I have a complicated relationship with exercise. I’m competitive, I love being outdoors, and I absolutely love the feeling of exhaustion and accomplishment that you get after really pushing yourself with exercise. But in the past, I have used it to mask and ignore mental health problems.
I live with anxiety and depression and this has also led to some obsessive-compulsive tenancies. This means that I obsess about how much time I spend exercising, my weight, and my fitness levels.
Over time I have had to teach myself to balance these things.
It started, in part, from breaking my leg in serval places playing football. This injury left me unable to walk unaided for the best part of a year. As a result, I put on weight, lost a lot of confidence, and could no longer compete in many of the sports that I had played most of my life.
For years after breaking my leg I avoided competitive and recreational sport, any exercise where I might get injured again and anything where people might tell me I wasn’t as fast or as good as I used to be.
A series of events later, depression became a bigger part of me than I fully realised at the time. This took over me for years.
Knowing being active helps you feel better mentally, I gradually returned to exercise. Going to the gym, swimming, walking the dog when I visited my family home, hiking a bit, but nothing near what I used to do, which when I thought about it, made me feel worse.
I started upping the effort I put in at the gym, swimming harder to tire myself out. I would go on runs at midnight to tire myself in hopes of sleeping through my low mood. I realised that the harder I worked and the more exhausted I felt the less I was aware of how terrible I felt mentally.
I was intentionally overtraining without fully understanding what I was doing to myself.
I started getting ill and had small injuries more frequently. A doctor put it to me that perhaps, without me knowing, exercise had become a form of self-harm for me. I stopped all exercise again, I felt like I couldn’t trust myself.
This process repeated itself a year or so later, but when I realised what was happening, I slowed down rather than stopping everything, I kept swimming, and by this point had my own dog so went on plenty of walks.
A few years later, a new colleague told me to get a bike. I was resistant for a while but came around to it.
Within months of starting, I crashed, tore some muscles, and the bike was left in two pieces.
This time, I focused on recovering so I could ride again. The difference was, cycling was so unlike any sport I’d ever done before and I was terrible at it. I could only get better and I really wanted to get better.
I got myself an entry-level road bike, signed up to a 50k British Cycling Breeze Ride which gave me something to aim for. My next aim was just to be able to keep up with my friends on rides. They went slow for me, for which I am eternally grateful.
Now cycling is a huge part of my life. It has brought back a lot of my confidence, yes, I fall off or have a little crash every now and then, but I enjoy riding so much that it doesn’t worry me anymore.
Although there have been a few mental wobbles. For a short time, I became so anxious that I started to become scared of riding my bike. So, I replaced it with hiking until I felt better. I still overtrain from time to time or get annoyed that I’m not as good as I want to be, but I am able to recognise that now. I remind myself that it’s all about enjoying it, and if I’m not enjoying it, why am I doing it?
When lockdown was announced I panicked. How was I going to be able to walk the dog and ride my bike? How was I going to train enough? What if I become depressed because I can’t exercise enough? How am I going to cope with being stuck indoors?
I made a plan:
-I would walk the dog in the evening, this gives me something to look forward to, and I would use that time to call my sister, together we can talk about our worries, chat general rubbish and talk about how we are dealing with things.
-I signed up to a virtual cycling app. I can ride as much or as little as I want from my house. It’s not as good as the real thing but it’s something.
-I would start doing bedtime yoga and stretch classes. Not something I have ever really done before.
-If I started to feel low I would be honest with myself about it. I wouldn’t overtrain to mask it.
If I’m being honest, I did come close to overtraining in the early stages of lockdown and so I set myself targets. Nothing big, just enough to make sure I have a focus rather than tiring myself out needlessly. My first was to train to and then ride 100miles indoors, the next to take 5 minutes off virtual climbs, and so on.
It’s taken over a decade for me to fully be able to recognise certain behaviors in myself and how to manage them but the biggest thing that has helped is to talk about them out loud.
I had no idea I was overtraining on purpose (all be it subconsciously) until I talked to someone and they pointed it out to me. I didn’t realise I was feeling anxious about riding my bike until someone asked me if I was ok one day. I only fully recognised it in myself at the start of lockdown because a cyclist who I follow on Instagram had said that he was doing it himself.
I suppose the point I am trying to make is, overtraining isn’t to answer to coping, give yourself a break, mentally and physically. Talk about it, there is nothing to be ashamed of, it will probably help someone else out too, you aren’t own your own with these things, try something new and check in with people.