Words: Mina Leslie-Wujastyk
Photos: Frann Barker
This article hopes to provide some basic insight and advice around injury management for climbers. It’s not exhaustive and it’s not specific; a lot of what you may or may not do, of course, depends on your particular injury and where you currently are on the road to recovery. Treat this more as a broad stroke tool; a collection of ideas and suggestions that have an applicable, yet zoomed out, viewpoint. The nitty gritty rehab is up to you and whatever medical advice or support you are having around your injury. Here, I am trying to help with the process of re-framing and re-evaluating what you may need to consider while injured or returning to climbing from injury.
To give you some context, I am an Arc’teryx climbing athlete; and, in January 2019, I broke my wrist pretty badly. A comminuted, displaced fracture of my ulnar and radius meant that I wasn’t going to be climbing for some time. Three and a half months later I am now climbing again, though still far from where I was in terms of strength and ability. It’s been an interesting process, with lots of ups and downs, but there have been a handful of things that really stood out for me that I thought could be helpful to pass on.
This stuff is tough. Having your passion taken away from you overnight is not a nice thing to go through, and it’s okay to acknowledge that it really sucks. Yes, there are people worse off, of course, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel anything. It’s okay to be annoyed, frustrated or low about your injury. Be kind to yourself as you adjust to the new situation and timescale that you face.
This also applies when you start climbing again. Depending on your injury, you likely won’t be able to pick up where you left off. Kindness is invaluable in this chapter of your injury story. The body is amazing at healing and it’s incredible what we can come back from. But, that doesn’t always mean it’s going to be easy. Invariably, it’s very hard.
When you are injured, rest is important; your body needs time and energy to heal and recover. This will vary widely depending on the injury, but take this as a reminder to be mindful of pushing too hard (both with the injury, as well as your whole system). Down time may not be what you wanted, but it’s on the menu. I wasn’t very good at this; I was at the gym a lot, doing whatever I could with my arm in cast. That wasn’t totally wrong but, looking back, more rest would not have been a bad thing.
When we switch from “climbing mode” to “injured mode,” it is NOT the same as what we think of as “resting mode”. It would be easy to think that less climbing/exercise due to injury means you might want to eat less and, although your energy expenditure may drop, it’s imperative that you eat enough to support the recovery process. Your body is working overtime to heal and manage your injury. Focus on eating well, getting a variety of nutritious foods, a decent amount of protein and staying well hydrated.
Food is also not just simply fuel; it’s a cultural, creative and shared experience for many. Enjoy it.
The human body is incredible but some injuries may not be erased. It might be necessary to formulate and identify a “new normal”. Try not to compare directly with your pre-injury self. A lot may have changed for you, but the many parts that make you a whole will simply weave together in a new tapestry. There needn’t be a “better” or “worse” version if you choose not to compare – there can just be a new picture. Adjust your actions and perspectives to support yourself moving forward. You may have some physical limitations, but climbing is so multifaceted that there are many other ways to excel and compensate. For example, you will definitely get gains in mental fortitude from going through this injury process!
TAKE SMALL STEPS
Getting back to where you were pre-injury may be overwhelming. Depending on your injury, it may not be possible and you may have to adapt to a new way of things. Whatever your situation, take small steps and try not to fixate on a final outcome. Instead, focus on smaller, more manageable steps in your rehabilitation. This will keep you more focused on the present task, looking at what you CAN do rather than what you can’t or used to be able to do. It’s easier to measure and be motivated by progress if it isn’t always compared to a far-off target.
GET YOUR OUTDOOR FIX
When I broke my wrist, I lost climbing. However, it took me a while to realise the other things I had also lost at the time. I missed being outside in big spaces. My mental health needed an outdoor fix. At the beginning, all I could do was go for a walk – but this ticked the box. Once it was safe, I started running. Running might not be your bag, but if you are used to being outdoors a lot and now you aren’t, find something that takes you into that space. Fresh air, mental space and a good dose of vitamin D.
GET YOUR EXERCISE FIX
Like the outdoor fix, I lost my main exercise fix. Running eventually solved both of these problems for me, but initially I had to rely on walking and going to the gym. While resting is important, it’s also helpful to get a little exercise, if you are able. It’s good for your circulatory system, maintaining strength in the non-injured parts of your body and getting those wonderful happy hormones like serotonin!
DO NEW STUFF
This is your chance to do all that fun stuff you never got around to doing. Providing it doesn’t require you to use your injury beyond its current level, this is a silver lining. Climbing can be all consuming and it’s wonderful to be so passionate, but it often squeezes out many other things that could be equally rewarding. What have you always been interested in learning more about? Cooking classes? Pottery? Painting or singing? Other sports (of course, injury dependent)?
If you’re like me, you’ll have a long list of books you have been meaning to read… I was also able to finish off my nutrition course and pass with distinction! I doubt I would have studied as hard if my wrist wasn’t broken….
This one is very important. The climbing community is incredible and very passionate, but it’s worth noting some connections may take more work if you aren’t engaged in your usual activities. Some friends you’ll see whatever the weather, but you may notice that when you aren’t in the zone, some may drift away. That’s okay, and often in hard times we learn who our closest friends and supporters are. Friendships are also a two-way relationship, and you making more effort isn’t necessarily a negative. It might mean finding new avenues to see friends, uncovering new patterns and frameworks for friendships that revolved around climbing. Once you’ve developed a new rhythm, it can be just like it was.
Whatever your situation, support during an injury can make the world of difference. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need it.
From one injured person to another – keep smiling, keep feeling, keep trying and be kind.
Stop by the Alpine Village at this year’s Arc’teryx Alpine Academy in Chamonix, France, July 4 – 7, to connect with Mina. Learn more about the event HERE.