You remember as a kid growing up, you would look at adults and think how cool it was to be them — all grown up? You couldn’t wait to be one.
Well, now that I have grown up, I wish I could go back to those days when being a kid was my only concern. Now as a grown-up, things like bending over to touch my toes or going for a run require some serious thought, as I now have pains and aches and tight muscles and restricted joints and a whole host of issues that prevent me from being that kid.
If only I knew … right?
Mark you, years of playing competitive, high-impact sports in my 20s haven’t helped matters much — not because of what I did, but rather what I didn’t do. As a 20-year-old, I didn’t really care much about anything but being competitive and on top of my game. I figured that once I could move quickly, run fast, jump explosively and tackle hard, I had everything going for me. I took my mobility for granted and couldn’t care less about injury prevention and maintenance, save to say that I didn’t strain, break or tear anything that would keep me out of playing. If or when the occasional injury did occur, it required only the appropriate rest period or treatment (RICE), and once I could move without pain — or, in some cases, intolerable pain — I was good to go. At no point did I give a thought to changes that may have occurred to bone, muscles and tissue, nor to any dysfunction that would develop as a result.
If only I knew … right?
Fast-forward to today: I am in my 30s and have evolved into more recreational fitness than competitive sports. And while I no longer go at it with the reckless abandon of my 20s, I continue to push myself, trying to get out of comfort zones just to see how far I can go. Well, let me tell you: that vision I had in my head of me being the epitome of fitness by now in no way coincides with the reality of where I really am. I now have to contend with pain in the knees every time I attempt to squat with any real weight, or when I try to run for longer than 10 minutes.
Little did I know that a hairline right ankle fracture I suffered in 2001 that hadn’t healed properly would now be manifesting itself. The injury left me with a blocked right ankle joint, which meant that, unlike my left foot, I could not lift my toes from the floor without lifting my heel as well. And rather than let it stop me from pursuing my fitness activities then, I simply found ways to work around it — a situation that has brought me to this painful state today. The best way I can explain it is this:
Blocked right ankle joint = limited ankle range of motion = uneven weight distribution unto left leg in weight-bearing knee bending (think squatting) movements = weakened right leg via weak adductors, hip flexors and gluteus medius muscles = compromised/bad leg positioning in weight-bearing movements = faulty knee mechanics = PAIN
Blocked right ankle joint = uneven weight distribution onto left leg in weight-bearing knee bending (think squatting) movements = tight left leg via calf, quadriceps & tensor fasciae (IT band) muscles = compromised/bad leg positioning in weight-bearing movements = faulty knee mechanics = PAIN
Medically it’s much more complex, but this is how I have come to understand the process, with the takeaway point being that pain is a lagging indicator of some other musculoskeletal problem — a problem that could have been mitigated earlier had I taken a keener interest in correcting it, or had it been exposed to some kind of diagnostic tool. But who had the time, patience or money for that back then … right?
If only I knew. …
Truth be told, it’s not likely to cost you much, if anything at all. If you are an athlete, as I was, then your coach or trainer should be that external pair of eyes for detecting bad positioning and movement and guiding you thereafter for correction. If you are a regular gym/fitness Jane, then that job falls to you or your trainer, if you have one. Understanding (researching) what it is you intend to and are doing, and learning to recognize your body’s responses to it, are first steps in preventative maintenance. Letting go of egos and respecting the mechanics of the positions you are trying to achieve — think running stride, squat form or swimming technique, for example — and doing everything possible to move into them efficiently are the next steps in keeping you injury- and pain-free.
If you have managed thus far without an ache or sign of pain at all, consider yourself blessed. That isn’t to say you should look for a problem that doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t say that you are completely in the clear either. Just be mindful that if you are an athlete or fitness enthusiast, in your 20s or not, you should still take steps each day to maximize your own mobility. For example, learning to sit and stand with a correct posture; how to correctly pick up and put down heavy objects; getting a massage and stretching stiff or tight areas; and learning how to strengthen weak muscles are just a few ways to ensure that you stay supple. You are doing more than just preventing injury; you are also ensuring that you develop good habits that will carry over into your daily life.
Really, if I knew back in my 20s what I know now, I wouldn’t be here now giving an account of my mistakes — ones that have taught me a lot about listening to my body and appreciating it for all it CAN do. I’d prefer to call them lessons, though, as they have made me not just a better athlete but also a better coach and trainer to my athletes and fitness clients.