Training: Pushing hard and pain vs. soreness

Now that most of us (in the Northeast at least) are in the early stages of winter training, I wanted to deviate from talking about coxing for a minute to go over some training stuff that’ll hopefully help you guys make it through the next few months injury-free.

Related: Do you have any advice on dealing with a coach pressuring you to continue practicing through injury?

Runner’s World posted a great article last summer on the difference between pushing hard and overtraining where they described the goal of pushing hard as “stressing the body just beyond your fitness level to gradually increase the stress loads on your body and ensure recovery”. Their example was that if you’re doing six sets of intervals with three minutes rest, “pushing harder” might mean transitioning to eight intervals or reducing the rest to two minutes. You’re basically putting your body just far enough outside its comfort zone that it gradually begins adapting to the added stress and you, as a result, get stronger/fitter.

The hurdle that a lot of people hit though, particularly younger athletes or walk-ons who might be completely new to sports in general, is not knowing the difference between soreness and pain.

Soreness

Soreness is there but it’s not in your face. It’s mainly concentrated on the muscles so when you’re working out you might feel some tightness in that area but while just going about your regular activities it shouldn’t be more than a dull ache that only really makes itself known if you’ve been inactive for awhile. Standing up after sitting through a long lecture or when you first get out of bed in the morning are when you might feel it the most.

When you’ll feel it the most is around 24-48 hours later, which is why it’s called delayed onset muscle soreness. As long as you stretch or roll out you should be OK to keep practicing, although it might be worth taking a day off from the erg and hopping on the bike or going for a run instead. If you get back on the erg the following day you might feel some lingering soreness but it shouldn’t be anything that actually detracts from the quality of the workout. If it is, spending a longer amount of time rolling out will usually help.

Pain

This is that sharp feeling that hits you all of a sudden in the middle of a piece or when you move a certain way, like bending over to pick something up. Rather than just being focused on the muscles, pain can/will extend to your joints too, which is when you start hearing about a “shooting pain” in the knees, shoulders, hips, and low back.

Unlike soreness which might hang around for a day or two at most, pain can be felt for several days at a time, sometimes consistently and other times off and on, even after taking time off to rest. It’s at this point where you should be making an appointment with the trainers or your doctor, particularly if it’s been a week or more without any improvement.

As your workouts get longer or ramp up in intensity, experiencing some soreness is inevitable but still manageable as long as you’re diligent about going through some sort of recovery sequence after practice. If you don’t have 10-15 minutes to spare because you’ve gotta get to class, make sure you’re holding yourself accountable and finding time to do it later in the day.

Sharp pains or anything that instantly makes you think “this isn’t a normal feeling” isn’t something you should push through because that’s what leads to an injury. Communicating that to your coach is important so that they’re aware of what’s going on and can adapt the workouts as necessary while you recover. Get over yourselves, put your egos aside, and keep your coaches informed if/when you’re not at 100%. 

I won’t lie and say they’re not gonna be annoyed or roll their eyes when you leave the office (sometimes we will be and sometimes we do – it’s our coping mechanism) but I can promise you that no coach who is serious about their job and cares about their athletes will make you work through an injury. In the post I linked to at the beginning I said that if it seems like they’re pushing you to keep practicing it’s usually because they’re skeptical about whether you’re actually in pain or if you’re just mistaking soreness for pain. Knowing the difference between the two and being able to clearly articulate how you feel, what you’re feeling, where you’re feeling it, etc. can go a long way in helping you recover faster because the sooner you communicate with them, the sooner they can give you time off, and the sooner you can start doing whatever’s necessary to get back to 100% (even if that literally means doing absolutely nothing at all).

For the coxswains, there’s obviously not a ton you can do here so my suggestion is to put your observation and awareness skills to the test and just keep an eye on  your teammates. If I see the guys grimacing on the ergs (beyond the usual amount) or get off mid-piece I always ask them if they’re OK and then follow up with them a little bit later or after practice to see how it’s going. From there I’ll pass on whatever they said to the other coaches since they’re not always aware that something’s up. One of our coxswains is really good about this and being that in tune with how the guys are feeling has done a lot as far as helping her connect and develop that trust with them.

