Physical Culture: Clanging weights, grunting and making friends

I hear a lot of female friends complaining about gyms. The free weights section of local low cost chain gyms seem to be the source of frustration, anger and fear. The weights themselves are not the problem, but the racks, benches and platforms are inhabited by the absolute nemesis of every woman and a lot of men who have basic intelligence and aren’t narcissistic thugs – the BIG, MUSCLY, GRUNTING, SWEATY MEN. They lift more than the rest of us. They look huge and intimidating. They’re probably judging you. They think you shouldn’t be there. Their brainpower has an inverse relationship to their constantly growing muscle mass. They stink. They take up all the space.

What if I told you that the most enormous, most gym-obsessed guys hoisting three times your bodyweight into the air with a grunt can be gentle, kind-hearted, intelligent, knowledgable and encouraging? What if, instead of being people to hate, despise and avoid, they could be one of the greatest supports you ever have in your own training? What if you actually walked into the gym and were genuinely happy to see them there? And what if a large proportion of muscly people bench pressing more than you can ever imagine, surrounded by a small crowd of enormous men yelling encouragement, were women?

Welcome to Physical Culture.

Physical Culture sounds like exactly the kind of gym women stereotypically hate. It’s not small, but the gym floor is very full. There are odd-looking machines, squat racks, benches, a huge amount of dumbells ranging from teeny to ridiculously heavy, barbells, racked plates and very little empty space. There are platforms for all your deadlifts, cleans, snatches and so on, but very little space to stand around.  On a busy peak time evening, you will have to move around and share platform space with all sorts of people. Big bulky powerlifters take turns on the platforms with bodybuilders rippling with muscles I didn’t even know people could have. Olympic weightlifters prepping for competitions rub shoulders with brand new PT clients being shown how a squat rack works. The music is loud, but not nearly as loud as the weights hitting the ground after someone’s max effort clean and jerk (hehehe jerk). Guys with headphones and expressions of grim concentration curl with dumbells like their lives depend on it while people resting in between heavy squats and deadlifts chat about protein, form and the election. So why is this one of my favourite places?

Number one is the people. While PC has excellent equipment and all the squat racks anyone needs (apart from at peak time, but hey, that’s life) it’s pretty easy to go to an EasyGym and get the basics. Most people don’t need Eleiko competition plates or bars reserved for deadlifting only. But one of the things about the dedicated lifters who do need that stuff is that they tend to spend a lot of time in the gym, and people who spend a lot of time in their gym want and need it to be a good place.

Think about it – whether you are a veteran heavyweight or just super into getting hench, you don’t want to spend a significant amount of your week in a gym where the equipment is damaged or you need to search all over the place for scattered plates or people are dicks to you. You likely go at regular times, and so you get to know the other regulars at least by sight, enough to exchange greetings, enough to ask if one of them can spot, enough to be asked to spot. Enough to start giving a bit of a damn. You get used to the regulars enough then you start to notice new faces. If someone looks a bit lost hovering at the edge of a platform, it stands out – and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to ask if they want to work in, does it? If you’re already having a bit of chat between your own sets, it becomes natural to include that new person, or at least give them a nod and smile when they finish their set and step aside for you. And so your gym stays a good place, and you are part of that, and you take pride in it.

A hardcore bodybuilder or powerlifter or weightlifter or strongman also tends to be just a tad enthusiastic and even nerdy about their sport. If you have ever been enthusiastic about a sport, ask yourself if you have ever disparaged anyone new to it. If the answer isn’t “of course not” then please stop reading this and take some time to reflect on yourself – but I bet most of you tend to be really keen on seeing new people enjoy learning and get better at whatever your interest is. I bet if you’re a skater then you have seen and experienced so many failures yourself that you don’t judge a fresh meat struggling with a T stop. If you’re a full on crossfitter, you get psyched and high five a n00b managing their first pull up. Hell, never mind crossfit – if you do cross stitch you are probably understanding when someone gets it wrong and screws up their pattern (or whatever happens – I don’t know how cross stitch works).

Lifters are no different. A dedicated lifter physique and challenging lifts are a sign of intense training and enthusiasm, not being a dick. The giant men at Physical Culture enthuse over someone’s best lift to date like a parkour practitioner cheers someone’s first vault. The giant, enthusiastic, mighty Physical Culture lifters are not going to shake their heads at your tiny overhead press. They’ve been there, they’ve seen others start small, they also have more than a basic understanding of how bodyweight and gender changes realistic expectations of what people can lift. They will just enjoy seeing someone slowly grow and develop over time.

People also like to have training buddies. Sometimes you want to put your headphones in, get yourself into a rack and just do your thing. But sometimes you want to work together. Heavy bench press needs a spotter, so people pair up. One of the best things I have ever seen at PC is a guy coming in with a pile of decorations and quietly putting them around the bench. Why? Because his friend and training partner,  a long term regular, was coming in and it was his birthday. It was infectious. The gym owner fully endorsed and helped put the decorations around the place. The gym crowd were carrying on with workouts while shooting surreptitious and amused glances at the preparations. The owner put a happy birthday playlist on. Anticipation built as we waited for the birthday boy, who was late, to walk in and see it all. We were all in on it. We all signed his card – and we all stopped to enjoy his reaction when he finally came arrived. There was cake, there were happy birthdays, there were bench presses. Not all of us had known this guy for years, but we were all part of that birthday surprise and shared it with him and each other.

