Building Strength in My Shoulders and Back – What?

I have been dealing with a shoulder issue since at least this spring . At one point in September it was full-on frozen shoulder (or something that looks like it, since I don’t have a formal diagnosis). How could this be? My shoulders are super strong from all the swimming I do.

Since then, it has improved a bit but I still feel as weak as a newborn kitten after a short swim session. Really short, as in 400M or so, not even my usual warmup distance.

Dapne, my physiotherapist, has been helping me recover mobility for months now. She gave me some strengthening exercises that I mostly ignored for two reasons:

1) the stretching exercises seemed more important; and

2) I’m a swimmer who relies heavily on arms, shoulders and back to move through the water. I can swim for hours, and barely kick. How can I possibly need to strengthen those muscles?

This week she delivered the same message again, along with new exercises using a resistance band. I had to try them while she watched, instead of just looking at the little videos at home. Huh! I really do need to strengthen those muscles! That was hard work.

This has all been an interesting learning process. I know a few swimmers who have had shoulder problems but they were faster/worked harder than me. My assumption about my risk of similar injury was completely wrong because frozen shoulder does not appear to be triggered by exercise; whatever they suffered from was likely something different.

I also learned how great it is to have a good physiotherapist. I first went to physio about four years ago, after breaking the other arm. That was necessary and therefore acceptable. However, I struggled to believe that I “deserved” to see someone to help me address less specific mobility and strength issues. Physiotherapists are for athletes. Wait – I’m an athlete, albeit an older one.

Now I’m learning the importance of doing all the exercises I am given, so I can go from sad little Karen Gorney arms to a full John Travolta stretch. I looked it up – there are actually Saturday Night Fever shoulder exercises, and one of them is one I have been assigned.

Saturday Night Fever photo courtesy of Everett Collection

I’m going to have to reset priorities in order to fit them in. And I’m going to hate it. They are boring, as well as hard. But I am unstoppable and I want to get back to doing things I love.

A green cartoon T Rex dinosaur appears to be roaring while holding up to grabbing sticks that will allow it to reach things normally out of reach. Above it, in black capital letters, is the word UNSTOPPABLE.
An unstoppable dinosaur is ready to go plogging with Martha, despite its obvious arm issues.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

ADHD · fitness · injury

Christine and the Contrary Brain

I wonked out my shoulder and my arm two weeks ago.

Khalee and I were out for a walk. She was cruising along sniffing every blade of grass, as per usual, when she noticed a dog on the opposite side of the road and decided to take a look.

She changed direction so fast that I didn’t have time to adjust direction. I swear, if she had more momentum, my whole right arm – and possibly my shoulder- would have detached and been dragged behind her on the end of the leash.

Luckily, my arm stayed attached but all my muscles on that side are really unhappy with me.

I’ve been taking it pretty easy exercise-wise while I recover from the strain.

I’m doing some low key yoga, lots of stretching, and some mobility exercises. And, of course, I’m still walking Khalee every day.

(I hold the leash in my left hand though!)

A light-haired dog is walking away from the camera down the sidewalk on a sunny day. 
Image description: Khalee, my light-haired, medium-sized dog, is walking away from me on the sidewalk on a sunny fall day. Her leash is visible on the bottom left corner (it’s in my left hand!) and to her right is some grass and there are trees beyond that.

So, I’m doing ok and things are improving but I am feeling rather contrary about the whole thing.

I’m not contrary about the injury – although that part is no fun- I’m contrary because I am suddenly absolutely compelled to start rowing again and to really dig into some upper body strength training.

I’m not actually doing those things yet because I’m not foolish enough to risk hurting myself further but when I envision my day, I keep imaging myself rowing or doing some bicep curls and it seems like a great idea…until I remember.

Of course, I could be doing lower body strength training or using the exercise bike but my brain doesn’t find that intriguing at all.

When it comes to expanding my exercise plans right now, it wants upper body work or nothing.

See what I mean?

My brain is just being contrary.

Now that I have tuned into that fact, I’ll work around it and do some extra squats or lunges or whatnot but I had to become aware of the contrariness before I could do anything about it.


Falling Out of Love With Swimming?