Advocating for the rowers in situations like this can also fall on your shoulders. If the coaches are skeptical about what’s going on and/or the rower hasn’t communicated with them then you might need to be the one who says “hey, just so you know Sam’s been having some back pain over the last few days and I think the 30 minute piece this morning made it worse, which is why he didn’t finish it” or “I know we’re supposed to be seat racing today but Dan was pretty sick all weekend and still isn’t feeling well – any chance we can push it back to tomorrow?”.

Again, not gonna promise that they won’t roll their eyes or be annoyed but it’s not your responsibility to care about that. You’re the messenger and sometimes that means getting poked with an arrow when you’re passing along info that the other person doesn’t want to hear. It’s not that big of a deal. What is a big deal though and can help you earn their respect of the rowers is being aware of this stuff as it’s going on and advocating for them when they need it.

Next: Overtraining and burnout

Question of the Day

Do you have any advice on dealing with a coach pressuring you to continue practicing through injury?

Three things:

1. Communicate with your coach. (I just talked about this too in the QOTD I posted earlier.) Most just want to make sure you’re not confusing discomfort with actual pain (which happens fairly often, hence the cautious skepticism on their part) so you have to actually explain what you’re feeling, how long it’s felt like that, when you notice it the most, etc. instead of just saying “my back hurts”. The more details you put out there the more likely your coaches are to understand that this is something serious and not just some lingering soreness.

2. Go to your doctor or trainer and get some professional feedback on what’s going on. Tell your coaches too that you’ve got an appointment set up so they see that you’re actively working on a solution to the problem. Most trainers on campus will directly communicate with the coaches to let them know that you came in, this is what they saw, etc. but you should still ask them if they can pass along the info to the coaches and then follow up a day or so later. They see a lot of athletes so do your due diligence and take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone that needs to be in the loop is actually in the loop.

3. Advocate for yourself. No one’s holding a gun to your head and making you erg, row, run, etc. If you’re injured and the trainer/doctor has said to take it easy for a few days then that’s what you’ve gotta do. I’m not blind to the fact that people want to keep their seat in the boat they’re in or they don’t want to sabotage their chances of competing for a seat in a higher boat but you seriously have to take a step back from that and look at the bigger picture. Is it really worth causing more damage, being out longer, getting sicker, etc. just to go out and half-ass your way through practice because you’re not feeling 100%? There are absolutely times when you should push through stuff but if you’ve got even a modicum of common sense you know the difference between those times and the times when you need to say (to your coach, not just in your head) “no, I need to take today off” or “I need to take it easy today”.

I know it can be hard to push back when your coach is pushing for you to keep practicing, (especially when you’re like, 15 years old) but if you don’t, especially after doing all the stuff I listed up above, then I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Like I said, no one’s holding a gun to your head and making you practice so if you know that rowing, erging, etc. isn’t the best course of action based on where your injury’s at right now, you’ve gotta stick to your guns and not be talked or guilt-tripped into doing something that’s gonna prolong the recovery process.

Question of the Day

Hi!! I have a plica in my knee, I got the okay from our AT to row but it hurts a lot when I do. We’re in an erging stint right now and I don’t want to be seen as a slacker but I also don’t know if I can effectively do the workouts on the erg. I have no clue how to go about handling the situation.

If your coaches and/or teammates think you’re a slacker because you’re trying to figure out how to come back from or manage an injury, you’ve got bigger problems to deal with.

