In many ways, 2021 has carried on where 2020 left off. In a bit of a mess. In an attempt to bring some order to my small portion of the world, I’ve set out a plan for my climbing training for the month of January. There's been a frustratingly small amount of climbing. However, it's been a great month for learning how to deal with injuries and take care of my body. As you will see, I've ended the month in a much healthier place than I started it and I'm excited to build on this strong foundation in the coming months.
I’d love to hear how your start to 2021 is going or any suggestions for fun training ideas so feel free drop me a comment below.
Sunday 1st January 2021
Starting out strong
Doing the sensible thing is boring. Even in climbing, one of the most exciting things in my life, doing the sensible thing is boring.
On New Year's Eve I told you all that I wanted to climb a 7a boulder by the end of 2021. I’ve not done a lot of climbing since then for various reasons. We (Husband and I) avoided climbing gyms before Christmas because we were extra paranoid about getting Covid and killing off our parents on Christmas Day. Now we’re staying out of gyms because they’re shut.
The weather has been hit and miss for climbing. There have been some astonishingly beautiful winter days here in Cumbria. Blue skies and glorious sunshine. It’s led to incredible views but also icy roads and frozen holds. We’ve been nervous about driving to boulders and our home wall holds are covered in ice for a decent amount of the day. And I’m a coward when it comes to climbing in the cold! Generally, I love the cold. I’d much rather be too cold than too hot. I’m still scarred by the two brutally hot summers I spent living in Madrid. But I find climbing in the cold particularly arduous. I've inherited rubbish circulation from my lovely Mum and struggle to get blood to my fingers and toes when it’s cold, which is a problem when you’re climbing. I often end up with very painful fingers when I climb in the cold, both indoors and out, and worry about pulling something vital in one of my digits.
I could come up with more excuses but those are the best ones I’ve got.
However, this has given me the chance to reflect on how I’m feeling and consider how I’m actually going to manage to climb 7a in 2021. I’ve concluded that if I’m going to ask my body to do something that it’s never done before I need to take care of it and give it a fighting chance. I need to start out strong. Like I said, sensible and boring.
Step one of being sensible: make a spreadsheet. I don’t actually find this boring because I love organising things, but I realise not everyone shares my passion for structure. I’m certainly not a climbing coach so I can’t plan out a whole year’s worth of training. But I know my body and I know what it needs right now. Month one of my new spreadsheet of all knowledge has been devoted to the following two priorities:
General conditioning (*salutes the general*)
I will just add a quick disclaimer here that everything you’re about to read is a muppet’s version of training for climbing. I will link to some books and resources within this post so you can hear directly from the people who actually know what they’re talking about.
Firstly, antagonist training. Here’s a basic fact about climbing: it involves a lot of pulling. There are other moves involved but at the heart of it, it’s pulling and pulling hard. When you use one set of muscles a lot, the pulling muscles in this case, the body can become imbalanced so it’s important to give the opposite set of muscles, in this case the pushing muscles, an equally good workout.
I learned this lesson the hard way early on in climbing when I developed a mild case of shoulder impingement. All the pulling hunches shoulders forward and a tendon rubs or catches on tissue and bone. It hurts. Exercises targeting the rotator cuff and addressing the imbalance in the shoulder can help to alleviate this problem. I did a lot of very sensible and boring reps over several very sensible and boring weeks and eventually managed to avoid this problem getting worse.
For more information on antagonist training and looking after your body while training for climbing I recommend:
I’ve been experiencing some pain in the front of my right should and between my bicep and my tricep, which I think may be due to imbalance in my shoulder. I should be doing more to compensate for all the pull-ups and fingerboarding. So, it’s time for some more sensible and boring reps. Hopefully it will make me appreciate the less sensible and boring parts of climbing all the more.
And secondly, conditioning. I’ve worked hard this year to keep my body in good condition, despite lockdown and a lack of climbing gyms, and generally I’ve done pretty well. I’m still strong. I can still climb. And I’m still alive, which I am extremely grateful for under the circumstances. But there’s a few aches and pains that could do with being addressed. Not just the kind of thing that antagonist training will help with. I keep pulling muscles in my neck. I’ve lost a bit of flexibility. As a lazy boulderer, I could always benefit from doing more cardio. I have been in better shape. And I’d like to be in better shape again. I’d recommend Training for Climbing by Eric Hörst (book, website and podcast) for more information on this and all areas of climbing training.
