Round and round in circles

My experience of rehab is lots of circles!

Whilst finally being able to move a little can feel like a release from incarceration and make you want to re-explore the world that you once knew, the reality is that it probably needs to be much closer to home!

You need to be ready to stop and rest, or stop and return home at any stage – as pushing through pain can lead to a major set-back. So, I have built loops with benches, coffee stops and quick routes back to the car (in order to return home).

I think that I now know the distance to all of the benches within a half-mile radius of home! And even bought one of those walking sticks with a pop-up seat. It was surprisingly inexpensive, and actually comfortable enough for a little rest and recovery – although you would not want to sit on it for a long period!

Having a goal, but being flexible on the way of achieving it

Initially, I struggled because the goals seemed ridiculous – for instance 4 laps of 200m in a day and then a rest day seems petty when you have run marathons and ultra-marathons.

And then I struggled even more because I could not complete them without being doubled-over with the strobing pain – the other part of the goal was without any increase in pain level.

The goals are really important – as they help you to make and monitor progress over time, without over-extending yourself. And I learned to stop deriding how petty they were and to start to think of little rewards if I managed them, like a square of dark chocolate or a cup of coffee.

I also learned how to regress it when I could not achieve it – either by reducing the distance, or by increasing the rest interval. So I would walk to the bench with my book and if my body was not ready to walk back, I would either sit for a while or read for a while and then head back. And then do the same later in the day.

The psychological benefit of a change of scenery

I would also drive to wooded areas so that even very short loops looked and felt different as I walked them. And the opportunity for a nice cup of coffee as a reward sitting at a different café and taking in a different view!

Rule number 1 – leave the watch at home!

I have to admit that the only time I would do laps was as a part of training – whether a track, road or off-road loop – the goal would always be to look at the splits of each lap! This mentality of constantly pushing yourself is not at all the mode of gently listening to your body for the early cues of progress or issues – so it is important to leave the watch at home, and avoid cheeky glances at the lap times!

The hardest parts & my coping mechanisms

The parts that I struggled with were:

  • Stopping in time – since often the worst pain would be later in the day, I struggled to find the cues of when to stop if the session needed to be curtailed. The two insights that helped a little were: (i) spotting the very early signs of fatigue and stopping whilst there was at least one more lap in me and (ii) leaving enough time for my body to settle in between each one – so I would plan to sit for at least 10 minutes and at times 30-40 mins and even an hour to let the body settle and see how it felt.
  • Keeping the discipline and only doing the plan, even on days when I felt I could do more – because I couldn’t wait to be better and make faster progress, it was hard not to over-extend by adding an extra little walk to see something when I was feeling great. Especially when I was with friends, for whom so little activity was quite boring and their natural temptation was to tacitly or explicitly encourage you to go faster or do more. My two coping mechanisms were (i) for all that it was lovely to see people, doing these was better done alone and meeting them for a coffee later (ii) keeping a log of all of the exercises and what level and type of pain I had was a useful tracker for the programme and to talk with the medical experts.
  • Sometimes these leave me very inflamed and I then struggle to sleep – so I always do the sessions in the earlier part of the day in order to give the body more time to recover.

In summary – celebrating the circles!

As you probably gather, I found the process of going round and round in small circles rather hard to get my head around. So planning for it and finding ways to celebrate is key – every single one marks progress and is an opportunity for some fresh air and seeing different things. So well worth celebrating!

Are you doing your physio exercises? If not – it is really worth working out why not!

Are you doing your physio exercises?

The actual exercises, with the frequency that you agreed?

The figures say that 80-90% of people do not do them. And I know of a physio who when injured admits that she does not do them! So what hope for the rest of us?

Injuries stop us from doing the things that we need and want to do. And the time and hassle of travelling to appointments is a further drain. So, what stops us from doing the exercises that can help us to get better?

Indeed, I was interested in a tweet from a US-based physio at the end of August where he wrote to the Twitter-sphere “I genuinely don’t understand. The activities I gave you help a lot with your symptoms, they take 12 minutes, but you “don’t have time” to do them? Can’t you get up 12 minutes earlier in the morning? Can’t you do them during all of those Netflix programs you tell me I should watch?!”  This led to some interesting points on Twitter, and made me want to write this blog post.

We tell ourselves that we do not have time. But is that really the reason? What is underpinning our procrastination and how can we find ways to overcome it?

Are we rebelling against the homework?

This is a moment to be honest with ourselves. When we know that it is doing the exercises consistently and correctly exercises, do we still want to rebel and not do them? Really?

Once we have given ourselves the pep talk to get on with it and ‘eat the frog’, how do we find the mechanisms to help us to do it each day? Some things that work include:

  • Scheduling and writing down the time in your diary to do the exercises each day
  • Setting an alarm on your phone for the time to do the exercises
  • Having a paper-tracker and star chart on the fridge or mirror as a reminder
  • Phone-based tracker of the exercises each day, with reminders
  • Giving yourself a reward for completing the exercises (eg a cup of your favourite tea)
  • Doing them early in the day, so that they do not hang over you
  • Being accountable to someone – letting them know that you have done the exercises each day
  • Letting the physio know that you really want to spend the first few minutes of each appointment reviewing how the exercises have been going, and then using these insights to progress the exercises after each appointment (you could even email an update to them before each appointment)
  • What else could work for you?….