In my experience, both as an athlete and since I’ve been coaching, the people that think they’re going to be seen as slackers or whatever when they’re dealing with an injury (or academic/personal issues) are the ones that do literally everything but communicate with their coach(es). If your coaches don’t know that something’s going on and they see you pulling splits that aren’t where they’re supposed to be then yea, they’re probably gonna be thinking you need to get your shit together. After a few days or weeks of this when they finally ask you what the deal is and you casually say “well I’ve been dealing with an injury for the past month” they’re just gonna be frustrated and annoyed that you never said anything to them and just let them assume that you were slacking off. That’s entirely on you too so you can’t get pissed at them if and when they verbalize their frustration at your lack of communication. The vast majority of coaches will be willing to work with you to help you stay healthy, recover properly, etc. but it’s your job to speak up and advocate for yourself when something is going on.

Related: Hey! At the end of the spring season I was one of the best rowers on my team. I had some of the strongest erg scores and was stroking the 1V8+. However I was rowing through an injury, it was a plica so there was no structural damage, and after receiving a cortisone shot, the pain went down a lot, so I was cleared to row though they said to go see another dr. over the summer for potential surgery. The Dr. I saw over the summer took an MRI and decided to try PT and an anti-inflammatory. She also said to limit my exercise to non-impact workouts, which pretty much meant no erging/rowing, running, or biking. I did do some swimming this summer and focused on building core strength. Now I’m back at school in pre-season, it definitely helped, and my knee is better. However my erg scores (obviously) haven’t been where they were and it’s been discouraging. I’ve been going to every practice to gain an advantage, before mandatory practice starts, but it’s so hard motivating myself to go when I know I’ll be in the middle of the pack, even though I know the only way to get better is by going. What’s worse is that my coach ignores me. This sucks because I’ve picked up that that’s what he does to the girls who maybe aren’t the top rowers on the team. Do you have any advice on how I can boost my moral?

The best and first thing you should do is meet with your coaches before your next practice and update them on what’s going on. Let them know that you’ve been cleared by the trainer (you can probably ask the trainer to email them too to let them know what they’ve seen and done with you so far) but that you’re still experiencing a lot of pain when you’re on the erg. This past winter we had two or three guys working through knee issues and they would typically bike during practice or if we were doing something like 7 x 10 minutes, they’d start on the ergs, do 3-4 pieces, and then get on the bike for the last few. Another guy would go to the pool on campus and swim for 90 minutes. Try proposing one of those options and/or get some recommendations from the trainer for alternate workouts and then let your coaches know where things stand.

Regardless of how off-putting your coach might be, which I fully get is why some people are hesitant to tell them they’re injured, it’s still in your best interest to tell them stuff like this sooner rather than later.

Question of the Day

Hey so this is kind of a follow up to a question I asked earlier about not training over the summer due to plica. So a lot of girls came back out of shape and our coach hasn’t been happy with our scores. My captain/roommate told me that he’s thinking he’s going to withdraw one of our HOCR entries because he’s so upset about it. My coach did know about my injury but I’m really scared to approach him. He’s a great coach, but I’m just a nervous person/easily intimidated. Any advice?

Ah yea, I can understand being nervous after hearing something like that but you shouldn’t consider it to be a fact until you hear your coach say it himself. It’s possible he just said what he said out of frustration and not because pulling one of the entries is something he’s actually considering doing. He could be totally serious too but don’t get caught up in the rumor mill, even if it’s coming from someone you trust. I still think it’d be in your best interest to talk with him though and let him know where you’re at with your recovery. Acknowledge that you know he’s been less than impressed with where everyone’s at fitness-wise and you don’t want to make excuses for your scores or anything like that but this is what the doctors recommended you do over the summer, this is where you’re at now, and this is your plan going forward.

