Sunday, August 2, 2015

ACL Warrior: Getting back to "normal"

Oddly enough, it has been almost exactly a year since my last blog post.  I've been busy with ACL reconstruction surgery, my first Michigan winter, a second knee surgery (scar tissue removal), losing my job, finding a new job, and a whole lot of knee rehab and physical therapy.  

Since I'm a fitness nut (although I have no formal education or certifications on the topic), and still recovering from an ACL reconstruction, I'd like to focus this entry on KNEE REHAB.  I searched the internet high and low for information about getting strength back after ACL reconstruction.  I've read a ton of articles and followed people on Instagram.  This doesn't make me an expert--and everyone should check with their physical therapists and surgeons before trying any of this.  But I wanted to share with you what worked and what didn't.

I found lots of articles and blogs about success stories--young people who torn their ACLs, had the surgery, and were back to running in 3 months or less, back to sports in 6 months.  I WAS NOT ONE OF THOSE CASES.  This isn't meant to scare anyone, its meant to be a realistic story about someone who struggled.  Because when I struggled, I felt alone.  I felt like I was the only one on the planet who's surgery didn't go exactly as planned.  So if your surgery was similar, know that you are not alone.  Everyone responds differently.

I also don't want to focus on the surgery itself or the couple of weeks after it.  For the most part many doctors and PTs have different protocols.  And so you should follow that.  And a lot of that is pretty straight forward--heel slides, prone hangs, quad sets, and other simple exercises will become your life for at least a few weeks.  Where I ran into trouble was when I couldn't get my extension and flexion back, so I had a second surgery or "clean up" to remove scar tissue.  By the time all of this had happened (4 months post-reconstruction) I had lost so much strength in my injured leg, I had no idea how I would ever get it back.  This is where I found a lack of information on the internet and had to pull things together on my own.  Keep in mind that I'm a female, 32 years old, and have been Crossfitting for over 2 years.  My main goal was to work on leg muscle imbalances and get back to Crossfit.  

Here is the run down on my surgeries:
July 16, 2014 -- tore ACL in right knee while playing soccer
Octoer 2014 -- started "prehab"
November 11, 2014 - ACL reconstruction, hamstring graft, hybrid with my tissue and cadaver (I have never met anyone with this method!)
March 17, 2015 -- second surgery to remove scar tissue (gained better extention, but not equal to my uninjured knee).

Now I'll talk briefly about the exercises that worked for me and what I gleaned from here and there.  I had some help from my physical therapists but I really had to figure things out on my own in terms of getting back to Crossfit and evening out my imbalances.  My general advice is to 1) take things slow and don't overdo it, 2) focus on  hitting every part of the leg during a workout (calves, quads, glutes, hamstrings), and 3) remember that it will take a while to get the injured leg's strength back if you were like me and were unable to use it for months.  

Biking.  After the second "clean up" surgery, I had a mini pedal bike that I could use right after surgery in the comfort of my own home.  I also used a passive motion machine, but sometimes insurance doesn't cover that, so the mini bike is a good one to keep in mind.  I tried to use it a few times a day--there's probably no limit to that, and you can adjust how much your knee bends by moving it closer to you.  After the mini bike got too easy, I moved to an Airdyne, but any bike would do.  It's low impact, and great for working on range of motion.  About 3 months after my "clean up" surgery I went to a spin class--45 minutes, was able to pedal with my butt off the seat with fairly strong resistance.  I also started using an outdoor bike.  I replaced all running at the gym with biking or rowing.  I've also done a lot of single leg biking--which is kind of awkward if you don't have a place to put your unused leg.  (Don't try this outdoors, haha!)

Rowing.  Low impact as well, and early on I used it just to work on range of motion.  I also found that one leg rowing worked well--put your unused leg on a small skateboard or other wheels so it can move along with you.  Most Crossfitter's know correct rowing form, but if you have never used an ergometer, make sure to watch a video first.

Squats.  Correct form deep (below parallel) squats were my goal, but I started with squats to parallel. Then I squatted to a box just below parallel, and then to a medicine ball a little lower than that.  Try squats while standing close to a wall to work on form (there are YouTube videos for this).  Then you can start adding variety--dumbbells, kettlebells, using a PVC pipe or band overhead.   After about 2 months post-clean up  surgery I was back to barbell squats at low weights (back, front, overhead). Still working on these since my ROM is a little off.

