Was my sports watch worth it?

My overall experience of owning a sports watch

First it was a Galaxy smart watch, followed by another, fancier one, then a Garmin Venu, which was, as watches go, brilliant. I had a sports watch for around five years altogether. I was a runner with two marathons under my belt who still did plenty of events, trained long and often, and liked the stats. I used the Garmin to check my mile on mile pace, heart rate, elevation and mileage. It linked automatically to Strava where I enjoyed looking at other people’s routes and activities as well as sharing mine. My Garmin Venu showed me a gradual increase in heart rate that culminated in a diagnosis of overactive thyroid, which took me to the GP early and caught the condition early. It had a really cool screen and was comfortable to wear. These are the pros.

The cons are more complex and individual. When I started wearing sports watches it was harmless and helpful. By 2020 my Garmin Venu was a noose tightening around my thoughts as my 38 year long eating disorder took ownership of it and became obsessed with the numbers. As Covid numbers rose and I watched it all unfolding around me, I felt strangely detached. I surprised myself by not being swallowed up by anxiety like others around me. I ran a lot.

The Summer before, I had started using an app called Cronometer to track my iron intake. I had been to give blood and told I was borderline on the iron front therefore not eligible after at least fifteen years of giving blood regularly. Menopausal women need more iron, apparently, and I wasn’t about to start eating red meat, so I started to log my nutrition more precisely. I easily fixed the iron and started giving blood again. But by that time I was calorie counting again and losing weight after not engaging in dieting behaviours for several years.

Where does the Garmin Venu come into this? I realised that for every run, walk, workout or movement of any type, it counts your calories and gives you a daily total. This, for a person who is becoming rapidly obsessed with weight loss and calorie tracking, is a menace. In my previously disordered times I had reams of notebooks lying in kitchen drawers full of numbers, scribbles and food lists. The Venu made the eating disorder streamlined, slick and almost sane. In other words, it enabled it and enabled my denial.

There is research being carried out, currently, as to whether there is a correlation between fitness watches and eating disorders, with inconclusive evidence. This post is just my experience. The Venu did not cause an eating disorder. I had a chronic one already that was lying dormant and the Venu exacerbated it. I would have had an ED regardless of the watch. Cronometer was another enabler. The trigger was Covid anxiety. I realise now that the detached feeling I had was because the lifelong safety behaviour of food and body control was kicking in, like an anaesthetic, and it felt as familiar as childhood.

My watch is now gone, to somebody who is not eating disordered, and I feel good about that. I have deleted Cronometer and Garmin and don’t have the option of running at the moment as I have completely knackered my sacroiliac joint by digging. I don’t know what my running will look like when I start again, but I will figure it out as I go along. In the meantime, here are my thoughts about whether a smart watch is a help or a hindrance.

IT’S A HELP IF:

  • You love the stats relating to your sports performance
  • You like to train within certain heart rate zones and are a fitness nerd
  • You’re keen to develop and maintain good sleep hygiene
  • You follow training plans
  • You want to create routes on it and follow them

IT’S A HINDRANCE IF:

  • You use the calories to inform your food choices for the day
  • You go for a walk or a run, even when exhausted, to burn calories
  • You walk or jog on the spot to get your step count to a target
  • The watch dictates your daily activities and not the other way around
  • You can’t go out wearing a normal, time-telling watch because you can’t imagine life without the watch recording everything

It’s worth noting that disordered people will deny, even to themselves, that the second list is happening. We tell ourselves that it’s OK really and one day we will get control of it. But here’s the thing. If we feel shame about our addiction to the numbers, control and obsession, then it’s a problem, because we know that our behaviour isn’t normal or balanced.

And finally, feeling shame about having disordered eating or exercise behaviours is really, really sad. As if it’s our fault! We are taught from a young age that our bodies are of immense importance, and that a certain appearance is more valued and makes us more acceptable. When everything around us is as crazy as it is right now, with ominous words and talk of lockdowns, a palpable sense of fear and a world that feels unsafe on every side, it’s no wonder that we shrink ourselves and hide behind a blockade of addiction and obsession. We are struggling as a nation. Some drink too much, some binge eat junk food, some spend too much, some rebel and break all the rules, some become too anxious to get out of bed, some lose all hope, some get angry at other drivers and explode into tears of helpless rage and some, like us, get into food and body control as a way of avoiding all this crap. But one thing is for sure – none of us are OK. So please – ditch the shame, never give up and always keep reaching out for help.

