Coming Back?

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?

More 8 minutes, more mantras and a revelation

On Monday I told you about my 8 minutes times 3 running. Well it was the same again for the next run – which was today. I didn’t go this morning so actually chances of it happening at all diminished as the day went on. We had to get something looked at on the car and did the food shop and then were hungry and then too full and then we fell asleep… anyway, then we went for a run. I think Kath had a 5 miler and I watched her set off in the rain as I tried to find something to occupy Odin kitten so he wouldn’t follow me.

I went a different route this time. The first 8 minutes were comfortable and I enjoyed the rain on my face and the lack of people. I was staying on the roads round the village and it was lovely and quiet. I don’t remember thinking about much at all. It was just nice to be out and moving. As I finished my first walk break and settled into the 2nd run I remembered something that Kath had said about mantras – apparently using ‘you’ rather than ‘I’ works better. So I tried that; ‘You are strong and you can do this’ – nope my brain did not like that one. The little voice in my head did this:

I tried just ‘You can do this’ and a more confident ‘You are doing this’ and some variations on that theme but now I am referring to myself as another person and quite frankly I am quite loony enough without adding that. So with that little voice in my head still falling over itself laughing, I nearly got run over by some muppet in a corsa who didn’t know what the flashy little orange lights on his car do and somehow thought that’s my fault and had run for 7 minutes. One minute to go. Up hill. But it’s just a minute. And now I know that I can run for 8 minutes, a minute seems doable. And it is.

The 2nd walk break finished just as the slope upwards intensifies. I have to start running. I have moments of doubt. I daren’t go back to the mantras because, well, the voice in my head has had quite enough hilarity for one day. So I keep my eyes fixed on a parked car. Slowly, slowly I get closer. And then it drives off. I mean, really. The universe couldn’t have just let me get to the car and pick my next mark? My brain was saying I had to get to the car… the car that was now out of sight. Yeah, thanks. I was unreasonably outraged by the car just driving off. ‘That was my marker’ I screamed silently in my head. I’d been running for about 90 seconds. Outrage can take you another minute or so further. Then I had to cross the road and honestly, I was grateful I had to stop and let some cars do their thing. Once it was clear, I headed off again towards the canal towpath.

My legs had sort of had enough really and my breathing was more steam train than human. So when a woman and her child on a bike didn’t move as I approached and said excuse me twice, I just raised an eyebrow at her ‘Sorry love I didn’t hear you’ as I sidestepped onto the grass. If she didn’t hear me coming she needs to get herself to the doctor to get them ears of hers checked. Anyway, as I was still pondering the weirdness of people I glanced at my watch and realised I had run 5 of the 8 minutes. 3 to go. I wanted to stop really but the woman and child on the bike were behind me and I do have some pride. So I told myself that I just needed to get to where the line of houses starts and then I could walk. That seemed ok-ish. I got there and only had 20 seconds left to run so just kept going until the watch beeped. Done. 2 minutes walk later and my 30 minutes were done.

I have been grumpy about how slow I have been but this lot of 8 minute runs with 2 minute walks was at 13 and a half minutes per mile pace which is much better than the just a smidge over 15 minute miles from Monday. I know it’s not about pace or about going further or faster each run. I know that, but it did cheer me up to see a pace number of under 14. I think it means that this programme is working and that slowly and surely my body is remembering how to run and do it more efficiently and comfortably. It’s a glimmer of hope that maybe soon I might even enjoy a run as I do it rather than only afterwards.

Kath caught me up just a minute or two after I had finished and was walking home. We walked together a few minutes and then she set off the run the last bit. When I got home this was stuck on the door and it made me giggle – although I had no energy for a happy dance just then.

I was already sweaty and in running gear so I thought I would do my Nike App exercises after the run. I had done this particular workout before (though do not get me started on plank saws etc again) and it wasn’t too horrendous. So I grabbed my phone and set the workout to start. However my t-shirt was soaking wet from the rain and really quite uncomfortable. Sod it, I thought, I’ll just take it off. And there I was, doing a workout just in my running tights and sports bra. So that was a bit of a revelation. I have always been a bit skeptical seeing women out running or at the gym or in exercise classes wearing tops that are essentially just a sports bra. Skeptical not because of the way they look but because somehow I couldn’t get my head round being comfortable. Yes I realise this is silly and says way more about me. But anyway, hello superwoman. Exercising in just a sport bra for a top was different. It felt somehow empowering. I don’t think I’ll ever run outside or go to the gym just in a sports bra top because quite honestly I can’t do with the staring or the comments, I have other things to worry about but here, at home in my spare bedroom, hell yes.

