Normally I would think twice before posting a photo of myself like this. I’m red in the face, my hair is frizzy, and my sports bra is doing nothing for my figure - but damn it, today I’m proud to post this photo.
For years now, I’ve had a complicated relationship with exercise. As a kid, I loved riding my bike, going swimming, and just generally running around like a little fire ball. In my teens, I played football (or soccer) with the boys, I was captain of the rounders (softball) team, and I loved trampolining. My family and I went for regular walks in the countryside, and a 10 mile hike wasn’t something I was terrified of. I had niggling joints and ‘growing pains’, but generally, I was fit and active.
There’s one accident I think I can point to where all that changed. When I was around 14/15 or so, I was trampolining after school as I did once a week, and I was trying to do a ‘swivel-hips’ move. It didn’t end well. I caught my foot in the trampoline and as I went to spin, I heard a pop in my left ankle and felt excruciating pain. One ambulance ride and 5 hours in A&E later, I had ruptured my tendon and torn all the ligaments at the top of my foot. It was worse than a break. I was crutches for about 12 weeks, and I went from an active teenager to someone who didn’t really want to do anything. I never really got back to my usual self, and once I left school, I didn’t actively seek out as many opportunities for exercise.
A couple of years after that, I became more ill (read my blog post here for more info), and at a time where my weight was creeping up, I shied away from most forms of exercise. At my worst, I was reliant on a wheelchair and a 50m walk was more than a little bit challenging.
At the beginning of my chronic pain journey I was still heavily into ‘boom and bust’ habits, and I found it so frustrating that I couldn’t do what I used to be able to. I stopped hiking, swimming, riding a bike, playing sports with my family, and generally treating my muscles like they needed to move. I was so scared that the pain would spiral and exercise would make me worse - and I had plenty of evidence to back up this theory! Every time I tried to go for a swim (even only 20 minutes not my previously healthy and usual 1 hour) I was in bed for days afterwards, unable to move. I saw a personal trainer who I thought could help me tailor my exercise, but within the first session they had me planking… yet again more pain.
Then something changed.
I went on a 3 week pain management course with the NHS. We did stretching in very small doses, we did short bursts of hydrotherapy in a warm pool, we looked at the emotions surrounding exercise, and we found our baselines (what I’m capable of doing even on my worst day). At the beginning I thought the level they were saying I should do was too little! “I can do more than that”, I wanted to prove… but that is exactly where I had been going wrong. By doing less that what I could do if I pushed myself, I found I could sustain it the next day. And the next day. And the next day.
Over the past few years I’ve worked hard at pacing. Now of course there have been times where I’ve reverted back to ‘boom and bust’. Sometimes, pacing isn’t an option, but generally I try to adopt the principle of stopping BEFORE I think I could.
And the result?
I recently was able to play badminton for just shy of an hour, something I never thought I’d be able to do again - and I wasn’t in more pain afterwards or the next day, if anything, less. It’s taken me a long time to get to this stage, and I don’t know if I will always be this fortunate, but for today I am deeply grateful.
More tips on pacing to come.