How Physical Therapy Made Me Reconsider My Priorities

I’ll never claim to be a healthy person. My bad habits outweigh my good habits by such a wide margin that sometimes I wonder why I even bother trying to keep any good habits at all. It’s not for a lack of trying. For the most part, I eat (relatively) healthy, I keep my drinking to a minimum during the week, and I get as much sleep as my schedule allows.

I didn’t start exercising until I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t start exercising because I wanted to, but because on some level I knew I had to exercise. I knew it was only a matter of time before all the bad things I was doing were going to catch up to me in a very real and very bad kind of way. When I finally started working out, it was in the lazy and least invested way possible. I went to the gym, picked which weight machines I wanted to use, and had a very specific regimen with each machine for each day. Once I completed my reps, it didn’t matter if I felt like I worked out. All that mattered was that I could say that I worked out, and that obligation was fulfilled. It didn’t matter that I was bored and was generally ambivalent about working out; my priority was that I was kind of, sort of, maybe, working out.

Then one day, a friend of mine suggested I try ditching the weight machines and get into running. I immediately fell in love with running. Even though I was running only on a treadmill (an idea which now makes me cringe), I loved it. The exercise itself was therapeutic, meditative, easy to manage, easy for me to push myself to do, and I could sing along to music the entire time and not care at all about who was staring (which was everyone).

When I moved to Israel, this love of running turned into a full-on infatuation. I had no choice but move from being a treadmill runner to an outdoor runner. Have you ever seen a video of an animal being re-released into the wild after spending its life in captivity and it freaks out because it doesn’t know what to do? That’s how I felt. I had no idea how to find a running route; I had no idea how to keep a proper pace so I wasn’t winded after half a mile. For all intents and purposes, I was learning to run all over again. This was a challenge, but the more I kept with it, the more I got out of it. I went from running two or three times a week to four or five times a week, and I went from running two miles to four or five miles (with the occasional longer run sprinkled in there when I was training for races). I wasn’t just running because it was a thing I had to do, I was running because I genuinely enjoyed it. Sure, losing weight and being in the best shape of my life was obviously a nice perk as well, but I was running for the sake of running. Every healthy perk that came along with it was just a bonus.

My zest for running was an easy thing to transport back home, and in almost no time at all, I found running routes to my liking near where I lived. Everything was fine until after my run one day, and my right knee was in a particular amount of pain. Any runner, or anyone who exercises for that matter, will tell you there’s a difference between working out though soreness and working out through pain. Soreness is okay, as it’s part of your body getting stronger and building endurance. Pain is not okay because you’re probably experiencing the onset of an injury. I knew I was running through pain, as much as I didn’t want to admit to this fact. The smart thing to do would have been to ice my knee, let it rest, get it checked out, and stop running. I am stubborn, and did none of those things. The next day I told myself that the pain in my knee had subsided enough that it was okay for me to go out running again. After a few days of ill-advised running, I could barely walk. Making it up and down my third-floor walk-up was embarrassingly slow and painful. I couldn’t avoid the facts any longer.

I finally went to get my knee checked out. After meeting a variety of doctors, getting x-rays, having my first-ever MRI (and napping through it), I finally arrived in the office of my physical therapist. What I was told was that I had developed a nasty case of tendonitis under my kneecap, and this was due to having generally bad posture and weak quadriceps. My initial visits were less than inspiring. I was very up-front that my goal was to get back to running, and my therapist was very lukewarm on this, and was more or less telling me to forget about running and look into other forms of exercise. This, as a relatively young person, was unacceptable to hear.

By a stroke of good fortune, I was able to switch my physical therapist to a woman who respected my goal, and pushed me to get there. Every session of physical therapy was challenging, stressful, fun, humbling, and positive. At some point of every session I asked, how close am I to running? And my physical therapist told me to be patient and insisted we were getting there. It was the perfect carrot for me to chase. As long as I knew we were working towards the same goal, I’d do whatever was asked of me. Finally, I was given the all-clear to start running again. There were certain restrictions of course, such as distance, keeping away from hills, and being very aware of my pain level in my knee. I heard those things, but all I really heard was you can go running again.