Saturday 2nd January
Getting checked out
Today, I had an appointment with the physio to discuss my painful shoulder and a recurring issue with my neck. Over the last year or so, I have repeatedly blown various bits of my neck not only while climbing but while doing things that should not result in injury, like picking up a pan or just having a good stretch. Each of these incidents has led to varying levels of inconvenience. Minor incidents have led to a few uncomfortable nights and not being able to look up for a few days. Major incidents have led to sleeping totally upright for a couple of weeks and barely being able to turn my head for just as long if not longer. It hurts a lot and stops me climbing completely.
After a pleasantly vigorous neck massage and some bizarre arm movements to check my shoulder mobility, the quiet but cordial physio gave me a foxy red resistance band that will now become my new best friend. Me and my stretchy sidekick will be working on strengthening my neck muscles and addressing some tendonitis in my right rotator cuff with some sensible and boring exercises for the foreseeable future.
I’m resigning myself to January being a month of no or very limited climbing if the pain in my shoulder doesn’t improve any time soon.
Tuesday 5th January
I did a million squats last night and my legs are ruined. I’m a reasonably rare climber that actually enjoys leg day but that was harrowing. I’m doing live workouts with Louis Parkinson and his colleagues at Catalyst Climbing and they can be brutal. I’ve waxed lyrical about how great this service is before and still highly recommend them for climbing training. They don’t always make you hate your past self the next morning.
Thursday 7th January
A small setback
I got a little over excited and exuberant with my shoulder yesterday and now I’m suffering for it. So naturally I did what any millennial idiot does when they’re frustrated with an injury and tried to Google a miracle cure. Disappointingly (and unsurprisingly) I didn’t find one. However, I did find some more ideas for things I can do to make my rotator cuff a bit happier, in addition to the exercises the physio gave me.
Firstly, sleeping on both sides equally rather than simply snoozing on one side. Hopefully this will allow my shoulders to, as a wise hobbit once said, share the load.
Better posture cropped up a lot in my internet exploration. I don’t think I have particularly bad posture but it could be improved. So, I will do my best to sit up straight and try to avoid adopting the hunchback pose while sewing and typing.
Finally, I found a few extra stretches to loosen up the muscles in my shoulders when I’ve been typing or sewing for many hours of the day. There’s very little excuse for not doing these as I can do them while sat on my arse.
I don’t expect these to fix the problem immediately and I’m even more resigned to not climbing for a while after this little setback. But I’m the kind of person that needs to feel like I'm doing something to fix a problem so adding little things like this to my routine will help my brain as much as my shoulder.
Sunday 10th January
Eugh, cardio. I’m a boulderer. I don’t need this aerobic nonsense. Why have I done this to myself?
I’m doing some follow-along fitness videos on YouTube at the moment. Caroline Girvan’s videos have been my favourite so far. Her Irish accent is a gentle treat compared to all the peppy American fitness YouTubers out there in Internetland and the videos are hard but not impossible.
Today I did her 30 Minute Pump Cardio Workout. I swapped some exercises out to avoid my painful shoulder. I replaced most of them with extra core, which proved to be a mistake as my good friend Caroline turned out to have saved all her core exercises until the end when I was pretty cored out. Oh, my ab, my poor poor ab.
Monday 11th January
Oh, my ab hurts.
I did my first yoga class for a while today and cat-cow was a painful mess for my paunch. Every time I dropped my stomach down and took a nice deep breath in, I received a major complaint from my belly. I’m sorry I wronged you so yesterday my fleshy friend.
Wednesday 13th January
Turns out following along with the live hangboard sessions with Catalyst Climbing even when you can’t use the hangboard is pretty fun. Their live sessions are (almost) daily at 6pm so I’ve been joining in when I can and doing rehab exercises when I can’t. It’s slightly ridiculous to be gently tilting my head against a resistance band while Ali the Super Producer, who keeps the live sessions running smoothly, is enthusiastically encouraging people to give it all they’ve got on a hangboard. It makes rehab exercises feel so much more hardcore.
Thursday 14th January 2021
(Roughly to the tune of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles)
I’m forever doing rehab Pulling a resistance band I stretch so high Barely reaching waist high Hoping my shoulders will comply
I’m forever doing rehab Gently nodding to and fro My neck so tight Tilting left, tilting right No 7a boulder in sight
Saturday 16th January
Route setting – The gateway drug to climbing
My shoulder is feeling much better. I can still feel that it’s not quite right, but it's more of an ache from working hard at the rehab exercises rather than an injury pain. Hopefully this is the right kind of slightly uncomfortable.
