The Wellness Puzzle- my path to physical fitness and happiness through middle age

Everyone ages.  We may not really realize that until we hit a certain age… 30 years?  40?  For me, it seems like it was right around 45 that things started falling apart mentally and physically.  So much so, that I may start a whole new blog on various middle age aches, ailments, and their subsequent treatment.    For that is what life is really all about for me- how to stay healthy, active, and most importantly happy.

This post may be a summary, with more to come.  I haven’t really decided how to attack this new idea of mine…. the wellness puzzle.  For it is a puzzle- life is a puzzle and figuring out which piece goes where can be very tricky.  At age 30, it was easy- get up and run, eat, kayak, work, take care of my baby son, have supper and conversation with my husband, sleep and start again the next day..  All of those things worked.  As I got older, each aspect got a little trickier.

First lets start with running because that is the piece that I am currently struggling to find and fit into place.  Running has held my life together for the last 30 years.  Like an old friend, running has been a constant that I could rely on.  When I feel sad, I run and feel better.  When I am angry, I run and feel better.  When I’m happy, I run and feel even better.  There are plenty of other sports that I love:  kayaking, canoeing, cycling, hiking….. but nothing has been quite as constant and steady as running.

I’ve had occasional running injuries- nothing too major, but sore hamstring, hip, knee.  Almost always on the left side, which I now realize should have been a clue that something was out of balance.  In my 30s and well into my 40s, I could overcome the nagging aches with some ibuprofin, a day or two of cross training, and occasionally a good massage or chiropractic adjustment.  I’ve run in several marathons, two ultra marathons, lots of half marathons, and  hundreds of shorter races.   My son, rode in a baby jogger until he was 5 and the adventures we had together while out running and walking are some of my greatest memories.

When I turned 40, I “treated” myself to running the Disney Half Marathon with friends. I was also heavily into marathon canoe racing at this time, and running was mainly a winter activity to stay in shape.  When I was 45, I herniated a disc in my neck and had to take some time off from canoeing.  My old friend, running, returned and I spent the summer running long trail races and marathons. At age 46, I returned to paddling and combined it with running, competing in the Jay Challenge Adventure race which includes a 28 mile kayak race and a 50K run up and over Jay Peak.

Shortly after this, the physical challenges began:  a pulled hamstring while running with track team in an informal relay race, a badly sprained ankle while hiking Mount Chocura, lyme disease that manifested itself with a spiking fever and aching knees, hernia surgery, menopause (which brings along entire myriad of complications and adjustments), skin cancer, weight gain, adrenal fatigue and emotional overload, and my most recent diagnosis of severe arthritis of the knee.  I won’t try to address all of this in one blog, and I don’t pretend that my challenges are any more critical than any other aging athletes, but my own puzzle of how to solve them has been at times both frustrating and rewarding.

We are all unique.  We all face our own challenges as we go through this journey of life, and how we approach each and every one is a testament to our character and what we are truly made of.  I don’t believe that any one person has the answer to all of our “problems” (if that is what you want to call them), but I do believe that by reading, learning, studying, and questioning, we can all overcome most of the obstacles thrown in our path.

Starting backwards, because that is the way I remember things, arthritis of the knees was not a happy diagnosis.  I ran well all last winter, approaching 70 miles a week in my training towards a half marathon PR.  I was excited to reach my goal, despite the fact that my knee start acting up the last couple of weeks before the big race.  I assumed that a little time off my legs would fix everything and I’d be back on the road soon.  But as the weeks went by and I burned off my excess energy with swimming, cycling, and tons of stretching, I realized that my knee wasn’t getting any better.  I went to a physical therapist and worked on building quad strength while increasing the flexibility of my quads and hip flexors.   I ran occasionally, but each day was unsure how I’d feel until I got out there.  By now, we (my husband and I( were training for triathlons so I “HAD” to run, but I was able to reduce the frequency of my runs to 2-3 times per week and that seemed to work.  I didn’t feel fantastic while running, but I felt “good enough”.  And I had some great races, but the pain kept lingering and finally I went into an orthopedic specialist.  He ordered x-rays and immediately diagnosed arthritis and bone spurs.  I continued with more PT, more stretching, and less running.  4 weeks later, when I hadn’t responded, my PT suggested an MRI.  The same results showed up- arthritis- inside, outside, and under the kneecap.
Dr. Veltri’s diagnosis: “Not much we can do.  We can try injections, but those don’t last long and may accelerate the growth of the arthritis.  The best two things you can do for arthritis are keep your weight low and exercise to tolerance.  You should be able to run again, but not every day, and not 70 miles per week.”
My weight was already low, but it could be a little lower- so that was one goal.  Exercising to tolerance?  What does that mean?  I have a much higher tolerance than most, and wasn’t exactly sure how much was too much.  But, I tried to be smart, and if my knee hurt, I stopped.  I continued to race in triathlons, but was reduced to barely training for the run and knowing that it was my weakest link on race day.  Getting passed in the final leg of the race is no fun!  And finally, in August, came the day that I couldn’t even do the run and had to settle for the “Aquaman” division.

My next step in trying to piece together the puzzle was a visit to Coach Al Lyman’s Gait Analysis Lab.
http://www.pursuit-athletic-performance.com/
I had heard Coach Al speak about nutrition, and I knew that he had had excellent results with some of the triathletes that he coaches.  And I had done a little work with his partner, Kurt Strecker, a chiropracter who specializes in wellness and athletic injuries.
Coach Al set me up on a treadmill, videotaped my running, and made some notes on form and function.  Dr. Kurt put me on a table and tested my flexibility, strength, and range of motion.
Their diagnosis was something that I’m used to hearing, “Kath, you are super tight”.  They also said something that I wasn’t at all used to hearing, “you are also really weak”.  Huh?  I run marathons, I’ve canoed 120 miles non-stop (several times), I bike centuries…. how can I be weak?

