How To Deal When You’re On The Injured List

Learning how to climb with one foot.

Learning how to climb with one foot is kind of like learning to climb for the first time.

The worst part about being injured is not the pain, but the mental game.  I have been at times overwhelmed, in tears, thinking about the setbacks, how long it will take me to get back to where I was, and how much I just plain miss climbing, and the climbing community.  I was just starting to get super psyched on bouldering outside. That was new for me and it felt satisfying.  Then I made one dumb mistake doing something I’ve done a hundred times.  I just needed to jump 2 or 3 inches further back and I would have been fine.  Instead, as I was jumping off this problem, my left foot didn’t land completely on the crashpad, and it hit part of the boulder.  In a second, my ankle was fractured, and my life was very different.

I’ve never had an injury before.  As you may recall about me, I’m the “newb”.  I have never really been athletic in my whole life, very much the city gal, and certainly have never injured myself (unless you count, like, breaking a nail as an injury).  So, having no idea what I was in for, for the first week, I was surprisingly positive.  I watched Courtney Sanders’ video about training with her ankle injury a bunch of times, and read up about training while injured online.  There are a number of inspiring stories like this one, or this one, or great tips, for example from pro climber Steph Davis on how to train when you have to stay off one leg.  And from Evening Sends on how to not be annoying about being injured. Having armed myself with knowledge, I was feeling upbeat, and thinking to myself that this was going to be a great opportunity to focus on other aspects of fitness, and that I would get back to climbing, barely missing a beat.  Well, I’m here to admit that isn’t exactly how it’s been going.

Here's me on Ship's Prow boulder in Lincoln Woods, RI just a moment before the accident.

Here’s me on Ship’s Prow boulder in Lincoln Woods, RI just a moment before the accident.

A big part of my mental game has been about fighting off the (irrational) guilt I feel for taking a what seems like a substantial break from climbing.  With the information that is currently available online about training while injured, you could easily feel like if you aren’t out there campusing on a rigged up pulley system, and climbing 5.11 with one foot by day 3, well then, you probably don’t really like climbing anyway.  Here’s the thing: I want to play it safe.  I know, I know, playing it safe is like totally not cool, and not hardcore. But, I also was told that I need to stay off it for a month, stay in the cast and on crutches, or risk needing surgery.  So climbing is going to have to take a backseat for a few weeks, and healing is going to be priority number one.  I keep thinking to myself that taking a few weeks off now could save me from having to take months off later.  And believe me, a month has felt like a year, so I’m all set.

Just like everything that happens in life, it has something to teach us.  If we don’t look at life as a process of constant learning, we will be at the very least disappointed.  Here are the things that I have taken away from this process so far, and hopefully they can be helpful to you if you ever find yourself in a similar position:

1) Don’t beat yourself up.  Period.  End of story.  Mistakes happen, accidents happen, that’s life.  You are in the situation you are in now, you just need to move forward.  Do not dwell on the past, or dwell on worries about the future either, because that makes you feel worse, leads to being stuck, and does not lead you toward committed action. This was hardest in the first week or two, but then it got easier.  Keep coming back to this first step every day.

Me and my boot twin Ashley at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville Ladies Night

Me and my “boot twin” Ashley, trying to have a sense of humor about it, which is also key.

2) Let your body (and the medical professionals) be your guide. We have to blend both medical wisdom and our own knowledge of our bodies, which is a very fine line to walk (or hobble, in my case).  Your doctor may tell you no climbing, not to do certain exercises, how much to stay off your injury, etc.  Whether or not a person chooses to follow that information is up to them.  And that is an extremely personal decision that one shouldn’t be judged for.  It is important to have a doctor who understands climbing to some extent, and one who has experience working with athletes.  A doctor more familiar with climbing might be able to give you more specific instructions on how slow to take it, versus a doctor who doesn’t might, for example, tell you not to climb at all, without knowing what that means.  Listening very closely to your body will help you as well.  For the first 7-10 days I was injured I felt exhausted.  I’m not sure if it was physical (getting around on crutches all day is more of a workout than I had realized) or mental (having to think about how to do every little thing) or a combination of both, but when I tried working out in the first week I felt like I had nothing to give.  I was beat.  It was hard to focus.  It took about 3 weeks for me to start feeling more like myself again.  Needless to say, I had to keep going back to tip #1, a lot.

