Athletes · Nutrition · Training

What Would a Rock Climber Do?

We all have our strengths and weaknesses along with things we love and things we love to hate.  And this of course goes for Ninja Obstacle Course training.  Yet, we still train what we love and train even harder on what we hate.

Hate is a strong word, so dislike may be more appropriate.  Either way, we only get better with training and working through the difficulties.

As our guest contributor can attest to, she has her favorite and least favorite obstacles as she noted in her bio.  Jennifer Nicely will give us some detail on how she trains her strengths and overcomes her weaknesses.

And all of this is from a Rock Climber by trade   We love Rock Climbers!

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So, refresh our memory – what are your favorite and least favorite obstacles and skill movements?

A major nemesis obstacle of mine is the salmon ladder. I have been working this obstacle for over a year now, but have really started to specifically target it for the past few weeks. I’m trying to really focus on where I feel my weaknesses are, but it has definitely been frustrating at times! I try and use that frustration as fuel to keep driving my training and really making each training session count. Another obstacle issue for me is the warped wall. Having a climbing background, part of me feels like I’m having to learn essentially a whole new skillset to be able to complete obstacles like the warped wall. But then I have to remind myself that ultimately, that will just make a better all-around athlete, which is exciting in and of itself. I am determined to not only get both of those obstacles, but get them consistently and with no hesitation!

My favorite obstacles are any that challenge grip strength or full body flexibility. I love tiny crimps when I’m climbing, so having the opportunity to utilize that strength of mine on a ninja course always sort of feels like coming home! Being short, I have to use my whole body so much more when I climb than a taller climber might have to. So, when I can use my whole body and flexibility on obstacles, such as the I Beam Crossing, I love that opportunity to utilize everything I have and get it done. It’s a very incredible feeling for me when I know I’ve used my entire skillset and then some and can pull off something crazy!

Jennifer Nicely

Okay, so now details on how you train your favorite skills and obstacles.  Specific details on a training regimen that gets you even better at what you are good at.

Well my favorite “skill” is climbing, in general. So I climb as much as possible! I love climbs that have small handholds and crimps and involve technical climbing and balance. I also love climbs that are overhung or steep. There is something about the dynamic movements, and jumping and swinging, that just really encourages me to give it my all. I love that feeling! I do a lot of climbing-specific training on and off the climbing wall. For example, I do climbing circuits called 4 X 4s. Basically you choose four boulder problems in your moderate-moderately/hard range and climb them back to back, even running from one problem to the next to maximize your time on the wall and minimize your rest as much as possible. After a round of 4 problems back to back, rest four minutes. Do it four times total. I love doing climbing circuits because I can really feel myself pushing my physical limitations and continuing to fight – it’s a great feeling of physical exhaustion! Another thing I try and do is make up climbs or moves that look different or interesting to me. It helps me target specific moves that I need work on, or target climbing weaknesses of mine (such as using slopers.) But a lot of that depends on what I’m working on certain days. Some days I work on “onsighting” problems and try to climb any new boulder problems in one go, without any projecting. Other days, I want to completely max out physically and I find the hardest climbs that I’m working and do the hardest moves over and over again. I feel like as long as I’m pulling moves that are at my limit in some way, I’m growing inside and out. I have to remind myself to stay focused and disciplined at times, but the possibilities are endless!

One thing that I’ve worked into my training more in the past few months and absolutely love is campusing. My climbing gym, Vertical Ventures in St. Petersburg, Florida, (http://stpete.verticalventures.com/), has an amazing training room, and I love spending a lot of time back there focusing on building myself up into the best athlete I can be. I think campusing has been a really great tool for me physically and mentally. It makes me feel strong, which is great for my physical strength, but also really supports me maintaining a positive mindset and believing in myself.

Jennifer Nicely (2)

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about grip strength and how to strengthen one’s grip and/or finger strength. With American Ninja Warrior becoming such a huge phenomenon, there are so many amazing tools out there now that never used to exist! It’s epic! And really exciting. My biggest recommendation to someone starting out is to use a hangboard and/or some different sized and styled holds. Three Ball Climbing (http://www.threeballclimbing.com/) has an amazing selection of holds that can be used to train whole hand strength, as well as specifics – like pinch strength. Another great thing to do if you’re starting out – climb. A lot. Don’t train initially, if you’re new to the sport. Just climb. The more you climb, the more the movements will condition your fingers and hands to support your body on small hand holds and in crazy positions. As I mentioned above, I love campusing, but campusing on rungs can be extremely hard on the tendons and is not something that’s typically recommended to people who haven’t been climbing for at least a year consistently, and whom already have a solid base of grip and finger strength. Hangboards, however, are extremely versatile and can be utilized by just about anyone. There are a ton of different varieties and you can do so many different exercises on them. I love the So iLL Iron Palm (http://soillholds.com/collections/hangboards) and the Beastmaker fingerboards (http://www.beastmaker.co.uk/collections/fingerboards), to name a few. If you’re just starting out on these, you can work pullups, dead hangs, lock offs. Essentially anything that has you hanging. As you get stronger, you can challenge yourself by using the smaller edges, slopers, or pinches, adding weight, or even using less fingers. A company called Beast Fingers Climbing has recently come out with a very interesting product called a, “Grippūl.” (http://beastfingersclimbing.com/) You can use it in a few different ways including lifting, hanging, and pulling. I’ve pre-ordered a set, and I’m super excited to try them out! If you want any more information on any of the companies or training tools I’ve mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to contact me. They are all amazing companies, and I’m happy to put you in the right direction to get some legit gear to train on. 