Sled drags.  When I couldn't quite hit my quads that well with squats because of poor range of motion, I used a weighted sled and dragged it while walking backwards.  Great for the VMO (vastus medialis oblique).  This muscle has likely atrophied, and it is located above the knee on the front inner part of your quad.

Backwards farmer's carry.  Yes, backwards.  This helped me focus on getting my leg extension back.  I usually held a 20 pound dumbbell in each hand and walked down and back for as long as I could hold them.  Also helps with grip strength and just plain learning walking mechanics again (I had a limp for a few months when my extension was still bad).  Forward walking is probably helpful as well.

Single leg deadlifts.  I used a kettlebell to do a Romanian deadlift or stiff leg deadlift, and the injured side got more rounds and reps than the uninjured side.  This works the hamstrings and glutes, as well as helps with balance.  Make sure you watch some videos to make sure you are doing it correctly.

Bulgarian split squats.  Another one to google and watch on video first.  Great way to isolate one leg if the injured one is a lot weaker than the other like mine was.  You can put one foot on a box behind you and hold onto something for support if needed.  Just make sure that your knee stays over your ankle as you squat down.  Works the quad and glute.

Step ups.  Grab a box and some dumbbells and step up with one leg.  Simple, straightforward, and you can increase the height of the box, the weight you use, and you can also do lateral step ups.  Works the quads when squatting isn't quite working yet.  Really focus on firing that VMO muscle and make sure that your knee doesn't cave inward (push it out!).  Don't use your other leg or other muscles to get yourself up there--focus on that quad doing the work.

Hamstring curls. My hamstrings were extremely weak.  Some people may use a gym that has machines that would work for this, but I was at a Crossfit gym.  I used a 10 pound ankle weight and did curls either lying face down, or standing up.  

Reverse hyper.  Our gym has a machine for this, but before we got it I used the GHD machine. There's some discussion about whether or not these are safe (as there is with almost every exercise out there), but they were good for helping me work on the posterior chain without bending my knee.  My advice would be keep the weight low, don't do them every day, and make sure you do them correctly.

Calf raises.  Pretty simple.  I can visibly see a size difference between my two calves.  And when I couldn't do much jumping I did calf raises from the floor or on a step.

It's been hard for me to get back to jumping and running--in fact, I haven't actually tried running yet. For jumping I used jumping rope, low boxes, and agility ladders.  I'd have to say the agility ladder is a great tool to have.  At almost 4 months post clean up, I can finally hop on one leg again.

It's ok to get frustrated and feel discouraged!  I frequently did.  But just know that it will get better--it just takes time and it feels like forever.  It helped me to make small goals and write down when I achieved them.  And I made myself focus on the new things I could do, rather than what I used to be able to do.  My first squat, my first 20 inch box jump, my first double under, my first single leg hop through the agility ladder--all new PRs!

I hope this helps someone out there.  Feel free to ask me questions if you have them.  Good luck!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The mind of an injured athlete

“You've done it before and you can do it now. See the positive possibilities. Redirect the substantial energy of your frustration and turn it into positive, effective, unstoppable determination.” -- Ralph Marston

I started playing soccer when I was 8 years old, after a friend introduced me to it.  And I kept playing it for another 10 years.  I wasn't amazing, but I played on varsity all four years of high school.  It was pretty much the one thing that I could do that took me into "the zone".  Where you are operating without thinking.  In fact, even when I play today and people ask me to do a certain "move" again, I have trouble.  I don't think about it.  I just do it in the moment.  

Like most kids, I had a dominate leg that I kicked with.  My right leg.  But during my senior year, I pulled my right quad.  The pain would come and go and I tried physical therapy but nothing seemed to help. Like most high school athletes, I kept playing--because it was a huge part of my life.  It was my last year.  I wasn't going to sit on the bench and give up.  So, I started using my left leg to shoot with.  I even played in the final tournament game with my right quad tightly bandaged.  

Today, I play with both legs.  I can shoot with my right or left leg.  I can play on either side of the field (I usually play center).  My left leg certainly isn't as accurate as my right--but that injury in high school was a blessing in disguise.  I learned to do what most people (except the pros) don't--how to shoot with either leg.  

