Improving recovery, pain, inflammation, and body composition through good nutrition and fasting.
The last three years have been littered with chronic pain and uncertainty of whether I would be able to save my feet from amputation. Since becoming a Paralympic Canoeist, I have been increasingly aware of the huge benefits of exercise and quality nutrition to human performance to enable my boat to go as quickly as possible but never to improve my disability and levels of chronic pain.
I have always struggled to maintain these when either in increasing pain or recovering from surgery. When things are tough, it’s easy to go back to habitual limiting beliefs that certain foods and enforced rest will help your mood and therefor alleviate pain for short periods of time. I would then struggle to break these beliefs, and they would keep reoccurring, resulting in poor body composition and increased inflammation. I had little belief or experience of how these diet changes could potentially help my disability, chronic pain and recovery.
My weight has always been something that has bothered me visually, I have always felt I looked very top-heavy as I have little muscle growth below my waist due to my disability. When I started canoeing again after a 24 year break age 41 I was very overweight at a round 110KG. Inclusion into the GB Team gave me access to some great nutrition coaches and when I joined, they put me into what they called ‘fat club’ training fasted for some sessions to lose weight. This worked to a point, but I would always drop back to around 95KG. I worked with many of the industry’s best S&C and Nutrition specialists, but could never consistently stay around 90KG, which had always been my dream weight.
Since I was a child, I have had to face the fact that I live with a broken body, one that will need constant monitoring and surgery to re-correct my disability in both feet. This has always resulted in chronic pain and inflammation in my lower limbs, having 58 anaesthetics compounded this problem and meant I was almost living in a constant cycle of some form of recovery being physical or mental. In 2021 the pain was so severe in my right foot that I visited my consultant Mr Halliwell, had a scan, and it was agreed that he would be able to perform surgery under my 56th anaesthetic with another fusion of my ankle with a plate and 6 screws.
The op was a success and after 4 months of recovery I was walking again and back in my boat and by 8 months I was racing at the 1st World Paracanoe Marathon Race in Portugal where I brought a silver and gold medal home racing for GB.
The foot settled well throughout 2022 but in January 2023 whilst in Sri Lanka my left foot then became severe. I had been practising my mindset of changing my story around the pain to one of hope and acceptance but even this would not be enough to fight the never-ending pain I experienced with every step that I walked this time round. I was back to see Mr Halliwell. This time with a fear that my left foot was much worse and may need to be amputated. He and I have talked about this in the past, but it’s always been the very last resort, I have fought against pain and the chance to keep my feet all my life and neither of us where about to give up just yet. We scanned the left foot, and the picture below was like nothing I had ever seen, riddled with arthritic joints it looked like something from a dinosaur documentary. He has always wondered how I am walking around as freely as I do and amazed at the level of training that I perform daily. I have never understood his amazement but showing me this scan was a grim realisation of what he already knew, what was really going on under my skin in my feet that should limit my walking and ability to move the way that I do.
Mr Halliwell said that he would consider options for surgery and come back to me at our next appointment with a plan to fuse the troubled joints that were causing so much pain. As I left the hospital I sat in my car and burst into tears, how could all this be growing inside me, will this ever stop, I was at my whit’s end. It was agreed that he would perform surgery as soon as possible in February 2023.
The operation took just over 5 hours, the pain as I awoke was heavy but bearable. I was home the next day and off all meds within 4 days. Over the last 4 years since my accident in Sri Lanka, I have always set my intention of the recovery from surgery in my mind ahead of the operation. Carefully planning what will happen in the recovery allows your mind to believe in a positive outcome. I practice these positive thought patterns, set a a realistic daily plan of movement, meditation and journaling, and that then becomes the reality of the situation. I treat it like a phase of training with slow increments of positive improvements each day, no matter how little.
The recovery from this operation was a slow one with lots of days of complete best rest, I was unable to weight bear for 3 months so rented a buggy for the house, so I could cook and move around my bungalow without the need for daily care. The days were long, and some were very dark, filled with loneliness and depression at home on my bed, but each time I went down I would learn something new and come back clearer. Daily journaling, yoga and meditation helped to keep me focused on what was happening that day rather than looking back or worrying about the lengthy recovery time ahead of me.
