How do you face not being able to do the sport you love? Rab athlete Jules Littlefair and PR Co-ordinator Jen Scotney have both suffered periods of ill health this year that have stopped them training.
With uncertainty about when they would be able to climb or run again, they got together to discuss how they have started to overcome the adversity of being forced to stop doing what they loved:
Recognise the problem
Jen: I’m an ultrarunner, and although fairly new to running, I have come to love the long distances. With podium spots at two 110 mile Spine Challenger races, and the 190 mile Northern Traverse, I have found something that brought so much to my life. But in the last four years, even before I started training and running the long races, I have also had periods of chronic fatigue that have left me bed-bound for short periods, and battling constant tiredness and fogginess at other times. I would push through as far as I could until my body said no, and I would crash, and even getting out of bed and walking around the house was an effort for an intense few weeks. After one last year, I started running again, trying to convince myself that it was just insomnia making me feel the lack of energy. So other than the odd run missed when I really couldn’t face it, I trained on, 60-70 mile weeks, until April, when I had another crash. I haven’t trained since, determined to not to push myself until my body is happy, and that means stopping, resting, and facing up to the problem.
Jules: I’m a climber who loves to train! I am used to training or climbing 5-6 days a week. However, over the past few years, this became increasingly difficult as I suffered from hypothyroidism, extreme fatigue, daily migraines and regular hypoglycaemic episodes that left me feeling awful. Not knowing the underlying cause of these problems (despite the best efforts of the doctors) also added a lot of stress to the situation. Thankfully, I am now feeling a lot better but if I had my time again I would definitely handle things differently in terms of training.
Don’t compare yourself to others
Jules: It’s easy to lose confidence when you are having a bad day. But trust in yourself – if you think about it honestly, you know what you are capable of when you are well, so have confidence in that. A bad day through illness does not mean you are a bad climber!
Jen: I just had to take breaks from social media! So many of my apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Strava became reminders of fit, happy people doing everything I couldn’t. I visualise myself on races in the future, keeping positive that I can get fit again, and remember, as in the words of Baz Luhrmann [Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)] “Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself”
Jules: I agree Jen, I stopped going on social media for a while as it was a daily reminder of what I was missing out on. Now I’m feeling better I do go on there, but I try to limit myself to once a day.
Be kind to your body
Jules: Take rest days if you need them, cut sessions short if you are tired. If you train smart, you can really get the most out of yourself, whatever your situation. When you are ill the number one priority is your health and self-care. If you make a list of priorities, these should come first followed by training. If you make the mistake (as I did) of putting these the opposite way around you will most likely end up tired and drained and then your training will be sub-optimal.
Jen: I felt pressure from strange places to run. Although I love running in my Peak District hills, and keeping fit, running had expanded to play a bigger part in my life. It was the time I socialised with my a lot of my friends, it was nearly all my social media, it was my husband’s job, with his running and coaching, and I had sponsors who I believed wanted a fit, happy athlete to work with and not a fatigued ex-runner. But in the end, my body had to come first. And everything else came second. And there was no exception. If it didn’t feel right to run, I didn’t.
Give your mind a rest too
Jules: Sometimes you might need time off because you are emotionally drained from illness. That’s totally fine. It’s better to complete half your sessions full gas than all of them with little motivation.
Jen: The uncertainly of my illness was that I never knew if I had hit rock bottom, when I could improve… weeks, months, years? My mind could work against me in a flash, letting in the feelings of hopelessness flood in. There is also the temptation to endlessly search for a simple answer for my illness; looking for the one supplement, or one change I could do, and magically in an instant go back to how I was before. The reality, after years of a cycle of stress resulting in poor health, is that it needs to be a much more holistic approach for me, reducing stress, more sleep, resting, letting go of unhelpful thought patterns… I needed to focus my mind on doing those little things each day that could lead to recovery, and not feel overwhelmed by the bigger things.