Do we not believe in the exercises and the process?

Often we believe simple narratives and I sometimes think that for injuries, this is ‘the experts will fix me’. This is sadly not true and we need to replace it with a more realistic ‘my body needs daily help with the healing that is required, and I need to do these things every day as there are no short-cuts’.

As we think more deeply about this barrier, we may come to the conclusion that we do not believe in the current path – maybe we think that it is not yet the right diagnosis, or the right treatment plan, or the right person to work with. If these are the issues, then now is the time to talk these over with the physio, or go to see someone else for a second opinion.

I have often seen this loss of belief happen when an athlete has been seeing the same physio for over 6 weeks and is not seeing progress. I would suggest that the longer you leave making a change, the longer it will take to make a recovery – especially as I generally see the adherence to the exercises drop off with longer periods where there is no observed progress and no change in the exercises or approach. Obviously, the first stage is to talk over the concerns with the current physio, but a fresh pair of eyes generally provides a fresh perspective (and scarily frequently a completely different diagnosis and treatment approach!)

Or more simply, we may not understand why we are doing the same exercises, week after week. A good therapist will explain what the goal of the exercises is, and the test for seeing whether your body has made progress against that goal. This context is key – for instance after joint surgery doing the exercises through pain is key to stop scar tissue (which the body throws out in every direction) from forming across the movement planes of the joint and therefore limiting Range of Motion for good. Knowing that helps to push through the pain – but needs someone to explain it!

Do we fear the pain?

Many people do joke that the exercises are more painful than the injury. But really we should be in search of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ (as I blogged about in some detail last week) – enough to push and develop the under-active muscles or release the over-active muscles, but not putting ourselves so deep into the pain zone that we set the healing back, or push the body back into the ‘alert’ state that could lead to more guarding and defence.

In the event that the exercises are very painful, message your physio and when you next see them:

  • Get them to watch your form and be very specific on the exact movements and where exactly you should be feeling the benefits
  • Bring the number of reps and sets that you have managed to do (including when you have done them early in the day, when you are still relatively unfatigued) and discuss some more realistic targets.
  • Bear in mind that every single exercise can be regressed to make it easier – so get them to show you the regressions and agree what the triggers would be to move up through the various progressions.
  • Ask if there are ‘warm-up’ movements that you can do to get the releases and mobilisations before the exercise, in order to give your body the best chance of success.
  • Then stick with it and do not beat yourself up if you do not manage all of the sets and reps – every exercise that does not put you deep into the pain-zone will help!

Are we uncertain of what we are meant to be doing?

Many of the exercises are quite complex and when we are in pain we do not always listen and watch all of the form points. So if there are videos of the exercises – then watch them again and write down a note of the key points to remember in order to do the exercises correctly.

It may be embarrassing to have to admit that we are not really sure what we are meant to be doing – but it is in our benefit to clarify, so ask away! A good physio should be delighted that you are checking and clarifying. Do this at the start of the appointment, as if you only discuss the exercises in the last few minutes of the appointment, they are under time pressure and need to get you out of the door to get to their next patient.

If it is not any of these reasons, then what is it?

We owe it to our body to get to the bottom of why we are not doing the exercises, and then put in place. So keep taking a positive, inquisitive, collaborative and learning approach to your programme and your rehabilitation.

Good luck – and get those exercises done!

Finding Goldilocks!

Looking back at the time since my injury, I feel like this has been one of the areas that I have learned the most about – and so I wanted to share it with you.

In training, I think that you are always looking for that ‘Goldilocks zone’ – where you are stretched and make progress, but not to the level that it breaks you and forces you back. So that across your week’s training it is not too easy, and not too hard, but just right to get the adaptation that you are looking for.

When injured, this zone is even harder to find because there are no benchmarks. Indeed all of the normal benchmarks that you have are based on your previous, un-injured self and lead you seriously astray! It can be so hard to leave your ego behind in terms of what level is worthy of effort and exhaustion. An additional difficulty is that my sense is that the gap between stretch and stress is much narrower when you are injured, so you need to be more precise and wary of the smallest signs of over-reach, before the body stops you in your tracks. And these ‘tells’ may be completely different from those that you got when you were in full-on training and the onset may even come hours later (especially in the case of nerve-pain).

My own search for Goldilocks was a long one! In spite of constant commitment and tracking, I had a very long period where week after week I failed to get through the ‘simple’ exercises that were set – sometimes collapsing or passing out with the pain, sometimes just completely seizing up and suffering for the rest of the day and night before my next attempt. So managing to do the prescribed exercises consistently for the whole week between appointments really was a big deal.

I had no idea how much it had been torturing me. Realising this issue and actually managing to do seven days in a row of completing the prescribed exercise and actually managing to progress the reps, I now feel so much lighter in mood and belief. I start to believe that I am starting to recover and starting on my way back to life. Even though I know that these exercises are easier than a good proportion of my previous exercise sets, completing them means so much.

Why the breakthrough?

