It’s 2019 and still very little is known about Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis (or ME for short).
It’s a medical condition that results in long-term fatigue and other symptoms that prohibit someone’s ability to carry out ordinary daily activities, often leaving him or her bed-bound or hospitalised for lengthy periods (sometimes years).
With very few proven treatments, and no reliable information, sufferers can be forgiven for losing hope. Especially after wading through the swamp of Internet self-help manuals to little avail.
For anyone who still thinks this is ‘the lazy man’s disease’ or ‘all in the mind’, I’ve recently watched two friends fall ill to this condition, and it ain’t pretty.
One such woman, Sophie Warner, is perhaps one of the most energetic and active go-getters I’ve ever met.
Sophie is a Sports Therapist and Personal Trainer who plays top-level Netball, runs marathons and competes in CrossFit. Sophie was also the Team Manager of the UK’s most successful Netball Superleague team, Team Bath. On top of this, she’s eternally optimistic and as bouncy as a Labrador puppy.
So, when she came down with the condition around two years ago, many people sat up and took notice. Sophie smashes all of the completely false and common preconceptions banded around about ME.
Recently I saw her post on our local CrossFit group, and thought it important to share her story as a word of warning to others.
For those that aren’t aware, today marks the two year anniversary of me falling ill with Post Viral Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis).
Since this day, I’ve not been able to train or play netball or kick a ball or ride a bike with my son. I’ve not been able to participate in many of the things I love doing; the things that make up my identity, and it’s for this reason that I thought I’d step out of the shadows and be less discrete about my private (and long) struggle back to wellness.
It was a Saturday gym session that was otherwise unremarkable. A group of humble CrossFitters, including myself, gathered together at the local Trowbridge/Bath CrossFit to do a simple workout that was split into two parts, A and B.
In the week prior I’d felt under the weather, but not so ill as to warrant medicine or a GP appointment. I just didn’t feel great and had low energy and low appetite. So I avoided training – but continued to work in what was at the time a very physical job.
At around the same time I remember Rachael (a fellow gym member) had the same or similar symptoms (I remember her telling me that she’d only eaten a packet of crisps in three days – to which I was horrified… that she was eating crisps at all, let alone nothing else!) so I assumed that I had the same bug and that it would clear my system, as it had done with Rach and all would be fine.
I couldn’t have been more wrong
So on that Saturday, I felt fine, but not brilliant. The first round of Part A went ok. I went unbroken and against the rest of the room I was pleased with my effort. But I felt unusually drained and completely done in.
At that point I should have walked away and called it a day. But I didn’t. I continued and after the 6 minutes rest, I picked my barbell back up and went again, just as fast and just as purposefully as round one.
When I finished I felt a level of bone deep tiredness that I’ve never experienced before and I distinctly remember trying to explain to Rach that I wasn’t going to stay for Part B.
Despite this, I still felt that if I just blew out the cobwebs that I’d feel my normal chipper self again. We’ve all had those workouts – the ones you think are going to be terrible, but your body responds in a magical way?
Well, because of this, I wasn’t convinced at that stage that anything was wrong other than the barbell just winded me more than I’d expected it to.
Now, this is where you’ll all say ‘well that’s plain stupid, what were you thinking?’ and I have to agree with you, but I’m certain that I’m not the only one who’s thought they can skate close to their bodies limit? And, when year after year you’ve pushed and pushed and your body has always responded – what exactly are the warning signs of an impending chronic illness?
I certainly didn’t know back then, and if I had known, there is no way on Earth that I would have trained at all that day.
So this is where I shot myself in the foot. I got myself some food and refuelled as normal, showered, rested and then drove myself over to Bristol for a netball match.
Now being 39 I was considerably older than the majority of the rest of the squad (older than some of their Mum’s too) and over the course of the season I was finding myself getting more and more time on the bench. As such, I firmly believed that I would only have 15 to 30 minutes match time in total – which I genuinely believed was within my grasp and unlikely to break the bank, even after a workout in the morning.
So the warm up went miserably. I went through the motions but nothing seemed to click and my body felt alien to me. I was blowing more than I thought I should, but despite this and not wishing to let the team down, I never for a moment considered that I oughtn’t take to the court.
So the game starts and I end up playing a very physical and aerial 60 minutes of netball in Goal Defence which was completely unexpected (and had actually been my dream all season – of not being benched for once) but completely finished me off.
