In 2015 I suffered a spinal cord injury that impacted every muscle below my collar bone. Recovery has involved thousands of hours of specialist neurological rehab and a lot of hard work.
I have now reached the point where there are certain things I can do independently, and I have come to learn the value of adaptive equipment to help in situations where I can’t manage alone. This was the first thing that came to mind when I was asked about a year ago to join an adaptive canoe challenge by a charity called Climbing Out. The founder asked me, knowing that I struggle to sit up straight unassisted, have very poor hand function and grip and several other things that would affect my ability to canoe. She offered me a place on a 5 day wilderness canoe expedition.
Adaptive training is training where you are constantly coming across problems or things you cannot do and looking for solutions. Working hard at said problem doesn’t always work when you have a disability, so you have to be realistic whilst keeping ambitions. It requires that the individual and those helping them to acknowledge issues and adapt to them, there is almost always a solution but it can take years to work out sometimes. I’ve learnt since finding a good experienced para canoe coach that this can be a fun and interesting process.
For me, taking on a canoe challenge with very poor grip, finding a way to paddle effectively would be the first thing. We created a setup sitting on a box on the edge of the water (where I could be supported and balance issues were removed). We tried several ‘home made’ solutions to grip a paddle, some worked better than others. But one thing that became evident was that I couldn't escape from most of our contraptions. This would be important if I were to capsize on a fast moving river at any point. Eventually we settled on a hook design and I found a fantastic charity called Remap that connects disabled individuals with retired engineers to make custom products. They were able to help make my design.
The actual training process for adaptive training is somewhat different, I cannot have a 6 week plan developed and just follow it, as my training needs to be adapted to how I can function on a specific day. I find technology can play a huge part in this. We can use tools to explore how my CNS is responding at a specific time. HRV training can also sometimes highlight fatigue before it sets in.
Managing fatigue is hugely important, when I reach a point of extreme fatigue it can sometimes take weeks or even months to recover, meaning during this time I may not be able to use my legs or my bladder may not work for some time, several other complications occur too. I have to train within a safe window, if I were to reach a point of extreme fatigue a week before an event I would likely not be able to do it, especially if it's a hike and I’m reliant on my wheelchair to move around (I don’t have a wheelchair suitable for off road terrain, or outdoors in general), so lifestyle and training management is huge. Another thing is I don’t feel pain, so injuries can be harder to notice. Since my spinal cord injury I’ve broken my ankle twice, I didn’t notice either time. Training around my main injury, but also small niggles can be difficult. There are some days where I had planned a weights session to then end up spending 90 mins on the floor only able to do assisted movements. For me adaptive training is working around these things, but choosing to still turn up and train when scheduled even if sometimes that won’t be hugely productive. I find staying in the habit of training helps me.
Since starting canoeing I’ve also had some other things to work around. Due to my injury I can’t regulate my temperature, this can be an issue when out on the water in winter. But again I’ve found solutions, from hi tech heated clothing to change into on the banks, to using hot water bottles. The advantage to canoeing is that there is space to take extra items, which in some expeditions is harder. It’s also where KitBrix comes in handy as I can leave various supplies with different support teams and it can stay organised.
Sleep, everyone I know who’s had a spinal cord injury struggles with sleep. That may be because your bladder doesn’t work so you can’t sleep through the night. It may be because of spasms which are impossible to sleep through. Or it may be the hormonal damage that seems to come with high level spinal cord injuries. However, again following a good routine with good sleep hygiene is thought to make a small impact; part of disabled living is seeking out those small additions to your lifestyle that may help you to function just 1% better.
Overall adaptive training can be hugely fulfilling, probably more so in many ways than pre-injury; because now I’m not just pushing for the best times and positions. I’m training to do things I was told I’d never be able to do again, which can be incredibly satisfying when things eventually come together and work. When doing these activities I’m also doing them to showcase to the people in hospital or at the start of their journey now, that there is a life beyond a spinal cord injury and outdoor adventures are possible they just need a lot more planning. And when I say a lot I mean it’s about 20x more effort now to organise outdoor adventures, but definitely worth it. That is where the support of charities can make a huge difference, for instance the canoe wilderness challenge I recently completed with Climbing Out. It was fantastic how fast they adapted our original plans to suit the health issues people had, and everyone on the team was also very amenable to the last minute changes as the week progressed. For me personally, spending a week surrounded by others who were patient and able to share experiences with was something I’ll remember for a long time. And I will strive to be in a better position for their next challenge in a few years. The support of Climbing Out has not just been helpful, it's totally changed how I view myself and helped me regain some direction and confidence for the future.