Taking it slow is about as painful for an athlete as getting injured itself. I always try to convince myself of ways to climb or exercise that fall into the doctor’s perimeters, but have found that can be equally as detrimental.The time of recovery I am given is sharpied on my calendar. If I should be "resuming normal activity" in three months, then gosh darn it, I should be climbing 5.13 or 5.14 by then. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that "normal activity" for sedentary people is not performing at a top level. But, it's like a carrot for me, something to grasp for, something to make all the time on the couch, all the time watching climbing, all the time thinking about running, biking, hiking, climbing actually worth it. Sadly, my enthusiasm and zest for climbing and pushing myself has also been my downfall. After numerous finger injuries, shoulder injuries and so on, I have learned it's best to take my time coming back. A month off now is better than three later down the line.
Back in 2003 I had a stress fracture in my sesimoid bone in my foot. For those of you who don't know about the sesimoid, they are tiny bones right under the ball of your foot, and act like a fulcrum for your tendon to run across. That summer I had been working on a route called Sarchasm. Set at 12,000 feet, it’s a stunning climb, weaving back and forth on an arete. The two hour hike several days per week was a great way to escape the heat of the summer, but slowly wore my feet down. (I'll save the fact that I wore a really old pair of shoes, for another post on being smart.) Like a true stubborn athlete, as soon as I completed the climb I pushed through the pain and boarded a plane to the alpine wonderland of the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Four months later I found myself climbing on El Cap and couldn’t stand on a ledge without collapsing in pain. I had a continual limp when I walked and had upsised my climbing shoes by two sizes. I realized I could no longer brush it off as a minor toe pain and finally succumbed and saw a doctor. He graciously told me I had a stress fracture in my foot, and with a month in a cast, and a couple months in a boot with rest, I should be back to climbing in no time. Being in my early twenties, I immediately halved the timeline that he gave me and interpreted his "rest" suggestion as no climbing shoes, no running, no skiing, etc. I surely thought biking using the back of my foot instead of the front of my foot was rest. I also lumped climbing in my boot into the “rest” category, as long as I didn’t use the hurt part of my foot. For three months I rode my stationary bike religiously every day and even took my boot to La Sportiva and had sticky rubber put on it to improve my booted climbing skills.
As I write this, it's a bit disconcerting to remember my mentality, but all too familiar. Needless to say, I spent the next nine months dealing with the injury. It wasn't until I actually rested and let my body recover that I healed. Now, I definitely know some people where this strategy works, and I lump them into the superhuman category. Everyone heals at different paces, and I for one heal very slowly. It might be thanks to my extremely hyper mobile joints, my bull headed-ness, or just my physical make up, for whatever reason I’m on the long end of recovery. The most important thing I’ve learned is listening to my body. If it hurts to climb, I should take the day off. I know that sounds sacrilege, but it’s worth it in the long run. "What about my momentum?" I think. "What about the progression I was going to try and make today?" But trust me, it's taken me almost two decades of begin a professional climber to realize that it's okay to take a day off. In fact, it's okay to take a week off if it will counteract a several month injury.
On this road back to recovery, I am trying to be diligent about listening to my body, without falling into the "too scared" mentality as well. It's a delicate balance, wondering when I can push myself versus knowing when to hold back and take it easy. Over the course of all my injuries I'm still in the learning process, which is frustrating but also good to still be learning.
Yesterday I was out in the boulders on Yosemite with two of my favorite people to climb with, Justin and Randy. I was working on a problem that I have done in the heat of the August sun without expending much effort at all. The conditions were perfect yesterday, but my body isn’t. After finally reaching the summit, Justin said,"I know that probably felt hard to you, but you sure don't look like a person who hasn't climbed in a few months, your body just knows how to climb." I smiled when I heard him say this. It not only feels good to climb again after injury, but it's nice to know that they body can retain so much. My advice is to take it slow. Listen to your body, push yourself a little each day, if you push too much it's not the end of the world, take it a little slower. If you have seen a physical therapist or doctor and have rehab exercises, put those ahead of your climbing in terms of priority. I know that I take my exercise bands with me everywhere, doing my shoulder exercises in the boulders of Fontainbleau or at the base of the sport crag of Oliana, Spain. Sure I feel self conscious, but remind myself that everyone at some point gets injured. Even if I am getting awkward stares at the crag, I am getting equal smiles and interested questions.