This period was also a chance to go back to some of my childhood trauma of surgery, practising alongside my mindset coach Laura Adams and learning the work of the incredible Gabor Mate. If you get the time then I strongly advise you watch his film The Wisdom of Trauma, it’s a game changer and explores how past experiences of doubt, uncertainty and trauma can define how we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us. For the first time I was feeling and accepting the same feelings I had as a child, feelings that had been suppressed for years by escapism papering over the cracks with destructive behaviours. My days were also brightened by the joy and love of my basset hound Maggie and frequent calls and visits from my devoted sister Amanda.
I was starting to walk again 6 months later, back in my boat and training felt great, but there was an underlying problem and severe pain still lurking. I raced in August for my place in the Marathon Worlds, won the selection event and raced in Denmark in September and brought a silver medal home. This was such an incredible gift after the tough year I had experienced, and I was full of hope about a happier, pain free future. My body composition was poor after surgery, but I pushed on through and was pleased with my performance after such a tough year.
The pain was still pretty heavy, and I couldn’t get off the crutches completely, every step was like someone hitting my foot with a hammer and nail. After the right foot operation, the previous year Mr Halliwell put some steroid in under anaesthetic to help alleviate the pain and speed up recovery, so I went back to see him.
The pain this time was in a different place, and he was concerned that the plate and 9 screws that he’d put in were infected, if so, they would have to take everything out and leave no option but to look at amputation. I was petrified of the outcome; bloods were taken, and I had a CT to investigate further. I am pleased to say that the bloods came back good, and my inflammatory markers were very low. This is unusual for someone of my age and with so much surgery that had taken place in my lower body. I put this down to a good diet and my use of cold water and my cold bath that I have every day to reduce said inflammation.
The scan came, and a new fracture had appeared in my foot below the metal work. It also showed that bone had already started to grow around the metal work, which was very quick and only something that he sees in children’s patients where their bones are still growing and not in 51-year-old men with such a heavy disability. I firmly believe this is down to my mindset and ability to keep training and healthy these days.
The fracture was causing the fusion to move slightly thus resulting in the dislodging of the new bone that was growing, it was this that was causing this severe pain. It was decided that he would need to operate immediately and re-engineer the surgery from February. I went into Royal Surrey on the 12th of December for my 58th anaesthetic. I was sick and tired of all this by this time and for the first time in my life my everlasting brave face was in tatters. I tried to keep positive but inside I was crying with anxiety and fear about what may be. The pre surgery room was scary and filled with fear rather than in the past where I had been looking forward to the unique buzz of the anaesthetic. The anaesthetists nurse held my hand and calmed me down and I drifted off peacefully to wake with a newly bandaged foot in the recovery quite with a kind nurse from the Philippines. The surgery was a success, Mr Halliwell had re broke the fracture to make it grow back stronger, taken 1 screw out and put 3 new ones in to secure the fracture. I was home the next day and off all meds within 48 hours. It was suggested that the recovery would be speedy, and I would be back walking again in a matter of weeks.
My body composition throughout 2023 was up and down and I was a good 9 kilos over my previous best racing weight. Back in October 2023 I had already started to address this with a new diet that I knew had worked to drop weight previously, increased training and good rest. My work life at the time hampered this and along with the pain I was in I was struggling to maintain the weight loss I wanted to, and the pain was not improving. I still couldn’t get down below 95KG and was in my mind overweight and didn’t look or feel great about myself.
I had started talking to a friend called Mack down at the canoe club about fasting and intermittent fasting and it had always intrigued me but thought that it would hamper my performance in the boat. I started to read and watch information on fasting and there seemed to be many other benefits to just losing weight. I have always been open to looking at things differently and this looked like something I could really get my teeth stuck into. A new way to think and feel about the power of what we put into our bodies to improve our mental and physical health.
Mack had a great deal of experience of it, and I set in my mind that I would have a go at a complete fast on the 27th of December which was the day I was due to be at the hospital to have my stitches out and put my shoes back on. I had been starting to do intermittent fasting throughout December and I liked the way my body felt so it made sense to me to take this to the next level.
