Back in 2014 when I began researching CrossFit, I had one big fear. Could I do it? Or, more importantly should I? As a lifelong athlete, the workouts weren’t necessarily what scared me. I was looking forward to getting my ass handed to me. My concern was the fact that I had already had 5 knee surgeries in my lifetime and a diagnosis of advanced osteoarthritis in both knees. From what I learned on Google and could see about CrossFit, it was a high intensity workout that forces your body to move in all kinds of ways, including a lot of squatting and heavy lifting. I immediately thought this fact, and my knees, took me out of the CrossFit game.
A friend who already did CrossFit and also had knee surgery assured me there were countless ways to scale workouts for those of us with bad knees. I was still playing soccer, the sport that resulted in all of my injuries and doing pretty well, so skipping out on CrossFit because of my knees just didn’t seem right. After starting CrossFit I got into the groove of sharing with my coaches that I have arthritis and a history of knee surgery. I was pleasantly surprised with being able to do most of the CrossFit movements. Air squats and box jumps became easier. I slowly started putting weight on the bar for squat cleans and thrusters.
Then, shortly into my CrossFit journey, another soccer injury took me out. I tore the meniscus in my left knee and needed surgery again. After my sixth knee surgery I quickly began physical therapy. We focused on riding the bike, mobility, squats and other simple exercises. I shared with my physical therapist that prior to my surgery, I had been doing CrossFit. He didn’t sound too happy about that. He went on about how CrossFit’s high intensity philosophy and difficult movements could be a recipe for disaster considering my history, and would probably aggravate my knees going forward. I took his warning with a grain of salt. I knew he wanted to help me prevent further injuries, but I know myself and I just couldn’t imagine doing only low-impact exercising for the rest of my life. I also knew that none of my doctors wanted me to continue playing soccer, but I was still going to do that too.
Seven weeks after surgery I returned to the soccer field, but I was only attending the regular gym on days I didn’t have a game. I had gained 10 to 15 lbs following my last knee surgery and was quickly growing bored of the leg press and elliptical machines. I made the decision to return to CrossFit in July 2015 after months of trying to stay fit on my own.
I can honestly say committing to CrossFit has been the best decision I’ve ever made for my knees. The medical professionals I had spoken with who told me CrossFit would be dangerous and put me at a higher risk for injuries were wrong. The pain levels in my knees have actually gone down, from hovering around a 6 or 7, to now a 1 or a 2. I lost the weight I gained after my surgery, relieving some of the pressure my joints carry. I’ve built my hamstrings and quad muscles, a strong recommendation from my doctors, to keep my ACL grafts and other ligaments safe from tearing again. Outside of the gym, I can walk farther and be on my feet longer, all with less pain and swelling. Thanks to CrossFit I haven’t had another knee surgery and I hope to continue on this path for as long as possible.
I know what it’s like to have knee problems your whole life and avoid exercise because of them. But instead of sidelining me, CrossFit and my coaches have enabled me to do more. Find a group of coaches who care about your wellbeing, who ask about your injuries, and who are knowledgeable and willing to help you work around them. For me CrossFit has been about improving the quality of my life and even with 6 knee surgeries and arthritis, it continues to do that for me.
-Kelly Fitzgerald Junco is Special Projects Manager at CrossFit Cape Coral, a writer, and Certified Professional Recovery Coach.
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