The fluctuating highs and lows of sport were brought into stark contrast for professional triathlete Claire Hann recently. Twelve months after winning her first IM 70.3 in Jonkoping, Claire suffered an ankle injury that scuppered her training plans during the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Claire has written about her battles with "imposter syndrome", the frustrations of a lengthy recovery process and what she's learned from a challenging experience...
The dangers of returning from injury too soon
One of the key things that my coach and I discussed at the start of lockdown was the importance of being cautious with my run training because getting injured during this period (i.e. with all training being so different and no 'hands on' physio care) would be very frustrating.
I have weird flipper feet, which were great in my past life as a butterfly swimmer, but not so great for running! As a result, I have a propensity for lower leg injuries.
To try and prevent these injuries I do strength and conditioning work in the gym twice a week, including a short lower limb focused circuit, which has really helped with my Achilles and calf.
Despite this discussion, a few weeks into lockdown, I tweaked my ankle. I don't even really know what I did, I think I rolled it slightly on some uneven ground while running. I only really felt it after the run and I thought it was just a ‘little niggle’ and I would be back running as normal in no time.
Maybe the initial weakness arose because of the increased stress and anxiety around the implications of the virus or perhaps it was due to adapting my normal weekly strength work with my limited home gym equipment.
Regardless of the cause, I was very eager to get back running because I love it, and I was already missing out on being able to swim due to the lockdown situation.
I had a few Zoom consultations with a physio that I trust and, alongside my coach, we developed a rehab plan and checklist to identify when I could return to running. I did the prescribed exercises religiously but I don’t think I really listened to my body the way I should have done.
Rather than objectively assessing my progress and pain levels at each stage of the rehab process and moving to the next stage only when I was ready, I tried to move forward when my ankle just wasn't strong enough.
I was working to the timeline in my head rather than tailoring the plan to the specific way my body was responding.
I attempted to start running and immediately knew that my ankle wasn't right. I hobbled home. Cue swelling, inflammation and the need for complete rest. Then the commencement of the rehab process from scratch.
The value of rehab and rest
There was significant frustration and blaming myself at this point. But the great thing about triathlon is that if you can’t run you (normally!) have another two disciplines that you can do.
So my coach and I moved my training focus onto cycling. If I couldn’t run, I thought I should at least be able to improve my riding.
But despite initial physio advice suggesting that cycling should not aggravate the condition, I found that even cycling was irritating my injury. By trying to push my riding on, I wasn't giving my body enough of a chance to heal itself.
I think that is one of the issues with injuries which are not 'black and white'. It’s often difficult to know what to do for the best and plans have to be adjusted and adapted as more information becomes available.
Three months later, with the help of my ever-patient coach and continued physio input, we have more than halved my bike volume and I've enjoyed some proper rest.
I'm working through the rehab sensibly and I'm starting to see some progress with respect to strength and pain levels. Hopefully I'll be back running soon, but I'm not going to put a timeframe on it.
I previously wanted to be fit and ready for the potential start of racing in Europe in September, but I have now removed those races from my provisional plan to help take the pressure off and focus on the recovery process.
My motivation to train has not diminished in this period, but I know I have to be patient.
5 factors for a successful recovery
Having taken time to reflect on my own approach to returning from injury, the 5 key pieces of advice I would give to someone who’s currently injured and desperate to get back to training are:
- Listen to your body. Don't work to a set timeline in your head, you need to assess your progress at each stage of the rehab and then specifically tailor your approach to how your body is responding
- Consider the overall stress to your system. Even if you have a 'running' injury this could be aggravated by other activities. Especially if you do more of everything else to compensate for not being able to run!
- Be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up achieves nothing. Learn from your mistakes but don't punish yourself
- Seek advice from experts. Trust the team around you and come up with a sensible rehab/revised training plan together
- Have a support system in place and other focuses outside of your sport. Avoid being in the position where you let your race or training performance define you and your intrinsic self-worth.
A few people have said to me that this year is a great time to be injured as there haven't been any races.
In some respects this is true, but the lockdown and the associated uncertainty definitely impacted my mental health and stress management. My normal support systems were distanced and my ability to cope with the injury rationally and sensibly was reduced.
The mental effects of physical injuries
I struggled a lot with social media. Everyone seemed to be using lockdown to improve themselves in some way, or that’s how it appeared on social media, and I just felt like I was going backwards.
My inability to bounce back from the injury brought back impostor syndrome type thoughts, the feeling that I'm not good enough and I'm not a 'real pro'.
In July it was the one-year anniversary of my first IM 70.3 win in Jonkoping which got me thinking about my self-belief and my feelings of inadequacy. After the race, when people congratulated me on my win and 'amazing race' I was very quick to downplay it.
My response tended to be along the lines of:
I only won because Lisa Norden was injured and her running wasn't where it should have been.
A few people challenged me on this and one particular fellow Brit pro told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to stop being down on myself and give myself the credit that I deserved.
The biggest part of racing is getting to the start line fit and injury free.
I won because I did that, and then I executed the best race on the day. I shouldn't play down myself and my achievements.
I was the best athlete on the day, and no amount of negative self-talk should take that fact away! It’s a message that my long-suffering coach is also continually trying to drill into me.
Personally I find it is too easy to discredit the positives or just put them down to blind luck. There are always things that could have been better, nothing is ever perfect, but if you focus solely on the negative things at the expense of all the positives, your view of yourself becomes distorted and you will continue to have zero confidence in your abilities.
The power of positive thinking
This isn't something that is exclusively related to triathlon and racing. I've found that this distorted mindset is damaging to self-esteem in all aspects of life.
I had a pretty rubbish time a few years ago after my divorce and have tried to build a more positive mindset through different techniques such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
I'm getting better at actively identifying my negative self-talk, whether that's downplaying positives or dwelling on my mistakes and their significance.
If I can identify the errors in my thinking, I can then try to consider the situation objectively and come up with a more rational response.
Lockdown and injury issues mean that it feels like it's still a work in progress for me at the moment. It's easy to see how an injury can impact your physical strength, but the impact on your mental strength shouldn't be forgotten.
But I definitely won't give up. I know that I will come out of the other side of this difficult summer stronger across the board.