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From a fractured back to an international cap – Charlie Willett shares her road to recovery

After sustaining a back injury, professional rugby league player Charlie Willett was ruled out of the 2020/21 season. This year she has had to learn how to shift her mindset and practices to recover effectively with BFR and perform at her best.

Charlie Willett wearing her Exeter Rugby kit

It I always assumed the key to success (sporting or otherwise) was to consistently work hard. I lived by the principle of ‘more is more’ when it came to training, with little consideration for rest or recovery. Then I fractured my back. It was Summer 2020,  I had just signed for Wasps, and was out of my depth. I felt I couldn’t compete with the skill, experience and talent in the squad, but I did know that my strength came from my physical ability and fitness. Doubling down on this, I began to increase my training load.

 

As well as overtraining, I was undereating – determined to stay lean, I avoided carbohydrates and filled up on fruits and vegetables. Fear of not being productive enough and the need to fit hours of training on top of my full-time job as a lawyer meant staying up late into the night and dragging myself out of bed for early morning sessions.

 

Cut to my first contact exposure in over a year – we had an internal match and I was determined to prove myself worthy of being in the Wasps setup. My idea of recovering at the time was limited to sleeping more than six hours and training less than twice daily. Unsurprisingly, my body felt fatigued, and I had a dull ache spreading over my lower back before we finished the warmup, but I was determined to carry on. Mid-game, I made a tackle and felt a sharp pain to the right of my spine, but a combination of adrenaline and bloody-mindedness meant I continued on. The following weeks were a struggle, as I continued to try and train despite my body screaming otherwise. When it became clear that running was out of the question (no matter how many painkillers I took), I returned to CrossFit classes and became obsessive over WattBike scores.

 

Charlie Willett playing rugby

 

Eventually, I was sent for a scan with a suspected fracture or a disc issue – as it turned out, I had both.  I would need a minimum of 12 weeks of complete rest to allow the fracture to heal, but every time I felt improvement, I immediately pushed too hard. Being allowed to take a ‘gentle walk’ turned into 10 miles of marching around Richmond Park followed by genuine surprise at the return of pain.

 

Despite setbacks, I rehabbed in time to trial for Exeter Chiefs for the 2021/22 season – and succeeded. It became clear that the same issues as I had had at Wasps around imposter syndrome and obsessive exercising would come to the fore if left alone, so I invested in a mindset coach. Coaching and a shift in perspective has been pivotal in my newfound ability to rest. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s something I’m actively working on.

 

Charlie Willett training in the gym

 

So – what do I do differently now?

 

My major change came upon learning to separate my different roles. My coach calls this ‘putting on the right hat’, which sounds like a primary school exercise but really does work. I have different (imaginary) hats for Athlete, Career and Personal Life. This means that when I’m ‘on’ for training, I can give it one hundred per cent, but when the session ends, I do something for myself completely unrelated to rugby – a long bath with a book tends to work well. I keep a journal, setting intentions before every session and scoring myself for effort, self-talk, breathing and execution. This helps mark the end of training and allows me to switch off properly.

 

Separating out my athletic identity has also made it easier to see how I can elevate recovery. Sleeping, eating and managing stress have been essential, and getting those foundations in place left me space to explore other options.

 

One technique that has been really helping my recovery recently is a method called Blood Flow Restriction (BFR). I’ve been using the Hytro BFR Recovery Shorts to perform occlusion training for a few months, and they’ve been a great addition. In a regular training week, we have two heavy days on Monday and Tuesday, and then need to feel fresh on Thursday for the final session. Hytro gives me easy access to BFR, which helps increase my recovery speed. Wearing the shorts whilst heading for a quick walk has been my go-to restorative session for Active BFR, especially as I can combine it with a podcast or a catch-up with friends which means I get to tick off wins for both personal and athletic life. When it’s not really outdoor weather, I pop on a guilty pleasure show (Made in Chelsea or Married at First Sight are my current faves) and use the shorts passively to restrict blood flow to my legs for three 5-minute stints. The shorts are comfy enough for me to wear all day if I need to, which is handy when I’m adding a Recovery BFR cycle in between errands or after a gym session. Strapping myself into the shorts felt strange at first, especially as things like an easy walk or bike feel much harder when blood flow is restricted (which is kind of the point!). Taking steps such as BFR helps me feel I’m pushing the needle forward as an athlete without putting additional strain on my body.

 

Charlie Willett playing rugby

Photo credit – Roberto Comuzzo

 

Learning to give more time and energy to recovery has changed the game for me as an athlete. I’m now fitter, faster and stronger than I’ve ever been, and even managed to snag my first international rugby league cap for Ireland over the summer. If I hadn’t fractured my back last season, I would never have put effort into learning how to recover well, so in a strange way, I’m grateful it happened – but once was definitely enough!

 

Charlie’s story is not uncommon, many elite athletes over-train trusting that their bodies will just make it through, but as we have heard this is not the case.  The reason why Recovery BFR is so well suited to rugby is that it can be added into a player’s recovery protocol easily when using Hytro BFR wearables, with little extra time or equipment required. It can be implemented anywhere and with straightforward protocols that the player themselves can execute. To learn more about Recovery BFR, read our journal.  

Charlie wears the Womens Hytro BFR Recovery shorts, due to launch later this year, sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of the page to be notified the second they become available. 

Read the journal

Header image photo credit – JMP Photography

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