Episode 41 - Vanessa Alford

   

  

In this episode, Vanessa Alford joins us as we talk about her story on exercise addiction, the effects it had on her and her health, and how she overcame it. Vanessa is the author of the book “Fit Not Healthy”, a former elite marathon runner, an experienced physiotherapist, public speaker, researcher and clinical manager, with an extensive background in the health and wellness industry.

In this episode we cover: 

  • Vanessa’s story about how she entered Physiotherapy, became an elite athlete and what she’s doing today.
  • Her comments on what Psychologist and Director of Body Matters Sarah McMahon said about exercise addiction: “Exercise addiction is not well understood. Fellow athletes and those looking to shape up often romanticize exercise addiction as motivation and moral strength.”
  • The pressure she experienced with running and the effects it had on her health.
  • The neurological symptoms she had and her turning point to change the state she was in at that point in her life.
  • Her recommendations for athletes today based on her own experiences.
  • Why she feels that she wasn’t really happy when she looks back at her running career.
  • Vanessa shares stories of how addicted she was and how running controlled her life.
  • Her future plans.

Links

Transcript:

FELICITY:

This is Episode 41. Welcome to the All Torque podcast, where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I'm your host, Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque.

I have here today Vanessa Alford, who is the author of the book, Fit Not Healthy, a former elite marathon runner, an experienced physiotherapist, clinical manager, researcher, public speaker with a background in nutrition, and an extensive experience working in the health and wellness industry. Skilled in strategic planning, public speaking, research management and teaching, Vanessa is a strong healthcare service professional, with a Doctor of Philosophy, (PhD) in Indigenous Health in 2017 from the University of Melbourne. Welcome, Vanessa.

 

VANESSA:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

 

FELICITY:

You’re welcome. You’re background started as a Physiotherapy Tutor at University of Melbourne for 2 years; a Physiotherapy Lecturer and a course Developer at Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore for 2 years; a Physiotherapist and Clinical Pilates Manager with Symmetry Physiotherapy for 8 years; and whilst in between writing your book in 2014, the title, Fit Not Healthy, running marathons, being sponsored by Nike, New Balance and HTWO sports drink.

Your book, Fit Not Healthy, is an honest and heart-wrenching journey which gives a real insight into the life of what some athletes put their minds and bodies through, an overpowering inner force that warps your reality. Please share your story with us Vanessa, and how you got into Physiotherapy and became an elite athlete to where you are today?

 

VANESSA:

Wow, where do I begin? It’s a long story, but if I was to summarize it, yes, I studied Physiotherapy at University. I’ve always been quite fit and active. All through high school, I played a lot of tennis and netball and I love sports. I always want to be active. But it was after I graduated from University, I moved to North Queensland. I got a job up there. I just started running a bit more. I run 6k and 8k. I went from sort of 3 times a week to 5 times a week, and on weekends, when I had a bit more time; I increase it to 10 or 12 kilometres. Just over time, I just gradually increase the mileage that I was doing. At the end of that year, in Townsville, it was in Townsville in North Queensland, someone suggested that I run a marathon. Now I’m the type of person that if a goal is put before me, I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve it.

 

FELICITY:

Right.

 

VANESSA:

Which can be seen as a good thing, but it can also, well as it turned out to be quite detrimental. But yes, I run that marathon. I just increased my training more and more. And my aim was just to finish it just to have a good experience, which I did. I didn’t break any records. But I finished, and I loved it and I remember when I cross the line, I thought which one’s next. I just became hungry for more. And over that time, running had become effortless. I never really loved it when I was in high school and university. I did it just to get fit but I wasn’t right at it.

 

FELICITY:

Okay.

 

VANESSA:

But over time it did become effortless and I realized that I was okay at it. And also without trying, I guess unintentionally I dropped a few kilos. People noticed. The compliments flowed and pretty quickly I developed this identity as a runner. I started looking like a runner, and like I said, I run my first marathon and done quite well so then, I sort of thought which one’s next. So I ran another marathon the following year, and I actually came second. That was in Thailand. I guess at this point, that’s when I really tasted success and really became hungry for more. And so I guess I kind of started at the back that point where I guess this passion had become more of an obsession. I look to the next marathon which was the Melbourne marathon. I actually came first in that marathon. It was probably in hindsight, it was probably around this time that this obsession became more of an addiction and that really started to take over of my life.