3) Maintain your motivation by setting new goals. As Courtney Sanders says in her video, you have to find new goals to work on and new ways to “stay psyched”.  It’s a matter of accepting that your goal right now can’t be climbing a certain project, but that it can be, say working on pull-ups or finger strength.  As climbers (and I think just human beings in general), we tend to be driven by immediate goals and rewards, and it can be hard to focus long-term.  Staying motivated with something that is weeks or months away is difficult, so try to keep it tangible, and achievable in the short-term.  The other cool thing is, if you choose to climb through your injury, you can adjust your goals and expectations and just appreciate being able to climb at all.  Even if it’s 5.6, it feels amazing.  Taking this time to let go of the pressure you might place on yourself, and just connect with the things you loved when you very first started climbing is something to be grateful for.

photo(15)

Total Top Rope Tough Girl (note the knee pad, tape, GriGri, all I need is a helmet)

4) In strength-training, do not put yourself out of balance.  Because in general when we are injured, there is one side of the body you can’t really work, you don’t want to overtrain the muscle on the opposite side, otherwise when you get back to climbing you will find yourself imbalanced.  In my case, I don’t want to be doing a bunch of exercises on my right leg while my left leg is just hanging out.  As a general  rule, do the exercise on both sides, and if you can’t do it on one, hold off on doing it until you can do it on the other.  On a separate note, it’s killing me not to do squats and lunges and deadlifts, as a woman over 30 with pear-shaped genetics,  I’m always fending off the “pancake butt”, so I’ve REALLY had to keep reverting to step #1 on that issue.  Remember that our muscles have memory, and you will quickly re-adapt even after a lengthy break.  And, most people that I’ve spoken to say that they felt they came back even stronger after an injury (once you get past the first couple sessions of feeling like a complete beginner again).  For a complete overview of all the workouts I have been doing, click here.

5) Just like we keep the body in balance, it’s important to keep life in balance too. While yes, climbing is something that is likely of maximum importance in your life, I think we also need to learn to adapt and be flexible, because things can happen in life where all of a sudden everything changes, and we can lose things that we love.  We don’t like to think that, but it’s true.  It’s possible that something can happen where you either can’t climb anymore, or the way in which you do it is with limitations that you didn’t previously have.  I think it’s important that we have other things in life that matter to us, to balance us out.  For example, having other interests, hobbies, and passions, nurturing your relationships with friends and family,  and having other ways of dealing with stress.  If you don’t do these things, I think you actually leave yourself quite vulnerable.  Being injured made me realize how much of my life I do spend climbing, and how I have a tendency to neglect other things that are important to me, and I want to try and do a better job of attending to those, even as I get back into climbing with more regularity.

If you choose to keep climbing over a lifetime, chances are good that you’ll have an injury of some sort in the future.  Of course we do what we can to minimize this and at the same time, we accept that as part of a risk of doing something we love.  So I hope that these tips are helpful to you if you ever need them.

-Climb (and hobble) On!

Missy

Do you have tips for dealing with injury? Leave them in the comments, we’d love to hear from you! Click here to view Missy’s full list of workouts and routines.

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16 thoughts on “How To Deal When You’re On The Injured List

  1. oh no! I hope you heal up quickly and fully. being injured isn’t easy, but your tips are great. earlier in the year, I took a month off for an injured shoulder and two full months off for three torn pulleys in the same finger. they were rough, but keeping my life in balance was definitely key – it was a bit nice to not be so single-mindedly focused on climbing. I wrote a bunch of articles on being hurt, but I thought these two may be helpful:

    http://todefygravity.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/oh-the-mental-games-we-play/

    http://todefygravity.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/team-five-ten-injuries/

    best of luck!