Before that first run, I was so giddy you wouldn’t believe it. I spent the entire lunch period at work that day telling my friends how I was going to run three miles as soon as I got home and I was going to nail that run. When I got home, I dusted off my running shoes, re-created my running playlist for my running app, picked out exactly which shirt I wanted to run in, and had everything ready to go. As soon as I got to my running route and turned on my running playlist, I was flying. It was like I’d been released back into the wild and I was loving every minute of it. Every step felt effortless, like the ground was soft and giving way to my stride. Each song that played did so at the perfect moment to keep the pitch and pace of my run in order. I was in love again.

I was so high on adrenaline that three miles felt like a joke. Not only was I going to run three miles, I was going to push myself to four, maybe five. Even better, I was totally going to shatter my usual average time. That was all true until two miles later and I couldn’t run anymore. Now let me tell you, running in New York City in the peak of summer sucks, running while out of shape sucks, running while recovering from a knee injury sucks. Running while in New York City during summer, being out of shape, while recovering from a knee injury, is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody. At the end of those two— which was supposed to be three— miles, I was out of breath, sweating out of every inch of my body, and basically hating life. That run was a sobering jolt of reality. Over the past few months while I was at physical therapy, all I could think about was running. By the time that first run finally came around, I was so amped and ready to go. Unfortunately, my body, while it had mostly recovered from the injury it suffered months ago, wasn’t ready yet for the rigors of running.

The reality was – and is – that getting back into running isn’t as easy as deciding well now that my knee is healthy, I can just get back to running like I used to run. The running form I was previously in was built from running on a regular basis for months. During that stretch, I rarely missed a scheduled run, and I organized my days to make sure I would run, no matter what. Tired after work? Going on a run. Friends heading out to the bar? Going on a run. Have lunch plans? Going on a run. I simply didn’t allow myself any excuses to miss a run. From that discipline, I was able to build the endurance needed to become a moderate-distance runner, and be in the physical shape I conditioned.

On the other hand, when I was recovering from my knee injury, I didn’t have nearly any of that discipline. Planning on going on a run when I get home from work? Friends are hitting up a happy hour and I want to do that. Planning on going on a run Saturday morning? Ehh the sofa is just a little too comfortable and I’d rather not get sweaty. Planning on going on a run after work? You know what, I just don’t feel like it. While in the past I was dedicated and running four to five times a week, this go around I could only bring myself to go maybe two, maybe three times a week, and I wanted the same results as when I was a dedicated runner.

Of course, the Three-Headed Monster of factors working against me was quite real. Running in New York City in the peak of summer, while being out of shape, while recovering from an injury is awful, but it’s even more difficult when you’re too busy doing other things and can only bring yourself to run once or twice a week. Yet for a while, even though I knew this was the case, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.

Finally, I was honest with myself that there was no way I was going to get where I wanted with my running if I kept the same habits I was living by at the time. If I wanted to get back into my running form and get back into the shape I was once in, it wasn’t going to be enough to just run once or twice a week. Not only did I need to run more, I needed to change my lifestyle to accommodate the time I needed to run, and to be able to actually do what my body required. Some of these changes were obvious, such as being more diligent about coming straight home from work, watching my drinking on the weekend so I could run in the morning, and so on.

On the surface, these changes were just about habit, but at the core they were really about mentality and discipline. In order to run more, I had to become a more disciplined person who took more agency and responsibility for his actions. I couldn’t just expect the things I wanted to come my way simply because I wanted them to come my way. If I wanted to get back to the running shape I used to be in, it was going to take work in various ways and would require a ton of discipline. The more I ran, not only did I feel great because I felt my ability slowly but surely coming back, but also, I was exercising other parts myself as well in order to be able to run.

What had begun as a physical injury, it turned out, had a much deeper mental and emotional impact than I had realized. Even when I thought I knew how much it hurt to not be able to run, it wasn’t until I began trying to run that I realized just how much of myself I had lost through my knee injury and my inability to run. I’m still working on my running. I just had to pull myself out of a race that I was—naively—looking forward to running, and there are certain tracks which while I want to run them, I know I’m just not able to run them yet. But I have a plan, and am making steps to get back to where I was with my running. This process of getting back has been physical, and it has been therapeutic in more ways than one.