I love summer because it is when I connect most often with friends for outdoor swims. This year I haven’t been doing much of that. My best swimming buddy moved out of province a couple of years ago, and others in the core group have also moved a bit further out of town so it’s harder to get together. The weather hasn’t cooperated either.

On top of that, I have been dealing with neck and shoulder pain that I just can’t seem to fix.

The result has been that since club practices ended in June, I have barely been in the water.

Falling out of love with swimming couldn’t have come at a worse time for someone who has committed to swimming 15 km in August to raise funds for cancer research. I have met my modes goal, but if you would like to donate, please follow this link.

I am trying to get myself excited by visiting new venues and swimming with new friends. I went to the new River House in Ottawa, which has 25M lanes in addition to a large “pool” area that is very popular with teens and young adults.

A swimming area on a river. In the foreground you can saw two swim lanes. There are floating ”islands” in the centre, and people sitting on the dock beyond that. In the background, you can see the river with boats near the dock and trees on the far shore,r

I went back to my old standby, the Pond, which is once again relatively quiet as the teens and young adults have migrated to the River House. There were only swimmers and families with young kids on my last visit.

Three people are standing in greenish water while one person swims in the distance. The pond is surrounded by trees.

I joined several people from my swim club at the home of one of our members.

Four swimmers with colourful floats swim across a small lake surrounded by trees.

I even did a (for me) epic bike-swim-bike across town. This has been on my bucket list of longer bike rides to achieve this summer. I managed a little over 36 km of cycling plus a 1500M swim.

A wet Diane, wearing a white swim cap and goggles, stands in the Ottawa river. You can see trees on the Quebec shoreline in the distance. Ignore the time showing in the photo! Strava’s GPS works well for tracking distance but is terrible for times. It actually took me almost an hour.

I’m still struggling. My physiotherapist has instructed me to have shorter but more frequent swims to build up strength without irritating the sore spots, she has also given me new exercises to strengthen and relax my back muscles. I hate strength exercises! The ones for mobility are ok, but boring.

Still, I’m going to make an effort to do them, because it’s clear that I am not going to get back my love of swimming if I don’t fix what is making it not fun. I have 6 km to complete on that cancer fundraiser challenge, and registration for my fall Master’s Swimming program is now open. Wish me luck!

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Dealing with Injury

I have been an adult ballet dancer for almost 19 years; I have avoided injuries and never missed a class except for travel. That ended abruptly two weeks ago when I did something to the muscles in my lower back and hip.

Skeleton with a severely twisted spine after dancing too hard

Luckily, it was just before a week-long break at the dance school, so I didn’t miss classes. I did have to miss a couple of swim practices though, as I was pretty much confined to bed for several days. I was not happy. At all.

Thankfully, rest, gentle stretches, and a couple of trips to to the chiropractor’s have me mobile again. I have managed two dance classes this week, though I still feel like a bit like this mushroom:

Cartoon images of a short mushroom working up a sweat while lifting its leg a little. The other dancers at the barre are all achieving perfect high leg lifts.

Part of me thinks I need to start accepting that I am 61 and my risk of injury will continue to grow with age. Part of me says that I have already scaled back to an easier level of class, and I am learning to accept that things like grand pliés will depend on how I feel that day. It’s okay to make accommodations. And part of me thinks I should just shift my perspective. Like these bats, I’m a pretty badass dancer if you look at me the right way.

Diane Harper lives and dances in Ottawa.

fitness · injury · martial arts

Christine is trying to focus on what she *can* do.

I was frustrated at myself in Taekwondo class last week.

This problem with my heel/toe/calf is making it extremely hard to properly execute my patters because I can hold my leg in the right position. And because I can’t put my leg in the right spot, my hands for get what to do. And then I end up facing the wrong direction and…so on.

I was feeling especially annoyed because I wanted to be preparing for my next belt test but this injury is really slowing my progress.

I’m the midst of all that annoyance, I had a flash of insight.

My physical practice is pretty limited right now but I could be studying my TKD theory. I could be practicing how to describe my patterns and how to teach them. I could be watching videos and observing technique.

