “Who are you to tell me what I can do?” was her approach. She found another way to continue, by power walking, and has continued to complete the distance in similar times.
Take the time needed to rebuild your entire body: Illness such as bronchitis, thyroid conditions, cancer or even COVID require a different kind of healing, and a special kind of patience to endure. “This is not a time to ‘train,’ it’s a time to recover and respect what your body needs now. Believe that the foundation you spent so long building will be accessible to you again when your body is ready,” a coach shared with an athlete who was struggling with the emotional frustration of dealing with breathing issues for six weeks leading into a half-distance race.
Getting back to modified training can help the healing: A 53-year-old athlete with a broken arm that required surgery to insert a metal plate also had muscle damage in her arm and shoulder that severely restricted her range of motion. In spite of working with her physiotherapist for three months, she couldn’t lift her arm above her shoulder. Getting back to the pool accelerated her recovery, and within a few weeks, she was able to reach for a proper catch and fully finish her stroke.
Incidental rehab through other activity: After crashing his bike on black ice and breaking his elbow, one 60-year-old triathlete went through surgery and months of rehab. He returned to work with a cast and brace and resumed his fairly physical activities there. The process of continuing to stay active helped with the rehab and he was able to compete and podium the following season. Just because you aren’t “training” doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.
Rely on your support structure: The importance of putting a support structure in place and relying on their expertise was mentioned often by the athletes we spoke to. That includes a coach, massage therapist, physiotherapist, nutritionist, chiropractor or osteopath, and training club. Equally important are family. “My wife is a huge supporter and inspiration simply by training and sharing this lifestyle with me,” claims one late60s, full-distance competitor. Another long-distance triathlete said that although her husband no longer participates, he keeps track of her stats and is an experienced and dedicated supporter, so she doesn’t have to worry about those details.
Ask, “what if I can?”: Two athletes in their mid-50s experienced degeneration of the hip joint that eventually required total hip replacements. Surgeons err on the side of caution when it comes to running afterwards because of the shortage of longitudinal studies for younger patients who return to running with hip replacements, so often advise against it. Both of these athletes decided to see what happens if they try, with the knowledge of their surgeons. Both are running distances again, and their post-surgical check-ups years later are still fine.
Allow a few days to “boo-hoo” and then get back at it: Almost all of the masters-plus triathletes interviewed didn’t let their injury or condition stop them. They all took some time to experience the negative emotions that are part of the process, but never questioned whether they would continue being athletes. Even the athletes with hip replacements, who suffered with chronic pain for years before having surgery, continued to run and ride until they physically couldn’t. “Joining the group run every Sunday morning walking with a cane was emotionally difficult, but I wasn’t going to give up being a runner yet,” says one, who eventually went on to reach her dream of becoming a full-distance finisher.
Have a goal to pull you forward: Most triathletes are goal driven, and that is critically important to help pull through an injury, illness or chronic condition. One triathlete who has experienced “a few good crashes” on the bike, including being hit by a car twice, continued her training because she had a race to get ready for. Walking with a cane to get on the bike trainer, and swimming with fins and one arm until her shoulder healed kept her moving towards reaching her goals.
Attitude is everything: Handling setbacks is not easy for anyone, but it seems the wisdom that comes with years of experience bodes well for masters-plus triathletes when it comes to reclaiming their bodies. The mental toughness they have developed from life experiences unrelated to sport translate into a willingness to continue in spite of the obstacles. “I will finish this, even if I have to crawl to the finish,” sums up how many of these triathletes felt. Paired with a more relaxed focus on performance, and motivation based on enjoying the journey, their attitude makes all the difference.—