My physical therapy appointments start and finish with my PT measuring how far I can flex and extend my recently-repaired broken elbow. Usually, I leave his office feeling buoyant and optimistic after netting 10 percent gains in either direction after an hour of hard, focused work, especially in the elusive extension category.
Last Wednesday, I was thrilled to clock in at 20 percent extension at the beginning of the appointment, meaning I only have a 20-degree bend in my arm when I try to straighten it like a normal human. After an hour of painful, frustrating exercises, I expected to break 20.
“Twenty-one,” my therapist said, turning away to write the number on my chart.
“What?” I said. “No! How is that possible?”
“You’re reaching your end point now,” my therapist said. “You know how to push your elbow as far as it will go. That’s a good thing. But now, we’ll see progress as gaining a degree or two week by week.”
As a runner, swimmer and skier, I’m familiar with how it feels to arrive at a plateau like this one, where progress becomes a game of inches or seconds rather than miles or minutes. It’s the difference between learning to ski as a beginner, when you can find yourself on intermediate slopes at the end of the day, and tinkering with your technique as an expert to address tricky, hidden bad habits. Or, it’s the difference between your first year of distance racing, when every event brings a PR, and racing several years into your “career,” when you wonder if you’ll ever break your own PR again. Either way, I recognize this fine-tuning stage as the place where the hard work really begins.
As a result, I’m refocusing my expectations, and reminding myself constantly that tiny improvements can lead to transformational outcomes. I’m trusting the process and doing the work I know will lead to long-term success. As always, I’m trying hard to develop patience.
In the meantime, I’m making sure to express gratitude for the gains I am making. This week, those gains included my first successful post-surgery swim! I tried to swim on the first day I was allowed to in mid-February, but ended up kicking for an hour instead after learning that my left arm simply didn’t work yet. Last week, I was thrilled to discover that I could manage about 500 yards of gentle freestyle, broken up by lots of kick sets—huge progress!
I also ran for the first time post-surgery. I’ve been allowed to run for weeks, but my doctor was correct in guessing that it “probably won’t feel very good.” But I felt stable enough on Friday to manage four half-mile repeats on the treadmill at 8:30-minute-mile pace (which felt like a sprint … sigh). Progress!