Last August, I was in the best shape I’d ever been. I was working out six or seven days per week, feeling comfortable with my regular 2-hour workouts and martial arts practice twice a day. At 20 years old, I looked great, pushed big weight, and suddenly felt like I had begun to see the type of person I still am today: someone better. For what felt like the first time in my life, I had become an athletic beast.
And for all of my practice, all of my gains, I was brought down by nothing more than gravity, an 8” box, and my own shamefully short attention span. Just another Wednesday, just another set of lateral box jumps, and on the opening round no less. As I find my rhythm, I tend to zone in on whatever movement I’m preforming to decrease the strain that movement has on me psychologically, freeing my focus on perfecting the motion. In this case, I fell over the line that differentiates between focus and absent-mindedness. In that pivotal moment, I landed on my right foot thoughtlessly, allowing my knee to snap out in a cringe-worthy 45-degrees out of rotation. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had torn my meniscus, and my journey with this injury had just begun.
Only weeks later, I began my first tour through Panama. Hiking an average of seven to eight miles a day, working on farms and trekking deep into the jungles, I didn’t have time to complain about my leg hurting. I spent the next four months, working through the discomfort to the best of my ability.
Living with an injury is like living on a leash. It tugs at you every time your mind sparks up excitement for life beyond what you can reach on the sofa. Every day, I dream of big waves, long running paths, wild mountain ranges. I see them clearly, because that’s somehow the aching sensation that persists in my right knee, even at rest, reminds me that I can’t go out and run, climb, surf, or lift. I have to restrain myself from walking too far, working out as I please, and even climbing too many stairs. It’s downright infuriating, and makes my subconscious worry constantly. But I have to be patient; any overeagerness ti get back to full strength could spell disaster for my athletic future. A torn meniscus, while minor in the grand scheme of injuries (is an incredibly common and regular annoyance for athletes.
Fighting my own need to lift is a unique discomfort. It’s inexplicably dull. Floating listlessly through the day, being teased by any physical activity that happens to require more than the thoughtless coordination that gets us from our bed to our desk at work and home again. Things like heavy groceries and helping a friend or parent with moving becomes interesting. At which point you discover, you haven’t suddenly come to be fascinated by those tasks, but rather by the slightest whisper of endorphins you get from moving those boxes, like you’re lifting again for the first time. Your body is jolted with memories of all the beautiful, extremely heavy things you’ve lifted. The intense satisfaction of being able to hit your goals and see results is lost. Especially when you seem so far from help.
When I returned to the U.S. in the middle of December, I was physically and mentally jarred by my experience (although intensely satisfied and proud of what I had been able to accomplish). I began the month-long process of scheduling batteries of X-Rays, MRIs, and physician’s appointments to get me through surgery. Now, in the middle of February, I am finally on the other side of the OR, sharp, frankenstein-style black stitches and all.
I can’t move my body the way I’m used to. Snowboarding, surfing, rock climbing and swimming are the activities I’ve endlessly loved, that are now made hilariously impossible by a meniscal tear. In reality, any activity in which pressure is is applied to the joint repeatedly, especially in any twisting motion of the leg) results in sharp shocks of pain. So much fun.
It feels like someone pulled a key string out of the stitching that holds me together, and fighting my urge to move is just as malicious. There has too be a better way.
At the urgent suggestion of three orthopedists and two surgeons, I’ve decided to abstain from any workouts that would further damage my leg. I will not cross my legs. I will not lift heavy things above my waist, and, with a heavy heart, I must not snowboard this season. (Must repeat this in my head ten times a day, or the programming doesn’t work.) So what becomes of the anxious jungle boy, itching to go out and climb a tree when he’s only going to hurt himself? He reminds his body how to climb.
Maintaining a routine, even when injured is critical to your mental health. People with regularly scheduled physical activity (whether it’s tennis once a week, or lifting five days a week) are used to the “pump” effect they get when they break a sweat. That classic kick of endorphins and dopamine your brain gets makes you actually feel happier while it makes you healthier, but what happens when you aren’t able to get that regular release?
You regress, and suddenly a cheat day turns into a cheat week, and even as you maintain your eating habits, you aren’t accommodating for your general decrease in rigorous activity. This, more often then flagrant disregard for our routine in general, is the most common cause of unwanted mass. I love my five meals a day, and enjoy high calorie treats, but when the conditions change, so to do the tools the athlete uses to stay on top.
I decided upon a project discipline: a project workout to use to rehabilitate my body as it repairs itself. A workout like this shouldn’t be rigorous. By nature, it should be something that you should have no problem completing every single day. For me, the everyday default was cardio. Burpees, kettle bell swings, different lunge breakdowns, and step-ups were the mainstays of my routine. They made my body more enduring during all of my workouts and allowed me to push myself harder for more time. So instead of building my cardio endurance and working on muscular maintenance, I’m switching it up. simple plan: 300 push-ups and 12 minutes of abs training. These ab exercises are focused on groundwork: exercises that don’t directly engage the knee joints. It’s important to remember though, these are difficult numbers. Whatever you choose to do in terms of time and quantity is in manageable intervals. (Your total goal is 100 push ups? Sets of 20!)
The important thing is to not let the absence of good work consume you. It’s only when the days cease to be challenging that our minds begin to slip. Keeping obstacles and projects on the table, in your face, is the easiest way to stay prepared for when your body is ready to work again. So until next time, I have some work to do.