All those repetitive movement activities had build an amazing cardiovascular system, and I had the mental toughness to battle it out with the best, but I had neglected to balance the strength of my opposing muscles and to sufficiently stretch out the working ones.

Coach Al’s approach was to devise a strengthening program using resistance bands.  They look like giant rubberbands, and come in various colors which coincide with the strength and amount of resistance.  Based on what I could do, he recommended a black and a red band, and he put together a simple exercise plan to strengthen my glutes and core, and to stretch out my hip flexors, quads, and calf muscles.

I took my bands and a short videotape of the exercises home and went to work.  Every day, sometimes twice a day, I faithfully performed my exercises.  The only problem was that they REALLY hurt.  My knee got very swollen and even walking became painful.  Kurt and Al assured me that this was normal and that I would get through it.  As I said, I’m pretty mentally tough, and I continued to work through the exercises, but the pain persisted and running became absolutely impossible.
After 3 months, I decided that while I think the exercises are excellent for healthy people maintaining their fitness and strength (and I wish that I had started them 10 or 20 years ago), they were too much for me at this point.  I needed to start more gradually or soon I wouldn’t be able to get up the stairs in our house, much less run.I do have my college cross country team using the rubberband strengthening exercises  twice each week.  By starting now, I hope they don’t develop the same imbalances that have created my problems.

Even though I  backed away from the intense RBT exercises, I continue to use the stretching exercises Coach Al taught me, and I have added Bikrams Hot Yoga 4X per week.  The idea behind Bikrams, which is performed in a 105 degree room, is that the heat warms your muscles and joints enough that it is easier for them to both stretch and “open”.  I continued swimming, and added deep water running 2-3X per week.

The latest addition, which I am very excited about, is barefoot running.  Like nearly every other runner on the planet, I read “Born to Run” by Christopher Mcdougall and loved it.  The Tarahumara  Indians run hundreds of miles either barefoot or with thin sandals that they have fashioned out of old tires.  The other critical key to their “success” is that they run because they love to run, not because they have to reach a certain time or distance goal, they just love it.  From there I read “Chi Running” which is based on the theory that everything originates in our center or Chi.  Use your core to move and let your legs and arms follow along effortlessly.  Interesting theory, harder to achieve in practice, but definitely worth considering.  Danny Dreyer, originator of Chi Running, developed the concept after years of working with a Tai Chi teacher and focusing his own ultra-distance running on relaxation and nearly effortless movement.  Like the  Tarahumara  Indians of Mexico, Danny believes in minimal shoes so that your foot can naturally land in the proper position, on your mid foot and directly underneath your hip.  Heel strikers, tend to overstride and by striking the heel in front of the hips, put a natural brake on while simultaneously sending a shock wave up the leg and into the knee and hip.  I count my steps when I run, 700 steps with each foot for each mile is a lot of shock waves to your major joints!

I started gradually, 5 min of running, 5 min of walking.  I ran on the turf soccer field at the University where I coach, and I gradually added a few minutes each week.  On Monday of last week I ran 25 minutes non stop.  I felt like I’d just finished a marathon, I was so excited and happy to be running again.  I told myself that if I could run 3 miles, pain free, 3 times, that I would try out the controversial, but popular,  barefoot running shoes…. Vibram 5 toes.  I only ran every other day to allow my knee time to adjust, get rid of any inflammation, and fully recover.  On Friday I bought my shoes, and yesterday I spent my first hour in them.  This was all to the great dismay of some of my track athletes who strongly disagree with the concept of barefoot running, and with the encouragement of others who think it is the greatest thing ever introduced (or reintroduced) to running.
My first “workout” was mostly a walk.  I knew it was important to break my legs in gradually, but I was also super anxious to try this out.  I was away from home with my team, and in an unfamiliar suburb of Boston.  Saturday morning, I put on my new shoes and I walked– 20 minutes up the road until I found a small park.  I then ran for 15 minutes on the grass.  While I ran, I thought about my form and staying relaxed.  When I finished, I pumped my hand in the air, “Yes, no pain”, and I walked 20 minutes back to the hotel.
Day 1 of the experiment was over.  While walking back, a rather large woman approached and asked how I liked the shoes.  I told her that it was my first day, but that I liked them a lot so far.  She said, “well, I had some trouble, but I guess you shouldn’t wear them all day the first day”.
“NO KIDDING, Who would do that?”  That’s what I felt like saying, but I was nice and said, “no probably not, I’m going to be sure to start gradually, thanks for the advice”.

So here’s my latest plan:  yoga 4X per week, swimming and running 3X per week, some biking if the weather is nice, and alternate days of 2-3 miles of running on the soft rail trail with my funky 5 toed shoes. I will hit up diet and nutrition in another post, but eating properly and lightly goes along with all of the training and I can barely believe it myself, but I now weigh the same as I did when I graduated from highschool.  It’s taken me 32 years to get rid of the college freshman 10 lbs (which at one time was the college freshman 30 lbs but I got rid of 20 quickly)  I was thin in high school, so  I can’t get much lighter, but every pound helps both in the reduction of stress on my old joints, and in the quest for longevity and a healthy old age.

I want to go run 10 miles, I know I could- I’ve been biking 250 miles per week, I have the aerobic fitness, but this time I am going to be smart not tough!

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