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SPORT IN TIMES OF INJURY & ILLNESS

Dernière mise à jour : nov. 21

From personal injury to worldwide illness, the inaccessibility of many forms of sport can make working out a challenge. How to deal?


The sound of thundering steps came from behind me. The dirt track cleared away to normal road. “Hurry up,” my new friend yelled ahead of me, “or we’ll get run over!”


It was fall of 2015, a couple of months after I’d moved to Geneva. Aforementioned new friend, Nina, had pushed me to sign up for a race - La Course de l’Escalade - saying training runs were free. I’d tried to back out the next day, saying I’d do the training runs, but I didn’t want to do the race. Too late. She’d already registered me.


The first training run that I attended took us through the grounds of the United Nations and surrounding parks. Nina kept telling me to pick up my feet. I hadn’t run in 15 years. She said to go slow but in jogging mode. I couldn’t. My heart rate would shoot up. Couldn’t breathe. Stitch in side. I was surprised at how hard it was. I exercised at home and walked frequently. I was carrying some extra weight (about 15 pounds), but I hadn’t thought I was this out of shape. I kept alternating between a VERY SLOW jog and walking.


The run was staggered. The 5K runners went first so they’d be farther along the route before the 8K runners showed up. But I had slowed us down so much that the 8K runners had caught up. Nina pulled me aside just in time for me to see the group go thundering past. I watched in awe. Hundreds of pairs of legs moving in unison. Strong, shapely muscles. Perfect form. Never breaking rhythm.


Next year, I told myself, that’ll be me.


***


In December of that year, I did the Escalade race - it was just under 5K but had a lot of uphill as it wound through the Old City. It took me about 49 minutes. For reference, the person who finished first did it in about 20. But that was okay - all I’d wanted was to finish the race.


May of the following year was the Geneva Marathon. In addition to the marathon, there was a day of races with varying distances. My friends and I did La Genevoise - a 6 km women’s race. The next day we all had brunch in a gorgeous hotel restaurant atop a hill overlooking the lake, watching the marathoners running beside the lake and already discussing plans for the next races. We decided we would do the 8K Escalade race in December. As for the following year’s Geneva Marathon, I’d thought we’d go for the 10K race, but Nina had other ideas. She said we should sign up for the relay marathon. This would allow us all to run the marathon, but at different points. The distances varied so the stronger runners could run the longer distances. I was going to run the 10K segment.


I started mapping routes from my apartment to the lakeside and back - 12km. Perfect, I thought. If I could get used to 12km, I’d be in great shape for both the 8K Escalade and the 10K segment of the relay marathon. I went out to run several times a week, sometimes days in a row - skipping my other workouts - when the weather was too beautiful to pass up a lakeside run. It was one and a half hours of hard running, and I relished the sweat, the thundering heart, and the pounding steps.


The last training run the week before the race followed the same route as the race itself. I noticed a bit of pain in my right thigh but didn’t think much of it. The 8K race was 3 loops through the Old City. By the end of the first loop, I’d slowed down to a very slow walk, my thigh jabbing in pain with each step. I told my friends I was going home. I thought with ice and rest, I’d definitely be in shape for the race the following week.

I ended up missing the race.


Not only could I not run, I could barely walk. I started limping along my regular activities and took a break from working out. It felt like my hip had been replaced by a rock. Finally I went to see a doctor - it turned out there was nothing wrong with the hip itself, but surrounding muscles had not been not strong enough to take the shock of running. The doctor prescribed temporary anti-inflammatory medication, lots of physical therapy and an anti-inflammatory diet - no meat, eggs ok, no dairy, lots of ginger and turmeric.


I was shocked such a big problem could be caused by “just” running. But that wasn’t the first time, or, unfortunately, the last time, I’d injured myself from working out. Almost ten years earlier, when I was still living in New York, I’d bought into the Jillian Michaels hype and abandoned my trusted FIRM workouts for one of her exercise programs that worked out the whole body in half the time. After a couple of weeks, my knees hurt so much that I couldn’t do any kind of exercise, couldn’t go back to the FIRM, and had to do ordinary daily activities very gingerly. It took many sessions of physical therapy and about a year overall to be able to work out again.


