It’s been a period spanning 18-months. 18 long, career changing months, but now, having dealt with chronic knee and leg injuries for what has no doubt been the darkest days of my eight year professional triathlon career, it’s time for me shed light on my story. A story I hope will help you recognize that injury doesn’t make you a weaker, lesser athlete—if you want it to—injury can make you a stronger, better and more well-rounded athlete.
I’ve kept the whole story of my injuries on the down-low for much of the past 18-months, mostly because I’ve only recently come out of the battle. I hadn’t found a safe place and I hadn’t found the confident Helle that was sure of herself. It’s not easy to admit that I—an Olympian and now 7-time IRONMAN 70.3 Champion—was struggling every day to be pain free. As professional athletes we’re perceived as “super human” but in fact we are anything but. We are just like you, and just like anyone else we think, ponder, wonder and analyze. We get scared when something we love so much could potentially be taken away from us. The truth be told there were periods during this injury/recovery period, whilst partially bed-bound, I couldn’t see a return to the sport. Not because my drive and passion was no longer there, but because people couldn’t give me answers. People couldn’t accurately tell me what was wrong.
But I’m here now—fit, healthy and on a road to the strongest version of me. For some time now I have wanted to share some of the key points that brought me out of the darkest period of my career. I feel it is important to pass them on to you in the hope that they can make you better, help you become wiser, and play a role in helping you achieve a stronger version of you.
Between April of 2015 and today I questioned many things about myself. Would I fulfill all of my professional racing goals? Would I run again without pain? Had I shown the world all that I was made of and was it time for a new focus?
Back in August 2015 during what turned out to be less than the halfway point of my injury journey I wrote about the importance of knowing your why . What I didn’t realize is that my “why” would pull me out from a tunnel of uncertainty and bring me back onto the starting line on a path toward the strongest version of me. My why, a deep desire to “win against the best,” was the spark I needed to push through months of rehab and setbacks while I slowly rebuilt my body piece by piece.
As I sit here, only a few days out from toeing the line against some of the fastest women in the world at the Island House Invitational Triathlon, here are four powerful takeaways that I would like to share with you.
Takeaway #1: Know your own normal level of pain.
My own injury began with a very simple niggle, and yet my pursuit to get rid of it, and my desire for a niggle-free body was very likely my falter. All signs tell me that I should have just let it be. For the most part during my non-draft career, I’d largely been injury free, but like everyone else I had some soreness here and there. I started off 2015 very strong with a third at Challenge Dubai and wins at both the IRONMAN 70.3 South American Championship and IRONMAN 70.3 Texas. But I wasn’t content with that. I wanted to be better athlete, I was dealing with sore calves more often than I would have liked, and I felt it was preventing me from running at my best. Immediately after my win at IRONMAN 70.3 Texas I hopped on a plane and flew to California. The purpose of the trip was to see a specialist, known for some great work with runners and triathletes. I returned to Boulder, Colo., optimistic. I was equipped with exercises that were aimed at broadening my range of movement, ultimately helping me become a better runner and getting rid of those sore calves. Little did I know that from this point forward I was stepping onto the wildest rollercoaster of my career.
Within a few days of commencing my new maintenance program I was encountering discomfort on the bike. This discomfort was coming from the right knee. From there the discomfort led to the run, and from that point forward it was a long, downward spiral. After some starts and stops in training due to the pain, I found myself back home in Denmark seeking answers from a team that I had gotten answers from in the past, and trusted. Yet, it wasn’t simple. The injury had become multi-faceted. To put it simply, my body has an amazing ability to find a way to compensate for a weak or damaged area enabling my body to keep functioning at a good level, but at a level that is not sustainable. Suddenly I was not dealing with one knee issue, I was dealing with multiple pain points. The pain was not localized, and my pain levels were rising until I started to become immobile. As any active person will know, immobility is the last thing we want. Muscle atrophy became a huge issue and my neural muscular understanding of how to move the knee was rapidly disappearing. It was incredibly frightening. I was unable to stand long enough to prepare food. My right quadriceps atrophied to the point that it was a full 5 cm smaller than my left—it looked as if I had spent months in a cast, but I hadn’t. Forget training, daily tasks were now almost impossible. No one could give me a proper diagnosis, understandably I began to feel lost.