A series of stick person drawings depicting different aspects of Taekwondo training.
Here’s a sketchnote I made when preparing for my last belt test. If made more of these, I could be enjoying creative practice AND preparing for my test. Image description: this is a drawing I made about the 9 training secrets in TKD. I have a series of stick people illustrating different aspect of the training and some text describing each one. The areas between the drawings are coloured yellow.

But, instead of doing all of that work that is freely available to me, I had been focusing on the one thing that wasn’t available to me right now.

Once I had broken that spell, I started to see all the other ways I had been letting my toe/heel/calf pain get in my way.

I’ve been able to walk each day but a lot of other cardio exercises aggravate my heel so I have been largely avoiding them.

When I started thinking in terms of what I *could* do instead of what I couldn’t, I remembered the seated cardio I did after an injury a few years back. I did a quick search on YouTube and have the one below a try – I really enjoyed it.

Link leads to a workout from Puzzle Fit called 20 minute strength and cardio workout for lower body injuries

I haven’t turned into Merry Sunshine. I’m still annoyed about my toe/heel/calf but I feel good about this change in focus. it better for my brain and for my body.

Have you benefitted from a chance in focus like this?

How did it play out for you?

fitness · flexibility · habits · injury · stretching

More Rehab Exercises Keep Christine On Her Toes

I have spent entirely too much time thinking about my big toes this week.

Aside from the occasional stubbing incident, and an unfortunately-located bee sting when I was 8, I have never given my big toes much thought at all.

A GIF of Garfield, a large orange cartoon cat with black triangular lined patches on his back and tail, is moving on tiptoe. ​
Okay, so I’m not ‘on my toes’ as much as our friend Garfield but this GIF made me laugh so I couldn’t resist adding it to this post. Image description: A GIF of Garfield, a large orange cartoon cat with black triangular lined patches on his back and tail, is moving on tiptoe.

But last week, a conversation with my chiropractor led to the realization that I roll my foot inwards when I am trying to keep my balance. That means that the muscles in my feet weak from not being used properly. And, I am compensating for that weakness by using muscles in my legs instead.

You remember the ongoing saga with the muscles in my legthe pain in my heelwait, is it my foot, right?

Well, this is probably tied into that whole mess, too.

I’m not sure if the problem started with my toes, messed up my foot, then aggravated my calf and so on, or if things went the other way, or if it all kind of happened at once.*

I wish that I could have noticed the whole thing before it got this bad, I just have to work through all of the different muscles while they recover.

So, I’ve added some toe exercises to my calf/heel/foot routine. I have been taking my chiropractor’s advice and consciously choosing to use my big toe for support as I do yoga and walk and practice Taekwondo.

And I bought some of these chummies (you may know them as toe spacers but they’re chummies to me.)

A white-appearing person’s feet, one flat on the floor and the other raised to show the bottom. They are wearing blue toe spacers that wrap around each toe.
These aren’t my feet! This is a photo of ‘Toe Pal’ spacers as shown on Amazon. Image description: a white-appearing person’s feet wearing a pair of blue gel toe spacers. One foot is flat on the floor and one is raised so the sole is visible. The spacers wrap around each toe and have a thicker wedge that rests between the toes to hold them apart.

I think my feet are feeling a little better already but that is probably just the power of suggestion.

I guess that as long as it encourages me to keep up a routine that will work, it’s a useful form of delusion, right?

Anyway, let’s hope that I can soon get back to not thinking about my toes, my feet, or my calves at all.

*This article certainly makes it sound like the problem could have originated in my toes.

advice · fitness · flexibility · injury · stretching

Christine Learns The Same Lesson…Again.

I was at my chiropractor last week about a problem I’m having with my heels.

I already had a working theory that my sore heels were a result of overly tight calves (I was half right) so I had been doing all kinds of different calf stretches to try and find some relief.

One of the most useful sets of stretches I found was in this short yoga video.

Her exercises helped my calves…and my heels, at least temporarily, but there was one problem.

I really hate that ‘front fold with your fingers tucked under your toes’ stretch.

I mean, I HATE IT.

I know, I know! Why don’t I tell you how I really feel.

Let’s see if this helps clarify things:

Image description: A GIF of Sophia Petrillo, an elderly character from the show Golden Girls, raises ​and lowers her hand as she vehemently says ‘I hate that!’
Image description: A GIF of Sophia Petrillo, an elderly character from the show Golden Girls, raises and lowers her hand as she vehemently says ‘I hate that!’

