Shouldering The Burden: How I finally listened to my body when it was crying for help all along
SPIN.ph columnist Bobby Go is back on the road after undergoing arthroscopic subacromial decompression surgery on his shoulder. Photo courtesy of Dr. Randy Molo 

Me: I’m going to die on Sunday.

Missus (exasperated): You always say that when a race is coming!

Me: I didn’t say that when I did the 10k open water swim.

Missus (encouraging): And you finished that. You always finish what you start.

Me: Badly, sometimes. But, yeah, so far.

Missus (reassuring): Just go at your own pace. And listen to your body.

Me: My body says I’m going to die.

Missus: I give up. (Throws hands in the air and walks away)

THAT'S a typical exchange between the missus and me whenever a race nears. I used to be one of those who gets afflicted with selective hearing where listening to my body is concerned, but not so in the last few years. Too many brushes with DNFs (Did Not Finish status) have taught me to be more conservative in preparing for a race. So when over five months of physical therapy to try to mend a pesky right shoulder failed to yield substantial improvement, I decided to take the next logical step: surgery - arthroscopic subacromial decompression, to be more precise.

But that’s getting ahead of my story. 

Let’s begin in October 2017 when I finished the Hans Christian Andersen Marathon in Odense, Denmark and began to notice the growing discomfort in my right shoulder. At first, I dismissed it simply as travel fatigue, the consequence of schlepping half a ton of luggage across airports, train stations, city streets, and hotel stairs. This was regular fare for a racecation and nothing that a few good nights’ rest and a massage couldn’t remedy. Or so I thought.

A few weeks go by and the discomfort now escalated to pain. With years of endurance racing under my belt, I could confidently decipher the difference between the two: discomfort allowed me to continue whatever activity I was currently engaged in while pain would not accord me the same courtesy. I soon found myself struggling to lift my right arm above my head, often having to use my left hand like a crutch for that simple extension. Later, even holding myself up for a push-up, plank or downward facing dog wasn’t easy. And this was all happening while I was doing twice-a-week physical therapy (PT) in the hope of unlocking my shoulder from its sorry state.

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After four months of PT, I was still cycling and running (and racing), mostly ignoring the hurt, particularly whenever I had to lean into my bike’s handlebars during descents. Running posed no pain, unless I had to signal right when turning a corner — I could only raise my arm to the level of my elbow, which made for an awkward sight. It was then that I decided to consult Dr. Randy Molo, sports medicine doctor and shoulder/elbow surgeon (and erstwhile triathlete), for a more in-depth analysis. If there was one doctor who could best empathize with my condition, it would be a fellow athlete. Aside from having an impingement (bones and tendons painfully rubbing against each other), a type 2 (curved) acromion (that predisposed me to the impingement and thus required a process called coplaning), and bursitis (inflammation of a fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between bone, muscle, joint, tendons) in the area, I had what Doc Randy calls adhesions that he graphically described as cobweb-like tissues that form around the shoulder over time due to wear and tear. Apparently, my high pain threshold allowed me to continue for a longer period of time with this injury before it finally reached its tipping point. With this diagnosis, I was faced with two options: two to three weeks of more aggressive physical therapy or surgery, if the former was not enough to rehabilitate my impairment.

Long story short, I went under the knife a little over a month after the aggressive PT sessions failed to restore my shoulder’s full range of motion. Never in my life had I been so excited to be wheeled into an operating room! The entire surgery took about forty minutes and I was back at home before noon (having checked in at five in the morning). Of course when the intravenous pain suppressants wore off, my shoulder felt like someone had stuck an icepick into it and left it there; but with a long nap and a pain pill, I was feeling a lot better that same evening.

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Over the last week, I’ve experienced simple pain-free joys that went underappreciated until my injury caused daily inconveniences to the simplest of tasks; here are just a few of them:

a)     Using both hands to shampoo

b)     Removing my t-shirt over my head

c)      Reaching across my left shoulder for the seatbelt while in the driver’s seat

d)     Signaling right with my arm outstretched while running or cycling

e)     Doing wall angel exercises

Doc Randy says it will take a while before I can resume cycling and swimming (looks like my triathlon hiatus has just been involuntarily extended), since both activities put pressure on the shoulder, but I can resume my running (which I have) as soon as possible. Yippee, more road and trail runs then! The priority now is getting the full range of motion back in my shoulder and take it from there, which has been initiated with a new set of PT sessions. I can’t quite bring myself to do full arm rotations (the kind they teach in grade school PE class) yet, but I patiently look forward to that day when it finally happens. 

Coincidence or not, I was reading an article on WebMD entitled  ‘How To Listen To Your Body’ which cited the following signs that serve as wake-up calls to slow down, see your doctor, and/or take a break:

a)     Fatigue (due to age or over-training)

b)     Burn out

c)      Anxiety and Depression

d)     Injury

e)     Sleep Problems

f)       Pain that doesn’t go away

g)     Bad reaction to food

h)     New lump (for women) forms

Not surprisingly, a number of endurance athletes learn to eat the pain and soldier on, choosing to shrug off the inconvenience of a perceived nagging shin splint or dip in energy level. The reasons behind this kind of obstinate behavior run from inflated egos to keeping up with the pack, which often results in the detriment of the athlete. The amateur sports community is rife with accounts of veteran age groupers who bonk in the middle of triathlons, newbie distance runners who DNF (Did Not Finish) on the trails, and worse, middle agers who drop dead during weekly pick-up games or weekend races. 

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We all know gifted athletes — the grossly overweight couch potato three years ago who is now a consistent podium finisher or the former druggie and chain-smoker who dusts off sub-four hour marathons like it was a fun run — but we can’t all be like them. We have to put in the work, and part of it requires us to listen to our bodies.

Learning to be more attuned to your body and what it’s trying to tell you is a learned faculty. There are very good reasons why professional and elite athletes choose their A races and competitions and opt to go to bed early on most days, and we should take heed of their imparted wisdom. Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, and Tom Brady are notorious for keeping very regimented programs of their sleeping hours, diets, physical/mental conditioning, and any other controllable variable that could positively/negatively affect athletic performance. These world-beaters probably live by the words ‘What you put in is what you get out.’  Their sport is their work and their life. For the mortals among us, it is but a part of our waking lives. We would do well to pay closer attention to an activity that should lengthen our time on earth, not shorten it.

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Be Like Bron

As we’re in the middle of the NBA Finals, here are five overused sports terms and catch phrases to pull out of your pocket in case of a post-game discussion or press ambush:

1. It is what it is.  The mother of all sound bites. It’s the perfect way to shut down any follow up questions. What does this phrase even mean?! Hey, but if it’s good enough for LeBron and Steph, it’s good enough for me. Yeah, keep ‘em guessing. Simple definition: Go Figure.

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2. Locked In.  An alternative to being ‘Dialed In,’ though there are hardly any dials on modern devices; hence, the emergent popularity of ‘Locked In.’ Use it when you want to sound hip and cooler than what it simply means. Simple definition: Focus.          

3. We’ll take it one game at a time.  How the hell else is one supposed to take it?! Let’s not be greedy (and take more than one) — or stupid. Do not even think this qualifies as part of intelligent conversation! Simple definition: We have to win the next game!

4. In The Zone.  Describes singular and exceptional performance, wherein the subject appears to play above everyone else. Simple definition: He was incredible.

5. Stuff Happens.  Another catchall riposte that explains everything from an acrobatic half-court buzzer beater to a controversial uncalled lane violation that cost the opposing team the game.  It’s a handy phrase to use in and out of sports that can describe both good and bad situations. Simple definition: Sh*t happens.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @startlinebob