I don't remember the last time I took two weeks off from training and was actually serious about it. Even when I lived in Syracuse and beer and burgers took precedent over running, my belly and I were still getting out there at least four times a week.
But since I am always telling people to listen to their bodies and not ignore obvious signals, I knew I had to practice what I preach and truly shut it down. For me, that meant no running, no ridiculously long elliptical sessions, no spin classes, no swimming (or what I call, swimming. Most call it "not drowning"). For an entire fortnight, I didn't exercise. I took a few yoga classes that focused more on relaxing than on breaking a sweat, walked the dog around the block a few times and didn't change my diet.
I used my downtime to analyze how I got where I was. Why was my body turning on me now after years of running high mileage and high intensity while working long and often odd hours? Once I identified the problems (anxiety, lack of sleep, holes in my diet), I began looking for ways to fix them. Since giving up hard training is not an option yet, I accepted that I had to make some lifestyle changes if I wanted to keep running competitively. Running wasn't causing the problems, but in the situation I found myself in, it was contributing to them.
The first problem I had to tackle was my ongoing struggle with insomnia. I don't know what started it all back in February, but I believe it was the beginning of the downward spiral. If you have ever had insomnia, you know how it goes. You can't sleep, so you worry about being able to fall asleep which in turn, causes your mind to race, therefore keeping you up even longer. After a couple of nights of this, the mere thought of bedtime itself becomes a source of stress. It's torture.
I got into a real bad place trying every method possible to cure my insomnia. Teas turned into pills from the health foods store which turned into pills from the pharmacy. You don't want to see my medicine cabinet. I could knock out a elephant. Here's the problem with sleeping drugs: You aren't getting quality sleep when you use them. It's fake sleep. I didn't sleep without some sort of sleep aid for more than four months. During that time, I rarely got REM sleep which is when the body produces the chemicals and hormones it needs to function properly. Thus, the disastrous blood tests that scared me into making my health my only priority.
A good friend who knows a lot about sleep told me the drugs were only going to exacerbate the problem, so one night at the very beginning of the break I quit them cold turkey. Before I did that, I had to summon up courage and confidence in my ability to sleep naturally. I decided if I couldn't sleep, I'd get up and do something until I was tired. I accepted the fact that I might go days without sleeping before this deeply-dug hole was filled. I practiced nightly meditation. I eliminated the computer and the television in the hour before sleep (this is difficult since my job consists of putting things on television). I bought a face mask and ear plugs to eliminate the lights and noise of living in the middle of Manhattan. Ya know that whole "city that never sleeps" thing? There's truth to it.
So far, it has worked. I sleep soundly most nights and am gradually feeling more like myself again. I really didn't know how bad it gotten until I experienced "normal" again. While, I have yet to get follow-up blood tests, I can tell that I am a different person.
Fourteen days is a long time for an addict like me. By the end of my detox, I was itching to get back out there again. While you don't lose a ton of fitness over the span of two weeks, you can't just pick up where you left off. My first run back was spent running alongside Lauren in a 5K race in Brooklyn. I followed it up with two weeks of easy running with no stress workouts.
|At the top of Conejos Peak in Colorado|
Home again, I expect the anxiety will return, which is just unfortunately, how I am wired. But, I'm armed with new weapons with which to fight it and a fresh knowledge of what I have to do to keep myself healthy and strong. Next week, I'll hit the track for some light speedwork and then see how I race at Team Championships on Saturday. I'm not expecting a PR, but it will be a good fitness test in the build up to the Philadelphia Half in September. Refreshed, rejuvenated, relieved. This is a new starting line.