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Learning from Injuries

By Natalie Kirchhoff | Feb. 29, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

One thing I've learned since finishing up college swimming and transitioning to triathlon is the sore subject of injuries. They seem to be inevitable. As a cyclist friend once told me, “There are two kinds of bikers; those who have crashed and those who have yet to crash.”

As triathletes we pound out miles week in and week out. We spend countless hours training our bodies to be well-oiled machines. And for the most part they are. But sometimes we push it a little too far or have a mishap while training. 

Throughout my 10-plus years as a full-time swimmer, I was blessed with little-to-no injuries. Despite the miles I logged in the pool, I never had any rotator cuff issues (thank God!). Of course in peak training phases, I had the common soreness and mild tendonitis flare ups. However, since joining the tri ranks, I have had my share of injuries and accidents. Here are a few.


Stress Fracture
What began as a fun Fourth of July run ended up in an ER visit and I came out with a boot and crutches. That was demoralizing, especially as it happened mid-season and sidelined me for the rest of the year. However, through that experience I learned more about bone density levels, sport nutrition and the impact running has on our bodies.

Running can be challenging for those of us coming from a non-impact sport like swimming. Learning how to run and building up my miles has to be a slow, steady and methodical process. Swimmers might have the lung capacity to go out and run a marathon, but we have the bone structure of a baby. Our bones simply are not used to the pounding and impact of the pavement. Swimmers beware! Remember the hare and the tortoise fable — build up your run miles slow and steady. Consistency is key! 

Bike Crash
These happen, period. Mine was on a long group ride about 40 miles in. My front tire popped and I flew up and over the handle bars, body slammed into the guardrail with my bike between my legs. I knew I was truly a triathlete when my first thought was, “How’s my bike?”

There was no permanent damage done and after shaking it off and replacing my front tire, I hopped back on. My back felt a bit stiff, but oh well. I thought a little swim would help, but after doing 50yds and cringing with pain, I got out. Then I thought a good night sleep would do the trick and I'd be ready to roll the next day. Not the case!

On my coach's recommendation, I went to the ER for x-rays. After clocking in with a resting heart rate of 35 bpm, I got a room in a flash! They thought I was going to keel over any minute with a heart attack. FYI, highly-trained athletes often have low resting heart rates which can surprise the non-athlete. In some cases like this, it was a huge benefit to me as I got to bypass the waiting line in the ER!

Lo and behold, the x-rays showed a broken rib and possible fracture in another. Yea, that stunk! After the adrenaline from the last 24 hours started to wan, that's when the pain set in and I realized that it hurt to sit, stand and lie down, let alone breathe. Needless to say, training was put on a hold for a few weeks. 

I know I said I didn't have any injuries during my swimming career, but since starting triathlons, I've had a couple water accidents. One happened in an open water swim when I ran head first into a submerged tree. Ouch! It broke a blood vessel in my face causing a black eye and bruising. It raised questions among my friends, but made for a good story. Moral of this incident — try and watch where you're going, but be prepared for foreign objects to randomly appear when you're out in the open water. And never swim alone. Always use the buddy system and ask either a fellow swimmer or kayaker to accompany you.

I’ve learned a lot over the past couple years and one thing is that stuff happens. Injuries happen. Setbacks happen. They happen to everybody. The difference though is how you respond to it. Champions adjust. When things go wrong, they take a step back, refocus and modify their game plan moving forward. I believe we can learn from every experience. It’s all in the way you look at it.

One thing that came up time and time again after each of my injuries is that dreaded 4-letter word most triathletes hate to hear. It’s the big “R”--the doc looks at you and says “REST.” We cringe when we hear this. What do you mean? I have to cut back? No swim? No bike? No run? We are known for pushing our bodies to the max and sometimes what we need most is REST. There is no shortcut to recovery. It takes time. I’m learning to be patient in my tri journey and enjoy each step of the way.

Stay alert. Train safe. Be healthy. See you at the starting line!