For the first month of 2014, I’ve been injured, again. Back in the first week of the year, I aggravated a hip flexor while shuffling my way up a mountain, and a month later it’s finally showing signs of health. Injuries aren’t unfamiliar to me, but after 19 years of running, they are no less frustrating. Especially when seemingly induced by an activity (skinning uphill) that, by all accounts, should be the perfect, low-impact winter complement to my summer pursuits. A year ago, I wrote a post about dealing with injuries, so I have no desire to re-tread that ground.
With skiing (skinning) and running off the table, I’ve been attempting to remain physically engaged in the only other activity that holds serious interest to me: climbing. Except that it’s the dead of winter here in Boulder and the local crags are typically wet, if not fully encased in snow and ice. Other than a week in mid-January when I was able to get in three days on proper granite and sandstone, this means that I’ve been climbing plastic, in the gym.
This has very much been a first for me. Prior to this winter, I had roped up in a gym exactly once before. But, I have some modest climbing-ish goals for the summer season (mostly a couple of moderate but long and tricky traverses/link-ups in Wyoming) and getting stronger and improving my technique will make those go a whole lot more efficiently, hopefully. And especially with the winter conditions, the easiest way to be consistent, improve, and lay a base for the summer is to hit the gym. At the first of the year I finally committed to the indoors by buying a pass to Movement Climbing+Fitness and have been going four or five days a week.
The climbing gym (especially in Boulder, CO, where there is a pretty astounding concentration of climbing talent) is an eye-opening place. First, I’m not a good climber. Outdoors, I’m a below-average climber; in the gym, I’m a rote beginner, both in terms of strength and technique. Second, the vast majority of my climbing outside has been of the traditional variety, meaning that I’m placing my own removable protection (stoppers, cams and the like) on lead, or seconding beneath a belay constructed of same. Third, while well-placed cams and nuts are fully capable of holding a fall—but, really, who wants to unnecessarily test this?—I generally subscribe to the maxim that the leader does not fall. As a result, almost everything I climb outside has been fully within my abilities, which doesn’t offer up much opportunity to really push myself and get stronger.
The first week in the gym, I was barely able to climb. After maybe 30-40min, my grip strength was completely exhausted and I could barely untie my shoes let alone continue clinging to a hold. To counteract this, however, is the totally ridiculous but still nice ego-boost one receives by rocketing up grades that I typically wouldn’t even consider outside. Even if one factors in the generally safe, controlled environment of a gym (pre-hung draws, top-ropes, extreme unlikeliness that a hold is going to break or a rock is going to fall on your head), gym ratings still seem outrageously inflated. In the gym, I typically warm up on a grade that is at my leading limit outdoors. Fun! And after six weeks, endurance is rarely the limiting factor for me anymore; I can usually climb with decent technique for almost all of my typical 2-2.5hr session.
Any inflation in my confidence is very short-lived, however. The simple fact is that I am a horrendous climber. This is not annoying self-effacement. This is fact. Much like how in running, the track and stopwatch don’t lie, in climbing, one’s pure strength and technical expertise (or glaring lack thereof) is laid out quite starkly in the gym. Essentially, all the heady intangibles of actual climbing—wind, loose rock, run-outs, lichen, wet rock, poorly-placed protection, etc, etc—are removed and all that is left is pure performance, the movement. My chosen gym is aptly named, I’ve found. Just like there is no denying that I’ve never run faster than a 4:42 mile, in the gym there’s no denying that in my current state, I will almost certainly fall off a 5.11b.
On any given day, I am pretty close to being the worst climber in the gym. Again, this is no exaggeration. Thanks to the previously mentioned, prominently posted grades, it’s really easy to see how easy or hard everyone is climbing. And everyone climbs harder than me in the gym. Women twice my age. Dudes with beer bellies. Tiny girls a third my age. Fellow weakling runners, who, given their technical trail skills outside (or lack thereof—I’m looking at you, Trent :-)) I would never expect to excel in the vertical world. So, it is deeply humbling. The ego is deflated. It turns out that being able to nimbly scramble a flatiron in running shoes (or ten in a morning), or launching up a multi-pitch climb in Eldo with no more than five cams and a set of stoppers (climbing gear is expensive!) has absolutely zero bearing on one’s ability to crush in the gym.
But, the flipside of this is that my curve of improvement is pleasantly steep. In running—especially in the mountains—I’ve felt competent, even accomplished, for many years. My improvement in that arena continues to go up, but it occurs in predictably incremental steps. And to continue to improve, I have to keep paying attention to smaller and smaller details.
Conversely, after only six weeks in the gym, I can tell that I have made significant gains, if only because I started so pathetically low on the spectrum. Most of the improvement comes from simple consistency and from realizing that there is usually an easier way: rotate your hips into the wall, move your feet up, read and anticipate the sequence, don’t hold on so tightly, quickly move past the bad holds instead of stalling out on them. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but, like most things, is also easier said than done (at least for me).
