“I did abs every day for 6 weeks and here’s what happened!”

Well… if you think any program like that can get you ripped, think again. My pelvic floor may be stronger than ever but otherwise it offered few benefits except a routine. One leg is shriveled and saggy, the other is only slightly stronger. I have zero aerobic capacity to speak of, and I don’t have a six-pack. But, of utmost concern to everyone going through a similar situation, no, I didn’t really gain any weight. My secret is… I ate normally, didn’t drink for about a month, and was in fairly good shape to begin with.

It’s been almost 72 hours since I kissed my crutches good-bye and limped out the door of the Laramie orthopedic center. I have four and a half months until I’ll be running again, so my goal is to provide the inside scoop on how to get from here to there over that time. I’m pretty immersed with school these days, but I should be able to add updates once a week.

And now to answer that burning question: what is it like to walk again?

I almost barfed on my way out from the doctor’s the other day. All the blood that was pooled in my foot went squirting out in a sharp, unpleasant way, like walking on a limb that’s fallen asleep, plus my leg about collapsed. (It really makes me revisit that unsolved mystery from a month ago; I don’t know if adrenaline is powerful enough to overcome the sensation of walking on an unused leg.) Later that day I walked to the end of my street and back, and it took a whopping ten minutes.

My surgeon’s office told me to wear an air cast boot until I feel comfortable walking regularly in a shoe. I had already come to that conclusion on my own and was glad I’d kept the boot stashed under my bed for the last few months. I wear it when I run errands or have to spend prolonged time on my feet. I just get around a little faster with it. But most of the time I’ve been walking barefoot at home, trying to regain full function.

It actually comes back faster than you’d think. By the end of the third day, walking felt almost normal again. Going up and down stairs is the most difficult. And I can’t walk super fast, but it’s much better than day one when I clocked 40 minutes per mile pace on my neighborhood walk and had to take an ibuprofen.

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I don’t really have any photos to add, but look how much my hollyhocks grew while I was sitting around on my ass repairing a joint!

My left calf has been so sore in the mornings it reminds me of college when we could barely make it out of our lofted dorm beds after the first spike day of the track season. I spend a couple minutes in the evenings rolling it on a hard plastic ball to keep the fibers loose. And the first day both my heels were excruciatingly painful by bedtime. Rolling helps with that, too.

I’ll be seeing my PT twice a week for the next four weeks to do “blood flow restriction” training. More on that when I’ve actually witnessed it in person. This week I went in the day after I started walking, and we literally just practiced walking. Which was exhausting and made me feel like a newborn animal. I was still limping heavily at that point, and my PT had me break down the stride cycle by focusing on toe-off and then heel-strike. My muscles were so tired at the end I could barely walk all over again.

This weekend I’ve been visiting the rec center to walk around in the pool. Next week I’ll try aqua jogging on campus, but I’m honestly not quite there yet. For now, I walk back and forth a couple laps, sideways and zig zag, and do leg swings and hip circles. Then I breaststroke a couple lengths (like 10 max — remember when I could do 60?) very slowly. That’s about it and I’m ready for a nap.

I’m still doing my core routines, but now I can add a couple things, like a proper pelvic tilt, bridge, and standing on one leg. I’m not ready for anything resembling yoga, but I got the green light to cycle on zero resistance. No word yet on the elliptical, but realistically I don’t expect to add it until about 10 or 12 weeks post-op.

Let the countdown to running begin! Eighteen weeks to go.

Q&A for the realities of recovering from ankle surgery

It’s already been two weeks since surgery. Where does the time go? Yesterday I had my post-op review and got the stitches taken out. Here are the questions I took with me, and the answers I received.

How much longer am I restricted to non-weight bearing?

I have been sentenced to the full 6 weeks. Which means I have one more month to endure crutching, hopping, crawling, and pit chafing. I will probably rent a scooter or a peg leg before classes start next week. How I plan on actually getting to campus is still TBD.

Why do I require 6 weeks instead of 2, or 4?

The way it was described to me was to think of a jelly donut. The fibrocartilage needs time to lay down and become strong, or the first steps I take will squish all the jelly out of the donut. Ya feel? It’s disappointing, especially because there isn’t any pain and it seems perfectly possible to walk. But for the sake of healing properly, I’ll take the advice.

When can I start running again?

In 6 months.

Hoooooo, that’s not what I was expecting to hear. I was hoping like 12 weeks. By the time I can run again, a full year will have passed since I last considered myself “healthy” enough to run. A full year since I knew I had to make a change and get help.

My immediate thoughts: at least I won’t be tempted to run over the winter on slick or frozen surfaces or over snowy terrain, and I won’t risk damaging a post-op ankle in an accident. It’ll give me time to really make sure I am healed and strong, and I can spend that time learning to love any form of cross-training I can get my hands on, like it or not.

Can I use the pool?

So… I was told not for four more weeks. But the reasoning was only that getting into and out of the pool may pose difficulties, and “how are you supposed to crutch across a wet pool deck?” Touché. But I’m already eyeing those disability chairs at the rec center, ya know, that dunk you into the pool and lift you out again when you’re done. Methinks I can take advantage of that opportunity, yes? I have to wait for my incisions to be 100% healed, but I’ll probably go for it earlier than four weeks unless I am strongly convinced not to. I am stubborn. Should I swim or no?

What kinds of PT and exercise can I do right now?

Pretty much what I’ve been doing. Core, upper body weight lifting. Nothing that requires applying weight to the operative area. I visited my PT this morning, and he gave me a set of band exercises to try. Gotta keep my intrinsic foot and calf muscles awake. There’s not much else I can tackle for now.

