The mind / body connection
First of all, I’m going to correct myself - to speak of a mind / body connection implies that at some point they were disconnected, which is clearly not true. For simplicity though, I will talk about the connection.
Secondly, this blog is about my observations of my swims and training and things that I’ve observed in others. This is not a scientific paper, just one based on curiosity and anecdote.
My 2018 Jersey swim
It was the lead up and the aftermath of my Jersey swim last year that really got me thinking about this. Ordinarily, if I have a back niggle it is quickly resolved by my chiropractor. However, in the lead up to this swim I had an issue with my back, this is a matter of record and the chiropractor could confirm that it was real and not imagined. I saw my chiropractor a few times in the lead up to that event. Each time the pattern was the same, yet different to normal. He would easily resolve the locked muscles and I would walk out just fine. I’ve been seeing the same chiropractor since 2007 and he has always managed to fix me, he’s an utter genius, but I digress. On this occasion he would fix me and a day or two later and the issue would come back. I’d go back and see him and he’d fix it and it would go again.
This happened a few times. I saw him the day before heading off to Jersey and by the time I got there my back issue returned. I message him and asked if there was someone that he could recommend in Jersey and by chance a former colleague worked there and agreed to see me. He also commented on the facts of the issue - there was an issue to be dealt with. He saw me the day before my swim and requested to see me the day of the swim.
Despite that, I still felt a niggle as I got to the boat.
This was not an imagined issue. Both chiropractors independently felt the issue and treated it.
OK, so this is not particularly spectacular - so I had an issue, so what?
The disastrous swim came and went and it was a week or so afterwards that I realised that the back issue had disappeared, yet I’d done an, albeit short, swim and had no further treatment. I just disappeared. Curious. It didn’t come back.
We know that for this swim I came close to a nervous breakdown due to stresses and pressure in absolutely every corner of my life. So was this a way for my head to try and stop my body from creating additional stress? I certainly felt that had I carried on swimming that something very bad would have happened, I don’t know what though.
The bottom line is that the injury was REAL and was it also created by my mind?
This revelation has led me to question other events. I have had 4 unsuccessful attempts at the channel:
A few days before this attempt I damaged my shoulder and I was too scared by everything to say anything. Two days before the crossing I couldn’t lift my up out to the side. I”m not convinced that this one was created, I suspect it was just an injury. I really wasn’t a great swimmer then so a slow swimmer with a dodgy shoulder was enough
After my successful English Channel and Round Jersey solos in July 2014 I set out to attempt a 2 way English Channel solo. I was utterly on track and excited about this prospect. Within two hours I had an injured arm that felt like I was swimming with a broken arm and the attempt had to be aborted. The swelling and bruising were clear to see and in fact were so bad that my GP sent me for an x-Ray to check if there was a break. In the end there wasn’t, it was soft tissue damage. One theory is that I tore the tissue that joins the two bones of the forearm. Was that created first in the mind? I didn’t think so at the time, I was totally OK with the prospect of a two way. So perhaps it was just bad luck. Who knows.
This was another swim that had the option of turning with the intention of a two-way. I was less positive about this one. On this one I couldn’t pee and that became increasingly painful. The attempt was aborted by my pilot to avoid kidney damage. Again, this is something that was clear to prove had physically happened. I’m pretty sure that this was created first in my mind.
I’ve never failed twice for the same reason. So on this occasion the ultimate cause of being stopped was getting cold. Towards the end of the swim my hands were reportedly brilliant white and I couldn’t coordinate enough to get my feed into my mouth. Prior to that I couldn’t get feeds in. Another rookie error was not wearing earplugs. I had some tests done after this swim to find out why I couldn’t get feeds in - turns out I had really bad reflux that actually required a surgical fix. So this one whilst a physical issue was also one that was not created by my mind.
It’s important to note that I have also had successful swims elsewhere during this timeframe, it’s just the channel which proved elusive.
So perhaps I’ve had issues that started first in my mind before, I’ll never know, these are just reflections and annecdotes. I am convinced that the Jersey issue was created (and was real) by my mind.
It’s important to note that I’m not talking about issues that are ONLY in your head (think footballer writhing in pain over something that is cured by a squirt of magic spray!). I’m talking about issues that were created by your mind and that are real issues.
So it can’t just be me. If this is a thing, it will have happened to others. I’m sure you’re now thinking back through your own training and big swim issues to see if there’s anything there for you. Perhaps it’s not just manifested through injury, it could be illness or speed. The mind and body are powerful after all.
Having given this some thought, I suspect there are some other people who I’ve trained where this has happened.
Solo aspirant (let’s call him Patrick)
Patrick made an attempt on the channel a few years ago. After a very long time in the channel he became unwell (we suspect SIPE) and the attempt was aborted a few miles short. Back on the boat and we became increasingly concerned for his health and he was extracted back to the UK by helicopter. Patrick physically recovered after some time in intensive care.
Patrick was part of a relay at the end of the same season and all seemed well.
Patrick went on to train again for another attempt. Quite unexpectedly, on a training camp the next year he developed asthma like breathing issues when entering the water from the boat. With hindsight these were probably panic attacks. We tried all sorts. Here we had one of the most determined people you could ever care to meet who was struggling with something that he’d never struggled with before.
Not too long after this he managed to dislocate his shoulder getting off his bike. Did the mind create that? It seems a stretch. Patrick had surgery on his shoulder but then had huge fear that he was going to hurt his shoulder again. We had hoped he would join a relay but he had back issues that meant he didn’t feel comfortable even going on the boat to watch. Strange how the back only hurt when there was swimming on offer and not for his other hobbies. The back issue disappeared when the relay happened.
Patrick want on another training camp this year and even from the start of the camp was expressing concern about his swimming ability and was concerned about heading out of the bays and onto a long coastal swim. Strange that on the final swim in a bay that his shoulder should feel like it was damaged again. The injury was real and he was in clear pain. So much so that he contacted his surgeon and despite being assured that it would not be possible for there to be an issue with the shoulder he believed there was. He didn’t swim again on that training camp until the final fun swim at which point he was able to swim just fine.
Back to training in Dover and every time he succeeded at something he put something in his own way - family commitments, places he needed to be etc. He seemed to be doing his best to clutch defeat from the jaws of success!
Now that must be created first in the head right? Interestingly, having just chatted with Patrick he reported that each time he did an IronMan he would have a knee injury a few days before - proper injury with swelling etc.
I could recite many other examples that have been seen throughout the years. What I’d be curious to know is if this has happened to you? Really think about it and be honest with yourself. Which issues in training and on the big day were created first in the head? Remember these issues are just as real, the pain you feel is real, the swellings, bruises, anxiety, cramp etc are actually there and real. The reason I think it’s important to acknowledge the issues for what they are is that there are often unresolved issues that lead to them meaning you may well find yourself repeatedly exposed to the same lesson until you deal with whatever it is that needs to be dealt with. I’ve mentioned ‘parts’ before. Sometimes, in response to a fight of flight situation the body and mind will put in place subconscious protective mechanisms, however these can actually get in the way and be misplaced. We can help your unconscious mind to find an alternative way of keeping you safe that does not impact your big dreams.
And if this can happen in a sports context (it’s an easy and tangible example to use) in what other contexts can it happen - I’d suggest any and all. Do you get migraines or feel ill before exams or big meetings? In what other ways can you create real obstacles to your own success?
If this is something that you want assistance with that is getting in your way, or you are unsure and suspect that maybe there is an issue, please get in touch, I’d be delighted to help.
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