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Depression and training (part two)

Some advice from a fellow traveller…

If you are experiencing depression yourself, some of the points below may be helpful. This is not an exhaustive list, and it’s not medical advice. These things are what I aim for in periods of depression; I certainly don’t manage it all the time. Remember, relapse is part of recovery- this is not a checklist to judge yourself against.

– The first thing to do is stand up straight. Keep your head high, roll your shoulders out and back, fill your lungs with air and breathe out slowly. And again. Think about how important posture is for our physical strength, then remember it’s equally important for your mental strength. I know I often experience depression as a physical sensation (among other things.) My backbone literally feels heavy, like it’s made from lumps of rock. I feel like this stone-spine is pulling my chest down and making me slouch. Which obviously makes me feel worse. You’d be surprised how helpful posture can be for your mood. So whenever you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, pay attention to how you’re standing.

– Ask yourself, ‘Have I been training too much?” If the answer is yes, or even maybe, take two or three days off. In a row. Then, dial it back a bit. Many of the symptoms of overtraining syndrome are exactly the same as the symptoms of depression. You may have just been overdoing it. Remember to manage your rest. Without sufficient rest, your muscles simply will not be able to rebuild before you tax them again: it will make you weaker. Rest is equally important for your mental health. Functioning under constant fatigue will hinder your ability to make precise and swift decisions, it’ll weaken your concentration and will sap the joy out of your training.

– Talk to your doctor. Make an appointment for as soon as possible. The first thing to do is rule out physical causes for your mental state. There’s no point in just ‘putting up with’ depression or anxiety, and sometimes simple things like a vitamin D or B12 supplement can go miles to alleviate your symptoms. (A quick note; some GPs don’t have much experience with mental illness, and most are overworked. I’d recommend making an extra-long appointment if you can. If your regular doctor doesn’t understand, find one that does.)

– Minimise use of drugs and alcohol. Good advice at the best of times, the best advice at the worst.

– Here, I have to be blunt. If you have been experiencing suicidal thoughts, now is not the time to train at height, or work on the riskier stuff. That’s when you need your sub-consciousness and your consciousness to be on the same team. That jump will still be there when you’re feeling better. (This deserves much more than a side-note, but if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, and I can’t stress it enough, talk to someone immediately. If talking about this with your family and friends is not possible for you, talk to your doctor, psychologist or counsellor, or call a help-line. If you are in imminent danger of taking your own life, go to the Emergency department of your nearest hospital.)

– Avoid attaching too much importance to changes in your weight in times of depression. Rapid loss or gain of weight is a common symptom. Remember, it’s just that, a symptom. Overloading yourself with pressure to diet away some weight gain, or to kick yourself back up to a fighting weight when you’ve lost interest in eating, ignores the cause of that change. Try to maintain healthy and regular eating patterns, as always, but it’s more important to focus on your recovery. You’ll return to your normal weight soon enough.

And, if you do lose weight, try not to set that as a new goal weight for yourself, or to view gaining the weight back as a failure. Remember, the weight loss was due to illness.

– Keep in mind that your training will probably have to change when you’re depressed, and this is not a sign of weakness. If you sprain your ankle, you don’t drill 500 jumps. You might work on handstands instead. So, if you’re in a period of depression, you will have to find the style of training that is best for you right now. I know when I am very depressed, I have a constant stream of negative self-talk in my mind, and if I am faced with consistent failure to break a particular jump, that negativity is reinforced in a vicious circle.

You may not have the mental capacity to break jumps right now. It might be time to focus on technical foot placement drills. Or, if your concentration is shot, beasting conditioning might be the path for you. Everyone is different, and the breadth of possibilities within parkour training means there is always another option. This is not about avoiding what is hard- your training should still be difficult, and should challenge you every day. The key is to find what is most productive for you right now, and what is not going to exacerbate your condition. See above, re: sprained ankle.

– Be proud of your achievements. It’s not the size of the obstacle that matters, it’s how you overcome it. And when you’re experiencing depression, there will be days when simply getting up and going for a walk in the park takes more effort, energy and persistence than pyramid sets of climb-ups ever could. Don’t berate yourself for imagined failures; be realistic, recognise your achievements and be proud of them.

– Get out of the house. When you’re depressed, you might try to convince yourself that a few rounds of tabata alone in your bedroom is just as good as playing outside, with the sun (or rain) on your face and your friends by your side. It’s not. So remember to get outside as often as you can. (On a similar note, don’t avoid your friends. Solo training is important, undeniably, but don’t hide from social situations.)

– Drill it! There are various kinds of mental exercises you can do which may help. Do your research, look into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) exercises, mindfulness or Acceptance and Commitment therapy, and see if they work for you. The mind is a muscle.

– Find an activity that has a meditative effect, allowing you to ‘switch off’ the feedback loops in your mind that can be a part of depression. It could be any of the thousands of techniques for meditation; try as many as you can, in a class situation or by yourself. Or it could be something else; for me, it’s distance running. On a good run, I can achieve a kind of flow state that allows my mind to rest.

– If your regular training is causing you distress, or exacerbating your depression, step away for a while. There’s no shame in taking a few weeks off, and you’ll probably find it has helped when you get back into it. I know I’ve made some big progressions after a little while away from regular training. But, whatever you do, don’t just stop – try something new instead. Go to a dance class, or try martial arts or circus or climbing or yoga…

– Regarding your medical options, if you do decide to start taking some sort of medication, remember to ask your doctor all the questions. I have been on anti-depressants, and to be honest, it probably saved my life. But I’ve also come off anti-depressants. And that affected me a lot: any impact or sudden change in direction gave me ‘brain jolts’, and my balance was so badly affected I couldn’t stand on one leg. Make sure your doctor understands your training and other needs, and ask questions about both the possible side-effects of the drugs, and about what happens on the other side. Also, remember, you might be taking the medication for a long time; at least a year, and probably a lot longer. Some medications can make some conditions worse, so you will need to monitor your emotional state well, and keep in contact with your doctor and/or counsellor. I am not advocating against medication, as I’ve said, it’s been hugely beneficial to me. But remember, medication is not a silver-bullet, and this is not a decision to be rushed.

After all that, I think the two best things you can do for yourself if you are experiencing depression are to talk, and to move. Talk. Talk to your friends and family, talk to your doctor, talk to other people you know who’ve experienced depression. Talk until you’re bored of talking. Talking will help you to understand what you’re experiencing, and to keep yourself on track to recover. And move. Just MOVE. The feelings associated with depression are all about heaviness, and dragging down, and weight. But if you just start moving, that heavy burden will drop away, at least for a little while. Start running, and the black dog can’t keep up with you. So, run and skip and dance and laugh and climb and jump. I’m right there with you.

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