Some sports NEED group training. Strongman is one (at least around here). It’s one I am new to, and I already love it. It involves an awful lot of going backwards and forwards while carrying enormous things, kind of like going home from Tesco but a bit harder. This means space, and as we’ve already talked about, there’s not a lot of empty gym floor. Definitely not enough to run 20 metres in a straight line with an enormous metal frame on your shoulders.

This means teamwork. We need to get the equipment from the gym to the nearby park. A few weeks ago, this meant the gym owner, Chris, helping us to get access to various items, figuring out which of us could carry what, and having a buddy come along with a car – she herself was too injured to join in, but helped out with the transport, timed us and was encouraging. In the space of one afternoon I felt like I was part of a team.

Number two is how Physical Culture is run.

In an age of the customer always being right, convenience, promises of instant results and reduced staffing for reduced costs, I have never heard the term “customer service” at Physical Culture. You are a member, not a passive consumer of a “fitness” product. As members, we are part of a community and responsible for that community. Customers do what they want and expect to be catered to – I once saw a friend jokingly say that the best thing about just going to the gym instead of a taught strength class was that nobody made her put the weights away. Members, however, are responsible for those weights and their own behaviour. We put the damn weights away, because we respect our community resources and our fellow members.

Members are accountable. Membership is a privilege, not a right. Should your behaviour be unacceptable, that privilege an be revoked – there will be no harassing of people, rudeness or casual chucking around of the equipment at PC. If you give respect and consideration to others, you will get it in return.

Members have expectations of each other. Another customer at a chain gym is someone who has paid to be there. They’re not answerable to you, and when the customer is always right, gym staff are there to keep their employers profiting, not to protect a community. As a member of PC you get to be part of the community, and know that everyone around you is held to the same standards that you are. You’re all equally expected to share the equipment, play nice, be considerate to each other and so on.

Staff command easy respect and affection. The gym owner is not a man who is desperate for your money. There are no quick buck making schemes – PC has been going since 1928 and it offers nothing but honest training and results. There is no treating staff like skivvies and expecting them to pick up after you – we’re all part of this community. Rather than someone far up a corporate chain looking at profit margins and innovative ways to make ever more cash, we all matter as people. We’re held to account, yes, but we’re also worth so much more than our monthly membership costs (which aren’t high, to be honest). this is a guy who posts updates on how busy the racks are. This is a guy who wanders down and hands out bottles of lucozade, who brought us water and coke when we were training in the park, who celebrates our achievements and milestones. Show me a chain gym with a manager that will chat to you about taking some of the rustier weights to the park for a couple of hours.

There are PB boards for both genders on the walls, and I have seen a larger number of women lifting in this gym than I have in any other weights area. Women outnumber men some nights and there is no sexism. There is no talk about lifting like a girl. We are absolutely equal. I saw someone recently write that they were once asked by a man at their gym whether they would get off the leg press so he could “use it properly” – I have absolute confidence that this would never fly in our gym. It’s not just against the rules. It would offend everyone on the gym floor, male and female.

There are no drop in passes for Physical Culture. Part of the deal when you sign up is that you are there to stay for at least a while. This creates a place where trust and personal relationships matter. I have seen so many mobile phones left out on benches, ledges and next to racks. I think nothing of chucking my bag down in the changing room before I head downstairs. Nobody there is coming in for one night and therefore doesn’t care about how they leave the place when they are done, whether their behaviour will upset others, if they will be allowed back. Everyone you see is someone you will probably see again.

And so this is how a place full of loud, muscled grunting men can be absolutely perfect for a small woman trying to regain her fitness and work up her lifting ability. This is how the giant men can become friends and supportive training buddies. They give respect, and they deserve it in return. They have boundless enthusiasm and want to see you do well, and that lets you see beyond the intimidating size to the actual kind-hearted, good-natured people underneath.

So instead of fearing the giants in the gym, give them a chance to be part of your community. Offer respect, and see if it is returned. Build a community instead of a nemesis, and see if you can create a place like Physical Culture. And if not – if your gym is honestly full of assholes – then know that you have options, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

The best step vault I could ever do

I’m not a very good or confident vaulter. Coming into parkour overweight, with dyspraxia, pretty poor fitness levels and worse confidence doesn’t help you to leap gracefully over walls and railings and boxes on day one. Or day two. Or day three. Building up fitness, improving body composition and getting that coordination take time. The confidence takes even longer. I still don’t lazy vault anything hip height or up. I can turn vault small obstacles and have even managed kongs, but for honest to god years the only vault I could or would do was the step vault.

This was hard. In the first few weeks of parkour classes, I had gone from basically crawling slowly and ashamedly onto a box while the rest of the class at Moberly sports centre (Remember Moberly? I ‘member) threw themselves gracefully and carelessly into the air, speed vaulting and slide monkeying with increasing skill and confidence. Not knowing Parkour Generations then like I did now, I had a creeping terror that there was a time limit. That one day they would take me aside and say as kindly as possible that it had been ten weeks or twenty or whatever the cutoff was and I couldn’t vault properly yet, that maybe I should reconsider and that this might not be for me right now.

One day, I was the first to arrive and the coach asked how I thought training was going. This was it, I thought. I apologised. I acknowledged I could only do a step vault. He said that was fine, that all of the coaches see all sorts of abilities. They see athletic people doing athletic stuff every day – and they didn’t care the way I thought they did. They weren’t impressed only by skill. They could see my effort, and they loved it. It didn’t matter whether I never got onto the highest box in the room. They didn’t care. All I needed to do was keep working.