    • Missy says:

      Thanks Dusty! I read your articles, which were great! Hearing other people’s stories is definitely inspiring and therapeutic. It was interesting that you were talking about hanging out at the gym even though you couldn’t climb, because I did the same thing. I couldn’t go the first week or two because I was too sad to look at climbing and not be able to do it, but then after that I started going, and it made me feel so much better to see my people, and not sit home being bummed out. Thanks for reading! Missy

  2. Tom Beck says:

    Right now I am nursing a sacroiliac injury from the slightest slip while climbing. Been over three months now and they and are hard to endure for “down time”. Especially since I was in top form when it happened.

    But this is not the longest time or worst minor injury I have had in 35 years of climbing. That knowledge seems to help with the discipline. Your comment on training unbalanced is right on. Good article.

    • Missy says:

      Thanks Tom. Yes, I agree that when put in perspective, knowing this is something you will continue to do over many years, a few weeks or months doesn’t feel as big. Best wishes to you in your healing! Missy

  3. v10Princess says:

    Campusing via a pulley system? GENIOUS.

  4. […] How to stay inspired when you’re on the injured list […]

  5. Laura says:

    Hi Missy,

    First of all, thanks! Your article really resonated with me and is almost a mirror reflection of my current situation. I broke my left ankle bouldering a couple of months ago. Unfortunately I also dislocated it, which means I have severe soft tissue damage to recover from…

    I too am fairly new to climbing (I’m the “newb” at my local climbing gym ;), but I know this experience will help me not only become a better and stronger climber, but also a more balanced one.

    Thanks again, and speedy recovery!

    PS: My husband managed to get a great photo just seconds before I fell as well 😉

    • Missy says:

      Hey Laura-Just wanted to check-in and say I hope your recovery is going well! Any updates 🙂 Take Care, Missy

  6. Ashley says:

    Missy!!

    I can’t believe I’m just seeing this post now, 2 months later! I know we’re both out of our boots now and back on the wall.. how is your return to climbing been going?

    I would love to exchange stories. Mine has been marked with some ups and downs and relearning limits, trying to focus on all the positives. Its been more mental than I anticipated! But finally took a step off the ropes a couple weeks ago and started bouldering again and that’s been getting steadily better each time

    hope all is well!

    Ashley (boot twin haha)

    • Missy says:

      Hey Ashley!! Thanks for checking in! I’ve been away for a couple weeks, so it took me awhile to respond to you, sorry about that. I would absolutely love to exchange stories. I’ll be at Brooklyn Boulders Somerville this Tues PM for Ladies Night, it would be awesome, if you’re there, and we could chat.

      But, in short, it sounds like our stories have been similar. A ton of ups and downs, and definitely way more mental than anything. Though for sure physically I am just not quite back to the same yet either, I gained like 3-4 pounds, which on me feels like a lot because I’m short, and also my balance and leg strength are taking quite some time to get back. Mentally I have lost my edge, and I am working on building it back up. I haven’t started lead climbing again, but I did get back on boulders again a couple weeks ago as well and bouldered outside too, which was realllllly heady. So, all-in-all it’s been a little cray, I’m doing alright with it, but I’d love to chat, so hopefully we’ll get to catch up soon! Missy

  7. Tintin says:

    Hi Missy,

    Greeting from the UK! Thanks for your article and training tips- it’s been really helpful as I’ve just survived 14 days in my boot and am starting to drag myself out of the self-pity that I’m missing my ski and climbing trip to CO as well as my secret mountain wedding!

    What did you fracture exactly? How was coming back from it once the boot was off?