Possessed

Am I here without my smart watch?   Do I ever get to sleep?

Do I get my light, my REM and plenty of the deep?

Does the oxygen go in my blood and do I respirate?

Do I fluctuate in energy or ever menstruate?

Is there ever any stress and do I ever have a drink?

How am I feeling?  Do I have capacity to think?

Do I have a heart?  Without my watch, how does it know to beat?

Who’ll remind me when I need to breathe, or wee, or eat?

Do my workouts even happen when it isn’t on the app?

Do I ever move at all or am I just having a nap?

How will I know if I am on a cycle or a walk?

What will I do without the virtual coach for my pep talk?

If I lose track of the stairs I climbed, was any of it real?

If my calories aren’t counted, did I ever eat a meal?

Now my smartwatch is discarded, do I still have a face?

Do I exist at all?  Who knows?  I’ll have to watch this space. 

My crazy overactive thyroid

My first seven weeks with an overactive thyroid.

Hyperthyroidism and me

When did it start?

I was out on a run on the 4th August, my last run before the Belper Rover, an 18 miles trail run that I’d had planned for a while. This was my last long run and I’d planned a 15 mile route around the beautiful Stapleford area of Nottinghamshire. From the very get go I felt horrible: hot, out of breath and heavy. It was a muggy, warm day and I put it down to the heat, sipping at the water from my carry pack and persevering doggedly through country lanes and footpaths until, on mile 7, I realised that it was not going to get any better. Deciding to significantly slow my pace, I shuffled along for another few miles and realised that my heart rate was up to 200, which panicked me. At 50 that’s way over my maximum heart rate and I stopped to walk. The last 5 miles were a nightmare of heat, exhaustion and confusion as I wondered what the hell was wrong. Arriving home, I put it down to a virus as my stomach was churned up and painful. I rested for the remainder of the day and went to bed.

The next day my resting heart rate was ten beats a minute higher than usual at 65 and once again I thought that this confirmed a virus. The next evening I had a 7 miles race booked in the Peak District with my stepdaughter Jess. It would be hilly and hot and I knew I shouldn’t do it. But I messaged Jess and told them I’d be there but may have to stop and walk if I felt unwell. Next night I started the Saltcellar race and made it three miles before feeling sick, exhausted and anxious. I was already running at the back and I stopped to let the two women behind me past and then told the next marshall I was heading back. He kindly accompanied me back and I decided not to run again until I felt much better.

Diagnosis

Through the month of August I did no running but lots of walking. After a holiday in Whitby where I ate all the chips, chocolate and cakes physically possible to get in my belly, I got home and found I’d lost weight. The heart rate was still ten beats a minute higher than usual and I was going to the loo a lot more (putting it politely). Googling my symptoms led to my suspicion that my thyroid had gone overactive and finally, beginning of September, I had a blood test which revealed this to be true.

What it’s like

Having this condition for me has been manic. Up until yesterday, when I started betablockers, I was hyper all the time. I would try to go to sleep but my heart would be banging in my chest so loudly that I could actually hear the swooshing sound of the blood. Needless to say, this is not the most relaxing feeling I’ve ever had. My husband even said he could hear my heart one night, which made me feel even worse. The hunger for carbs was overwhelming until I started on carbimazole, which dulled the appetite. I couldn’t even get all the food I wanted, because I’d get full and then be hungry an hour later. Nothing was able to keep me energised and I was bored of eating the same things but trying to avoid filling up on sugary foods (which I did occasionally do). My anxiety was the worst thing. I’d be going about my daily life and then, apropos of nothing, get a feeling that I was about to die. My stomach would churn, I’d get sweaty, and feel complete panic, with nothing triggering it and no way of knowing when it was going to happen. I also couldn’t stop my mind from racing and worrying, in a pointlessly circular track that said, ‘I can’t teach, I can’t teach, I can’t teach’, or ‘I can’t plan, I can’t plan, I can’t plan’, and, occasionally, for a little respite from the shit talk about work, ‘I might die of cancer’. It was a laugh a minute in my head. Thank goodness that the betablockers have stopped most of this incessant self-imposed verbal abuse.

