We have all had mishaps, injuries and illness that have derailed our momentum to awesomeness.

Setbacks suck – no matter what they are. But they are a part of the sport – part of life – not many people get through unscathed whilst juggling high-stress and high pressure life circumstances, as well as the demands of training and racing. We are all human.

Some setbacks require a little bit of tweaking to your daily routine, habits or choices. Some setbacks require you to take a step back and look at things from a different angle. The approach you choose is based on how sever the situation might be for you: a small niggle in the calf can be quickly fixed with some down-time, a refocus on true hydration and some extra body maintenance. A bigger injury or illness may need a bit more attention and a long term strategy.

When things go wrong for triathletes, they really go wrong. And I don’t just mean the injury or illness itself. We can be pretty harsh critics of ourselves and hold very high expectations of what we should be able to achieve. These are awesome attributes, but sometimes they cloud our judgement when we need to see things in a more balanced and pragmatic way.

When you get injured or sick it can really seem like your entire world has crumbled (it hasn’t) and that your illustrious ‘career’ is over (it isn’t). For some reason athletes tend to lose themselves a bit when those bad things occur – all of sudden confidence is shattered, and any hope of glory seems permanently scratched from the slate.

But it’s not. Yes, an injury or illness is frustrating, upsetting and can seem like all your hard work has been ruined in an instant. But with the right strategy – usually rest and recovery and  bit of resetting the system you can return to form soon enough. Fear not for there is still hope….

Enter the comeback.

If I was counting, I would guess that I am on my 156th comeback. But I am not counting so that doesn’t matter. How many times you have had a comeback is completely irrelevant. What is relevant though, is how you go about it (and maybe avoid the need for future comebacks).

Here are 5 simple (read stupidly obvious that they are easily overlooked) tricks for making your return to greatness stick. Permanently.

  1. Ease in.
    Time and time again Kristian and I have seen athletes forced out of training for whatever reason and when healthy again, they come blazing back into a schedule like a bull in a china shop. The end result is usually further illness or a quick return to injury. So the key to a successful comeback is EASE IN. Chances are you that you will feel (physically) pretty fresh and (mentally) absolutely unstoppable. Good. But slow down for those first few days and let your body adapt to the training stimulus gently.  Don’t try and smash sessions to pieces – any performances markers here will be false representations of form. Spend more time doing pre-sessoin prep and longer time warming up.
  2. Change your expectations.
    Ok, so you were injured/ sick. That is the reality that you must deal with. And you will need to properly manage your expectations as you resume training. This means that you might not be able to ride on the front of the group for a while. It means that your swim splits might feel embarrassingly slow. Who cares? At this point your expectations should be: gently testing the body and gauging the feedback from each ‘easing -in’ session. And if your injury/ illness occurs right before a race, then you have to be prepared to make the call to not race – this can be a vert tough pill to swallow (I know!) but long-term health trumps a finishers towel. Changing your expectations means getting hold of your ego.
  3. Ditch the Guilt.
    Part of being who we are is that we can be really hard on ourselves. Sometimes this works in our favour and sometimes it drives us into a hole. We feel guilty for not training, or missing sessions (despite there being a very obvious reason) and that guilt, combined with frustration can put you on a slippery slope. So as you enter Comeback Mode, leave the guilt out. Don’t think about all of that time you spent not training – just relish the fact that you are out there and are doing something. It might not be as much as you would like to, but it is a start. Guilt-tripping yourself will only serve to darken your mental state and  lead to poor choices in nutrition, sleep, recovery – or worse. Keep your mind clear and look forward, not backwards. Don’t beat yourself up.
  4. Set up near-wins.
    When coming out of injury/ illness it can seem like your, once reachable goal, has moved beyond reality for you. To shorten that distance you need to set yourself for some near-wins, so that they become small wins and then bigger wins and so on. Look for the little ‘almost victories’. This might be heading out on your first ride back but not getting the entire session done. That’s not failing, that is a near-win and it is something that you can build on. A large part of this step is going back and keeping ego in check. Don’t stress so much about the bigger picture here, just chip away at the small tangible results (as mundane a they may seem). Near and small wins are invaluable to progress. Seek them out and show appreciation when you find them.
  5. Record everything.
    People obsess over data, and that’s ok if you know how yo use it. But when starting back I think you can really use the numbers to your advantage. Why? They keep you in check, they remove the emotion from your training and allow you to objectively look at your performance and provide feedback as to where you are truly at. You don’t need to do this forever – just enough to help you to make smart and informed decisions about your training. Last year after my dance with severe pneumonia, Kristian and I decided that I would need to closely monitor my Heart Rate during training sessions to ensure that I wasn’t pushing my body too hard too soon. It took a great deal of patience to slow my training down but the discipline of keeping track of that metric enabled me to return to full health very quickly. I also think monitoring Heart Rate Variability is a great way to help make sure your body is coping with the return to training. Record what is relevant to you, so you can not only keep yourself in check but you can see the small wins when they appear.

Returning to training after injury – or whatever it may be – isn’t hard. It doesn’t need to be scary (although a little fear can be a good motivator), and it certainly does not mean you are starting “all over again”.

Coming back is about changing your mindset, accepting the need for a specific process and understanding that need to adhere to it. It’s about listing to your body and motoring the feedback as you start to build momentum again. It’s about letting go of some ego for a while and mating your daily expectations.

If you do this right then each time you go through the process, you will learn a bit more about yourself as an athlete. You will begin to understand, through experience, what works and what doesn’t and how you can adjust to situations.

Inevitably this makes you a much more resilient athlete – and hopefully prevents the need for comeback #157.

Coach Pete

*Photo credit goes to Clint & Amber via Flickr