As I sit here writing this, I am sore all over. Last night I joined my younger brother, a keen Judoka, at one of his routine training sessions.
I am sore from the tips of my toes to the beds of my fingernails. The muscles around my shoulders ache from grappling and the thick tendons around my hips are tender from squatting, pushing and pulling.
This kind of pain is good. It is a reminder that my body is active and alive, and more importantly, this discomfort was self inflicted. The process was enjoyed.
The worst pain is that of an injury. My injury sprang onto me by surprise – a twinge in my back, a sudden collapse of integrity into a powerless, vulnerable mess. I looked strong on the outside, I was moving heavy weight, but my strength was built atop a cracked foundation. So, firstly, being sore reminds me that I am injury free and OK. I am still in control of my body.
Secondly, soreness contrasts against the pain of injury. Soreness is a reminder of worse.
My back injury took months to recover from. In May I crashed to zero, but struggled on with the same training intention and intensity with which I had built myself. In June and July it hurt to sit or to move. In August, the pain followed me across the globe to Australia. I was still limited by sharp pains that attacked at random points throughout the day, pain that made my legs buckle.
It was in September that I gave up. I stopped exercising, I stopped moving. It was only at this point that I started to recover. If we fast-forward to March the next year, I was healed and better than before.
May/June: I started my recovery as any weekend warrior does. Do more. Do it badly.
Squat with 80% of your previous, come on, it’s light weight in comparison, it shouldn’t hurt, keep greasing the groove. Eat food, drink shakes, pop pills, foam roll, lacrosse balls, massage, fascial release, yoga, hot-cold contrast baths.
Just keep working, keep trying, find the solution, keep moving. Fix yourself.
July: Can’t lift? Run!
Watch as chaos ensues as I start running instead. Runners don’t get back pain, right? They can move with speed, grace and fluidity. Is this my solution? Pain.
August: I’ve had a month off from lifting weights – can I tentatively visit the gym again?
Oh look, there is a hex-bar; that’s supposed to reduce shear forces on the spine; this is practically rehab!!
September: Full stop.
I was in a Sports and Exercise Medicine clinic where I was shadowing a doctor consulting patients. A young woman, a full time office worker with a netball habit, had the worst news broken to her. Her chronic tendon pain needed a steroid injection and 4 weeks of rest, with a follow up consultation and perhaps an ultrasound scan. Quite routine, sensible stuff – take the break now, get on top of the inflammation to prevent further degeneration and to accelerate you to rehab!
She broke down in tears as her world collapsed. She sobbed that she didn’t know how she would cope. What would she do with her Wednesday nights and her Saturday afternoons? How would she manage with her stressful work? When would she see her friends?
While I sat bewildered by her sorrow only then did a realisation dawn upon me.
September taught me about myself, my behaviours, my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, it taught me to be introspective and compassionate to myself. I realised that exercise was more than a hobby. Behind the screen of the benefits of exercise, a healthy lifestyle, an disciplined approach to food, there lay deeper driving mechanisms.
My most important realisation was that my attitudes towards exercise are complex, longstanding and have been woven into my fabric since I was young. As a child, I have been shown that exercise improves the physical body. I formed rules; The bigger the challenge faced, the better the character built; Consistency is key; If you want to play elite, you have to work hard and invest yourself; train, eat and sleep; Games are won and lost on physical and mental fitness; Train to escape, to alleviate stress; Balance mental work with physical work.
Now that I live in an adult’s world I still use these rules but they are applied to greater burdens. They are my work, my play and my escape.
Walking into the gym or lacing up my shoes are my keys to many worlds. Worlds where I can hum along country roads, where I set the pace, where I am alone with my thoughts without intrusion. Worlds where I improve myself, set goals and overcome them. Worlds where I can suffer pain, relieving my anxieties of reality. Havens where I can get back to myself.
Lock me up and throw away the key!
I stopped exercising because that was the necessary thing for me to do.
I asked myself, ‘how much of my back pain is physical and how much is psychogenic?’
My back pain was closely woven into the worlds I escaped to. The pain was a sign of mental discomfort, producing behaviours that wreaked havoc beneath a disguise of virtue. When the pain limited my ability to escape, I fought to find another way. Physical means followed other physical means – with no sustainable outlet. My back pain was physical, but originated from and was perpetuated by my mind. The only thing for me to do was to stop. The only way to fix my back pain was to fix the mind – to fix myself.
Physician heal thyself.
When I stopped having to run, sweat and grind, what did I find?
A new appreciation of sleep, rest, reading on a couch for hours. I was at my Aunt’s farm in Sydney – I walked around their land, greeted their chickens at dawn, chatted with their animals.
I learned an acceptance of sitting calmly, breathing softly, an appreciation of stillness.
I found a key to a new world, where I was not dependent on my physical body. Whereas previously I plunged myself into hunting my concerns that fled between shadows of trees, behind mountains and into crevasses, my questions were answered by still thought that illuminated from afar. Sigh, this approach is much easier.
It is a new year since then. I am lifting weights and running.
I also cycle on roads and through forests. I surf, skate, swim, ski. I’m sore from Judo.
I’m moving better and enjoying it more.
I take my time, I focus on movement, tension in my muscles, the rhythm of breathing and my heart rate.
I ask myself “How am I?” often.
I’m chasing experience.
I have realised that we’re built atop of our minds.
Before, I built a house upon cracked foundations. It took a few months of demolition and refurbishment to get back to zero.
We place our internal stressors onto external dependencies.
When chasing an answer, look inside first.
We have to go back into our minds to order the old before we reach out to try things new.