One of the great ironies of recovery, especially in the case of injury or illness is the fact that in losing your standard training sessions you are also losing your go-to stress management tool. When I feel uncomfortable or low I turn to exercise to pick me up, this becomes a lot trickier when the reason I feel uncomfortable and low is because I cannot exercise…
Nothing has the power to unravel me quite like disruption to my sport. It is alarming how quickly an enforced break from training will lead me to existential crisis. A week spent out of the pool and I begin to feel like a stranger in my own body. Everything is uncomfortable. I have spent hours in tears and unable to function, raging with frustration and hopelessness and anger at the apparent lack of progress in my physical condition. I have experienced a panic attack in the early hours of the morning, devastated that I cannot sleep and subsequently will not be able to train the following morning. I fret about weight gain, loss of muscle tone, changes in physical appearance. I don’t know how to eat. I fear I am becoming less, losing fitness, losing skill, losing strength, losing worth. I feel insecure and adrift in all areas of my life. I shut down socially because I feel too raw to interact with other people. The pain of being patient with a healing body and the fear that it will perhaps never heal at all are, at some points, totally overwhelming.
Keeping emotional distress at the disruption of your standard training routine and anxiety about your current position at a level that doesn’t interfere with your physical recovery is vital. I have on multiple occasions enacted the vicious circle that is: spending a rest day in turmoil over the fact I have to rest and subsequently requiring rest the following day to recover from the emotional trauma! For many of us, even career athletes, our sport is the place where we find release and relaxation. A couple of hours just for ourselves, where the rhythm of repeated movement and thudding heart soothe our anxious souls and leave us beautifully exhausted and unable to expend energy worrying anymore about the trials of everyday life. On top of this the rise in endorphins post exercise is very apparent when, in it’s sudden absence, you realise that without the run up of an hour and a half of swimming you actually feel terrible at 8.30am on a Tuesday morning!
Training is a great distracter. For as long as I have been training I have dealt with a lot of my anxiety by plunging myself into a pool every morning before any thinking or feeling could take place. The last few months of time out have not only summoned up many uncomfortable emotions but also then forced me to confront them instead of simply exercising them away! Exercise is a proven mood booster and stress reducer, however I would argue that if competitive sport is a large part of your life depending on it as a method of relieving all your stress and emotional discomfort is a hindrance to competitive performance and development. We are often drawn to sport because in it we find a level of release and comfort but we must be very careful not to use it as a place to hide. Our training should sensitise us to our mental and physical states not numb them. One of the things my recovery process has brought to light is that I am perhaps asking too much of my sport, or if not too much, asking for the wrong things. I sometimes forget the simple joy of the game, the physical movement, the thrill of competition and instead use it as a way to exhaust myself, vent anger, distract from things I don’t want to face, bolster my ego. The complication of my relationship with swimming then complicates my recovery process.
In the instance of my distress over an enforced break from swimming, not being able to escape from the discomfort in my usual way, has lead me to actually explore it, which in turn resulted in all the discoveries I am now writing about here. Having now begun to get back into the pool I can already see that alterations in my mental approach are rendering training far more productive and enjoyable. Having taken the time to learn how to have a satisfactory life without training has relieved a lot of pressure now I am back in the gym once more. I am not looking to training to make me feel better or fix any issues I may be having in my day-to-day life. The quality of my day is no longer a direct result of the quality of my training session. Of course the rise in endorphins post exercise will always provide a lift but the boost I get from a training session now comes from an enjoyment of the physical sensation of swimming and the satisfaction at having completed something to the best of my ability, not from any numbing or distracting effects.
When it is suddenly disrupted it becomes evident how much of my self-esteem and wellbeing I have been drawing from swimming. I have used it as a way to make me feel like I am good at something, that I have use and purpose, to make me feel worthwhile. In the past if a training session didn’t go as planned I would feel like I was a failure, my entire self-esteem would take a knock, I would question everything I was doing and all the choices I had made up to that point. Oppositely, when training went well nothing could touch me, I would be on cloud nine for the following twenty-four hours. As you can imagine, this somewhat complicated recovery. When your sense of worth is dependent on the completion of a certain task everyday you are at a complete loss when you are told that today the task can’t even be attempted and you must instead sit on the sofa with your feet up.
We often use the activities we engage in regularly as a source of identity. Society encourages this, as do the people around us, who identify us as ‘the triathlete’ or ‘the singer’ or ‘the dancer’, even our bodies become characterised by the things that we spend the most time doing. With the distraction of all of this it can be very difficult to see and understand who we are and how we fit into the world when the primary activity is removed. However, although quick to categorise, the outside world is also quick to forget. A month or so into my recovery process and I realised that despite the fact I was no longer excelling at sport, my friends hadn’t changed the way they related to me and family hadn’t suddenly dismissed me as useless. In fact the only person that had reacted badly to my injuries was myself. As it turns out, aside from coaches and teams wanting to see that training and coaching investments in you are paying off and your nearest and dearest wanting to see you succeed at something you enjoy, no one really cares how high you can jump or how fast you can run two hundred metres!
We are not the sum of our achievements. We are not the embodiment of sets of exam results, race finishes and personal bests. When I started to understand this I suddenly found much more space for recovery. When I realised that value can be drawn from a day in a wealth of other ways aside from completing a set of twenty-five metre sprints in record time, I suddenly had the freedom to take a day off. When I realised that my swimming performances did not equate to a measure of my value as a human being it was such a relief. Being out of the pool for so long I was forced to face the fact that at that time I was definitely not at the level of athletic performance that I wanted to be at, but moreover, that that was ok. It would be ok if when I returned to the pool I was slower than pre-injury and it would be ok if I never actually returned to the pool. As soon as I made peace with this I suddenly stopped crying in the mornings and obsessing over my weight and generally trying to hijack and fast track the recovery process. My sport isn’t a stress-buster or security blanket or crutch. It’s a source of pleasure and fulfilment and I should look to it for nothing more or less than that.
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.