Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Story About Adaptation

This is a story about a big theme in Saving My Knees.

For almost two decades I've worn arch supports, generally in my walking and running (though not my dress) shoes.

After a while, arch support inserts develop creases, then cracks, then finally need replacing. That's where I found myself earlier this year.

My new podiatrist suggested a pair of expensive, high-quality, carbon-fiber supports. My insurance covered the cost, so I said okay.

When they arrived, one fit fine. The other didn't.

Various adjustments were made to the badly fitting orthotic, to no avail. I got frustrated. After much traipsing back and forth to the podiatrist's office, I wound up with an arch support that I still wasn't very happy with.

Then I read this article in the New York Times questioning the value of such orthotics anyway. Prescribing these devices sounded more like art than science. A light clicked on in my head. Did I really need arch supports anyway?

I first got them when I was running a lot. I no longer run. My new podiatrist said the arches of my feet looked normal.

Feeling confident, I quit the arch supports, cold turkey.

The first day was fine. The next few were fine, too. Then, after about a week, I noticed a constant, uncomfortable burning in my arches. I suffered with that discomfort for days.

Well, I guess I just have to live with arch supports, I thought with a sigh. Then I had a Homer Simpson "d'oh" moment: of course this experiment didn't prove that at all. I had gone about things all wrong.

What I did with my feet was tantamount to what I did with my knees, when I realized that the key to healing lay in motion. Great, I thought back then, I'll walk for hours! And my knees burned worse than ever. Because I was doing too much too soon.

Our bodies are fantastic at adapting, I strongly believe, but adapting is a process. The word suggests something measured and gradual, not an abrupt change. Adapting requires time and patience.

So I decided to try a smarter approach. Instead of asking those muscles in the arch of my feet that had grown weak from disuse to suddenly handle three or four times their usual load, I broke them in gradually to these new demands.

At first I wore the arch supports one day, then nothing the next. Then, several weeks later, I changed the cycle to one day with, then two without. Then one with, three without. Finally I was wearing them only once a week, on Sundays.

Then, after a few months, I quit them completely. So far it's worked. My arches get sore sometimes, but under the same conditions they always got sore, even when I had arch supports -- that is, when I combine a lot of standing around and walking (e.g., busy shopping days).

Our bodies have a powerful ability to adapt when we do the right things and have enough patience. That was a lot of the secret behind my healing my knees. My failed -- then successful -- experience with a pair of arch supports (that are now sitting in a closet somewhere) reinforced this critical lesson.


  1. I really feel the whole world should read your blog. SO useful and smart.


  2. What a nice thing to say! Thanks for the kind words.