As triathletes, we abuse our bodies regularly. We really push the limits of what the body and mind is prepared to do. To swim, bike and run to such extreme amounts on a daily basis is a huge stress on our system. Over time what this means is that no matter our fitness level, we’re going to experience little niggles or soreness. But what does that mean and what is that telling us? Firstly, be careful not to try and chase all of the niggles and soreness away. Simply learn what your normal soreness and tightness threshold is, and monitor the development of such. Soreness, tightness and niggles are not uncommon and they should subside if the training program is structured well.
Takeaway #2: Surround yourself with a trusted team, especially during your dark moments.
In September of 2015 a friend introduced me to Patrizia Pastwa. My feelings of desperation were placed with feelings of renewed hope. Patrizia came with a new set of experienced, trusted eyes. The startling truth be told, from that initial period in September 2015, Patrizia treated me with the same approach as a patient who was suffering with a neurological disorder. Patrizia had to strip it to the basics, teaching me to walk effectively again. I had lost coordination and motor control of my right leg, not completely, but it needed to be re-programmed. This mountain needed to be climbed from the very bottom, and I became committed to that journey. I found myself engaged in the most basic of recovery programs. But it was working. Slowly but surely I could walk properly, then walking became jogging and eventually into short distance runs—all without agonizing pain. The year was closing out and a return to the U.S. was needed—and most definitely wanted. Ben and I were soon to be getting married and there is nothing like the comfort of loved ones when recovering through injury. Daily functional movement training helped me regain strength, yet I wasn’t out of the dark. In March of 2016, post wedding, with a very imminent return to racing, my will to run fast proved bigger than what my body was ready for. As a result, I suffered a fiber tear in my calf. My body was just not ready to return, it needed more time and a longer, more gradual progression—and it made sure I knew it. It was evident that in order to return to the top I needed closer supervision, I needed to have even more patience and the people around me were going to be key in making sure this would happen.
The small team of people I have surrounding me were crucial to my recovery, and my sanity, over these past 18-months. Choose who you surround yourself with, they influence you on a level that is often immeasurable. Too many experts weighing in on your direction in the sport, not to mention your injuries, will just confuse you. Find a few people you trust implicitly and then stick with their plan and have faith in it.
Takeaway #3: Find your triathlon community and give each other support.
It is no secret that I think triathlon is one of the greatest sports in the world. One of the most uniquely attractive things about triathlon is the warm spirit and sense of camaraderie, even among the professionals. During my injury I found comfort in the connection with others and I’d encourage you to do the same. Don’t face your battles alone. Hearing how others had overcome injuries and challenges inspired me to remain motivated. The triathlon community shone through when I exposed my battles with injuries, and I encourage you not to be afraid to expose yours.
Takeaway #4: Never forget why you are doing this. Always be grateful.
I’m a firm believer that irrelevant of the competition, it’s not always the physically fastest athlete who will win, but rather the one who has prepared the best and believed in their ability the most. I am a winner at heart—this is no secret. I’m driven by winning and I’m embraced by the challenge of winning against the best. Yet, if there is something I have learnt during this rollercoaster of injury and rehabilitation, it is gratefulness.
The past seven weeks I’ve enjoyed some of the most consistent training I’ve had in the last two years. And I’m grateful for that. I feel fit, I feel strong, and most importantly I have regained belief in myself. But finding that belief, after going through so much, has taken a very long time. Yet I am here; fit, strong, healthy and able to train. There are many people who are fit, strong, healthy and able to train who often forget and show a level of ungratefulness for just how fortunate they are. Granted we’d all prefer not to be tired, or for the sun to shine rather than it be raining, or for the session to not be so tough, but either way, it shouldn’t warrant us being ungrateful for how fortunate we are to be able to train. For me, every step I can take without pain is a step that I am now grateful for.
There were points in my life over the last 18 months where being fit, strong and healthy were taken away from me. There is a strong chance that injury will likely take them away from you, whether briefly or for a prolonged period, and that’s tough. But don’t give up the fight if it happens. Don’t be defeated by a journey that isn’t smooth, and most of all never underestimate what your body can overcome if your desire to achieve something is strong enough.
I can honestly say that I believe in my future, and I hope you believe in yours as well.
Photography by Jesper Grønnemark.