if you can’t run, swim


I’ve been off crutches for five days now and it’s wonderful–to be able to wake up and put my feet on the floor, walk to the bathroom, carry my coffee to the dining room table.  Everything was harder.  The funny thing is towards the end I’d actually gotten used to it.  I’d even thought to myself, I could do this forever if I needed to.  I mean, I could have.  Our bodies and minds are adaptable if nothing else.  That’s the whole point of training, right–teaching yourself to do new things, or to do things better?

I’ve been to the pool five days in a row.  I’m no swimmer, and I don’t love it, but it sure feels good.  My workouts are between 30-60 minutes and when I pull myself out of the pool I’m so pleasantly spent.  That feeling may be even better than the one at the end of run:  so tired, calm, and peaceful, but with none of the aches and pains of running.

One day there was a group of real swimmers in the lane next to me, skimming the surface at tremendous speeds.  On the other side was an older guy who seemed to be doing more sinking than swimming, his feet would drop halfway to the bottom of the pool with each stroke and he’d be clawing through the water at nearly a 45 degree angle.  Of course, I wanted to identify with the swimmers, thinking I was an athlete just like them, but I couldn’t do it.  I knew I was doing my fair share of sinking too.  When I thought about how slow and feeble my efforts must have looked from above the water and compared that with how frantically hard I was working underneath, I had to laugh.  Or maybe I should say I “chose” to laugh.  It seemed the best option at the time.

That night I did a little research on stroke mechanics and drills and have begun to incorporate them into my workouts.  Whenever I’ve swum in the past, my goal has been to simply burn some energy and rest my legs, because it was just cross-training for running.  It didn’t matter if I was efficient or fast.  But now, I figure if I’m going to spend five hours a week face-down wearing goggles, I may as well learn how to swim properly.

My knee feels fine in the pool, even when I’m kicking hard, but I’ve still got a limp when I walk.  It’s not painful, but it’s not painless either.  I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like—the aches could be from lack of use and scar tissue or be a sign that the surgery didn’t take.  Time will tell me that.  My doctor said there’s no way to strengthen the cartilage—nothing can help, not glucosamine, sardines, Vitamin C or E or anything.  The body simply doesn’t know how to grow or strengthen cartilage.  It is what it is.  I have to do my best with what I have.

Looking back, it seems like the first six weeks of this year was like one long hangover.  Initially I was in enough pain to not care I’d be on crutches for six weeks.  As the pain subsided, I became agitated–I wanted to run, bike, swim, something!  But I couldn’t. Finally I reached the phase where I accepted that I couldn’t do anything for a while and my life just kind of flattened out.  I was going through the motions of my life, but wasn’t invested in the same way.  Nothing was as interesting to me.  Nothing mattered as much.  I was tired, listless, dull.  I thought to myself, this must be how people who don’t work out feel all of the time!  How awful.  But then I realized I don’t know how anyone else feels.  Maybe some people don’t need to work out to be themselves.  Maybe they’re just happy, peaceful, and calm all the time.  I mean, I never heard of Gandhi’s exercise routine, or Mother Teresa’s.  Surely there are other ways to feel good.  But I also know I’ve been around long enough to know what works for me, and that’s running. Or, if I can’t run, it’s swimming, biking, and getting my body ready to run again.

I know I need to diversify my training to strengthen my leg.  I need to lift weights and ride my bike.  That will help me protect the knee to some extent.  But it was hard to resist the pool this week.  At this point it’s the most efficient use of my time, the best way to get my heart rate up, get out of breath, get tired, hungry, and thirsty—all the things I’ve missed so much.  Six months from now if I report that all I’ve been able to do is swim 5 days in a row, I don’t expect I’ll be happy about it.  But for now, it’s more than enough.  I’m beginning to feel like myself again and it feels pretty good.


2 thoughts on “if you can’t run, swim

  1. I did not realize that you can’t generate new cartilage. I’ve been swimming at the Park District pool since my ankle injury. I find that the swimmers in the fast lane always dust me and I had thought I was a pretty good swimmer! I need to learn to swim properly too. 🙂

    • Hey Lakefront Trail Runner,

      That’s what both my orthopedic surgeons told me. Some of the supplements and food can help fight inflammation, but cartilage won’t regenerate. I had a microfracture surgery (along with a meniscus repair), which means they put holes in the edge of my femur bone where cartilage had ripped away with the hope that blood and stem cells will help form a patch of cartilage-like material. We’ll see. In the meantime, happy swimming!

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