Making waves: Jo Mitchinson on life with laryngospasm
When elite open water swimmer Jo Mitchinson was diagnosed with laryngospasm—a rare and often severe attack of difficulty breathing—she was determined not to let it hold her back from her life-long passion.
Despite a highly restricted diet and daunting medical condition, Jo is still making waves in the swimming world, having recently achieved double gold medalist at the Welsh Long Course Masters.
We were thrilled to learn that Purition is helping Jo to fuel her training sessions and manage her complex dietary requirements. Her story shows remarkable strength and tenacity, so we hope it will inspire you to ‘just keep swimming’…
Swimming comes easily
I started swimming when I was 4 — my parents just wanted me to be safe in the water! I joined a swimming club at the age of 5 because my parents saw that I enjoyed it. Everything else was almost accidental!
Swimming genuinely is the only thing that’s ever come easily to me and I’ve always loved it for that. I have always been competitive- but was never very good at anything apart from swimming.
When I was 13, I qualified for my first National Championships, training just twice a week. When I changed swimming clubs and increased my training to 8 times a week at the age of 14, I won National medals. At the age of 22 I ‘retired’ from swimming. One of my best friends, a fantastic swimmer that I had grown up with, sadly passed away from liver cancer. Along with the frustration of recurrent glandular fever, suddenly swimming lost both its magic and importance to me. But I dived back in 13 years later and fell in love with it all over again!
Highs, lows and laryngospasm
I’ve been incredibly fortunate during my career and have been able to race in some beautiful places and meet incredible people. As a young swimmer I won National medals, finished 5th at the European Trials and competed at 2 Olympic Trials. I think the biggest personal achievement was breaking the 9:00 barrier for 800m freestyle. As a masters swimmer I’ve held 3 British records, I finished 4th at European Championships in both Open Water and 800m in 2016 and in 2017 I won open water Bronze at the World Masters Championships in Budapest.
Swimming is a notoriously tough sport. As a youth, I trained up to 10 times a week – 5 mornings and 5 evenings, plus land training. I would regularly swim between 50 and 60km a week.
Now my body simply wouldn’t cope with that; I swim up to 7 times a week – including 4 morning sessions and I cover between 20-30km per week. As I’ve got older I have to pay more attention to the recovery between sessions, so massage and stretching is even more important.
Laryngospasm is a condition where the vocal cords shut with very little warning. This can be partial or complete and leaves me unable to breathe. It feels like I’m being choked.At their worst, I have passed out, at which point the spasm eases and I start breathing again.
Unfortunately, I am also severely asthmatic which, although separate conditions do complicate each other. My laryngospasm is unpredictable, though tend to be more likely if I eat acidic foods (due to acid reflux), if the weather changes quickly – especially from warm to cold and if I’m stressed. They happen both day and night (which are particularly unpleasant), in the water and out of it.
I was diagnosed with the condition 3 days before the European Masters Championships in 2016. It has a massive impact on both my swimming and the people around me – my coach, training partners, race officials are all aware of how to spot difficulties.
I can’t train if I start to feel that my breathing is becoming worse and because of this, I often have to withdraw from races that I’ve entered and desperately wanted to do! But, I’d rather it got in the way sometimes than stopped me from swimming completely. I’m fortunate that my consultant and medical team understand and support me – working hard to balance medication, with breathing exercises and speech therapy to help me control spasms as well as possible.
I changed my diet instantly, decided that having a name for my condition made it no more or less likely to happen and raced anyway.
To minimise the risk of laryngospasm in the pool I am not meant to eat less than 3 hours before training. I am also supposed to avoid large meals and any meals within 3-4 hours of lying down to go to bed – and of course swimming involves being largely horizontal in the pool.
This is difficult when I train in the evenings until 9pm – especially if I am also training the following morning at 05:30. I avoid high fatty, fried food, tomatoes, pineapples, citrus fruits and juices, onions and garlic – which all produce excess stomach acid and make a laryngospasm in the pool more likely.
To complicate it further – I am a vegetarian. The major challenge for me is to find foods that my body tolerates well and provide me with the additional protein and nutrition that I need.
To say it was all a bit daunting is an understatement. But, I’d made a decision that swimming was important to me and I was sticking with it.
Nutrition is clearly very important both to fuel the body and aide recovery in sport. They talk about the ‘recovery window’ starting to close after 45 minutes. This means that you need to consume something that works for you within about 30minutes after training.
Prior to training, you should ideally consume a small meal about 2 hours before starting the session. Then there’s the nutritional ‘rules’ that I am meant to abide by. I say ‘meant to’ because if I stuck to them completely I simply couldn’t swim – so I stick to as much as I can and look for products that I can add in.
Purition is simple, versatile and it works
Purition has been one of those ‘it’s worth a try’ products that have proven to be a definite keeper. I bought a Discovery Box initially and loved the idea that I could choose my own flavours.
From the start it meant I was able to steer clear of anything that I knew might negatively affect my breathing. I liked the fact that the ingredients were ‘real’ and that they did not simply dissolve in a shaker and that because of this Purition has texture to it. High protein, fats from the nuts and seeds and low sugar – sounded great!
I tried my first one before an evening training session and was incredibly impressed that I had no issues at all from it. I tried after morning training too (I pre-blended it before leaving the house at 05:00, packed it with ice cubes so it didn’t thicken too much and consumed it straight after leaving the pool at 07:15.
My favourite is the strawberry flavour. I frequently buy fresh strawberries but find that some are always already a bit mushy. I cut these up and freeze them – then grab a handful and add them, along with coconut milk and blend. So simple, versatile and most importantly for me, it works.
There are also aspects of Purition that are ideal even though they are probably not intended features. When competition season really kicks in I often travel abroad or stay away prior to races.
To be able to able to purchase sachets of this really is an advantage. It means I can take it with me conveniently and have a product with me that my body is used to. I am currently having one a day, either before evening training or after morning training. I may need to start trying 2 a day as my training increases further.
If anyone wanted to get into swimming or maybe get back into swimming, I would advise you to join a swimming club. Too often I hear people saying that ‘it’s boring’. I would find going to a pool and swimming up and down for an hour on my own boring too.
Having a coach that tells you what to do and gives you feedback on your stroke and your progress is very motivating. A club also gives you a peer group, who share the experience with you. Not everyone at a club wants to compete and good clubs will cater for those that want more than a public session, but less than Olympic Gold!!
Keep up with Jo on her blog or by following her on Twitter.
If you’re on a journey of some kind using Purition, we’d love to hear from you.
Email us! Write up a brief introduction to yourself, your story and your experience with Purition.
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