    Many thanks,

    Tintin

    • Missy says:

      Hi Tintin-

      Thanks for asking! Sorry to hear about your ankle. That is a huge bummer to miss life events for an injury-in some ways that was the worst part of it, so I feel you. As far as your questions, I fractured my talus bone in two places, fortunately it healed with a cast and I didn’t need surgery. I had the cast I think for almost three months? I think the last month or so I was allowed to walk on it with full weight. Coming out of the boot I actually felt really good (no pain, no swelling), mostly I just felt lopsided in terms of strength-as much as I tried, you just are going to lose muscle and balance in that leg for a period of time, and then my balance on that side was total shit. I started PT about a month after I broke the ankle-that was as soon as I was allowed to start.

      My biggest piece of advice to you, besides go to physical therapy as soon as you possibly can (and going as often as you can, and keep it up as long as they tell you to and do your home exercises too!) is to ease back in to your life. Ankles take a really long time to heal. I did not go slow and basically the same week I got the OK from my doctor to resume climbing I sprained the same frigging ankle :/ It was really dumb. Because I was in such a ridiculous rush I ended up having this chronic pain and swelling, and I ended up needing cortisol injections and a second round of PT. I definitely could’ve just done other exercise, gotten stronger, worked on my balance, stuck with top rope and been better a lot sooner-and saved a lot of money on medical bills. But I had to try and be a hero and push myself back to bouldering and leading. Again, really dumb. So just try to listen to your body, go just a little slower than you think you need to, use the time to focus on other things and building other strengths, and remember that you have the rest of your life to climb.

      The other piece is the mental game, that’s harder than strength. It’s also different for everyone. It might be easy for you, but it was not for me. I think I was really freaked out about climbing again after falling, but I just wasn’t admitting it to myself and I think this directly lead to me re-injuring myself. It’s totally normal that your animal brain will take longer to be ready to face heights again, and it’s important to face it step-by-step, rather than just forcing yourself into it. If you are having issues with it, we have a good article here that is about overcoming lead climbing fear, but similar principles helped me with getting back to bouldering, if you want to check it out it’s here: http://cruxcrush.com/2014/12/15/a-step-by-step-approach-to-conquering-lead-climbing-fear/

      Hope that is helpful, let me know if you have any other questions!

      Take care,

      Missy

  8. Tintin says:

    Hi Missy,

    Thanks so much for being so generous with your time and advice – it is much appreciated, and a huge psychological boost to have your support.

    My doctors weren’t entirely specific about when I could start doing stuff so I am stepping it up a bit now (nearly 3 weeks in) as the play-off between taking time to heal and actually going crazy is a very fine line.

    My calf is already half the size of the other one, and now I’m losing muscle on that thigh too. The irony is that this weight loss is being counterbalanced by huge growth in my shoulders and my butt (the first for the right reasons, and the second for the wrong!) It’ll take some getting used to.

    Thanks too for the tips getting back into leading after recovery. Having a good head for leading has always been one of my strengths, so it will be really interesting to see how that works out now that I’ve got the baggage of being hurt climbing.

    Thanks again!

    Tintin

  9. Daniel says:

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. This is exactly what I needed to see. I especially appreciate the links to the steph davis articles.

    So yesterday I dislocated my left ankle after completing a problem and landing on the edge of a crash pad 🙁 I totally could have prevented it by climbing down or just landing differently, but I really feel better after reading tip #1.

    I’m glad to see another climber that also enjoys lifting! When I’m not climbing I’m working on my squat, deadlift, and bench press (maybe someday I’ll compete as a powerlifter). And now that my ankle is useless for the near future I’ll just have to work on my bench lol.

    This has inspired me to still go to the gym too, I was all bummed thinking I wouldn’t be able to go for the next couple weeks. But of course, I didn’t realize I can still go and just spend the whole time on upper body now.

    Thanks again for lifting my spirits

  10. Kirsti says:

    I can appreciate this article….I began climbing in 2014 (haven’t progressed far due to fall-fear and injuries)….I had shoulder surgery in July 2015 that kept me off the wall until December of that year, and I just had hip surgery last week, which should keep me from climbing until around July….just as the RRG gets a bit swampy. Thanks for the post.

  11. Sara says:

    Inspired. Thank you!

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