I forced myself to do it though because the rest of the video was so helpful (I was wary of the bouncing but I didn’t hate it) but I found myself dreading it and putting it off, and even the promised relief for my heels didn’t help.

So, anyway, I’m mentioning all of this to Ken, my chiropractor (and my cousin!) and he, clever soul that he is, sensibly said ‘You won’t stick with a stretch you hate, do something else instead.’


Of course!

How many times do I have to learn this lesson?

How often will I have to be reminded that the best exercise is the one I’ll do?

Why can’t I remember that hating an exercise can be a good reason not to do it?

Now, I get that sometimes there are exercises that must be done in order to heal specific things and how much you hate it may not be a factor in that case.

But, for me, it keeps happening for exercises that can easily be switched out for something else.

I need to start letting ‘I hate it!’ be a signal to find an equivalent exercises that I like instead of a signal to dig in my heels and (try to) force myself to keep doing something that feels awful.

(Besides, digging in my heels is definitely not going to help right now. 😉 )

Do you have exercise lessons that you have to learn again and again?

Please tell me that I’m not the only one!

fitness · monthly check in

Sam’s monthly check-in: February’s ups and downs

First, the February good news. I’m counting down the days to spring. I’m loving the added evening light. There are days when it’s clear spring is happening soon.

It’s 23 days to spring and this is a photo of pink buds with green grass and a bright blue sky.

Also, February contains Valentine’s Day. And that’s a good thing.

Happy Valentine’s bitmoji

The rest of February is a mixed bag of feelings.

With my knee surgery within the year, I’ve been trying to push myself. I want to be in the best shape possible before it’s all knee rehab all the time. I’ve been watching another athletic friend go through the work that’s required in recovery and that was her goal. Go into surgery in fighting form. (Go Patty!) That’s my focus for the year.

My knee and knee surgery isn’t really bad or good. It just is.

But it’s also a challenge in that there a lot of things I just can’t do. Have I mentioned how much I miss running? Aikido? Soccer? CrossFit? Blerg. Yawn.

Here’s a green belt Aikido selfie from four years ago.

Aikido Sam selfie in dojo washroom mirror

But focusing on what I can do…

Mostly it’s strength training, yoga, and Zwift these days with the odd dog walk thrown in for good measure. There’s also a lot of tedious knee physio. That’s not a bad combo but by temperament I’m a Jill of All Sports.

Home yoga with Cheddar

It’s also a lot of balancing. Workout hard, let my knee recover. Gentle exercise, hard thing, rest. Repeat. I’m edgy about it. I want to bite peoples’ heads off when they say, listen to your body. (Sorry friends!) Our bodies don’t have singular messages. They don’t speak with one voice. My heart and lungs want to push harder. My knee says slow down. My strong core is ready for anything but again the knee doesn’t like quick, unexpected movements on unstable ground. Okay, so maybe I should just listen to my knee since that’s my focus for the year. But my knee isn’t always the most helpful voice. My knee says, nothing hurts on the sofa. Grab a book! We can wait for surgery with a backlog of unread fiction and pots of tea. Lots of Netflix to catch up on.

But I’m with Cate about the importance of movement. I’ve written before about life as a shark. Keep moving. Keep quiet knee. My brain knows what’s best.

Also, for the first time since this whole knee falling apart thing began I’m self conscious exercising in public. I’m noticing my incapacity more and feeling embarrassed. I shouldn’t have that attitude. I wouldn’t have it if others had the same disability. And then I get angry at myself for being so self-judgey. That’s not a very good mood cycle.

When I do Modo Yoga in the studio now I’m very conscious of my limitations. There are things I just can’t do no matter how modified. That’s you, hero pose. I can manage tree and eagle with my right leg as the sole leg but not the left. I imagine I can see people looking and wondering what’s up.

This month I went to my favorite lunch hour fitness class at work, the full hour TRX class plus a “playground” add on that’s like calisthenics. The regular instructor was away and instead we did a Tabata style thing with circuits and partners and there were a couple of things–like sprinting for 40 seconds and jumping jacks for 40 seconds–that I just couldn’t do. I felt rotten and I nearly left the class. Instead, I told the instructor about my knee and I did planks instead. I’m glad I stayed even though my abs are sore.