What to do

GP will refer to an endocrinologist for further testing. Ask for an antibody test to see if it’s Graves disease. This is the most common cause and is an autoimmune condition. It can lead to eye disease and needs to be managed. If, as in my case, the antibody test comes back negative, it’ll need further testing. It could still be Graves as some people don’t show antibodies even though they have it. You need an ultrasound or a thyroid uptake test to see if it’s nodules, most of which are benign. The treatment is similar in any case. It might be an anti-thyroid drug like carbimazole, which makes you knackered for a bit but eventually works. After a while you might be offered radioactive iodine, which kills the thyroid and then you have to take thyroxine for the rest of your life. This is called ‘block and replace’. Whatever the treatment, you need regular blood tests for ever after to make sure the thyroid levels are right.

Some GPs are crap and some are great. I had a crap one first and then asked for another one because the crap one said he couldn’t prescribe anything and I’d have to wait for the endocrinologist. This was a lie and downright dangerous as my free T4 was rising rapidly and had doubled in two weeks. A GP can prescribe carbimazole and also betablockers for the palpitations and high heart rate. The worst symptom for me was anxiety and I’m so happy to be able to say that in the past tense as just one day on betablockers has knocked it out. So far my 10mg a day of carbimazole is doing nothing so that’s under review at the next blood test.

Our poor NHS is gasping for air and a hair’s breadth away from irretrievable decline. I was told 18 weeks for an endocrinologist and, in the event, it was 12. With the small possibility that it might be something malignant I have decided to see a private endocrinologist for £200 a pop plus the cost of any tests. I realise that I’m privileged to have some savings and not everybody does. But if you do, or if you can shove £2000 on a credit card and pay it back over a few months, I’d recommend getting it sorted asap.

Recommendations for living with an overactive thyroid

  1. Go to bed early and nap during the day even if you only have time for 10 mins.
  2. Get on a beta blocker
  3. Eat as many carbs as you can fit in your belly
  4. Do some yoga (I can’t be bothered but I know I should)
  5. Walk every day and get some fresh air. Don’t try and run unless you’re a nutter like me
  6. Lift some weights as this disease wastes your muscles and can cause osteoporisis
  7. Eat a ton of calcium foods. For me it’s enriched plant milks. Bones will need it.
  8. Get a journal and write down all the worries. There will be loads. Writing them helps.
  9. Talk to anybody who will listen. This is a time when friends are needed.
  10. Use a meditation app every day to get some calm

The many functions of running

1.  Weight Management

I started running, age 31 or thereabouts, to help with weight loss.  I’d gained a couple of stone during three pregnancies, breastfeeding and several years of being a stay at home Mum.  I ate for comfort, to relieve boredom and to reward myself for the hours of cleaning, cooking, wiping up, tidying, entertaining, comforting, teaching and training.  When Billy was 3 I went to university to do an English degree and after that, to become a teacher.  It was then that I lost weight, through healthy eating and exercise, and began a regular jogging practice.  My love of the peace and quiet of a solitary run through fields and lanes developed during this time.  The calming sound of my footsteps, the steady breathing pattern, the gentle sounds of wildlife and the rustling of grass became necessary me-time.  This really helped me to tone up and maintain the weight loss, and I built up to half marathon distance and ran my first Leicester half in 2 hours and 4 minutes (I think).  But my speed didn’t really pick up until we moved to Stoneygate and I decided that some running buddies would be nice and joined the Leicester Roadhoggs (with Jackie and Clare below).

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2.  Friendly Competition

My first training run, on a Wednesday night, was with the now legendary Jackie Brown, who is a regular winner or in the top 5 in her age category in league races and other events across the country.  She is a brilliant runner now, but then, on our first Roadhoggs run, we were well matched.  She pushed me on, being slightly quicker and much more determined, and I came away feeling exhausted but happy.  Regular training runs with other people made me quicker.

I began running league races and my first Glooston 10k I did in around 48 minutes.   I was very competitive with others of similar ability, and really enjoyed xc.  My fastest time was on the Boxing Day handicap at Barrow-upon-Soar, where I achieved a 46 minute 10k with a slight hangover.  I began to experience a runner’s high, which I only got when I pushed myself to the max.  Like a drug, it made me feel exhilarated and, when it happened, I felt as though I was floating around the course, all pain gone, no effort, totally in this wonderful, bubble-like zone.  I’d be aware that I was overtaking other runners and was smiling as I glided along.  It was incredible.  I began to chase the high and relish it when it came.

