Αlexandra Bell reflects on a challenging month and also highlights the benefits she has found from seeing a sports psychologist.

How quickly does time fly by? I left you guys last month with excitement and passion about my cross country season to date, with the desire to have a final run out at the English National Cross Country Championships held in Leeds.

Well since last month’s blog, the motivation and the drive to continually drag myself out and pound mile after mile, day in day out, rapidly deteriorated and I came to the realisation that I had maybe started the winter season with a little (ok, maybe way too much) enthusiasm about cross country running!

In the beginning, keenness of the muddy stuff was high and I’ve been happy with the progression made, competing well in international competitions and getting truly stuck into some ‘big girl’ blocks of training. But come the week of the national championships, I crashed and I burned.

I know my coach’s opinion will differ greatly from mine, but my training has just been below par these last couple of weeks with the constant feeling of flatness and sluggishness, and it became clear to me that I needed to bring this cross country season to an end.

Now it would be so easy for me to be untruthful at this point and sugar coat the rough patch that I’ve encountered in training these last couple of weeks. I could also keep it simple and tell you I just plainly decided not to race. However, I believe it’s worth sharing the truthful and hopefully relatable reason, that I was suffering plainly from exhaustion.

The winter can be a dark place

During winter you can really bury yourself into a hole and I feel I went to that place a fair few times these last couple of weeks.

My body has never experienced the training load that I have put myself through this season and I feel over the last two weeks everything just caught up with me. My body has just crashed leaving all at a sudden standstill.

There has been a form of imbalance somewhere along the lines these last couple of weeks and I truly have not been feeling the same since my performance at the Northern Championships last month, feeling like it has taken an eternity to recover from.

Somewhere along the way, there has been a lack of ‘something’ within my routine, maybe a neglect in fuelling and dietary requirements in relation to training load or even maybe just a lack of rest and recovery. If you can imagine training as a set of scales, what comes to mind is maybe the training load has outweighed the intake of nutrition or vitamins and minerals alongside the rate of recovery.

I remember being on the phone to my mum coming home from work one evening explaining to her how “I feel like a withered plant, I’m missing something like a nutrient or vitamin or something”.

At this moment I’m not sure what the underlying reason was towards the feelings of fatigue and flatness, other than that it could just purely be a combination of heavy sessions, shabby refuelling, extra shifts at work with little time in between for investment into self massage or therapy, and not to mention the female hormonal side of things with a delayed menstrual cycle to add to the emotional side of things this month.

Patience is key

What I’m learning along the way is how patience is key and that everything is temporary, especially in sports, nothing in the sporting world is static. The performance slumps of course will come and go, it is just about taking the bad days with the good and knowing that there are far more good days coming in the future.

It is however just unfortunate that it takes almost two weeks to get an appointment with my local GP just for some blood tests. I really wish there was a more accessible system in place to the non-funded athletes to have equal treatment when it comes to health and wellbeing check-ups; including seasonal blood tests, specifically for the female athletes, to monitor our iron levels, magnesium, vitamin D and the endless list to be able to stay fit and healthy for a well functioning athletic body, mind and wellbeing.

Just a couple of weeks prior to boarding the plane for the Commonwealths last March, I remember going through this exact phase, low energy and sluggishness which results confirmed it was low Vitamin D.

I’m presuming that it is just a repeat case of this and nothing that my forthcoming warm weather training camp cannot resolve! Every day I learn something new in this sport and it’s teaching me that the best advice you should ever take on is from yourself and realising that listening to your body has to be critical in becoming a successful athlete. Become a bamboo tree, you can bend but don’t break!

Sports psychology

I decided that I wanted to share my own personal experiences and thoughts on sports psychology because I have found it to be a really positive tool. I’ve invested in it over the last year and it has helped me a great deal with many things, not just with athletics but with everyday life too.

It also seems very fitting to mention and sits well with the experience of a few rough bumps these last couple of weeks.

As an athlete, it is in our blood to want to better ourselves with every performance and every training session. I constantly try to seek ways to improve and overcome day to day challenges or obstacles that could occur, not just within athletics but with everyday working life too.

Since I started working my coach Andy Henderson, he has taught me a great deal in a short space of time, but the main thing he has helped me with is to take the time out to invest in myself a little more than I have ever done before.

Being consistent in my performances over the years and steadily chipping away at my 800m times year on year shows the natural physical progression, but with the strength and depth that we have in this sport today, physically it’s just not going to cut it. As well as a strong body you equally need to train your mind.

So these little outlets that I have been trying to invest in this last year are what I like to call my ‘one percenters’. They could be the smallest of things you choose to do, but as long it’s having a positive impact on what you do it’s a form of growth and progression.

There are many misconceptions when it comes to psychology and I hold my hands up to admit that I had many at the start when having the first couple of sessions.

I was adamant and so sure that this would not work for me and after the first session, honestly, I did not think that I’d be setting foot back in the room with my psychologist, Kelly Holmes. But I am still working closely with her today, and I cannot thank her enough for the time and guidance she has given me over the last 18 months.

Why a sports psychologist?

There were a number of reasons for which I decided to meet with a sports psychologist. The first one was because of Andy, my newly appointed coach at the time.

At first when he suggested that I should arrange a meeting with Kelly, I thought to myself, “Well this is a great start, my new coach must think I’m a bit nutty already and we have only just joined forces”.

But I am so thankful that I took his advice on board. There were many valid reasons and events that had happened in a short space of time at that point, and at the time I was probably unaware of how it could have affected me emotionally if I did not start my sessions with Kelly.