While applying myself with commitment to something new is inherently fresh and exciting, it is also frustrating. Since my goal is improvement, it seems that working towards that on a climbing wall inevitably means struggle and failure and an overall feeling of incompetency. Because of the cush, controlled environment, it doesn’t take long for laps on easy routes in the gym to start feeling like complacency instead of training for endurance. So in striving to improve, a lot of my time is spent falling off of routes that are at the very edge of my current ability. This is frustrating, especially when you can feel yourself doing it wrong—climbing with poor technique—but somehow feel powerless to do anything about it.
Because I’ve been running for 19 years, being outside, moving quickly and efficiently in the mountains has become the main thing in my life where I feel competent. I feel reasonably skilled, effective, a master of meshing my effort and abilities with the terrain and covering ground quickly. If indoor climbing is supposed to be my physical outlet right now, in almost every way it’s an awfully poor one when compared to what I’m usually able to do outside. But that’s okay. Growth only comes through challenge and failure, so I’ll take my lumps. And, eventually, hopefully, it’ll have a positive effect on my experiences out in the mountains.
I’m kinda taken back but also excited to see you grow…its like seeing your all time favorite band that you grew up listening to and even motivated you to do the same (trail running) has shifted gears and dropped a new sound/album. Sure they are still playing music but at a different tune…and that scares me as a fan but also excites me to see what is in store with you and whats to come of the future…One has to question/ponder is this a making of another great rock climber or is this just till the injury is healed and your back on trail?
Ha! Certainly not the making of another great rock climber. The gym is definitely only a winter activity. Once I’m back to running I’ll still climb, but hopefully outside. But in the last 4-6wks before a goal race, running definitely takes precedence over my available time and energy.
Thanks for taking your valuable time to respond to your fans and me.
I get it man….your a professional athlete and just like any Professional/Paid/Sponsored Athlete, your knee deep in obligations from sponsorship and training while at the same time trying to balance with personal relationships (Family/Friends et) while trying to appease the many fans and followers wants and needs (even if we come off selfish).
But I’m going to step outside the box and go on the record even if its online and everyone sees it.
First off, my name is Daniel Sheffield I live in Boulder, CO. I post comments on your personal blog as Dallas Green. City and Colour aka Dallas Green is my fav, artist hence the reason why I chosen that name and I’m to lazy to create a new screen name/email ha!
Moving on… I been a long time fan and even meet you a few times in public and on the trail – Once on the top of the 1st Flat Iron Trail and at the Public Meeting at the Sherpa Restaurant. (You sat directly across from me with Joe Grant). I like to stay calm though and not be a typical fanatic and not bum rush you with a picture esp when I bump into you on the Trail. I try to respect you and remember your human being and not some poster boy even thought it would be cool (one day) to take a picture with ya.
But back to my point, I will let you in on a secret on why your so damn Popular compared to the others. And this is no ding on the other amazing runners that share your caliber, talent, fitness, and lifestyle…but rather, its your authenticity. Its as simple as that!
I and the rest of us respect what your doing no matter how you go about doing it. I will paraphrase you in that as long as you stay authentic and true to your passions (even if they mature or change direction) you will always be respected and followed and loved!
Stay Authentic..no matter if its on a plastic wall or at another UTMB Race. Hell I assure you as long as your true to yourself you could even venture out and pick up Professional Arm Wrestling and you would still be followed by the 1000’s if not more!…Your nature and ways of going about things is what makes you popular and followed.
In summary, its not what you DO but how you DO it!
Beginner’s mind is good.
After reading your posts last year on combining climbing and running as well as several climbing videos and articles on guys like Kilian, Steck and Alex Honnold I decided to do the same as you now have and joined a climbing gym a few months ago. I get exactly what you are going through. Moving from the relative composure and sure ground of running (earned through experience and effort) to the new vertical and past vertical climbing walls is a tough one. The sensation of knowing you are using terrible technique and being powerless to do anything about it is one I have come to know well through this.
I have found that bouldering has really helped in terms of accelerating the progress and assisting in making sure that the technique is an ever present focus. Have you done much of it? Of course it’s not going to be the best for endurance but if you haven’t then I highly recommend including it as part of your climbing sessions.
Hope the injury recovery goes well and we see you out racing soon.
Thanks, Jono. I’ve been avoiding the bouldering over the past month as the hop back down onto the mat at the end of a problem (or falling off mid-problem) has been aggravating for my hip.