Abis 18th 002.jpg

I started doing some speed work with Roadhoggs at Saffron Lane and built up to my first London marathon, which I ran for YMCA.  I trained up to 39 miles a week and achieved a sub 4 (just).  But a chest infection kicked in about a month before the marathon and my asthma flared up badly.  I had to take a couple of weeks off and began to consider that doing that mileage as well as being a full time teacher was a bit much.  I know people who run 100 miles a week and can only admire their incredible stamina and commitment.  My problem might have stemmed from the sudden increase, due to following a training plan, and a more consistent pattern would have been better.  I also became obsessive about maintaining a low body fat percentage, counted calories religiously and worked out every day, always worried about loss of performance or weight gain.

Deep Connection

Shortly after this, my daughter became ill and many troubles began at home.  She developed an eating disorder and ran to shed excess calories.  There were two awful years and I undertook the steepest learning curve of my life.  Supporting her through the ED was the most difficult thing for a parent to do, and I tried to do it well.  There were many failures and difficulties on my part but she persevered in her recovery and she taught me how to help her.  She got good help eventually and, in turn, I began to recognise my own problems with food and exercise.  During this time, albeit for negative reasons, she got very good at running and, as she recovered, she used this ability to set herself the goal of completing a half marathon.  Running over the finishing line with her was one of the proudest moments of my life.  She’d experienced rock bottom at such a young age, had achieved so much recovery, ran her half in just under 2 hours and, most importantly, raised several hundred pounds for BEAT, an eating disorders charity.

Kirstin and me

During these difficult years, several good friends forced me to go out running, and it served as a kind of therapy.  But three years after the marathon, my marriage was over and I was a single parent on anti-depressants.  I completely lost the urge to run beyond a jog.  The pills made me calm, relaxed and clear-headed.  They were definitely worth it for the benefit to my mental health, and helped me to benefit from counselling, but I gained over a stone in weight as I addressed my obsession with dieting and found ways to manage my now very different life.  My metabolism seemed to have slowed and I felt bloated every time I ate.  On the plus side, I went from crying for hours on the sofa every night to feeling normal.

Part of a Balanced Lifestyle

My full recovery to pill-free mental health took a year, and during that time I ran my second London marathon.  But it was a different animal this time.  My training consisted of one long run every Sunday, up to 20 miles, as I ambled along from Stoneygate to Billesden and back again, thoroughly enjoying the view and the experience.   My weeks were too busy to run.  I struggled to find time between working full time, running around as chauffeur to my youngest, and conducting a long distance relationship.  I ran the marathon in 4 hours and 16 minutes, with my partner cheering me on in his rugby coach voice that boomed out across the crowds and made me feel like a champion.

Since then, I’ve maintained a commitment to running but it’s very different.  The competitive streak has disappeared and I’m genuinely happy for other people to overtake me and improve beyond what I’m prepared to commit to.  I always aim to run for 2.5 hours a week and often manage 2.  My last half marathon took 2 hours and 4 minutes (back to the early days) and the only way I’d get quicker again would be to lose the stone and train more.  The thought of doing that fills me with gloom.  My latest health check revealed that I’m in excellent shape.  My diet is good and I’m happy and healthy.  I no longer count calories and I eat to nourish my body and mind.  Nowadays, it seems unnecessary to get all worked up about improving my speed.

So I run a few times a week, because it’s enjoyable to explore the lanes and fields, to hear my breathing, to feel the mind-body connection and to enjoy my physicality.  My long runs are slow ambles for 6-7 miles, more if there’s a half or a big event coming up.  I enjoy doing 5k fundraisers, like the Louth Run for Life, with Tim.  I do yoga most days, which would have bored me to tears previously.  Meditation has become part of my overall self-care, and I’m much better at acknowledging how I feel, what I need and where to find support as well as when to give it.  And when I occasionally feel energised enough to push myself, like I did at the Hungarton 7 2017, I still get the runner’s high.  It’s great when it happens, but I don’t chase it, because life is sweet enough to go without.

 

 

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