 

FELICITY:

Right. And would you do all that training by yourself?

 

VANESSA:

Yes, I did the majority by myself. I’m quite a selfish runner. I’m selfish in that I want to go at the pace that I want to go at and I want to run where I want to run. And to the amount of time I want to run. So if people are happy to join me for some of it, great. But I wasn’t going to wait for anyone. That I guess, to be an elite athlete, to an extent you need to be a little bit selfish. So I did most of my running on my own. Some of the longer runs I capped to 30/40 kilometres I would do with people. Some would join me for half of it or third of it. But like I said, I sort of know exactly where I was going and how far I was running before each run and if people wanted to join me, great.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. Well, I guess that then not running by yourself so you’re not really without the people. So you’re not other than perhaps when you at race meets some things like that so you’re not really interacting without with others all that much.

 

VANESSA:

No, that’s right. Just on my long runs, like I said, I would train with other people. And occasionally some of my high intense sessions, I would train with people who are faster than me because that would push me. But a lot of it was done on my own.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. Psychologist and Director of Body Matters Sarah McMahon says that “Exercise addiction is not well understood. Fellow athletes and those looking to shape up often romanticize exercise addiction as motivation and moral strength.” What are your comments on this?

 

VANESSA:

Yes, it’s true that it’s not well understood and the number of times I’ve heard people say I wish I could be addicted to exercise. They kind of brush it off and joke about it, which I understand when someone struggles to motivate themselves to do any exercise then you wish you could be. But I can say very clearly that you don’t want to be addicted to exercise. It is like any other addiction. It’s almost impossible to escape. You’re controlled by this voice in your head that inflicts immense guilt if you miss a session. Very well for me was if I ate too much. It’s exhausting and it’s definitely not something that you want. But you’re right; a lot of people kind of see it as you’re a very motivated, driven, disciplined person, which I am. These traits are all quite desirable, you would think, but in extreme, they can lead to quite harsh consequences as I discovered.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. I’ve noticed when people in uni-cycling they enjoy feeling fitter in a social aspect as we have buncha rides and they ride more and get fitter again and perhaps enter an event so they’ve got that carrot dangling like you talked about your event and how you did well and then off you go and so they have a goal to train and it keeps them going, which is great. And then the banter can be there along the way, all you need to harden up or go harder so there may be that feeling of peer pressure. Did that happen to you at all with the longer runs that you did since you were training?

 

VANESSA:

No, not really. I didn’t feel any peer pressure. I think that all the pressure was from myself. I didn’t need any extra pressure. But I can understand with cycling especially because they’re often in a pack, in a large group of people that the pressure they keep up and to do the distance with everyone else would definitely be there. And I looked some runners who probably experienced it as well if they are running with other people, but for me, I’ve put enough pressure on myself.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. And what effect did it have on your health?

 

VANESSA:

Well, very extreme effects. I went from running 160 kilometres a week to not being able to get out of bed the following week.

 

FELICITY:

Yes.

 

VANESSA:

It was during a normal 12 kilometre run that I started feeling unwell. A bit dizzy, I felt like I was putting in a lot more effort to run at the same pace. At about 6 kilometre mark, I started feeling dizzy, light headed. I felt like my legs weren’t really connected to me. It was very, very strange. I still pushed on. I was always going to finish that training run because that’s just the mentality that I have. If I’ve set out to achieve a goal, I’ll do whatever it takes. But at the end of that run, I pretty much collapsed to the ground. I could barely get up.

That was the start of 4 years of being extremely unwell. I had the chronic fatigue probably for about 8 months where I literally couldn’t get out of bed. I had to move back in with my parents. I had to stop working. So it was extremely depressing and distressing for myself and everyone around me.

 

FELICITY:

Yes:

 

VANESSA:

For 4 years I had a lot of neurological symptoms. I felt drunk 24 hours a day for 4 years. I felt imbalanced. I felt like I was on the boat all the time. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t really talk one on one with someone because I was really foggy in the head. So I had a lot of neurological symptoms and I searched far and wide seeing hundreds of doctors and health professionals and just looking for a medical answer because I was convinced that I had a neurological condition.

