Applying Lessons from Ultramarathons and Embracing Adaptability in Rehabilitation with Lisa Bliss MD

Ultramarathon athlete, Physiatrist and rehabilitation medicine specialist Lisa Bliss MD explains how physicians adapt individual care plans to fit their patient needs.

Nothing gives Lisa Bliss MD the same joy as seeing a patient overcome an obstacle and adapt to their situation. As a physiatrist and rehabilitation medicine specialist of twenty years, she’s always looking to how she can help her patients reach their own personal goal – no matter how big or small that goal may be.

“That’s what I love about rehabilitation medicine,” Bliss said. “It’s not just fixing the actual injury or illness. It’s getting that person back to a full restoration of function.”

She works with each individual patient to find what they define as restoration. In this episode of Powering Health and Wellness with RPM Rehab, Bliss shares how to use a diverse set of tools to maintain a patient-centered practice.

Making a personal plan

Bliss defines success as more than just helping a patient to heal from whatever ailment they entered her office with. It’s about connecting with her patients on what they want to be able to achieve.

“Listening is the most important thing,” Bliss said. “Because when somebody says their goal is to lift their grandbaby after a shoulder surgery, I want to hear that.”

Typically, she finds her patients’ goals don’t necessarily seem as big and ambitious as running a marathon, until the obstacles to be overcome are fully understood. Rather, she asks her patients to think about what physical skills they want in order to fulfill their emotional needs.

“I look at what is that person’s goal, what makes them feel healthy and how do we achieve it in a helpful way,” she said. “We really need that hands-on approach.”

In her own practice, Bliss ensures that she’s doing everything she can to engage her patients and make them feel heard. It starts with making eye contact and actively listening to their concerns, and then progresses to physically putting her hands on their body to identify functional issues.

“That’s one of the big benefits of rehabilitation medicine, that we put our hands on our patients,” Bliss said. “We work with them…we watch them, and we’re really interested in always keeping in mind what their goal for recovery is.”

Embracing a diverse set of solutions

Once a patient sets a goal, there’s not just one way to meet it. In fact, Bliss encourages her patients to be adaptable and embrace a wide swath of tools for healing.

Typically, Bliss finds that people are more likely to achieve long-term functionality when they diversify their recovery tools.

“When we have all our goals in one basket, and then someone takes the basket away or something happens, we tend to get stuck,” Bliss said. “So, cross-training and looking at our options is really important.”

For a patient that enjoys running, Bliss would encourage them to feed that passion, but to also add some other activities into their routine. She reminds clients that repetitive use is a very real threat to our bodies – especially as we age.

“The older we get, the more important it is to do ‘prehab,’” she said. 

This translates into really focusing on strengthening the muscles we use on a daily basis in order to prevent injury. Strength training can oftentimes be the key to sustainable functionality.

“Sometimes physical therapy will get us back to our level of function,” Bliss explained. “But sometimes we need to add something more like strength training to prevent the loss of muscle mass which is a normal part of aging.”

Building endurance

In her personal life, Bliss is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. She’s an ultra-marathon runner and endurance sports fanatic.

But, it took support from her friends to realize that she could achieve such amazing feats. They gave her the courage to try.

“It was the people that believed in me that pushed me into the possibility that I can go beyond what I think I can do,” Bliss said.

It wasn’t easy at first. At the beginning, she often felt like an imposter or she was out of place. But, when she was finally able to cross the finish line, she looked back and felt proud of how much she grew.

At the heart of her success is the ability to adapt. She encourages her patients to put the same belief in their capacity to overcome difficult situations that she does in herself.

“It’s using that adversity and switching it around to make it your friend,” Bliss said. “Whatever your desire or whatever your goal is, if you can adapt to your environment then you can succeed.”

To learn more about this show, follow this podcast wherever you listen to your audio content. And join in the conversation by visiting us online at