The physical therapy sessions in Geneva consisted of physical manipulations - the PT applied pressure to cause (yes) and relieve pain - and exercises to build strength. Half of the office looked like a fitness center, with mirrored walls and sporting equipment. I’d always resisted gyms, preferring to work out at home, but I began to see how many problems I could’ve avoided if I’d had a few sessions where a professional could observe me and correct my form. I thought I’d watched my videos carefully enough, and I’d had a full-length mirror in which I thought I saw myself exactly reproducing the movements on screen. But the PT corrected my posture in ways I hadn’t even realized were off. I’d been doing squats and jumps incorrectly for years!

As I got better with physical therapy, I was allowed to intersperse 1 minute of running with 5 minutes of walking for a total of about 45 minutes of activity. But like some kind of junkie, I couldn’t stop after just one. I would run the whole length of an upbeat song and show up at the following session with more pain. I set myself back a couple of times, but gradually I built up to running 1km alternated with walking 1km, and eventually, lightly running 5km in one go.

Nina then suggested I still do the relay marathon with our group, swapping out my 10km segment for the 4km tail end of the race. Sounded easy enough. Except the ambience during a race when you’re nearing the finish line can make you forget your body. The rest of the relay team could join the last runner and accompany them to the finish line for the final 200 meters. I barely saw my teammates as I blurred past them, seeing only the finish line. When I slowed down to a walk after crossing it, I was dizzy, nauseous, my ears were ringing, and I think the only reason my heart didn’t pop out of my chest was because my stomach was trying to throw itself up first.


And the hip pain came back. Excruciatingly.


Back to physical therapy.


It took another year after that, but my hip got better, I lost the extra weight, and I was running regularly.

As happens with exercise, the more I did it, the more variety I craved, and other forms of exercise started suggesting themselves to me. In addition to jogging/running, I was doing strengthening workouts at home (weight training) and going to the pool with my kick board a couple of times a week. I became interested in hiking - I enjoyed the views while running but it was always on concrete. I was interested in going more “into nature.” I signed up for an “easy” hike with the local expat group - we were to hike up to Lac Blanc through the mountains. I’d always been afraid of heights but since this was labeled as easy, I thought it would be fine. The only requirement was that one be physically fit enough to jog 30 minutes at a steady pace without stopping.


I imagined this hike would be more of a strenuous walk through wooded areas, climbing over branches and such, with the path gently inclining and descending from time to time. At the sight of the first sideways climb holding onto boulders on the side of a mountain on a narrow footpath, I wanted to turn around and go home. But that wasn’t possible. We’d come too far and I didn’t know the way back and I was holding everyone up. Luckily, more experienced hikers were there in case wimps like me had come along. I had one on either side of me, and we inched our way across to where the foot path widened so you didn’t find yourself between a rock and empty space. One of them stayed with me for help with (steep!) descents as well, going down backwards himself so I had someone in front of me holding both my hands. I asked him what made this an easy hike. Apparently, the fact that the path was beaten enough to make walkways and that rocks stayed in place for climbing and descending rather than wobbling underfoot were supposed to make things simple even for a novice. I never signed up for one of their hikes again, but I was glad I was ignorant enough to go on that one. The views were spectacular. (A photo of Lac Blanc is the cover picture for this blog’s homepage).

