How I Fixed My Knee Problems (and accidentally got in the best shape of my adult life)

I used to have trouble with my left knee.  I first noticed it after I’d been dancing for maybe 6 years.  I’ve always been a very active, athletic person (soccer, horseback riding, track, etc.) and had struggled with my right ankle in the past, which I’ve sprained no fewer than five times, but this knee issue was a new one for me.  It was hard to predict exactly how or when (or even where) it would hurt, but I knew it was impacting my dancing because I would feel it twinge, and I’d want to not do movements that felt “risky” for my knee.  Trying to protect yourself from doing certain kinds of movements with your body when you’re a follower in an improvised partner dance is pretty tricky, as you might imagine.

I went to a doctor, who diagnosed my patella as not moving smoothly when I bent and straightened my knee, which was causing inflammation, which was causing pain.  I was sent to physical therapy, where I did a variety of exercises that I don’t remember.  Eventually I stopped going to PT, things probably got a bit better, and I didn’t think about it for a while.  When enough years go by managing something like this, I think you start to feel like it’s just part of your life, and you pay less attention to it.

Sometime in late winter/early spring 2012, I realized that I’d been unconsciously managing (or perhaps studiously ignoring) my knee pain for what amounted to quite a long time.  I know that I eventually identified that my IT band tightening up was basically the culprit of my troubles, and when things got bad I would go to a massage therapist and have them work out that IT band like there’s no tomorrow.  Which helped a lot.  But ultimately I was still treating the symptoms of the problem and not the root cause.  It was impacting my enjoyment of the dance. I was worried that it spelled trouble for the possibility of dancing well into old age.  So I started talking to other dancers about it.  A friend said it sounded like I have runner’s knee, in which basically the muscles in my leg are unequally strong, which contributes to the imbalance that causes my patella to get pulled to one side instead of tracking smoothly.

At this point in the story I have to make a confession/give some background explanation.

After being a varsity athlete and in the best shape of my life in high school, I went to college and quit all my athletic activities except Lindy Hop.  I didn’t know how to “go to the gym” as an individual, since I’d always exercised as part of a team doing whatever the coach told us to.  By 2010, I was realizing that I should set some good habits in my late 20s that would put me in good stead for my future, so I’d started going to the gym to run on a treadmill for 3 miles a couple times a week, and maybe I’d do a few circuits on the weight machines, but I really had no clue what I was doing.  So on the whole, I wasn’t really doing much to keep my body in good health except for dancing and running.  Oh, and I took up soccer again, which was super fun, but I definitely noticed that it was also pretty hard on my knee.  So that wasn’t really helping, you know?

Ok, back to “runner’s knee.”  So, when I heard this, it made perfect sense, since my notion of “do some exercise” was basically limited to “go run 3 miles.”  I decided I needed to nip this whole situation in the bud, whatever it took.  I called up my gym and told them I wanted a personal trainer.  And, in June 2012, I started meeting with a trainer once a week to do strength training with the goal of building up the muscles I needed to protect my knee.  (Spoiler alert: turns out it’s mostly glutes.)  We did a lot of squats.  Front squats, Bulgarian split squats, jump squats.  Also this torture-device thing where you put a rubber resistance band around your ankles, assume a squatting position, and crabwalk sideways.  That one really burns.

Of course, being a personal trainer, my trainer told me he was going to have me do full-body conditioning stuff even though of course we were paying special attention to my knee.  Which was fine and made perfect sense to me.  About three months in, he asked me if I had any goals I wanted to work towards.  I said “fix my knee.”  He said “I know, I mean besides that.”  Being a feminist, “lose X lbs” or “get a bikini body” are not the kind of goals I think are worth setting, so I had to think it over for a while.  Eventually I said, “I want to do one chin-up.”  He said that was a great goal.  We started doing more strategic upper body exercises.

Fast-forward to October/November 2012.  I had noticed a significant improvement in my knee.  Movements that formerly I would have shied away from while dancing I now could (to my profound surprise) execute without pain.  With trepidation and working through a lot of fear, yes…but I could actually stand on my bent left leg and ask it to bear weight in ways that would simply not have been possible six months prior.  Plus: one day I went to the gym by myself to do weight training (having worked with my trainer for so long, I was starting to develop a better idea of what to do with myself in terms of exercise).  I’d made my way up to maybe 80-90% of a chin-up by that point.  I thought I’d try it again.  So I grabbed that bar and thought about pulling it down to me instead of me up to it, and–magically, it felt like–my chin passed the bar and kept on going up until I was at the height of the chin-up.  I held it there for an extra second just to savor the victory.

Now that it’s June 2013, I can very proudly say that I haven’t experienced any knee pain at all–none–in at least 6 months.  Sometimes I do get some pain in my left hip now, but I view this as progress because it means the pain is actually closer to where the source of the problem is, rather than referring down to my sensitive, precariously-placed knee.  (The knee is very weak and susceptible to be implicated in all kinds of problems originating elsewhere, it turns out.)

So yay, a happy ending.  But I want to sound a cautionary note:

Back in 2005, I was at a Lindy Hop workshop sitting in a Q&A with some international instructors.  Someone asked what exercise they did besides dancing, and at the time they both said: none.  When I heard this, I thought it validated the fact that I wasn’t doing any other exercise, either.  In the years since, I haven’t asked those instructors whether they’ve changed their lifestyle to include exercise other than dance.  It’s possible they have.  But what I learned the hard way is that only doing Lindy Hop will, ironically, undermine your ability to do Lindy Hop.

Now that my body is stronger, I definitely notice it is affecting my dancing.  I used to dance in a way that was absolutely as energy-efficient as possible, reducing the amount of work I needed to do to the bare minimum.  Now, I want to work harder in my dancing.  I’m experimenting with using my left leg muscles in new ways at the end of my swingout, feeling out how it changes my connection and where I feel the end of my frame.  And whatever I’m trying out, I feel powerful.  I feel strong in my body.  And this makes me feel capable, and it puts me in a frame of mind to try new ways of moving, and all of that has only been positive for my dancing.  So, I started out just wanting to stop having pain in my knee.  And I ended up accidentally getting into the best shape of my adult life, which has the happy side-effect of making me a stronger, more capable dancer.

Now, for those of you having issues: go out there and do what you have to do to figure out the root cause of your injuries and pain.  It’s not sustainable to ignore it, and ultimately, fixing the problem will lead you to be a better dancer.  Those of you who are lucky enough not to have any issues, but are still only doing Lindy Hop: show some self-care and get thee to a gym, stat.

With self-discipline and some luck, I think we can all keep on swinging out–pain-free– into very old age.

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2 Responses to How I Fixed My Knee Problems (and accidentally got in the best shape of my adult life)

  1. Chris Rivas says:

    Though I spend my days surfing the web for good Lindy Hop articles, I never post comments on onw. However, this one was just perfect. I’m gonna try to fix my knee pain as well and hopefully it can get better. Thank you for such a great post!

  2. dancewithgina says:

    Lainey recently wrote a wonderful post highlighting a number of other exercises one can do to protect one’s body as a dancer. I highly recommend it: http://danandlainey.com/taking-care-of-your-body-for-lindy-hoppers/

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