I still have a file of all of the exercise sheets that I have failed to make over the last 18 months (a few of them across 2-3 months of appointments with constantly trying and failing, and almost all of them still beyond me today). I should probably have put them in the bin, but have been keeping them for the day when I improve enough to get through and make the progress to be able to underpin the basics that could mean a return to life and sport. Looking back over them compared with what has worked for me over this last week, these are the things that stand out as differences:

  1. This exercise routine is broken down into a daily gentle mobilisation routine and the progressive part of the set is only every other day to allow for a recovery day. Many of my other programmes were up to 3-5 times per day, and always daily, which seems to have been an intensity that my body could not cope with.
  2. The first few months of the programme are all bodyweight movement exercises and only progress to include weights once I have built up to that.
  3. There is a ramp into the reps and sets, as the body adapts – with the first set very easily within my current capability.
  4. A golden rule is to always stop with at least 2 reps still in the tank. And never, ever going to the point of failure – as that can put the body into a state of alert and lead to more ‘guarding’ behaviour from the muscles (which can take weeks and months to then unlock).
  5. Every single exercise has one or more regressions to make it easier, in case the pain gets worse and I start to struggle – so I can do drop-sets, or easier sets. I have learned that every exercise has regressions, and what a difference that makes! Previously the exercises had been much more binary – it was do the exercises and if you fail early, then stop.
  6. We have gone through all of the key form points and gone to the point at which compensation sets in. For the compensations that we went through, I have a physical cue to keep the body on form (such as a roller balanced in the small of the back, a strap to keep under tension at all times, or the knees in contact at all points of the move etc)
  7. There is a clear goal to be able to breathe deeply and calmly throughout, not straining or bracing, or pushing through pain (but it is OK for the muscles to get tired or ache, as they used to when training). This is really useful, as there have been so many different views on whether you ‘push through the pain, as it is just guarding behaviour’ or ‘stop and respect the pain, as it is there for a reason’.
  8. We’ve got a clear commitment between us to keep to the recovery interval, reps and form precisely, even if that means a ‘fail’ – as this helps us to get to the root of the issues quicker and more accurately. This makes it feel like a partnership where we are both working on the problem together, rather than me feeling that as the patient I am the problem.
  9. The programme follows a clear and specific order of releasing overactive muscles and gently activating the specific muscle and then integrating it into the wider movement. This does make it a longer programme and means that there are no short-cuts, but really makes a difference. It also only works at the end-range for a short time, as this is very demanding indeed.
  10. There is a path forward with really small increments for the progression, such that there is a clear glidepath for progress, with check-steps and alternatives to take a different approach to address lack of progress. This fits into an overall ‘treatment’ plan that looks like a training plan, complete with blocks each with their own objective, quantitative progress testing every 2 weeks and a clear functional progression thread underlying all of it.  Naturally every athlete wants to know ‘how long until…’ but I have really learned now to trust the process and just to focus on the progress in each of the 2 week testing blocks and making fast interventions when something happens that is not what we expected.

Why did not managing to complete the exercises come to have such a big meaning for me?

I have to admit that I am only just starting to pick away at and release the layers of blaming myself that I feel for letting everyone down, not managing with the basics of life, and for not recovering as expected. This is all psychologically very difficult.

As an athlete I had always believed that consistent and hard work would be rewarded. And that in a recovery context this meant doing always the exercises from the physio – no ifs and no buts. Early in my recovery a friend who is a physio told me that the level of adherence to exercises from the physio is only thought to be about 20% (and actually admitted that even when she goes to see a physio herself, she rarely does the exercises!) I vowed never to be one of those 80% not doing their exercises.

So when pain overtook me over and over again such that I would collapse weeping with the pain and retire to bed or lying on the floor to recover, I felt that I was letting myself and everyone else down. That I did not deserve to recover.

But that is all in the past now! And I think that if I had known the questions to ask (based on the 10 bullet-points above), I could have got there more quickly.

So what should you do if you are currently struggling?

Even if not injured, I think that we are all in search of the Goldilocks zone and can apply these principles in our training to get to the stretch zone, but not the stress zone! In rehab we probably need to dial it even further back – to ensure that we are progressing, but not getting into the overload zone.

Having now spent a lot of time studying corrective exercise and reading a lot of books, and doing online study, I have learned that there is literally no exercise that cannot be made more basic – moving it right back into exercises lying on the floor and building from key underpinning exercises of the correct muscle recruitment in breathing. So always ask how to regress (and progress) an exercise; you also learn a lot in the process too! I realised that I did not ask this enough – I would tell the physio how I had got on and we would either just try again the next week without changing anything, or they would tell me to stop doing anything for a week.

And when doing the exercises, always focus on form and the correct rest interval – stopping as soon as the form slips. This ensures that you get the real benefit. Plus see the sense of achievement with the progression. This does mean becoming more of a Strength & Conditioning (S&C) student than ever before! Watching athletes do S&C I’ve seen that strong athletes’ bodies often (effortlessly) find another way around by using the synergist muscles rather than activating the main muscle – so knowing the cues and checks is important. Things that your body could get away with before injury can put you deep into pain post-injury and relying on dominant muscles misses a lot of the benefit of the exercises!

Finally, I would say that often the focus is on strength (which is about the muscles) but can be about the recruitment (which is the messages from the nervous system). So it is worth understanding which of these it is, as that should change the pace and type of movements in the exercise programme.

Good luck in your search for Goldilocks!

