We are nearly halfway through 2020, and instead of being in the middle of a busy race season, everyone has had their year upended (if not outright written off) by the ongoing pandemic. Fortunately in many places, the initial wave of infection has crested, and case rates are beginning to decline, heralding the next phase in the pandemic: a gradual re-opening of society.
For triathletes, most of whom have been relegated to training indoors for the better part of the last few months, this is a welcome development—but for many it is also fraught with the potential for injury. While the prospect of any finish lines have been essentially scuttled for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t mean that people don’t want to be training and it certainly doesn’t mean that they want to risk injury.
So what can athletes do to mitigate their risk of injury as they emerge from the shadowy confines of their pain caves and out into the sunshine of a post-isolation world?
There are three main dangers that athletes need to concern themselves with as they return to a regular training routine: 1) mistaking their level of fitness to be better than it actually is, 2) over exuberance related to increasing intensity too quickly and 3) letting their guard down as it pertains to Covid-19.
Mistaking Your Fitness Level
For most athletes, June is the time of year when all the base miles begin to pay off. Unfortunately, 2020 is a different story, depending on your local level of quarantine—you may have had your base period disrupted or completely shut down, or you may have been able to train outdoors as usual. Either way, you need to be honest about your fitness level. If you get out there assuming that your fitness is anywhere like it usually is at this time of year, then you may be setting yourself up for an unpleasant surprise.
One useful indicator to help gauge where you are at is to look at your Chronic Training Load (CTL) and compare to this time last year. If it is significantly lower than you would expect, find what point in 2019 your CTL was similar and then adjust your training to reflect the level of fitness you would expect to have at that time.
For example, if your current CTL is 99, and last June it was 120, look back over your PMC for 2019 to see when your CTL was 99. If that was in March, then you can assume your fitness now is about three months behind, and plan your training accordingly. So if in March of 2019 your long ride and run were 45 and 13 miles respectively, then it would be potentially injurious to assume that in 2020 you can manage the 100-mile ride and 20-mile run that you usually can do in June.
Being honest with yourself is the most important part of this exercise and the best way to ensure you train according to where you really are in terms of fitness as opposed to where you wish you were. Remember, being three months “behind” isn’t something to stress about—it’s simply another tool to help you stay healthy and plan workouts for success.
Increasing Intensity Too Quickly
Many athletes have maintained their fitness indoors during isolation, prioritizing endurance over intensity. This is not only understandable but also laudable! Unfortunately it also opens them up to overcompensation once they return to training outdoors. Increasing the amount of intensity too quickly and too frequently is a recipe for disaster and can often result in injury.
For this reason it is very important to layer on intensity gradually, especially with respect to running and, when pools open or lakes warm up enough for open water efforts, swimming. Since almost everyone has been off swimming for a lengthy period of time, any return to swimming will have to be managed carefully and with a very gradual increase in both volume and intensity. While bike and run fitness will translate somewhat to the pool, the muscles being used are so very different and easily strained if they are asked to do too much too soon.
It is safe to assume that even as isolation rules are slowly being rolled back, swimming pools are unlikely to reopen anytime soon. Open water swimming is certainly a safe alternative with respect to exposure to the virus, but swimmers should be sure to consider their safety before embarking on this activity. After a long layoff from swimming, athletes should stay close to shore, swim with another athlete and preferably have support from watercraft.
The Ongoing Reality of Covid-19
While we may be seeing some relaxation of the isolation rules and regulations related to the ongoing pandemic, it would be wrong to assume that the danger has passed. Covid-19 is still very much a present danger, and until such time as effective treatments or a vaccine are developed, we are going to have to be wary of the very real perils. For athletes returning to training outdoors, it is critical to continue to pay attention to social distancing guidelines. Avoid running or riding in groups, wear a mask when in proximity to others and do not share nutrition or water bottles.
It is also a good idea to expect that although stay at home guidelines may be relaxing right now, it is possible (even likely) that they may need to be tightened again if a second wave of cases occurs as is expected in the late summer or early fall. Prepare yourself mentally for that eventuality and embrace the freedom to train outdoors when you can. By embracing the social distancing guidelines outlined above, you can do your part to help ensure a second wave doesn’t come to pass.