Dealing with Injury – Blood, Sweat and Tears!26 July 2012, 9:37 pm
Dealing with injury
There comes a time in every athlete’s career when forced rest as a result of injury becomes a necessary evil, and a reconsideration of his or her approach to training is vital. There is a lot to be learned from the phrase – if a little cliched – “listen to your body.” It is far too tempting to become blinkered by grades, circuit reps and dead hangs in the pursuit of improvement and to ignore the short and long term damage that training through injury can inflict on our bodies!
In this blog I would like to discuss my experiences of injury over the last 12 or so years. Partly because I believe it may help others to overcome the frustration of having to endure injury-related interruptions of climbing, but also as it could additionally be used as a kind of ‘therapy’ for me.
My first ever injury occurred when I was about 11 or 12. I didn’t do much bouldering back in the day but for some reason I was fascinated by this filthy 6C boulder problem at GCC. Tiny blades for handholds and poor feet, I was eager to complete this project and relentlessly threw myself at it until I could do it. Unfortunately, my over -exuberance caused me to damage the collateral ligament in one of my fingers. I took it easy for a while and one evening, quite by chance, there was a woman offering taster massages at the wall. Desperate for help and advice, my Dad asked if there was anything she could do for me, and after a 10 minute massage the pain appeared to disappear! I had been lucky and escaped a long term injury. Through being attentive to what my body was feeling I had done myself a favour in preventing it from getting any worse. I was young and stubborn, but I had learned a lesson that constantly throwing myself at a hard problem was a very bad idea, especially considering how young I was.
Me at the tender age of 10! Somehow – whether it be by luck or through circumstance, I managed to stay injury free for the next 5/6 years. The next obstacle – a femoral hernia – came about not specifically through climbing, but more so through having a genetic predisposition to hernias. In April 2009 I underwent surgery to repair it and had 8 weeks of forced rest. This was the longest cessation of climbing I had had so far, but at the same time I considered it a welcome break from training. I had exams to focus on and so believed it to be a blessing in disguise to a certain extent! However, just 6 months later, whilst competing in a round of the European Youth Cup in Munich, I felt a popping sensation whilst halfway up my second qualifier. It wasn’t particularly painful, but I recognised the feeling. The hernia had returned and I was booked in for yet another operation. The verdict? 10-12 weeks off. I was heartbroken as it meant I had to miss some important events, but I eventually took it in my stride and used it as an incentive to get stuck into training for the World Youth Championships in Ratho. I had just under 3 months to get back to full fitness for this event after my time off, and achieving 10th place in this competition meant almost as much to me as when I had won in Kranj, purely because I had had to fight so hard to keep motivated and pick myself up off the floor!
On top of the EYC podium in 2007 In the run-up to the WYC I had acquired my first finger injury in years. It was a partial pulley tear and gave me more pain than the hernia ever did! Remarkably, it took a year for this to heal fully, and to my mind was the most difficult to overcome mentally. It seemed to pale into insignificance in comparison to what some people have to endure in life, and was positively laughable to the non-climber who would generally consider a finger to be one of the least crucial of the body parts, considering there are 9 more digits (including thumbs here!) at our disposal. To a climber, however, an injury to this small yet crucial body part often means frustration, forced rest and shattered dreams.
Back to fitness at the WYC I stopped using the term ‘training’ and resorted to ‘climbing’. I resigned myself to pottering around and gradually built my level up over the year. I had sporadic rest periods and equally sporadic emotions. When the same injury occurred again in the same finger on my opposite hand just as the initial one was healing, I just couldn’t believe it. What had I done to deserve this? Immediately it felt as though the world was weighing in on me. I must be getting old, falling to bits, burning out. Another good few months of aimlessness and misdirection – not knowing what to do and what not to do. It sometimes felt as though I was making it up, and as though other people didn’t believe I could be injured again. Although I enjoyed hanging out at the wall, it sometimes became too much to be around climbing when I couldn’t partake in it myself. Talk of training, trips and projects only deepened my disheartened sentiments .
Eventually I switched my focus towards outdoor climbing and learned to transfer the anger and frustration of injury into positive aggression on the rock. I had the best trip of my life in Ceuse last year, and with it both my finger injuries disappeared. Reading into it a little too much, perhaps, it could have been viewed as some sort of spiritual release as pain left the body whilst I gained the strength and confidence to fight against my predicament. Whatever it was, be it pure coincidence (or magic!) , I welcomed my newfound state of fitness and confidence.
