Saturday, March 19, 2011

My Personal Recovery: The Epilogue to "Saving My Knees"

I will return soon to the subject of stretching. Meanwhile, if you want a glimpse at the stretching controversy, just check out the "talk" page behind the Wikipedia page on stretching. True, many of the comments are semi-informed at best, but the back and forth suggests a citadel of belief may be crumbling ... :)

Today I want to do something I've meant to do all winter: provide an update on my knees and where they're at, post recovery.

Saving My Knees takes a reader to the end of April 2009, when I returned to the U.S. from Hong Kong. My knees were much improved. I made slow, steady gains through a joint-focused (NOT a quad-focused) regimen of appropriate motion. I was convinced better days lay ahead.

So what happened?

First, my knees did continue to get better (I returned to vigorous cycling by the late summer of 2009). I still noticed some discomfort while sitting during the summer of 2009. But by that fall I felt my knees were strong enough to return to full-time desk work. It took me a while to find a job (I ended up with my old employer, Bloomberg News, except in New York City).

I resumed my journalism career as a corporate finance editor late in December of 2009. Do the math, and that's 20 months since my attempt to heal my knees began at the end of April 2008. 20 months, and I'm not going to kid you -- there was still a touch of residual discomfort, while descending stairs or sitting at a desk for long hours. Not much, just a little.

I stuck to my motion-based program (a lot of cycling and walking), and sometime during the early or middle part of 2010 -- I can't even tell you exactly when -- the last reminders of my chronic knee pain went away.

Of course I was overjoyed. I cycled hard last summer, throwing caution to the winds. I'm sure that I ramped up too fast. I was riding to that happy point of total exhaustion. By November, I felt a little soreness in my left knee while on the bike. So you may be thinking, "Oh no! There it goes again!"

Nope. Whatever was going on with my knee -- I suspect a little tendinitis around the patella, but I'm not entirely sure -- this time didn't scare me. I felt as if I had the knee care manual in my back pocket. I was fortified with experience and knowledge. I also had the comfort of knowing I had a sore strong knee. That makes a lot of difference.

Still, a little slow-down intervention was needed. That came in the form of winter, when it's too cold to cycle outside here anyway. I vowed to dial back my intensity, keep cycling a lot, and wait for the soreness to subside. I developed a winter training plan. For instance, for all of January, I spun on the exercise bike at a very low resistance.

Over two months, the soreness disappeared. My knees feel perfectly normal now. During February, I started to pick up the intensity, preparing for a new cycling season. This month, I accelerated my training even more, because I want to start doing 50-60 mile punishing bike rides in April.

So where am I, this minute, in my post-recovery? To give you an idea, here is my knee-related workout program for the past week:

Tuesday: 45 minutes cycling. First, level 7 on the stationary bike (about 106 watts I think) for 10 minutes, then level 8 (about 20 watts higher) for 35 minutes.

Thursday: same as Tuesday.

Saturday: Time to get serious! 30 minutes cycling at level 7, then 30 minutes of intervals growing progressively harder, peaking at level 19 (that's 349 watts, for about 75 seconds, at more than 90 revolutions per minute).

Sunday: 60 minutes at level 7.

The first weekend in April, my goal is to be back with my cycling group, powering down the flats and charging up the hills of western Long Island. If I were living scared, I suppose I wouldn't do this. I'd stick with slow recreational rides. But the thing is, I'm pretty sure I know my knees well at this point. And I think they're strong enough to cycle hard.

Worst-case scenario, I'm wrong and I end up taking it easy for a year or two. I've developed a plan on "cartilage time" before. You have to make your peace with slow progress, but there's nothing wrong with that if the gains are real.

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