“But I feel so frustrated that this happened.”
I can’t think of many climbers that haven’t experienced the unpleasant weight of injury. It’s never convenient, always humbling and asks that you decide what to make of it and how to come back from it.
Today marks 6 weeks since I have been able to climb after enduring a left shoulder subluxation 3 months ago. With past knee, ankle and finger injuries it was still easy to work on a hangboard or pull up bar to preserve climbing specific strength. This was the first time I have ever had to take months off from climbing or using my arms. Even running was out of the picture for a while because of the severe pain it caused my shoulder. I was expecting to be back to climbing in 6+ months.
Thankfully, that was not the case. Through aggressive physical therapy and carefully pushing my limits, I returned to climbing at around the same level (honestly a bit harder) 3 months later. I figured I would share my recovery process for those with shoulder issues or injuries. It sounds cliche as hell, but injuries really do allow for such a unique opportunity to be stronger, smarter and, most importantly, a better climber.
I’ll start from the beginning and lead up to where I am now and how I currently train:
Month 1: Physical Therapy and Cookies
*MRI*Starting Physical Therapy*Diagnosis*Core workouts*
Ahh yes, where it all began. In the freakin gym. 😛 After subluxing my shoulder I knew the smartest thing to do would be to get an MRI. You can wait to see if the injury goes away but the risk for re-injury, improper self-diagnosis, or coming back too quickly were all things I wanted to avoid. The MRI showed only minor fragmentation of the biceps tendon, and no labrum damage, although my rotator cuff was operating at about 10% strength. Had my shoulder not subluxed, I was told it was likely something would have torn in the future. The origin of the injury was born in neck tightness, pec tightness & overcompensation of certain muscles to help with a weak rotator cuff. The subluxation was estimated to heal in a few months, and coming fully back to climbing was given a timeline of an addition 2-4 months. I had been feeling stronger than ever, but eventually was accepting and happy for a chance to step away from climbing. I did core workouts as a way to get some exercise in, but otherwise hung out with friends, focused on neuroscience and other interests and took a break. This actually wasn’t too terrible because I love what I do and have so many interests outside of climbing.
Month 2&3: Physical Therapy all day erry day
*10 exercises at 30 reps each, two to three times daily*core workouts* Arcing*
These might have been the hardest months for me. Climbing felt so close, yet I knew that if I moved my arm nearly an inch or two in the wrong direction it would create an awful sensation. I started running, continued doing floor core workouts, went to the gym to do PT and (in my stubborn spirit) climbed the slabs as hands free as possible to get some movement in. That was such a treat; even climbing something that an uncoordinated 6 year old punk could clamber up brought me so much joy as I tried to refine each attempt up the wall. Could I balance better? How about finding a new way of doing it? Could I climb the problem with only my right arm? It helped me realize what wasn’t always obvious: that I absolutely love the act of climbing even if it was a V-fun plastic haul.
The PT focus was still scapular stabilization and strengthening, pectoral/lat release and stretching, rotator cuff strengthening, and neck mobility/strengthening.These are fairly easy exercises to find online, but having a PT put your shoulder through various tests and awkward positions in person is the most helpful. If you are experiencing pain and have the time/insurance, please just do yourself a favor and see a PT.
Lastly, arcing was introduced at the very end to test out the shoulder. I would be so sore and scared on the wall, but eventually the fear subsided and I was able to improve drastically in my endurance. My first session was under 5 minutes on the wall. My third and fourth sessions were more than 20 minutes long. The treadwall was an amazing tool to work on breathing, fitness and continued climbing in this way.
Month 4 back to Climbing
*Training with a coach*Fitness*Running*Healthy Eating*Hangboarding via Grippuls*
This month has been marked by changing up my routine entirely. It had dawned on me that while I improved in my training logs and climbed decently outdoors, I had not really improved much as a climber. I felt like I had plaeaued for about 2 years. Now, a lot of this can be attributed to changing states, financial/transportation hurdles and injuries…but a lot of it was that I was stuck in a habit of training the exact same way each year, focusing more on strength than technique and without much guidance. Enter: Tyson, the Head Coach of Vertical World’s Climbing Team. I reached out to Tyson to see if he thought he would be able to work with me and help me become a better climber and I am so thankful he agreed. Together we’ve worked on a training plan catered to my weaknesses, continually work on movement and technique, and make exercises that work around my almost fully recovered shoulder. Each week we train together with new sets of workouts and homework to do on top of my hangboard workouts, moonboard climbing and arcing (climbing 20 minute cycles as part of an active rest day.) Although my body is still catching up after so many months off, I feel fitter than I’ve ever felt on the wall. And sadly more sleep deprived, as with a 9-5 job, hour commute and constant to-do list I am away from home from 8am – 11pm almost every weekday. Something to improve upon for 2017 surely.
