At 23 years old, Rachel Bennet was told her chances of running, climbing and biking as she used to were slim.
Suffering a herniated disc – born purely out of “bad luck” with genetics – she had been left in incredible pain.
Passionate about all manner of outdoor sports and activities, she was left fearing for the future.
But after crucial back surgery and working herself back up to full fitness – before suffering the same problem on a different part of her back eight years later – she is encouraging others who may be in a similar position.
Rachel, now 34, is regularly hitting the slopes and trails and has started a blog to document her recovery and give others the hopeful message she missed out on.
‘Down to bad luck’
When she was first diagnosed with a herniated disc – sometimes referred to as bulged or slipped – Rachel, from Stonehaven, said the news “hit her for six”.
She added: “Ever since a young age I’ve been very active, and being physical has made me who I am.
“I get up in the morning and I want to be active – I hate sitting down.
“So it directly affects my mood if I can’t be active, and losing that ability does scare me so I try not to think about it.”
Alongside the bones in someone’s back, there are also discs which act as “shock absorbers” – but these can become displaced and end up sitting on nerves in the spine.
While the symptoms vary from person to person, sufferers are often left in debilitating pain until they can be treated with anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy or surgery.
For Rachel, this required her to go under the knife in January 2011, then again for a second time in 2019.
“The surgeon said it was basically down to the way I’m built – genetics – there was no obvious reason why it happened,” she said.
“I have quite a long back, which could have caused it.
“People that are susceptible to it tend to have jobs that require sitting down, or they smoke or are overweight – all these things I’m not.
“He said it was basically down to bad luck.”
One step forward… ten steps back
Rachel was on holiday in France the second time she slipped a disc, and had to be helped to a hospital in the Alps for scans.
But she said the full scale of the situation was not apparent to her until she arrived back home.
She added: “It wasn’t until I got back to the UK I realised I was in for a tough ride – with all my summer plans and everything out the window.
“I was pretty low for about nine months or so, because I had a lot in my recovery.
“After the surgery there were a lot of ups and downs – almost taking a step forward, then feeling like you’ve taken 10 steps back.
“That can wear down your motivation and mental attitude, and I struggled quite a bit in the beginning.
“I moved back in with my parents, who live out in the country, and just kind of shut myself away.
“I was just trying to deal with it by myself which, in hindsight, probably wasn’t the best idea, and slowly started to make progress.”
But despite her desperation to make a speedy recovery, Rachel knew she would have to take things slower.
“I was willing to focus all day on doing physio and building up strength, but I needed to remember that rest and recovery are also instrumental to getting fit as quick as possible,” she said.
“After surgery I was just walking for about five minutes then I’d have to rest.
“I was doing gentle, gentle physio – keeping moving but not doing hundreds of reps to get as strong as possible because that’s not really how it works.
“Even if you have the motivation and willpower to get up super early and do lots of exercises, you need to listen to your body and see what it needs, because that’s not always the best.
“A lesson I learned is taking it slow and steady and I think, at times, I did push it too far – so then I had to go back a few steps.
“Now I take my rest days very seriously – almost as seriously as the days of being active – just to give my body a chance to get stronger and recover.”
Back to bikes
The hard work and patience has been paying off, with Rachel feeling fitter than any other point in the last decade.
While furloughed from her job in a sports shop, she was able to spend extra time focusing on her recovery.
This included pursuing one of her passions in life, by getting back on her bike and out into the hills.
And she said having a goal in mind has worked wonders for her motivation – even as she has faced a “flare-up” of pain in recent weeks.
She added: “I’m hoping to do some bike races this year and that’s given me a focus for training and getting fit.
“It’s taken a bit of a setback, but I was definitely getting to the point where I’d be confident racing my bike, which is amazing.
“That was one thing that kept me going – the thought of getting back to a level where I could be racing competitively.
“It was the one thing that made me get up in the morning, even when I was down, it gave me that focus.
“Even when I was low and I was going to the gym just to walk for 20 minute sessions and doing very mundane and boring exercises, having that focus helped me.”
‘It’s a constant battle – but I’m winning it slowly’
When she suffered her first injury, she struggled to relate to other injury stories– often featuring pro athletes with large teams of medical experts helping them every step of the way.
“I just couldn’t really find anyone I related to online,” she said.
“I was searching for people’s stories to try and give me a bit of hope.
“There were stories of people who did gain hope from their recovery from one particular injury, but nothing specific I could relate to.
“I wanted to write a blog as maybe there’s someone out there in my position who can relate to my story.
“Hopefully it can give them a bit of hope and positivity and help with their mental attitude.”
Rachel is also hoping her blog can remind others that not all illnesses are immediately visible or apparent to others.
“If you saw me sitting there, you’d think I look quite fit and healthy,” she said.
“But sometimes you want to have it written on your forehead: ‘I am in pain’.
“Sometimes that bit of understanding will definitely help.
“And when I’m trying to explain to people, I don’t know if they believe me – I feel I have to over-explain what I’m feeling.”
‘Don’t try and do it on your own’
Rachel is using her platform to encourage others, and has one main piece of advice for people who may be struggling with a similar health issue.
She said: “Talk to people around you. Don’t try to do it on your own like I did.
“And just have hope, because you will have ups and you will have downs but you have to keep going and trust in the process of recovery.
“If you keep doing little things every day, they all build up to have a positive effect.
“And you’re going to have setbacks, and two years on I still am.
“But I have the belief that if I keep doing the right things and giving my body the best chance to recovery, then it will get better.
“I think people should talk more, which is something I’m getting better at
“When I’m having a rough day and I need a bit of positivity, then I can ask for it now.”
She added: “Just keep at it – don’t give up.”