But I felt like maybe I would never progress beyond step vault, I said. That might be it. And then that coach changed everything.

“That’s fine. We’ll just make it the best step vault it could possibly be.”

We’ve all heard about trying your best or just keeping going or it being okay to learn slowly. But what about knowing that even if you can only do one simple thing, you can make it the best possible version of that thing? What if, instead of dwelling on the stuff I couldn’t do and feeling ashamed, I became so good at step vaults that I could do them with speed and skill and grace and impeccable balance? What if the simple technique I felt ashamed to be “stuck on” became an awesome skill that I could be proud of?

I didn’t immediately stop feeling bad, of course. This isn’t a Disney movie. But I remembered, though. Whenever I started to feel like I shouldn’t be doing parkour, I remembered that it didn’t matter where I got to as long as I was giving it my honest all. And when coaches demonstrated a route that made me want to cry because I didn’t think I could do most of it, I found that one thing I could do and I made it as good as I could.

So I did. Every time I couldn’t do the kong or lazy vault or speed vault or tic tac, I remembered. I made that step vault better. And one day, years later, I saw something important. We were working on step vaults and I saw a fellow practitioner of a much higher skill level than me, who normally ignored the basic step vault in favour of a turn vault or speed vault, try to get over a railing. I couldn’t vault like he normally did. I was still stuck on that step vault of mine, landing one foot on that rail every time, and I naturally assumed that as a much more gymnastic traceur than me he would find this exercise insultingly easy.

He did not. He may have been able to do everything else miles better than I could, but he could not do this one simple thing as confidently and easily as me. All the time that I had been disparaging my step vault as the easy way out or baby version of a “proper” vault, I had been failing to see what it was teaching me. Without knowing, I had been practicing targeting – landing  with the ball of one foot on a narrow surface- and the balance skills it takes to stay stable enough to complete the motion. Every time I had cursed myself for being too slow or pausing partway through, I had been training the balance to hang there mid-vault, balanced with one hand and one foot on a metal railing or narrow wall while I remembered what to do next.

Making my step vault the best step vault I could possibly do not only got me through feeling awkward and incapable. I had been building very important skills the entire time.

This lesson is especially important for me right now, when a bunch of health issues have left me less capable than before. I can’t yet do as much as I could, but every time that starts to overwhelm me, I remember. And I look at what I can do, and I grind. If I can only get onto the smallest obstacle, I make that approach as smooth as I damn well can, even if that means working to shave off a single step. And I never, ever disparage these “basic” skills like I once did. I stay open, respectful and appreciative of what they have to teach me.

 

Beach body acceptance and YOU: losing weight and losing your mind

My mum was weird about food when I was a kid. She’d have us eat massive amounts of junk food for dinner on Fridays – multiple packets of crisps and mars bars, not just some pizza or something – and then she began to go through phases of weird diets and being pointed about what I ate. I distinctly remember her having me eat a sausage sandwich and 2 cream cakes for lunch daily, then telling me my face was too round. I also remember her vowing to eat nothing but cereal because she was too fat. No surprises that I didn’t really understand much about balanced meals and healthy eating by the time I got to adulthood, then.

I was pretty overweight for most of my adult life, with occasional drops down to almost regular BMI at particularly active times. I was also pretty anti diet culture and vowed to never count calories because that was stupid, and I didn’t really like to think about weight because it made me feel bad and it was all shallow rubbish anyway. But I’m not blind. I could see that most parkour regulars were leaner than me. I knew I huffed when I ran. I knew I wasn’t keen on what I saw in the mirror. So what could I do?

When you look at weight loss now, pop culture gives you two basic options. They’re probably more complicated than how I see them, but I’m a pretty simple person. Here is what I see in front of me:

Option one is to be beach body ready. I have to strive to eliminate those “problem areas.” I should exercise for weight loss, burning as many calories and as much fat as possible. My aim should be to get as thin and as hourglass as possible within a basically safe weight range, then wear tiny waisted jeans. Or I can join some kind of slimming club – count points, listen to calorie burning tips, listen to people talk about their metabolisms and so on. Did you eat off plan yesterday? That is NAUGHTY. You have been BAD.

This is not for me. I wasn’t exercising to lose weight – all I wanted was to be able to train more and better! I wanted to have lower bodyfat levels and more muscle mass, but I wasn’t interested in looks. I wanted to run and climb and tear my trackies on walls, not pose in jeans.

Option two is to reject weight loss completely and be happy as I am. BMI is rubbish, restricting calories is always pointless and bad for you, and that beach body chick is unrealistic anyway. Just eat what you want and work on strength only. Anything else is just giving in to diet culture and there are no health implications with being overweight. Also, everyone ends up at their natural predestined weight anyway, so there’s no point. Restricting food is punishing yourself and hating yourself.

Well… this kind of doesn’t work for me either. It’s a lot harder to pull yourself onto a high wall when you are heavier. It’s harder to run, too – you have more to carry. You’re weighed down when you jump. And I’m afraid I’m going to err on the side of caution with the health stuff and go with the medical scientist guys.

I think it was the strength training and weight lifting that pushed me over the edge. In weightlifting, your bodyweight is a vital piece of information – if someone weighs 52kg and squats 80kg, it’s a different game entirely from a 75kg person squatting the same. And then there’s the concept of power to weight ratio – you want to have the muscle mass to be able to move yourself explosively without weighing enough that it is harder for that muscle mass to do it. I don’t care about jeans or bikinis, but I care very much about being able to do stuff. And so, with advice from the long suffering Emmet, I decided to lose weight – but if options 1 and 2 both seem wrong to me, what should I do?

