The Arms Have It

By: Bob Schwartz

Many runners enjoy the purity of our sport and love communing with nature without modern technological accoutrements. Heck, some runners have further advanced the bare-necessity approach and have removed one-third of the running trinity of shorts, shirt, and shoes. Thankfully, it’s not the shorts, as they’ve instead chosen to relegate their running shoes to superfluous status.

However, when pesky injuries arise and we’re searching for greener endorphin pastures, we’re pleased with the availability of many technological cross-training modalities that significantly elevate our heart rate just by thinking about them.

What is universal among almost all cross-training exercise equipment is that they require the predominant involvement of our legs. Let’s be honest, most runners don’t devote a whole lot of attention to the endurance of their triceps and it’s relatively clear that even elite runners aren’t going to win too many arm wrestling contests. Our arm strength would really only come into play in a race if we were crawling to the finishing line after hitting the wall or pushing someone out of the way in a mad scramble for the last cinnamon raisin bagel at the post race refreshments table.

The difficulty for me arose when I learned I needed knee surgery and was not going to be able to bear weight on my right leg for a while. I had to uncover new ways of achieving my daily dose of sweat, stopping short of sitting in a sauna for long stretches wearing two parkas and a ski mask or elevating my heart rate by consuming a steady flow of quintuple espressos.

As runners, we’ve witnessed wheelchair athletes at races and their prodigious talents. They often train with exercise equipment that focuses on their upper body, including hand ergometers, or Krankcycles, but this equipment was not available at my local fitness center. I was getting stressed out over how best to stress out my body via exercise (exercise that only worked my arms) when it suddenly dawned on me. I needed to think outside the socks.

I was willing to try my hand (or arms) at anything and concluded I needed to see whether exercise machines could be used in a different manner than for which they were designed. I first eliminated the idea of lying face down on the fitness center floor in front of a stationary bicycle while reaching up to grab the bike’s pedals and creating my own arm ergometer. I tried it out but too many people stepped on my back as I lay across the aisle. Plus my view from down there wasn’t exactly the greatest, and let’s just say a gym floor isn’t the most sanitary place in town.

After circling the row of elliptical machines, the proverbial light bulb finally went off. I realized that if I stood on a short stool in front of the machine, facing the elliptical with my chest against the back of the display monitor, I could reach over to grab the arm handles and use them without involving my legs. My quest was over! I was no longer empty-handed.

Let’s just say my novel elliptical machine approach garnered more than my fair share of stares, accompanied by the quintessential “Really now?” expression. Many onlookers were obviously questioning my sanity as they politely tried explaining to me that I was using the machine the wrong way. They were obviously not experienced with injured fanatical runners or they would have immediately understood our determined (albeit peculiar) mindset. On the other hand, the runners at the fitness center simply gave me an approving nod as they strode by. They understood. Hands down.

My arms-only workout served its cardiac conditioning purpose while my knee healed and I eventually got back on the roads. Hopefully I won’t again be in the position of needing non-weight-bearing exercise. But if that does come to pass, I can rest easy knowing I could return to my novel approach to fitness by using the elliptical.

With open arms.

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