New Life in My Old Legs

My leg hurt only when I walked, never while I was cycling, even when I was pushing hard on Skyline Boulevard along the hilly ridge west of downtown Portland. So how could cycling be the reason why I limped, even when walking a few steps from my condo door to the coffee shop at the foot of the stairs? My doctor, younger than I and an active road cyclist, named my problem. “You’ve developed an IT band syndrome.”

He showed me a couple of stretches and recommended massaging my legs on a foam roller. Although the limp eased a little, the pain was still a problem. My reading confirmed his diagnosis and his recommendations. I tried, but with little enthusiasm, to do what the experts recommended. I joined a fitness center and signed on with a personal trainer. Now and then, I enjoyed the pleasure of a massage. I tried a yoga class that a neighbor recommended, but the teacher was oriented toward middle-aged housewives rather than to an old-man bicyclist and I dropped out after half a dozen sessions.

About two years into this story, both legs were sore and the one on the left side began to hurt while I was cycling. Two more years, and I had to give up multi-day, long-mileage bike trips. The time had come to consult a sports medicine doctor. He listened to my tale of grief and, pushed, pulled, and thumped my legs. After watching me walk a little, he confirmed and augmented the previous diagnosis: tenderness of the left iliotibial and left piriformis muscle systems.

The good news: these conditions could be overcome and I could look forward to restored capabilities for walking and the aggressive cycling that had been my practice.

He assigned me to a physical therapist who would tell me what I needed to do and oversee my compliance. She watched me walk, studied my limp, and showed me six routines to stretch or strengthen muscles. “Do two sets each twice a day, and come back on Friday.” On the second visit, she corrected my stretches, added two more, and in a firm tone of voice gave one more instruction (perhaps command is the right word): “If you want to recover the ability to ride the way you used to, you have to cut back on your cycling now!

That’s when the serious conversation began. I explained that cycling was my primary mode of personal transportation and that I took vigorous long rides every week in order to stay in condition for aggressive open-road cycling. “I try to ride seventy-five miles a week,” I concluded.

She acknowledged that this pattern was more aggressive than she had expected, and we worked out a plan that seemed reasonable to both of us. My personal transportation rides could continue. She also agreed to my Monday ride—twenty-two miles on level city streets, with a pastry break at the Illinois Street Emporium. “But if you want your injury to heal, you have to slow down. And don’t push. Avoid hard climbs!”

Injury. This as the word that caught my attention. No one else had said that an injury was causing the pain. My mood suddenly changed, and I was willing to work with greater diligence in the healing therapy she was prescribing. A long, cold Indiana winter became my ally. Snow on the ground and nasty wind in the air all around made it easy to adhere to the limits she had imposed.

Six months later, the limp has disappeared. The chronic pain has become an occasional twitch in my left knee, especially when I twist it awkwardly while sitting at my desk or turning over during the night. It may be too early to say that the injury is healed, but my sense of well-being as a vigorous open-road cyclist is returning.

Now comes a new challenge: to develop a disciplined process of adding miles and increasing intensity. For two weeks in a row, I have logged my former average of seventy-five miles a week, and have taken days off so that the strengthening process can continue. One day last week, I felt the old push. Even when my legs were tired, something about my union with my bicycle urged me forward at a more rapid pace. I could believe that old times would soon be here again.

It will take time, perhaps all summer, for healing the injury to be completed, but I can feel it coming:

New life in my old legs! Hurray!


6 Responses to New Life in My Old Legs

  1. lmckiern says:

    Keith, this is such good news! Way to listen and work with your therapist.

  2. jacbikes says:

    Thanks Keith for this update. Sounds like my problem which developed last year after General Assembly (& my ride with you? 😁) of course I can’t avoid hard climbs until after my TransAm trip, but my leg seems to be doing ok, just occasional pain. As you note, it is fine while riding for which I am grateful! Glad you are seeing improvement. Happy cycling!

  3. Don Sarton says:

    Thanks for your reflections and comments. I too find it more and more difficult to balance training with care for an aging body. As I work to figure the balance out, I hear the words of my son, a PT, Dad, pain is the body’s way of telling you to figure out something different. Keep up the cycling. By the way, riding with a group in Omaha on Thursday mornings, called “The Rusty Spokes” I could only hope to be so rusty. Most of the group, several in their 80’s are riding BRAN, Bike Ride Across Nebraska this week.

    • The sports medicine doctor whom I consulted said that I could anticipate multi-day trips again. I’m not there yet but hope to get back to where I can do it later this summer.

  4. Elva Anson says:

    Makes me think I may have given up bicycle riding too easily. Everett’s legs have gotten worse more rapidly in his 87th year. He uses a cane more often. He has fallen many times, but he keeps on working in the yard. He enjoys it. Maybe our expectations
    limit us more than the ageing.

    • I’ll be 87 in October and am noticeably diminished from what I was two or three years ago. Our downhill progression comes at different times and at different rates. I’m glad that Everett is still working at vigorous activity that he enjoys. And yes, you may be giving up cycling sooner than you need to. Are expectations connected to self-confidence? I feel less sure of myself and this is also a limiting factor.

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