It turns out that there’s an option three. You can just decide what you want to do and then do it. You don’t need to worry about whether it’s supporting sexist ideas about what a woman should be if you want to drop ten pounds and make pullups easier. You don’t need to experience actual guilt over eating a cookie (why do people do that? Feel guilt about being a dick on public transit or something, not eating a cookie. Just eat it or don’t). You don’t need to buy into celebrity diets or try to keep up with a Kardashian. You don’t have to want to punish yourself for how you look because you think your power to weight ratio will be better in a lower weight range than you are currently in. You decide what you want, what is probably actually sustainable for you, and you do that thing.

The best thing about taking option three is that it is different for each person. Would you like to be an ultra badass triathlete? Cool! Your body composition will probably be pretty different from someone who wants to be a MEGA POWERLIFTER, which is also incredibly awesome. Are you gonna be a big heavy roller derby blocker who just shrugs jammers halfway across the room? Ain’t nobody gonna mess with that. Good choice. I imagine you might feel comfortable being built very differently from a dedicated ballet dancer or an acrobatic flyer. It’s all good. You do you.

So what next? Well. That’s almost as contentious. You’d think that reducing your calories would be a pretty non controversial thing, but NO. Upon starting to eat a certain amount of calories daily (making sure I had a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate that worked well for me), I was told the following COMPLETELY TRUE FACTS by a variety of people who had previously had little to no interest in my diet:

  1. calorie counting is unhealthy and will give you anorexia (no it won’t – Anorexia is a horrible, horrible condition that takes years to recover from, and you don’t catch it from calorie counting like it’s the bloody flu)
  2. Weighing food is obsessive and miserable and makes you obsessive and miserable (not really. It only takes a few seconds to weigh something like a portion of rice)
  3. Calorie counting means you won’t eat enough and will try to eat so little you get ill (not really, unless that’s your goal. There are plenty of ways to figure out a reasonable level for you that will create a caloric deficit without actually resorting to starvation)
  4. You will go into a magical STARVATION MODE that means your body stores everything as fat (how exactly would this work, if you are taking in less? Do you photosynthesise and store that as fat while you use your food energy to walk around and function?)
  5. Your metabolism will break (why do people think your metabolism is like a small device inside you that arbitrarily breaks down if you don’t overeat? Your metabolism is based on your mass, age, gender and activity level. It is not magic. Technically it will slow as you lose weight, in that having less mass means you need fewer calories to do your thing)
  6. You’re eating too much meat/the wrong kind of rice/a cookie/not enough fibre/too much carbohydrate/too much fat/too much protein and are probably DYING (dieting means that everyone needs to advise you, apparently. Even if you’re already being advised by someone who actually knows their shit, and ESPECIALLY if you’re not eating whatever the people around you expect you to eat)

Great. Really helpful. The good news is that people do get tired of this as you fail to spontaneously combust, starve to death in front of their eyes or gain 400kg because your metabolism broke down.

If your nutrition plan is sensible and you stick to it, you’ll start to lose weight. As your shape changes, you can expect the following from the people around you:

  1. Helpful critiques about your current appearance – my favourite moment was when someone pointed out how undefined my forearms were. Um. Thanks?
  2. Helpful reminders not to go TOO FAR. If you are a woman, people may want to let you know how important it is to maintain your current breast size (because that’s your most important feature, right?) or that you don’t want to look too much like a man or a female bodybuilder, which is pretty much the same thing (it turns out that both sex changes and becoming a competitive bodybuilder take a lot of time and very specific efforts, so don’t worry about this)
  3. People trying to get you to eat junk food. Just this once. Oh, go on. You can “afford it.” This is weird as hell and kind of creepy. If you do this to people, please stop or at the very least tell me wtf your motivation is, thanks
  4. Other people starting to tell you how skinny they used to be or how healthy their diet has been lately. I do not know why. I can barely find matching socks in the morning and I am more likely to be thinking about giant space fish than your diet, unless you’ve started one of those weird milkshake scams or have decided to only eat fruit for two weeks, in which case you are weird. Either way, though, I’m not the food police so please stop
  5. Other people telling you how fit they used to be until they turned 30/took an arrow to the knee/had a kid/got Netflix, giving you reasons why they could not possibly run at lunchtime/go to a gym/do zumba/bench press 3 times their bodyweight like they used to and/or informing you how hard their pilates/yoga/jog/body pump was last night. And not in a conversation way – I’m up for talking any gym bullshit – but an EXPECTANT way, like you’re meant to approve or disapprove or something.

What are you meant to do with all this?

I just don’t know. To get serious for a minute, losing weight did great things for me. I felt better, strength exercises were easier and I gained so much energy. I could run more, do more parkour, do pullups, lift heavy. Even my breathing was easier. I slept better. The actual process of following a sensible nutrition plan was not difficult – it took a long time, but as it wasn’t an extreme diet or particularly restrictive, that was no biggie.

Peoples’ reactions and expectations are another matter. Ten minutes on the internet blasts me with statements about how weight loss is self hate and self abuse, that I’m not light enough, that my legs are too big, I don’t have abs, I have too much muscle, I don’t look like a woman, I’m not feminist enough, I’m giving in to the patriarchy, riots not diets, how to cut belly fat, ten foods to never eat, how to avoid bloating. I’m too fat, I’m not fat enough, I should smash my scales and I should check my diabetes risk because IT COULD HAPPEN.