Be aware of how you feel each day and each session
Jules: Have a rough plan of what you want to do each week, but don’t be afraid to change things up or move things around depending on how you feel. Look for different ways to train the same thing (e.g. if you can’t face circuits down the wall but could manage a fingerboard session at home then why not train fitness on the fingerboard?). If you are too tired to train physically but you have some mental energy to spare, why not practise some mental training techniques such as meditation or strategies for being in the moment. These will both help you feel less frustrated by your situation and pay dividends when you are back climbing again. Try to view it as an interesting challenge to plan your training around your circumstances, rather than an annoyance or disappointment. This will free you up to have a lot more fun with it.
Jen: I couldn’t follow my normal training plan of 50-70 mile weeks. Some weeks I couldn’t run at all, but the weeks I could I focussed on consistency, rather than pushing any long runs. I felt it was better to do five 2 mile runs rather than struggle for one 10 mile run and risk my body crashing after. It also gave me a bit of structure and the satisfaction of managing a week’s training. If I did feel tired on a run it was hard to unpick what was due to fatigue, insomnia, or just being unfit… sometimes I got it wrong, but now I feel I am able to distinguish better.
Don’t be scared to have goals
Jen: I am in no rush to get back racing, I have gone back too quickly to races before, and although it brings a short term satisfaction, the long term is I will pay for it with my body. I have challenges I want to do outside racing and have focussed on getting better for these; with no cost to enter, and no pressure for dates, I feel more relaxed about which year they happen in. In turn, less pressure and less stress will help my recovery.
Jules: It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like an ill person, but if you are realistic about what you can manage there is no reason at all why you can’t achieve great things.
Jules: Team up with someone you trust and who understands your health issues to help you decide when to train. It can be difficult to know when you really are too tired and when you’ll feel better once you are up and moving. Having someone to help you make these decisions is really helpful.
Jen: I have confided in such a small number of people how bad my health was, but it was those people I knew would support me, would go as slow as I needed if they came out running, and not care if I cancelled or cut the run short. But having that social aspect of running back, of sharing the time on the trail, was so important to me, it gave me part of my old life back, whereas on my own I would find some runs a battle between enjoyment and my mind reminding me how fit I was, and how easy this used to be.
Don’t be shy of doing things differently
Jen: I was in a cycle. Feel ok, work long hours, don’t take time off, let stress build, crash. Over and over again. And while my running was such a boost mentally for me, the long races and training runs must have put a toll on my body. I was usually back working the day after an ultramarathon, and often working at my desk after a 25 mile run. So, the cycle would continue. Until I realised, I wasn’t trapped. I could stop it. I needed to. So, I quit my law job and moved to work in the outdoors industry. A career change felt scary, but not as scary as the cycle of fatigue. Maybe you don’t need such a huge change, but the feeling of freedom, of making the change and being in control of my time was a huge boost, even without the fewer hours and less stress my new job came with.
Jules: I’ve learnt through trial and error (mostly error!) that what works for most people doesn’t always work for me. For example, a lot of my friends try to optimise their recovery through different diets and supplement regimes. But I find this just adds to the stress of managing a health condition so, for me, it works best to eat what I want, when I want.
Accept the new
Jen: I look at old pictures and videos of me and almost feel like that is a different person. And to some degree she is. She could get out of bed and run 6 miles before breakfast without thinking. She could train and race and feel like she could run forever. Since being ill I have had to accept the change. Mornings are hard. I don’t have the same body as I used to. I may never run that fast or with that ease again. But that’s ok. Accept what the new is. Be the best you can be, but don’t strive for the impossible.; it will crush your happiness. I celebrate the little goals now, I appreciate what I can do more, I’ve stopped rushing to be busy, I rest and reflect… life is slower, and that’s made it richer in other ways.
Jules: I think relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga can help with this. These help you be in the moment rather than thinking about things you haven’t achieved in the past or worrying about the future. I try to meditate every day now, and it really helps my state of mind. As an added benefit that I wasn’t expecting, I’ve also found that both yoga and meditation have improved my climbing enormously by giving me a stronger body and helping me to focus when I am climbing. I would definitely recommend joining a yoga class, and there are some great meditation apps available for your phone so that you’ve always got some relaxation practices with you, wherever you are. I’ve also found it helpful to face up to my disappointment over the fact that I have not achieved exactly what I wanted over the last few years. Admitting this to myself has made it easier to move on, rather than keeping these feelings bottled up which just made me feel stressed and disappointed.