Being knackered is something most of us will experience in some level, be it running a marathon, completing a major endurance challenge, a long day at work, or even being dragged on a long family walk. For some people the idea of physical exertion being ‘fun’ is ludicrous, almost obsessive, or simply weird. Others can’t live without it. I am one of those.
But perhaps the greater the discomfort, the more we can appreciate the simple things… I mean, a Roast Dinner just doesn’t taste the same without a side dish of suffering, does it?
Successfully completing Climb The UK back in July – covering 5,000 odd miles in 72 days by bike and foot (with a stint on a kayak) – pushed my body and mind further than it has ever been pushed before. The Roast Dinner when I got home was the best I’d ever tasted.
“Are you all recovered yet?” is a question I’ve had a lot since. You’d think that being 22 I would have bounced back like a spring Lamb, but over two months later the recovery process is still very much ongoing. It will probably take months still. And psychologically, I will never quite be the same again.
As far as recovery goes, CTUK took it to a whole new level for me personally. I think recovery is an individual thing but the reality is often very different to the expectation, so I wanted to share the experience in a blog post. The past few weeks have been a bit of a blur but hopefully this is gives an interesting and accurate account of the process.
RIDING THE WAVE
You’re on cloud nine. For about a week or so after I had the adrenaline rush or the ‘buzz’. You’re still in challenge mode and riding the high of the achievement. It’s a mix of excitement, relief and confusion. Surprisingly, I really struggled to sleep and even had to resort to sleeping pills. Both body and mind wanted to get up and going at 7:00am like they had for the last two months. I was craving a lie-in for months and then I couldn’t even get one! Only about three weeks later did my body clock return to normal.
THE DREADED ‘CRASH’
After a few days the energy disappeared. I suffered with headaches, thirst, nausea, palpitations and exhaustion like never before. Even walking the dog was like running up Ben Nevis and I couldn’t even keep up with my mum. My whole body just felt heavy and every step was an effort. By 3 or 4pm I was falling asleep sat on the sofa at home, which I found quite frustrating as I usually work late into the evening on my laptop.
The other symptoms improved but the headaches and crippling fatigue lasted about four weeks and seemed to vary on a daily basis. A low ebb started to creep in too where you suddenly forget about what you’ve just done, feel inferior and hopeless. At no point did I wish I was back out there though. It took about seven weeks before I physically felt myself again.
Once you complete a goal you’re left thinking “What do I do now then?”. From prior experience of this low ebb I entered Chester Marathon prior to Climb The UK, for something to work towards after the challenge. After realising the physical recovery was going to take longer than expected I pulled out of the marathon but entered a few smaller running events later in the year instead.
Although I’ve felt my usual strength the last couple of weeks, the biggest challenge has been finding the motivation to train without feeling progress towards a goal, and the frustration of comparing myself to pre-challenge standard. It’s important to let ourselves re-discover the simple pleasure of pedalling/running sometimes, otherwise we can lose motivation in the activity later on in the year. Even making a simple “To-Do” list, like cleaning the bike or sending a parcel, gave little goals to work towards and help re-adjust.
During the challenge I craved nothing more than the ability to just do nothing. Again it’s frustrating that in reality this doesn’t seem to be the case and lying around watching TV all day didn’t have the same appeal it had a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately I kept myself a bit too busy and afterwards regretted not taking the rare opportunity to happily do naff all. With such a big challenge you have a level of responsibility to the cause and sponsors, and sharing the journey is all part of it. The day after finishing I spent with my PR agent in Liverpool doing nine radio interviews and I still felt like Tigger, sat in the BBC studios with Mick bringing me coffee and Hobnobs on tap!
You become a bit of a crap friend for a while. Unless someone has been on a similar challenge, they don’t understand how tired you are or why you need space … they just want to see you. Soon after I was being contacted for catch ups. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful to have a large network of friends who care, but every single day of the challenge was a race against time and I just didn’t want to be held to any arrangements, to travel or make any logistics for a while. Through tiredness you can easily become irritable and even being asked questions is quite overwhelming: “What’s your next challenge then?”… “Don’t ask!”
A lot of science says light exercise can be beneficial for recovery. Maybe athletes are just impatient and will make any excuse to keep training. Besides dog walking I pretty much rested for two weeks barring a very gentle 5-mile cycle on day five. It felt like I’d never ridden a bike before, let alone daily for over two months! A 5km run (after two weeks) felt like dragging a dead weight. These earlier runs seemed to make me feel worse so I cut back to running every other day.
Within three weeks I was running or cycling four/five days a week, but all ‘easy’ pace to build mileage slowly. Before anything strenuous I did a small interval run of 8 x 400m at race pace for a ‘test’. The legs felt fresh and quick so I ran a Parkrun that weekend at about 90% effort. It was frustrating to see rivals fly past, but I didn’t want to push too hard too soon. Considering this was just five weeks after the challenge I was quite pleased to finish in 19:34 (PB is 18:06).
It was mostly about keeping heart rate within zone 2 and seeing how the body responded, even if that meant walking up steep hills at first. After a few 20/30-mile rides without ill effect I then tried a 60 mile ride the following weekend. My HR was elevated more than it normally would be, and at rest it was also much higher (50 instead of normal 38 ish) so everything was still trying to re-adjust.
