by Georgina Gardner Stockley
A week ago I sent the following email to ithlete’s Simon Wegerif:
“Three months into recovery post back-injury, pulled hamstring and a virus and struggling to deal with this all mentally, I came across an article which cited (English international Rugby Union legend) Johnny Wilkinson saying that he was dangerously obsessive and went through periods of overtraining, which led to depressive episodes and bad health. This has, in the usual way, come out post-retirement, and it started me wondering why there is a dearth of athletes talking about any of this whilst it’s actually occurring. It angers me because I feel like we are all miss-sold this idea that we need to “push hard” and “dig in” etc. in all areas of life. Our athletes and sportspeople are used as great examples of how hard work, grit and determination reap incredible reward and achievement when actually they are often achieving despite destructive behaviours and training patterns and not because of them. Why is there this perception of glory in abusing yourself? One of my closest friends has, for the last six months, been on a 12 pills-a-day course of anti-inflams prescribed by a doctor, who accepts the fact that an athlete in her early twenties would have chronic joint pain and doesn’t see it fit to advise her to reconsider her training and movement patterns or to rest for any substantial period of time.”
Only a few days later, I wake up to an amber ithlete HRV reading, and my first thought is; ‘Oh I’ll just go for a run instead then’. As an over-trained swimmer with a pulled hamstring, there is nothing ‘just’ about going for a run. I might as well have thought I’ll ‘just’ go and tackle a heavy weights session or I’ll ‘just’ go on a three-hour bike ride. I know this. I have been running a recovery led, heart rate variability (HRV) guided training program for approximately four years. I have made dramatic and fundamental changes to my training and diet in acknowledgement of the fact that if I want a long term, sustainable and successful life in sport then I need to do it in a way that promotes overall health and resilience, not in a way that breaks down my body and mind. Yet, injured, and being told by my coach, my body and my monitoring devices to rest, it still takes me a couple of hours to talk myself down from embarking upon a non-restful workout.
ithlete and other monitors of bodily stress remove the option of ignorance. There is no way I can pretend all is well and set out on a two-hour sprint session. I can train on a red HRV, of course, but I can’t kid myself that it is contributing positively to my athletic development. But this doesn’t make it easy to take a day off. Believing that what you are doing is correct does not render it straightforward. So here I am with a thoroughly researched training and diet plan and reliable ways of monitoring progress, yet the mental struggle persists. Why? After a few months of grappling I am able to break down my mental battle into the following elements:
- Lack of acceptance; trying to deny the extent or implications of injury.
- The discomfort of doing ‘nothing’; training feels like taking control, being active, pursuing your goals and making use of your life. Sitting still does not.
- Loss of routine and structure caused by the removal of a training session from my day.
- Loss of identity; who am I when I am not a swimmer?
- Missing the sport; swimming is one of my favourite activities, I miss the sensation of moving through water.
- Loss of my main stress management tool and source of endorphins; Exercise provides a biochemical kick and an effective and reliable way to release stress.
My email to Simon concluded: “So I want to write an article, or even series, that says all the things it would be helpful to hear at this point, the things I set out to find when I embarked upon my Google search of “recovering athletes”, about how it feels to be in this position physically and mentally and how to cope and how to stay confident that healing is the way forwards. Because after drastically altering my diet (to LCHF) and my training, (to align with the MAF method) for me the hardest part of this recovery process is feeling ok about it all. I have evidence from testing that the changes I have made are making striking differences to my body and health and still I’m having to battle crushing guilt every time I sit still for longer than an hour and to constantly resist this macho, head down, grit your teeth, plough on culture that seems to permeate not just sport but all areas of our society.”
There is so much talk about training; how and what and when and where, but over the next few weeks I want to talk about not training. Away from the pool, track or road is where we often feel most isolated, worried and adrift, but in actual fact, injured or not, ‘not training’ is the way that we will actually spend most of our lives. It is time to start getting comfortable with this.
Georgina is a full-time athlete, sprint-swimmer based in the UK. Born in 1993 in Islington, London she moved in the summer of 1996 to rural Cheshire where she lived until early 2014 when she moved to Moscow. She spent the following two and a half years in Russia and returned to the UK at the end of September 2016.
She is an accomplished all-round athlete having competed in multi-event athletics and alpine ski-racing.
After leaving school with A levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, English Literature and Art she began a Civil Engineering MSc course at the University of Bath in England before deferring her course in late 2011 in order to focus her activities on swim sprint racing.
When not training, eating and sleeping Georgina teaches flute, plays the piano and sings in various choirs and ensembles. She is currently involved in the building of a house in Birmingham and continues to study and learn to speak Russian. You can follow Georgina on Twitter or Instagram.
Georgina raises some very good questions, many of which I’ve struggled to answer in respect of my own experiences. The problem for many is that recovery is not a straight line dynamic. A month after taking part in the Inferno Triathlon in Switzerland I still felt jaded and was recording frequent reds and ambers despite taking it very, very easy. 6 weeks after the triathlon and I pb’d in the Jersey Marathon! 10 days on and I’m shivering, struggling to keep warm and the legs ache from an easy run yesterday. My readings are in the green!!! OK, so I’m 59 and you’d expect me to know better but here’s my prioritised list of recovery blockers – 1: Guilt (self induced and Georgina highlights this) 2: Peer Pressure (Again self induced – ‘He’s out on his bike so I should be too’) 3: Deluded Over Reaching (I’m just being a wimp, the stiffness is an excuse to miss a session) 4: Historic Success (I could do this 40 years ago so why can’t I do it now?) 5: Media induced inferiority (Apparently I should be following this schedule, training twice a day 6 days a week). Answers to all the above on a postcard please! So what am I doing now? I’m taking it easy for the rest of October, then I’m moving to a schedule that says if I’m tired (including amber days) I won’t push it and even more revolutionary I’m going to change from a rigid to a flexible schedule. Will 2017 be a better year? This time next year I’ll know and then I’ll adjust again!