Why I asked for my money back on the FAI Fix

The FAI Fix was recommended to me by a friend of a friend. It was developed by two Personal Trainers (PTs) in the USA – Shane and Matt – who both had significant hip issues and manage to overcome pain, impingement and poor Range of Movement (RoM) without surgery – although they do admit that this has taken up to a decade of daily work! It comes with a number of success stories on the website: https://www.thefaifix.com/ and is supported by some really excellent YouTube videos and emails that made me really feel that Shane and Matt understood the issues and challenges of hip pain, and also explained the anatomy aspects of it really clearly.

However, when I was thinking about signing up for the programme I could not find any impartial reviews of how people had got on with the programme. And I saw tweets and messages of others looking for the same. So I thought that I would write about my experiences in order to support others.

The programme

There are 2 levels of the programme. The basic one is the FAI Fix Basic for $129.95 USD – a one-off payment that then gives ongoing access to the exercise library. There is then a further payment to do the more advanced programme for athletes who want more hip movement (eg powerlifters). But they are clear that this is a much smaller group, and is a progression from the first programme once you have resolved the pain in your hips in usual daily activities.

On the homepage, they explain their TSR system – Tissue Work, Stretching and Reactivation. This is a common (and well-proven) structure for many rehab programmes:

  1. releases with the foam roller, ball, knobbler etc to release the overactive muscles
  2. stretching to lengthen the tight muscles
  3. reactivation to activate and strengthen the underactive muscles

It is impressive how much more RoM you can get by doing targeted muscle releases before stretching that area.

There are a minimum number of tools that you need in order to be able to follow the programme – a foam roller, a strap (which could be a belt from a dressing gown), a lacrosse ball (or small, hard ball – there are different levels of hardness in therapy balls and the idea is that you progress) and possibly a ‘knobbler’:

The tools! The ‘stick’ was an optional extra, and the blue one is the ‘knobbler’ – but most of the programme could be done on the floor in front of a mirror with the foam roller.

When the programme link arrives there are 13 tests which are meant to narrow down which of the 5 key muscle groups is the issue. Then there is a TSR exercise set for each muscle group and a 6th workout that is a combination across muscle groups.

My experience with the programme

In advance of signing up for the programme, I was uncertain whether it was suitable for me given that I was 6 months on from hip arthroscopy surgery. However, I got a response that looked like it was a response from one of the 2 PTs reassuring me that it would be suitable – although looking back, I now think that it was probably compiled from a series of standard paragraphs.

Working through the programme is quite intense – the diagnostic exercises take quite a lot of set up and checking the form and RoM in front of the mirror. If you or someone in your family are not quite experienced in Personal Training and muscle groups it would be quite difficult to work through. And the challenge for me was that the tests were not discerning for me – all of them were painful and all of them had less-than-ideal RoM, so it was hard to diagnose where to focus.

I diligently followed the programme daily for 4 weeks. The good news is that I did see an increase in my RoM, but no reduction in the pain before, during or after the exercises. Therefore, I followed the process to get advice from Shane and Matt. I wrote a summary of how I had interpreted the 13 tests and what I had been doing, but got only a 2-line response from someone other than them telling me that I needed to choose just one muscle group and focus on that, but no further details on how to make that choice or how to better understand the diagnostic tests (given that all were painful and low RoM).

I followed the advice for another 4 weeks and then got in touch again, but did not get any response this time. In the meantime, the general emails from them changed. In the first couple of weeks, they had been bits of advice and case studies which were definitely motivational – especially on fixing the body through movement rather than surgery. But after that, the emails continued to come 3-4 times per week, but were now trying to sell more stuff (tools, personal coaching, other programmes etc). 

So, I decided to ask for my money back (which in-line with their no-quibble money-back guarantee they refunded immediately – although interestingly they did not ask for any feedback on what had worked and not worked, or why I was asking for my money back).

My summary

The exercise video library is good (there are probably 50 exercise variants covering the 5 muscle groups), but I would suggest that the money is much better spent with a Movement Trainer who specializes in Corrective Exercise and can really help you to diagnose which are the problem movements and then focus a personalised programme on just what you need. This should actually start to address where you have the pain and monitor development and progress you see with the exercises, in order to then make choices on how to progress.

That said, the overall message that you can make progress on your hip pain without surgery is profoundly supportive. Plus there is a strong sense of realism in the sense that they are clear that it will take work and time.

Good luck with getting to the bottom of your hip pain and finding the key to unlocking the pain.

My experience with hydrotherapy

I have not blogged for a while whilst I have been trying new things, doing lots of research and trying to make progress on reducing my pain and increasing my ability to cope with day-to-day tasks and activities. It has been an interesting voyage where I have become clearer that there are many paths to recovery – and no-one has the universal answer, so you have to try lots of things! With this in mind, I thought that I would share in a few blogs over the coming weeks some of my recent experiences.

Hydrotherapy was one of the things that was suggested after each of my surgeries. It is 45 mins drive to the nearest hydrotherapy pools and there are none in my local authority area. Plus you have to have a medical referral form and go through some extra checks to get access, so it all took a bit of organising. But I think that is was well worth it, as I think that it reduced pain in the short-term and had an incremental improvement in the Range of Movement (RoM) in the scar tissue and the affected muscles.

What is hydrotherapy?