As you can tell even my mood has taken a hit. I’ve become crankypants Sam. This is not normal for me. My mellow disposition is somewhat legendary. It’s part of what makes me a good academic leader. I’m hard to ruffle and cheerful and generous by nature. I don’t work at it. It’s how I wake up. It’s who I am. But I’ve been realizing lately that it takes a certain amount of exercise to keep me that way. As other people have been counting up to some really big numbers in the 220 in 2020 group, I’m having to workout less than usual to keep up with knee issues and recovery.

Also, it’s been extra busy at work. If January feels like it lasted forever, February is the month that flew by.

Also, unlike January when I did a lot of riding, February has been all indoor riding. I think that’s been part of the mood issue. My plan is to get back on my bike and make some plans for summer riding.

So Sarah and I got out for some fat bike riding on the weekend. That was fun!

Fat biking in six photos

Sarah, Joh, and I have registered for the Ride for Heart. It’s 75 km pretty early in the season. We’re really looking forward to it.

You can cheer me up by sponsoring me here.

aging · fitness · training

On coping with setbacks in the gym (Guest post)

IMG_1575By MarthaFitat55

The past couple of weeks at the gym have been quieter than usual. If all was well, I’d be getting ready to shift into a new level of training.

But all is not well. About four years ago I tripped in my kitchen and hit my knee. Hard. Though my recovery then went smoothly – I was lucky and did not break my knee cap – my doctor warned me that I might have trouble with it in the future.

In mid-January, trouble finally came knocking. Tenderness, swelling, and pain were relieved by rest, ice, and elevation. But I noticed that my knee was stiff and resistant, and my physio recommended a shift in training. Fewer squats and splits, if any, and more rows and pulls, to help aid recovery.

The new routine is helping, and I should be thrilled. To be honest, though, I was peeved and disgruntled. I was past the one-year mark with my hip injury, I had recovered from a pinched nerve in my shoulder, and I was coping well with work arounds for my arthritic fingers. Dealing with my knee was the last thing I wanted.

We don’t always get what we want, as Mick Jagger wailed all those years ago, and this month was no exception. But as the song goes, if you try, sometimes you get what you need.

What I needed was to shake up my routine and refocus. Sometimes we set goals and go after them to the exclusion of all else. We stop noticing the clues and keep on our path without adjusting for new information or needs.

I rely on my trainer to keep me on track, because one of my primary goals is to get fit without causing injury to myself. What I had forgotten was there are many ways to be active and there are many ways to train. Just because I couldn’t do squats didn’t mean I couldn’t do anything.

So I have been doing something, and that is better than doing nothing. I was only modifying my training, not ditching it completely. I was reminded again how much I enjoy my time in the gym with weights, but I also became reacquainted with smaller, gentler, more frequent moves that focused on increasing flexibility, not just strength.

It is a lesson in patience, and it’s not one I am ever eager to learn, or re-learn as the case may be. I lead a busy life, with work, family, and community commitments. Who has time to spend on recovery?

The reality is we all need to take time to recover, to re-evaluate our goals, to refocus our attention on specific objectives; in short, to spend some quality time on ourselves, so we can keep going with our fitness plans.

When I look at what I was doing in the gym, I am still pleased with the plan I have. What I needed though, was to invest some time in focusing on muscle and joint care. It’s like getting that winter tune up your car needs in the fall to make coping with the hazards and challenges of winter a little easier.

So I am engaging in some preventative maintenance. I’ve been taking time to focus on form in training, to work on shifting some sloppy work habits, and to go back to yoga to stretch and relax in between sessions at the gym.

It’s too early to tell what will come next, but I like the variety. Most importantly, I like the fact that I’m not giving up.

— Martha is a writer and consultant who accepts she may never be a pretzel on the yoga mat, but is delighting in rocking the warrior pose nonetheless.

chi running · injury · running · Uncategorized

Reconnecting with Chi Running: Chi Marathon Training

Book cover for chi marathon. A group of eight or nine people running on a wide path with green grass on either side.Way back at the beginning of our blog, I wrote about Chi Running. Chi Running is a style of running that touts itself as “injury free.” For many, the idea of running without any injuries at all is a wishful thinking.