 

But I don’t belong to any of these people. I don’t have any need to meet their expectations. I will choose what I want to do, I will make sure it is sustainable and actually realistic, and I will do it. I will consider my body composition in relation to my health and the activities I want to be good at. I will track and measure as much as I want, or not at all. I’ll never be thin enough for some, and I’ll never be anti diet enough for others, and that’s okay. I’ll be a tiny ball of determination and enthusiasm about everything, including nutrition, and that’s good enough for me.

 

Couch DOMS: The pain of inactivity

Hello. I haven’t been around for a while. I didn’t quit, but life got a little difficult. By “a little difficult” I mean that my post concussion symptoms stuck around and a major mental health crisis landed me in inpatient psych care a couple of times over the past few months. It wasn’t exactly fun, and it was serious enough that I’m not sure I’d be here without intervention by some very good friends and NHS crisis services. I’m not fully better, either. Recovery from a serious breakdown like this is not fast. There is ongoing treatment and I’m limited in various ways.

There are, however, opportunities and things to learn in this situation. I’m not glad I’ve gone through this, but it has taught and is still teaching me a lot. This is one of the more painful lessons.

I’ve never understood why people experience aging differently from me. At 34, I felt better than I ever had in my life. Sure I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest in the world, but I was strong and able. While my coworkers were talking about sore knees, I was squatting more than my bodyweight, jumping from height and running on a daily basis. I ached plenty, but it was not the depressing degeneration other people my age described. I had the pain of well used muscles that would peak around 48 hours after training and then dissipate. They talked about waking up with throbbing joints and stiff backs that gradually worsened over time, reducing their ability to exercise. They were “too old” to jump. This pain, they comfortably assured me, was inevitable and permanent. Soon I too would be unable to run and lift because of my knees realising I was no longer 20. It was amazing that I was still able to jump at all.

I had very strong suspicions that my training was exactly what was keeping me from this. A few minutes on google will give you an idea why – regular exercise is well known to keep your joints healthy and supple. Not only that, but I could see parkour practitioners, runners, skaters and lifters much older than me casually demonstrate their fitness every day. It seemed far more likely to me that the majority of my “too old” coworkers and acquaintances were feeling the long term effects of sedentary lifestyles and poor diets than waking up on their 30th birthday too old to move.

One of the interesting things about being in the middle of a mental health crisis is that physical activity is pretty hard. It’s not just a matter of willpower to get off the couch – your cognitive capacity drops like a crossfitter after a Grace workout. How does exercise even work? you need shoes. How do those go on? Outside is too hard. You can’t go out there. Maybe you could do some stretching but suddenly you’ve forgotten why you’re standing here.

That’s if you’re safe enough to be outside without supervision and aware enough to be able to leave the room without major concentration. It’s hard, guys. It’s really, really hard.

And so I became sedentary. I’m okay with that. I lost a lot of fitness, but when you have been a danger to yourself and unable to carry out basic self care like knowing when to shower and understanding you can’t go and live in the park, that’s not really a priority. When a neighbour calls the police on you hiding in the bushes outside your house because you are so afraid to go inside in case someone in your building sees you, your lifting schedule kind of falls by the wayside a bit. There’s also the small matter of medication. In mental health crisis care, you’re quite often given strong anti anxiety and sedative drugs for a brief period. Being stoned out of your brain is not a healthy long term strategy, but can make you a lot more comfortable while you are in a very bad state. It does, however, make exercise a bit awkward. Ever tried rail precisions on valium? No, me neither. I’d suggest not.

Over the next few months, I began to feel the things my coworkers described. I had trouble getting comfortable at night because my right hip and knee ached. My hip flexor was so tight that I got used to regular twinges. My left ankle hurt where it had been sprained badly in skating and this led to pain further up the leg. My shoulders and thoracic spine ached and ached. I was degenerating. I could feel it, and it hurt. I couldn’t run like this. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t trust my joints. What if a sharp pain hit while I was out training? What if something tore? It felt uncontrollable and unfixable. I couldn’t get stronger in this state.

This is the DOMS you feel after spending too long on the couch. I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it.

Weight change is also a thing. While in crisis, I dropped kilograms. I wasn’t really going to eat unless someone fed me (which friends and crisis staff did. I’m forever grateful for waking up confused to find the friends looking after me while waiting for the NHS to place me somewhere had left a bowl out with granola and milk right next to it, a cup with a teabag and instructions on how to eat breakfast).

In the months that followed, however, I gained fat. This is okay. Remember that impaired cognition? That doesn’t go away immediately following a crisis. You can only handle so much thinking and planning before you dissolve into a puddle of tears and stress. It was far more important that I keep my hormones in a happy state by eating regularly and as nutritiously as possible than I start considering body composition and food tracking. Weight can be lost later – I had done it before, after all. A few kilos are not going to kill me.

As I recovered enough to start taking tentative steps towards exercise, though, the effects of that extra weight became pretty clear. Running is harder – there’s more of me to move (we’re talking a maximum gain of 6kg here, but that’s a fair amount for someone my height). Jumping? Yeah. There’s some extra baggage dragging me back down there. General cardio? I can actually feel how abdominal fat affects my ability to catch my breath.