I arrived at the hospital full of hope with my left trainer ready to put on and walk out free ready to start my life of walking again. The stiches had healed the 3 scars well and Mr Halliwell came into the room. He explained that he had re broken the fracture with a drill to help it recover stronger, taken 1 screw out that was in the way and put 3 new ones in. He then advised me that I needed to stay in an air cast boot until Feb and take it easy until March 20th which was our next appointment. No trainer for me and I was extremely disappointed, gutted in fact. Although pleased that the operation had been a success, I was frightened about another 3 months on my bed recovering alone as with the previous 2 surgeries. How could I possibly go through those lonely days all over again. Even though it was the festive season with lots of opportunities for party’s and nights out by lunchtime that day I decided to look at the fast in more detail as I felt it would give me a new focus at this difficult time.
Rather than sit and wallow in this disappointed I wanted to seek a new stimulus and try fasting to aid my inflammation, pain, and body composition. The results have been truly remarkable and like nothing I have experienced in all my years of surgery and recovery.
I was able to train in the gym with my foot in the air cast boot and to fully weight bear.
So, on the evening of the 27th I set about eating my last meal of what was going to be a 5 day fast. The fast would mean nothing to eat for 5 days, I would only consume water, salt, green Tea, and my vitamin supplements.
Day 1 was pretty easy, I have always been conscious of the limiting stories and beliefs that we can tell ourselves which are based on our past experiences and the “I need food to feel better” one was prevalent on the first day. I wasn’t actually hungry it was the thought of it that was clear not the hunger itself. I suffered no hunger pains or any of the other symptoms that people had feared and told me about.
Mack was coaching me through, I am and will never be a scientist. All my work in well-being and mental health has been based on my human experience described and shared in a very simplistic way to help other people understand simply and commit to something they previously felt that was unachievable.
This is how I will explain it to you. Mack was my scientist, and he would feed me with tips and tricks of what my body was doing and how I was changing every day through the process. I was seeking what they call full blown Ketosis and more importantly Autophagy, which starts to happen a matter of days into a fast. I likened it to little munchkins going round my body feeding themselves off all the detritus and tired cells in the body acting as a refuse and recycling agent devouring tissue and sinews that surrounded my body and more importantly my heavily disabled joints and muscles. It turned out to be a great visualisation technique and something I relied upon in the days to come. I felt I had enough food in me to keep well and it would also reduce my overall body composition and inflammation in the process. What a result.
Day 2 came and still felt strong, I would do a 40/50-minute gym session focusing on strength in the mornings and a functional gym session in the evenings for 30 minutes focusing on movement and form. On alternate days I would swim between 1000M and 1600M. I not only didn’t see any reduction in strength, but I had the same energy levels that I would have had with my normal eating patterns.
Day 3 was my most enlightening of the whole fast. I started to feel tight around my waist, my body started to look and feel different. I liked the look and feel of this, it gave me a sense that this was something that was going to be very worthwhile for me and my disability. I went to the pool, knocked out 1600M in a decent time and then got back home. I experienced a newly formed clarity in my mind and focus, I started some work on my website, finished 3 hours later, did some research on my book, read, did yoga and journaling and was back in the gym. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me, I felt clearer and free from procrastination for things I had been putting off for some time.
At the start of the fast I was worried that I would feel low, anxious, get headaches, unbalanced sleep, loss of energy but the opposite was occurring. My weight had dropped from 95.7KG to 92.7KG in the first 3 days, my inflammation and pain in my feet was reducing dramatically also.
Day 4 another two sessions and a further 1.5KG gone, no fatigue or loss of strength or energy aside a little blip of watching someone make a turkey wellington on MasterChef I felt so clear, happy and rejuvenated. I continued with one day to go. My mindset was strong and each day I was visualising how I was going to look and feel the next day and it was working. Every day the results came just as I had believed them.
Day 5 arrived, and I started to get a little tired and shivery in the evening but nothing dissimilar to how I would normally feel after 5 days of 2 sessions per day, there was also a lot of colds going about so I thought I may be coming down with something. I changed the mindset from worry to kindness, wrapped up and went to sleep under the watchful eye of my fasting partner via watts app. I woke to feel bright and clear after 10 hours sleep. I was due to break the fast but decided to go another 2 days to 7. I was buzzing by this point, dropped a further 2KG to 89KG with one day to go. I hadn’t been under 90KG’s since my teenage years.
