How I recovered from a painful back injury to become a triathlete

It’s been a bit of a gap since my last blog post, but finally I’m getting started again. I’d like to share with you a bit of my own story, and why exercise is so important to me.

There are actually a lot of different tales to tell, but I’m going to begin with what was probably the most dramatic of all. This is the story of how, at the age of 30, I got a big message from the Universe to get my act together.

I thought I was doing everything right. I’d studies hard at school, got loads of qualifications, landed a job at a big multi-national firm and was living a jet-setting life flying around Europe every week to run workshops and train sales people. I’d even had a lovely boyfriend, and although we had to do the long distance thing, we met up most weekends and had a great time eating out and socialising.

The problem was, I wasn’t doing enough to take care of my health. All the eating out, and drinking too much (especially on expenses paid business trips), meant I’d gained a lot of weight. On and off, through my 20s, I’d tried to tackle it. Occasionally I’d try to start running again but often did too much too soon and got injured. This was a particular problem for me as I was a half decent runner as a kid, and so I expected high standards from myself. I basically pushed myself too hard. Of course I tried a variety of diets, some worked, some didn’t, but all were short term fixes and got swept away when I went back to old routines. The thing I probably did best was when I started cycling to work every day. 2 miles there, 2 miles back, on a little fold up Brompton. I loved it! I wasn’t even put off when I randomly fell off in the middle of Newcastle-Gateshead’s Millenium Bridge! Still it wasn’t quite enough to compensate for the heavy drinking sessions with the Sales teams. I knew I was quite overweight, and not very fit, but as I was 30 I just assumed I had loads of time to sort it out later – when I’m less busy!

The crunch point came when I was on holiday. 3 weeks in New Zealand. I’d been looking forward to it for ages. We were trying to be quite active and we’d planned to go Sea Kayaking with a group in the beautiful Doubtful Sound on the South Island. The day itself was amazing. When I woke up the next morning – I couldn’t move! I had terrible pain in my back, and when I finally begged my way into an emergency appointment with a Physiotherapist about 5 days later, he demonstrated that my spine was crooked, and diagnosed a slipped disc. Apart from the excrutiating pain which I endured for the last stages of the holiday, and the 24 hour journey home, I then also spent the next 6 months in pain, unable to walk properly and unable to sit at my work desk (I would kneel down in front of my desk as it was more comfortable).

Finally it was a suggestion that I had a steroid injection in my spine, that prompted my to take matters into my own hands. I wasn’t a medical expert but I knew I needed to do two  things 1) Lose some weight so that my back would be under less pressure and 2) Strengthen my body so my muscles could help hold me upright. Maybe it was risky, and I probably should have checked my plan with my GP, but I started going to the gym, doing gentle cardio, strength training and stretching and also had a wake up call on my food habits and began to automatically pick up better options at the supermarket, and make better decisions when eating out.

I did lose a lot of weight, but it was the fact that I was focusing on taking a positive action, through exercise, that really motivated me. I don’t think I would have lost the weight without having got more active at the same time. Also, I was being realistic with what I could do. I couldn’t just put on my trainers and go for a 5k run with a back injury. I had to be gentle. I started with the cross trainer, then I’s do short burst on the treadmill. I never did more than 10 mins of one exercise in the early days, so I could keep things varied and see how I felt afterwards.

A few months in I saw a headline in a magazine that grabbed my attention “Train for your first triathlon in 6 weeks!” OK, I thought, I will! I found the shortest race I could that was 6 weeks away, and followed the basic training plan. That event is a story in itself, which I shall tell next time, but, *spoiler alert* I did it!

That first triathlon, which took place one year after I first injured my back, was my signal that I had made a full recovery. I was no longer in pain, but it went beyond that, I had taken control of my health and in the process taking control of my life.

Many people see exercise as a burden, as something to be suffered, the old “no pain, no gain” mantra. I don’t see it that way. Exercise is life giving. It builds strength, it builds confidence and it thrives on hope. Getting active gave me my life back and opened up my world to new friends, hopes and dreams. It’s a lesson I carry through life, and has helped me many times in other stories…..  which I will tell, on another day.

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My earliest triathlon photo, taken in 2009, 2 years after my debilitating back injury. Giving a thumbs up whilst riding a bike is an important skill!

 

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