Injuries hurt both physically and mentally, especially when you are on track for your most important race of the season. Recently, I broke my collar bone 3 weeks before I was due to debut at the 2014 Ironman World Championships in Kona. Two years of training, three weeks to go and I break a bone. It hurt me physically and mentally. Whilst broken bones heal, mentally injuries can wreak havoc on sports performance and life in general. During my 20 years of experience at the elite level of triathlon, I have had to develop mental skills to stay positive when injury strikes. Twice in my career now I have had to deal with a broken bone close to a major event. Ten years ago, I cracked my ribs and then pulled off a 3rd world title. This time however, three cracks in my collar bone meant three weeks was not going to be enough to pull off another comeback. So how have I stayed so positive about the whole thing?
Here are a few ideas which are covered in this article … but first a little history.
Rewind to 10 years ago. Eight months after the Athens Olympics I was in full training for an assault on a third ITU world title. It was less than 5 months out from the race and I hadn’t qualified yet. My key qualification race was just weeks away. I went out mountain biking, had a tumble and ended up with some broken ribs. I didn’t cope very well. I spent a tough month recovering physically, dealing with the pain from movement, especially a sneeze or a laugh, but more-so mentally, not knowing how to deal with the challenge of a major injury so close to competition. My ribs did recover and it turned out to be one of the most exciting comebacks from injury in ITU history, resulting in my last minute inclusion into the Australian team and ultimately going on to win my 3rd world title in Gamagori, Japan. (But that’s another story)
Fast forward to September 2014, I was 3 weeks out from my debut at the 2014 Hawaiian Ironman. At 38 years of age and having come out of retirement 2 years earlier to prepare for this race, it was a big deal. I had spent the last 2 years focusing on qualifying and learning how to race over the Ironman distance. Just prior to the fall, I had been racking up some pretty big miles after a long and intensive qualifying process. I still had my eye on the prize and was hoping for a good result at the Hawaiian Ironman after some promising form at Cairns Ironman placing third and podiums during the year, including placing second at the Ironman 70.3 European Championships in Wiesbaden, Germany. I was so close to Kona now I could almost smell the fresh Hawaiian air! My flights were booked, accommodation was sorted, race plan ready.
It was a normal Saturday morning, I was doing some time trial efforts the Aeromax squad who I train with in northern New South Wales. I had my head down and I was averaging over 40kph. I was on my last few minutes of a long effort. Suddenly, I hit some dried up mud on the road which bumped my elbows off my aero bars and I hit the deck, hard! It had been a while since I’d broken my ribs, but I knew straight away that my collar bone was broken.
My training partners were consoling me, saying “maybe it’s just a bad sprain or dislocated, you’ll be alright.” I already knew that it was worse than that and replied “no mate, it’s broken!” I could see the disappointment in their eyes, but for some reason my focus shifted to “ok, what’s next?” I started to think about what is the best way to recover and when can I start. Here are my 7 Tips for staying positive when injury strikes:
Being a Saturday in Byron Bay, I knew I couldn’t do too much until Monday. By Tuesday, I was already on the operating table, getting my collarbone pinned back together. The surgeon told me straight away though, that because the bone was in 3 pieces, the recovery would be much longer than a clean break. Hawaii was definitely out of the question now.
Two years of hard work and I fell just short. But instead of focusing on what I was going to miss out on, I focused on what I had already done. I was really pleased with my year, how I qualified for Hawaii and continued to improve in each race I did. I’d had such a great year; I’ve just missed out on one race (Ok, a big one!). I’d really enjoyed training with the squad and had such a fun trip overseas training and racing, I wasn’t going to let this get me down.
The first important step I took was that I continued to go to training sessions. The following Saturday, instead of staying in bed, I was in the car with my coach watching the other guys. Rather than sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, I kept surrounding myself with the squad and kept feeding off their positive energy and encouragement.
Remaining optimistic about my return to full training and ultimately racing again, I looked to the race schedule. Picking out some races, which weren’t too far away. As the weeks went by and slowly my collarbone healed, I realized that I had to stay true to my beliefs. Which are; I need to be properly prepared each time I step on that start line. I never wanted to rush my recovery and potentially have any setbacks, so I was fairly conservative with my return to full training and picked some races which gave me plenty of time to be back in top form.
Over the following weeks I was able to watch and follow the progress of my training buddy Tim Van Berkel and other athletes from the squad preparing for Kona. Tim went on to have an absolute blinder of a debut in Kona. Finishing 7th and coming in as the first Australian.
Even though I didn’t actually get to race Kona this year, having done most of the preparation I still felt like I gained so much experience from this. The preparation was different to my old ITU training, because it just draws more out of you. Apart from missing the world championships this year, I have learnt valuable lessons to take into my preparation for Kona 2015.
I’m not the first athlete and unfortunately I won’t be the last to break a bone out training before their goal race. So remember these 5 steps and you’ll be in a much better place both physically, and more importantly, mentally:
Last time I did break that bone out mountain biking, I ended up winning my third world title a few months later. I’m hoping this broken collarbone is a good omen!
Peter Robertson is a Professional triathlete from Byron Bay, NSW. Peter also mentors athletes in developing strategies for elite performance in sport and life. You can find Elite Performing Minds at