So one of the valid reasons at the time included the transition to a new coach. It was a fresh start for me moving to Andy. I felt I needed a change with my athletics, a new routine and I knew that if I wanted to improve and progress in this sport I would have to pack up and change coaches.

I moved to Andy in September 2018 and it didn’t take long to get into the routine and start making the changes I needed to move forward, the transition was so quick and it could not have gone smoother.

With this decision came a parting between me and my old coach who had guided and supported me for the last nine years. It is just a shame that it couldn’t have ended a little more civil on his behalf and I hope one day it’s realised that it was for the best.

Another reason was been suddenly removed from the funding system after one year when I was told that I not showing signs of improvement. I was told I was not on track or aligned to the British Athletics Endurance’s “line of progression” and that I was not on schedule to make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

As you can imagine, this was a hard letter to read. However, it was also important that I did not let the opinions of others distract me from my own targets and goals in athletics.

Another factor was not originally being selected to represent England at the Commonwealth Games, even though there was a space available on the 800m team and I had the criteria to compete.

This was a really important one for me actually and remember being at a really low point after I found out that Team England had decided not to book a place for me on the flight to Australia.

I was at work on the day of team announcement and remember I kept sneaking into the staff room to check my phone to see if I had any missed calls or messages. I had a missed call, and even a voicemail left and I was so excited to listen to it. It turned out to be disappointing news. I had not made the team (going back out and serving the public that afternoon was a laborious task to say the least).

I was almost certain I had done enough within the season to make the team and when it was announced, I just remember the sinking feeling I had in my gut which left me questioning myself, my ability and my future.

Looking back now, this was a turning point for me. I eventually did receive a late call-up to the team for the Commonwealth Games and I had a point to make in Australia. I was true to myself when I said I was not going there to just make up numbers and my performance on the Gold Coast turned out to be the highlight of my career so far.

Going back to the subject of sports psychology, while I was in Australia, I used particular techniques and preparations that really helped.

This was the first event working alongside Kelly where I was able to put to the techniques into practice. I couldn’t wait to get back home to explain and share my experiences with her.

Turning negativity into positivity

So initially there were a few factors and events that solidified my reasoning to go ahead and meet with Kelly. Then there was also another event that happened further into my season which she has also worked very closely with me on.

It was one that I have been very vocal about – not making the European Championships last summer. It was devastating for me, I will not go into too much detail as like I said, I have displayed my piece on this at the time of the matter.

But the reasoning behind it was specific comments and insults directed to me which was hard to hear and read and again, questioned my own potential and future within the sport.

“Hasn’t got it mentally to do it at the top end of the sport” along with “Don’t think she has the mentality of a medallist”. I mean, that is enough to make any athlete question their existence in the sport, especially when directed from the Head of British Athletics Endurance.

What hope and future does the next generation have when these are the comments and thoughts being presented to today’s sports men and women (and believe me, from messages of support I have received over the last year, I am by no means the first athlete to have this said to and probably not the last).

Kelly has been brilliant in helping me turn negativity into positivity and using it as an advantage for myself. This will be an ongoing process as it is something that I am still trying to manage.

In this situation, a particular quote, that I was moved by and really found relatable, was one from the ‘Gold Medal Strategies; Business Lessons from America’s Miracle Team Book’, and it goes: “The world is full of experts who have been proven wrong. If you want to find someone to doubt you, or locate a cynic, the search won’t take too long or be difficult. Believe in yourself, even if you are the only one who believes in you”.

Looking back now on the time spent with Kelly I am so happy that I listened to Andy and gave these sessions a try, even though I did not think it was for me until after the third session!

But it was more a case of trying to find the 1-2% in aiding my performance and just being patient with seeing the results. Anything that I could find to invest in to help improve my performances I was prepared to try.

If you need somebody to talk to, a place to go in order to clear your head, you’re in need of a reset, working on new targets or goals, finding coping strategies, or simply just someone to have a good old natter with, I really do recommend giving it a go.

Before I took the time to invest in sports psychology, I used to think that to improve in this sport it was all just physical, but I have learnt that regardless of much you train your body, you will get nowhere if you don’t invest that same amount of time and effort into the mind too.

What I have learnt is you have got to want to do it. That was my problem in the first couple of sessions, because I had no interest in it. I chose not to want to involve myself and be open, but something eventually clicked with me. This was my time and I was going to invest in it wisely.

Final thoughts this month

As I am sending this blog across to Fast Running, I’m preparing and packing to travel to Puerto Pollensa, Majorca, where we will set up base for a couple of weeks to train. I feel that this trip has come at the perfect time in my season and cannot wait to soak up some well deserved vitamin D.

I know they say that you should “stay out of the sun, as it drains you” but there’s no greater feeling in the world than to feel the warmth on your bones. So during my time on this island, I’ll seek to recharge, reset and refocus in preparation for the season to come.

I’m sure after a couple of solid weeks away to put in the groundwork, I will be ready to get back to Leeds so I can then gear up for more specific work and fine-tuning.

So although a slow, gritty month for me, it has been a time for recovery, growth and reflection and if anyone else is getting to that point of their winter season where things are slowing down and the body is starting to ache and tire, remember… you are like a bamboo tree, be bendy by all means but do not break!

Find the route of the issue, be sensible but most importantly, be happy! Catch you guys soon.

Alexandra Bell features in the ‘Fast 10: class of 2019’ and over the course of the year will share her running journey. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter and on Instagram, while further information about the ‘class of 2019’ can be found here.

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