Image: Instagram (@amandabisk).
After representing Australia in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Amanda Bisk came home with her eyes fixed on a bigger prize: the London Olympics.
The talented pole-vaulter, who was 25 at the time, had a few weeks off to recover from Delhi before her training resumed. Amanda was excited to get back into her routine, but over the course of a few weeks it became clear something had changed.
“I started to realise I really wasn’t recovering from training and I was abnormally tired. I almost didn’t feel like going to training, which was not like me at all — I’m a very bubbly and energetic person and training was a massive part of my life. I loved it,” she recalls.
"As soon as I started feeling that I was like, 'That's not normal'. Because I'd been an elite athlete for such a long time it wasn't like I'd been over-training, it was just my normal routine, so it was a bit strange."
Amanda's doctor ran tests on her blood, iron levels and other markers, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Over a six-month period she visited other doctors and specialists to see if they could detect anything, but tests on her kidneys, liver and other body functions failed to produce an answer. Meanwhile, her symptoms — flu-like sensations, swollen glands, light-headedness, constant fatigue — worsened.
Eventually, Amanda's initial doctor diagnosed her with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a neurological condition with no known cause or straightforward cure. It's believed around 10,000 Australians are living with the illness.
"I was like, 'Oh my goodness'. It was a tough battle and we really did try to combat all my symptoms — my training load was 50 per cent less than what anyone else was doing, but I was still fatigued. Then I was not training at all," Amanda, now 29, says.
"By the end of it all I was starting to hate training and starting to not enjoy sport, and that's when I decided to retire from athletics as my professional career and really take time to try and heal myself." (Post continues after gallery.)
This decision not only put Amanda's career on the shelf, but her Olympic dream as well. She was understandably shattered, and says she felt "lost" for some time after that.
Amanda was based at home throughout her immediate rest and recovery period. She says every CFS sufferer experiences the condition differently in terms of the duration and severity of symptoms.
"Some people can be suffering for years and years and it can be really debilitating; you're bedridden. I was lucky enough that I could still get up, I could still go to the shops and go grocery shopping, and be somewhat functional," Amanda explains.
One of the most difficult aspects of managing CFS is the lack of a simple cure. Treatments such as anti-depressants, cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling can be suggested by doctors, but there's no guarantee they will work for all patients.
For Amanda, frequently meeting with a psychologist was beneficial. She was also prescribed anti-depressants, but opted not to take them because she didn't want to "rely on a little white pill". She began exploring other options that could help her body heal, and around one year after her diagnosis decided to ease back into physical exercise, which until then she had entirely given up on.
"Initially, I couldn't go for walks or anything like that. I couldn't physically do anything. But I found as I was starting to get better... I was like, 'I feel like I need to give my body something. Obviously I can't go out for a run, but let's try yoga'," she says.
At first, she associated yoga with purely physical benefits; however, as she slowly tried more classes she began to appreciate its mental effects. "I really saw that yoga was about tuning in to your body and really understanding what your body was feeling and what it was doing and what it needed," Amanda says. (Post continues after video.)
"I started doing all sorts of classes, and then I started my own practice — waking up each day with a little bit of yoga. As time passed, I was like, 'I can actually take part in more classes, I feel more energetic and more in tune'. I think it was the major step in helping me with recovery."
Amanda has continued yoga over the past four years, and is now a qualified instructor. She says it's always going to be part of her life.
"Obviously you don't feel different straight away — it's taken me four years to feel somewhat normal, I'm only just able to do some sort of high intensity exercise as of this year. [Yoga]'s my time to tune in to my body and really understand that it's important to slow things down," she says.
Although Amanda feels generally "amazing" these days, there are still times where she knows she's pushing herself too hard. Knowing what warning signs to look out for, and when to stop and take a step back, is vital in the management of her symptoms.
"I think that's the biggest thing I've learned about myself, and the markers I look for now — I know when my body wants to sleep a bit longer or I feel I'm holding more fluid than normal. All those little signs that I had of chronic fatigue, if they start to pop up even a little bit I'm like, 'Woah, back off. I need rest today'," Amanda says.
For anyone who has been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Amanda — who is also a fitness coach and exercise physiologist —recommends being open-minded when exploring treatment options, and trying to understand your body's needs and responses.
"Organising the mental stuff going on in my brain is the biggest thing for me [in managing CFS]. For someone else it might be acupuncture or regular massages or a stress relief technique. You never know what will work for you. It's about trying everything you can and experimenting along the way," she says.
"Have the self confidence and belief in yourself that you can get through it."
Have you experienced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? What helps you manage your symptoms?
This month, Amanda is leading the Rexona #MoveMore Challenge. Sign up for the challenge on the Rexona website and you'll get 10 free class passes to Fitness First to use throughout August — as well as training tips from Amanda herself. You don't even need to be a Fitness First member.