Training Through Setbacks

TAGS: training priority, setback, rest and recovery, Matt Cooney, training

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If you have been competing long enough, you have probably already experienced something like the following: Your training cycle is going great, you are hitting your target weights, you are feeling strong, you are right where you want to be week after week, and then something pops up and ruins your contest prep. You get injured, you get sick, something happens at work, or your relationship falls apart. The longer I train the more I realize this is quite common. The solution is to find a way to cope with the issue, make educated adjustments to your training, and reframe how you are going to continue to train or if you will compete in the planned event.


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Anyone that has ever played sports has heard the question, “Are you hurt or are you injured?”  Blindly training through a serious injury is not smart and I would recommend seeking medical attention to come up with the best plan possible for a diagnosis and rehabilitation. Figuring out if you are seriously injured or just banged up is crucial in order to salvage the rest of your training cycle. No matter how thorough you warm up, how well thought out your program is, how much soft tissue work you do, how much work capacity you’ve built up, if you are training like a madman you are bound to experience some injuries competing in strength athletics. Reaching the top in any sport requires a fanatical drive to push your limits in training.

When you spend months and years prioritizing training and dieting as much if not more than every other aspect of your life it can be devastating to suffer an injury close to an important competition. Pulling out of a competition may seem like the end of the world at first, but getting healthy is going to prolong your career. Be smart about your injuries, modify exercises, and keep training around the injury. Weigh out the pros and cons, risks and benefits of pushing through the setback. There is a fine line between toughness and stupidity.

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Prepare to the best of your ability as the contest approaches and make the best decision possible with all of the facts available. Only you will know if it’s worth the risk of competing through an injury. National or international level events may be worth pushing through, but chances are a local competition is not worth it in the long run.

Nothing can set back training like a serious illness. A stomach virus, the flu, a bad cold, or a migraine can be debilitating. Certain illnesses can be managed, and training can press on. If you decide to train through it, don’t be a jerk and get other people sick, wash your hands and wipe down equipment.

Other illnesses need a complete shutdown until health is restored. It may seem like the end of the world to miss a week’s worth of training especially close to a contest, but if you’re smart you may be surprised how it may not negatively affect your performance as much as you think. You won’t forget how to lift and your muscles won’t significantly atrophy by missing a few sessions. Don’t beat yourself up and feel guilty either. Remember that it is out of your control. Focus on what you can control like your sleep, hydration, and calorie balance. Even if you did not peak optimally or did not have a perfect 16 weeks leading up to the event, chances are it’s still worth stepping on the platform and trying anyway.

It is rare in life that everything goes your way; get used to competing with less than perfect circumstances. You may be in a situation like this down the road for a bigger event and you will wish you had the experience of competing at less than 100 percent.

If you have been competing for a long time, there is a good chance training has gotten in the way of relationships with other people and vice versa. Whether it’s family, friends, or romantic partnerships, most people truly do not understand the commitment when it comes to your training.  Making the time to train with a full-time job, prioritizing training over family events or holiday parties, or saving vacation days for competitions instead of a romantic vacation may seem bizarre to someone outside of the sports net of competitive strength athletics. For strength athletes, it’s often the norm.

Most people will not understand the 10 to 20 hours a week of training, constant dieting, going to sleep early, or avoiding partying all for a “hobby.” So don’t expect important people in your life to either. Over time, family usually comes around and starts to understand how important competing really is, but only to an extent.


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Ask yourself how important competing really is to you. Try to communicate that to the other people close to you as best you can. Hopefully they will understand, and it can save you some fighting and heartache down the road. Often times relationships with significant others fall apart for these reasons. I have had to train through breakups and it certainly is not easy. Training depressed when you don’t want to leave your house can be brutal, but in the end, it is worth the struggle.

The best way to get over a failed relationship is setting new goals and staying busy.  I guarantee you will regret dropping out of a contest because your girlfriend dumped you or your relationship fell apart. Always push through.

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We’ve all heard stories of athletes living in their cars to train, sacrificing financial opportunities, and at times prioritizing training over their job. This is up to the lifter to make these choices and it is up to them to live with those choices. I have had to make the decision to pull out of a national competition due to the poor financial situation I was in early in my strongman career. I had chosen to intern at a power five conference football school and it required 70 plus hours a week of commitment. By the end of it I wasn’t in the best place financially. At the time it felt like the end of the world.

People do not understand how much time, money, effort, and sacrificing goes into training when it’s one of your top priorities in life. When it’s taken away from you abruptly it can be devastating.  What’s important to remember is that if you are in it for the long haul, you will need to get your finances in order so that you can continue to compete and make progress. The education and experience I got from that internship was invaluable and I’m glad I did it. There are always other competitions. I focused on building my business, getting my finances in order, and the following year I went back and had my best finish ever.

The longer you are around strength sports, the more you realize how common setbacks are in training. Most strength athletes don’t have the luxuries that professional athletes in major American sports have, like a great sports medicine staff on call, a high paying salary to perform, or strong support from important people in their lives. Serious athletes often include the sport in which they compete in as part of their identity. Because of this, when they fail in competition or are unable to compete, they feel like a failure themselves.

It’s important to remember you are more than the sport you compete in. Finding a balance is easier said than done.  The older you get, the more family life and work (what pays the bills), become a much bigger priority. It’s easier to make sacrifices on the family and work side when you are younger and smarter to make sacrifices on the training side as you get older. You tend to see what is truly important as you age. At the end of the day, it’s up to the athletes to make the best decision possible for themselves. If you experience a major setback, you may find pushing through and competing anyway is the best answer.


Matt Cooney is currently the head strength and conditioning coach at Holmdel High School and operates Cooney Strength and Conditioning LLC.  He completed his bachelors in exercise science and minored in nutrition and dietetics from West Chester University in 2014. He has completed strength and conditioning internships at West Chester University, Seton Hall University, Monmouth University, and Rutgers University.  He holds CSCS credentials from the NSCA, USAW level 1 sports performance certification, and is an ISSA certified trainer.  He has competed in over 20 strongman competitions including placing 2nd at the 2018 USS strongman national championships and was a member of Team USA at the 2018 Team World Championships.

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