One of the things you have to consider too – and I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear – is whether you’ll be 100% by the time HOCR lineups are finalized. Basically what I’m saying is I wouldn’t try to rush your training over the next 2-3 weeks to achieve some stellar results just to make it into one of those boats because you could ultimately end up injuring yourself again (and even worse this time). This is another reason why I’d recommend talking with your coach. Ultimately the fall season doesn’t count towards anything and it really doesn’t matter that much in the long run. You’ll likely be much more valuable to your team in the spring so you’ve got to weigh the options and determine whether it’s worth it to go all out to make an HOCR lineup or take the fall slow and get back to where you were so that by the time your winter training trip rolls around you’re back on form and ready to go. You would definitely want your coach’s advice and opinion on that so again, set up a time to meet with him and go from there.

Question of the Day

Hey! At the end of the spring season I was one of the best rowers on my team. I had some of the strongest erg scores and was stroking the 1V8+. However I was rowing through an injury, it was a plica so there was no structural damage, and after receiving a cortisone shot, the pain went down a lot, so I was cleared to row though they said to go see another dr. over the summer for potential surgery. The Dr. I saw over the summer took an MRI and decided to try PT and an anti-inflammatory. She also said to limit my exercise to non-impact workouts, which pretty much meant no erging/rowing, running, or biking. I did do some swimming this summer and focused on building core strength. Now I’m back at school in pre-season, it definitely helped, and my knee is better. However my erg scores (obviously) haven’t been where they were and it’s been discouraging. I’ve been going to every practice to gain an advantage, before mandatory practice starts, but it’s so hard motivating myself to go when I know I’ll be in the middle of the pack, even though I know the only way to get better is by going. What’s worse is that my coach ignores me. This sucks because I’ve picked up that that’s what he does to the girls who maybe aren’t the top rowers on the team. Do you have any advice on how I can boost my moral?

Ah yes, I’m familiar with plica syndrome. I’m pretty sure the chondromalacia that the doctors say I have in the knee I dislocated is actually this. It’s definitely not a pleasant thing to deal with – I can’t believe you rowed through it! I wouldn’t keep doing that though if it starts acting up again just because you will, without question, end up exacerbating the problem and ultimately end up with an injury that is way more severe than this one and will keep you off the water for an even longer period of time.

Even though your erg scores aren’t where you want them to be right now, I think you can at least take comfort in knowing that they’re where they are for a legitimate reason and not because you were lazy and sat around on your ass all summer. There’s nothing wrong with being in the middle of the pack either. I know people look at it as some colossal failure if they were previously at the head of the pack but it’s really not that big of a deal. If you’re relatively in shape then you shouldn’t have any issue getting back to where you were in a reasonable amount of time.

Instead of focusing on getting your scores back to where they were just focus on improving where you’re at right now. If you’re currently pulling (for example) a 1:55 split for a 2k but your PR is a 1:46 then yea, no wonder you’re discouraged. That’s a lot of time to try and make up. Stop focusing on the 1:46 though and instead work on making small improvements on the 1:55. Eventually you’ll get back to where you were but it’ll be a lot easier if you set more reasonable goals for yourself (i.e. like maintaining a 1:53 on your next test…). Being able to knock off small goals on your way to a larger one is much more motivating and better for morale.

If you think your coach is ignoring you, set up a one-on-one meeting with him sometime this week so you can update him on what your doctors told you, what you did this summer in terms of working out, and what your plan is to get your times back to where they were. If he doesn’t have any idea as to what’s going on and it just looks like you came back to campus out of shape then I can understand why he’d be annoyed. I don’t necessarily condone ignoring you for it but I can at least where he might be coming from. Clue him in and go from there. I would also touch base with the sports med staff that works with your team and work something out with them too, that way you can tell your coach that you met/will be meeting with them so that he sees that you’re serious about taking care of yourself and you’re not being flippant about this whole situation.

Question of the Day

This winter I got injured. I’ve tried different treatments but haven’t had success. I tried cortisone shots but that made my pain worse. From what I’ve been told it seems like my next step is surgery. Though it’s arthroscopic the recovery time is 4-6 weeks. I’m terrified of the surgery and upset over maybe missing my first college spring season. Do you have any words of wisdom to help me through this? Also if I competed in the fall would I be able to redshirt or would I have had to be out in the fall?