Today, Husband and I did some route setting or, as is more accurate when non-professionals like us do it, throwing holds at the wall and hoping for the best. I’m still nervous about climbing on my shoulder, but route setting is a nice way to keep me psyched for climbing. As we were heading out to the wall, I tried to make a joke about route setting being like methadone, and how it’s the stopgap drug until I’m well enough to have the proper drugs again. Husband then quite accurately pointed out that’s not how drug rehab works. Another day, another inaccurate joke.
Monday 18th January
Husband and I had a romantic date with weights today. I’m a bit bored of working out alone so I gently nudged him into working out with me. I’m still mostly doing rehab and he’s just working on getting more buff.
I generally don’t think of myself as a competitive person but working out with Husband brings out me competitive edge. This is a great shame because he is significantly stronger than me. Whenever I see him swinging hefty weights around, I find it terribly unfair that I can’t match him. He will confidently lift some massive dumbbell above his head, and I get ever so cross when I can barely get it off the floor. This competitiveness has its advantages though because it spurs me on to push myself a bit harder.
Husband has also been my benchmark in climbing for a long time. I want to be as good as, if not better than him. I sometimes worry that this is a shallow goal or that it reflects badly on the state of our marriage. But I choose to see it as a positive thing because I also want to see Husband progress as a climber. It makes me feel really proud when I see him beast his way up a boulder. I want us both to improve. We have the most fun when we can both work on the same boulder, so this pushes me to keep up with him. That’s how I choose to see it anyway!
Thursday 21st January
I did a tiny little bit of climbing today! It's almost a month since I last got on the wall so I was nervous and shaky pretty much the whole time, but I moved around on some climbing holds and still have all my limbs. It didn’t feel like particularly competent climbing, but it was climbing, nonetheless.
Observations from today’s mini-sort-of-climbing-session:
I was more frightened than usual
I was convinced that the footholds wanted to kill me
My body felt like a confused alien creature, no matter how much my brain told it we’ve done this plenty of times before
My hips and legs have not had a month off, unlike my upper body, and they were tired
My skin hurt
Most of these things will be fixed with practicing and getting back into the swing of climbing. My nerves will quieten down. My body will remember how to climb. My skin will get tougher. And my legs will have an easier time of it now the rest of my body can join in with more of the exercise. I’m delighted to say my shoulder feels pretty good this evening. Today has given me hope and confidence that my body and I are moving together and in the right direction.
Often when I’m injured or ill my brain bullies my body into getting better faster than it’s ready to. This time, I feel like I’m setting realistic expectations and helping my brain and body to get along well together. It’s nice. Far less traumatic.
Wednesday 27th January
I’ve had a whole two days off rehab, climbing, and anything more strenuous than walking the dog or stretching. My neck and shoulders were starting to feel tired rather than injured so I decided to give them a break. All I’ve done over the last two days is spend some quality time with my foam roller and have a good ol’ stretch. Now I’m going to have a gin and tonic and sort out my plan for February. Spreadsheets, gin and tonic, and Coronation Street on a Wednesday night. Livin’ the fuckin’ dream.
Saturday 30th January
I managed another climbing session today. This one felt a lot closer to what I’d normally do but cut short due to cowardly skin and it being bloody freezing. I tried harder than I did last time and put my shoulder to the test a little more with some dynamic moves. I’m pleased to stay it’s still attached and doesn’t hurt. Another tiny victory.
Sunday 31st January Reflecting and moving forward
This month may have involved a lot of boring and sensible stuff, but it’s also been a positive time. I’ve handled not climbing much better than I have before. Maybe it’s because the weather and lockdown have meant I couldn't have climbed as much as I normally would anyway. Maybe it’s because I’m growing and maturing as a person (there’s always hope). Whatever it is, I’m hoping to carry it on into the following months.
My shoulder is still feeling good after yesterday’s climbing session, so I feel confident about gradually expanding my exercise repertoire. The February tab of my spreadsheet definitely looks more colourful and varied compared to the January tab but hopefully in a well-balanced and healthy kind of way. Building on my priorities from January, February’s priorities are:
More antagonist training
Regaining confidence on the wall
Rebuilding climbing specific strength
This all depends on weather, lockdown, and injuries but that is my plan in a nutshell.
I’ll also be continuing my relationship with the lovely Caroline Girvan. I toiled my way through this shoulder workout video today. How she does this with 8kg in each hand I will never know. I was struggling with 2.5kg! If this doesn’t toughen up my shoulders, I don’t know what will.
I hope you've enjoyed this trip through a month of climbing training. Keep an eye out for future blog posts to see how I get on with my mission to climb 7a by the end of 2021.