Best of luck with the recovery – always hard to do. I’m sure Buzz has clued you in, but if you want to do some outdoor climbing in the Flatties without gear, there are several solid 120′ long boulder routes that will build endurance, get you strong, and teach you technique without any of the gym hassles. I used to run up to one and do laps before continuing up to the top of Green – easy to get in 500-1,000′ of solid climbing in a short time. Two of the “problems” are usually dry all winter.
Peter–Thanks for the comment; I have had a couple friends tell me about such things (long bouldering traverses in the Flatirons) but still have never made the effort to tag along. I’ll definitely check it out soon, sounds fun.
Well said. Especially climbing in Boulder, where not only does one start at the bottom rung of a very tall ladder, but one can’t blend quietly into the shadows but instead is recognized as a “famous” runner, thus making for a very large gulp of humble pie indeed. Fortunately as you wrote, humble pie is an important ingredient in a balanced diet.
I’ve been trying to improve my diet 😉
Great to hear you are climbing more. Movement has excellent facilities to build the skills. Stay a few grades under your max and downclimb everything. Set endurance goals like every 5.9, 5.10 and 5.11 in the gym- in a day.
On the skiing front- don’t write it off. It is a natural and perfect fit for your style. At the beginning of each winter, I transition from high volume running to predominantly skinning as my training. I have had several run-ins with the TFL, Psoas and groin/adductor tendonitis from the skinning. I thought the same things- hey it’s low impact…what could go wrong? Here is what I have learned after 4 years of this transition:
1. After a long running summer, our legs are LIGHT. Our hips are accustomed to lifting very light legs. We must start skinning slowly and focus on not lifting the ski at all- just slowly shuffling and sliding. Build that skinning volume super careful. After a month of steady work, the hips will handle much more. I go from capping my climbing at 1500′ a day at first to over 10,000 a day in just a month’s time. Never sinning more than 3 days a week.
2. This sliding action is much easier on GROOMERS- not backcountry pow. The lifting of the ski to break trail is bad. Spring skiing in the backcountry will have firmer snow at times which is easier to cruise over. Better to do the transition period at the beginning of the season on smooth conditions.
3. Make sure your rig is SUPER LIGHT (I’m sure your is). My skis are 159’s with foam cores. They suck at powder, so I mostly run groomers before and after the ski resorts open. Or, I stick to mostly packed skin tracks or snowmobile roads in the backcountry.
4. Go slow and climb steep. The lesser angles seem to tweak the hip flexors worse, because we try to drive harder and keep our bodies over that front ski for glide. For this same reason, classic Nordic skiing destroys my psoas. I quit doing that altogether.
5. Do some specific hip flexor training before ski season. Rubber tubing kicks and thrusts with the hips. Core work and specifically the TFL and Psoas. Plyo box jumps, etc.
Best wishes this season. Hopefully, we will all have a good showing in France this year.
Jeremy – Wow, thanks a lot for the detailed and thoughtful comment. I really appreciate the advice on all fronts. I think all of your points are spot-on and I’ll definitely be keeping them in mind going forward. Unfortunately, at this point, by time my hip is back to full operation, I’ll probably (necessarily) be pretty focused on running and will be implementing your skiing tips for next season.
UTMB is a great race; psyched you’ll be over there tackling it with us this year!
Super stoked to see you climbing man! Climbing and running are my two loves in life, I believe they go hand in hand, and can genuinely have great and positive impacts on each other! Best of luck to you!!
Hi Tony! I’m Jack, I’m 11 years old and I live in Italy. I do trail runs , I’m part of an athletics team. Last summer I was in courmayeur to see you run the UTMB. I see that you’re running it again this year. I was wondering if I can run with you from courmayeur sports centre to rifugio Bertone ? I’ve been practicing it , my timing was 40 min. ( I got a pair of new balance minimus, your headband buff and your white sunglasses! ) I read that you’re injured now…..I hope you get running soon!!
Hi Tony, Thank you for excellent topic. I feel perfectly same when climbing… I start to climb (boulder) because of my yoga trainer, he is also climbing expert. And I start to do yoga because of running… ahm… it is all connected, so I was so excited that runner like you also do climbing. I had completely same feelings while I was on artificial wall, when even small girls limb higher and faster than me…
I read this article last weekend while trying to snowboard… that was really frustrating :)) even worse than climbing.
One more thanx, whish you all the best.
I’m the guy that gave someone a few cdrs to give you while you were in NYC.
Hopefully you got them.
I agree with Daniel aka Dallas Green.
It’s your authenticity that makes you interesting, and even though I run and don’t climb, I enjoy the climbing posts for that very reason.
Also, as I’ve typed before, your writing is great.
Keep it up and take care.
Maybe it’s time to give up on the minimalist shoe thing man. Seems like once you started wearing the MT110, you’ve been plagued by injuries. All this barefoot running hoopla: If running barefoot is the most “efficient” way to run, how come the winners of all the major marathons and ultra’s are wearing shoes? =)