Knock on wood, but I’m hoping that this is my last biceps update, and future posts will be about fun things like rock climbing or gangster meals (had to add that link: It ranks as the most awesome thing I’ve found on the interwebs this week).
Okay, back to biceps. Now fifteen weeks out from surgery, my recreational life is beginning to resemble normal. I’ve been climbing and training for four weeks now, which has been quite fun. In the last two weeks, I’ve even been able to try hard on occasion. I don’t say “climb hard,” mostly because I’m still not back to the same level as before my injury and because that isn’t the point. The satisfaction of having a properly working body comes from being able to explore its potential, not just ticking routes that may or may not actually be all that hard.
That said, in terms of climbing performance, I’d put myself somewhere around 80% of my personal best, which means there’s a lot of stuff I can climb (that is, assuming the snow in Boulder ever melts).
Not to brag, but I’m kind of proud of my recovery. From reading other people’s accounts of their rehab, I think mine has been about 15-20% shorter, and I’ve been able to return to aggressive training more quickly and with fewer complications. I thought I’d share the factors that I speculate have facilitated this great recovery.
1. The best doctor possible. When I knew I needed surgery, I sought out the best doctor I could find and the one who seemed to have the most experience with performing this surgery (and similar ones) on high-level athletes. The whole process was easier because he and his team knew exactly what I needed my arm to do in the future and respected my need to stay active and return to sport-specific training as efficiently as I could.
2. Integrated Manual Therapy. Here in Boulder, I saw Kathleen Eakins, an IMT practitioner, for several sessions in the first six weeks after surgery. She helped reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and heal scar tissue. I would guess that her work helped my healing process by at least a week or two in terms of helping my arm go from the basic healing stage to the strengthening stage.
3. Trigger-point Dry Needling. Dry needling is awesome, if you’re up for it. I’ve had it done many times in the past for other injuries, and I was fairly persistent in finding a PT who would perform this treatment as much as possible. I started getting needled at six weeks (had to get doctor approval), and I’m still going in for weekly sessions. It keeps my muscles firing properly as I increase the training load on my body. You can get dry needled preventatively if you find the right PT; it essentially works similar to deep tissue massage, only it more effectively re-sets the muscle through stabbing a needle into the muscle’s trigger points. It is not like a relaxing massage.
4. Hangboarding. I could start weighting my fingers way before I could climb, so I got a good 4-6 weeks of finger training before I returned to climbing at all. The trick was to load my fingers and not my arm. The thing that worked the best was doing way less than bodyweight (i.e. feet on the ground), but hanging on very small holds and sometimes only one or two fingers at a time. This put huge loads on an individual finger but didn’t require putting lots of weight on my arms.
5. Getting a climbing/rehab plan from a PT who was himself an elite rock climber. Once I was cleared to climb, I couldn’t just go out and starting climbing hard again. Nico Brown, a PT at Howard Head in Vail, was able to make me a great plan for building back up to full strength climbing and continuing to heal my biceps in the process with very specific guidance on when to push harder and when to be careful with different types of climbing and even individual moves.
6. Cheating. This comes with equal doses of listening to my body, but the idea here is that I always focused on progress. If one workout went well, I would rest a day and then do a slightly harder workout, even if that isn’t totally in line with the protocol. By gradually increasing load in controlled ways, I’ve retrained my arm to deal with the stresses of climbing, and now it is holding up well. At this point, I’m putting fairly high climbing and strength loads on my arm (like bouldering) and then taking plenty of rest afterward to let the tissue recover. Aside from minor noticeable weakness, quicker fatigue, and some soreness, my right arm feels about the same as my left.
Next week, I head to the desert to lead a canyoneering trip, which will be a good break from climbing on my arm. After that, I’ll continue progressing with climbing loads and hopefully transition back to simply going out and trying my hardest with a month.