In 2016 I broke my collarbone 60 days before the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. One week later I got it surgically plated and just over 7 weeks later went on to finish ninth in the race. That was my last world championships; three weeks after the race I returned to work as an oncologist.
Let me be clear: my experience of recovery from a broken collarbone doesn’t make me an expert, and if you’re experiencing the same injury, you should definitely consult a follow the guidance from a doctor! But, because people know this story, at least once or twice a month someone who has broken their collarbone contacts me and asks what I did to recover. Each time I reply, I vow to put it all into a blog. So here I am. Three years later and I’ve finally got round to it.
It goes without saying that the Wattbike formed the mainstay of my training for the first few weeks, so what better place to publish it than through the Wattbike blog? What I’m writing here does not in any way constitute medical advice. However, I hope that if you’re reading it after breaking a bone, it will provide you with at least some hope that your season is not over.
A few things to bear in mind though. Firstly, I got mine surgically repaired. Recovery from a collarbone that is left to heal without surgery will be very different. Furthermore, I was coming at this as a full-time professional athlete, with lots of time to train and a very tight turnaround before the last world championships of my career. There is absolutely no need for most people to do anywhere near this volume of training or to put them under the pressure I did to stay fit.
For most people, and in complete contrast to what I did, my first bit of advice would be to not stress and forget about training. Use the enforced break as an excuse to see friends and do all the things triathlon normally stops you doing. You’ll lose a bit of fitness but it will come back quickly, and the break (ignore the pun!) will probably do you the world of good mentally.
However, for those who want to continue training, here are my tips.
- Make the Wattbike or indoor trainer your friend. And bribe friends with cake /coffee/alcohol to keep you company. I was lucky to have the Olympics to keep me company. Nowadays there are so many virtual apps, such as Zwift and The Sufferfest, that it’s relatively easy to vary your sessions and keep them interesting. If it’s sunny, move the Wattbike outside.
- Don’t try to run before it’s repaired. It will be too painful. Believe me, I tried! Instead, take yourself walking or use the cross-trainer single-armed if you feel you want to do something more vigorous.
- If you’re desperate, you can swim before the operation. It may not do your swimming any good but it definitely did my head good. I strapped my arm to my side using an old race belt and mixed up sessions compiling kick and single-arm swim. I think I got up to 3km! Don’t swim for at least 10 days after the surgery, and until your surgeon or nurse practitioner tells you the wound is healed. A wound infection would be disastrous.
- Get a good physio, who is enabling, not disabling. Standard NHS advice is very conservative. My physio got rid of my sling three days post-op and gave me a range of mobility exercises that I did religiously, three or four times a day, for the first week or two. Paying for some decent physio advice, and then doing the exercises they give you, is money and time well spent.
- If you’re going to train fairly soon after your surgery, I would suggest not taking painkillers. You need to know when you’re doing too much. If you’re in too much pain to train without them then you probably shouldn’t train.
- I was able to jog slowly the Saturday after my surgery on Monday. I couldn’t run quickly so did lots of very easy jogging instead. Focus on being proud of what you can do rather than stressing about what you can’t. Your training may not be specific but you can do enough to stay fit and general fitness gets you a long way.
- Don’t go out on the road on your bike until you’re completely confident the bone is stable and you have zero pain going over bumps. I did my first couple of outdoor rides very slowly on a mountain bike.
- If you have an Ironman on the horizon, embrace the long indoor trainer sessions. They are gold-dust when it comes to the Queen K. The mental and physical strength you gain from these will pay dividends for years to come.
- Keep your friends and family close.
- Be proud!
If you’re interested, here is my training log from the first five weeks post-crash. Three years down the line I can’t believe I put myself through that. I had no structure or plan and ended up doing more hours than I would normally do. My run mileage was ridiculous – it was all super slow but I would jog with anyone and everyone, as much as anything because it was the only social bit of training I could do. Bonkers!
- Here’s one of the mega indoor bike sessions I did. Don’t blame me if you get bored!
- 10 min easy.
- 5 min as 30 sec hard 30 sec easy.
- 5 min easy.
- 5 x 50 min at IM watts, 5 min easy. 2 x 1 min hard at some point during each 50 mins. My take-home message is simple. A broken bone is uncomfortable and inconvenient but it doesn’t need to end your season if you’re determined it won’t. This little video sums up my experience.
My take-home message is simple. A broken bone is uncomfortable and inconvenient but it doesn’t need to end your season if you’re determined it won’t. This little video sums up my experience.