It has been a rough three months since I last posted. I am off work with a mental health blip (I am not going to discuss that directly here) and physically things did not go to plan. The August attempts to get running again failed, I never made it past the 8 minute runs, then I couldn’t even make a minute and eventually I spoke to the doctor. I have had a whole series of tests including detailed blood works, ECG and chest X-ray, I’ve monitored peak flow and been prodded, poked and interrogated. Fundamentally there is nothing physically wrong with me. That’s good of course but it doesn’t explain how I have struggled since the spring to get going again and why everything has just felt so impossibly hard. It also doesn’t explain why my heart rate continues to be stubbornly high when I try even the most gentle exercise or why I get breathless walking upstairs. The doctor’s best guess – post viral something or other. It might not be Covid-19 after effects but it might be – I don’t know whether I have had it or not. Whatever it is, I wanted to try and share with you what it feels like to go from relatively fit and running pretty regularly to barely being able to go for a walk to struggling to get going again…
Some days now I think I am getting better. Other days the tiredness is almost paralysing. Anyway, if you’ve read this blog before you know all about my love/hate relationship with running and all things fitness. You know I have never been super fit, have always been a slow plodder and you know that 2020 has been much much more miss than hit in terms of running. So the reality is that post marathon number 4 in 2019 I lost fitness. But I had a reasonable level of fitness that allowed me to take things for granted. Things I did not have to think or worry about:
- Running 5km, getting round a parkrun course or similar route
- run/walking 10km or even 10 miles
- walking any distance at all really
- getting to the top of a hill
- Keeping up with others as I walk
- Running upstairs
- Having a go at a strength/conditioning session or gym class
- Feeling capable and feeling relatively strong
- getting day to day stuff done
Now I do. Worry I mean. About all of those things. I can no longer run. After some vague attempts and frustrating stop starts all year, in August I was trying to build up again. But I got worse rather than better. I was very out of breath, heart rate was high and I felt dizzy and faint just trying to run a minute. When I got home from any sort of exercise – even just a short walk – I was physically so tired I could barely move off the sofa for the rest of the day and the next day I’d wake up aching and sore like I had run a half marathon over tricky terrain. I felt so weak and unfit that I worried about getting round the supermarket doing the food shop. I also felt stupid. And I felt scared. My attempts to go back to basics and failing even at that and feeling so poorly had made me scared to go out and try in case there was something seriously wrong. I also worried about work. To get through a day of work I had to basically not move and hope that at the end of the day I might just have enough energy left to do some gentle yoga. I had to pause chutney making to have a rest because I had been standing for too long. Once I dozed off at my desk.
I have written about the problem of shifting your mindset away from numbers/weight onto focusing what your body can do when you find yourself not being able to do previously I think. This feeling just got worse. It was partly about being concerned about what health issues were causing the symptoms but it was more than that. It is demoralising to suddenly be unable to do things you could easily do before. It made trying feel a bit pointless because I kept failing, kept not managing even silly things or just about managing them and then being out for the rest of the day because I walked 100 metres to the postbox and back. So I spent a little while doing nothing at all.
A series of medical tests later and really I am none the wiser other than that the tests have ruled out anything serious and have confirmed that I am safe to exercise. I am still not right but I am now less scared. But where do you start when you have nothing? I realised that when I previously talked about starting running from no fitness base that wasn’t quite true. When I started running, I could walk. I might have been fat and unfit but not so unfit that I would worry about the idea of going for a walk. I think maybe I am getting a little better, maybe doing nothing for a while was actually needed, maybe it helped. I can now walk on the flat, fairly slowly, without too much concern or worry about distance. I struggle to walk fast and I struggle on hills but I can walk. I am less often out of breath going upstairs, I have managed the first set of 8 exercises of a HIIT class and am working my way up to getting through 2 sets and eventually all 3. I am no longer as fatigued as I was or as tired from just standing. It’s progress of sorts.
It’s hard to untangle the mental health stuff going on. Much of it is caused and shaped by work related stuff I can’t really write about here. And of course these things cannot be separated anyway, I feel worse because I can’t exercise and I can’t exercise as much because I feel worse and round and round we go. But I think there are some things that are specific to the complete loss of fitness. It’s a funny mixture of hope and despair. In some ways building fitness now feels easier than when I started running. I have done it once. More than once. I got myself marathon fit. I can do it again. There’s hope there. If I am not actually ill, if the worst post viral hangover is this fatigue that led to a complete loss of fitness then I am one of the lucky ones, nothing is damaged, fitness can be regained. Hope. But fitness once lost is elusive. Having been fit and losing it is almost worse than never having been fit. It’s not that hard work bothers me, it’s that I know how hard it is mentally to get to from here to a level where exercise slowly begins to be fun again and real progress can be made, where it is more than a chore, more than trying and failing again and again. Getting to that level means lots and lots of work before the improvements start coming, before the weakness turns into strength, before even the modified moves in workouts become possible and I dare dream of the unmodified ones. It is so discouraging, so disheartening and so damn frustrating to fail a beginners workout or run one of couch to 5km.
And don’t give me the ‘it’s not failing’ crap. It is. It is failing. And it is horrible. And I will have to fail and fail again repeatedly until one day I fail at a slightly later point and then maybe a later point again until eventually I finish the workout or the run. It’s hard not to feel that trying is pointless. Results don’t come quickly when I have to go this slowly and gently and carefully. Focusing on what I can do rather than what I look like or what the numbers say is not helpful – the answer is I can’t do anything…but of course ‘anything’ is relative. But try and remember that when your black puppy has grown into a full size giant dog and is slowly pulling you down into darkness with its firm hold on your wonder woman cape. Maybe Edna Mode (The Incredibles) is right and capes are a bad idea. But that’s another story.
So in short, being in this position feels awful, frustrating, disheartening and often pointless. So it can’t be about feeling, it has to be about logic and about experience. And we’re back to trusting a process, trusting a plan and ticking things off until failing outright turns into failing a little less and then turns into completing and then into doing well and eventually into enjoying. I know that’s how it works, I’ve done this before. One day and one step at a time. Hope?