Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Case Studies continued (Part 19)
To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.
Case Study Three: Ankle Busting (2008)
Injury: Severely sprained my ankle during a bouldering competition at the start of 2008.
Causal Factors: Lack of attention on my part. I was playing around on a problem, just checking out a sequence during a redpoint competition to try to work it out. I intended to step down off the problem after I’d figured out what I wanted to do so I could rest and then give the full problem a shot. Obviously, I was thinking ahead and not staying present, because I dropped down with one foot leading and caught my big toe on the edge of one of those ginormous drag-around pads some gyms have.
Recovery: I couldn’t walk normally. It was diagnosed as not broken, just severely sprained. I couldn’t climb. We were leaving for an international climbing trip in six weeks.
Kevin said cheerfully, “Now’s the perfect time for you to start doing pull-ups.”
“But I HATE doing pull-ups,” I protested, to which he replied, “Exactly.”
He suggested that I try to log a hundred pull-ups on my first day of training. I was down to sets of 1 at about 60, but I’m stubborn and predisposed to overtraining, remember, so I tearfully forced myself to get to 100. (I don’t recommend this as a good starting point for training for most people – but it proved to work out okay for me, thankfully!). After six weeks of pull-ups, toward the end of which I could finally get my foot back into a climbing shoe, we headed off on our trip – and I could feel a difference in my climbing from the training (not climbing!) I’d put in. My ankle continued to heal as I climbed on the trip, taking care not to toe hook or heel hook too hard to avoid reinjury.
Long-Term Result: This injury started my inquiry into training for climbing beyond just climbing. I’d always had the willingness and drive to train. Before this, though, I’d pretty much always trained to my strengths, meaning I would log HUGE days in the gym (4-5 hour bouldering sessions were normal 3-4 days a week) and similar 10-12 pitch days outside. (Endurance, anyone?)
Note that I thought I was training a weaker area by bouldering, but I was not really doing anything beyond just bouldering, nor was I consciously seeking out angles/holds that challenged me out of my comfort zone when I bouldered. I gravitated toward vertical/technical and ignored steep/dynamic climbing virtually entirely.
After the pull-up lesson, though, I started to read training materials – books, studies, online articles, whatever – and I started to really learn for the first time in my life what the research says about athletic training. So, to put it bluntly, this injury led me to more informed training, the result of which in turn led me to eventually learn to love steep, dynamic climbing and to want to do this almost exclusively. If you’d told me this would ever happen prior to this injury, I would never, ever have believed it.
Case Study Four: An Array of Overtraining Incidents and Relatively Mild Overuse Injuries (2008-2012)
Injury(s): A whole series of mostly vague and fairly quickly resolved (one week to one month) overuse injuries and overtraining episodes since I first started training for climbing outside of just climbing in 2008. These involved periodic bouts of burnout, lack of psych, exhaustion, depression, inability to climb/train normally, and several painful but not severe muscle strains here and there.
Causal Factors: Too much too soon. Too much too often. Too much intensity. Not enough rest. Not stopping when my body was sore and tired. Reading well-researched training materials general to all sports and trying to interpret and apply them for a climber (myself). Since I always believe I’m superwoman and I can do anything, I would tend to take the most stringent training approach and high-intensity protocol outlined, never mind all of the caveats about resting and recovery being keys to training success. I would make up a schedule and then try to adhere to it rigidly, come hell or high water. Note that this is a very stupid way to train, unless you also want to cultivate overuse injuries or overtraining.
Recovery: Every time, I had to rest – and rest for longer than I would have needed to rest had I not overdone it in the first place. Like so many of us do when confronted with our innate tendencies such as this, I needed this lesson and result repeated over and over and over again for it to really “take” in my psyche – for me to grasp that I needed to rest more than I wanted to if I wanted to get the full benefits of the training time I put in, and that I will probably always need more rest than I want to have or think I should have.
Add to this my propensity and mental ability to push my body to (and often past) its absolute limits every day that I train and climb, and my virtual inability to feel the pain/burn in the moment, and I clearly have a recipe for overtraining/overuse disaster on my hands. This is not an ideal set-up for an athlete at all. I have often wished to have more in-the-moment indicators that tell me it’s time to stop when I’m tired or worked, but I usually do not feel pain or exhaustion from training or climbing until much later. A more moderate approach and a bit less drive to push hard would honestly probably serve me better in the big picture.
Long-Term Result: Well, I still struggle with this, and I probably always will, but I do understand a lot more about not training a body that has been pushed to its limits until it’s recovered. I also think it’s a bit amusing to reread some of those training books and to realize how much I ignored or just didn’t notice the caveats about too many high-intensity workouts spaced too close together resulting in overtraining. These days, I really try to limit myself when I’m climbing outside multiple days in a row; I stop WAY before I think I’m done, usually on the first day on with a ton of pitches left in the tanks. I occasionally allow myself a binge, when I know I have to take days off after, but I’m still more cautious than I used to be.