So that degeneration is my life now, right? I got mentally broken, am not fully healthy yet and won’t be for a very long time. Time to accept it.

Nah.

You can’t just get off the couch and go outside for a run while in crisis. You can’t cope with a busy, fast-paced parkour class when you’re mentally vulnerable and unable to deal with stress. But it gets better, and there are things you can do.

I attempted various things off and on during the past few months. Between periods of psych care, I managed to get in some parkour classes (I couldn’t even keep up when they were running, just like when I started, but that’s never been a reason to quit). I did a bit of lifting, but not regularly enough to help me. But I also worked a lot more on lighter, gentler activities. First, I was able to go for a walk even just to a coffee shop. Then I could go to bagua class (more on this another time – for now, think of it as tai chi while walking in circles). A while later, I could swim once a week or so – no stress if I wasn’t up to it, but when I could, I did. And with just these gentle activities once or twice a week, those pains – the aching back, the bad hip, the dodgy knee – they stopped. Those seemingly incurable pains that had kept me awake and stopped me from feeling comfortable and told me I was weak now – they melted away. I barely noticed. I would suddenly remember that I hadn’t felt a stabbing in my hip for a few days, then I kind of forgot that it had ever happened. I started to sleep better. I found myself running without thinking about that sore knee.

And now I’m sitting here, writing after almost a year of feeling incapable of it, and aching again – but this time with good old post-lifting DOMS. My lower back is tender. My shoulders ache after doing overhead press with small dumbells. My legs are wobbly. But this doesn’t feel like degeneration. I can rest in this ache knowing that I’m getting stronger as I recover from it. It isn’t a pain that makes me feel helpless – it hurts because I worked those muscles hard on purpose and with purpose. It’s a strengthening ache, not a weakening one. It’s predictable and makes sense. It doesn’t make me afraid of running in case a sharp pain stabs me out of nowhere. It’s the most welcome pain I have ever felt in my life.

People say exercise hurts, but after trying both, I don’t think any training aches will ever compare to the uncontrollable, senseless, constant pain of living on the couch.

 

98, 99, 100.

I posted a pretty simple video on Instagram yesterday. Here it is:

I’ve been at a pretty low point. My confidence has been hit by skating injuries, I still have post concussion issues and I have lost so much strength I feel like I’m back where I started a couple of years ago. I don’t feel like I can risk playing roller derby. I may well change my mind later, but if I don’t, I will have quit without even passing minimum skills. That hurts.

There’s something important I’ve come to understand and accept through all of this, though – movement is my life. Training is my life.

I went back to Chainstore and I set myself to repeating this simple little vault 100 times. It’s less impressive than a lot of people do on their first day, and I struggled. Without keeping it that small a vault, I was clipping my feet, landing poorly and generally screwing up. So this is it. This is my turn vault right now. This is me doing them over and over because I know that the only way to regrow my confidence, strength and coordination is to grind away at it over and over until it’s natural to me.

I would not be doing this if movement wasn’t the centre of my life. I could do so many other things. I could go to a gym and do generic fitness classes for health, or maybe go swimming, and treat exercise like a chore that I do to keep vaguely healthy (no, not everyone in generic gym classes thinks this way – but it’s a pretty common attitude with exercise for some reason) and then go home and watch American Horror Story. I could do pretty much anything other than repeat this movement.

I’ve said my vaulting here is unimpressive. It really is. My landing is super loud. I’m not graceful. You can see the tension in my hands. Other people in Chainstore were balancing on rails way above my head, doing massive jumps and bigger, better vaults. But this vault, right here, this clumsy, cautious hop from a box over that railing – it’s MY vault. It’s ME. Behind that movement is every parkour class I’ve ever been to. Every struggling, humiliating attempt to get onto and over an object has built up to this very ordinary and banal moment. Every time someone has said just the right thing to keep me from giving up has led to me being there, still not giving up. Every negative thought I’ve had about myself is expressed in the tension of my hands, and every happy training moment I’ve ever had, alone or with friends, is in the jump. No other vault by anyone else could be like this, because nobody else has lived that collection of experiences.

And I’m not special. This is true for every single person, at any level, training anything. Every time you see someone moving, whether at their best or their worst, it’s expressing their real selves and everything that has led up to that moment of time. When you see an experienced, skilled practitioner land a perfect rail precision it’s easy to marvel at their skill. But in that landing is years of trying, failing, boredom, irritation, optimism and sheer grit. Every time you see someone hesitantly attempt so much as a monkey walk for the first time, you are seeing all their past experiences up to now and who they are – their preconceptions about the propriety of crawling on the floor, the softness of their computer-user hands, the spark of curiosity that brought them here, the determination in them that makes them keep trying when they don’t really get why the coach is going on about “opposite hand, opposite foot.” How they learn. How they face the world around them.

This is why movement is my life. It’s not because I’m good at it, or because I’m such a dedicated athlete I believe I will overcome all my limitations and get good at it. That’s really not the point. It’s because I cannot stop. It’s the only natural way I know how to learn about and express who and what I am, and it’s the only way I know how to understand the humans around me.

And that’s why every time I break and fail and lose what little ability I have, I’ll be back. I’ll have reps to do.

 

 

Injury lessons 3: Brains

I think I’ve made it fairly obvious that sometimes I get injured. I’ve also been pretty open about how poorly I deal with it. I tend to become quite depressed, and have an extremely unhelpful habit of training before healed enough to really be doing so.

