Overcoming Setbacks: Advice From Alex Puccio

Alex Puccio discusses staying motivated through a devastating injury to come back stronger than ever
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Alex Puccio discusses staying motivated through a devastating injury to come back stronger than ever

This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.

Alex Puccio Bouldering Rock Climbing Advice Injury

Alex Puccio sent Irreversible (V13/14) in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, only three months after major knee surgery, taking the lower V13 grade. Photo: Joel Zerr

It was 30 minutes before the qualifying round of the 2015 Boulder World Cup in Colorado, and Alex Puccio was warming up with friend and fellow competitor Anna Stöhr. A strong contender to be the overall World Cup champion (a title that counts performance in all five World Cup bouldering events)—a feat no American has accomplished—Puccio was focused on the problems standing between her and the podium. Suddenly, her hand slipped off a jug during a dyno, and POP!

She screamed, the pain immediately registering; she had fallen mid-swing and landed awkwardly. “The inside of my left foot just hit the ground…. My knee went out,” Puccio said, recounting the moment her ACL and MCL tore. “I heard all the pops, all the tears.” In that moment of fear and frustration, she realized she was done for the season, and a few hours later, doctors gave her a prognosis of six months of recovery. “I had all these horrible thoughts,” she said.

For the past 10 years, 26-year-old Puccio has made a name for herself as one of the strongest climbers in the world, both indoors and outdoors, with 13 World Cup podiums and two V14 sends, more than any other woman except Ashima Shiraishi, who has three. It’s no question that Puccio possesses a great physical and mental strength.She has the type of focus that allows her to attain seemingly any objective she sets her mind to, but this injury abruptly closed the door on her dream of winning the overall prize for the 2015 World Cup, a goal so meaningful that she crowd-funded $10,000 for training and travel expenses. (Puccio says the donors have been supportive of her, even though the money wouldn’t go to the 2015 competition season.)

With a pre-injury schedule that involved training every day for several hours, Puccio was extremely bored within a week of the injury. “I’m always so motivated. I would hate to have to make up a lot of work,” she said. Soon, she was back in the gym doing core work, hangboarding, and shoulder-focused injury prevention.

A few weeks after surgery, Puccio had surpassed what her medical team had seen in other elite-level athletes. “I think it comes down to the mental aspect and how much effort you’re willing to put in,” she said. Originally planning to focus on one-legged sport climbing as training, she found it uninspiring and decided to concentrate on upper body, finger, and core strength. Although she was under strict instructions “not to fall,” she ventured outside seven weeks post-surgery to send Euro Roof (V10) and Euro Trash (V12), both in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. She says she’s been able to climb outside safely by “figuring out different beta so I won’t fall weird on my leg,” as well as trying climbs that are low to the ground and having spotters that can help catch her. This strategy has helped her tick three V13s and four V12s post-surgery.

But her speedy recovery hasn’t been all milk and honey; her emotions and outlook on the future have been a roller coaster of ups and downs. Surrounding herself with positive people has helped, but training’s been the strongest tool for staying motivated. “Setbacks only make you want it more,” she says. Puccio has used her Instagram account to keep a detailed journal of her recovery, and it’s helped her connect with fans. “A lot of them have written me saying, ‘I’m going through the same thing, and it’s awesome to see where your progress is at!’” Puccio said. “It gives me hope for my progress, too.”

How to Overcome Setbacks

1. Positive Vibes

Your friends are there to support you, so soak up all the good vibes they’re willing to give you! Injuries are tough, but being a downer—out loud or in your head—will only slow your recovery. Positive surroundings will take your mind off the pain and boredom and allow you to focus on recovery. Share your progress and encourage others.

2. Stay Active

Take the time away from climbing to go hiking or running to keep your cardio up. Find something you can do with your particular injury (without causing more problems), and have fun doing something else. Just feeling like you’re in good shape will improve your mental game and make you want to keep training while injured.

3. Mental Focus

When you start to dabble with climbing again, pay attention to where your mind is before you even approach the wall. Mental focus is the key to coming back strong, and you should apply that same motivated approach you use to climb a really hard boulder problem to getting over your injury. That determination will get you back to crushing fast.

4. Chill Out

The long road to recovery will feel much shorter if you don’t take it too seriously. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to succeed immediately, or to climb as strong as you were pre-injury the first day back to climbing. Go out and have fun, but be sure to take some time to focus on your injury and let it heal.

5. Listen

The medical professionals taking care of you know what they’re doing. Go to every single one of your physical therapy sessions and take each one as seriously as your own training. Make therapy and your doctor’s advice a top priority, and your body will respond by healing quickly. Re-injury is a real possibility and will slow you down in the long run.

—Special thanks to John Blomquist of Chalk Talk Podcast. Listen to the whole Puccio interview and more on Chalk Talk