There are not many statistics about how many endurance athletes are forced to give up their sports due to injury or other conditions. But it happens. And if you’re still running, riding and swimming, you should be thankful.
Not everyone is built for the long haul when it comes to endurance sports. Over many years of public interactions, I’ve encountered people with a love for their chosen sport(s) that is so strong they would do just about anything to keep on doing it.
As a onetime manager of a sports complex with an indoor track, I met runners and walkers of all types. Some were speedy and lithe. Others were determined plodders. One in particular, whose name was Pete, showed up every night to run. The track had tight curves and I advised him to use the outside lanes and he did do that. I’d made up a chart so that people knew exactly how many laps constituted a mile in each lane.
Pete still developed Achilles tendon problems. Not just from the indoor running, but because he had a congenital tightness in that part of his body. He went to a podiatrist and got orthotics. That didn’t help. Then he got cortisone shots. That numbed his tendons down some, but they still hurt. Finally, he had some kind of surgery. That didn’t work either. Still, he kept on trying to run, usually at a reduced level. Finally, he quit.
Obviously, I felt bad for Pete. Some injuries are inexplicable. There were other people I’d seen decommissioned by their physique as well. One fellow with extremely bowed legs was an avid long distance runner. It pained me to run behind him, just to watch. He could have straddled a fire hydrant at full speed and not touched on either side. Yet he kept on going for years and years. But it had its price. I’d see him on the trail going a bit slower every year. Then he was running and walking. And finally, just walking. That’s all he does now. He gave it his all, but the long-term running thing was not to be. Still, he made it well into his fifties, and he looks plenty happy walking for fitness now. There is absolutely no shame in that.
Bent but not broken
While attending a college reunion a few years ago, I met my cross country coach Kent Finanger. His son was being installed in the athletic Hall of Fame for basketball that day, and Kent was glowing with pride. His own career in basketball and football was prodigiously successful, earning All-American honors in at least one of those sports. Now in his 70s and feeling the costs of those endeavors, he recently had back surgery and his frame was a bent a bit from age. Walking toward the ceremony with him I joked a little, “Well Kent, there’s a cost to all that fun,” I said, knowing that his favorite saying to encourage us during cross country had always been “WOW FUN WOW!”
Kent turned to me slyly with a grin on his face and said, “I wouldn’t change a thing. Wow Fun Wow!”
And that’s an inspiring example of the fact that life has its downsides at times, but when you enjoy the upsides enough, it is all worth it. Truly, it is all worth it.
But that brings us to the issue of sustainability. Triathletes participate in three sports, not just one. And one would think that to be a potential recipe for overtraining disasters. Sometimes that’s true. And yet, the cross-training one does in all three sports is actually a blessing of sorts. The aerobic volume one can achieve through multisport workouts is complimentary. One doesn’t wear out as much doing just one sport all the time. Overuse injuries are still possible, but there is always the possibility of doing the other two sports if you’re hurt.
Which was always the alternative training method anyway, back when people were hurt in the Good Old Days. Runners with stress fractures spent time in pool workouts. With luck, they could build or preserve aerobic fitness while the bones recover. Some resorted to cycling, which is not as weight-bearing as running.
Granted, one must still deal with the need for specificity training eventually. But if you have in mind the long-term ability to do the sports you love, then saving something by doing multisport workouts is worth it. That’s why I took up cycling in my forties and now swimming in my late 50s. Eyes on the road ahead.
Even if you’re not a triathlete by nature, having the bike or swimming to fall back on during periods of injury or recovery is a wise strategy. Over the length of a career, it is physical and mental stress that wears out the body and mind. Stress is good when it is controlled and applied. Stress is bad when it results in overuse or is cumulative or accentuated by poor biomechanics and congenital flaws in body structure.
One must conduct an honest assessment on all fronts. Adding in weight work is critical over the course of an athlete’s life, and dynamic stretching as well. That might be yoga or Pilates. But it must involve challenging your muscles and joints.
And out of all that emerges a better-prepared mind. One that can adapt to stress rather than snap or respond with panic or fear. So meditative activities like yoga can be wonderfully restorative.
But the most important principle of all is knowing when to change. There are times in an athlete’s career when going longer and longer and longer makes no present sense. There is no sin in quality versus quantity, you see. Enjoying your sport might involve skipping a year for Ironman and concentrating on the speed and fun of Sprint and Olympic distances. That is also a smart training plan for all those trying to improve their Ironman distance times. To get faster, you must practice faster.
And in the end, you’ll be a more sustainable athlete who might not need to decommission as the elder years approacheth. Most importantly, be thankful and have gratitude for whatever it is you can do. That is the best training strategy of all.