Over three years ago, I continually woke up feeling stiff, sore and fatigued. It’s one thing to feel this way when in training or from frequent races, but I haven’t had the joy of crossing a finish line of any kind to justify my creeping geriatric condition in a long time. What could be causing the back pain, the roaming inflammation, the brain fog – the endless need for sleep?
In what felt like an endless search for answers, I had only became more confused by incongruous diagnoses and conflicting protocols, to say nothing of being outright frustrated by the common refrain from well meaning friends, “That’s what years of racing will do to you,” or “This is just how it feels to age.” This line puzzled me every time, as “aging” doesn’t seem like it should be this acute, and I know plenty of people in their forties, fifties and sixties who feel great, look great and are in their workout prime! Months of investigations – with the help of both traditional and eastern medical experts – led to me to a variety healing modalities for pain relief – from deep tissue massage, Myofascial release, a challenging elimination diet and heavy vitamin and mineral supplementation. But nothing worked or at least nothing improved for the long-term. It wasn’t until my latest visit to a doctor who ran a more nuanced test that I discovered I had something that’s becoming almost common (or chronic!) in New England: Lyme disease.
This tricky little bugger (pun intended) wreaks havoc on the body and interferes with almost every major organ system. Lyme bacteria steals crucial minerals, messes with brain function and can eventually kill you, if left untreated. I am gratefully now on the road to recovery, but it took a mental and physical reset. At one point, I wondered if I’d ever race again, which is a dark, depressing feeling. In order to put the pieces back together and return to the “Ironman shape”, I had to totally change my concept of training.
Those of us confronting illness, from longer, more complex treatments for things like cancer or Lupus, to the short-term but debilitating onslaughts of cold and flu, have to modify how we adapt to our daily movement and routines. Chronic injuries fall into the same category and have to be treated to recovery. The only way to fully come back to yourself, is to understand the art of rest, strategic fitness and systemic changes that set you up for sustained success. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Diet: No matter what plan you follow, understand that plants are good. Eat as “cleanly” as possible, meaning reduce or eliminate all processed sugars, eat a diet rich in vegetables and high-quality fresh proteins, lay off the booze entirely if you can, and hydrate, especially first thing in the morning when you wake up. A body in recovery needs to focus on a responsive immune system, so don’t distract it with processed foods, soft drinks or with crutches like caffeine. You may also need supplementation to support healing.
- Be Thorough: With illness or injury, enlisting the advice of experts can make the difference between healing as quickly as possible or sliding deeper into the feeling-bad-rabbit-hole. Think of it as hiring a coach. If you wanted a podium spot in rowing, an expert would better help you land one. Be thorough with your search and seek more than one opinion. In my case, my general M.D. ordered a standard and often misleading test for Lyme that looks at only 2 markers out of 10 for the disease. It came back negative. However, encouraged by other Lyme sufferers to seek a specialist, a more complete test was ordered, which came back positive on 3 of 10 markers for the disease. The $200 visit to this doc saved me months of more suffering and gave me clarity to my healing path. Knee, back and muscle related injuries often are uncovered to reveal connections with other body systems or dysfunction. With a little more investigative energy and homework, you’ll get to the root of the problem, not just continue to treat symptoms.
- Mindset: Most warriors (whether on the water, road or in the office) have a hard time pulling back, It’s not intuitive and can feel like laziness or my favorite, failure. What I’ve realized through this experience though – and I’m thankful for it – is failure has nothing to do with it. Reducing intensity in these circumstances is the right thing to do, not the consolation prize. This is the time not to push boundaries. Maybe future race plans will have to be cancelled, daily workouts down shifted in intensity and more dedicated, planned rest gets built in. Instead of a punishing attitude about what I haven’t done that day, I try to take a more peaceful one. Now that I am back to pedaling 100 miles again, I really appreciate what it took to get here!
So here’s to your healing, with permission to slow down if you need it. Every body has seasons, just like the earth, and if it happens to be a frigid winter in yours, listen up; spring and summer will come again, but you have to let the weather play out while doing your best to nurture the process. You can’t force the tropics on a blizzard and under the snow there’s always new growth.