Last month, with a week to go before departing on a long planned holiday, I felt my left knee bail on me. When I went in to the gym for my regular Monday training, the knee was still cranky. Some moves were great, and others were not.
My trainer and I tried different exercises, and at the end of the session, I limped to my car seething with frustration, worried about my upcoming mini break which would require a lot of walking, and feeling less than impressed with myself and my knee.
When the alarm sounded its wakeup call the next morning, I was tentative, fearful, and to be frank, scared. I stood up and took that first step, and then another.
Readers, I felt no pain. The knee worked perfectly. I did a couple of practice squats, and I stood up each time with wonder. The marvelous feeling continued through the day.
I could walk steadily, without feeling a hitch in my hip or my knee. I could lace up my shoes, be it sitting, bent over, or leaning. I got up from chairs — straight ones, soft and sinky ones, short ones, armless ones – and I didn’t need to hold onto anything. I even sat on my steps and got up from those without pain and without help.
Not only was my knee functioning, everything else was too. I was full of questions: Would this marvelous sense of wellbeing and functionality disappear? Should I stop doing all the things I had been doing in case I put a foot wrong and shifted everything out of whack? So what if I was fine now, what about when I was in a foreign country away from all my supports, and the pain returned?
I wrote my trainer, both elated and panicked. We reviewed the session, and also debated the possibilities arising from my ditching the old sneakers and wearing new ones with proper support, the addition of three to four servings of fish to my meals each week, to my getting more sleep.
In the end, we had no idea of what was the one thing that changed all for the better, but we had lots of thoughts on all the pieces that could have helped. The days passed pain free and I was mobile in ways I had not been for more than a year. I went on holiday and clocked almost 85 kilometres on my Fitbit, surpassing my 10K step goal each day to reach 15K to 25K. I negotiated stairs and sidewalks of all types. My body rescue pack, containing Voltaren, Aleve, lacrosse ball, and stretch band, lay unused in the suitcase.
When I started training back in the late fall of 2013, I expected stiffness and muscle soreness as part of the deal. When my hip joint, my shoulder, and my knee went rogue though, I did not expect to deal with pain long term.
As the joke goes, “what’s best about beating your head against a brick wall is how good you feel when you stop.” Though I had been mobile in recovery and after, I did not realize how pain had become a new constant in my life, low grade as it was, until it stopped.
Women often suck it up when it comes to pain and illness. Those of us who have borne children learn techniques to deal with pain. We soldier on through illness to cook, clean, parent, manage the appointments, meet that deadline, finish that project, etc. Even in positive gym environments, there can be messages about pushing through the pain being a sign of your growing strength.
I think we have to stop that message train in its tracks. Pain is your body’s signal saying something is wrong, and if you get used to it, you may not pay attention in time to prevent further or greater injury. You may over rely on medications to deal with the pain, and unknowingly cause other issues. For example, I had no idea taking certain pain relievers like ibuprofen and naproxen caused spikes in blood pressure. And if you are incubating an ulcer due to a high stress lifestyle, those same meds can also be a problem.
This new knowledge about what recovery means for my body has fueled my desire to keep going on my fitness path. Yes, I still get tired, and I still get muscle soreness after learning a new exercise or moving to a new volume level, but not having any pain is the best feeling. But I believe the work I have put in on strengthening my core and on relearning how to sleep and rest effectively has made a difference, not just physically but mentally too.
— Martha is a writer and columnist in St. John’s. Her body rescue pack is enjoying a well-earned retirement.