Upon waking up with severe back pain and hardly able to walk, I sat in the kitchen and cried and said no repeatedly. It took a couple of hours of coercion to get me to call a physiotherapist because ‘they’re going to tell me not to swim for the foreseeable future and I can’t cope with that,’ and then, after being prescribed rest and time out of the pool, I cried again. In fact, I took a couple of hours every morning of the following few weeks to have a little shout and a sob when I awoke and had not magically healed overnight. A month or so in and I was still battling with acceptance. This was exacerbated by the apparent vagueness of my diagnosis; muscle dysfunction in the lower back (i.e. severe cramping) and no specific event or trauma that I could pin-point as the cause. On reflection, it was almost certainly the result of extreme bodily fatigue and a sign that I was over-trained, but at the time the idea of cramping muscles felt so petty and benign, that despite pain that even codeine couldn’t quell and extremely limited mobility, I spent half of my time wondering whether I was making the whole thing up *. Even after accepting that yes, there is something wrong with me, it was almost impossible to shift the thought that I could and SHOULD just train through it. Nothing was torn, nothing was broken, what was I making a fuss about?
Overtraining can be a particularly hard condition to come to terms with because of the lack of any singular straightforward symptom. A broken bone is easy to diagnose and difficult to deny or disregard, however much you want to. A collection of symptoms such as tiredness, depression and emotional disturbance, aches and pains, strings of viral illnesses and generally feeling run down and battered are attributable to а large number of conditions and definitely can be ignored. To add to this it is arguably those of us who are the best at, and most inclined towards, ploughing through in the presence of all of such symptoms that have the highest likelihood of reaching an overtrained state.
A month in and my hamstring came to the rescue by pulling dramatically mid stretch. Now I had no choice but to step out of denial. I was definitely injured and my body was exhausted and I needed desperately to rest.
At some point in my mental grappling, I found that I was subscribing to the underlying narrative that I actually don’t ‘deserve’ to be injured. The thought went something like: “I don’t work hard enough to cause myself injury. I haven’t trained hard enough to warrant illness. My body SHOULD cope with this therefore either I am particularly weak/something is wrong with me to cause me to respond so badly to training or, these symptoms are made up and everything is fine!” This is pretty much the perfect mindset to cultivate if you are aiming to end up injured or overtrained. In fact, if you ever want to quickly reach a state of overtraining or injury repeatedly tell yourself “I don’t work hard enough and I am not deserving” and I promise you will achieve breakdown and burnout in record time!
So to break down my argument:
- Injury or sickness is only for people who have worked exceptionally hard.
- There is a defined training load that I should be coping with.
- I don’t know what this load is (I have made no attempt to try and quantify it) but even if I don’t know exactly where the line lies, I know FOR SURE that there is a line that distinctly separates me and these noble and courageous athletes who are ‘deserving’ of injury and sickness.
In answer to these points:
- No it isn’t! And furthermore I am worried by the dangerous implication that injury and illness is some kind of badge of honor. It is an inevitability that we will all get sick and injure ourselves at some point in our lives and although in times of intense work the likelihood of injury and illness is increased, adopting the attitude that until these things have been achieved you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough is destructive. The real achievement is in working hard without pushing yourself to injury or sickness or running yourself into the ground.
- There isn’t! Your body can cope with what it can cope with and this changes constantly. We employ monitoring devices such as ithlete because it is very difficult to know the amount of load we are under at any one time. Methods such as HRV monitoring help us understand what our body is already dealing with so that we can make a better informed decision about any extra stress we deliberately subject it to. This is completely individual. The way any given person responds to stressors is unique and subsequently the type of, frequency of and way that we apply training load must be similarly specific to each of us. You can only work with your own body. You must be guided by your own physical and mental responses.
- Being of the mindset that my training is ‘not enough’ is arguably what got me injured in the first place. Once again I am trying to equate work ethic/amount of work that a person appears to be managing with value and worth as a human being.
Acknowledging the full extent and implications of an injury is scary. Facing the fact that you have to stop and change what you are doing requires courage. It is so much easier to continue in semi-denial, to nurse a slightly damaged limb through an entire competitive season because ‘it doesn’t hurt too badly’ than it is to take a deep breath and two months off in order to sort it out properly. My position then got almost ‘too awful’ to accept. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get through the next six months without training. Part of me was scared that my injuries were in some way unrecoverable the recovery process insurmountable. I was terrified of losing all the progress I had made, of having to somehow start again.
But acceptance is vital, even just on a practical level. The creation of an optimum recovery plan relies on acknowledgement and understanding of exactly where you are mentally and physically. Without proper understanding of your condition you cannot identify what needs to be done to move forwards. Half acceptance (or a day of acceptance followed by a day of denial!), will lead to half recovery. To the degree that you are prepared to accept your current position, you will be able to move on from it.
For me, acceptance meant stopping constantly trying to measure where I am and focusing instead on what is best for my body everyday. Whereas my daily goals used to be about completing a certain training session or achieving a certain pace over a given distance, I now set my sights upon doing something daily that promotes recovery. Until I stopped trying to fast-track or somehow bypass the recovery process, stopped looking into the future at how long it was going to take to be ‘back to normal’ and how unattainable all my sporting goals suddenly felt, I didn’t make any progress. By trying to rush recovery you will actually prolong it. The fastest way back to wherever you would like to be is give yourself an infinite amount of time away from it. You will of course, not require an infinite amount of time, but in letting go of all mental deadlines and time restrictions, you will be able to focus all your energy on doing all the things that will facilitate your recovery, without wasting time on anxiety and self-reprimand when there isn’t obvious progress every day. A fit body requires a fit mind. As long as I resisted acceptance I was not only delaying physical progress pulling myself apart mentally. The recovery process must be holistic. If you heal your torn tendon but are left mentally and emotionally drained you are arguably not recovered at all.
* Incidentally, there is no rule that states that the severity of your condition is directly related to the drama of the event that caused it! The greatest illustration of the possible disconnect between injury-event and injury-severity that I have ever witnessed being watching a family member fracture their spine in an extremely undramatic fall, whilst walking along flat ground! It took us all a long time to get our heads around the fact that such serious damage could be incurred in such a benign incident…and we had X-ray evidence!
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.