Regarding redshirting, here’s a copy and paste of what it says in the NCAA Rulebook. I’ve bolded the important parts to make it easier to understand. If you want to look it up yourself it’s Bylaw 14.2.4, “Hardship Waiver”, but it’d be in your best interest to go talk to your compliance officer about it since they know the rule book and logistics surrounding everything far better than I do.

“A student-athlete may be granted an additional year of competition by the conference or the Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement for reasons of “hardship.” Hardship is defined as an incapacity resulting from an injury or illness that has occurred under all of the following conditions:

  • (a) The incapacitating injury or illness occurs in one of the four seasons of intercollegiate competition at any two-year or four-year collegiate institutions or occurs after the first day of classes in the student-athlete’s senior year in high school; )
  • (b) The injury or illness occurs prior to the first competition of the second half of the playing season that concludes with the NCAA championship in that sport (see Bylaw 14.2.4.3.4) and results in incapacity to compete for the remainder of that playing season;
  • (c) In team sports, the injury or illness occurs when the student-athlete has not participated in more than three contests or dates of competition (whichever is applicable to that sport) or 30 percent (whichever number is greater) of the institution’s scheduled or completed contests or dates of competition in his or her sport. Only scheduled or completed competition against outside participants during the playing season that concludes with the NCAA championship, or, if so designated, during the official NCAA championship playing season in that sport (e.g., spring baseball, fall soccer), shall be countable under this limitation in calculating both the number of contests or dates of competition in which the student-athlete has participated and the number of scheduled or completed contests or dates of competition during that season in the sport. Dates of competition that are exempted (e.g., alumni contests, foreign team in the United States) from the maximum permissible number of contests or dates of competition shall count toward the number of contests or dates in which the student-athlete has participated and the number of scheduled or completed contests or dates of competition in the season, except for scrimmages and exhibition contests that are specifically identified as such in the sport’s Bylaw 17 playing and practice season regulations. Scrimmages and exhibition contests that are not exempted from the maximum permissible number of contests or dates of competition may be excluded from the calculation only if they are identified as such in the sport’s Bylaw 17 playing and practice season regulations.

(There’s a part “d” but it applies to individual sports, which rowing is not, so I didn’t include it.)

If you raced in the fall I don’t think that matters since part “b” says the injury has to happen before the first competition of the second half of the season that ends with the NCAA championships. Talk to your compliance person to be sure though. All that being said, you have to be able to provide proof (aka medical documentation from the athletic trainers and your doctors/surgeons) that the injury is season-ending. I’m not saying yours isn’t or couldn’t be considered that but an arthroscopic surgery with a recovery time of 4-6 weeks might make the rules committee question its severity. Be realistic too, do you really want to stay in school any longer than necessary just to say you raced all four seasons? This is just my opinion obviously but there’s no way I’d shell out an extra semester or year’s worth of tuition just to row for another season. If I was a football or basketball player with serious NFL/NBA potential, I’d probably consider it (then again, I’d also probably be on scholarship which would make it an easier decision) but for rowing, I don’t think so.

If none of the therapies you’ve tried so far have worked and the doctors are saying the next step is surgery then you should probably have the surgery. Admittedly I’m a terrible person to ask about things like this because if I’m injured I’m just gonna do whatever I’ve gotta do to get back on the water. Being scared of having the surgery is a totally foreign concept to me because I tend to take a very pragmatic approach to these kinds of situations. I’d rather get knocked out for a few hours and be in some pain for a few days afterwards but know that the problem is fixed than be in a consistent amount of pain for weeks, months, or years on end because I’m afraid of the scalpel or whatever. Anyways, that’s just my point of view. If you look up any college roster you’ll probably see at least two or three rowers with “sat out their ________ season due to medical hardship” or “redshirted their _________ year” in their bios. It’s not uncommon.

