In sporting terms, when the going gets tough, the usual reaction is to tell ourselves (and each other) to ‘pull yourself together’, ‘be strong’ and that ‘winners never quit’… Blah, blah, blah.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a sporty family, surrounded by sporty friends and have always been a true believer that sport genuinely has the power to heal, both physically and mentally. I’ve always been pretty resilient and, probably unsurprisingly, hugely motivated by sport.
However, the last 12 months has taught me that sometimes these traits can be both a blessing and a curse – and that sometimes forcing yourself to ‘be strong’ isn’t always the best option.
A whole new world…
Just when everything seemed to be going well for me, an unexpected amount of heartbreak and grief over a three month period during the summer of 2015 introduced me to the world of anxiety and depression – and has taught me more about myself and my relationship with sport than I ever imagined possible.
My reaction to dealing with difficult periods in my life has always been to plan an adventure, set myself a fitness goal or book a holiday – and I maintain that all of those things have the power to redirect people back on to the right track. Naturally, last year was no different – my response to this particular catalogue of life events was to register for my longest ever open water swim (2km), my longest ever cycle ride (60 miles) and climb some Swiss mountains. Job done.
The time is now…?
I also decided that 2016 would be my year to finally complete a standard distance triathlon, so I registered for the Leeds World Triathlon event (sprint distance) in June and the London Triathlon (standard distance) in August. Due to a frustrating running injury, triathlon events have always been a rather elusive goal, but I was determined that this would definitely be my year. So, with a GreenlightPT training plan in hand (of course!), I started training at the end of October and all was going really well for a few weeks. I even managed to build my knee strength up to run 5km (which might not sound like a lot but believe me this was a big accomplishment after all my injury issues!).
All of this was undertaken with much enjoyment and working towards my goals seemed to be doing the trick. On an increasingly regular basis I found myself surrounded by people training for Ironman events, marathons or middle distance triathlons and although that was never my goal, their determination and commitment spurred me on to keep persevering with my own challenge.
At least that was until three months later when things started to creep up on me again unexpectedly and I realised I wasn’t actually coping as well as I thought I had been…
So, here are the five main lessons I have learned through this whole experience:
1. You can’t do anything until you’re ready
The festive season was a subtle reminder of everything I had lost in the previous few months, and I started to lose interest in my training, to the point that every session started to become a bit of a physical and mental struggle. I managed to pick myself up a few times and ‘soldier on’ until my body and mind simply couldn’t take any more and I started to suffer extreme tiredness and (what I have since discovered) is called ‘generalised’ anxiety. It was my second anxiety attack that finally made me realise that something had to give and that no amount of exercise was going to pull me out of it this time.
2. It’s ok not to be ok
I now fully appreciate that depression and anxiety are both mental and physical illnesses. You wouldn’t swim with a broken collarbone or run with a dislocated knee, and if your mind isn’t 100% healthy, the treatment and recovery should be no different. My chest pain, shortness of breath and fatigue were certainly all very real and although my training wasn’t the sole source of my anxiety, the pressure of being ready for my planned events wasn’t helping. So with my knee injury continuing to cause me problems, I knew I needed to make a very difficult decision and free myself from that pressure by taking a complete break from training. This led me to the decision that, for now at least, I wanted to simply be a fit, happy swimmer/cyclist, instead of a miserable wannabe triathlete.
3. Sometimes not having a challenge is the hardest challenge
I love cycling, I love swimming, and hopefully one day I might learn to love running again... But I have realised that there is absolutely no good reason why I have to pressure myself to string them all together in one event when I’m not in the right frame of mind to put my heart and soul into it (I don’t like doing things by halves!). For now I’m just enjoying getting back into my exercise – swimming in the lake as the sun rises and riding my bike when I feel like it – because it makes me happy, not because my training plan tells me to. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, despite popular belief, sometimes not following your dreams is completely the right decision.
4. It’s not just about the finish line
I’m also taking the opportunity to remind myself that triathlon has never really been about the actual ‘racing’ for me. Over the last two years, it has provided me with a fantastic structure to learn the skills that would take me on exciting new adventures and discover new experiences. After finally learning to front crawl two years ago, I have enjoyed swimming in a Scottish Loch, a Welsh Llyn, an English tarn, across Ullswater with a TV star labradoodle called Bob, a salt water lagoon in Lanzarote, an Olympic rowing lake and an Olympic competition pool. I have also enjoyed cycling 60 miles 'home' to Milton Keynes from London, across the beautiful volcanic island of Lanzarote, a few laps around the British Formula Grand Prix circuit at Silverstone, and discovered country roads in my local area that I never knew existed. And I’m continuing to celebrate each of these as an accomplishment in their own right.
5. It’s good to talk
I’m not at all ashamed to admit that medication has played an important part in getting me back on track and helping me deal with my anxiety over the last few months. But so has sharing my feelings with wonderful friends and family, as well as realising that it was perfectly acceptable to be feeling that way. I’m also very grateful to Adam for his understanding and for reassuring me that I had made the right decision at this point in my own personal triathlon journey.
Learning to love again…
Although this has been a difficult process to go through, I already feel much more positive and I’m actually now training better than I was before, even without a goal. Thanks to an excellent weekend of training with Adam on the beginners triathlon training day and the front crawl video workshop, I’m finally back in the pool and enjoying my swimming again. I’ve also been trying out new classes at the gym and working on my strength and conditioning. Oh, and I treated myself to a new bike…
I accept that this approach is not the kind of mentality that you need to complete an Ironman, swim the Channel or run an ultramarathon like so many of my friends and training buddies around me. But, for now, it’s right for ME.
My mind. My body. My terms. Always.
And anyway… next year is a whole new chapter :)