Experience with TMS: my perspective as an elite athlete

My first major experience with TMS was in February 2015; I was training for the London Marathon and everything was going well with my running. I had just run a half marathon personal best and had some promising physiological tests, which showed I was fitter than I had ever been. My lifelong ambitions of running for England were finally looking to be within my reach. I should have been feeling on top of the word, but I wasn’t.

Things in my personal life were not so great; I had just split up with my partner following three years of problems, which had made the last few months extremely miserable. I was unsatisfied with my career outside of running and I was existing in a limbo of sorts, staying with friends after moving out of the flat I’d shared with my ex. Although my running was going amazingly, I was starting to feel the pressure that I was reaching heights I’d always thought were only in my dreams.

Then, disaster struck…I was out for an easy run and my leg started to hurt….not just a niggle but an agonizing, throbbing pain. I tried to push through it but it got worse until I had no choice but to stop. I took the bus home in agony, catastrophizing the situation in my mind…if running was the only thing left that was going well in my life, where would I be without it?

The next few days were horrible; I could hardly walk and had to take time off from my job (which, admittedly, I hated). I booked an emergency physiotherapy appointment and my physio took one look at me unable to walk, put me on crutches and in a boot and referred me for an MRI. In hindsight, this was probably the worst thing that could have happened. In a few days, the feelings of depression and hopelessness of not being able to do what I loved mounted. I felt isolated and terrified of the MRI results. The pain intensified so that I couldn’t put any weight through the leg at all. I awaited the results of my scan, but had already resigned myself to never running again and that my hope of making the Olympics was gone forever.

Maybe there was another reason for my pain?

Then, I got the results. The scan was clean. Despite agonising pain there was no indication of why I might be unable to walk. This was a pivotal moment for me. I’d come across TMS before and always had some suspicion that I could have been suffering from it. I’d spent university plagued by stomach aches with no explanation. I’d been diagnosed with IBS and anxiety/depression. Throughout my running career, I’d already been dogged by strange injuries that were given diagnoses which just didn’t seem to fit. I recognised all the ‘TMS’ qualities listed in me; I was extremely self-critical and had a hallmark Type A personality.

In the past, I’d always found it difficult to fully accept TMS with my background as a Physiological Scientist, putting the emphasis firmly on the physical. I’d visited so many experts who diagnosed me with so many structural abnormalities I should have been surprised I could have run at all. Yet here I was with an extreme pain and a scan that showed nothing that could explain why I was in such agony I could hardly get out of bed.

It took me another few weeks before I finally had fully accepted that my pain was caused by my emotions and before I got up the courage to do something about it. Using the books I’d read on the subject I managed to wean myself off of the boot and crutches,but felt like I really needed to see someone who was an expert in mind-body disorders to fully recover. I searched for a practitioner near me on the SIRPA website and came across Claire Lisboa. A quick check of her website convinced me she was the right person to see. Her blog was fascinating and showed her passion for treating people with TMS and the testimonials on her site were glowing.

Meeting my SIRPA Practitioner

My first meeting with Claire was amazing; she was fabulous –friendly, down to earth and she just seemed to get it. She listened to me as I told her more about how I was feeling than I’d ever shared before. I left feeling happier and more confident than I’d felt in ages. Almost immediately, I started to implement her suggestions; meditation, which I felt was a crucial step for my busy life style, and journaling. I started training my brain to see the pain as a friend reminding me to look after myself better. I realised that I’d always treated myself as I would my worst enemy (this had even led to self-harming during the emotionally abusive relationship).

A few weeks on and I was walking almost normally; at Claire’s suggestion I was building up the length of my daily walks and loving them. I was still scared to run but I’d made so much progress that my confidence was growing day by day, despite the thought of returning to my previous levels of competition still seeming very far away.

Turns out it wasn’t as far away as I thought. Following Claire’s advice, I continued to build up my activity levels. Within the week, I had managed to do short runs. Although, they were ridiculously slow compared to my prior level, it made me so happy to be running again! It was an amazing feeling and I remembered to thank my body for letting me do each one. I stuck to my plan and gradually increased the distance I was covering. The pain was there but I felt I could observe it rather than let it bother me, given that the scan had showed no damage, and it was reducing with each outing. This boosted my confidence more and more.

Hayley runningSo where am I now?

I’m back! On Sunday, I completed the London marathon. In fact, I didn’t just complete it, I ran my second fastest time ever, less than one minute slower than my pre 2015 time on an arguably more difficult course. I was 3rd woman offthe championship start and my time of 2.38 puts me 5th in the British ranking. I feel like my goal of one day making the Olympics is back within my reach and I am so grateful to Claire and SIRPA for helping me to get my life back. The skills I learnt are so valuable, not just in my running but in all areas of my life. I am a happier person and feel that I am now more on track with my career as well.

The Future

Although, I feel I have come so far I still feel I have a little way to go. My training is never fully pain free and I am sure that most of these niggles are still TMS. For a normal person, I believe that I wouldn’t even be bothered by TMS anymore but as someone trying to get every inch out of themselves running 80-90 miles a week there is a little way to go.

I’m still learning about mind-body disorders and my own self all the time and I believe that full recovery is within my reach. I’d love to talk to you more about how I may be able to achieve this. Running at such a level does present its own challenge in that a physical injury is a possibility, even if smaller than most physios would have you believe.

Furthermore, my experiences have made me very interested in the mind-body connection and TMS. I would love to get involved in some way and help others to recover if I can. I am considering becoming a practitioner and would love it if my story could help others.