Peak Performance Despite Injury

by: Matt Dixon

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Sue Rubens: Completing An IRONMAN With Limited Running

At purplepatch, our quest is to achieve personal excellence and development for all our athletes - regardless of the level of the athlete. The common thread that ties our community together is the goal of personal development and performance improvement in both sport and life. The Faces of Purplepatch athlete case study series highlights athletes that have achieved personal breakthroughs and have lessons for all of us related to season planning, training, and tactical approaches. 

Athlete Profile: When Sue joined purplepatch in early summer 2016 she made a confession. She had never raced an IRONMAN in the absence of injury. With 12 weeks to go before IRONMAN Wisconsin, a race in which she hoped to qualify for Kona, she arrived at purplepatch carrying another injury limitation. This time the injury was a hamstring issue that made running near impossible and certainly not a reality without pain. Sue joined with two goals: (1) navigate through the IRONMAN coming up and (2) progress towards longer-term healthy racing.

The Coaching: The immediate need was to set the framework of approach for Sue. We had two goals, with the first being about simple ‘intervention’ to get ready for her IRONMAN. Following this, the goal was a complete athlete evolution. In reviewing her previous training methods and supporting habits, it was clear that Sue was in a cycle of constant injury - likely caused by a mix of bad luck, poor habits and a training plan that didn’t allow enough recovery or adaptations. There were several big picture areas of focus including nutrition, fueling, strength and conditioning, training execution, season breaks, and form. A lot to evolve, especially for an already successful and accomplished amateur athlete. The question was what to change first? It is impossible to change everything, so we had to advise carefully, and create a path that would set Sue up for success. We also needed Sue to buy into our approach. Massive changes in approach, to a seemingly successful athlete, is not an easy process to go through.

The Intervention: In the end, we focused on the most basic elements and supported them with an unconventional training plan to get ready for her IRONMAN. We knew that we could leverage Sue’s rich background in the sport and could likely achieve athlete buy-in with some of the very simple interventions. We were lucky that Sue was able to ride and swim without limitation, so we utilized the cross pollination effect of those two disciplines. We also understood her legs were strong and resilient from many years of running already completed. Thus, we decided to solely focus on swimming and biking with the only run training being completed in a mix of aqua-jogging and elliptical training. Rather than discuss this in terms of ‘removing running’, we wanted the focus to be on building strength and resilience in swimming and riding. This was the opportunity: Get swim-bike strong, while not experiencing the muscular damage caused by running training. In support of the training, we only made two other basic, but important, evolutions. The first focused on post-training fueling, the other was that we designated at least two training days each week which had a primary focus of rejuvenation, not training stress. Labeling these days with a clear purpose allowed a specific goal and helped the ambitious athlete to ‘follow orders’.

The Results: With next to no running for a couple of months leading into the event, Sue arrived at IRONMAN Wisconsin feeling very fresh, stronger on the swim and bike, but with questions about how her run performance would be. Wouldn’t you have the same fears if you hadn’t run for several months? In setting up her race, we asked Sue to approach race day as though her preparation and training had been perfect. We also asked her to give herself permission to fail. NO expectations are not the same as LOW expectations, and there is an undeniable ‘unknowable’ of how her body would react to running 26.2 miles following next to no running. The key was to not judge herself prior to, or during, the actual event. A complete commitment to the process and only judging the performance once the race was complete. 

On race day, Sue delivered a flawless execution of strategy and mindset. She understood that we couldn’t say that her body would be fine (no one knew), but she also understood she was tough and fit. By the end of the race, Sue was standing on the podium and booking flights to the Hawaii IRONMAN with qualification secured. A wonderful story of race performance via an unconventional, yet highly specific, training approach that leveraged what the athlete could bring to the table, instead of focusing on what they couldn’t do. For the next phase of Sue’s performance evolution, she needs to evolve her habits and daily training approach. This will be tough since it involves Sue revising many pieces of her approach that had been successful previously, but in the end were detrimental. We believe strength training will need to bubble up in importance, meaning training success will no longer be based on miles and hours.