An Expert interview about how to keep training whilst recovering from an injury

How to keep training whilst you’re recovering.

Training whilst recovering from an injury is tricky – obviously you don’t want to lose form but then again making the injury worse is completely not what you want. I had a good think about what to say in this blog whilst being away in Magic Wood. I thought about how I would write it and what advice I could give. Sat across from me was Aidan Roberts, my really good friend and fellow team member who unfortunately suffered a severe injury earlier this year in March on a trip to Fontainebleau I happened to also be on. Last year Aidan won his first international competition, becoming European Youth Bouldering Champion and shortly after climbed his first 8B boulder in Magic Wood (Switzerland). Oh and I could add that he’s only been climbing for around 4 years. Then I realised that there was no one better than Aidan who could help me with this blog, seeing as he’d just climbed his second 8B in Magic Wood 4 months after his accident. I find Aidan so inspiring in many ways, and wanted him to share how hard he has worked and the emotions he’s had on his journey to recovery. Here’s the conversation I had with him about how he managed to get back to where he was…

The Watchtower – Photo - Joe Swales
The Watchtower
Photo by Joe Swales

So tell us what happened in Font? Can you tell us what the damage was?

I’d been pretty psyched for my Font trip for a while prior to it, and started training slightly more specifically for it. This turned out to help me in comps as well as I qualified for the CWIF semi-finals in 5th despite the start of a pretty bad spell of bronchitis, which sadly caused me to have to drop out of the competition. This left me bed bound for 2 weeks, and a lot lighter; I lost a lot of muscle and dropped from 64kg to 59kg in this time. Even though I’d done minimal training in the run up to my trip, by the time it came to leave I felt roughly back in shape and, though significantly weaker, was very light and believed I was still in with a shot at some big numbers.
On arrival in Font it was raining, so we braved Cuvier Rempart in the hope to get in some classics on the first day. To warm up, I pulled on Watchtower 7b+, and easy highball prow in which the climbing is done in the first half of the boulder. The climbing felt easy but as I topped out the climb and walked over the top of the boulder I feel I got complacent and lost my focus, only to slip on the damp lichen and fall backwards from about 6 meters past the landing onto flat rock below.
Initially it was pretty sore but I figured it’d be superficial pain and would soon fade, only it didn’t. Looking back on it I had had some pretty strong optimism, as I believed I’d get a shoe on the next day and be able to climb. With the help of my friends I was taken to the hospital and greeted with a 4 hour wait before getting any painkillers or treatment. The news hit me pretty hard as I was told I’d shattered my right heel and bruised the bone of my left and would need surgery to sort them out.
After a blurry, eventful next few days I was back in England and got all the details from a CT scan explaining that the bottom part of my heel had nosedived into the rest and shattered it, leaving it compressed, misshapen and generally in a pretty bad way. The surgeon believed that with surgery there was a good chance that they’d be able to help it and after a very successful operation they assured me I’d recover from it.

How did you feel after the accident?

The Immediate effects were pretty hard to get over as I realised I’d jeopardised my ambitions for the year and I was pretty stunned as I realised all the effects of it. I feel I managed to keep a pretty positive face but felt pretty depressed with the daunting knowledge of the difficult months to come. At first I had little knowledge of the recovery time but had my eyes set on the world youth championships in November and knew I’d really have to knuckle down and do the intense training I could to have a good shot at it.
What motivated you to train?
This is a question that I personally asked myself time and time again but I was never really 100% sure what specifically it was which gave me such determination to train hard in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to utilise the strength for months to come. I feel the main thing was my love for climbing at a high level and I knew that if I were able efficiently use my time then I could obtain enough physical strength to climb at a higher level after I could use my foot than I would have if I hadn’t suffered my injury. Though I hope it wasn’t, I feel another reason could have been the pressure which I’d put on myself and felt from others making me feel that I had to train in order to fulfil expectations. Regardless of what it was that motivated me, it was by no means easy and this felt something hard to deal with as in the past motivation was never an issue for me.
Can you give us a brief of what you did? Did you do any cross training?
Throughout the duration of the time it took me to be able to start to use my foot, I essentially trained by myself in my home training room pretty much every day. This was not only physically tiring but also mentally exhausting and may give you a feel of why motivation was so hard. Looking back on it I don’t think I had a very healthy mental approach to my training, but the way I did it was a good way to get strong!
It felt quite hard to start training again; after getting so ill and having a strong general aesthetic for a pretty long operation my body felt broken and so getting back into training was a struggle.
I kept my training in phases but it was made up from fingerboarding, campusing on my 50degree woody board, a low-ball campus board on a 40degree board (pretty tricky!) and conditioning on rings and TRX.
In terms of cross training it was very difficult to do much due to the inability to put any pressure through my foot or ankle. In the later stages of recovery, I did start going swimming when I could but the majority of my training was kept climbing specific.
Aidan climbing outside with his moon boot on in the Lake District.
Was it difficult to push yourself without pushing your injury?
It definitely involved a lot of self control to stop myself from doing certain things as naturally I like to try everything and am pretty adventurous so my injury definitely held me back and will do for a long time, but its something I try not to dwell on too much and just enjoy the activities I can do. I ensured that the training I did wouldn’t put any pressure on my foot so it was pretty stress free.

Aidan climbing outside with his moon boot on in the Lake Distict.
What tips would you give to anyone who’s injured but wants to keep training?

I think there’s definitely some decision making before you commit yourself to intensive training with a severe injury, as it can be hard to stay motivated. Something I failed to do, and I think would have helped is to have a friend who is happy to train with you as company is very useful for keeping you psyched. Though first I think its best to really think about why you’d want to do this and whether this training is required to achieve your goals (I found it useful to write out a plan starting with the end in mind).
More specifically, if you have a leg based injury as I did then I felt fingerboarding was probably the most effective training tools, but campusing on a board is more fun and slightly more climbing specific – both a great way to get strong! (But be careful not to do this until you have a pretty high level of strength already as both are pretty intense and could cause finger injuries if strength is underdeveloped).
What are you goals for the rest of the year? Will you compete in any competitions?

After a few months of hard training on my upper body I’ve taken nearly a month of travelling to different climbing destinations to keep up the psyche and have some summer fun. I’ve thought of this as a break from the hard training and now intend to bunker down and train harder than I ever have up until the World Championships in November. I hope to be able to compete in both bouldering and leading so I’ve got my work cut out!

What are your goals for the future?

Big question and something I haven’t got a very satisfying answer to myself, but I feel for the moment my short-term goal is to perform well at the bouldering World Youth Championships in China in November. I’m aiming for finals but it’s a difficult to know how achievable this is as a lot of progression can be made in a year and a half by climbers from other nations. Looking further ahead, I intend to make the transition from junior to senior and compete in the World Cup circuit for a few years. However, I feel that outdoor climbing is likely to become my priority in years to come. Developing new boulders is also something which inspires for the future and I hope to pursue this.

The World Youth Championships will be held in Guangzhou, China in November (7th-13th)… good luck Aidan!!