A few months back I was put out of action by a stubborn hip problem. I dutifully went to the physio, rested, iced, stretched and worked on my glutes that weren’t firing properly (oh, you’ve had that one, too?). But as the weeks passed, and the mileage column in my training diary remained at a big fat zero, I started to wonder, “Is this it? Isn’t there something more that can be done?”
If I were Paula Radcliffe or Mo Farah, gearing up for one of the biggest events of my career, I suspect I wouldn’t have been palmed off with rest and an icepack. And I imagine Steph Twell wouldn’t have been in Olympic contention within a year of breaking her ankle in three places without something more than a Tubigrip and a couple of ibruprofen.
Nor that Jessica Ennis, after sustaining a career-threatening foot injury in 2008, would have come back a year later to win the World Championships. So what do the elites get – or do – that not only has them back in the game far quicker than us ordinary people, but also without having lost nearly as much fitness? I decided to find out.
Speed and breadth
“When an athlete gets injured, their number one aim is to get it fixed, preferably yesterday,” says Alison Rose, one of the clinical directors at The Coach House Sports Physiotherapy Clinic in Leeds. Formerly based at Leeds Metropolitan University, the clinic is credited with getting injury-plagued Kelly Holmes to the 2004 Olympics in one piece, where she won double gold and then thanked Rose personally in her post-race interview.
The physiotherapy team currently works with a host of world-class athletes, including Ennis and Alistair and Jonny Brownlee. On the day I visited, GB 1500m runner Charlene Thomas was having her second treatment of the day. In fact, she’d been in every day that week, suffering from foot pain.
“Professional athletes will seek treatment at the drop of a hat,” says Rose. “They can’t wait to see if it goes away by itself.” Which gives me my first lesson: urgency. What the elites do that we don’t, necessarily, is get into see the professionals asap. There’s no, “Maybe I’ll just wait and see how it feels in a week or so.”
Perhaps that sense of urgency is connected to a different attitude and expectation among elites. They fully expect that treatment will get them back in action far quicker than sticking to the amateur athlete’s cure-all elixir of rest.
Speed is all important
“You wouldn’t work in professional sport if you said, ‘No, it can’t be done,’” says Scott Morris, performance director at Balance Performance Physiotherapy in Clapham, London. This is another clinic with a strong pedigree in top level sport, treating Olympians and Team GB athletes from sports as diverse as judo and fencing.
Clinical director Graham Anderson has been the lead physiotherapist at Wimbledon for the past decade and is part of the physio team at the London Games. “There are times when we might say, ‘It’s better if you don’t compete’, but generally we pull out all the stops.”
The winning combination
Ah, now that’s what I want to hear about. What exactly are ‘all the stops’? “It very much depends. It could be taping, cortisone injections, analgesics, acupuncture, trigger point therapy or sports massage…the athlete could be coming in every day for some kind of treatment. It’s about leaving no stone unturned,” says Morris.
While cortisone, as an invasive treatment, has pros and cons (injecting it into a tendon can increase the likelihood of rupture, for example) all the other treatments Morris mentions are risk-free and, perhaps most importantly, many could be used simultaneously.
“We have physios, spinal specialists, podiatrists, sports massage therapists and strength and conditioning coaches all under one roof at Balance, and often there’ll be a number of different therapists communicating about one patient – but it’s essential that one, normally the physio, is guiding them through the whole process,” says Morris.
This highlights another key point about the way elite athletes are treated. Having a multidisciplinary team at their disposal is par for the course, which means they can benefit from a range of different approaches and skill sets. That’s rare for us mere mortals, with time and budget often limiting us to seeing one person only, with knowledge in one particular area. But as Rose points out, a recreational runner’s first marathon is their very own Olympic trial, so it’s worthwhile seeking out specialist clinics such as Balance, which can offer you that breadth of expertise.
Subscribers can view the rest of Hi-Tech Injury Prevention, which includes details on how to deal with acute injuries like pulled muscles and sprains, how to find the best expert to fix your latest injury, and how to benefit from the principles of elite rehab.