Time to Take Control

Because of his bipolar disorder, Matt Harmston was overweight and drinking far too much. Then he chanced across late-night footage of an Ironman competition and his life began to change


Posted: 23 November 2009
by Alison Hamlett

"I have really dark thoughts when I seriously think about taking my life." Matt Harmston is explaining to me
the mood swings he experiences as a result of bipolar disorder. "On the other hand, I have real highs, but they're a dangerous sort of high, when you're not really in control of yourself."

Harmston knew there was something different about how he handles emotions when he was a teenager, but he didn't seek an official diagnosis until three years ago. "I didn't feel ready to go to the doctor," he says. "I tried to cope on my own because that's the nature of the disorder: I don't feel comfortable around other people and I've always been the sort of person who tries to do everything on his own." Harmston turned to drink in an attempt to balance the uncontrollable highs and debilitating lows, but after 20 years he had reached a point when he couldn't cope any longer.

"I was at breaking point and couldn't self-medicate any more," he explains. "I was an alcoholic and had ballooned to 20 stone [127kg]. I was a mess, so even when I received the diagnosis and was put on medication, I didn't really make progress - I even carried on drinking, which I knew I shouldn't do." Then, flicking through TV channels late one night, he came across coverage of Chrissie Wellington winning the Hawaii Ironman and his life changed.

"It struck me how happy and normal she seemed, despite doing these superhuman feats, and I decided I wanted to have a go at triathlon," he recalls. Harmston, who is now 38, enjoyed running as a schoolboy and as an adult liked to watch sport, but it still took him a while to go to along to Sheffield Tri Club, his local club. He explained his situation to head coach Bob Pringle - "How I might not find triathlon as easy as other people, might even struggle to turn up" - and with his encouragement began attending some training sessions. The transformation didn't end there: Harmston also gave up drinking and started to eat more healthily.

He used the club's running sessions to kick-start his plan to complete an Ironman triathlon in 2011, when he turns 40. "Joining the club was a real turning point," he says. "Even eight stone overweight, I could still run seven or eight miles. I was very slow but running gradually gave me more confidence. The club was really inclusive. I learnt that people with physical disabilities and people with learning disabilities are encouraged to take part in triathlon, but mental illness is a grey area. I want people to understand that triathletes with mental-health difficulties have a lot to offer the sport."

Creating a website and starting a blog seemed a great way for Harmston to share his experiences and encourage other people to have a go at triathlon and so www.tri-mind.com was born. He also formulated a mission statement, which is simply to visit mental-health groups and explain that exercise can have a hugely positive influence on mental wellbeing.

"I tell the groups that not everyone who does triathlon is superhuman," he says. "Some people have the impression that all triathletes are Ironmen but when I turn up to one of the groups, not looking like a superhuman triathlete, it helps people to understand that anyone can have a go."

Support for Harmston's project has come from both groups and individuals. Jonathon Riall, Triathlon England's East Midlands Regional Development Manager, asked Harmston to write a report for the British Triathlon Federation, since making triathlon accessible and inclusive is part of the BTF's remit. Local tri clubs have also provided encouragement. "I explained my situation to Steve Payley of Lincoln Tri, who told me I can call him anytime," says Harmston. His response reflects the club's forward-thinking, inclusive attitude and I hope other clubs I visit will react in the same way."

Harmston may be encouraging other people to try a tri, but he's also focusing on the day-to-day benefits he gains from the sport. "Every day is new: sometimes I feel back to square one and the next day I'll feel better, but if I do start to feel low, I go for a run," he says. "When I'm training, I am totally in the moment. I forget that I might not be feeling well, or if I might have a problem, because I'm focusing on how I'm breathing." He's also enlisted the help of Dr Rob Copeland, a sport and exercise psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University, to develop strategies that will enable him to reach his Ironman goal.

This summer he'll take part in small triathlons to become used to the atmosphere at races. "Rob is helping me to develop strategies to cope with having hundreds of people around me without having an adverse reaction," he says. "Simply participating in a race is hard for me so it's crucial that I take things slowly." Copeland will go along to the four triathlons Harmston has planned for 2009 as stepping stones to his ultimate goal in 2011. "I've given myself two years to reach my goal so I can get down to a proper racing weight. I want to do myself justice and be in good shape."

Already well on the way to achieving his race goal, he's stopped drinking completely and has lost 60lb (27kg) thanks to his new exercise regime and healthy eating. He aims to lose another 60 to achieve his racing weight, but he's also set himself another goal: "If I can change one person's life for the better, then I consider that job done." By turning his own life around, he's already succeeded.
To find out more, visit Harmston's website at www.tri-mind.com


Doctor's Orders

Dr Rob Copeland is a sports exercise psychologist at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University. He works with a range of athletes, from Olympic sailors to European tour golfers, and is helping Harmston to reach his Ironman goal

"I work with individuals or teams to develop strategies to help them perform more effectively under pressure. Matt needs to develop his ability to cope with pressured situations, such as triathlons, but, like every triathlete, he also needs to set goals. A robust goal structure is crucial for every athlete, whether you're just taking up a sport or targeting the Olympics. In Matt's case, I'll be placing emphasis on developing his sources of confidence as they will have a huge impact on his triathlon experiences.  

We will trace his sources of confidence to tangible achievements that relate directly to him. Rather than just talking through his sources of confidence, which many triathletes might repeat to themselves during a race, we'll put together reminders of past successes to give him a confidence boost. We'll also look at strategies to help him perform well under pressure, to deal with the cognitive side of anxiety and how that affects his performance, as well as the physical side.

Matt finds large crowds stressful so he'll start by competing in smaller, low-key triathlons to gradually desensitise himself to the stress of being around lots of people. He'll also have a specific plan of what he can control in a stressful situation.

So making sure he's well hydrated and well fuelled is within Matt's control and will be one of his goals. Another goal might be to have his kit ready the night before a race, or knowing exactly what time he needs to register. We'll develop a routine that will include some relaxation techniques in case he becomes nervous and we will run through some 'what-if' scenarios. Every triathlete should think about a variety of race scenarios that might result in anxiety and panic.

Fear and anxiety in a race tend to develop when you feel out of control, but if you run through potential 'what-if' situations, and plan how to deal with them, you will get through tough times.For example, what if it's windy? Well, it's windy for everyone and all you can do is focus on the things you can control. For Matt it's about having a detailed, controlled plan that he can stick to.

The next step is to build a performance plan related to Matt's goals. Each race will have a goal, so we might use an event to focus purely on pre-race preparation. We would assess what went well, what didn't go so well and needs changing and that would be the goal, rather than focusing on Matt's performance. Becoming too focused on outcomes - what was my time? what place did I finish? - can be demoralising for any triathlete, but will be particularly so for Matt who is likely to base a lot of his confidence on the outcomes. Instead he needs to build his confidence in areas that he can control.

More and more studies are reporting the physical and mental benefits of exercise. There's a strong correlation between being active and feeling physically and mentally well. As well as the release of hormones like serotonin and endorphins in the brain that affect mood in a positive way, physical activity promotes social interaction, builds confidence and gives people a sense of control and purpose. Having done triathlons myself, I know the inclusive, positive culture of triathlon will be a huge benefit to Matt."


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