USA Triathlon News Blogs Multisport Lab Returning to Triathl...

Returning to Triathlon After Illness or Injury

By Allie Burdick | May 30, 2017, 3:53 p.m. (ET)

running through T1 

Chances are you have been injured or sick more than once throughout your triathlon life. Some athletes handle being sidelined better than others but all of us want to be recovered and back to doing what we love as soon as possible. Before you do anything you will regret, use this guide to help you get back on your feet and stay healthy for the long term, no matter what has kept you away.

Physical Injuries

The most common injuries triathletes sustain are physical and can be anything from IT band syndrome to rotator cuff strain and stress fractures. Most physical injuries are caused by overuse since triathlon training repetitively stresses muscles, tendons and the tissues around joints and bones. Eventually your body will break down and something (the weakest link in the chain) will give.

Depending on the amount of time you have been sidelined, follow these general rules for getting back out there.

  1. Be grateful. Take a deep breath and be happy you’re just back out there. One of the most common mistakes (and likely the one that landed you on the couch) is doing too much too soon. Get your mind right about how much training you can tackle or even consult a coach or your physical therapist on where to begin.
  2. Be diligent about continuing your physical therapy. Assuming you have been injured to the point of requiring it, your physical therapy exercises have brought you back to health and should not be discontinued after your first pain-free workout. Continue your exercises and eventually work them into your cross-training, since you have now discovered where your weakness is and need to make it a strength.
  3. Have a short-term memory. Do not start immediately comparing yourself to the triathlete you were prior to your injury. Most likely, after all the rest and rehab you will come back stronger, but it will take time. Be patient and be kind to yourself and know that you will make it back, one mile (or meter) at a time.
  4. Keep a journal. The last thing you want is to re-injure yourself or create a new injury. After each workout, simply jot down what you did and if you felt anything that was “off.” Tracking your mileage and workouts will help you stay focused and will also alert you to any possible new injuries before it’s too late.
  5. Make the most of your time. You know when you’re training for a big race you have no idea where all the time goes? Well, most likely you will have a lot more time since you will be doing shorter workouts for a while. Fill the time you would be training with core work and strength exercises. Working your core, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, back and glutes will only improve your overall fitness and help you get back on track faster.

Serious Illness

If you were forced to take significant time off due to the flu, surgery or a serious illness or disease such as cancer, it’s very important to take things slowly as your body heals itself from the inside out.

The good news is that if you were training at a high level before your illness, you will not lose very much fitness even after a month off. Studies show that after two weeks of not training, VO2 max decreases by only 6 percent; after nine weeks it decreases 19 percent; and after 11 weeks of no training, VO2 max only decreases by 25 percent.*
*Medicine and Science in Sports Exercise

Training From Your Bed

Here are three things you can work on that do not require any movement.

  1. Train your brain. Listen to podcasts, read books, online articles (like this one!) and immerse yourself in positive reinforcement so you’re ready to go just as soon as you recover.
  2. Create a plan. Serious illness will require serious planning to get back in the game. Think about what each day will look like once you are cleared to exercise — how much mileage, what time of day, where, cross-training, nutrition — and be ready to execute your plan as soon as you are well enough.
  3. Shop online. Because you will need some new running shoes, cycling clothing or gear for just surviving this, right? Right.

Don’t Call It a Comeback …

Depending on how long you have been sidelined and why, you can use this guide to come back healthier, smarter and stronger.
1-5 days off 

You know how you feel so much better ... until you start raising your heart rate? Sickness has a way of flaring up once you start pushing your body more than say, getting up and walking to the kitchen. Be ready to feel blah for the first couple of days back and take them as easy as you need to.

6-10 days off Easy does it! Definitely take the first few training sessions very easy and short. The best plan in the first few weeks back may be to have no plan at all. Fartlek runs, easy swims with different strokes and cycling on an indoor trainer are great during this time.
10-15 days off Be ready to feel completely different on your first swim, bike and run and be OK with it. You are starting all over again, which can be a very good thing. If you view your first month back on schedule as an opportunity rather than a setback, you will be ahead of the game. Remember, you essentially just got two weeks of rest for your aching body and muscles, and this is your chance to build them back up stronger. Take it slow, easy and short, and fill in your fitness with as much core and strength work as you can tolerate. 

Coming Back from Cancer

According to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute website, with your doctor’s permission, exercising during and after your treatments is one of the best ways to “improve your quality of life, increase energy levels and decrease the fatigue many patients report.”

Here’s how to safely do it.

  1. Always check with your doctor first and have a conversation specifically about swimming, cycling and running.
  2. Hire an expert or seek out a professionally run program specifically for cancer patients and survivors, like the YMCA LIVESTRONG group, offered nationwide.
  3. Listen to your body. It has been through a lot and you know best when you are over or under training.
  4. Stay the course. Staying active may be the best way to prevent future illness and have you feeling healthy again.

No matter what temporarily separated you from your favorite sport, you can start again. Pay attention to how you can move forward as a smarter athlete and try to stay positive and see the opportunity in starting over.

Allie Burdick is an ACE certified personal trainer and fitness instructor. She has been running and competing her entire life and was recently part of Team USA in duathlon and will be competing at the 2016 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships. Her writing has appeared in Runner's World, Women's Running and ESPNW. She blogs about triathlon and marathon training at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.