Now, get into the nuts and bolts of your training on skills and obstacles that you dislike or feel average at. 

As I mentioned earlier, recently I’ve been trying to target my weaknesses, especially for obstacles that are problematic for me. I’ve noticed through my salmon ladder sessions, as well as on other obstacles, that my bicep strength is a weakness for me. My shoulders are super strong, as are my forearms, grip, and fingers. But I realized that my biceps were just not where I needed them to be. To target this I’ve worked in more bicep-specific strength training routines when I’m doing weights, such as bicep curls, hammer curls, and rows. I’ve also really starting hitting my lock-off training harder. I’ve been working on one arm assisted lock offs, as well as two handed lock offs until failure. I do all of these on a mixture of grips and holds – pipes, balls, pull up bars, etc. I log a ton of time on the salmon ladder when I’m at my ninja warrior gym – LIVE Training Center. (http://livetrainingfl.com/) Having a place where you can target your training at the level you need to with the focus you need to is integral! To help with my explosiveness on the salmon ladder, I spend at least some of my training sessions putting two bars on the salmon ladder and doing plyometric pullups from one bar to the other. I also utilize a different pull up bar area in our gym to do extra sets of similar fast and explosive pull ups.

I feel I have a really hard time translating the explosiveness I have when I climb to obstacle training and ninja warrior. This is definitely a mental hurtle as well, but it’s something I know I can target physically and mentally. I’ve started incorporating more box jumps and sprints, as well as forcing myself to really go for movements as much as possible, even if they scare me. When I boulder at my gym, I’m so confident in my movements and what I know my body can do. I’m trying to transfer that self-awareness and belief in my abilities to my ninja warrior training, but the mental game is tough. It takes time!

In addition to training the skills and obstacles specifically, what supplemental work do you do?

In a typical week I train about 6 days, with one of those days being an “active rest day,” where I only do about 30 minutes of cardio as my training. I typically have one full rest day each week.  Most weeks, I train at my ninja gym on Saturday’s for a few hours of obstacle specific training, two days of training at the climbing gym, and three days I train at home. At home I utilize different workouts to target weaknesses and my overall athleticism. I do box jumps, use my hangboard and different holds for a variety of upper body workouts, core workouts, lift weights, power lift a bit, run sprints, and all kinds of other things I plug in and incorporate to really push myself. I also try and run at least 3 – 4 times per week. I do yoga as much as I can work it in, but it hasn’t been nearly as much I’d like!

What tools or ancillary equipment do you use to make yourself better?

I use a pull up bar, Three Ball Climbing beast balls and pipes, wooden rings, weights, plyo boxes, kettlebells, a TRX system, Bosu balls, and hangboards most often. But I try and get creative and use other items whenever I have access, too!

One thing that I feel gets overlooked in articles and podcasts is taking care of all aspects of yourself as an athlete. This includes appropriate rest, nutritional needs, heeding current or previous injuries, and keeping your body in tip top shape while you’re constantly striving to push your limit. As a climber, skin care is huge! I love using Giddy Organics skin balm (http://www.getgiddy.com/) to help me rebuild torn skin, rips, and other issues that arise with hard training. I also utilize at least one full rest day a week, with one workout day being an “active rest day,” where I focus only on light to moderate cardio. I foam roll some, but have really taken to using a lacrosse ball more for my tweaks and soreness. As far as nutritional needs, I have migraines so I’m on a medical diet to help me with that. But I’m a big fan of eating clean in general, and my boyfriend and I love cooking at home. I’ve started taking protein shakes at night and Go Gnarly has amazingly delicious and clean protein powders that I really enjoy. (http://gognarly.com/) I know how hard it was for me to find a protein powder that was clean enough not to negatively affect my migraines or upset my stomach, but also tasted really good. These are all just things that I’ve found work for me. Ultimately, you are the athlete. Figure out what works for you and puts you in your best state mentally and physically, and do that. 

How many hours would you say you work on something difficult to become proficient?

As many hours as it takes! 

But in all seriousness, this is so dependent on the skill being worked and the person working it. I know for me there are some things that are going to take me longer based on my arm injury, and I’m okay with that. I accept that and fight even harder because of it.

I’ve always loved the mentality of training weaknesses until they become strengths. But I’m also very analytical. So for me, it helps if I can really analyze what I think is going wrong with a particular obstacle and why. Not only does that give me the opportunity to target that obstacle specifically, but also target that movement or muscle group specifically. I have found that if I go into my training sessions with a feeling of purpose and intention in every rep and set and obstacle that I’m working, my training is much more efficient and I am much more focused.

Please provide some closing words on helping someone get beyond mental blocks (fear of heights, fear of falling, etc.) when it comes to obstacles.

