Riding the Rollercoaster: Overcoming Setbacks in Athletics
BY CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
Whether you run, jump, throw, or even walk, everyone goes through varying stages of success and setbacks in their athletic journey. Common examples of setbacks could be illness, injury, a series of rough competitions, life events, problems in training, and even routine or sleep issues.
In this article, I will be going through the most common setbacks I have identified in conversations with various athletes over the last few weeks and discussing methods of bouncing back and overcoming these issues.
DEVELOPING RESILIENCE AS AN ATHLETE
Typically, when I have a setback in my training, I will address it using a simple, three-part approach – identification, management, and recovery.
What is the setback, what has caused it, and what changes should I implement to address it?
How to address the setback, putting a plan into action, making small changes, and responding to learning new things about the issue in question.
Bouncing back/rebuilding after addressing the setback, preventing the same issue in the future, and learning from the experience.
INJURIES IN ATHLETICS
TIPS FOR RECOVERING AFTER A SPORTS INJURY
The most common setback athletes will experience is typically an injury. This may come from the activity itself, poor form, jarring motions or accidents, overtraining, growing, tightness, or movements you’re not used to, using muscle groups that may not be as strong as others.
There are so many causes for injury it’s really difficult to summarise them, so my best advice would be to try and reduce the jarring movements and make sure you warm up thoroughly for activities or sports that you don’t do very often (and of course for training and competition).
Muscles often work in groups and tandem for a specific movement or activity, so something alien is more likely to cause an injury as you’ll be working a part of the body in a way it's not used to. As a badminton player, I’ve had shoulder issues in the past, solely because one of my rotator cuffs is weaker than the others and was being pulled out of place by the strength of the other rotators.
MAIN POINT TO PREVENT ATHLETIC INJURY
Warm up and cool down thoroughly! I cannot stress this point enough. Think of muscles like blue-tac – if you pull apart cold blue-tac, it will snap, so you must warm up properly. This is part of your training, so don’t neglect it!
Cooling down is also crucial for recovery to prevent tightness and cramps post-exercise. Incorporate rolling out, bands, strength work, mobility, resistance training, and dynamic and static stretches into your routine where possible. However, it’s also crucial to find a balance where your strength and conditioning work is focussed and specific.
See a physio BEFORE you get injured – identify your weaknesses and use bands, rollers, and S&C equipment to strengthen up and condition properly. It is much easier to prevent an injury than to treat one once you have it!
APPROACHING RECOVERY AND MANAGEMENT OF A SPORTS INJURY
This is largely injury-dependent. However, recognising the importance of gradually building back up to training slowly and effectively is essential. If in doubt – go and see a qualified sports-specific physiotherapist - and it’s often the case you may have to go privately for this. However, from my experience, it is nearly always worth it. Find a physio you trust. Often, recommendations come from friends, family, coaches, and training partners. Don’t just assume that if you keep training, the injury will sort itself out. Normally, this just makes it worse.
When recovering from an injury and getting back into training, it’s perfectly normal to feel like you’re not quite where you were before the injury onset, but don’t rush the process and overtrain, as the likelihood is you won’t recover properly, or you'll injure something else. It’s also very standard to feel quite demotivated in training during this time. However, feel safe knowing that if you’ve addressed the injury properly and continue listening to and following a physio’s instructions, you will return to where you left off before you know it.
CAN YOU AVOID BEING SICK AS AN ATHLETE?
I am very prone to getting ill, especially during the winter months, and unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it in the sense that the usual approach is to give your body time to recover. Depending on the severity of the illness, sometimes, you may be okay training through it. However, I would typically recommend easing off a bit and giving yourself more recovery between sessions.
For example, if you would typically train four times a week, I would advise dropping that down to twice a week or even nothing at all for the duration of the illness (usually only 1-2 weeks). Staying indoors in the warm and giving the body adequate time to recover is vital. If you go out and train hard whilst ill, especially with a big group in the winter, you’re not giving your body a chance to recover and you'll be weakening your immune system, which will only prolong the process.
APPROACHING RECOVERY AND MANAGEMENT OF ILLNESSES IN ATHLETICS
You’re not going to break any records or make any massive improvements in your training if your body is trying to fight off an illness in the process. You can sometimes train through, but I firmly feel being on the safe side is generally the better option.
Wear a buff/neck warmer over your mouth and nose when training outside to reduce the cold air flow where possible. Especially for distance running, this is a very typical method used by people who suffer from asthma (such as myself!) during the winter months. Cold air affects the cilia and mucus found in the nose and throat, a vital bodily defence mechanism of the immune system in trying to get rid of or catch nasty bugs, so a buff can essentially filter this air and minimise cold air.
DEMOTIVATION IN ATHLETICS
No athlete would be human if they didn’t undertake the journey that is the athletics rollercoaster. This will look different for everyone. However, you will always have high and low points along the way where you feel on top of the world after a great competition or ask yourself why you still bother after a rough training session or patch of demotivation. The first thing to do when in one of these ruts is to acknowledge it’s only ever going to be temporary.
For many athletes, these tend to be more frequent in the winter, but come the summer, and you’ve just jumped a massive PB after sticking at it through those cold and dark winter nights at the track, you tend to forget about those lows! Demotivation will look different for all sorts of athletes, and I think some handle it a lot better than others. The athletes who know how to fight through the rough patches in training are well equipped with the resilience to progress long term, as the cycle of motivation and demotivation is something you can’t beat, only manage.
These are three mottos I often try to tell myself during points of demotivation...
MOTTO NUMBER 1
I don’t train because I like training. I train because I like winning.
MOTTO NUMBER 2
Pain is only temporary, but regret lasts forever.
MOTTO NUMBER 3
I never lose. I win, or I learn.
APPROACHING DEMOTIVATION IN ATHLETICS
Whether it be a few bad competitions/races or you can't see the improvements in training, the first step is to not lose heart and stick at it. Building a positive support network of friends or family around you can help, and communicating with your coach is also something I’d really recommend. I have seen various approaches from coaches to athletes who struggle in training. However, I honestly think both work -
Get on with it. You can only do your best, and you will feel better afterwards regardless! – This works well mid-season or in the build-up to the season. However, this is NOT compatible with injury worries. Coaches should take injury concerns very seriously.
It’s winter, we’ve got plenty of time to work through this, the work you do now will only help you build towards the season, and we’ll re-evaluate session expectations based on the conditions and how it progresses – This is the clever approach for most scenarios, especially in winter.
Recognising everyone around you is riding their own rollercoasters and going through the same journey of setbacks and success as athletes is crucial. I think the humility that comes with that, all while recognising setbacks are temporary, is one of the few qualities that separate good athletes from even better ones.
ABOUT CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
Charlie is predominately an 800m/1500m runner, but he also runs 5K and cross country.
As part of our blog team, Charlie will primarily be making content focusing on middle-distance events.
His goals over the next 5 years include achieving an England/GB vest on the track and breaking the 4 minute mile!