When athletes get injured they tend to lose their sense of identity, their self esteem, and their stress coping mechanism.  Not being able to do what they do best, feeling weak, and becoming frustrated and bored are all common.  I haven't really been injured since high school--because I haven't really been an "athlete" since then.  Until I started Crossfit.  And then I recently injured my knee playing recreational soccer.

I've been struggling a lot with this injury.  For those of you who know what Crossfit is like (or really any sport)--you probably also know what its like to suddenly lose the opportunity to do what you love doing.  Yes, I'm still working out as best I can.  But my goals of hitting a 175# back squat went out the window when I hurt my knee.  And although Crossfit gives you a great sense of community (like other team sports), I can't do the same workout as every one else.  Which leaves me feeling left out of that community--even if I'm still in the same room.  

Crossfit is not my identity.  It is just something I do for "fun".  Or is it?  It is also my way of coping with stress.  It is my social outlet.  It is something I do at least 4 times a week, and have been doing for over a year and a half.  It is a lifestyle.  Its my reason for eating healthy.  And feeling good.  And I think mostly importantly, for me, it is my sense of strength. It is my physical strength--but that radiates out into all aspects of my life.  When I'm feeling weak, down, or vulnerable--Crossfit reminds me of my inner strength.  So the loss of my right knee--is a bit of a blow to my sense of self.  

But when I think back to what I gained from my high school injury--I have to remind myself that I can still come out on top from this.  In fact, I started Crossfit for a reason--I wanted upper body strength. I was tired of feeling weak and not being able to "keep up with the guys".  I couldn't do a push up. And, one of my major goals has been to get strict pull ups.  So here it is--my chance to focus everything I've got on upper body and core strength.  Does it suck that I can't do deadlifts?  Yes.  Do I feel like all of my hard work is going down the drain? Yes. Does it terrify me that maybe I'll never get to play soccer again?  Yes.  

But for right now--all I have is the chance to make the best out of a shitty situation.  All I can do is try to turn my frustration and turn it into positive, effective, unstoppable determination.  Strength comes in many forms, and if I have learned anything from Crossfit-- it is that mental strength concurs all.  

For more on the mental state of injured athletes check out this great page that I found very helpful:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Alone without being lonely

I’ve spent most of my life as a single person. And therefore, have spent a lot of time alone. I’ve also spent a good deal of time feeling lonely. After a google search on how to be alone without feeling lonely, I wasn’t satisfied. So I decided I could probably write my own ideas. I know that doesn’t make much sense—if I feel lonely sometime, what would I know about this topic?

I think there are two components to my life that explain why I’ve spent so much time alone. First, I consider myself an introvert. I do enjoy the company of others—but usually in smaller groups, and afterwards I need some downtime to recharge. Second, I’m a biologist. Not all biologists move around—but many do. Many take seasonal jobs in various places and end up traveling a lot. So, after living in several different states, I have finally landed a permanent job. I have friends all over the country—but not many locally. It may be harder for me, as an introvert, to meet new people. And then I move away from the people I meet.

The up side of all this travel is that I’ve seen many beautiful places. And most of my travel as been solo. Most people would think I was crazy for traveling across the country multiple times by myself. But I enjoyed it. I did what I wanted, when I wanted. Some people are wonderful travel companions—but I’ve found they are few and far between. Sometimes I enjoyed the company of strangers on my route. And during all this time, I got to know myself—which is something I feel many people miss out on when they are constantly in relationships. You need to learn to depend on yourself, not on others, for your own happiness.

So, does that mean I’m always happy? No. For me, loneliness comes when I’m at home, not when I’m traveling. It comes when I’m home on a holiday weekend, far from my family, in a town where I just moved and don’t know anyone. Yes, I could go out and do something on my own, but sometimes you just don’t want to. Sometimes you just want to be with someone you connect with, someone to laugh with, someone you are comfortable with.

Loneliness is different for different people—some people are lonely when they are surrounded by people. Others have recently lost someone who was close to them. Some have been in a relationship so long, they don’t remember how to get back to solo. And others have spent plenty of time alone, but just need a break.

I have a few suggestions for things to try when you are alone and don’t want to feel lonely.