The hydrotherapy pool is kept at 37 degrees Celsius, which consistently feels very pleasant and after 30 mins of doing structured exercises feels positively hot!

It is about shoulder depth and about 10m across, so it is easy to get the benefit of the water resistance as well as the immersion.  There is also easy access, including a hoist so that you can get in and out even when your body is not working well. Given that there is only space for a small number of people, it is key to reserve the slot and be there changed and ready in time.

You can work with a physio in the session, but once you have a routine it is relatively easy to work through the exercises on your own. There are ‘weights’ made from floats to create additional resistance by pushing them down in the water and inflatable ‘noodles’ for support.

How is it better than a normal pool or hot tub?

I had tried both the normal pool and hot-tub, and would say that the hydrotherapy pool is much better.

Doing my exercises in the pool was hard work (remember that 1 litre of water is 1kg – so there is lots of weight in the water resistance), and the cooler water temperature that makes it suitable for swimming means that there is not the therapeutic benefit of the muscle release that helps with RoM and probably with the pain reduction too.

I had also used the pool to try a little aqua-jogging with the float-belt (as shown in the photo). This is used a lot by elite athletes when they have injuries and it is claimed that you can keep 80% of your running fitness if you put the same hours in at the pool. This should work really well for lower limb injuries where you need to keep the muscle memory, but avoid the impact (especially in stress fractures and some soft-tissue overuse injuries). But given that for me the inflammation affects the movement pattern, I found that it was too tough at this stage.  

The aquajogging float belt clips around you to keep you upright without your feet touching the bottom of the pool (you need a pool deep enough for this!) and you can add difficulty by holding a waterbottle in each hand and changing the amount of liquid in it for more difficulty.

The hot tub is useful for me for the muscle release and for managing some of the pain. But it is not deep enough or large enough to do all of the exercises, so it is not as good as the hydrotherapy pool. I think also that the 30 mins slot, where everyone else is also working on their exercises, brings a level of focus that really helps.

Did it make any difference?

My own experience was that it was a very supportive environment – everyone there is working on getting better and is very willing to share what they have had success with.

In terms of the physical impact, the warmth definitely had a positive impact in terms of reducing pain for a few hours (just like hot water bottles etc when at home). My understanding is that this is not universal – some people find that the pain is reduced with cold, others with warmth.

Plus, I found that 30 mins of hydrotherapy definitely improved RoM for a period of 24-48 hours and if I did it 3 times per week, I saw real progress on my land-based exercises. That said, it was positively hard work – after 30 mins the combination of the temperature and the hard work was very tiring and I was keen to get out and have a nice drink of water! And the travel on top made it quite a bit harder. So, I would say that if you have a hydrotherapy pool nearby, do make use of it in your recovery and rehabilitation.

Learning to dance in the rain

One of my best friends, Liz, has a quote on her wall saying “Do not wait for the storm to pass, instead learn to dance in the rain”

It’s a concept that I love – and my husband and I have talked about it over and over across the last months. But I have been struggling with it too; constantly asking myself whether this level of acceptance is giving up on the goal of getting better. Like so many aspects of recovery, I have had lengthy internal debates about it and not reached any clear conclusion. Then this week I came across this very impactful TED talk from the amazing New York Times writer Suleika Jaouad; it has given me another perspective and perhaps helped me to slay a dragon and move forward some more.

It is a talk that applies to everyone – not just those struggling with injury or illness. Do watch it for yourself here (just 17 minutes of beautiful and impactful viewing): https://www.ted.com/talks/suleika_jaouad_what_almost_dying_taught_me_about_living

Living well ‘in the middle’

She challenges us to think again. Her premise that the separation between being sick and being well is not the simple, binary divide that we often paint it as. But that the border is porous. And that with the increased life expectancy of today, most of us will spend much of our lives travelling back and forth between the situations of being sick and being well, and living at least some of the time in the middle.

She finishes with the powerful thought that every single one of us will have our life interrupted… by something that brings us to the floor. We need to find ways to live in that in-between place managing whatever body and mind we currently have.

Powerful thoughts for ‘in-betweeners’

There were a number of themes that struck me as very powerful. But a few stuck out:

  1. The power of connection and shared experiences – her example of the prisoners in solitary confinement calling out their moves for the board games that they had made out of torn pieces of paper. It made me realise that the shame and inadequacy that we feel about not getting better and not keeping up is a dark shadow that we can (and need to) chase out with the bright light of friendships and fun.
  2. The importance of dreaming big on plans for the future – her example was the girl in Florida who plans someday to go camping in spite of her fear of bugs. When the whole world seems to be turned on its head, all dreams evaporate in the face of survival. But holding on to some things and keeping dreaming about them, and knowing that one day you will do them is a shining ever-present beacon of hope.
  3. The importance of taking the risk of opening up to new things – her example was the retired art history Professor in Ohio living through a lifetime of constant pain and disability, who in spite of all of the uncertainty of his health got married, had Grandchildren, taught, and danced with his wife every week. In spite of a situation that could have gripped him with constant fear and worry, he found meaning and built a beautiful life encapsulated in love.

Thank you Suleika for sharing your wisdom. And here is to learning to dance in the rain, through the different stages of the storm – in the eye of the storm, in the pouring rain and on the days where the thunder & lightening start to recede.