Trail running was something that also helped me mentally and physically through injury. I love running and felt like it kept me fit and excited to get outside even if climbing wasn’t in the picture. While I know climbers have mixed feelings about running, I love it! For me my line is drawn if I forgo something I love for just one activity. I know that I have and can climb at a decent level and also dedicate time to another hobby I love. My legs might be more muscular, but again, I like to think healthy & fit, not thin. It will not be the reason I don’t send my projects and I will always run because I enjoy it. I find running not only helps me recover faster for climbing on rest days, but also helps me warm up for a training session. Just 10-20 minutes of cardio before climbing makes you feel amazing and warm up faster!
On the eating front, this was a change inspired from friends as well as being prone to frequent sickness. I felt like my immune system was on permanent vacation; I was feeling sick once or twice each week for months. When I limited my sugar, bread and processed food intake I immediately leaned up and felt like I had much more energy. I recovered faster from Tyson’s workouts. The biggest reward: I wasn’t sick! This was a game changer for me, as I was someone that took pride in being able to eat whatever I want and still climb. I would eat an entire bag of candy by myself and call it “dinner.” To push myself to a new level this spring/fall I knew that attitude had to go. I’ll note that I don’t diet, never restrict calories, and have no intention of trying to be light for climbing. I still eat delicious baked treats and burgers if out and about; I just try not to buy them for groceries and save them for special outings. Eating well has allowed me to gently “lean up,” but I eat as much as I want all of the time. I’d rather be healthy and strong versus thin.
On the hangboarding front, I had been looking for a way to work finger strength without having to hang 75+ pounds of weight off of a harness. This not only hurts my hips, but my shoulders felt achy after a month of hangboarding in this way. Enter: the Grippul. This tool allows you to deadlift weight using 4 different edges (or whatever hold you’d like to substitute in) instead of hanging from a board. I decided to do repeaters on a hangboard with minimal weight (8-20 pounds) and use the Grippul for crimp/pinch max hangs. I’m about 125 pounds, so + my 75 lb max hang weight I will need to be able to at least pull 100 pounds on a one pad edge with both arms. Because I am hoping to be able to pull my body weight or higher, the longterm goal is 125 with each arm. I hope by isolating each arm I can account for/correct imbalances in strength as well as preserve my shoulders. I am currently at 90 lbs with the left arm, 95lbs with the right. That’s close to 75% of body weight which is exciting, but I have a long way to go!
(Almost done I swear.) Moonboarding has been another nice tool to get back into climbing. Although I really enjoy our gym’s setting, I find that the straightforward edges and movement on the Moon wall doesn’t hurt me in the slightest, but volume climbs around the gym make my shoulder HURT so bad. I really only use the Moon wall as a warm up for my climbing drills. About 45 minutes of projecting and repeating lines that give me trouble help me work on technique, power and warm up for drills that demand a lot of fitness…and skin.
Lastly, I have had to keep doing physical therapy for my neck and shoulder every single day. This is obviously the least fun part. To get the best results, it’s been crucial to do the PT before (to encourage/warm up weak muscles) AND after (continue reinforcing and strengthening) climbing. It is extremely tedious and time consuming, but the progress made in such a short time has shown me this is a good way of coming back at a solid pace more safely. Eventually I would like to see PT as something done 2 – 3 times a week instead of a daily necessity through recovery.
Well, that’s the bulk of it! I’ll be posting specific training drills, exercises, photos and videos of everything mentioned. It’s rainy as hell in the northwest and I can’t think of anything better than to have some fun with training and learn some skills that will transition to real rock. Hope everyone is staying healthy and getting excited for spring! Xoxo