If you know me, you know that my mental game is by far my biggest area of weakness. But I’ve realized that and it’s something I’m working on nonstop. For me, I need to target my mental training as heavily as I do my physical training. Honestly, probably even more. It’s not that way for everyone. Some people can just get in the zone. Others have no fear inherently. I am neither of those people. I definitely have my “zone” and I feel it when I climb, but I can’t always get myself in that mindset. I don’t know how or why I’m there at times; I’m just there. And I definitely have fear. But even with the awareness and acknowledgement of my own mental shortcomings, mental toughness can be a very obscure thing to target. I have taken up mediation daily to help me get better control of my anxieties and emotions in everyday life. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the chaos of the world around me, and doing daily mediations helps provide me with a sense of relief and acceptance that I can’t control everything, and that’s okay. I also love yoga as a physical and mental practice and have been trying to integrate it more consistently into my schedule. There are some really great books that target athlete mental toughness and training. I really enjoyed, “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall. Although this isn’t specifically written for athlete mental training, I found the lessons it taught about running transferable to my cardio training as well as my overall athletic goals. I’m currently reading, “The Champion’s Mind,” by Jim Afremow, and really enjoying it!

As I stated earlier, I’m very analytical so reading things, utilizing workbooks and journaling really helps me gather my thoughts and target my physical weaknesses as well we my mental ones. But everyone is different. The biggest step you can take is to step outside your comfort zone. Maybe that means trying the salmon ladder for the first time, or going for your biggest lache. There’s a difference between being reckless and pushing your limits. But you have to define those boundaries yourself and then be willing to redefine them as you learn and grow as an athlete.

After my accident, we weren’t sure I’d ever do a pull up again. Bouldering was most likely out of the question forever. And I was fine with that. I pushed myself physically and mentally climbing ropes, and working obstacles that were much lower to the ground. But last spring, when my climbing gym opened a new location in St. Pete, I felt like I could start bouldering again. It wasn’t that the risk was any different – I still can’t fall on my arm. But I was different. I knew that bouldering was something I could handle again. Initially I only climbed a few feet of the floor, regardless of the climbing grade. Eventually, I began bouldering my warm ups to their finishes, but anything that I was projecting, I would only do if it was right off the ground. Now, I’m still very careful if I’m up high, and I will never launch my body in a full dyno at the top of a climb, but I also know that my body is stronger than my mind realizes, and I have to trust that and go for it. This isn’t an easy thing to do. Even to this day I have discussions with my surgeons about what is safe for me and what I need to avoid. And, honestly, we don’t know. As one of them said, “We’re in unchartered territory here.” But a lot of it is mindset. I could think to myself that we have no idea if my arm can sustain a fall, therefore I should climb nothing. Or I can think, we have no idea if my arm can sustain a fall, so I’m going to stay as safe as I can, but also push myself harder than I ever have before. It is up to me to test myself and push myself appropriately. No one else is going to do that for me. They didn’t save my arm for me to shield it the rest of my life – they saved my arm for me to use it. And I’m going to use in the best ways I possibly can – to tackle my goals and achieve my dreams.

You had to rehab your way back after your accident. Tell us a bit about what this process was like for you.

In the months initially following my accident, my arm was completely immobile. I had (what I called) a “robot brace” that covered my entire arm with bands of support and it could be locked into certain “flexion” and “extension” settings. Each week at therapy I was allowed to gain 10 degree of extension. So my therapy at the beginning was pretty intense. I would see my occupational therapist, who was a hand specialist, twice a week and also had to do my own exercises as least once a day at home. My exercises in the beginning months were focused on basic movements and functional strength – being able to safely open a door with a door knob, reaching above me to put something away, or behind my head to do my hair. All of this was very slow and very measured. As my arm grew stronger – and safer – we were able to start targeting strength to rebuild all of my severed muscles, including my bicep. We also had to target grip strength in my hand very specifically due to the nerve damage. Because of the nerve damage, I also had to do “texture therapy,” to help my body and hand “relearn” certain things beyond just movements. I had to relearn how to tie my shoes, but I also had to practice picking up scrabble tiles and touching different surfaces while saying what those surface textures were, (ex. rough, soft, hard), to help my body and brain rebuild that knowledge and perception of touch. It sounds crazy – and it was – but it was also really amazing. Not a day went by where I didn’t feel like each small success I made was monumental. I still have to remind myself of that at times! For a split second, I’ll get frustrated with my arm when it can’t lock off at full flexion, and then I take a step back and remind myself that my arm, my surgeons and their teams, my family and friends, and my body, are incredible. I have to remember that the fact that I can type, and touch, and feel, and use my hand – let alone climb, and do pull ups, and strength train – is truly amazing and I’m so unbelievably grateful for that.

Jennifer Nicely (3)

I continued doing OT with my therapist for about a year following the accident. We progressively lowered how often we met, and how long our sessions were based on my progress. But I’ll have to continue doing OT on my own for the rest of my life to help maintain full strength and continue supporting my long term sensory issues. It’s become a part of my life and my training and who I am as a person and an athlete. And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

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