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Triathlon Injury Recovery

with Pro Triathlete Radka Kahlefeldt

I have been racing as a professional for over 10 years and I have to say, I have been pretty lucky with my health so far. In triathlons, injuries are part of the game. Although some injuries are preventable (like overuse injuries), some are unpredictable. When compared to my fellow triathletes, my list of injuries has been short. I am thankful every day for my good luck and good health when it comes to training and racing triathlons.

With the injuries I have sustained, I always try to learn from the experience and come back to triathlon stronger than I was before. I have never thought of quitting and firmly believe that sometimes bad things happen for good reasons.

Foot Injury and Recovery

My first injury was a stress fracture in my foot (3rd metatarsal). It was in 2009 and, at this time, I was in great running form. It was just one week before ITU European Championship in Holten, Nederlands (my favorite race at the time). I was feeling fast while training, which made me not want to pay attention to the strange pain in my foot. Then, one week before the race I couldn't finish one of my training runs. I had to slowly walk back home. I thought, “This is it, it is all over.”

I was incredibly disappointed but realized all I could do was try to learn from my mistakes. I checked my bone density and made sure I had enough calcium in my diet. I began eating more cheese and nuts as a way to get calcium in through the food I was eating instead of calcium pills. I also stopped drinking coffee and soft drinks. I found out that the coffee and Coke I was drinking were actually flushing the calcium from my bones. I do love coffee, and I now drink it again. However, I am sure not to overdo it.

Before my foot injury, I would get massages that were only focused on my back. I never had the masseuse pay attention to my legs or my feet. After my stress fracture, I discovered my feet were not getting adequate blood circulation, so I began a regular foot massage regiment (which I definitely recommend).

And in training? When I could have been down on myself, sitting on the couch, I decided to take my injury as an opportunity to become a really good swimmer! Most days I was in the pool twice a day. Not only was I able to stay fit, but my mind was occupied. I had no time to feel sorry for myself or be unhappy. I also did a lot of core and upper body strength work, which benefited me when I was able to get back to running and cycling. I eventually got back to riding my bike, but only in the easier gears on flatter roads at first. Even though I was unable to go fast on the bike, it was good for my moral to be able to get out of the pool and go for a bike ride with my friends.

When I started running, I was careful to increase the volume of my training incrementally. I will never run 100 km in a week like I once did. For years after my stress fracture, I limited myself to around 50-60 km per week. Last year, I worked my way up to about 70 km a week, as I am now racing 70.3 triathlons.

Thanks to the extensive swimming and strengthening training I was able to do while injured, I podiumed on my first race back from my stress fracture.

Knee Injury and Recovery

My latest injury I caused myself has been the most serious so far. Although now I look back at it as a good experience, It was extremely difficult to go through. I feel like I could help someone by sharing my story.

It started like all injuries, just a little pain in my right knee. I thought I would just need to do some more quad stretches and it would be good as new in no time. But, there was the lingering thought in the back of my mind that this could be more than just a tight muscle, which scared me. I only had two races to go until the off season, when I would have plenty of time to relax and recover.

I raced Challenge Phuket, which is usually the last race of the season, and also my favorite. My knee was hurting a bit more after flying to the race from Australia. It was also a little swollen, so I was icing it after run training. The knee was only hurting when running slow, so I figured it will be good-to-go for the race.

I raced with no problems; the knee felt good. I made sure to ice it and I had few massages after the race to loosen up my tight quads.

Then, I was off to my last race of 2014: Challenge Bahrain. I couldn't wait for the race; the whole triathlon world would be watching.

After the long flight, I got up to find my knee was like a ball. At most I could bend it about 30% of its normal range. I tried a physiotherapist and massage, but my knee hurt so bad I could feel it for the entire bike ride and while swimming.

As a last minute quick-fix effort, someone suggested that draining the fluid form my knee and a cortisone shot might do the trick and allow me to race. I thought, “Ok, let’s give it a try.”

I went to the Bahrain military hospital. There, the doctor drained so much fluid from my knee that I started feeling sick just watching it. He assured me a cortisone injection would not cause any harm, so he gave me the shot. Although a little nauseous, I felt pretty good about my decision.

After the injection and drainage, I decided I felt good enough to race.

During the swim and the bike, I couldn’t stop thinking about my knee. My performance was suffering because my head was not in the game. Following the bike leg of the race, I pulled myself out. It was not worth destroying my knee to finish the race.

In the off season, I had a complete rest: no running and no biking. My knee was good for few days, but then it started to get swell up again. Stupidly, I neglected to have an MRI scan. I was hoping and waiting until February while taking a much needed rest.

When I finally had an MRI done, the scan showed that my cartilage under the patella was almost completely destroyed (apparently, from the cortisone injection). I immediately booked my flight from Australia to the Czech Republic to iundergo arthroscopic surgery. The recovery was going to be really long, and I had to be patient.

My fiancé (now husband) and family were saviors, helping me get through this difficult time and supporting me unconditionally. During recovery, I did a lot of swimming. Later, I added easy biking. Eventually I could go on proper rides. Preparing my muscles for running was the most difficult, between physical therapy and using the elliptical at the gym.

But, I was determined not to quit. I was so eager to get back to training, on the second day out from my surgery I was already doing core and upper body strengthening.

The most important thing for me to learn and understand to prevent future injury was why I injured my knee in the first place. For me the reason was two-fold:

1) Weak gluteus muscles (my butt needed to be stronger).

2) Too much racing with only 5 days off during the 2013/2014 season. I love racing, and I was racing well. I just couldn't say NO to any races! But, I forgot to ask my body if maybe the muscles, bones and cartilages needed a break. It turns out they did.

Due to my knee injury, I was sidelined for half of the 2015 season. I am happy to say, I am now back racing, back on the podium and loving every minute of it!

My biggest advice to any triathlete is to LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. You are a strong, amazing, tough woman. But if something hurts, it is hurting for a reason. Being a successful triathlete is all about balance and, sometimes, part of that balance is finding time to take a break. If you don’t, you may find yourself taking a longer break than you bargained for!