2017 World Champion Ashley Twichell on Coping with Injury

With the 2018 TYR Pro Swim Series well underway, we figure now is the time to double down in our exploration of all things training and performance on the blog. However, if you are an athlete, coach or parent you likely know that when it comes to pushing the body to its limits, injury can sometimes become the uninvited setback that no one was expecting.

Like so many swimmers, team TYR athlete and 2017 Open Water World Champion Ashley Twichell is no stranger to injury. In fact, she has battled ongoing shoulder issues for over a decade. At just 28 years old Ashley has made a major name for herself in the sport of swimming, despite the major hurdle chronic injury can cause. So like most of you, we are curious to know just how she did it.

Read on below for Ashley’s story, as well as for some of her most tried and true tricks to overcoming this all too common swimming setback.

How did you feel when you were first diagnosed with an injury?

I didn’t have one specific incident that caused my injury; instead, my right shoulder has been an ongoing issue since I was in 7th grade, finally resulting in surgery in 2014, when I was 24 years old. Dealing with a chronic injury is like being on a rollercoaster, both mentally and physically – there are ups and downs, good days and bad days. As time went on, the bad days outnumbered the good, and it felt like I was taking two steps forward for every five steps back. Not only was I in a lot of physical pain, but mentally I felt drained, discouraged, and frustrated. After all other options had been exhausted, and the decision was made to go through with surgery, the overwhelming emotion I felt was relief. I was so ready to not be up all night in pain, to not have a single, simple freestyle stroke bring tears to my eyes with pain, and, most of all, to be able to get back to training with the intensity and strength that my shoulder hadn’t been allowing for, and that I so craved.  

What did you do to keep yourself feeling positive before you could get back in the pool?

For me, the first few weeks following surgery (excluding the initial hours post-op) was the most pain free I had been in quite awhile, so that in and of itself naturally helped to boost my mood. I started physical therapy and rehab just two days after my surgery, and really tried to focus on the little steps I was making in there to keep my attitude positive. I was allowed to get on the stationary bike a few days later, and just being able to get my heart rate up, get a little sweat going, and feel like I was making progress towards getting stronger played a huge role in staying mentally upbeat. All of that being said, I’ll also be the first one to tell you that the third through the seventh week out of the water were pretty difficult mentally. I knew that each day out of the water was one day closer to Open Water Nationals, and if I allowed that thought to take hold in my mind, it caused me a lot of stress and anxiety.  Therefore, I was always consciously reminding myself to focus on the positives, on the baby steps, and on getting as strong as I possibly could out of the water before I was able to get back in. In addition, seeing a sports psychologist during this time really helped me, as did the unwavering support and constant votes of confidence from my family and friends.

How did your training change since facing injury? Have recovery or stretching become more important to your regimen?

Recovery and stretching have most definitely become more important to my training regimen. I used to think that as long as I was working hard and training well in the pool and during dryland, I had all my bases covered. However, as I get older and strive to stay healthy and strong, I become more and more aware every day how crucial proper recovery is to my routine. I’m so grateful for all of the physical therapists, massage therapists, and strength coaches (both at my home base in North Carolina and at the Olympic Training Center in CO Springs) that have all played a huge role in assisting me in this department.

What is your biggest tip for coping with an injury?

Coping with an injury certainly isn’t fun, but there are some things I learned along the way that have made it a bit easier. First of all, listen to your body. As athletes, most of us are prewired and conditioned to push through pain. I, personally, know I thrive off of pushing myself to my limits in workouts. However, there is a difference between “good hurt” and “bad hurt”, and it is important to be able to differentiate between the two. I still have flare-ups with my shoulder, and I’ve finally learned that it’s much more beneficial to ease back and take one practice off rather than try to push through it, only to end up having to take 3 or 4 full days off.

I also felt it really important to celebrate the little successes when coming off of my surgery. There are going to be setbacks, and progress may be minimal for a while – but your body is working hard to get back into shape, and positive self-talk and encouragement can go a long way in helping your body get there. Be patient with yourself!

Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, surround yourself and allow yourself to be lifted up by your support system. For me, this included my parents, husband, siblings, coaches, doctors and teammates.