8 Minutes and Mantras

Well it stopped being too hot and with that I ran out of excuses really. I still managed to not run for a few days, I kept finding excuses in the morning, reassuring myself that I would get out later. Guess what. Yep. Later never happened. This morning my excuses didn’t really sounds believable, even to me. So I gave myself a talking to. ‘You’re a double Dopey’ I told myself ‘just get your butt out there and run’. I tried to convince myself that running for 8 minutes three times on a West Yorkshire August morning was not going to be anywhere near as hard as 26.2 miles in Florida January heat. ‘It’s also less fun’ niggled that little voice in my head.

Anyway, then Kath said she would come with me and given that none of my excuses had sounded plausible in my head, I wasn’t about the try them out on her. So I got dressed and off we went. It was only 8 minutes running. I mean really, 8 minutes is not a very long time. Except it is. The first 8 minutes actually felt ok. I settled into it quickly and while it started getting hard at about 5-6 minutes as we got to the steepest bit of the uphill I huffed and puffed my way up relatively happily. So far so good. 2 minute walk was enough to recover a bit and I felt ok setting off for run 2. Run 2 mostly sloped very very slightly upwards (after a sharp short down – which on the way back becomes a sharp short up – see below). The annoying slope you really only notice when you are running that way. It doesn’t feel like it slopes downwards the other way.

In run 2 my brain started not playing ball. It felt too hard, thoughts of walking a bit crept in. Excuses formed: ‘I can always try again to run it all tomorrow’ and ‘I’m just feeling a bit heavy because of all the food yesterday’ (It was Kath’s Mum’s birthday and we had a lovely roast dinner and birthday cake). Often what happens next is that we progress from that to ‘No point, can’t do it, might as well just walk, crap, can’t do it’. I managed to refocus before the real negative got hold and sent the little voice off into a corner of my brain for a time out. Instead I told myself that I really just had to run for 5 minutes because then I could turn round and head back towards home. And as I knew from run 1, 5 minutes was actually easy. I was huffing and puffing, sweat was dripping and I was barely going snail’s pace but I was going and at about 5 minutes we turned, back up a little tiny hill and then down the slope that doesn’t feel like a slope and run 2 was done.

My lungs were screaming for air as I mourned my lost fitness and cursed myself for having stopped running after the marathons last year and not really every getting going again. But after 2 minutes I had recovered enough as the watch beep told me it was time for my moonin butt to get moving again. Run 2 started with that short sharp uphill. Just a 10 second kind of hill but as I got to the top to another section which pretends to be flat – it’s the flattest on the route but at this point is really slightly upwards sloping, I felt like I had jelly legs. I was sure I couldn’t possibly run another minute even though I had only run less than a minute so far. Nope, I was going to have to admit defeat. I think I whimpered. Kath told me I’d recover now we were on the flat. ‘It’s not flat’ I felt like screaming but I had no spare oxygen for that. She told me I could do it and to remember my mantras.

Ha mantras. Yes I’d forgotten all about them. Mantras are funny things. In a way I am skeptical about them and on a cynical day (so most days) a bit dismissive. Somehow I can’t quite bring myself to accept that talking to myself and repeating affirmations or whatever is an acceptable way of getting through life or through a run. It just seems weird to me to be telling myself how amazing I am. It makes me cringe. So while I thought about how cringeworthy mantras are and all of that went through my head, I hadn’t stopped running. I was, somehow, miraculously still running. I heard Kath say ‘Come on keep going, you’re strong’. And I sort of shrugged and thought ‘well compared to three weeks ago I am, I’ve done all my strength workouts after all’ so my mantra became ‘I am strong and I can do this’. After saying it in my head three or four times, not finishing the run was no longer an option. All I had to do was get up the hill, down the other side and depending on time, up another slope for a bit. I am strong and I can do this. Car to car to gate to lamppost to car to gate to tree to wall to car… I am strong and I can do this. And I did.

Collapsing in a heap at the end of run 3 was tempting. But I kept walking for the 2 minutes as per the programme and by the end of that had recovered a fair bit. We were nearly home – just a couple more minutes of walking. It was slow and it was hard but it also reminded me that while often at the start of running or at the re-start of running things are physically hard, really hard and the sayings about running being mostly mental etc don’t really help or apply, there is absolutely still a place for training your mind to help. Yes I found the run today physically hard but I am now aware of the mental strategies available to me to push to the end of a physically hard run. I tried to just focus on something else during run 2 – I was still thinking about the run on this occasion but it was enough stop the negative spiral and I got through run 3 only because of the mantra. This is a definite advantage a running re-start has over starting for the first time I think. I have experienced runs were it’s all mental and I have tried different mental strategies. Now I just need to remember to use them as I make my way through this programme!