Some of my Everest/mountaineering friends suggested taking a full month off. Because in many ways, CTUK was as physically and demanding as an Everest expedition. But without some form of exercise my mental wellbeing would suffer much more than my physical health. I did, however, pick up an injury in my Achilles tendon on my longest run (9.5 miles) which forced me out of running anyway. Probably some sort of karma!
Managing nutrition with an eating disorder is a challenge itself but that’s one for another blog post… Losing over 6kg in weight took a huge toll. Your body essentially starts to ‘eat itself’ and any muscle not being used goes first, like upper body muscle. When I arrived at my final walk I could barely lift my bike, whilst I had gained a lot of muscle in my quads and calves.
Back home I only craved healthy, nutritious food, like simple boiled vegetables and of course the famous Roast Dinner. Junk food is the last thing you want. Everyone suddenly becomes an expert in nutrition advising you to ‘eat lots’ but ‘lots’ isn’t exactly very specific. Not overly ravenous, I just ate as normal but more than usual. There was no counting calories or following a strict plan, just extra snacks, more fat (peanut butter and olive oil) and generally whatever I felt like. To regain weight and recover properly you need a calorie excess but without exercise this is quite easy to achieve, plus after a long deficit your body almost goes into survival mode and stores fat very easily.
My lowest weight during the challenge was around 64kg (at 6ft 4”) but after five weeks at home was back to 69kg. Since starting regular exercise again my weight has maintained around 69/70kg. It fluctuated between 70/72kg before the challenge started.
Oily fish (as usual) helped to reduce inflammation and daily Mountain Fuel Recovery Fuel sachets for about a week for extra vitamins and other good stuff to help with the process. And because they taste lush. Although a bit late, after five weeks I began taking ‘Better You’ B12, Vit D, magnesium and turmeric spray supplements – my nutritional therapist Emily suggested they would provide a boost. About a week later there was a noticeable improvement in energy levels but hard to say if that’s related.
A few things learnt along the way…
- Go to the docs – I refused to go for a check-up initially but went about four weeks later when the headaches and fatigue didn’t go away. Sometimes mum is always right… My blood tests were normal but my ECG showed a potential heart problem. Just in case I stuck to low-intensity training until I had the all clear. Then I managed to pass out in the process of getting the results. Yes, I really hate hospitals.
- Eat your greens – your immune system is absolutely depleted because it’s one of the first processes your body shuts down. Somehow I managed to escape any colds or general sickness, probably due to boosting the system with multi-vitamins.
- Be patient – beware of the knee-jerk reaction and jumping into a new challenge too soon. This is my biggest weakness, probably to protect myself from negative thoughts sneaking in. This time I had finally achieved my objective and could enjoy the satisfaction… the thought of any extra suffering was too much to bear. Don’t rush into anything too soon and potentially make a bad decision.
- Switch off – in the world of social media we can make ourselves too available and it’s hard to say no to things, so we end up tiring ourselves even more. Don’t be afraid to switch your phone off for a few days. Try not to be too isolated, but surround yourself with people who can understand you. Sadly my parrot hasn’t taken a great deal of interest in the number of counties climbed.
- Take a break – after two months travelling and sleeping in strange beds you probably won’t want to go anywhere, but if you have the opportunity, a few days holiday somewhere away from distractions is a good weapon for preventing the dreaded low ebb.
- Listen to your body – it’s an individual process and some will feel fine whereas others could take months to feel normal. Don’t underestimate the toll on your body like I did or you could potentially make the recovery process even longer.
- Stay occupied – doing nothing can make the low ebb even worse. For a few days your head will probably be a bit mashed for anything too complex but focus on positive things like sorting your photos (I had 1200!), writing blogs, sorting out charity donations, organising kit. Just do what you feel like doing… until you have to go back to work.
- Enjoy the achievement – reflect on what you’ve just done. If feeling down just look at your photos, watch the videos (if you have them) and write down as much as you can to keep the smaller memories safe. Spend time catching up with family… if you feel like it. Reminisce on the memories and share them with people who took part. Most of all, be proud of yourself and enjoy the buzz. You’ve bloody earnt it!
N.B. for various reasons I have become a pescetarian since finishing the challenge. So the aforementioned Roast Dinner will be a Nut Roast in the future. Apologies for any false information!
rob kane says
Hi Alex, What a fascinating read. Really enjoyed it. I didn’t realise that you have “reacted”, if that’s the right word, in the ways that you explain post your brilliant CTUK achievement.
As you know I have completed my own challenge recently – not in the same league but still pretty tough – the Yorkshire Dales Three Peaks Challenge. Given it is a one day walk the recovery post walk, both mentally and physically, is not in the same league as yours but parts of your blog resonated especially the taking a break post-challenge. I was lucky enough to be by a pool for 10 days in Portugal 3 days after the walk. All that warm sun certainly eased the aches away!
However, I would like to thank you publicly Alex for your great advice regarding pacing, eating, drinking and fuelling with the right things. All of which was taken on board and all thoroughly helped. I would not have thought about the benefits of eating chunks of cheese but allied to the other food and drink I was taking on was very helpful.
If you ever fancy tackling the Dales Three Peaks and you want a companion walker then please do let me know 🙂
Kind regards and catch up soon I hope.