From couch potato to box beetroot

Ah, the writer’s life… Sitting at a desk for hours on end, drinking back-to-back coffees and troughing biscuits; lying on the sofa with a laptop balanced on your belly, cat purring at your side, knowing it’s about time you got up and stretched a bit, but if nature isn’t calling, why bother? Those creative cogs whirring away, always pushed to the limit… unlike the rest of your body, which gets to enjoy, ahem, endless relaxation. Ah yes, this is the life for me…

Or so I thought. Two years ago, I turned 40. I was ok with it – I’d already had my freak-out at the tipping point of 37-and-a-half, when the Big Four-Zero was looming, and the threshold into middle age was beckoning. For a while there, it was a tough one to get my head around. Particularly as there was one thing I knew I couldn’t delay dealing with any longer: my lack of fitness.

I’d been suffering from a bad back since the birth of my first child eight years previously. I’d been to osteopaths, sports therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors. I’d been to my GP and to physio. An MRI scan showed that I had an “eroded disc” between vertebrae L4 and L5 in the lower back. While all my other discs looked like nice, juicy beefburgers, Old L4/5 looked like a CD. I even had a steroid injection to reduce inflammation, but to no avail. My muscles in that area were constantly sore and inflamed, and I regularly experienced shooting pains in my lower back. None of the gentle exercise I’d been doing (walking, pilates and swimming) was making any difference. And living a largely sedentary lifestyle clearly wasn’t helping.

So when I started to wonder how much worse my back could become over the next 40 years, I soon reached a conclusion: I was going to have to change my couch potato ways, get off my arse and put some serious effort into getting fit. No more half-measures. My husband had already joined CrossFit (“a strength and conditioning programme based on constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements”) and the change in his fitness and muscle tone over just six months was unbelievable. And so I decided to sign up, knowing that this was either a very good idea or an extremely bad one.

As a 40-year-old who had undergone two Caesareans, had a dodgy back and couldn’t do a single press-up, I felt extremely nervous when I first arrived at my local CrossFit box (CrossFit Connect) in Hove. (The word ‘box’ was apt: this was more of a garage than a gym.) I felt like a sloth caught in the headlights. What was I doing in this alien environment? Where was Rocky Balboa hiding? There were weights, kettlebells, pull-up bars…and tractor tyres? There were people with actual muscles. People drenched in sweat. People panting, looking like they were in pain – but even more sick and twisted, they looked like they were enjoying it. Before I could turn and run (ok, walk speedily) away, I was welcomed in by a Super-Friendly Coach.

I was introduced to exercises I’d heard of but had never done: lunges, squats, V-crunches, pull-ups, etc. I was surrounded by people who’d clearly been taking fitness seriously for years, people who actually looked dignified whilst squatting. Finally I was introduced to the WOD. My husband was always going on about WODs (Workout of the Day) and AMRAPs (As Many Rounds As Possible), gratingly annoying words that, up until then, had meant nothing to me. He reminded me of Chandler from Friends going on about the WENUS. And now here I was, using these silly made-up words, too.

After my first WOD, I was as crimson as a beetroot and my legs were shaking so badly I could barely operate the pedals in my car to drive back home. However, I wasn’t going anywhere as another CrossFitter had blocked me in. I returned to the box on my shaky legs, brain jellified, feeling slightly emotional about my utter lack of fitness. “Oh right, what model car is it?” Super-Friendly Coach asked. It was dark and I hadn’t looked. “Don’t know,” I said, too weak to hobble back and take a closer look. My lip may have wobbled. With the kind of patience normal human beings don’t possess, he went to inspect and returned, calling for the owner of a black Peugeot to come and let me out.

Despite being a sloth AND a muppet, I somehow found the courage to return. I had to: allowing my back to deteriorate further wasn’t an option.

The first few months I found it awkward to speak out and say what I could and couldn’t do. It felt lame saying, “Um, can I not do that, please?” (because I’m going to end up in A&E if I do). But some of the WODs were way beyond my capabilities – even the warm-ups killed me – so the coaches scaled some of the exercises to a level I could manage. I had to be clear about my goals: I was not aiming to enter any weightlifting competitions, or get to the top of the scoreboard. I just wanted to build my strength and be rid of my aching back. That was all. (Oh, and get rid of those bingo wings, shed a few pounds, lose the muffin top, and a long list of other vanity-related stuff.)

On so many occasions, the day after a visit to the box, I’d wake up to find I had a frozen shoulder, a swollen ankle or that my back was stiffer than I’d ever experienced. I was feeling older, not younger! I felt mangled. I ached all over. I decided I’d give it till the end of the year – that’d be four months – and if I was still pulling muscles left, right and centre, perhaps it was time to admit defeat.

One day in late December, I was lying in bed reading when I realised my back wasn’t hurting. MY BACK WASN’T HURTING! For the first time in almost nine years, my back felt how a back should feel – painless. There was no doubt in my mind that this was down to the exercise I’d been doing at CrossFit.

Now, 20 months since I first joined, I’m still opting for the easiest-level WODs (which are not necessarily easy, just easier), but I feel stronger, more confident, and my level of fitness has definitely improved.

Rather than reciting my personal bests, instead let me say this: a basic 15kg bar no longer feels as heavy as it used to. I can do WODS involving rounds of press-ups, sit-ups, squats or whatever, and I no longer wobble away on shaky legs. I can do handstands! I can skip double-unders! I no longer arrive at the box dreading what punishing activities might await me – I enjoy going! (Shocker!) And, bonus: I’ve made some lovely new friends of all ages and levels of fitness.

Now for the even cheesier bit: aside from giving up smoking years ago, making fitness a part of my life (finally) is the single most impressive thing I’ve done for my health.

I’ll always have to be mindful of my troublesome disc, and for that reason I go steady with deadlifts and med-ball cleans, and don’t do burpees. (Even a dodgy disc has its plus points.) But overall, my back’s improved a lot, and – although it’ll never be perfect (eroded discs are irreversible) – I’ve got some core muscles now. We’re not talking ripped abs obviously, FAR from it, but I’m building strength where previously there wasn’t any. And, lo and behold a miracle has taken place in Couch Potatodom: fitness is now bizarrely on a par with writing in my life. If too many days go by with none occurring, it just doesn’t feel right.

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