I was doing pretty well for awhile. I’d incorporated some of the techniques of chi running, like the midfoot strike, slight forward lean, and keeping a well-aligned “column.” All of this changed my running and over time it’s come to be something I really love.


I’ve been training for the Around the Bay 30K on March 29th. It’s a race with a venerable history — first run three years before the first Boston Marathon! It’s a challenging course and many say that if you can do ATB the you can do a marathon (I guess it depends on the marathon). There’s usually a killer hill at the end, even more severe than Boston’s Heartbreak Hill. This year, road construction means we’re detouring past the brutal hill.

Back in November I joined a clinic to train for the race.  We do hills on Wednesdays, tempo runs on Thursdays, and LSDs (Long Slow Distance runs) on Sundays.

The distance runs have slowly, and then more quickly, built distance. Back in November 13K seemed long. But a few weeks ago, we did 23K, up from 19K the week before that.

And my knee. My poor knee.  About 18K into the 23, I felt a twinge on the outside of my knee. For the last little bit of the run, it just got worse and worse. And I couldn’t warm up my hands no matter what I did. And my feet got wet. But I made it. Not just that, I added an extra block to the route because with the store in sight we were still short of our 23 by 0.5K.

The next Sunday, we went back down to 19K and again, the knee acted up. And finally, I actually scaled back the week after that, running what should have been an easy 14K with Anita (my Scotiabank half marathon partner).  I limped along in thick slippery snow with a funky right knee for much of that route. That’s when a week of rest started to sound like a plan.

I’ve been seeing a great physiotherapist who encourages me to run through the pain if I can. But when I went in last week and said, “I’m thinking of taking a week off of running,” he thought it wasn’t a bad idea. His words: “If you’re thinking of taking a week off, then you should take it.”

I’ve been diligently doing my physio exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes so that my IT band has more support.  And my plantar fasciitis, which is the main reason I started going to my physiotherapist, is pretty much gone!

But I’m also supplementing all of that with a renewed interest in chi running. I picked up a book at the library called Chi Marathon. It’s also by Danny and Katherine Dreyer, authors of the original Chi Running book.  It’s reminded me of a lot of what’s recommended in the original book, and when I get back to running later this week I plan to practice some of what I’m re-learning.

Sam and I are making provisional plans (just ironing out some details) to attend a chi running workshop in Dayton, Ohio in May, with the man himself, Danny Dreyer.  I’m serious enough about running that I’m willing to drive a few hours for this sort of thing. I’ve read that the workshops make a huge difference and, frankly, I could use some feedback concerning my running technique.

All that is going to come a bit too late for the Around the Bay in March, and, gulp, the Mississauga Marathon that I’ve signed up for on May 3rd. They say that sailors get a thing called “foot-itis,” where you want a bigger and bigger boat.  I think a lot of runners get this too — distance-itis!  I’m guessing that in the end I’ll settle in at the half marathon distance. But I’m not going to do that until I run at least one marathon.  So, Mississauga here I come.

I’ve got my fingers crossed that this is all going to fall into place. When I first wrote about chi running, I’d been experiencing shin pain:

Where I used to have some shin pain and lower back pain before I tried Chi Running, the posture and foot placement alone have dealt with both. If I feel any discomfort when I am running, I just re-focus on my posture (they call it ‘leveling the pelvis’) and check in with my foot placement.  Giving this kind of attention to the form of running helps me address the source of discomfort as soon as I start to feel it, and to correct it right away.

I had high hopes that chi running would transform my running:


Learning to run without serious risk of injury means a lot to me. So far, I feel optimistic that Chi Running, once mastered, will help me achieve that goal.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in a gentler approach to running. Reading the book will give you enough of an idea of what Chi Running is about to decide whether you want to follow up with a workshop. I plan to do just that in the spring and look forward to reporting back once I do.

Well, I would hardly say I’ve mastered this approach.  And I’m happy to have an incentive (knee and hip pain and tight IT band) that has taken me back to the basics, renewing my commitment to chi running. I want to run for a long time.  And, as a friend pointed out to me the other day, we’re not in our twenties anymore!