I actually find the climbing regulation a bit easier than the training regulation. Still, when I’m training more and not climbing outside so much, I am better these days at forcing myself to take the rest my body needs, though I still have to routinely battle with the voices that tell me I should be training more. I have enough overtraining incidents that I can draw upon to remind myself of what’s happened before when I’ve pushed too hard, including Case Study Number 5, which sealed the deal.
Case Study Five: Nerve Impingement (2012)
Injury: Nerve impingement in my left arm leading to a temporary partial paralysis of my left hand and wrist.
Causal Factors: Overtraining and too much, too soon, plus a likely connection to the previous muscle tears in 2006, which I believe probably didn’t heal properly and played into this whole scenario. I dove right into training in the winter as hard as I had been training in the previous winter instead of easing into it slowly (which is way smarter). Once again, my enthusiasm got the best of me. I was stoked to try out some new, difficult opposing muscle exercises (pushing motions opposing the common “pulling” motions of climbing), which I should have waited to try until I was more conditioned. My hand started to have some numbness and to feel weak. In response, I backed off what I was doing in training, and it started improving as a result (of course; at least I’d learned something about overtraining at this point). Then I tripped and fell on a hard surface while traveling, and I put my hands out automatically to absorb the shock. This inflamed what was already inflamed even more. My radial nerve became impinged, almost cutting off the signaling from my brain to my hand. I couldn’t type or pick up a glass of water or put a rubber band in my hair, much less clip a climbing rope into a quickdraw with my left hand, for a couple months.
Recovery: I don’t want to rehash this injury here in great detail. I did seek medical help and did get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. This involved absolutely no repetition of the motion causing the injury (i.e. no pushups and guarding obsessively against falling and catching impacts on my arm, and so forth), ample use of NSAIDs (ibuprofen multiple times a day), ice on the affected area, and an understanding that if it didn’t progressively improve or it worsened, that I would probably need surgery or risk losing full use of the limb for life. Thankfully, this injury did heal progressively and I didn’t reinjure it; gradually and ever-so-slowly, I regained the full use of my left hand and arm, and the awful feeling of paralysis, numbness and weakness subsided.
Long-Term Result: This injury was the best injury for me ever, though at the time, it was completely devastating – not just physically but also, mentally and emotionally. All of my injuries throughout life have been blessings in disguise in one way or another, whether we’re talking climbing-related physical injuries or entirely mental/emotional injuries, actually, but this could take me off on a philosophical tangent for pages and pages. The point here is that this injury forced me to take a step back and take a hard look at what I was doing to myself repeatedly in training and even beyond training (too much) and to wave it off like an MMA referee waves off a fighter from his or her already downed opponent, disallowing the opportunity for more strikes and more damage. In this case, I was fighting myself and TKO’ing myself regularly, knocking myself down not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally, completely, time and time again. This is common pattern for the zealous athlete (or any person who is overcommitted to anything), but not a very sustainable or productive approach, especially over the long term.
A frightening, sidelining injury can provide an incredible opportunity, giving you space and time that you don’t normally have to think things through while you’re away from your sport, perhaps becoming an impetus for change, for introspection and for reevaluation/examination of your approach to training, climbing or life overall…even if it only serves as a slow-it-down signal, and nothing more. It can be so desperately hard in the moment (or long, drawn-out moments) of downtime away from the activity you love to see things positively in this manner or to understand what you can take from the situation and mold into a brighter, more productive and fulfilling way of climbing, living and being. It’s not something to succeed or fail at, though; it’s a process and an opportunity for growth and learning.
This injury compelled me to reevaluate so many aspects of my being. The details don’t really matter as far as sharing all of the personal revelations and realizations that came from this. The big message from this injury for me was, “Wake up!” Stop bullying and berating and beating your being, body, mind and soul, for not performing at the levels you aspire to perform at. Find a gentler approach, a sounder path, a safer way to make this journey toward climbing harder (or whatever you dream of doing better or differently) productive and pleasant, both, for all aspects of your being, and those around you, too. Enjoy your relative state of health, strength and comfortable living situation now instead of racing for and banking on some better place that might exist some day in the future (or dwelling in the past).
It’s fine to pursue greater heights and personal goals but it’s also really important – more important – to find comfort and peace and joy with who you are, where you are and what you can do right now –and then ideally, to be able to share that sense of joie de vivre with others, without losing or compromising your own internal sense of balance, integrity and wholeness.
“What you are is what you have been, what you will be is what you do now,” according to Buddha, as quoted by Nischala Joy Devi in “The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras.”
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey