Repetitions and rewards

As a lifelong athlete, I’ve always understood the benefits of working hard, challenging myself physically and realizing the results of my actions in a relatively short amount of time. I remember being nine years old and amidst my attempt to play every sport under the sun, I became more interested in soccer and decided to step up my game. Like any soccer player, I inherently wanted to ignore my left foot and exclusively use my dominant right foot to dribble, pass and shoot.

One day I was kicking the ball around with my father and he told me, “Son, you don’t want to play like a one-legged chicken. You have to use your left foot and train it to be as good as your right. Only then can you be a dominant soccer player.” It wasn’t easy at first, but I heeded my dad’s advice and forced myself to use my left foot as much as my right. After some time, and many repetitions, I began to notice a difference. My left foot had improved and while it could never be as good as my right, I had engrained a physical knowledge in my soccer skills for years to come. Up until the last time I played soccer, just two days before my accident, I was a right-footed player with a strong left foot.

Another example is when I decided to train for my first triathlon a few years ago. I was a strong enough cyclist and runner but I hadn’t swam since I was a kid and I was mortified at the thought of swimming a long distance. The first time I jumped in the pool and dusted off my freestyle stroke, I lasted maybe six minutes before I was panting and wheezing like a lifelong smoker who had just sprinted a mile. I was frustrated and disbelieving that I could be in good shape yet struggle so much with this new activity. Long story short, I kept at it and although the next few times were almost as painful as the first, I slowly but steadily got better. Soon I could swim ten minutes, then twelve, then twenty and before long, I was able to stay in the pool consistently swimming laps for over forty minutes. (Full disclosure: when it came time for my triathlon, I got in the water and embarrassingly swam so crooked that I ended up way off course, and needed the officials in the boat to catch me and send me back on track. I finished the swim nearly last, but at least I wasn’t out of breath. Thankfully I made up for my poor swimming during the bike ride and the run, and finished my first triathlon in the top ten of my age group.)

Now I’m still aggressively doing rehab for many hours a week and my exercise regimens have become more intensive and (hopefully) more beneficial. But I don’t realize those physical rewards as quickly as I’m used to and that becomes extraordinarily frustrating. So much of my therapy is based on repetition. The theory is that by repeating a motion or movement over and over, we can rewire and retrain the brain and spinal cord to relearn that movement again.

Also, in order to target muscles that I don’t have motor control of, I do exercises that essentially force these muscles to engage.Β For example, my abs are still too weak to do a situp and the neurological connection to them is still impaired (i.e. if someone punched me in the stomach, I couldn’t flex or tighten my abs). So I do assisted situps, using my arms to pull myself up and consequently forcing my abs to contract. Yes my arms are doing most of the work at first, but over time, those abs have gotten a bit stronger and I use less and less of my arms.

Over time. That’s the problem. I’m used to seeing results quickly. I’m used to hard work and effort trumping fatigue and being able to realistically overcome physical challenges and limitations. I’m used to stories of friends who had never run long distances being able to train themselves over a few months to run a marathon. But with a Spinal Cord Injury, it’s just not the same. I can work as hard as possible (I like to think that I do) and push myself to the absolute maximum every time I’m doing an exercise, but improvement and progress shows itself so, so slowly that it’s painful. I give every rep 120%. I close my eyes and I focus and visualize and push and pull and twist and lift and grimace until my muscles burn and my brain is tired, and I still try to keep going. But ask me if or how I’ve gotten stronger in the last week or two, and I usually won’t have a good response.

To end on a positive note, as difficult as this process is, the reality is that things have gotten better and stronger, it just takes so much time. I can’t imagine what this rehab would be like if I wasn’t already an athlete or if I didn’t have a good understanding of body awareness and how to challenge myself yet remain within my limits. At least with these things going for me, I trust that my body instinctively wants to become stronger and I fully believe that my body desperately wants to walk again, because that’s what is natural and what it’s done for so long. With that trust and knowledge, I will continue to work hard and notice improvements, slow as they may be…

30 thoughts on “Repetitions and rewards

  1. keep it up boyeee! I think you have a foot ahead in that you have the “muscle memory” and of course the strong dedication to achieve your goals. Im so in awe of your perseverance and pursuit. I also believe in the power of intention working to create miracles- and I know that your mind is creating the stage to experience one foot after the other. slowly but surely every cell in your body is preparing- some of them might be “on vacation” but they still receive mail. the bills will get paid when vacay is over. thinking of you every time I fire up a step ahead. i believe in you and Iove reading your blog. so much hope. stay vibrant! sending healing light and prayers,
    lizE

    • Thanks for the kind words Liz. What you described is a good summation of how I kinda see things working. Preparing and preparing for the day(s) when things in my body come back and I start to enter the next phase of rehab. It’s so hard now working so much and seeing so little return but I know I have to keep at it. PS – Have we met before? -AB

  2. How lucky you are to have that self discipline and prior-accident fitness (and call it ‘luck’ – imagine the people who had sedentary lifestyles before a Spinal cord injury).

