Monday, September 6, 2010

Good (Knee) Habits

After a punishing, fast bike ride on Saturday morning (about 63 miles), I had just dropped onto my bed for a moment, post-shower, when everything I wanted to do that afternoon started clicking through my mind, like a slideshow at high speed. First, I was going grocery shopping -- that's a 1.5-mile trek to the nearest Trader Joe's and the same distance back, except the return leg includes carrying 10 to 15 lbs. of groceries in a backpack. Then I had to buy energy gels at the bike shop. Then there was the check to deposit at the bank.

And yet, I lounged around my Forest Hills apartment for a full hour before setting out for the grocery store. Why was I dawdling? I'm usually quite driven, with a fairly structured life.

Why? Good knee habits.

Three years ago, I couldn't have ridden 10 minutes on my bicycle, even at a ridiculously slow pace, without my knees burning. Cartilage under my kneecaps was damaged, seriously enough that it transformed my life. I couldn't endure bent-leg sitting. At home, I would have my legs extended and propped up on boxes. At work, I had them straight out too, hanging in a sling on the underside of my desk.

I did a lot of things to engineer a long, slow comeback. One thing I realized was important at the outset: good knee habits.

For example: When the temperature is below 60 degrees, I cover my knees when cycling (I own both knee warmers and leg warmers). During my recovery, whenever I went for long walks, I would stop halfway through and rest for ten minutes -- not because my knees hurt, but simply because I wanted to ensure they didn't start to hurt. Saving your knees is about being proactive, and smarter than simply following the adage, "If it hurts, don't do it." Once it hurts, you've already screwed up (a little secret that doctors and physical therapists don't tell you).

When I finally got back into shape cycling -- when my joints were strong enough to tolerate the 50-, 60-mile rides at high intensity that I loved so much -- I acquired a new habit. After a hard ride, once I dismount, I take at least one hour of down time before asking my knees to go for a long walk or do anything strenuous. So that means I return from cycling, exhausted, and lie on my bed for a little while or tap away at the computer or read a book. I give my knees a chance to take a breather.

Not because they hurt.

But because I don't want them to hurt again.

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