A level of exhaustion I can’t describe
After the game had finished I felt a level of exhaustion that I still find hard to articulate. I found speaking hard and the noise of the sports hall was deafening. I thought my blood sugars must be super low so I dragged myself to Sainsbury’s to get some food. Food didn’t help and the drive back home was nothing if not dangerous. I was seriously struggling.
When I got home the only thing I could do was lie on the sofa, with the lights off, with the curtains closed unable to move and I stayed there for 4 days. My kidneys ached like hell and I couldn’t get the backache to go away. I was acutely exhausted but my heart was racing and I was unable to fall asleep, despite being so tired it actually hurt.
This tiredness and weariness continued for 6 months. I begged my GP to give me sleeping tablets to get me through the worst – to just get me some sleep. I then kept going back, explaining that the symptoms hadn’t resolved – so I was eventually told that I was suffering from anxiety and depression and prescribed anti depressants – which made me feel worse and had no effect on my symptoms.
After pestering some more I was then sent for blood tests, which when I was given the results, the GP chuckled before telling me ‘you’re extremely healthy!’ I was sent on my way again, despite me being absolutely at my wits end with fatigue.
I was at my wits end with fatigue
A year down the line and I finally got diagnosed with CFS / ME and I then began to be able to work out how I should go about making myself well again.
Two years down the line and I now know that I was not to blame for making myself ill. For nearly 18 months I have blamed myself and my love of exercise for making me ill, but I now know that what I had thought was just a bug was likely to have been glandular fever.
It was this glandular fever that more than likely floored me and has resulted in me being chronically ill now for a full two years.
If you’ve read this far, thank you – I appreciate your determination and perseverance – and to thank you for it, I will now explain the reason for my post.
Please, please, learn from my downfall
We all push ourselves a tiny bit harder each workout in order to get a tiny bit fitter, stronger or faster; am I right? Each new training dose depletes the glycogen stored in our muscles, tears muscle fibres, burns neurotransmitters and results in our bodies being flooded with cortisol, adrenaline and testosterone (esp. for men).
Well what if the mechanism of recovery becomes worn out – and the subsequent ability to bounce back from a workout becomes compromised? Suddenly the progressive overload theory falls short and there is no adaption, your body just burns itself out, running on empty.
So although hindsight is a wonderful thing and as much as I would love to turn the clocks back and take another several days off training (to be fair, I was more interested in hanging out with a cool bunch of humans than I was picking up a barbell that morning) I just hope I can sow a seed in your mind that perhaps you don’t always need to train as hard as you do.
As much as I loved that feeling of burying myself up to the armpits in an workout, there is no question for me right now. If I could relive that week I would tell myself to err on the side of caution and de-load for a full month or at least a fortnight, to allow my body the time to recover properly.
Despite the banter and bravado, we are not machines. And two years of living in a body that cannot do what my brain thinks it’s capable of doing, is truly no fun whatsoever.
So hopefully this is a gentle reminder or perhaps warning enough for others to follow. Give yourselves some time out if you need it. I promise you will not lose your gains or put on weight, but your beautiful bodies will thank you for it.
It’s been two years since Sophie was hit with CFS/ME, and we’re glad to report that she’s made huge strides. In her own words, she’s ’90 per cent there’.
It has been a long road to recovery, but Sophie puts her progress down to good support from friends and family and persistence with nutrition, rest, and sleep. She’s also embraced reflexology, meditation and yoga.
Sophie has tried to adjust her own psychology in order to address and identify character traits that exacerbated the problem. Resolving issues that create stress and prioritising happiness.
Overall, her main advice is, patience. It’s natural to feel frustrated, wanting to rush your recovery and do the things you were doing before. But this can often be counterproductive. Take your time and build it up slowly. Listen to your body.
Sophie is now building back up to doing some weightlifting. Last week she joined in a CrossFit workout, and although keeping it light, she LOVED being back in that environment with the people she loves.
More about Sophie
Sophie Warner is a Sports Therapist and PT from Wiltshire who until relatively recently led a fulfilled and active life. Playing competitive netball, running half marathons, obstacle races and competing as a CrossFit athlete; her spare time was burgeoning with energy.
Alongside this she was the Team Manager of the UK’s most successful Netball Superleague team, Team Bath. Sophie created MassageRX, the leading provider of Sports Therapy solutions for CrossFit and Functional Fitness Racing events in the UK.
If you would like to know more, or contact Sophie for help or advice, you can reach her at www.sophiewarner.co.uk or insta @sophwarner
For more information about Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), please visit: www.theoptimumhealthclinic.com/