I hope that you find this as inspirational as I have – even if it took a few months for me to go the journey!

My Saturday night at a ‘Psoas Release Party’

There have been many firsts since I got injured, but spending over 4 hours on a late Saturday afternoon and early evening at a ‘Psoas Release Party’ is one that I thought you would all like to hear about!

The workshop was led by Jonathan FitzGordon, who started out as a yoga teacher in the USA but now works on rehabbing people in terrible pain. He freely admits that most people come across him at 3 in the morning, when they are at the end of their rope and don’t know what to do to get out of pain. This is exactly how I came across him.

What is the psoas?

Jonathan’s theory is that the illiopsoas is the most important muscle in the body. The ‘psoas is a really interesting compound muscle, as it is very difficult to reach and touch, as it starts deep in the back (up near the ribs) and loops around the inside of the hip before attaching at the front top of each of the legs in the groin area. For all its inaccessibility, it is a large muscle and is one of only 3 linking the front and back of the body, and attaches in 6 places – so pretty complex. It is often simply called a hip flexor, but it has a role in much more than this. Jonathan attributes the majority of long-term pain in the hips and back, plus the knees and feet, and even the shoulders to how the psoas is behaving.

I read Jonathan’s book ‘The Psoas Release Party’ and was struck with some of the concepts and case studies. I tried some of his stretches and releases and felt that I had started the journey. Then I saw that he was coming to the UK and was doing a workshop…

The description of the workshop said: “The psoas is the most important muscle in the body acting as the main hip flexor and the engine of walking. A free and happy psoas allows the body to move with peak efficiency and little strain. Issues with the psoas can lead to any number of problems throughout your body—both physical and emotional. Lower back pain and other joint discomfort as well as disturbances to the nervous system can be linked to the psoas. This is not a yoga class. You will spend the afternoon awakening, learning about and releasing the Iliopsoas muscle group and understanding its core function within the body.”

So that is how I ended up being one of 16 people crammed into quite a small yoga studio just near to Wimbledon studio on a late Saturday afternoon. It was mainly women, with a few men and the ages spread from early 40’s into 70’s – and every single person in the room was in pain, and wanted to do something about it.

How did the party get going?

Jonathan did an amazing job of making the anatomy really interesting and memorable, and before long we were all evaluating our dominant muscle patterns when standing still. He looked especially carefully at the balance between the front and back muscles, and the angles down the body: from head to shoulders, from shoulders to the lower thoracic spine at the bottom of the ribcage, from this point to the hips and from the hips to the ankle and into the foot.

He had a wonderful manner of wandering around and gently pointing out individual muscle patterns–for instance, the level that each of the hips were in the sockets, the level of internal/external hip rotation playing into the weight distribution in the feet, overall muscle imbalances and the level of tension in the glutes (butt) and rib-cage.

And what was interesting, was how we all had to be coached for the tell-tale cues and signs – even though almost everyone in the room (other than me) had a yoga or dance training, making them very body aware and elegant in their movement (but still in pain!)

What were the tell-tale cues?

Overall, the biggest message that I took from the workshop was that we all hold too much tension in the wrong places. Given that as soon as one muscle is tight, the opposite (antagonist) muscle simply cannot do anything until the first muscle releases. And this is important because some of these muscles (like the psoas) are large and connect with key processes like breathing, staying continent(!) and movements like sitting, walking and standing.

So stay loose and relaxed!

To do a body check yourself and see whether there are any ah-ha moments across the day:

  • Think about your butt when you are standing and walking – are the muscles tight? (if so, the psoas cannot do anything). A friend of mine tried this for a week and was stunned at how often across the day she found that all of the muscles in her butt were tensed up!
  • Think about your rib cage – if you sigh out a deep breath does the tension change? (if so your latissimus dorsi may be overworking)
  • Are your hips forward and your thighs extended when you stand? (if so, your hamstrings are constantly short and may get persistently tight)

Was there anything practical?

It was pretty much all practical! The four hours simply flew by – we did not stop for any breaks, and yet there was not a moment where I was not learning, making notes, trying different movements and learning more about the cues and signs of my muscle patterns.

The last 90 minutes was spent on 8 gentle stretching movements – most of which were held for a very long time (we did some for 15 mins, and Jonathan can recommend an hour or more at times!) in order to allow the psoas to truly let go. Whilst I had tried almost every single one of these from the book, the specific tuition on the important points of form was incredibly useful and I understood why I may have been missing out the benefits through simply trying it on my own without perfect technique. And the good news is that they are very easy to do at home (indeed one we even talked could be done in a break at the office, if you have a role that requires sitting at a desk all day – which of course is very bad for the psoas due to spending so much time in hip flexion).

Overall verdict – worth the money!

I have to admit that I thought about whether to attend for weeks before I committed – the hassle of a 45-minute drive to get there, no parking at the location and the £65 workshop fee. But my husband was kind enough to drive me and drop me off at the door, and benchmarked against other treatments that I have had, it was worth the money.

And like all of the best parties, with the late finish we were locked in!

I would strongly recommend Jonathan’s book – but the workshop took it to another level for me in terms of the personal insights and advice, plus the detailed coaching on the correct technique for the exercises. If you are not able to get to a workshop, Jonathan does do Skype consultations and I cannot over-emphasise the level of knowledge that he brings to your personal situation and his commitment to getting you out of pain. I am not at all surprised that he has helped and supported so many people to incredible recovery and rehabilitation.