Roller derby is a pretty questionable sport for me to take up, considering all of that. Its injury rate seems disturbingly close to Black Friday in a Walmart and I’ve been particularly clumsy. Before my first year of training was over, I had experienced a sprain bad enough for a brief spell on crutches, which I complained about roughly as much as people who break both their legs and maybe a wrist, landed on a haematoma, which made me scream embarrassingly, and concussion.

Concussion means you have a headache and feel weird for a few days and then you’re fine, right? You might get light sensitive or feel kind of sick but it’s hardly as bad as that sprain. Right?

Wrong.

This is the worst injury I have ever experienced. When I had an abdominal tear, it was devastating to be basically unable to move for so long. When I hurt my ankle, that brief spell of being on crutches made it really hard to even eat (it was a good few days before I was able to eat a hot meal, and that was a Subway sandwich) and knocked my confidence hard. And that was partial weight bearing – people who have a break have a MUCH harder time than me. Having my shoulder get injured over and over again has led to me paying a hell of a lot for physiotherapy, without which I would never be able to climb or do parkour again. And the haematoma thing was just really cringeworthy. Oh, and it hurt. But with a concussion, what’s injured isn’t a limb or a joint. It’s ME – everything that makes me myself.

The initial concussion came about when I ran at someone on roller skates (I’m pretty sure that’s basically how you play derby, right?) and fell over backwards, smacking my head off the floor in the process. I was checked for concussion symptoms and told to sit out for the next three jams, which I did while staring mournfully at the coach like a sad stray puppy stuck outside in the rain. And also a truck has just swerved and splashed muddy water all over it. And also it was just abandoned by a family who were moving and didn’t want to take it with them. And… anyway, you get the idea.

A couple of hours later, I started feeling very unwell in the pub, falling asleep and hacking up bile in the bathroom. I was taken to hospital. I remember bits about this – I was completely convinced I was going to be in trouble for saying I was fine during training, I cried on the bus about the stickers on my helmet, I was afraid of the doctor’s pen when he asked me to track it with my eyes and I had a CT scan before being taken home at about 2am. Not my home. A loyal buddy had stayed with me the entire time, and took me back with her, where I stayed in a nest of blankets and sofa bed for two days, cried a lot and made her put the Babadook on Netflix because I thought the sounds would be soothing.

I didn’t go back to work for over a week. I spent my time asleep. I don’t remember a lot, but I know I didn’t eat much. I couldn’t cope with going outside to the shops – at one point I came across a derby friend who works in a local supermarket, and started crying helplessly because I hadn’t been able to find bin bags for days. She found me bin bags. I lived in a constant brain fog, and it was an achievement the first day I only needed one nap.

When I did go back to work, it was a nightmare. The phone ringing hurt. Two people talking at once would overload me and leave me staring blankly straight ahead. The screen hurt my eyes. I had no emotional control over myself. I had two weeks of leave coming up, and spent most of it resting. At some point when symptoms went down, I worked through the recommended steps for return to exercise – short periods of cardio, gradual introduction of harder stuff – until I was back to roller skate fights.

This was a mistake. I wasn’t actually fully okay. I still had memory issues, was a little slower, and had burst of intense anxiety. And then it happened. I ran at someone, I fell backwards, I whiplashed and there I was again. Not as badly as the first time, but bad enough.

So as of now, where am I at, and why is it so bad?

I’m back to work. It’s difficult. I have problems with headaches, processing instructions, spelling, multitasking… this has all improved a lot lately, but for a good two weeks all I could do was come home and sleep.

Training is very limited. I can swim and do mobility. I hope to start running soon. I’ll probably be able to skate next month, but not contact. I won’t be touching any contact sport until at LEAST October.

There are quite a lot of things I have lost.

  1. I don’t write so good no more. This is the first time I’ve been able to write a long piece for three months. I make silly mistakes, like mixing up there/their/they’re and to/two/too. Numbers are a lot harder, too.
  2. My personality is bad now. I have negative feelings. It’s harder to interact with people, partially because I get tired and confused easily and partly because I’m just not me. During the worst of it, I was like a five year old. I’d cry at anything, I needed a nap every hour or two, I barely knew how to feed myself and I was incapable of coherent thought. Now? I feel like I don’t even know me, let alone like me. I’m really not sure I like me.
  3. I can’t do all the things. My life revolves around climbing stuff, running around, skating, jumping, lifting things – I can’t do this right now. There was a brief period between concussions when I could, but my symptoms got worse and I had to stop. It was a major milestone when I went swimming two times last week and did some contact juggling.
  4. I was never a calm person, but after concussion 2 I was having panic attacks on the tube in the morning. I’ve lost a lot of ability to deal with crowds, especially commuting.
  5. I do not have confidence now. I can only think a few days in advance. I can’t imagine skating properly again, although I talk about it like it’s a thing. I doubt myself constantly – even telling people about concussion effects makes me feel like I’m a wuss or a hypochondriac, because many people have no idea what a concussion can do. I know that physical brain damage can be present even when concussion symptoms are fully clear, so I’m going to be terrified even when all the symptoms are gone. I got a cold this weekend, and panicked in case it was my brain regressing again.

There are a couple of good points in all of this. Firstly, people have been really great. I’ve had helpful medical advice (from qualified people), derby friends checking in on me throughout the whole thing, and let’s not forget that one person who stayed with me until 2am in a hospital and fed me chicken nuggets for two days while I whimpered on her floor. Secondly, some of it is slowly going away. The most helpful thing so far as been acupuncture. I hate needles and I don’t like alternative medicine, so god knows why. I don’t even care why. I’m desperate.