I felt very comfortable at this stage, I wasn’t longing for the fast to end at all. Yes, I was already planning my food and what I would eat and excited by this, but I wasn’t desperate, I felt very calm. I decided to go a full week, went shopping that day and bought beautiful healthy food that I would enjoy. I cooked 3 batch meals and prepped ready for the break of the fast. Whilst cooking I was enjoying the preparation like never before, but without the need to eat or taste. It was another 48 hours after that I would do my last session in the morning, come home, and cook my fast-breaking meal at 11.30am which was an omelette and salad. The food tasted amazing, like never before, I prepped the salad meticulously and really enjoyed the thought of putting such tasty healthy food into my body after 7 clear days of fasting.
Later that day it was like my body had shrunk and I had got taller, people that saw me said I had never looked so healthy. My feet and knees where like they have never felt. All the inflammation had gone, and I was in zero pain, this was a first for me in all my 51 years of life. My feet had always been swollen and for the first time they were free from inflamation and I had released 70KG of force from my joints in my lower limbs and most imprtantly my feet. On the morning of day 8 my weight had gone from 105.7KG to 88.9KG and I was over the moon.
I then set a meal plan based around Keto principals for the next two weeks as my muscles will be working hard to grow and benefit from lots of protein and the blast of hormones released in the body after the end of the fast – all designed to rebuild and create as the body leaves its survival zone during the fast. My aim was to consolidate my gains. To fill the body naturally with fibre and extra water through food would risk another kilo or two returning so to maintain I had to move onto another regime and to stay attuned to new lifestyle choices with a new enlightened perspective. My diet was full of quality protein, healthy fats, and good veggies. I had a newfound love for food and the quality of what I was putting into my body and why. The preparation and understanding of the food were like I had never experienced; cooking was a joy rather than just putting food in to support or improve how I felt or what training I had on that day. I started my training for the next phase and although I was still in my aircast boot I could train in the gym and on the paddle machines. My energy was up and all my lifts went up by 10%, I was nearly back to full strength in so little time, the results were incredible, my body felt light and more connected than ever before. I was so excited about the season in front of me with the chance to get back sprinting and try for the Paris Games.
I can’t quite put into words what an enlightening and heathy experience this has been for me. To improve my pain to zero for the first time in my life, to reduce inflammation, and body composition with such amazing results has been incredible.
It’s been a journey that has also become quite spiritual and tested my mindset and ability to change the story around one of our most primal instincts in today’s culture, the need for food to make us feel good and to give us the energy we need to train and live. As hunter gatherers we never needed these amounts in constant abundance, we would eat when the opportunity arose. It’s only our modern society that has deemed it necessary to eat as a treat when we are feeling low or as a celebration when we achieve something special. I now feel the healthiest I have ever felt in my 51 years of spinning round this world.
Through my well-being company Zenval I will now be working on programs on how I can help and coach other people through this transformational change. I have written a 3-month program for people focusing on intermittent fasting and fasting, mindset coaching, exercise, and nutrition to achieve this level transformation and change to alleviate poor body composition and inflammation which are so common in today’s society. This is a step-by-step plan based on my experience with healthy gaps where the fast can be broken if anyone feels that it is not for them at that time or if they feel weak or uncertain at any time. There are so many clear physical and mental benefits to what I have experienced over the last 3 months, and I am so looking forward to sharing this to help other people achieve the same.
This new type of focus and learning around food and body composition has enabled me to completely change the way my body reacts and works, and I have also yet again seen the power in mentoring in the assistance that was given to me by Mack. As will all the other areas of wellbeing I have been elevated to share within my work I will mentor my clients through a transformational journey of understanding and change. By sharing real life experiences of change rather than teaching from a book you can really get the engagement of the teams or individuals you work with. Anyone struggling with change can feel alone in their struggle and different to everyone else. This compounds to depression, fear, and anxiety that things will always be the same. I am living proof that this is not the case and once we work together, we can change the limiting beliefs and mindset enabling you to feel empowered to transform your life for the better.
The other areas of work that I do around the Zenval 5 Pillars have already shown incredible benefits for my clients that want to feel better about themselves and the way they connect to the world around them. It’s this work that is now my purpose in life, to share my experiences and enable people to live a rich and meaningful life.
The Zenval 5 Pillar Program is based on the following areas of mental and physical wellbeing:
· Your Physical Body
· Mental Fitness
· Building Habits
· Mindfulness Practices
· Teamwork and Leadership
Please feel free to get in touch with the details below if this is of interest or you or your teams would like to attend a fasting workshop created based on this life changing experience.