Anything else?

Continue to keep the foot elevated if I am sitting for long periods of time, and ice if swelling occurs. I can switch from bathing with one leg sticking out to sitting on the floor of the shower in three days.

Okay. I can do it. I’ve been on crutches longer than this before. And then what’s another six months. This will finally give me the downtime I’ve always wanted to try some spin classes. I say that with only mild sarcasm. Who wants to run outside in December anyway?

(I do.)

How to lose your mind in 2 weeks (warning: not a chick flick)

This has been my most difficult post to write, for some reason. I blame the entirely depressing circumstances that surround surgery recovery. My dad went home a week after my procedure, and the last five days without him have been really sad. The first morning I woke up, several hours after he had gone, I cried and cried, feeling totally helpless, useless, pathetic, and lonely.

There isn’t much to do while waiting for a joint to repair itself. There isn’t much I can do. For a week my dad stock-piled my freezer with home cooked meals, watered my gardens, cleaned my house, did my laundry, and moved my laptop from the table to the couch and back again every hour. We ran short errands together so that I could get outside for some fresh air. Now my house is quiet and lonely, just me and the cat — who is decent company but has so far proved to be quite useless at putting dinner on the table and bringing in the mail. I didn’t even unlock my front door for the entire day once. If it sounds sad, it’s definitely worse.

Anyway, four days after surgery I visited my PT to have the bandages removed. He was pleased to see that the swelling around my ankle was minimal. Just some bruising and orange iodine toes. We worked on some range of motion exercises, and then agreed to revisit once I’ve had my stitches removed. Working on PT and some core exercises is about the only thing I actually have on the schedule every day. So, once I get tired of spending the whole day on the couch reading, scrolling, and snacking on reheated food, I crawl into the garage to do my routine.

I start with ankle circles and passive stretching on a wobble board to regain my ROM. The first couple days were really abysmal — it’s amazing how much you lose after only four days. But slowly things improved, and I no longer felt like I was pulling a muscle when I stretched. I also self-massage by rolling my calf on a field hockey ball to loosen things up. At this point, I’d say ROM is probably almost back to normal. There hasn’t been any pain inside the joint, just some tugging at the stitches if I overdo it.

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Staying in shape

As far as core, anything where I can stay on my back or off my foot is fair game. I’m still expanding the foot-free possibilities, but a short list of doable exercises includes:

  • Bicycle, dead bug, scissors, row boats, Russian twist
  • Firehydrant, donkey kicks, bird dog
  • Clamshells, leg lifts/hip lifts, hip circles
  • Hamstring curls, superman/locust/swimmers
  • Anything that can be done lying on my stomach while clenching my butt cheeks that feels like it requires effort
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It might be ugly, but it’s mine. Stocking a home gym has been a total game-changer, and not just after surgery.

I also have a set of small weights that I can use for some arm exercises. It’s not as fun to me as heavy lifting, but I can save that for the gym… whenever I get back in one. At the very least, doing 20 reps of arm lifts in as many directions as I can think of burns off some fidgety energy. I have nothing else to do, I might as well get ahead on my strength.

^thanks to Internet compatriots I now have Amy Winehouse stuck in my head forever. What would we do if we couldn’t mistake famous runners for IRL friends? At least he also looks sad. 

I’m ready to be done wallowing in self-pity and get back to life. Somehow the school year crept up on me and classes start literally next week. It’s been over a year since I last took a class on this campus, and I’m feeling that rushing anxiety that comes on when something is coming so fast, so inevitably, and you’re completely overwhelmed by your to-do list. There are dishes in my sink I can’t do, weeds in my yard I can’t pull. I keep stressing about getting back to work, and then I have to just stop myself. There’s nothing I can do to rush the recovery process. Work will be there when I am able to go back. The weeds… will definitely still be there. The things will get done that need to get done, it’s just hard to imagine that while I’m currently staring at the ceiling for a living.

Breathe in, breathe out, and be patient.

Setting intention

“Do you think you’ll run again?”

My attention is pulled from staring out the window. I suddenly can’t remember what we were just talking about.

“After all you’ve had to go through, will you even want to?” my dad asks.

Bless him.

For someone like me, this is a question with only one answer. But many runners get asked this all the time — and in fact, it’s not the first time I’ve had this question (suggestion?) posed to me while dealing with a major injury. It’s akin to the fabled non-runner doctor trope who suggests that you might as well stop running forever because your knee is hurting a little bit ergo running is bad for you. I admit to not being entirely appreciative of the fact that, for much of our population — including our parents, partners, friends, all of whom merely put up with us — running for pleasure is so absurd that most would happily take the get-out-of-jail-free card to never have to do it again. I wouldn’t run unless a bear was chasing me! (a terrible time to opt for running, IMO.)

Asking a die-hard runner if she ever intends to run again is like asking a mom if she’s still interested in momming when her kids come home from summer camp. I can’t imagine life without running. And while I intend to get back out there one day, I am fully aware that it may never be the same again. Training for competition and logging “high” volume mileage might be a thing of the past. And, sure, if I quit the sport today, I’d be reasonably satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. But running is my lifelong pursuit, as personal and purposeful as running a business, or writing a book, or traveling the world. Whether I can run 5 miles a week or 50 does not matter.

But I didn’t have surgery just to come out the other side assuming that I might not have a chance. To say it feels like a new beginning might be a stretch, but the future looks brighter on this side. Many runners have come back from far more invasive and serious procedures to resume their practice stronger and smarter than before. I have to believe that I have a place within that narrative.