 

FELICITY:

Right.

 

VANESSA:

So I had endless MRIs on my brain, my spinal cord. I sought a lot of alternative therapists. I did everything all so desperate.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. But you stick into your cycle? Just go running, be exhausted, think there’s something wrong with you, you go and get have an appointment. Did you go down a nutrition path at all?

 

VANESSA:

Not really. I mean, I knew I wasn’t nourishing my body as I should. But to be honest, when I got back into running after 8 months when the fatigue lifted, I felt like I wanted to punish my body even more.

 

FELICITY:

Right.

 

VANESSA:

While it was inflicting upon me. Looking back, it became a vicious cycle and that was the worst thing I could have done. I just kept pushing on. Like I said, I was convinced it was a medical condition. So I thought how can exercise cause these symptoms? As it turns out, nothing was ever found medically.

 

FELICITY:

None. Now, what did you do to change that, Vanessa?

 

VANESSA:

Well, the turning point, which I always get asked for is what was the turning point for you was when I wanted to start a family. I just gotten married, and my husband and I decided talking about having children. And I knew deep down I was not fertile. I haven’t been for about 6 years. Too lean and I was pushing myself too much. So I thought will you either going to spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatment and probably still not get pregnant or you can actually prep your body and put it in the best shape possible. So I think for me because I am so goal driven when I had this new goal. It wasn’t easy. But it made it a little easier to kind of flip that switch. I reduced my training from 14x a week to 3. Lower the intense of the intensity immensely and I ate more. I put on 7 kilos in 2 months. I was very fortunate to get pregnant a couple of months after that.

 

FELICITY:

Right. You really are outcome driven.

 

VANESSA:

Yes. Very outcome driven. Yes. Which can be seen as a good thing but also not such a good thing. But I haven’t turned back since I got pregnant. For the first time, I simply slowly run away.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. You were able to manage that and sustain that since.

 

VANESSA:

Yes, that’s right.

 

FELICITY:

Fantastic. What would you recommend for athletes today, seeing the position that you’ve been in or come from?

 

VANESSA:

Yes, it’s a tough one. It’s a really tough question because I think it depends on what’s driving them. You know for some people who, it’s not just elite athletes. There’s a lot of men and women out there who are addicted to exercise. They’re at the gym for hours and hours or their on their bikes for hours and hours. They might not be elite, but they are addicted.

 

FELICITY:

Absolutely.

 

VANESSA:

I think it’s a tough one because it depends on what’s driving them to that exercise addiction. So if they’re trying to escape something else in their life, or is it just that feeling of adrenaline that they’re absolutely addicted to, or is it the looking like an athlete, or is it whatever it is. So they need to ask themselves “What is driving you?” And I think to ask also “Are you happy with how you are currently? You’re current life.” If I look back, I would have told you at that time that I loved running, and I was happy, and I was fun. But looking back, I wasn’t. I was controlled. And it was not a nice place to be.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. Why do you think you’re in that place? Since you just say on the outside had a successful life. You obviously love the work you do, being a Physiotherapist, and you’re busy, and you obviously had a partner. So why do feel that you got into that position?

 

VANESSA:

That’s a hard question to answer as well because it’s not like I chose that. It’s not like it was I said I wanted to be addicted and it just happened overnight. I think I kind of put it on a bit of a spectrum. I think it started as a hobby, and it becomes more of a passion, and then more of an obsession. And without realizing that you’ve crossed over that line and it becomes an addiction, and that’s where it really starts taking over your life. It becomes your number one priority. Nothing else matters.

I think for me, it’s the time when this voice starts controlling you, this voice in your head. I think if you were to speak to a lot of people who were addicted to anything, it’s not their choice. That’s why I say to people who are surrounded or around these types of people and they feel helpless, I would say to them “Don’t judge them. Don’t blame them. It’s not their fault. It’s not their choice. They’re actually controlled by an inner voice in their head that’s inflicting guilt on them if they don’t exercise or if they eat too much. Telling them they’re lazy and that they will get fat.” Yes, it’s very difficult for some to force to overcome that voice.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. So it really takes a level of self-awareness and self-consciousness to recognize that you’re in this pattern and that it can just, it’s a continuous cycle. It becomes a habit, it is a habit. And you just keep going and keep pushing yourself, and your body wasn’t responding. So it’s just a perpetual cycle of that.