My advice? Schedule the surgery ASAP, get it done, and be extremely diligent with your rehab. You could conceivably be back before the end of the season if you had the surgery soon and while you might not be in the best boat, you could probably still vie for a spot in a boat. Something is better than nothing, right? Don’t rush anything though. If the doctors say you need to take the season off, do it.

Question of the Day

I’m a college freshman, last semester I was one of the top rowers on the team, over winter break I tried to keep in shape but I was having back and knee pain so it was minimal. I came back slightly out of shape but got back into the rhythm. This semester has been a lot more competitive as far as erg scores and recently I’ve been having more knee pain. I’ve been going to the athletic trainer but they’re not 100% sure what it is, but they think it is my meniscus. There are days when I can’t erg because of the pain so I’ve been on the bike. When I do erg my scores are really bad (bad for me). It gets me really frustrated and I’m letting this injury get to me. I get flustered over bad workouts and it kills me inside when I can’t erg. I want my knee to get better, but I don’t want to take time off and fall behind and not make the 1st boat. It’s especially important this year because we’re going to Women’s Henley this summer. Any suggestions on getting over this mental block? (PS I was never told not to erg, so it’s not like I’m working out against what I was told to do.)

I sympathize with being injured and not being able to work out and I get how frustrating it is psychologically when you know you’re capable of performing better but what I don’t and never will understand – and this goes for everyone – is why athletes refuse to take the time off to let their injuries properly heal before they start trying to work out again. What is logical about pushing through an injury, being 50% all season, and then having to take off more time later when you could take the time off now, come back at 90-100%, and be in a much better position to contend for a spot in the top boat? There’s not always going to be an answer for every ache and pain and usually in those situations when the doctor says the best thing you can do for it is to rest, he’s not blowing you off or giving you some bullshit answer. That really is exactly what you need to do. Just because you weren’t told not to erg doesn’t mean you should keep doing it.

If it is your meniscus, being on the bike is just as bad as being on the erg or going for a run. I’ve had a dislocated knee before and have dealt with years of pain as a result. It was always thought that I’d partially torn one of the ligaments and my meniscus but since they were very minimal the doctors said they’d heal themselves and I’d be fine without surgery. The pain started acting up again pretty badly two years ago and I also thought it was my meniscus that was the issue. With all the traveling, walking, stair climbing, getting in and out of boats, etc. that I’d been doing it seemed like a legitimate possibility that I might have irritated it in some way.

When I went to the hospital to have it looked at, the two doctors I spoke with both told me to avoid anything outside of normal activity that could aggravate it further, which included biking since bending my knee (even slightly) was excruciating and it was thought that if I did have a torn meniscus that biking could tear it more if the already-torn flap became caught in the joint (which would then lead to a locking of the knee, which is when the torn part is caught in the joint and doesn’t allow the knee to straighten all the way).

The issue isn’t that you’re letting this injury get to you … the injury is getting to you because you’re not taking any time off. This isn’t a “mental block” situation. You can want your knee to get better all you want but until you suck it up and realize that that means no erging, no biking, no nothing until you figure out exactly what the issue is, you’re going to keep experiencing the same physical and mental pain that you’re dealing with right now. Do you honestly think that you or anyone else is 1st boat material when you’re not 100% anyways? I wouldn’t even consider putting someone in the first 8+ if I knew they were injured, regardless of how minor or severe it was. If you’re not 100% you can’t give 100%, simple as that.

I’ve said this a few times already to other people and I’ll say it again: there are few things within this sport that piss me off more than people who don’t take care of themselves, regardless of whether it’s conscious or not. Why does it irritate me so much? Because it’s not all about you. If one person is injured, the other eight people in your boat all might as well be injured too. Ignoring your injury and thinking you’re “pushing through it” for your teammates is bullshit. Ignoring and pushing through it so you can be in a good boat is even more bullshit. Anyone that needs me to explain why that is should seriously reevaluate your definition of what a team sport and team player is.