A conversation about... How triathlon helps mental health

As exciting as my adventures are I know I can get a little tiresome and even the palette cleanser of SRG isn’t always enough. 

So to keep the blog exciting and fresh, I thought it would be interesting to include profiles and interviews of the people that motivate and inspire me.

Now these profile subjects will come from all walks of life, some will be sports orientated (because, you know this blog does fly under the guise of being about Triathlon) some may be more well-known than others (anyone remember my interview with Daley Thompson?) but hopefully they’ll inspire you in some way as they have inspired me.

Anyway, the first person I wanted to tip my hat to is a fellow member of East Grinstead Triathlon Club. I can’t remember exactly when I joined the club but I do know it was this time of year (mid November) which means I am actually celebrating my five-year anniversary of being a member of EGTri.

Wearing the club colours with pride
While my attendance has waxed and waned, depending on what I’m training for and what other commitments I have on, I probably don’t express my appreciation to the club, and its members, how much of a positive impact it’s had on my life.

Anyone that has witnessed my grumpy, slightly aloof demeanour poolside at 6.30am on a Saturday morning (or the fact that I may seem to disappear for weeks at a time) may be surprised to hear that, but yes, I bloody love the club. 

While it’s fair to say that I am one of the heavier members of the club, and my weight goes up and down, I dread to think the shape I’d be in if I hadn’t joined.

However, being a member has also massively helped my mental health – pushing me to believe in myself more but also providing a social circle when I first moved to the area and has really helped me at times when I’ve felt lonely and isolated.

But wait a minute, I hear you say, why are you banging on about yourself as usual? I though this post was meant to be about someone who is more interesting than your Mr Trihard?

Well not too long ago a message popped up in the EGTri Facebook group from a member that I didn’t know particularly well by the name of Dave Flynn. The message was expressing thanks to the club, stating that since he had been a member of the club his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had become a lot more manageable.

Just in case you were wondering, Dave is number 288

Two things struck me about the message. The first was how refreshing it was to see someone be so open about their mental health. Having struggled with anxiety and depression since I was at school it is something I am trying to be more honest about – both to myself and to others around me.

And in the interest of transparency, one of the reasons I disappeared from the Tri Club a couple of years ago was because I was actually being treated for anxiety and depression in a residential clinic in the Midlands for a couple of weeks.

But anyway, back to Dave.

The other thing that struck me about Dave’s message was that it got me thinking about the link between exercise and mental health, and how the social aspect of being part of a community helps mental health.

So recently me and Dave sat down for a coffee to chat about his experiences.

Dave is an Operating Department Practitioner (ODP) with 20 years of experience, which to the layman means he assists in different types of surgery in operating theatres. In 2010 tragically one of the patients Dave was assisting with died in the operating theatre. 

As this was a relatively healthy, low risk patient the death was highly unexpected and resulted in a police investigation which lasted for four years.

While it was more a case of the circumstances being investigated, as opposed to Dave’s personal actions, understandably the pressure of losing a patient and the resulting investigation took a severe toll on Dave’s mental health.

He says: “In 2013 I had a complete breakdown. One day, as I was leaving the house I started shaking, I was sweating profusely and was physically sick.”

Dave was eventually diagnosed with suffering from PTSD and was signed off work for four months. Dave says: “For a while I could not leave the house. Even now I don’t respond well to crowds or sudden changes in plans.”

While Dave received cognitive behaviour therapy and counselling, the one thing that he found really helped him was running.

“My wife would call them my Forrest Gump moments. I’d say I was going out for half an hour but would just keep going and come back hours later. I’d lose myself in the moment and just keep running.”

Run Forrest Run!

In May 2016 Dave signed up for the East Grinstead Triathlon, the annual race organised by the club. Now I’m proud to say that the club always gets overwhelmed with positive feedback from participants, particularly from those that are taking part in their first triathlon, due to the supportive and friendly nature of the members that marshal the race.

As a result Dave, who lives just over the road from the club’s headquarters - East Grinstead’s King’s Centre - decided to join the club for a Saturday morning run session in August 2016.

He says: “I wandered over to the King’s Centre which took a lot of will power. Introducing myself to a bunch of strangers was a big thing. But right from the start the club looked after me and treated me as one of their own.”

A couple of months later Dave decided to literally take the plunge (I thank you) and attend one of the club’s swim sessions.
He says: “My swimming is definitely the weakest of the three disciplines. It’s awful, I wouldn’t even call it swimming and I always feel so vulnerable.”

Well he looks like he knows what he's doing to me

However, Dave says the coaching and the overall environment of the club has worked wonders for him both physically and mentally. Despite finding that his PTSD is worse in the Summer, Dave says he did not have to take anytime off work this year, the first summer he has been able to do this since 2013.

“The way everyone at the club has treated me has brought me along more than I could have hoped for,” he says.

“I’m now achieving things that I didn’t think I could achieve. I went from struggling to swim 500m to being able to swim 2km non-stop. The sense of achievement has had a great effect – I’m not just physically improving but mentally improving. Without running or the Tri club I would not be where I am now.”

Not the post-race nutrition EGTri coaches usually recommend

Interestingly Dave says that as a younger man he didn’t have an appreciation of the impact poor mental health can have. “When I was in my 20s, if someone had described this to me I would have just said ‘pull yourself together.’ However, I am now very passionate about highlighting mental health issues – if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone.”

Personally, I found speaking to Dave a huge weight off my shoulders. I don’t speak about my mental health issues as much as I should. Part of this is because I know it can be difficult for someone that hasn’t experienced debilitating anxiety or depression to understand.

When I am in a good place even I find it extremely difficult to reconcile my state of mind with the person I am when I am in a not so good place.

While our circumstances are different there was a lot that Dave spoke about that helped me understand my own issues, making me think “Hallelujah, I’m not the only lunatic on this planet!”

It’s also made me realise that when I am suffering from the dark cloud reaching out to someone who understands the rollercoaster of mental health massively helps.

So thanks Dave, we’ll have to do it again soon and this time I won’t splash our conversation all over the internet!


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