A couple of years later, I went on another hike, this one supposedly very easy, nothing like the Mont Blanc hike. It was the Salève. I was on a sort of hike+lunch date. At the end of this hike is a restaurant aptly named Le Panoramique with panoramic views of the city below. You could see all of Geneva with the lake between shaped like a dolphin’s tail. The restaurant was very busy. The appetizers came before the drinks. Then, a long wait. The drinks came with the meal, just as they also brought us the wine to go with the meal. The day was so beautiful and the dessert menu so tempting, that we ordered dessert and espresso too. When we left the table, we walked to a few of the lookout points and took more pictures. Then we started our descent. Going up had not been so bad, though I was a lot slower than I thought I’d be and we had to call twice to make sure the restaurant still had a place for us. We ended up arriving one hour later than our initial reservation. Going downhill was… terrifying. The way down appeared very steep to me, and it just kept going downwards with nowhere to stop, nowhere to rest. If there had been little “landings” here and there… but there weren’t. The way down on a full stomach with fear of heights was a challenge. All the drinks recently imbibed à table - apéro, water, wine, water, espresso, water - posed another problem. I think by the time we got to the parking lot and the little station with the bathroom, I was waddling like a duck, and one who wasn’t doing too well at that.


To add injury to insult, I started developing knee pain after that hike. I lived in a loft at the time, and I had to climb downstairs first thing every morning. Either I had to go down one step at a time the way children do without alternating my feet or stretch a lot first. I had good days and bad days. Sometimes I felt almost normal and other days I had more pain. Several months passed like this.


Then came the fateful night where I looked over the week’s activities and saw I’d done only cardio. I decided to do my physical therapy exercises, which used body weight to build muscle, right then and there before going to bed. My right knee hurt in the backward lunge, but I was determined to finish the set. I woke to it tripled in size the next morning. I started googling the problem and spent the day with the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation). No improvement. I had to borrow a pair of crutches to go to the doctor’s office, and I brought along an ice pack to use on the bus and in the waiting room. The X-ray showed severe inflammation - where had I heard that before? - and the visit ended with me getting more anti-inflammatory pills for pain and once more a prescription for physical therapy.


Oh, and several times during this period of hip pain/recovery/knee pain/recovery, I had a blocked neck and shoulder pain on the right side. I couldn’t use my right arm as easily - even writing hurt. The movement of fingers to shape ink from the pen into words could be acutely felt inside the shoulder socket. This pain would crop up from time to time if I strained myself too much as a right-handed, right-shoulder-purse-carrying person. It appeared that the only way my body could get some rest from all kinds of work was to make me incapable of doing any.


Finally, after almost 5 years, most of that time injured and/or in physical therapy, I started to learn to slow down.


***


I slowed down and took the time to learn to do new, slower things rather than impatiently put together a program for quick results. I took long walks, the pace slowed down by taking pictures and looking around. I went on gentle hikes (for real this time!). I continued to go the pool and do laps with my kick board or pool noodle. I tried hot yoga once - and surprisingly liked it a lot. Swimming was my great love (even though I couldn’t actually swim yet), but I thought hot yoga would complement it well. I was very happy with my new collection of non-injuring activities.


And then… the world was on lockdown. A minuscule drop in the bucket of the world’s health problems, but just as I had compiled sporty activities outside the home, working out at home became the only option.


And was is it my imagination or had ads for subscriptions to at-home exercise programs exploded on social media? With the eye of someone who’d been through consecutive sport-related injuries, I evaluated them - death to shoulder, death to knee, death to neck. In fact, now every time I see the word “shred” in exercise programs, I don’t think of it so much as shredding fat but one’s body. (I actually get an image in my head of what the Founder’s disease did to Odo in DS9 - see images below).



I ignored the ads playing on Instagram and instead turned to a program I’d heard much about - Yoga With Adriene, a series of free yoga videos on YouTube. I started with the 30-Day “Home” Journey and while some of the movements made me feel very silly, the peaceful feeling and all-over good vibes were well worth it.


With the yoga sessions built into the daily routine, I started experimenting with some other at-home exercises. Where in the past I would’ve been stressed out about not already knowing the “perfect” routine, there I was just focused on different ways of working out. I realized that even a trial-and-error adaptation of exercises was still exercising. The trying was a workout in itself.


Added to these physical workouts was a visual one - online swim. As I described in Swim Therapy, online classes for getting over the fear of water were being offered from the Miracle Swimming school in Florida. Since it’s a mental block holding us back, not lack of instruction in swimming movements, preliminary classes don’t have to take place in a pool. We worked on addressing our fears in the first two hours followed by a one-hour visualization exercise of what we would do in a pool. Certain exercises could be carried out (later) in the bathtub. Those in Florida (and other warm environments) with a backyard could try things out in an inflatable pool, if not a real one. I couldn’t wait to try out what we’d worked on imagining in lessons.


