Monday, July 5, 2010

The long road to getting started

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia eight years ago. If you had told me then that one day I'd be training for a 5K race, I would have laughed myself into incontinence. I still remember the first time my doctor gave me "homework" between treatment appointments. My assignment was simply to walk around my suburban block, as slowly as I liked, and take a baseline measurement of my heart rate. I can't remember now what that baseline was, but I do remember spending the entire next day in bed, flat on my back, popping ibuprofin like candy. I was in absolute agony just from walking around the block! And I had bought good walking shoes specifically for that task!

I spent the next several years joking that I was allergic to exercise. Any doctor who dared to suggest that I get up and moving was shut down immediately. "You don't understand," I would say. "I can't do that. I can't! I have two kids, a husband and a life! People are counting on me to function -- I can't spend two days in bed for every day you want me to get out and walk." So we tried other things: elimination diets, supplements, medications, massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, physical therapy. It all worked for a while, enough that I was able to get through my day, but adding any additional exercise on top of the housework and kid-toting that I did everyday as a stay-at-home mom of two young children was out of the question.

I'm not sure exactly what changed as the years went by, my children got older, and the demands of motherhood became less physical, but I can tell you that it was a change in attitude more than a physical change. Not that there weren't plenty of physical changes going on as I stared down the barrel of my forties with my metabolism noticeably slowing down, my middle noticeably thickening, and various other bits and pieces suddenly succumbing to the laws of gravity like never before. But it was more the thought of facing my empty-nest years as a sedentary, achy lump of goo that had me looking for a change. Someday in the not-too-distant future my kids would be off living their own lives, my husband would be retired, and I would have nothing but time on my hands. What was I going to do then? Take up needlepoint? Scrapbooking? Fantasy football?

Nah. None of those things were for  me. I wanted my golden years with my husband to be active and fun, full of travel (even if only on day trips around central Texas). That's what I wanted to happen, but I had no idea how to get there. I was able to function with a certain level of pain, but I didn't see that situation improving as I got older. More than likely my pain would get worse and I'd eventually end up in a wheelchair or one of those as-seen-on-TV scooter things. It was a depressing idea, and I was determined not to let it happen. It was definitely time for a change!

My husband was apparently going through a similar early-mid-life crisis, because right about this time he decided to buy a second-hand treadmill. He talked about it for weeks -- where to put it, how much he was willing to pay for it, how he planned to use it -- and I can't say I was overly supportive. We didn't have anywhere to put it, we didn't have much if any money to spend on it, and I certainly never planned to use it! Hello, allergic to exercise, remember? But he found both the money and the space and bought one anyway. (We've been married for a long time; he has learned to ignore my nay-saying.)

On the day after my husband brought it home and set it up, the treadmill and I faced off in the guest bedroom. I thought that as long as it was there anyway, I'd give it a little try, just to prove that I was right about being allergic to exercise. I walked on it for 20 minutes at 2 miles per hour and could barely get out of bed the next day. Vindicated! But eventually I did get out of bed, and every time I hobbled past the guest room, the treadmill was still there. I am nothing if not incredibly stubborn, so a day later I hopped back on and walked for 10 minutes at 1.5 miles per hour. For the rest of the day it felt like someone had tried to pry my legs off at the hip and I made a resolve: no more treadmill.

Then my husband bought a Wii Fit and just to prove I couldn't do that either, I gave it a try. Much to my surprise, I kind of enjoyed it. The exercises didn't hurt and I was able to stand in one place for most of them. So I started doing the Wii Fit every single day, and after a week or two I was only a little sore from it. After three weeks or so, the aerobic exercises barely left me winded. I decided to give the treadmill another try.

The first day I did 30 minutes at about 2.5 miles per hour and I wanted to die. I was popping anti-inflammatories like candy all day long and into the next morning, and I could barely make it up and down the stairs.

The second day I did 20 minutes at 2.5 miles per hour and I was really sore all that day and into the next. I think I got by with only one dose of ibuprofin, though.

The third day I did 15 minutes at 2.7 miles per hour and the next day I felt fantastic.

The fourth day I did 20 minutes at 3 miles per hour and was a little sore, but not enough to need any sort of pain medication.

The fifth day I did 30 minutes at 3 miles per hour and even jogged for maybe 30 seconds at 4 miles per hour.

I kept at it every day, increasing my speed a bit, increasing my time a bit, jogging/running for a bit. I didn't quit like I always have before -- I pushed through it.

And one day, after a couple of weeks on the treadmill, I walked two miles. Which was 1.98 miles farther than I had been able to walk for years prior. My pain was most definitely present, but it was at a low hum, equivalent to the general level of pain I had been dealing with on a daily basis before I'd started this whole exercise thing. I can't begin to tell you how amazing it felt to walk two miles and not only still get out of bed the next morning, but actually be able to function as a human being.

That was all it took. I was hooked. I walked every single day, finding through experimentation that if I skipped a day my body would reset to zero and I'd have to start slow again, building back up to a decent pace. I loved knowing that I was doing something I never thought I could do and I very much enjoyed the increased strength and stamina I had in my lower body. But eventually walking alone, even at a brisk pace, was no longer enough for me. I'd proved I could do it, and now it was time to push myself a little bit further. It was time to run.

I started running the same way I started walking: on the treadmill, increasing my speed and distance in infinitesimally small increments. One "lap" on my treadmill is equivalent to one quarter of a mile, and at my peak I was running nine-tenths of a lap and walking one-tenth of a lap for one mile, with a lap each of warm-up and cool-down. Then I got cocky and decided to run on a hike-and-bike trail near my house, like the real runners do. That proved to be a big mistake -- I injured my knee and had to take a solid three weeks off from running. I did Wii-assisted yoga, stretching and strength training instead, then started back with slow walking and gradually worked my way back up to running. It was a frustrating setback but I learned a valuable lesson: I'm not going to reach my goal(s) any faster by pushing myself too fast and ending up with an injury. With the added complication of fibromyalgia, the old saying "slow and steady wins the race" has never been more true.

Speaking of races, as mentioned in the first paragraph above I am "training" for a 5K. Five kilometers is 3.1 miles. As of this morning I'm up to a half-lap each of warm-up and cool-down, then three laps of running half a lap and walking half a lap. So, a total of only 1.12 miles per day so far, including warm-up and cool-down. I'm trying to work my way up to three miles slowly, but it's so hard to be patient! The race is in September and my goal is to be able to run most of it and keep my walking to a minimum. I'm not trying to win, I just want to finish. It's a "fun run" so it won't be timed anyway, but it feels like a good place to start.

I imagine this introduction is long enough, so feel free to stop back by and keep tabs on my progress, or to pick up and share tips on running with fibromyalgia. We fibro sufferers face a unique challenge when it comes to living an active lifestyle -- let's do this together!

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