    Is it at all possible to do these exercises in a mindful way, so that it becomes almost a meditation in movement (as opposed to forcing yourself to concentrate 100% and exhausting yourself mentally). Or am I suggesting the impossible (in that you need to concentrate 100% to achieve any movement).

    Excuse my ignorance, but I’m wondering if you can….mentally….switch off a bit. Eg when I’m walking outdoors and in pain, I mentally concentrate on walking in slow motion and concentrate on each individual step so that by the time I arrive home, I don’t remember how I got home and end up arriving home pain-free. I sort of switch into another mental plane.

    Hope I haven’t said something too ridiculous here. I just remember when I was in such pain that it was 24/7 and all-consuming years ago, but now I’ve trained my mind to switch off and float through it.

    Once again, I’m suggesting that the mind is far more powerful that we give it credit for.

    • Great comments and thanks for your suggestion. I completely understand what you mean and I think I do try to do what you’re suggesting in some of my exercise. Much of the exercise that I do is just as much mental as it is physical. I spend countless hours just trying to move my legs over and over again, even though nothing may happen right then. The idea is that over time, I’m repairing that altered and impaired neural connection. As for most exercise that I do, it’s tough to turn off or tune out. I need to concentrate so hard to try to do it right and to try not to cheat or compensate with a different part of my body. It IS ultimately all consuming I think.

      And yes, I agree completely about the power of the mind. I wouldn’t be trying so hard if I didn’t think that… -AB

  3. I look forward to your posts and your achievements. I appreciate your attitude and your determination. Your insight and sharing of it is incredible. Thank you. Continued success in your healing and well being!

  4. i’m pretty sure once you reach your goal, I’m gonna cry tears of joy for you…and I don’t even know you lol. Your dedication is truly inspiring.

  5. Hey! At least you LIKE exercise! I am more like one of those proverbial couch potatoes, but have been trying to incorporate a nice long (read: 30 – 45 minutes) walk three or four times a week into my life. I have just started a diet (lite n easy where the food all gets delivered so you can throw the package away afterwards and say “dishes are done, dear”) so I really do need to up my exercise. For me, exercise is a chore. I would much rather be reading a book or typing another blog post. At least you enjoy exercise and challenges. I just know you are going to get there in the end, even if the end is a long way away at this point in time. You have tenacity.

    • I’ve learned so much through this experience about doing what is difficult and undesirable. For you, it’s exercise. Well, I can assure you that you can do it. Remind yourself of the benefits, ask yourself why you’re doing it and the answer will hopefully motivate you to get out there and find your own tenacity. Good luck with it -AB

  6. Arash. I have been a bench coach trainer for youth soccer for 10 years. I worked with boys from the age of 7. Many of the boys didn’t put in the effort and work to improve to the level they were capable of. But others worked hard every practice and game. It was years before some of the boys blossomed and became the best players around. I am glad you took your dad’s advice. I recognized, taught and coached many of the same issues. As a side note and related to much of the same issues that I see in the field of working with folks with disabilities. I have noticed that, once an individual starts using assists, they begin to retrain their mind and body to conform to the way the assist was designed. I will talk more about this latter. This type of training for the disabled is having a major negative health impact on the disabled. The industry and the folks in the field have to look at the issues and be proactive to make changes fast.

    • Interesting to know. By assists do you mean braces and leg supports and such? I think you’re right that this is a bit of a controversial subject as some people in rehab are fully supportive of braces and others believe we should train the body without any help. Can you tell me what has been helpful in your experience? What kind of suggestions or positive practices can you share? Thanks! -AB

  7. It sounds so frustrating to experience the results so much slower than you are used to; however, I’m so glad that you are recognizing results! That is an amazing thing! I think back to the beginning and the fact that so many never expected you to get up, much less walk again – yet here you are, doing sit ups and walking. Okay, sometimes it was in the space age pack and sometimes it was with the rehab assistant, but you are on your feet when not that long ago it wasn’t considered a possibility. I’m so sorry for your frustration, It sounds painful to have slow results when you are used to faster results. I’m sending good energy your way and I hope you have some peace about the pace of your recovery – keep looking at the positives! πŸ™‚

    • “The space age pack” Hahaha. Yes the slow speed of recovery is indeed frustrating to say the least, but you’re right. There were many expectations that have already been exceeded and I need to continue to be aware of that -AB

