Why I love the gym since this often confuses people… (Hypermobility, episode 1)

My love of the gym is weird to many. Here is my explanation (no, it’s not just endorphins)

When I was a kid, it didn’t take me too long to work out that most of the other kids were a bit different from me. It wasn’t the reading or the red hair or the good marks that really set me apart, at least not as far as I was concerned. It was the fact that other kids appeared to be able to do magical, superhero things with their bodies.

My first ever P.E. report (tender age of five) read, “Kate is unco-ordinated.” This meant nothing to me at the time. Looking back, it’s just a concise summary of how I felt.

I felt like, when all the other kids were receiving normal human kid-bodies that leapt and ran like fleet-footed bipedal gazelles and tumbled and swung like unusually tall spider monkeys, I had somehow been given a weird, lumpy, alien flesh-machine. Where others raced and flew, I bounced and flopped. I was out of breath. I was chubby. I couldn’t cross the monkey bars. Nothing seemed to quite work the way it should. There was nothing in particular wrong with me (this is true. I have always been able-bodied and am in no way trying to claim a disability here. This is just the story of how I live in my body). It all just felt wrong.

This didn’t stop me doing some things. I rode my bike (slowly). I swam (badly). I jumped rope (differently from how other people do it, which is relevant to this story – I never actually jumped, I just kind of stepped quickly and kicked my legs back). I liked stretching and doing forward somersaults on the big gym mats. These were my limits, though.

Some of the lack of co-ordination was down to undiagnosed short-sightedness. After I got laser eye surgery a few years back, it turns out that I can (at least sometimes) catch things thrown to me, rather than simply squeaking, ducking and trying to blindly bat them away from my head. That helped.

I felt like I could never quite explain why some things were so hard. I knew I was unfit, but that wasn’t the whole story. Things hurt. Joints hurt. Not in an arthritic way, not in a broken-bone way, and not in a “your muscles are just weak and will get stronger as you go” way.

Several years ago, I was having knee problems. My doctor explained that my patella was, and I quote: “rather like the surface of the moon.” Great. I’d started going to gym and doing high impact exercise, and this is what my freaking body does to me; it breaks its goddamn knees. Nice work, cartilage. Thanks a bunch.

A few years later, in the hope of running without knee pain, I started running barefoot, and discovered that I quite enjoyed it, but ultimately this lead to other problems.

Enter the physio and the podiatrist, and my current epiphany, which explains everything right down to why I never jumped rope the same way the other kids did.

The flailing. The bouncing. The hurting. The lack of control and co-ordination. It all comes down to range of motion. Since my joints are too mobile, I can’t control where they go – or rather, I can, but only if I am doing things very slowly and concentrating rather fiercely. This explains why I can’t run (at present) but why I can, in fact, swim without too much trouble (the water pressure contains the excess motion and it’s easier for me to be in charge of where all my limbs go). Swimming is glorious because it is, for me, almost pure cardio – the muscles work and build but they are not frantically working to keep my hips and ankles and knees where they should be. I’ll concede that it does get a bit trickier with a tank, 10+kgs of dive weights, and a current, and that there’s a reason I went with split fins for scuba diving.

My friend Nadia convinced me to try gym classes and I finally plucked up the courage to walk into a BodyPump class (this is back before the your-knee-is-full-of-craters conversation). If it sounds strange that one needs courage, most of my previous experiences of exercise with other people around tended to result in at least embarrassment on my part, if not downright humiliation.

I was a convert.

People look at me strangely for treating a trip to the gym as a reward for a job well done, and that’s fine. Not everyone likes gym. Weight training is gym training, essentially, and I will always love gym because of weight training (also stretching, but that’s another story).

When I train with weights, I am isolating muscle groups. I am working on one thing at a time. I am planting my feet or seated on a machine and I only have to worry about one set of joints. Usually the exercise is done in such a way that it braces joints anyway, although bench press gives me trouble because of my wrists (they don’t hurt, I’m just constantly rotating them to make sure they don’t tip back too far, because they really want to). Tricep kickbacks. Bicep curls.

One thing at a goddamn time, and it actually works and I can actually feel it. It feels right. It feels how I imagine most other people’s bodies feel most of the time. It doesn’t bounce and flop and hurt.

I can control my range of motion when I do weight training.

When I do other things that move too fast – aerobics classes, for example – I have to keep too many things in line at once. The hips will shift or the knees or the ankles or the wrists – something will go. While I am trying to keep those where they are supposed to be, that will overload the supporting muscles, so meanwhile the other muscles will try to compensate and get overloaded themselves, and it becomes a vortex of hypermobile disaster. I can do combat classes and step classes and so on, but I do them in a slow, low impact style because otherwise I’ll probably do my ankle.

The feeling of being in charge of how my body is moving has been so foreign to me, so unachievable, that doing a set of weights feels like I’m triumphantly flipping off the universe. I’m not amazing at weights. My technique is not perfect. All the same, when I do a clean-and-press, I might as well be dancing Swan Lake for how good I feel.

Learning how to run barefoot was like that, but multipled by hundreds, thousands, because I could never ever ever run before that. Running barefoot gave me more control over how my feet landed. Running in shoes makes me feel like I have weights glued to the end of my ankles. Remember how my ankles are hypermobile, and it’s hard enough to control where they go? Adding stiff, unbending weights to them multiplies the problem.

But running barefoot, unfortunately, means that, even though I am finally in charge of my feet to a marvellous and empowering degree, I am less in charge of my legs (at least, the right leg, which is the really stupid one). Not being in charge of my legs means I end up overloading my feet anyway (but at least not my knees. For once) (note: when I was starting out very slowly and working up to 5k barefoot, my legs actually survived the experience very well – but I did have to concentrate fiercely to keep my right leg landing straight on. Recently I started running again after a break and overdid it and now I have zero power to keep my leg straight).

At the moment the compromise is to have a very light, flexible shoe with orthotics in it. In combination with my physio strengthening exercises, it’s actually working quite well – the other day I completely forgot to change to my light shoes for the treadmill work and managed a good run without even noticing (very slight shin pain, so I’ve taken a few days off from running and will get back to it tomorrow).

In recent times I’ve investigated hypermobility more closely. It very much appears that I may have Ehlers-Danlo Syndrome / Hyper mobility type (or hypermobility syndrome, or joint hypermobility – names and classifications vary). I have the stretchy skin, the myopia (at least prior to the laser eye surgery), the sensitisation, the painful gut involvement, the (juvenile) asthma, the poor proprioception (exacerbated in the presence of progesterone. Yay?).

I also score 7/9 on the Beighton test – the only thing I can’t do is bend my thumbs back onto my arms, and apparently if you score 4 or more that fulfills a major criteria. The minor criteria include dislocations and subluxations (hell yes), myopia (yes), stretchy skin (yes, although I only worked this out recently when I realised that not everyone can pinch the skin on the back of their hand that way) and a bunch of other things.

In terms of classic hypermobility, it all does explain why I can’t do shoulder presses (my ligaments hurt) and even when I do the shoulders never get stronger, why I developed RSI from pipetting (Gilson pipettes – heavy spring action; I’m fine with Eppendorf and more lightweight and ergonomic pipettes) when no-one else seems to do so, and why stretching feels so amazing at the time and later on starts to hurt in a suspicious and sneaky way. It explains why I fell over at least once every day in primary school, why I could never cross the monkey bars, why it took me two years to learn to ride my bike without training wheels, why I can’t do cartwheels but I can put my hands flat on the ground without bending my legs, why I walk funny

I’ll be writing more on this as I am currently fascinated and it falls into my category of biomedical obsessions (with an intriguing genetic slant). The down side is that, since it is genetic, there’s no cure or treatment (so I’m stuck with the occasional agonising gut cramps that make me pass out but hey, codeine still works). The up side is that, if I know what’s going on, I have a much better chance of avoiding injury. I’ve already worked out some alternative weight training that will build muscles without overextending around the joint (i.e., no more shoulder presses or tricep presses. Assisted chin-ups and tricep pull-overs or kickbacks are much better).

I will also be visiting the local clinical pilates business and seeing if they can help me. Watch this space.

[This was originally posted on my private blog a few months ago, and the last few paragraphs were added in response to some reading I’ve been doing over the last few days. I feel as though I may have opened a biomechanical can of worms, here. – KN]

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