Running Lessons


Karen Rapinski running after her stroke

Re-learning to Run After a Stroke

At the tail end of 2020, I had an ischemic stroke that made it impossible to move my right leg and arm, blocked half my vision, and robbed me of the ability to speak.

When I finally woke up, weeks later, all I could think was, “I should have run more when I had the chance. Traveled and danced more, too.” Even though I was a casual jogger at best, being trapped in a bed gave me a burning desire to run.

At the time, my therapists were warning me that I might have to accept being bedridden for life at the age of 55.

Luckily, I just didn’t believe them.

I had already regained the ability to wiggle my right foot, just a little. I had been a science writer, so I knew about brain plasticity. Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself after injury and regain function. The brain can actually rewire itself to perform tasks that can no longer be executed by the area affected by the stroke.

I never doubted I would get better. I just got to work.

Just sitting up in a chair after weeks in bed was incredibly painful because my muscles had atrophied. So, I used the same approach I had used decades earlier when I first started jogging.

Every day I tried to extend the time I could sit up even if I could stand it only five minutes longer. Within a few weeks, I could sit all day. This pattern kept repeating itself—the more I did, the more I could do. So, my biggest piece of advice is to start slowly, build slowly, but stick with it.

The next big obstacle I faced was that the stroke had blocked about half my vision, so I kept walking into walls with my walker. Luckily, I was so slow that I never had a serious fall. It just scared my therapists. Eventually, though, with the help of some occupational therapy, I regained about three quarters of my field of vision, which is enough to navigate the world safely.

Being able to see allowed me to slowly build up to two hours of walking a day. First with a walker, then with a cane, and eventually my therapists cleared me to walk safely on my own. I could not do it all at once. But I would take at least three or four half-hour walks a day, at a slow pace. The endless repetition helped. I got faster. When I first started, I would stop at every curb, and only carefully and tentatively navigate the step up or down. Even today, because of the vision issues, I may be the only pedestrian in the Boston area who actually observes the crossing signals.

The endless repetition is boring but necessary. Practice makes progress. It took about 18 months for me to get to the point where I felt comfortable training to jog. And the first step was finding a therapist who was comfortable training me to do it. From there it took about six months of training with the help of a physical therapist to be able to do it safely. The hardest part was not building up my speed, but learning to keep my arms up in a runner’s stance. For the longest time, my arms kept dropping after a few steps and that would throw me off balance. Again, it just took endless repetition to get to the point where I could keep running smoothly in a way that my therapist felt was safe.

Taking up running again was worth it just for the brain benefits alone. As soon as I made it up to a slow jog, my brain fog seemed to lift. Now I am able to get a lot more done in a day and even write again. I do not do anything as quickly as I did before the stroke, but I can do it.

When I began jogging again after the stroke, I could only run at a pace of 20 minutes a mile. After two years of training, I am only up to 13 minutes a mile, which is slow for a woman my age who has not had a stroke. But I am still at it, and I still get faster every year. My runs are still the highlight of my day.

My goal is different than it was pre-stroke. My goal is just to keep running, without injury, as long as I can.

For me the dream of running again is what powered my road back from the stroke. Even if running is not your thing, you can apply the same mindset to whatever IS your thing. I hope you do.

I am signing off now to go for a run. Hope to see you out there!

By Karen Rafinski, stroke survivor and writer





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