1. Cooking. I’m not the best cook, and I very rarely cook for others. So I tend to make fast meals, and stuff my face quickly in front of the TV. What’s the point in making a full meal when you are single? Well, it can actually be kind of fun. Plan a meal, go to the store for the ingredients, cook it while listening to music, and go all out on presentation. If you want to share your creation, post a pic online (Facebook, Instagram, etc.). This makes it feel more important, takes more time, and it will also taste better. My friends may hate that I post food pics, but I do it for me.

2. Exercise. For me, especially more recently, fitness is key. I could be in the worst mood in the world, go to Crossfit, and come home in the best mood in the world. Find something that you enjoy—anything that gets your body moving—and do it often. If you don’t do well exercising by yourself, use groups for motivation. Running groups, boot camp in the park, yoga, etc. It doesn’t even have to be that expensive. I enjoy hiking and walking too. And it’s a good way to meet people—although going to a big gym like planet fitness and running on the treadmill is not usually as beneficial.

3. Pets. My cats make me laugh and keep me sane on bad days. And they give me snuggles when I’m sad. If you can’t have your own pet, I’d suggest volunteering for an organization where you have access to fluffy happy animals. I fostered 14 different kittens while I was in graduate school—it was cheap, fun, and I knew I was helping them find forever homes, even if it was hard at times. (If pets really aren’t your thing, maybe kids are, coach a team or volunteer with children, see below).

4. Volunteer. This doesn’t have to be anything big. Helping others always makes you feel good. Maybe just helping a friend or a neighbor move. Or joining an organization that has lots of activities. I used to coach soccer – 2nd grade girls. They sure were a handful, and yet you couldn’t be unhappy around them. Everyone has some skill that they can share with other people.

5. Learn something new or do something new. This has always been a little harder for me to do. I always want to go take a class in something—say pottery—and then I chicken out. It would get you out of the house and meeting new people. But even learning about something at home is good—I’ve learned about orchid care, nutrition/fitness, and other things. I try to come up with things that I have always told myself I suck at—and then I make a plan to do them. It’s a great confidence builder.

6. Go do things by yourself. Eating alone at a real sit down restaurant was something I finally started doing recently. I just felt so awkward. But plenty of people do it, and it’s not as bad as it sounds. If you REALLY want to do something but are putting it off because you have no one to go with, just go do it. It’s very liberating when you do. It’s better than regretting not doing it at all. Travel. Go see a movie. Go to a museum. If you catch yourself thinking about what others must think, just gently push it out of your mind. It’s ok to be by yourself. It’s ok to be independent. Remind yourself that you don’t need to rely on others for enjoyment.

7. Call friends. If you are like me and no one is local, call someone. Sometimes I forget, in this world of texting and Facebook, that I can still call someone. Or try Skype. Even find an online forum or chat room where you can discuss interests with other people.

8. Avoid Facebook and other social media. I have a love hate relationship with Facebook—as many probably do. There is nothing worse than feeling bored or lonely and then seeing friends (even if they are simply far away) doing fun things without you and posting a bagillion pictures of it on Facebook. On the other hand, Facebook can connect you to local happenings and local people. So, my suggestion is to try and use FB for good, not evil, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of viewing others as “living the life” while you are at home sulking about having nothing to do. (Easier said than done, believe me)

9. One I have not tried yet. Meeting up with complete strangers sounds kind of horrible to me—I’m not a fan of awkward stuff like this. But I think it’s mostly in my head and I imagine these people will be very welcoming of new comers. If I try to get over this one, I hope you will too. Meet ups have great potential—meet new like-minded people, or at least people who enjoy the same activities. If you don’t like it, you never have to do one again!

10. Nature. Maybe the sound of walking out in the woods does not sound fun to you. But this is my all time favorite. Maybe it’s because of my interest birds and other critters—but really, can anyone look at a beautiful sunset or a flower and not smile?? Go outside. Get some sun. Listen to the birds, pay attention to the flowers. Don’t worry about identifying them (unless you are a geek like me and want to). Take pictures. Take your time. Take it all in. Sometimes I even forget how much this helps me feel connected to something bigger than myself. And it’s so simple.