 

VANESSA:

It is. And also admitting, I think is a very difficult thing for me, like I knew what I was doing was not healthy. But I was in denial. I didn’t want to admit that I had an addiction or problem. That I couldn’t control or fix myself because that was like, well I’m failing and you need to ask for help. So I think that part of it is sold but we don’t want to ask for help and we’re going to deal with it ourselves.

 

FELICITY:

Yes. I think that’s a really good point. Do you have any funny stories that you can share with us?

 

VANESSA:

Not really, because it wasn’t a fun time at all. But I guess I’ve got a couple of stories which really highlight just how addicted I was and how much it was controlling every part of my life. One of them was my best friend’s wedding. I talked about this in my book that my best friend is getting married. We went away for the weekend. On a Sunday morning, the day of her wedding, everyone got up and had breakfast with her, and I didn’t. I got up and run 40 kilometres.

 

FELICITY:

 

Wow.

 

VANESSA:

That was part of my training schedule. That was what I was to do. I didn’t even consider thinking about why I won’t do it that day. I’ll have breakfast with my best friend. She’s getting married. Now it’s more than you just become so selfish and looking back I’m quite embarrassed and ashamed of that but at the time you don’t think anything of it.

Another similar example; my now husband who was my boyfriend at that time; we were doing a long distance relationship. He was living overseas. I hadn’t seen him for 3 months. He was coming to visit me for a couple of weeks. In the morning that he arrived, was during my long run, my Sunday run, it was right in the middle of it. I told him to take a taxi and wait outside until I finished my long run. So again you know, just so selfish and caught up in your training that nothing else is even considered.

 

FELICITY:

Matters.

 

VANESSA:

Yes.

 

FELICITY:

That’s good that you recognize that though and now that you know that you can change that and make it different from now on which is…

 

VANESSA:

Yes. Completely different. Yes, that’s right.

 

FELICITY:

So where to from here, Vanessa? I know that you’re pregnant with your third child and congratulations. That’s exciting.

 

VANESSA:

Thank you.

 

FELICITY:

Yes, you’ve got a lovely family. So, where to moving forward?

 

VANESSA:

Well, I’ll probably still exercise but in moderation. So I always get asked, “Do you still exercise? Are you still addicted?” I’m not addicted but I still need to do something every day but I’m content with just a walk or a slow jog, whereas back then I would never have even gotten out of bed for that.

Exercise in moderation and I just want to be a good example for my girls. I will have 3 girls soon. That’s all I can be; the best example for them. I’m working, I’m currently studying, and I’m actually currently writing another chapter for my book that I’m hoping to re-launch. It was released 4 years ago, but I was just hoping to re-launch it with an additional chapter, which will just highlight or answer a few questions that I often get asked and sort of where I’m at now. I’m healthy. I haven’t looked back. I feel great. A lot happier and I enjoy running more than I ever have.

 

FELICITY:

That’s wonderful. Really, you’ve got them all balanced approach.

 

VANESSA:

Definitely.

 

FELICITY:

Guessing that it’s a way more enjoyable and you can relax a bit rather than being so punishing yourself basically.

 

VANESSA:

Yes, absolutely. I never wear a watch now when I run. I just go ahead and I enjoy it. Doesn’t matter what time I run.

 

FELICITY:

That’s fantastic. You’ll be a great role model for your girls. I’d like to thank you for joining us today. Our listeners can find you on Facebook as Fit Not Healthy and will have those details in our show notes as well as Insta. So that’s alfordvanessa, that’s your name back to front. We’ve also got your book link. We look forward to the re-launch of your book. I wish you well with the birth of your third beautiful girl.

 

VANESSA:

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

 

FELICITY:

You’re welcome. Thanks, Vanessa.

Thanks for listening to the All Torque podcast. We'd love it if you would leave us a rating and review on iTunes. This helps us to deliver the content you want to hear about. Please take a moment to share it with your friends and family on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation on the All Torque podcast.



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