In previous posts I’ve mentioned that I’ve been having back issues over the last five or so months. It’s interferred with a lot of areas in my life. There were some days when focusing on studying was nearly impossible, and I wouldn’t climb for fear of exacerbating the pain. It led to a roller coaster of emotions, and a very stressed and . . . out-of-sorts me. So last month, I finally went to a spine specialist to discover that there was indeed a pars fracture on my L5 (also known as a stress fracture), resulting in minor slippage of the vertebrae, stage 1 spondylotisthesis. It only made me wonder, “if stage 1 was like this, whaaaaat do stages 2-5 feel like?” Dr. O’Brien said it was minor, and thankfully surgery isn’t an immediate necessity, but that I would need to get an MRI and a myelogram and CT for further examination. So that is what I did.
After new years, I went in for my exams. For those who are unfamiliar with a myelogram, it involves the injection of a dye into the space your cerebral spinal fluid flows. The dye is what allows the nerves to show up on the CT scan. When the needle is removed, a small hole is left at the injection site. Normally, the hole will seal itself within a day or so. However, in a handful of unlucky instances such as mine, the hole does not seal, and spinal fluid is left to leak out of the puncture site. When this happens for an extended time, it results in a spinal headache. For those unfamiliar with what a spinal headache feels like, it’s comparable to a migraine that lasts for a good three to four days.
Now to the point, because of all of this, I was off for a good two weeks; I still had to lay low for a few days after the headache went away to let the soreness from spinal taps subside. For those who normally train as consistently as I do, you know what that two weeks does to you. That first day back is like murder to your muscles and air passageways. It doesn’t matter what your sport, it’s like you have twenty-pound shackles bound to your arms and/or legs and the lung capacity of someone with COPD. You’re tired, both physically and mentally, and if we’re honest, it’s not the easiest hump to get over. In retrospect, two weeks isn’t enough time for your brain to forget what you know you can do – the last thing you sent was that project you’ve been working so hard to send, or you were able to do six straight laps on something you were only able to do four on the time before. Now, warming up becomes the majority of your workout, and often you are left feeling somewhat in the pits after that first night is over. You can normally see your dignity still hanging off the crimp that your fingers couldn’t stick, though you’ve sent that problem fifty times already . . . it’s okay, we’ve all been there. So what’s the best solution? How do you overcome those grueling days that had you on the couch, in a crutch, under ice, etc.? I’ve asked a few athletes who have gone through or witnessed this process at least once in their years of training to comment on how they overcome such obstacles.
In addition to a knock down of physical strength, it’s easy for confidence and mental expectations to get on different pages . . .
“Coming back from a break in climbing is quite rough for me. I battle a lot with confidence since I expect to come back as strong as I was before the break. But of course that’s never the case. To try to motivate myself, I watch lots of climbing videos. As strange as it sounds, it’s the only thing that really motivates me to stick with getting back into climbing shape. There’s something about watching someone try hard that gets me psyched!”
Mother, climber, Founder of Climb On, Sister!
. . . and sometimes, when it doesn’t happen to us, we learn best from watching our close friends . . .
“[I have been fortunate to] never have had a serious injury that warranted much time off from climbing (knock on wood), but to someone who is getting back into climbing after being forced to take time off, I would tell them the story of my good friend, Jacob. Any climber who has been in the game for long could tell you something similar:
Jacob popped a tendon one day while climbing. He took a good chunk of time off to rest. When he came back, he took it slow – V0’s and V1’s for a while, eventually V2’s. But after several weeks of well, well below his max and watching friends sending much cooler projects, he started picking V4’s and V5’s that didn’t seem too crispy. He got a false sense of confidence after sending a few, and ended up popping his tendon again. He basically repeated this series of events at least three times, starting out with good intentions, but each time jumping ahead before his body was ready.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been to climb far below maximum ability while having to watch friends and teammates soar up V7’s that (aside from the popped tendon) would go down on a normal day. It’s just that ultimately, not re-injuring yourself has to be the primary goal, For a long, long time. You’ll probably have to limit the number of sessions you start out with, so it might be helpful to pick up something new on the side, like yoga or running, to take your mind off how much wish you climb harder.”
Med student, climber, Danny Aleksovski’s girlfriend, author of the hot blog, “Climbing (Miss)Adventures”
. . . and for some of us it might be routine, and we learn to cope in the best ways we can while at the very least staying fit in some form or fashion:
“I can’t give too much advice on injury prevention, seeing as how I seem to destroy a finger at least once a year. Last year when I had to take a couple of months off because of finger injuries I started using the free weights available at Summit and working on my handstand push-ups. While it didn’t do anything for climbing per se, it did give me something to focus on and a way to burn off the energy I usually spend climbing, instead of making my finger injury worse by getting back into climbing too soon.”
Hank St. John
Graphic designer, climber, working “Diaphanous Sea,” V12 at Hueco Tanks.
I’ve talked with other athletes, both climbers and non-climbers. Figuring out how to refocus that energy into another outlet is key if your recovery period is going to be successful, and then afterwards simply being smart enough to know what is too much for your body. As well as they work as a team, the body and mind can still behave as two separate entities. Sometimes it’s harder for the mind to recovery properly. Still, don’t lose sight of what you are capable of, as it can be a huge factor to keep you going. Take it from a climber who thought it couldn’t get worse than destroying your finger. It turns out that recovering from back issues is no picnic. I can still climb, but I am at the point where if I think there is a chance of taking a hard fall I have to avoid it, and after each ascent, even though it’s only 15 feet, I still have to down-climb (which is entirely another workout on its own). I can do easy circuits as well. It’s definitely testing my patience, but on the flip side I am learning how to establish a lot of physical control over my body.
For those interested in some external links, Sarah Williams has shared a few that might peak your interest:
For comments on different kinds of injury, Rock & Ice provides a lot of tips: