Starting a game with Contra Mestre Loki, Canberra, 2011.

Starting a game with Contra Mestre Loki, Canberra, 2011.

Being injured sucks. It’s a place that nobody wants to find themselves in, whether they’re athlete, couch potato, or anything in between. 

As I approach the 3-year anniversary of one of the biggest challenges of my life, I thought I’d jot down what I’ve learnt about injury, recovery and the importance of being innovative with your training. Hopefully this post provides some food for thought for folk out there facing similar challenges.

Please note: I don’t have a background in medicine, health or sports science. In this post I explore my personal experiences, and what I’ve learnt along the way.

The back story

One of my first Capoeira classes in Brazil with my brother (Kojak), Emma (Rupunzel), Mestre Cocoroca, and myself.

One of my first Capoeira classes in Brazil with my brother (Kojak), Emma (Rupunzel), and Mestre Cocoroca. Laranjeiras, Rio de Janeiro, 2002.

Anyone that knows me will verify the fact that I am a giant Capoeira nerd. From the moment I first walked into a Capoeira class and heard the twang of the Berimbau at age 20, I was hooked!

To me Capoeira has always been about much more than a physical discipline or even a cultural practice. It’s not about the gradings, festivals, games, music, language or dance.

Being a Capoeirista has allowed me to delve deep into the heart of who I am, and explore every facet of my identity. Through my practice I have seen with absolute clarity my flaws, talents, and creativity.

This art form also connected me with people who have undoubtedly shaped my life. It has been the catalyst for positive change in my self perception, the way I deal with friendships, and the world. Capoeira has walked with me through some of my toughest moments; helplessness, heartbreak, death, and betrayal.

Above all else, Capoeira is my way of consolidating my experiences in life, processing them, and celebrating them.

The initial diagnosis

After more than a decade of training Capoeira every other day, and dabbling in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, and surfing, I’d had my fair share of minor to moderate injuries. I’d experienced the frustration of needing to rest, rehab, and climb my way back to where I was before. But nothing really prepared me for the diagnosis I received in mid 2011, and the events that followed.

I was playing a Capoeira master, who applied a take down on me that saw me land awkwardly and smack the outside of my right knee on the wooden floor.

After a couple of weeks of swelling and pain, I went to see a physio, who treated me for an impinged fat pad. After a couple of months of rehab and rest, I was back on the mats, feeling strong and pain-free.

Just when I felt I was getting my groove back, I dislocated my knee cap when doing the splits after class. I was comfortably stretching in the splits and went to square up my hips. As my right leg moved with my hips, my knee cap seemed to “stick” in the mats, forcing it out to the side.

Yep, that hurt.

Over the coming days the swelling and inflammation worsened, and I returned to the physio. She sent me to get an MRI because she was concerned about why my knee cap had dislocated so easily, and because the knee joint had experienced multiple traumas.

Weeks later I sat in the sports physiologist’s rooms, anxiously waiting my turn.

With an almost expressionless face and with no preamble, she bluntly delivered the news, blow by blow:

  1. I had developed significant osteoarthritis in my right knee, particularly under the patella. I’ll never forget the way she said “your knee looks like it belongs to an ex-rugby player”.
  2. I should never do any martial arts ever again, or any exercise that involves lunging or squatting.
  3. Panadol was going to be my new best friend – forever.
  4. The condition and pain would only get worse over time.

I was gutted.

With tears in my eyes I asked her if there was any shred of hope for an alternative treatment, surgery or more positive long-term prognosis, to which she said “no, that’s the way it is with arthritis. There is no cure and it will only worsen the older you get”.

The surgery 

My mum is a “never give up” kind of woman, and she certainly doesn’t take no for an answer, at least without making sure she’s exhausted all other options first. She’s also very well connected here in Canberra, and within 24 hours of my diagnosis, had spoken with a golfing friend who also happened to be a top orthopaedic surgeon.