Dolce Vita 8a+, Ceuse 2011 I worked hard, I pulled harder – I was in training for the BLCCs and everything was going well. One day I decided to try a tricky problem with some friends and executed a powerful move from a pinch up to a good crimp. Suddenly I felt and heard a popping sensation in my left middle finger as I moved upwards. I dropped off the wall and stared in bewilderment at my swollen finger – tender and red with pain. I frantically manipulated it, naively expecting it simply to be a friendly ‘twinge’ or ‘tweak’ – those terms that climbers use when describing what usually turns out to be a fairly fleeting and insignificant pain. ‘Twinge’ in this case was very much a euphemism. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, I thought. It will be fine. Shaking slightly, I attempted to climb. It was excruciatingly painful to bend let alone put under weight, so I ran upstairs to get ice and advice. A pulley tear again. I immediately thought of the competitions I had coming up and wanted the ground to swallow me whole. Not again, not more disruption!
That was October last year and the injury has only begun to settle down this summer. In the meantime I battled against a tendinopathy on my heel, which came about through wearing tight climbing shoes. It was agony to stand or walk in rock shoes, and even normal shoes were uncomfortable. I competed in CWIF with odd shoes that were oversized – not ideal but I was determined to climb! My fingers were getting stronger and at least on the bright side I could pull myself up properly without weighting my feet! I struggled through the CWIF with my gammy feet, but fortunately in the week before BUCS I had the genius idea of splitting my shoes down the heel. It wasn’t perfect but made my footwork improve by miles as I could wear my normal shoes. I managed to win BUCS despite having had a very interrupted few weeks of climbing and had overcome yet another hurdle.
At BUCS...complete with cut shoe and cow tape! My most recent niggle has been a partial tendon tear in my left forearm, just above the elbow. It is by no means excruciating but I’ve been very cautious about overstraining and causing more damage. After my trip to Yorkshire this weekend it feels much better, perhaps due to the lower intensity of climbing on rock or the magical powers of limestone!
Those closest to me will know that over the years I have really struggled to come to terms and cope with these injuries. I have tried (and sometimes failed) to put a brave face on and not dwell on them. The lingering niggles were the worst – never feeling serious enough not to climb, but always making themselves known and preventing me from trusting and enjoying myself. Like so many other people, every time I recover from an injury there is always the uncertainty as to how far you can push yourself and when. Despite the relief of being injury free, I found myself being too scared to build myself up again with the possibility of being brought right back down once more. Last October I met double Olympic gold medallist Kelly Holmes at a reception in London, and whilst carrying out a bit of research on her career I read a quote of hers which really resonated with my experiences of injury – “You have all those dreams and then something goes wrong, and I just thought everything’s going too good, and it’s just going to go away from me again.” This made her success even more poignant – the struggle with years of injury and disappointment, and her fight to keep running competitively with the fear of injury constantly on her mind. After an almost constant stream of injuries, I found it hard to motivate myself to commit to hard training again, partly because I was fearful of hurting myself, but also as I was reluctant to build my hopes up and get too focussed on a goal which could be destroyed or delayed by injury at the most inconvenient moment. It is easy to get caught up in a vicious circle of negativity in which the worst is always expected, and it’s this circle which needs to be broken in order to progress with training. At times I felt as though there was so much inertia in my climbing: I had been so accustomed to doing things and going places and being so active that when this lifestyle was taken away from me I felt slightly lazy and, to put it bluntly, worthless. I think this is very common amongst athletes and indeed anyone who is prevented from leading the busy lifestyle they normally lead – it is difficult to acclimatise when momentum is lost and your usual rhythm is distorted.
I have come to realise that I have developed an efficient coping strategy for dealing with injury, purely by distracting myself from the pain and rewriting my brain’s negative perceptions of being injured.
Rather than focussing on the negatives : pain, no climbing, fitness loss, and no competing, I instead take each one and turn it into a positive : pain – my body will get stronger upon healing, the pain is telling me to change something. No climbing- I can focus on other aspects of life and help others to climb their best. Fitness loss – after time off I will be extra motivated to push hard, which will take me further than I would have gone had I not been injured. No competing – I can be inspired by watching others compete and perhaps notice and learn things that would otherwise pass me by. I can learn to enjoy climbing indoors and on rock with no pressure.
The social side of climbing: having fun on the rocks with friends! Any aggression or frustration is channelled into positive energy for completing a climb or an exercise, not matter how intense it may be. Pulling hard on a project or warming down after a session, the energy for climbing is flowing and the psyche remains intact! Everyone is likely to be affected by an injury of some sort at some point in life, and for me the best advice is simply to change your focus and know that “this day too shall pass”. I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason and what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger – if not physically, there will almost certainly be a strengthened mind to carry you upwards, whatever your goals may be.Source: Natalie Berry's Blog