A series of injuries resulted in Laura Weightman having to watch from the sidelines as her team-mates excelled at major champs but the European and Commonwealth medallist is confident of still making a mark
Laura Weightman is smiling, but it’s been a rough morning. First, she endured swimming in a cold pool, then – just when she needed it least – there was the added challenge of having to persevere with a cold shower. Relatively speaking, the leisure centre’s broken heating was only a minor issue. It’s the series of connected injuries which led to knee surgery in September of last year that have truly tested her resolve.
The two-time European 1500m medallist, who had just started to explore her full potential over 5000m with a seventh-place in the 2019 World Championships final, was in fantastic shape when a seemingly innocuous knee niggle briefly interrupted her rhythm. She didn’t dwell on it. In fact, in 2020 – a lockdown year to forget for many athletes – she recorded personal best times over 1500m (4:00.09), 5000m (14:35.44) and 5km (15:10). “I thought it [the niggle] was a bit strange, but it was fine, so we cracked on,” says the 31-year-old Morpeth athlete.
Weightman tore her soleus central tendon (in her calf) in November 2020 and didn’t run again until early January 2021. She worked her way back to fitness with a period of base training in the UK followed by an altitude camp in Boulder, Colorado, where, according to her coach Steve Cram, she was doing workouts she’d never done before. “I was absolutely flying,” she reflects. “There were some really positive signs.”
Then, in the May leading into the 2021 British Championships which doubled as the Olympic trials, the grumbling knee returned. “We just couldn’t pinpoint it,” she says, her frustration still evident. “Then I tore my left hamstring the week of the trials.”
While that issue was an unwanted disruption which thwarted any Olympic ambitions, it was relatively minor. A “niggling” lateral Achilles followed in the August and, in September, Weightman got Covid. She took the opportunity to briefly pause and re-set.
Like the incredible workouts in Boulder, a return to racing after six weeks of training and a 31:44 clocking at the Ribble Valley 10km – her second-fastest time ever over the distance – provided hope and motivation to push on.
A great training camp in Potchefstroom, South Africa, in January 2022 provided another peak, but soon after returning to the UK Weightman’s knee, again, required attention. This time a scan revealed a tear, but two days later that recurring niggle became inconsequential as she tore her calf. Such a significant injury required three months of no running, resulting in another missed summer. At that point, Weightman and her team decided to get it fixed as a priority ahead of a prospective knee operation.
An Instagram post in June 2022 read like déjà vu. “Sadly, I won’t be competing at the British Champs this weekend,” she wrote. “I’ve had a challenging few months dealing with a soleus injury and I’m just not ready to race…”
As she had done 12 months earlier, Weightman regained fitness relatively quickly, thanks in part to an effective cross-training programme. By July she was putting together some great track workouts and becoming confident that, by late August, she might have the opportunity to test herself in a couple of road races, not least to provide reassurance of her capability.
“And then my knee started bothering me again,” she says, resigned to the inevitable diagnosis. “We got it scanned and it was significantly worse than the February. The only option at that point was surgery.”
Weightman has endured an unfortunate and frustrating sequence of events, but her optimism and ability to get the best out of herself at every juncture is admirable.
She underwent knee surgery in September and is now totally immersed in a rehab programme which commenced with two-and-a-half weeks fully off-loaded back at her parents’ house before returning (home) to Leeds.
“I’ve taken a very cautious approach,” she explains. “I’ve gone slow on purpose because I want to get it right. I don’t want to rush it and be in a position where I need further surgery.
“The first five to six weeks were very much light rehab in terms of letting the wounds heal, activating my quad, building the range of motion and slowly beginning to toe tap and weight bear. At that point we were happy that my wounds were healed enough that I could start swimming, so I’ve built that up from twice per week to four to five days per week. I’m also back in the gym.
“When I saw the surgeon at my eight-week scan he said my knee was more stable than it was in August, but it wasn’t strong. Phase two of the rehab is now about starting to move the knee through range with weights to build strength back in the meniscus. Essentially now I’m starting to bend my knee and do little mini squats, mini step ups, mini lunges, all within a controlled range. It’s a very diligent process but I’m seeing progress every single week now.”
While Weightman’s recent focus has been off-track, her British team-mates have been delivering on it. Dealing with an injury is hard, but to watch the performances of others play out on TV and social media adds another, complex dimension.
“It’s been incredibly challenging being on the sidelines watching championships I want to be in because I just love to race,” she says; “but I’ve also been inspired seeing people’s performances and thinking, ‘I can do that or I want to be back there’. It’s added motivation to keep going.
“I’ve had to draw a line under what I’ve previously done. With a healthy body, healthy knee… I know I can run again, so it’s almost like switching off and relaxing and focusing on the here and now. I can’t be sat on the sidelines jealous or worried about what other people are doing because that’s just going to delay recovery.
“It hasn’t changed my levels of motivation, determination and belief in myself to get back, it’s just made me stop and reflect and think, ‘You know what, how lucky have you been to do this for so long?’. I’m not giving up or stopping, I still want this, but I’ve realised I’ve been lucky to have this career to date. I’ve just got to go slow in this moment, not rush it and give myself a chance.”
Weightman has been inspired by glimmers of hope over the last two years, little reminders during sessions or in rare races that point to future potential waiting to be realised. She’s also seen friends come through major surgery successfully and cites European triathlon champion Non Stanford as a massive inspiration.
She can’t put a timeframe on her return to running. Importantly, she now knows that compensation – as a result of running with some level of tear in her knee for two to three years – was the likely cause of her recurring injuries.
“Going through this, I’d be lying if I said it had been easy, because physically and mentally it’s been really difficult,” she says. “There have been days where I’ve literally wanted to run away and forget about it, but to see Non come back has made me believe I can do the same and have another few years in the sport on my terms.
“Someone asked me to share my journey recently and I said I can’t, because it isn’t finished. There’s still that underlying motivation of ‘what can I do with a healthy body?’ This isn’t the end.”
» This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of AW magazine. Subscribe to AW magazine here