Dealing with a Life-Changing Injury? Read How This Dancer Got Creative... and Some Stickers.

I met Alycia shortly after she received some life changing MRI results that impacted her fitness routine and super active lifestyle. This dancer and lover of movement and yoga wouldn’t let a little thing like the deterioration of cartilage in her first phalange (aka a “bum big toe”) rob her of her joy. Over the last several weeks we’ve worked together to create a robust strength, mobility, cardio and nutrition program for her that adjusts her exercises to account for her injury and strengthen around it. I’m so grateful to get to work with positive and inspiring clients like her and am grateful she is willing to share some of her story with us on my blog.

When we met, you told me you are a “lover of movement”. That has stuck with me. What did you mean by that and what’s been your relationship with movement?

I love dancing and have since I was young. It doesn’t have to be any style or genre in particular; I just love having fun, smiling and moving to music. I think I got that from my grandma—I remember being young and dancing around in the living room with her, my aunt and my cousins to Paula Abdul, Janis Joplin and Joan Jett. When you focus on the music and dancing, in those moments any other cares will disappear. I was also active in tumbling and gymnastics since I was 3 years old. 31 years later and (thankfully) my body still has the muscle memory to flip and go upside down. I think I enjoy that so much because it is completely different from what I do most hours of the day: sitting at my desk looking at a computer. Also, in general, I tend to have a lot of energy and these are good outlets for me to expend it.

Tell us about your injury and how it impacted you physically and mentally?

It started in 2015, when I was training for my third marathon. I had a combination of knee and foot issues. After going to physical therapy for a while, the knee got better but the foot did not. After a few years of trying to treat it with steroids and orthotics, I decided to have a ‘Hail Mary’ type of a procedure. In November 2017 I had some new cartilage put into my toe and the bone shaved down. I was told to wait a year for the full recovery. Fast-forward that year, and I knew it hadn’t worked (which the recent MRI confirmed). The pain was actually even worse at this point but my activity level was much less than what it had been before the procedure. It was very disheartening. Physically, it was tough—I was in constant pain and was so limited in what I could do. Running was clearly out of the picture, but even walking was hurting. Mentally, it was even harder: running through Golden Gate Park in the early mornings, with just me and my thoughts was what I did when I needed to process things. Socially, I was also missing the camaraderie from the boot camp class I took almost every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the warm up runs on Mason Street or going up and down the Coit Tower steps.

How have you adjusted your lifestyle due to your injury?

At first, I allowed myself a night to just be bummed. I had been eagerly waiting for the ‘year mark’ to see what my new normal would be after the procedure. I knew it wouldn’t be marathons, but was hopeful for 5ks or even a mile. I thought, ‘ok I won’t run long, but I will run fast!’. When the MRI confirmed that it had not worked, it was actually worse AND my only real option was to try to manage the pain, it felt like a punch in the stomach. I let myself be sad one night and then the next day I gave myself a big ol’ dose of perspective and made a plan. First, I needed to find other ways to stay fit while working within my limitations. This is where you came in – thanks JJ! I wanted to make sure that the rest of my body was as strong as it could be and functioning properly to take any unnecessary burden off my foot. Then, I made a plan to get back some of the control that I felt I had lost: I am researching options, providers and weighing pros and cons of each. It is a lot of work, but I feel much less helpless about the situation.

You know I’m going to ask about your stickers.

I started with the stickers when I started at PT. I needed to do my PT exercises every day, but I didn’t want to. I wanted a quick fix, not something that I had to do and then wait to see if it helped. Then, I realized that I was putting time and money into PT, so I needed to do the homework. I bought myself some stickers (preference is stars or smiley faces) and I put one on the calendar for every day that I did my exercises. It is corny, but it is really fun to see the stickers build up on the calendar and to see a whole month full of them. When I look at it, the fact that I put stickers on a calendar makes me laugh (literally, I laugh out loud at myself), but it also shows my dedication. You can do this with stretching, foam rolling, eating healthy; really anything that is kind of a ‘nuisance’ to do but you know is good for you.

What would you say to someone who is going through what you did. Any advice for folks who might be feelings scared or hopeless due to an injury?

First, I would say let yourself be frustrated or sad, it is totally normal. But then, use those emotions and get creative with new outlets and/or ways to move your body. For example, instead of the goal of running a marathon, I have set my sights on some pretty tough inversions. I realized that my years of running had neglected many different muscle groups. So, now I am getting back into movement patterns like when I was in gymnastics in order to complete these goals. It is fun and I feel strong in a different way.

One reason I had wanted to run a marathon, was to become a guide for the Achilles Foundation—to help others and motivate them to accomplish such a big feat. I was sad that I could no longer help others in that way. Another part that was tough for me was the mental and social/ community aspects that were changing. Luckily, I found this really great organization, the Curry Senior Center, and I have become very involved with them. I no longer go for 3-4 hour runs on the weekends, but instead I spend a lot of time with this organization and it fills my heart in a different, better way and also fills the void of not being a guide for the Achilles Foundation.