This past weekend, I ordered a set of 12-pound weights.
To many, this might seem insignificant, but for someone who has struggled with all things athletic and physical, this is a huge achievement.
Two years ago, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). For some reason, despite being 20 pounds overweight and completely out of shape, I fancied myself an agility competitor. Agility is a dog sport where the human runs with the dog, through an obstacle course. Luckily, only the dog is required to actually take the obstacles.
But I digress.
On this particular day, I was running my two-year-old lab in his first ever competition. His energy was through the roof. We got through the first run, but I thought I might never catch my breath. Then, on the second run, I went down. Suddenly. Awkwardly.
While the injury was not particularly painful, it represented a significant loss of stability.
In the days following, I learned that surgery for a 54-year-old woman was not a common occurrence. Instead, it is reserved for the young and athletic, like Green Bay Packer left tackle David Bakhtiari. I was advised to do a round of PT and get on with my life.
That life would be one where no sudden lateral moves or pivoting would be allowed. So, no more agility.
I refused to accept this as my future. I went back to the surgeon who had cleaned up a meniscus tear in my other knee. She was more than happy to do the ACL reconstruction. I then read up on the procedure and how, depending on what was discovered in surgery, I might not be able to bear weight for six weeks post-surgery. I also learned that the most important factor in my recovery was how strong my quadriceps was prior to surgery.
At that moment, I realized: knowledge is power.
Having done no strength training for many years, I was quite confident that my quad strength was solidly at zero. So, I enlisted the help of a personal trainer affiliated with the same organization as my surgeon. She was perfect for me as I blubbered to her about my desire to have a quality of life that, thus far, I had done nothing to earn.
She gave me a program. After all, you have to start somewhere.
Over the past few years, I discovered that I am impatient to get to the end—whether it’s physical conditioning, dog training, or any monumental project that seems unattainable. As I started building up my physical strength, I took the opportunity to work on my mental strength in the exact same way.
I found ways to gain confidence through knocking back my fear in incremental steps. When I feared being non-weight-bearing for six weeks, I bulked up my upper body and practiced going up and down my stairs, using my cool, new crutches. I also bought a “wheely” stool so I could wheel myself from the refrigerator to the toaster oven.
I also enrolled in an additional “proactive” program through physical therapy. This program focused on isometrics, meaning, I would simply squeeze and release my quad muscle while doing leg lifts or other movements keeping my leg straight. This might seem silly or unnecessary, but by building up my physical strength as well as my mental strength, I went into surgery confident that I could handle even the worst outcome.
Another effective tool I used to strengthen my mind was constantly reminding myself of the temporary nature of things. How I feel today is not how I will feel tomorrow, nor is it how I felt yesterday.
However, despite all my best laid plans, the day after surgery, I could not lift my right leg off the bed. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t engage my quad.
The old me would have catastrophized, envisioning myself on the road to being a cripple. Thankfully, three days later, I was back at PT where my therapist decided to “jump start” my quad. It’s an interesting process, technically called neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES). He warned me that it would be very uncomfortable. The old me might have declined the procedure, but the new me let go of any fear or uncertainty and placed my trust in my physical therapist.
Not gonna lie, it was pretty brutal. But the “jump start” was all my quad muscle needed to get working again. Sometimes the same thing happens with my mind. I ruminate about something that is not helpful to me and I feel stuck. So I give it a jump start and change my perspective.
I loved PT. My therapist helped me with my coordination by giving me a piece of paper with a dog drawn on it, so I could practice walking while looking at the paper. I had to do this forward, backwards, and sideways. He understood how the sport of agility works. It requires an agile mind—body connection—something I often struggle with.
As I progressed through PT and regained my strength, I found myself exceeding my performance prior to surgery. My surgery occurred one month prior to the nation pivoting to lockdown and working remotely. I had already planned to be off from work for a couple of weeks, and having never enjoyed driving to a gym, I prepared my basement gym for serious, frequent use. This planning and mindset allowed me to flourish during a time when many found their options for working out severely limited.
An article published last year in the New York Times touted the benefits of strength training for stress and anxiety. I think I’ve found the answer as to why.
Strength training creates confidence. By starting small and building up, the success can be readily seen and defined. Much like a “Couch to 5k” running program, if approached correctly, that confidence starts to fill the space in the mind where fear and uncertainty had been running around unchecked. As I got stronger, I began to incorporate workout programs that I had abandoned five to 10 years prior. I kept my goals small and attainable when, previously, I would set them too high, fail, and then give up.
This is where I have to give trainers and physical therapists their due respect. They understand the mindset necessary to succeed. The good ones can meet their clients where they are at and help with the mental strengthening that will complement the physical strengthening.
As I wait for my new heavy dumbbells, I celebrate my good fortune to have found the people who got me to this new, fabulous place. I’m back to running agility too.
These days, I have found that there is no better source of joy than exerting myself without fear of injury.
Even though injury could still happen, I know I will be okay, because my mind is strong.