How to Train for a Triathlon During an Injury

If you’re a triathlete and you’ve never been injured – congratulations on being in the minority. For the rest of us, however, we’ve been down this frustrating path before. The worst situation to be in, of course, is waist deep in triathlon training for a very expensive race and that nagging injury-groundhog rears his head up to announce six more weeks of depression.

You can crawl back down your hole and wallow in self-pity – or you can fight back. While this isn’t the rule of certainty, it often times is possible to train through an injury and still arrive on the other side ready for your triathlon. Here’s how:


1. Identify the Injury

Triathlon training injuries come in many forms. Usually, it’s an overuse injury as a result of running. If you’re going to train through an injury, the first step is diagnosis. You need to know exactly what the injury is, how it was caused, and what will make it worse. If it’s a serious injury, then you may be out of luck. If it’s an overuse injury, however, it may be possible to salvage the rest of your season.

Overuse injuries come in four basic forms, as paraphrased by Dr. William C. McGarvey, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston and affiliate foot and ankle surgeon at the IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute at Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital in Texas:

In “How to Train with a Running Injury,”  the four categories in lieu of McGarvey’s expertise are sprains, “the itises,” stress fractures, and neuroma. While Dr. McGarvey is specifically referring to running injuries below the knee, these types can be applied in a general sense to all triathlon training related injuries.

A sprain is a wrenching or twisting of ligaments, which usually occurs in three different severities: mild, stretch, and tear. An “itis” injury refers to the inflammation of a specific ligament or tendon For example: Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis are both injuries as a result of untreated inflammation. A stress fracture is a small crack in a bone most often caused by overuse in high-impact sports like distance running. Lastly, neuroma is the growth or tumor of nerve tissue that has become entrapped. For triathletes, this will almost always be in the feet.

You can research the symptoms of each type of injury online and try to compare your pain to the symptoms described. Of course, the best course of action would be to visit the doctor and get a professional diagnosis. Take his or her advice on how to treat it, which we’ll move on to next.


2. Treat the Injury

Once the injury is identified, you can now work to treat it. Treatment should become part of your daily triathlon training schedule.

This will be highly dependent on the injury you’ve identified. Initially, all of these problems should be prescribed with RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation). Rest is obviously necessary to reduce the stress on the problem area while the other three prescriptions are working to increase blood flow and, by extension, alleviate inflammation.

I also recommend a gentle dose of ibuprofen for a short period of time. Ask your doctor about how much and what kind to take or follow the directions on the bottle. This is a great way to expedite the reduction in inflammation; just be sure to NOT consume ibuprofen before training. Studies have shown that non-steroidal anti-inflammatories put you at risk of hyponatremia when taken before training, not to mention our goal is not to mask the pain of your injury.

The most important factor in training through an injury is being consistent with treatment. The RICE treatment protocol needs to be done diligently everyday when not triathlon training. Get plenty of sleep, eat a clean diet, and always wear any required preventative stress-reduction device such as a walking boot, insoles, cast, or splint.


3. Adapt your Training

Adapting your triathlon training is essential when attempting to train through an injury. Firstly, you should always put treatment ahead of your training. RICE and rehabilitation exercises take time. Therefore, if you’re prioritizing training sessions over treatment sessions then healing will be stagnated. What’s the point of trying to maintain fitness if you’re not healthy to compete by race time anyway? Be patient and be smart.

Secondly, never push through the pain. If any of your activities are putting stress on the problem area then it’s time to back off or find an alternative exercise.

And speaking of alternative exercises, he time to employ the right kind of cross-training is during an injury is t. Make use of the elliptical machine at the gym or aqua running in the pool. Or focus on specific triathlon-related weight training routines in the gym that do not affect your injury.

You can also increase your volume in the disciplines that have no impact on the injury. For example, if you’re fighting off a stress fracture, feel free to increase your swim training granted the pressure on your foot isn’t severe enough to prevent healing. Maybe you have a rotator cuff issue caused by swimming? If there’s no pain running and biking then there’s no reason to stop with these sports. Devote the extra time that you would have been swimming to the bike and the run.

As alluded to earlier, make rehabilitation exercises a part of your daily treatment. These are often gentle stretches or band strength exercises intended to strengthen the muscles and joints around where the injury has occurred. This is usually done on the tail end of the injury’s life. That part of your body is most likely weak as a result of the injury preventing its use. You’ll need to properly build back its strength so that this doesn’t happen again.


Not all injuries are season enders. If possible, you can train through an injury for your next triathlon. Be sure to diagnose the problem, treat it properly, and intelligently adapt your training.


Have you struggled or are you struggling with triathlon-related injuries? What injury have you incurred and how did you deal with it mid-season?

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.

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