Thursday, June 11, 2015

A step back (or else forward) in the orderly retreat

The aging process, I am now old enough to be qualified to say, is an exercise in orderly retreat, dragged on for as long as possible (at least until things get really bad) and fighting every inch of the way.  You can't help its happening, but you want to retreat as slowly as possible, and never to face a rout until it's forced on you.  Diet and exercise are of course key components in keeping the retreat as slow and as orderly as possible.

Every now and then, however, one must execute swift tactical withdrawals from exposed positions that it has become too costly to defend.  I seem to have reached one of those moments recently.

I played sports growing up, both because I enjoyed it and because, in my neighborhood's social structure or at least for the boys' subgroup, sports activities were coin of the realm so far as one's standing was concerned, especially if one was guilty of the faux pas of doing too well in school.  When I reached law school age, I transitioned from team sports, such as baseball, touch football, and basketball, to individual racquet sports.  First was squash, then I eventually got moderately serious about tennis.

Although always aerobically fit, first due to youth and then by reason of working at it, I was also always injury-prone.  The key problem, apart perhaps from coordination issues (although I always had decent eye-hand), was that I apparently was too loose-limbed.  So I kept spraining my left ankle, although not generally from playing racquet sports.  I also suffered a significant recurring shoulder injury when I was only 20.  It seems to have come from pitching a stickball game against a good friend.  I figured out later that I must have thrown 150 to 200 pitches, generally as hard as I could and without having trained for this at all.  Initially misdiagnosed (sports medicine was not as good back then as it has become more recently), the injury, which turned out to be rotator cuff instability and impingement, periodically plagued me until medical advances permitted me to fix it, albeit not quite to the 100% level, through arthroscopic surgery about 15 years ago.

Meanwhile, as I got older, loose-limbedness gave way to various body parts losing flexibility and becoming all too willing to strain or tear.  So I got back spasms, pulled hamstrings, and then tennis elbow when I tried to play without my legs under me properly due to the hamstring problem.  My solution to all this was periodic layoffs plus physical therapy - intensive during the recovery period, but then continuing afterwards for maintenance.  So the price of my continuing to play racquet sports - requiring "explosive" muscle and joint use, although it doesn't seem that way when you are younger - was a long list of home exercises, all of which I had to do a few times a week.  This grew increasingly boring over time, but if I wanted to keep playing I had no choice.

Eventually I quit squash because it was just too explosive - various body parts got angry from the sudden changes in direction that you need if your partner wrong-foots you.  But tennis seemed to be going OK, for the most part and subject to my keeping up the exercise regimen, until 2 years ago when I tore the ACL in one of my knees.

At that point I was icily determined not to let it stop me.  I was strongly leaning towards the elective surgery for ACL replacement, even though it is a truly horrible process.  The problem is that the newly inserted replacement ligament (taken from one's own patella or else from a cadaver) has to integrate fully with the body parts in place.  Tommy John surgery for baseball players is similar, but your leg is more foundational than your arm, since without it you can't even get out of bed.

I had to wait before deciding on the surgery, since I didn't want to ruin my summer and then I couldn't do it while teaching.  But by the time I could have had the surgery, I was already back on the tennis court, wearing a bulky knee brace.  After a bit, I was actually moving about as well as I did before the injury (and mobility was always my #1 asset), although I could clearly tell in some other settings that the injured knee is far from 100%.  Carrying a heavy suitcase upstairs, for example, makes my knee get angry and start to threaten me.

One thing that playing tennis without an ACL requires, however, is serious ongoing commitment to the exercise program.  I did what I had to, but it came at the expense of my being willing to put in the time for all my other injury maintenance exercises.  So a couple of months ago I suffered another nasty hamstring pull (in the leg that still has an intact ACL).

Getting over that, and back onto the tennis court, would have been a far easier matter than overcoming a torn ACL.  But this time around, I found that I had simply lost the will to do it.  Too many years of rehab and home exercise programs.  Too much time out of my day - and on the subway, on NYC's least reliable line, the F train - in order to play indoors in New York City on a Hartru court (concrete is far too wearing for multiple body parts).  Too much frustration when I'd play below the level I expected of myself, by reason of being too busy, and traveling too much, to play enough to maintain that level.  So I decided, at least for now: Forget it.

I must say, I've been greatly enjoying NOT doing my home exercise program, NOT riding on the F train, NOT losing 3 hours out of my day twice a week (the minimum to maintain a decent playing level), and NOT experiencing the frustration of playing badly.  So I have no current inclination to go back.  And while this conceivably could change someday, especially if I find myself in a warm-weather climate, I'd have to be super-careful about ramping up again first through a renewed set of strengthening exercises for multiple body parts that at present seem to be applauding my choice not to play, through their compliant and complaisant silence.

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