You love participating in your sport. You hate pain and injury. Sitting on the sidelines sucks. This is the story of how I finally wised up and figured out what mattered most to me.
I’ve had a number of sports injuries since last year, including a torn meniscus in my right knee, a broken collarbone, and what’s probably a torn ligament in my right ankle (MRI pending). All of these were either caused by, or made significantly worse by, my very active participation in the martial art of aikido, which I began studying more than a year ago.
The first thing I need to put on the table is that I am fanatical about aikido. I fell in love with this martial art during my very first class, and for a number of reasons it’s something that brings immense value to my life. I attend four classes per week, and I’d like to keep doing aikido for years to come (I just turned 48). I enjoy aikido so much that I hate sitting on the sidelines when I’m injured, and because of that, I limped through a full schedule of classes for several months last year, gritting my teeth from the constant knee and ankle pain, and ignoring the implications of my continually swollen joints.
At their worst, my knees ballooned to the size of large melons; I couldn’t kneel (or even squat) without pain, it hurt to climb stairs, and the pain in my right ankle was so bad it kept me from falling asleep at night.
I wasn’t completely irrational about my injuries – I sought advice from my physician, who recommended physiotherapy. The physiotherapist in turn recommended exercises to strengthen and stretch imbalanced leg muscles, as well as rest. I was very diligent with the former, and pretty negligent about the latter.
It took my breaking my collarbone six months ago to finally get me off the aikido mat for an extended period of time. I was scared of permanent incapacity, and finally gave my body the rest it needed to heal my injuries. But it wasn’t easy for me. Over the months of sitting on the sidelines at my aikido classes (which I still continued to attend religiously), I heard from many other aikidokas who had experienced injuries that cut into their own practices, and all were unanimous about hating to sit out classes. It’s much more fun to be on the mat, playing.
I stayed off the mat for 6 weeks while my collarbone healed, and gradually added light aikido practice without breakfalls back into my life. My biggest fear was commencing breakfall practice again, because that’s how I’d injured my collarbone in the first place. Three months after my collarbone injury I began practising forward breakfalls (rolls) on my non-injured side, slowly building up strength and confidence. I also added Rolf massage treatments and foam rolling to my rehabilitation routine, to release adhesions and restrictions in my fascia and free up my joints, which had developed quite a limited range of motion.
My aikido practice was interrupted again, however, by an imminent appointment with a knee surgeon that was supposed to take place five months after my collarbone injury. I started a series of low-level laser treatments on my right knee and ankle prior to the appointment, and stopped participating in aikido classes at the recommendation of my physiotherapist. After an abortive appointment with the surgeon (turns out I’d been referred to the wrong doctor), I decided it was time to stop and take stock of what I was doing to myself. For the first time in months I felt almost no pain, and I wanted to maintain that.
In the end I chose to take some additional time off the aikido mat to strengthen my legs. By that point my knee swelling and pain had virtually disappeared, and my right ankle was feeling a lot better, although still visibly swollen. I wanted to see if I could gradually add in mat time again without increasing the pain or swelling in either my knee or my ankle. It was no longer worth it to me to do aikido if it hurt.
I continued to practice breakfalls for five or ten minutes before every aikido class, but sat and watched each class once it had begun. After a few weeks, with the permission of my sensei, I did warm-ups with the class, but stepped off the mat when technique practice started.
Five months after I broke my collarbone, I started practising forward rolls on my injured side. It’s been six-and-a-half months since my collarbone injury now, and I’m thrilled to be doing all of my breakfalls – including advanced rolls – better than ever.
The knee and ankle have been trickier to manage. I’m finding it’s a real balancing act, trying to add more mat time without increasing my pain and swelling. I’ve started getting on the mat for one full class per week, and I’m monitoring my pain and inflammation. Eventually I hope to be able to participate in more classes per week, but for now if one is all I can manage without increasing the pain, I’m happy. A week ago I tested for my next aikido belt, and I can continue learning at this pace if I have to.
One of the unexpected side effects of my Rolfing and foam rolling has been releasing decades-old injury to my leg abductors – the tendons that attach to your “sit bones” and allow you to pull your legs together. For many years my yoga practice had been limited by being unable to bend forward at the waist without excruciating pain around my “sit bones”. With the help of ongoing foam rolling exercises, I can now touch my toes pain-free for the first time since my teens.
It’s no fun being kept from your favourite sport because of pain and injury. What I’ve learned is that it feels really good to live without pain.
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.