The scariest thing about this, though, is that I’m not at all alone. There has been a lot of media lately about the previously ignored effects of concussion. This guy’s experience is particularly upsetting, with a ray of hope. There’s a whole community of derby players out there who have suffered badly after concussions. Some have had to quit their jobs. Some skate again, some never do. It’s not much fun.

I don’t really know how to end this. Mainly, I just want people to know what a concussion can do. I hear people talk casually about them like they’re no more serious than a bruised-up knee. They can change your life completely, and put everything on hold. So yeah. Helmets don’t save you, don’t fall backwards, and try not to be me.

Adults don’t play

Some lunchtimes, I do something childish and utterly unacceptable in modern society. It’s a thing I have absolutely no business doing as an adult woman with a professional desk job.

I go out to play.

If you don’t know any better, it sometimes looks like I’m exercising or training for something, which puts people a bit more at their ease – stretching is a little odd, but if it looks like I’m doing yoga, then that’s fine. If I’m running around, that’s even better. Running is admirable as long as I’m doing it to lose or maintain weight, burn off chocolate or even train for a race, although at 34 years old society is a little doubtful as to whether I should really be doing sports. Isn’t that something you only do until mid-twenties. Juggling is also okay. It’s a little laughable to coworkers, but to random park users, it looks like I’m a busker rehearsing an act. Apparently adults can play with toys as long as it’s to earn money, but when bystanders ask me about it and I explain it’s just for fun, it can be quite confusing for them.

Skating, however, is not acceptable for adults. Don’t I know any better? People may think I look silly. And even worse, I sometimes go out in the sun and practise very basic tumbling and moving around on all fours. There is no excuse for a grown-up doing a forward roll or a cartwheel, or lolloping around like a monkey. Unless you are a professional athlete, it’s an undeniable truth that one day, you do a forward roll joyfully, freely, just for the sheer delight of it, and then you never do another. You have crossed an invisible line into adulthood, and like the border of a foreign country, there are things you may not carry through, and there are new laws you must obey.

You may not carry your skateboard, unless it’s to reminisce over. You cannot bring your yoyo, your hula hoop or your rollerskates, although bicycles are allowed for certain activities such as travelling to and from work. Movement is only allowed in special areas. You may move rhythmically to music in clubs if you are a young adult, or to dancercize music at any age provided you are inside a designated gym area. Exercise is for a purpose, not because you just like it. You must have a goal. You can choose whether it’s to burn calories, get stronger, be healthier or look better, but you must have one. Ball games may only be played with children, unless you participate in an organised training group of some kind. Stretching is allowed, but requires a mat and a flat, temperature controlled indoor space, and preferably an authority figure in the form of an instructor. In fact, the only forms of solo exercise a respectable adult may perform outside in the public eye are running and cycling – and female runners in particular are still subject to catcalls from those who have better sense than to do something so undignified.

When you are not exercising in a permitted manner, there is no wasteful moving for fun. You run only when necessary, because you are late. Otherwise, you walk. You do not do anything that may mess up your hair. You dress in limiting, uncomfortable clothing and avoid puddles, getting sweaty or touching the ground to keep it pristine.

As an adult, there is no climbing outside of very special gyms especially for that purpose. Pavements (and only pavements) are for walking on, and a wall may never be clambered up or over. Benches are for sitting on, never for vaulting. Clear, empty outdoor urban areas are for standing in or walking across to get from one destination to another – never for practising quadrupedal movement, or rolls, or sprints. Railings are never, ever for standing on.

Think I’m exaggerating? You’re wrong. I’ve been present while random members of the public approach my friends and I because they don’t want children to see us balancing and think it’s okay. I’ve seen old men complain because we are jumping from one flat paving stone in the grass to another. I’ve heard a police officer say – after acknowledging our right to be where we were and admitting we were not causing a nuisance, damaging anything or impeding anyone’s route through the area – that people don’t like that we’re doing it. I’ve had people mock me for running, and coworkers ask if people laugh at me for tumbling.

Adults do not go out to play.

You know what, though? It’s fun. It’s really fun. Have you ever envied the freedom of a child running just because they love it, instead of out of some sense of guilt or duty? Do you remember what it’s like to look at a flat, grassy area, a hill or a wall and see a million things to do? When was the last time you experimented from moving from one stretch or balance position into another just to see what would happen? Do you remember what it’s like to test your limits – not in a macho self-improvement way or to test your fitness, but just seeing how long you can balance on one leg or hang upside down out of pure curiosity? Have you ever taken one of those giant inflatable gym balls and instead of steadfastly doing your usual pilates routine, tried to see how far across the room you can get on it without touching the floor?

You’re still able to do all that. You never lost that freedom to feel wind in your hair when you run. You can still jump over puddles and random objects in the street. You can kick a football outside, or balance on things (just don’t damage them!). You can even do cartwheels – and nobody can actually stop you. Sometimes they will try. Sometimes they will make fun of you. But they can’t make you stop unless you choose to.

There’s lots of injustice in the world. Awful things happen to good people. The rich take from the poor, children die, law enforcement shoot people based on race alone. These are big things, and I am a small person, but the social stigma surrounding free movement and play for adults is the one thing I feel like I can stand up to. So can you. Set yourself free. Rediscover how your own body works. Show others they can do it too. Go out to play.