It’s too hot

It’s too hot. I generally think of myself as quite good in heat really but that apparently only applies when I am not at home. West Yorkshire is not supposed to be this hot and humid and I am just permanently grumpy about being too hot. Have I mentioned it’s too hot?

Anyway, running. I went. Kath came with me. My plan said 7 minutes running three times with 2 minute walk breaks. Well even at 7am it was already warm (have I mentioned the heat) but there was still a bit of air. The first 7 minutes were ok, hard on the uphill towards the end but ok. The second 7 minutes were just ridiculous and I didn’t think I’d get beyond 4 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 6 minutes… I would almost certainly have stopped but Kath kept insisting I could do it. I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about that but I did feel like collapsing in a heap when I heard the beep on my watch.

The 3rd set of 7 minutes was pretty much all downhill so much easier and I recovered a little. It was lovely to run off road again too. I have been doing an out and back road route for the first part of the plan but it was early enough to head for our sheep loop (we should really call it something else, we haven’t had our sheep for quite some time now) including the canal. And the longer running intervals made a loop more worthwhile. We finished run 3 just about a minute or so onto the canal and then enjoyed a relaxing walk home from there. It was nice to do a loop rather than an out and back and it was lovely to see some greenery and ducks! I hadn’t realised it but I have missed the ducks.

Other than that it’s basically just too hot.

Week 2 Run 3

Come on, who stole the air last night? Even though it was a bit cooler during the day than it had been, last night was just the worst for sleeping. I couldn’t get to sleep for ages and once I did, I didn’t stay asleep… event the cats were hot and bothered. At 5.19 we gave up and Kath got us a cup of tea. The sky was stunning and as I tried to stretch and shake off the sleepiness I thought that it was probably worth getting up and out. It took me a little while to get going but at about 6.30 I left the house for the 3rd run of the second week of the 5km plan. Run 3 is run 5 minutes, walk 3 minutes and do that 3 times.

Given how hard I found running for 3 minutes the other day I really wasn’t sure about 5 minutes. After having returned Odin cat to the house to stop him following me I set off, not really thinking much about anything. Just a little way down the road I passed a neighbour who cheerfully informed me that she had seen Kath and I was way behind and wouldn’t catch her and that she knew what I’d been doing. I have no idea what she was talking about. I set off a good 10 minutes or so after Kath on a completely different run and as for what I was doing – erm, getting up, dressed and sorted to run. Thinking about the random, often well meaning but slightly idiotic comments you get when running kept me occupied until my watch beeped to tell me 5 minutes was up. I guess 5 minutes is shorter than 3 minutes in some cases!

I walked the rest thinking I didn’t really need the three minutes and set off on the second run at the beep. I got mostly downhill here so it was fine. I turned after 4 minutes of running still quite happy. Again I did not feel like I really needed three minutes of recovery but I was sauntering, looking around and daydreaming rather than marching on. Run 3. Well, if run 2 was mostly down hill and I had now turned round then Run 3 was of course mostly uphill. Well the first 2 minutes were uphill and wow that was not comfortable. I huffed and puffed my way to the top like a steam train and when I got to the top my glutes were burning. It was quite tempting to stop, I’d done the hard bit after all but I still had 3 minutes to go and figured I’d recover a bit on the down before sloping up again. Yeah something like that. That 5 minutes was looooong. Trust me, 5 minutes is not always the same length of time.

Kilian showing off his slightly
unorthodox yoga moved

Once home I looked at my Nike app and saw that today’s session was a strength yoga class of 23 minutes. Kath wasn’t back yet so I thought I might as well give that a go before breakfast. It was actually not bad and Downward Facing Dog really helps stretching out legs. They were feeling quite tight after the run but so much better after the yoga. There were a couple of things I struggled with a bit because I have no upper body strength – the transition from plank to upward facing dog for example – but generally I was quite happy with that.

The advantage of having done my run and my exercise session before 8am is that it is done. I don’t have to spend the rest of the day worrying about when to fit it in and how that works with food and how that aligns with Kath’s work pattern today etc. I’m done. The day is mine. The disadvantage is that I am not quite sure what to do with myself now. I have all day with no real plans (unless renewing car insurance counts as a plan). Still, it feels like a positive start to the week.

Happy Monday.