  8. Great note, Arash…the left foot analogy is perfect…daughter Liz (we talked about her) uses both equally well, probably helps her get recruited…
    Thinking back to our dinner several weeks ago, I was struck at the time by not only your obvious resolve, but that you seemed not to have changed in the year or so since we last visited..
    In fact I observed the same young guy I knew when we first met 3 years ago in the City–personable, articulate, interesting to get to know…good stuff and tells me much about your recovery…I know it’s not that simple, but I had to tell you what I saw that night…
    You have always worked hard in everything you do…no minor setback certainly, but you are so well grounded…enjoyed the time together very much….enjoyed too meeting your mom and dad..
    Thanks for having us over….Dan

    • It was great to see you too Dan. I really enjoyed that evening and have always enjoyed our interactions. I’m going to continue to fight hard through this big challenge of mine. Thanks for the continued support and encouragement. Best to you and your family -AB

  9. I swim terribly crooked, too! My first triathlon I was waaaay off course. Which reminds me: time to get back in the pool.

    I’m sorry things seem to be going so slowly. But I like Dan’s note above. Your optimism and enthusiasm about life is obvious. Keep at it. I know you will.

  10. Man, can you imagine what it will be like when the neurological healing process is done? I’m constantly impressed with how you positively articulate your frustration, and after reading I’ve come to the conclusion that all of this frustration can totally be channeled into our personal growth. Physical growth, of course, but also in our fortitude, willpower, and empathy for others’ struggles. It’s this indomitable willpower that’s going to keep synthesizing that frustration into growth and healing. Along with rest, protein, and vitamin B12 of course, but those don’t do anything unless the hard work’s put in first. Glad to hear you’re working hard and working smart.

    • Well said bro. I think about the healing process being done all the time. I think about how relieved and happy and overjoyed I will feel when I know that I’ve recovered my body and that I won this battle. I completely agree that frustration can and should be channeled into growth. That’s what keeps me going all the time. Hard work is where it all begins my friend. That and positivity, determination and persistence. At the end of the day, if I love life as much as I do (and I imagine you do too), then I can justify that it’s worth fighting for. And so I keep on going… -AB

  11. Dear Arash,
    Wow, what a heart-wrenching post. But I am glad to hear you are making progress. Best wishes with your recovery and exercises. Your dedication and perseverance are second to none and the mental effort and awareness you bring will make the difference you are looking for I think. I agree 100% with Vicki’s post above about mindfulness awareness, and am happy that you know about this already as I think it will help you too.
    Thinking of you and sending you strength πŸ™‚ –
    Ciara.

    • Thanks for the kind words Ciara. I am doing my best to remain mindful as I move through each stage of this recovery. It’s not always easy but I’ll keep trying πŸ™‚ -AB

  12. Oh dear Arash-am sorry to be late here again! I don’t think this post made it to my reader … I am going to change my settings and make sure your posts come directly into my email box since this has happened more than once. But – this was a wonderful topic you have written about. I am very thankful that you were an athlete, and had the keen body awareness, and insights into physical training that you did. Your example of the using your left leg (less dominant) leg to kick the soccer ball was very interesting to me. It seems my torso is “twisted” some on my pelvis, and some think that is part of why my hip continues to dislocate (sort of an issue with not lining up properly – and shallow sockets/dysplasia) . I have been trying to activate my less dominant side (left) in the core and thorax too to see if that will help me untwist some… not easy to do. You have inspired me to try harder. For you, I know how hard you are working at this…and stand in admiration of you – for your dedication and fortitude. Keep with it my friend… small rewards – slow rewards…whatever we can get — let’s take em. Sending much Love ~ and hugs! Robyn

    • Thanks for telling me a bit more about your situation Robyn. I’m happy if my words were able to inspire you a bit more in your own recovery and hope it can lead to something positive. Your situation with your hips sounds painful and difficult to say the least. Not sure if the soccer example totally applies but hopefully it can. And hopefully, just like I kept practicing to kick the ball with my left foot, you can keep practicing and strengthen that left side of your body. Keep at it dear and stay positive and keep on inspiring all of us with your writing and photos. I look forward to them all the time. Much love -AB

  13. I suffered the exact same injury (c5 & c6) a little over a year ago as well and I love your view on the whole scenario, you remind me of myself! I’ve made major progress, just like you, over the last year from all the intensely hard work. I’m now taking steps with my therapist’s assistance, and was just wondering how far along you’ve come and what types of therapy you participate in. I use a lokomat and Thera Stride where I go in Chicago. Hope to hear from you.
    You’re doing great!

    • Great to hear from you! Sounds like you’re doing quite well, congrats on all the progress you’ve made. I can only imagine how excited I’ll be when I’m taking steps. Are you at Next Steps in Chicago? Feel free to contact me via email too. abayat491@gmail.com

      Hope to stay in touch -AB

  14. Pingback: If you build it, will it come? And when? And how? And…. | Arash Recovery

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