I know being alone all the time gets old. Trust me. No one wants to be alone all the time. But there’s no magic button to push and change your situation, so you might as well try to enjoy the time you have—even if it is just you. Try not to dwell on the problem, and instead create an action plan that leads you to a solution. Be brave! (Yes, I often need to take my own advice)

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain

P.S. Watch this video.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Out of the Comfort Zone

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I first started Crossfit.  Before I started I really felt like I was in a slump.  I had finished a half marathon but had very little desire to put my running shoes back on.  I was waiting patiently for Crossfit Critical Mass to open to the public so I could start Foundations.  Yet at the same time, I was scared. 

I certainly never expected to like it as much as I did.  I’ve always played soccer—a team sport where you can sorta hide.  I never really viewed myself as very competitive—not with others and certainly not with myself.  At first it was really hard not to look at everyone else and compare my abilities to theirs.  But I knew coming into Crossfit that I had zero strength training, and so I started at the bottom.  But, obviously I could only go up from there.

I’m not the fastest, strongest, or most coordinated Crossfitter.  But I have made a good amount of progress.  I am faster, stronger, and more coordinated than when I started.  And Crossfit helped me check off a few things on my bucket list too—indoor rock climbing, real push ups, a sub-30 min 5K, archery.  It’s given me confidence to try new things—especially things that are strength or endurance related.  Getting through so many grueling workouts makes every day things seem easier.  It trains your brain to say “Just keep going” and “You can do this” instead of “Give up” or “You might as well not even try”. 

Seems like everyone is into lists these days.  So…here goes…7 things I’ve learned from my first year of Crossfit:

1. Getting out of your comfort zone is the only way to move forward. When I was training for the half marathon I had to tell myself to "just keep going". But never to the point that I completely and utterly wanted to stop and give up. Crossfit really makes you push yourself—to be better than yesterday and to keep up with other people. The workouts are tough, but when you push through you gain a true sense of accomplishment. You will never improve without trying something that is uncomfortable and challenging.

2. The human body (and mind) are capable of so much more than what we typically use them for. I always looked at professional athletes and said, oh they are just extremely talented. That is part of it, but they also have the drive and determination to be great at something. We are all capable of it—we just don’t think we are. Watch the Crossfit Games and see the amazing athletes do it all—strength, endurance, speed, coordination, flexibility, etc. Our bodies are not meant to sit at a desk all day.

3. Food is fuel. Some would argue that food is more than fuel—and I would agree. Crossfit is often based on paleo or zone diet principles, but you don’t have to follow that. However, it is hard to eat junk and do well in Crossfit (or any sport). Giving yourself the proper nutrients, calories, and water each day makes a big performance difference at the gym. Now I often wonder how I got through high school soccer and cross country by eating complete junk food—and wonder what I could have done if someone had simply told me how to feed myself better.

4. Failure is not always a bad thing. Failing in Crossfit is usually dropping a loaded barbell on to the ground after you miss a lift. If you don’t ever go to failure, you won’t know your current abilities and you won’t be able to set new goals. Sometimes a second try on that failed attempt is successful, and it is such a great feeling.

5. Exercise can be fun. I workout 3-5 times a week. And I enjoy it. It’s not a chore anymore. If my mind tries to trick me into staying home I remind it that I have never regretting going. I enjoy it as much as soccer—which has really never felt like a chore. Sometimes I stay at the gym for 3 hours. I used to hate those people who did that. Now I’m one of them. Find something you love that challenges your body and mind—doesn’t have to be Crossfit. ANYTHING. And go do it. Move. Often. Enjoy it.

6. A community can be a powerful goal reaching tool. A community like the ones formed in a Crossfit gym is pretty unique. The people I workout with are just as important as the trainers. We get through tough workouts together. They push you, they help you, they motivate you, and they make sure you keep coming back. I see them often and we give each other advice. We share a special bond--which makes it sound like a cult--but you can't get that kind of support from most gym memberships.

7. It’s ok to be proud of myself. I have never taken compliments well. I grew up in a household where it seemed like there was always something I could have done better or differently. Crossfit has allowed me to set my own personal goals, chip away at them at my own pace, and see the results immediately. THEN, it allows me to celebrate my success with a bunch of other people who are doing similar things. Maybe it’s annoying for my Facebook non-Crossfitting friends to see posts about my success at the gym, but that’s just too bad for them. I’m proud of my progress. I have worked hard for it. (This is also where the community comes in, because the average person will think you are speaking some other language when you talk about PRing your 1 rep max clean and jerk.)