Betrayed by the Body

June 23, 1994|By MARK MILLER

It came without warning, a snapping or popping sensation in my left shoulder that sent me scrambling back to the squat racks, wincing in pain. Squats can be tough on knees and backs, so what was this searing pain in my shoulder? A ruptured biceps tendon, I later learned, an injury new to my weight-lifting career of 30 years. Stretched to its limit, the tendon had snapped like a rubber band, leaving a half-inch gap where the top end of the muscle used to be.

Like many power athletes moving into middle age, I'm paying the price for vanity and ego. And a heavy price it is. Beside the ruptured biceps tendon, there's my chronically inflamed (since 1973) left patella tendon, bursitis in my right hip, tendinitis in both elbows and a pulled left pectoral muscle.

Add the nagging, periodic pulls to my sinal erectors and latissimus dorsi muscles, and I'm in great shape, a health addict's nightmare, an orthopedic surgeon's dream. Chronically on the mend, that's me.

At age 45, my body is starting to question: How much more of this can I take, this pulling and pushing and lifting, this pounding of muscle, tendon, cartilage and bone? My frustration is running high, my Advil is running low. The exercise is still thrilling, but the body no longer seems willing.

My options are dwindling: No more squats or curls for a while, and no more pressing movements either -- the consequence of chronically inflamed rotator cuffs. Anybody got ice and a wet heating pad? Is there a therapist in the house?

The resilience of youth has given way to the frailty of middle-age, and I don't much like it. With age comes wisdom, sure, but I'd trade a pound of my new-found wisdom for an ounce of youthful resilience.

Injuries plagued me 20 years ago, but not like this. They were the exception then, not the rule. Now I seem to acquire new wounds with every workout -- nagging muscle pulls, inflamed tendons mostly -- not real serious stuff, though painful enough and annoying enough to cause a detour. Listen to me, my body now screams, and I do, lowering the poundage if I have to, laying off altogether if I must.

You can never go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, and he's right: I'll never bench press over 400 pounds again, or perhaps even 300. I'm not wise, just pragmatic. Push yourself too hard, I tell myself, and something's going to break. Twenty years ago, maxing out often meant being rewarded with a personal best in BTC the bench press or squat. Now it can mean, and usually does, being rewarded with something else: convalescence, the bane of all who crave exercise.

Like those big companies, I'm doing some serious down-sizing, decreasing the weight, increasing the reps, cutting my losses while increasing efficiency and productivity. Health, not ego, is my new bottom line. Fitness, not vanity, is what I'm producing. It's a new plan designed to keep this aging body in business.

In the fall I plan to return to the squat racks. But instead of loading the bar to 365, the weight I was squatting when my biceps tendon ruptured, I'll swallow my competitive pride and opt for high reps with 300 or so. Quite a comedown from the 500 I was using in my 20s, but respectable for 45. At my age, loss of ego is a small pride to pay for less time spent on heating pads, under ice packs and trips to the orthopedist.

Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.

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