small progress

I did something new in physical therapy this week: I rode a stationary bike.

I’m three weeks into ACL reconstruction surgery recovery. The sutures are out, leaving me with only a few small scars (thanks to arthroscopic surgery), and most of the time, I can walk around in my house with just my big leg brace, sometimes with one crutch if I’m tired. I still need a crutch to walk up and down my steep stairs, but I’m getting pretty good at that too. 

I was a little surprised when my physical therapist told me to start with the bike when I entered the clinic Monday morning. I figured he’d want me to do my regular warm-ups to ease the morning stiffness out of my leg. It’s still very difficult to bend my knee beyond ninety degrees. This was going to be interesting. 

Climbing onto the bike was hard enough. I had to hoist my 5’3” frame onto a bike seat that I thought was too high and wedge my right foot into a pedal…my therapist gently nudged me to lower the right pedal so I could slip my foot in easily rather than try to shove it in at an uncomfortable angle. Apparently everyone does that the first time. Okay, here we go…

At first all I could do was rock the pedals back and forth, back and forth. As the minutes clicked by, I’d pause at the apex of a rotation and gently wiggle my leg just a little further, wincing in pain the whole time. This was so hard! It hurt! There was no way I could make a rotation that morning. I knew it would hurt very badly and possibly cause damage if I forced it too quickly, so I kept pushing myself to my limit and ever so gently, ever so slowly, edging past it each time

About ten minutes in, just as my therapist predicted, I made a full backwards rotation. Ah-HA! I couldn’t believe it! I did another one to make sure that wasn’t a fluke. Success again. I did a few backwards rotations and then, after some nudging and more wiggling, I made a successful forward rotation. I was doing it! I eased into pedaling forward at a leisurely but consistent pace. I had to go very slowly, so slowly the digital computer on the bike didn’t register my pedaling, but it was quite the feat of the morning.

I knew when I returned later in the week I would likely not be able to start with full rotations right when I got onto the bike. My leg just isn’t there yet. Having a quad graft makes my leg very hard to bend, so this will take time. I’ll have to ease into it again, but maybe next time, it will take eight minutes instead of ten to make a rotation. I’m okay with that. Rehabbing a knee takes time and work, but if you stick with it, you see incremental progress every day. I have a long way to go, but for someone who only got off the operating table three weeks ago, I think I’m doing pretty well. 

When reflecting on it I realized that right at that ten minute mark, when my body relaxed and eased into the full rotation, my mental struggle had let up too. I had just resigned myself to being okay with only pushing the pedals up and down. My impatience let up, and I was okay with spending the rest of my time on the bike rocking back and forth. I stopped, “practicing struggle,” as a former yoga teacher used to call it. I gave in and accepted what I could do that day and appreciated my small but remarkable progress. 

Once I let go of my expectation for perfection, I was able to move forward (and backward). 

So what’s the lesson here? This is a year of weirdness and struggle for all of us in our own ways. Some are facing huge challenges, others mid-size challenges, and others have a lot of daily annoyances that weigh them down after a while. 

A few things can help keep us sane and keep us on the path to progress:
1. Be kind and patient with yourself
2. Set small, realistic goals to keep you motivated toward the bigger ones
3. Be okay with where you are today
4. Find something fun or enjoyable to distract you from “the struggle”
5. Once you get to your limit, see if you can go the tiniest bit further
6. Celebrate each small win, and don’t take that progress for granted

We’ll all get there. One day and one push of the pedal at a time.


Stay tuned for my upcoming book– “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!

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