And there is even a summer retreat in Italy…

Fascinating reading, with useful explanation and practical exercises

What I learned from going to see a nutritional therapist

I had to go back into hospital for some manipulation under anaesthetic due to the limitations on my movement from the scar tissue after my hip surgery. I had been dutifully massaging the scar tissue on the outside but came to realise just how much scar tissue there was on the inside that was reducing my range of movement and potentially one of the causes of pain. This led me into a journey to look at what I could do with nutrition to try to help my recovery.

So, for the first time ever, I went to see someone for dietary advice – with the specific question of whether I should be taking supplements to help my healing, and if so, which ones.

Layering the different aspects

I had previously thought that nutrition was mostly common sense, but I learned a lot from the way that Saffron (the nutritional therapist) layered what I needed:

  • Starting from a well balanced diet – with 7-a-day vegetables and fruit, plus a good split at each meal of complete proteins, good fats, and wholemeal carbohydrates as well as maintaining good hydration. She also specifically asked about how often we eat fish, and especially oily fish – as apparently the British are standardly very short of the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids. The ideal is apparently at least two portions of fish per week, with at least one oily fish.
  • Then looking at my age and lifestyle to get a sense of the hormonal pressures and tensions, as well as the aging factors on all of my tissues.
  • Whether I have had any blood tests to give information on nutrient shortages. These are very useful for things like anaemia (shortage of iron) and vitamin D shortages (common in Northern Europe, especially in winter or for people who stay inside a lot).
  • Checking for any food allergies or intolerances, or specific dietary requirements. I am very lucky with the robustness of my digestive system, so it means that I can draw on most foodstuffs – I just need to be organised enough to plan the right meals, shopping, and preparation! (I am sorry – I realise that some of this advice is not going to be so helpful for vegetarians, but a nutritional therapist will work with everyone’s dietary requirements).
  • Building from there to the current medications that I am taking – and talking me through the receptors that these medications block and hence what dietary changes and vitamin supplements may be needed to reflect this. For instance, the need for extra fibre for the constipation from painkillers, sulphur if taking ibuprofen, and extra B-vitamins (B6 and B12) when taking muscle-relaxants and antidepressants.
  • Then looking at the injury and the surgeries to understand what tissues are trying to heal – in my case covering bone, joints, cartilage, muscles, ligaments, and fascia, as well as scar tissue.  She talked about the importance of protein and zinc to help the muscles and ligaments repair. So a quality protein with each meal, and a wide range of pulses, grains, seeds, and nuts for the zinc. Getting nutrients to the bone and joint is more challenging – so I will come back to this theme below.
  • From the symptoms that I am still experiencing what extra may be needed. For instance, Magnesium is the mineral involved in relaxing muscles (whilst Calcium is involved in muscle contractions), so extra Magnesium can help with the muscle spasms and cramps. Magnesium-rich foods include spinach, avocado, seeds, nuts, yoghurt, banana and best of all: dark chocolate!
  • Then we talked about inflammatory foods, vs anti-inflammatory foods. Whilst inflammation is an important process in the initial weeks after the injury and surgeries, now months down the line there is a chance that swelling and inflammation is getting in the way of healing. Hence foods can help as one of the factors that can reduce inflammation. Overall, processed foods with high fat and processed sugars are inflammatory, plus fizzy drinks and nitrates, and nitrites in processed meats like smoked bacon and ham (you can buy nitrite-free versions), and of course, mild toxins like caffeine-based drinks and alcohol. The anti-inflammatory foods include tomatoes, leafy greens, olive oil, nuts, fruits, and oily fish.

Reducing scar tissue

As I said, reducing the scar tissue internally is a big goal for me, as I think that it will improve my mobility and potentially reduce the pain.  Saffron recommended proteolytic enzymes which are supposed to help minimise and reduce scar tissue after the surgeries.  These need to be taken away from food for best impact (either 30 mins before a meal, or an hour after a meal). Natural enzymatic foods include pineapple and papaya (yum!)

Rebuilding the bone

Of all of the injury and surgical aspects, we spent a lot of time talking about how to get blood flow and nutrients to all of the damaged tissues. Obviously, the bones are one of the most difficult to reach and the only access in the joint is via the synovial fluid. This points to the importance of movement in healing, as this only happens with movement that increases both blood flow to carry the nutrients around the body, and synovial fluid movement and regeneration.

The nutritional advice is to bring bone broths into my diet – using them instead of stock.  She counselled that it might seem weird to begin with but that you can get bones from butchers – they just give them away (I think that they normally assume they’re for a dog…) https://wholefully.com/bone-broth/

Normally your body will synthesise the necessary building blocks itself for bone synthesis and (to a certain extent) repair but it does get more difficult as we get older and we have less of the ‘whole’ ingredients in our diet such as animal skin (like on chicken etc), marrow, offal etc.  So this is where a supplement may be easier. 

Dealing with continued inflammation

Turmeric has become one of the anti-inflammatory supplements of choice for athletes. There is a lot of discussion about the format, and whether it is needed to be activated with black pepper or not. There is not a clear answer. The focus is probably best on getting one with sufficient amounts of the curcuminoids that create the reduction in inflammation. It needs to be taken with omega-3s for impact, which given the frequency really means using a good quality supplement.