Still doubtful as to whether the surgeon could help me, I made an appointment to see him. The long and short of it was that there were a range of surgery options available to me, but none would restore my knee to its former structure, and none came with any kind of certainty about whether I would actually experience any kind of pain relief, let alone get me back to training.

He sent me home after a cortisone injection to see how I felt, and ponder whether I wanted to opt for surgery. The most minimal form of intervention was an arthroscope where he would “reshape” the underside of my knee cap, which in the MRI scan looked a bit like a jellyfish, the tentacles being the damaged, misshapen bone that was grating against the rest of the joint structure.

Being in pain every day can be pretty motivating. After the mild relief that the cortisone injection provided had worn off, I was just about willing to try anything to improve my situation.

I had the arthroscope in November 2011, and the initial recovery period went well. A month or so later, frustratingly, I was still experiencing significant inflammation and swelling around the knee, which was making any kind of exercise tricky.

Learning to “do it differently”

At this point I don’t know what was more difficult for me, the physical pain, grappling with the uncertainty of what lay ahead, or redefining my identity as a Capoeirista. I’m forever in debt to a handful of very good friends, who played an integral role in my rehab, recovery, and discovery of alternative ways to be happy, healthy and train hard.

Here are a few key things that I believe that helped me immensely on this journey:

  1. Adopting a low inflammatory diet: cutting out as much sugar and saturated fats as possible to minimise insulin spikes and subsequent inflammatory responses in the body.
  2. Squatting and weight bearing activities: despite the fact that the sports physiologist had told me to steer clear of squatting and lunging, I learnt to start slow, and build up the muscles around my knee joint.
  3. Learning about different types of pain: it’s true to say that some days it hurt to walk, let alone do weights or any kind of training, but I over time I learnt the difference between a full on inflammation and just general arthritis pain.
  4. Taking high doses of fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin: like, a lot of it.
  5. Sleeping more, reducing my stress levels, and getting acupuncture when I was really inflamed or swollen. This proved more effective than any anti-inflammatories or pain relief medication.
  6. Learning to weigh up the risks: at first I would worry a lot about trying something new at training, or whether to train at all because I was afraid of being in pain. A good friend of mine who is well versed in managing chronic pain and an inflammatory condition taught me how to objectively assess risk VS reward, and to not succumb to fear!
  7. Not looking over my shoulder: another good friend of mine who is a physio and yoga teacher told me something really simple, and it has stuck with me. That is, that our bodies are living organisms that are forever changing. Sometimes it’s positive change, and sometimes it’s devastating. Change in our bodies over time is inevitable, so we should never expect them to perform or respond in the same way forever.

After about 18 months of ups and downs (and no Capoeira), I noticed that the periods of time that I was pain-free were growing. I started to  challenge my knee with new exercises and movements, and felt confident in pushing the boundaries of my initial diagnosis.

My awesome partner and my coach instilled in me a belief that I would get back to doing what I loved most, and more! I began to feel the strength building in my legs, and I started to experiment with Capoeira again. I am still working on my “new game” and train as much as I can (pain free of course).

I can now comfortably squat, lunge, skip, jump and run, and have gained full flexion back in my knee. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my life with a dead lift of 122.5kg, back squat of 80kg, bench press of 60kg, and push jerk of 55kg. I’ve also started to train BJJ again, with the assistance of chunky knee pads, and some awesome training partners.

There are no guarantees with my knee, but I’ve decided to set my sights high, and roll with the punches.

Moments after receiving my blue belt in 2007.

Moments after receiving my blue belt in 2007.

Playing Contra Mestre Ourico at the Capoeira Aruanda Batizado in 2010.

Playing Contra Mestre Ourico at the Capoeira Aruanda Batizado in 2010.

Meeting one of my Capoeira heroes, Mestre Acordeon (centre) with Contra Mestre Borracha in Melbourne, 2010.

Meeting one of my Capoeira heroes, Mestre Acordeon (centre) with Contra Mestre Borracha in Melbourne, 2010.

Playing music with Simon at Bondi Beach, 2012.

Playing music with Simon at Bondi Beach, 2012.

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