What happened when I met a rock-star physiotherapist!

Regular readers of my blog will know that one of my pet topics is how do you know which Health Care Professional (HCP) to go to? How do you work with them for a good outcome? And how do you know when to run out of the appointment and never return to that person again?

My lumpy rehabilitation journey has allowed me to build up a larger-than-average sample of interactions, create a picture of myself as a ‘failed patient’ after two years of never managing to succeed on two successive weeks of physio exercises, and now I am delighted to say that my quest has led me to meet a rock star physio (and actually succeed!) So I wanted to tell you all about it…

How did I find him?

Part of spending months and years incapacitated has led me to want to really understand what is going on for me physically. So I have attended every single free seminar/webinar/TED talk etc online that I can find related to recovery. It has been fascinating and illuminating.

Paul Hobrough has written two books (‘Running Free of Injuries’ and ‘The Runner’s Expert Guide to Stretching’) and is so famous that even my Mum has heard of him. Initially I thought this is because he is based in Northumberland (where my parents live), but actually it is because he has a great common-sense column in one of the national newspapers! I heard him speak on an England Athletics webinar and when I heard that he was doing tele-medicine appointments, I had to give it a go….

Sharing the history

After years of being in and out of treatment rooms, I think that I have my history giving down to a pretty good delivery. It is definitely a learned skill that requires years of practice and improvement before graduating to professional patient level, but I hate the oral tradition of history taking. Here’s why:

  1. All HCPs are pressed for time, so when you have a complex history (as I have) I have seen the panic start to rise in their eyes and them start to look for straws to grasp at – which means that landing the holistic overview of the situation is hard. And any glancing contact with something that they have been taught is a red or amber flag leads to them jumping in with an early diagnosis and potentially the whole appointment and interaction is derailed as you either succumb to a snap-judgement that you think has already been investigated, or you try to have a respectful debate with someone who is (and wants you to know that they are) so much more of an expert than you are.
  2. In my experience the majority of HCPs are very bright, studious people with a strongly introverted approach to life. This means that they are brilliant at really thinking deeply about issues and working out great solutions – but only if they are given the time to do this. Hence the extrovert’s style of iterating through oral history-giving has to be bad for them. Additionally, they need time to consider how they are going to share their views back with you (the patient), so that you can understand them.
  3. From a patient point of view, there are times when I am in such a mess that I can barely string a sentence together let alone a complex history under time pressure. Because pain makes you live in the moment, it can be hard to step out of the moment and give a balanced overview at that point of time.

This is why I always email my history over before an appointment. Almost every time I have done this the HCP has pre-read it and come in with questions (only one did not – they proceeded to read it aloud in the appointment and then lecture me on what a pathetic specimen of a human being I was for not understanding what was needed – for a whole hour without me getting a word in edgeways – that was an appointment where I should have stood up, paid and left).

What was the difference that a rock star physio made?

Here’s the parts that blew me away:

  1. EMPATHY: Paul created instant connection between us by making a very humble joke about his presentation at the seminar that I had attended. I went from being very nervous to laughing in seconds, and I also understood that the ground rules were that it was OK for me to ask anything – which completely changed the power dynamic in the appointment.
  2. DIAGNOSIS: In the first 5 minutes he not only summarised his diagnosis of what the issues were, but also how he thought I understood them – he repeated back to me the language and things that I had said in my email.
  3. UNDERSTANDING: We then spent another 5 minutes where I was able to question him about this more – and I felt like I was having a personal medical masterclass, where he simply and clearly laid out medical theory, practice and levels of certainty in lay language that genuinely made sense to me and where it was also OK for me to say where I did not fully understand it.
  4. REFRAMING: Within this he completely reframed my expectations. I saw the medical process as me vs pain – with success as elimination of pain. He got me to talk about triathlon racing and the normal types and levels of discomfort in training and racing.  From there we agreed that it was about control, pacing and self-management of pain – which seemed so obvious (but was a new insight for me).
  5. GOAL-SETTING & OWNERSHIP: As we got to the midway point, he moved me into goal-setting. At the time I was in the split mentality of “I want to return to Ironman Triathlons but think that will be impossible – and my day-to-day is governed by so much pain that I often cannot walk to the corner shop”. He gently nudged me to explore a goal that I thought was an impossible ask, and he saw as a very viable 3-month goal. It was so exciting!
  6. DETAILED PLANNING OVER 3 MONTHS: Then he moved into explaining to me the specific movements that were going to be challenging, how to dose them in, what signs would show that it was working and what would show that I needed to regress the progress. He was completely unapologetic that it was a lot of work – that even writing the excel sheet with the programme on was a lot of work – but even that was exciting to me. I wanted to be a part of this and I was completely signed up to whatever work it took.
  7. SETTING UP SELF-MANAGEMENT: So having specified the programme in detail, he delegated me to write it and email it to him for review and any feedback/changes within the next 3 days. I did, but he had explained it so clearly within the appointment that no changes were needed.
  8. TRANSMITTING CONFIDENCE, BELIEF & HOPE: Then he wrapped up with the ‘piece de resistance’. He said “I back my opinion and experience and I really think that with this plan, you can make this goal in 12 weeks. But it won’t be easy – I think that you will have a number of setbacks – and we’ve talked about what it looks like when you need to regress, how to monitor symptoms, how long to rest it and how to move forward again each time. I also accept that no-one can truly know what is going to happen and in the event that in 12 weeks this really hasn’t worked then there is another more interventionist path that we can take, that has good scientific evidence behind it and has worked for a lot of people.” In that closing minute he had imbued me with his sense of confidence, belief in the plan, readiness for setbacks and knowledge that even this plan was not the end of the road – so there was always hope. If I was summarizing it as a mantra it would be ‘you’ve got this!’

What happened next?

I followed the plan – it happened 100% as Paul said. It was hard work, it took patience and tracking. I had set-backs and had to follow the approach that we had talked about. I doubted at times, but always thought back to his confidence to reassure myself and follow the exact detail that we had agreed. In 12 weeks I hit the goal that I had only dared to dream could be possible.

All from one 30-minute appointment – where an incredibly intelligent and kind man with a wealth of knowledge gave me the keys to the castle, to unlock so much of my misery.

I haven’t seen Paul since – and I feel bad that I only paid him for that one appointment. I can only reassure myself that by not clogging up his agenda with more he has been able to change so many more lives for the better.

Thank you Paul.

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!

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!