More that we could have talked about

I have to admit that there was so much more that we could have talked about – and maybe I should go back in a few weeks once I see the impact of a few changes.

For instance, many people say that having had 7 general anaesthetics, rebuilding the gut fauna with a good probiotic is a priority to ensure good absorption of nutrients.

In summary

I came away with a much clearer view of what I should be doing in my base diet and the things that I should be eating more of and the things to avoid. I also finally answered the debate that I had been having with myself about supplements – and decided that the extra demands of this recovery phase meant that a few specific supplements would really help me.

But more than this, it was a real wake-up on the complexity of nutrition and how everything works together. It has been a great insight at this stage of injury, medication etc. But when life changes again, I think that there is a real value from getting expert insight on the body’s nutritional needs and how to meet them effectively. I really hope to be back to sport and when I start training would definitely go back again, plus at different physical lifestages as hormones change, or lifestyle changes. I had not previously realised the benefit that one can get and I would recommend it to others.

Affirmations and Mantras for healing

Self-talk is known to be one of the most important parts of mental strength. Athletes consistently use it (often together with visualisation) to help with performance under pressure. My suggestion is that it is just as important when you are injured and facing the challenges of recovery and rehabilitation.

Are you wondering what is self-talk? I define it as the voice in your head that chatters constantly, about all kinds of things and at times can escalate to a full-on internal debate. But there is good evidence that the mind takes these messages and images very seriously, driving changes in the hormonal system and the nervous system which in turn have very significant physical impacts (as well as changing your thought patterns going forward).

Affirmations or mantras are usually short, pithy phrases to insert positive messages into the mind. I would also be remiss not to mention that in the Hindu faith and yoga mantras are chanted, with specific mantras to generate powerful sound waves that promote healing, and the relaxation from the ancient practice of gong therapy or ‘sound bathing’.

This is something that many people write about. I especially enjoyed Carole’s blog from 2014 where she talked about Dr Coue’s mantra (or autosuggestion as he called it) where in conjunction with their medical treatment, they would say over and over to themselves 20 times in the morning and 20 times in the evening ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better’. Read more on this inspiring story from over 100 years ago, plus some great tips and book recommendations in Carole’s blog:

What kind of mantras help?

When I was running ultramarathons and doing Ironman triathlons, I used mantras a lot and found:

  • It needs to be positive. I had a spin teacher who used ‘mine is the power and the glory’ as a mantra, and I know that many people find these universally positive exhortations very useful– hence the Ironman slogan of ‘Impossible is Nothing’.
  • It needs to be realistic at that moment! For instance, telling myself ‘I love to run’ is true, but in the final stages of ultra-marathons or long-distance triathlons the voice on my shoulder would scream back ‘I don’t right now – I want to stop!’ so I would use simple exhortations like ‘run for home’ or ‘nice and steady’.
  • It is better when it is process-based.  There are times in a long race where the final finish line seems too far away to engage with, and so process-based mantras worked better for me. This seems a strong parallel with the uncertainty on outcomes in recovery and rehabilitation. So just as I would focus on technique points in races like ‘keep my rhythm’, ‘nice and light’, which brings the benefits to keeping good technique at a time when tiredness can reduce form. In the same way in the tough part of recovery focus on the exercises, release work, nutrition, hydration and sleep patterns can reinforce the positive habits that will make a difference.
  • It is not helpful to set specific goals that you then miss. Whilst I have spent many races setting myself a challenge for the next split time, or the person that I would overtake, these are only useful when you hit the goal and then set the next goal. Missing them really can really drag you down, as it allows the internal critic to keep saying that today is not your day and you may as well just give up.

How do I apply that to my recovery?

It is really useful to reaffirm your strengths and the resilience that you bring to this situation: from the factual such as ‘we have a good plan and next steps with the medical team’ or ‘we are focused & determined and will get to the bottom of this’, ‘I have what I need to get through this’, ‘all of this strength and conditioning will make me a better athlete’ to the more aspirational ‘we will beat this’, ‘I’ll be back’, ‘my body is amazing’ and ‘I’ve come through tough times before and I will again’.

Also to recognise all of the people on your side and rooting for you: ‘I am in great hands’, ‘I am surrounded by love and support’, ‘I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my team’, ‘I am enveloping my body in love and kindness’.

Reaffirming the sense of progress – even when it is too small to see: ‘every day of careful nutrition and good sleep helps my body to rebuild’, ‘little by little my body is healing itself’ and ‘every step towards recovery helps me’, ‘cell by cell my body is rebuilding itself’.

Some people find perspective very useful – for example: ‘whilst this is tough, people are facing much worse than this and getting through it’.

Some inspiring quotes

This link includes some inspiring quotes for injured athletes that could be used as mantras:

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/25-quotes-inspire-injured-athletes

So why not try it?

How about choosing a favourite mantra and use it every day for a week – repeat it under your breath over and over at key points in the day, write it on a post-it and put it on the bathroom mirror or under your pillow, close your eyes and smile gently as you visualise it… the mind is a powerful thing.

Your body and mind are amazing – ‘Every day, in every way, you are getting better and better’