When pools opened up over the summer, I took full advantage, going several times a week, often staying 2-3 hours. In the warm indoor pool where the water starts at my hip and at the other end comes to my chin, I learned to do laps without holding anything. Not the wall, not the kick board, not the pool noodle. I couldn’t believe it. Four years of swimming classes with 5 different instructors got me almost nowhere but two months of online classes were already doing the trick. I could see the day coming when I’d be able to do laps in deep water or swim in open waters without fear.

And then came the second lockdown.

With the first lockdown, I could try to brace myself and be grateful for my health and be optimistic. With the second one, I couldn’t muster up even an ounce of positivity. Added to that, we were heading into winter, and as someone who does not tolerate cold weather well, I was by turns grumpy and depressed. There was no hiking, no walking, but worst of all was the loss of swimming. With an indoor pool, swimming was an activity usually available year-round. And I didn’t want to lose the progress I’d made.


Activity levels normally dip during the winter season anyway because of bad weather, but the loss of movement brought on by the lockdown depleted all motivation as well. With the cold weather and being stuck indoors, comfort food was calling, an additional danger, given how heavy winter’s menu typically is anyway.

I gave in and went down the spiral of eating too much and not moving enough, but with the New Year approaching, I decided to go back to the beginning and learn to slow down again in all the good ways. I had been out of practice, but this time I knew the way back. I started with stretches and short walks. As New Year’s approached, I felt ready to add more exercises, and I gradually built up to planks, resistance bands and weights. The routine started to resemble that described in the previous post.


The goal in the beginning was consistency, not variety. I didn’t need to add variety right away. And another thing I learned that was contrary to what I’d been told: I didn’t need to push myself out of my comfort zone. The zone itself enlarged to encompass more things and new challenges. I just needed to do what felt comfortable. I found that out with running (after I’d unfortunately hurt myself by training too hard). Gasping, on the verge of passing out or throwing up is not a sign of a good workout - that’s already way past “running too fast.” When I was able to start running again after over a year of physical therapy, I decided to adopt a pace where I felt like I could run forever like that. My comfortable pace naturally increased as I got stronger.


Time passes quicker than you think. All the more reason to go slowly. If I say I’ll give myself 6 months to do this, it sounds too long, I want it in one month! But 6 months would pass while trying to put the one month plan into place. If I weren’t so resistant to going more slowly, I’d already be there.


I’m coming to this same conclusion with exercise and writing. Since my previous post, I’d been feeling that there’s only enough time for one or the other and I was getting pretty frustrated about it. I had to tell myself that the bottom line was to find some way, any way to start doing and figure it out along the way. It’s a constant process of adaptation, even when the situation stops changing. It was a new idea for me - before, I’d always wanted to find the “perfect schedule” or “perfect routine” and stick to it. And then just as I’d feel that I found a good routine, external circumstances would change, and I would get frustrated by the lack of results. Now I see that the process itself of putting routines into place gets results. They’re gradual but longer lasting, and tweaks along the way are more manageable than constant re-hauling.

The tweaks needed in my new routines came from being able to go outside again, with restrictions easing up and the weather improving. I realized that all steps weren’t created equal. It was a completely different feeling walking 20,000 steps on the track versus while reading in the apartment. Reading during the day all but disappeared, but the walks became more productive. They began to feel so good that I couldn’t imagine going back to working in any other state. Whatever I’d been puzzling over in work - whether related to writing or teaching or other business - got unknotted without me even realizing that I’d been thinking about it during the walk. The rhythm, air, sights, sounds, sense memories would slowly trail off into musings and then everything would clear away and the answer would come. Or a new idea so good, so fitting with things I’d done before but combining them in a new way that I wondered how I didn’t think of it before.


Maybe because I wasn’t free before to receive it.



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