The two-time IFSC Bouldering World Cup champion stopped by The Academy at Mesa Rim in San Diego to share what she does to bust through plateaus, keep the psyche, avoid burnout, and more.
By Ryan Halvorson
Photos by Nayton Rosales
Widely considered the most accomplished American female bouldering competitor in history, Alex Puccio has experienced ups and downs and victories and losses. Throughout her storied 12-year career, she’s gained a significant amount of wisdom about what it takes to be a strong climber for the long-term.
Recently, she offered many of her hard-earned insights to several passionate climbers. Here’s some of what she shared.
Just over 3 years ago, Puccio sustained a season-ending knee injury while warming up for the IFSC World Cup comp in Vail, Colorado. It was the athlete’s first major injury and as soon as she hit the ground and the pain welled up in her body, she feared for for the future.
“I thought my career was over,” she recalls. “I was scared.”
Fortunately, the torn ligaments and meniscus wouldn’t force her to take a new life direction, but it did teach her a few things about the physical and mental components of being a high-performance athlete with a major injury.
Puccio made a successful recovery and faster than predicted; she was back on the rock well ahead of schedule and returned a stronger climber. Within months, she won the Hueco Tanks Rock Rodeo and later sent three V13 boulders.
In a way, she credits the injury with her bump in output. Since using her lower-body was mostly out of the question, she focused on the things she could do, like campusing and core work.
Taking a complete rest during recovery was out of the question.
“Because of that injury, I was forced to train other parts of my body and so my hands and upper-body were stronger than they had been before.”
Another thing she learned was that injuries don’t have to be as frightening as they might seem.
This lesson became apparent over a year later when doctors noticed a herniated disk in her cervical spine and she underwent a spinal fusion surgery to prevent further problems. She says that, while the surgery was intimidating, she didn’t experience the same fears as she had when she damaged her knee.
“With the neck surgery I was scared because it was so close to the spinal cord,” she says. “But I wasn’t scared that it would affect my career; I knew I’d come back quicker and stronger because I’d done it before. My injuries have affected me in positive ways. It took me a while to train that.”
ON OVERCOMING PLATEAUS
The path to progress is rarely a linear one. It’s often filled with plateaus and steps backward, which can be frustrating and demotivating.
She offers the following tips to bust through plateaus and how to keep focused when you feel stuck in the mud:
Practice the basics. We often get so focused on forward progress that we lose track of the foundations that helped us get to where we are. If you struggle to improve then maybe it’s time to go back to the climbing fundamentals and fine tune basic movement patterns.
Climb above your “grade.” Training the fundamentals can certainly weed out inefficiencies in your climbing. However, sometimes trying grades that are higher than what you’re used to can give your performance a little boost. You don’t have to send them; even doing just a few moves can help you make progress.
Don’t go it alone. Training alone sucks; it’s my least favorite aspect of training. I know that if I’m in the gym by myself I won’t try hard. So, I like to go to the gym with a climbing buddy that keeps me motivated to push and can also give feedback on things I didn’t realize I was doing wrong.
Work on your weakness. We all have climbing styles and types of climbs we’re good at. Those make you feel great and successful, but they won’t help you become a better overall climber because you avoid training your weak spots. So, get on the things you’re not good at. Don’t stick to crimps because you love crimps. I tend to do a lot of slab because it forces me to trust my feet.
Listen to your body. Climbers are dedicated to the sport and sometimes push too hard, which can lead to injury or burnout. Recently, I started a new sport climbing training program and I’ve felt more sore than I have in a long time so I adjusted my climbing schedule to avoid problems. I know now that if I feel excessively sore or sick then I might need to take a break or not train as hard. My goal is to climb 5 days per week, but I’m not stuck to that plan.
ON MANAGING THE PSYCH
Puccio is no stranger to competition. The McKinney, Texas native has medals galore and plenty of experience in front of the judges so you might think such a seasoned pro is able to keep cool under pressure. Not so, she admits.
“I get nervous at every competition,” she says. “And I discovered that the better I do, the higher the expectations of myself and others. The higher the expectations, the greater the pressure there is to perform well.”
While some athletes thrive in such circumstances, Puccio says that this has been one of her biggest roadblocks. Despite training hard and feeling physically ready to compete, her mind sometimes gets the best of her causing her to “choke at the last minute.”
“I remember a coach once telling me, ‘If you learned to free your mind, you’d win.’”
Easier said than done.
Puccio says that it’s been challenging, but she strives to “find a balance between caring and not caring so much.” She explains that this philosophy is meant to keep her relaxed and psyched at the same time.
She experienced this balance first-hand during her second World Cup in 2009. To her dismay, the athlete fell sick 3 weeks before the big event and wasn’t able to train properly for it. So, she shifted her focus away from winning and instead decided to use the competition as a learning experience. To her surprise, she took home the gold.
“I had no expectations and I won,” she says.
ON FAILURE AND SETBACKS
Puccio has seen many victories, but she’s also experienced plenty of losses. And like all climbers, she’s been shut down on hard projects on many occasions.
Disappointments are tough, she says.
“You have to deal with the emotions that go with it so you can move on,” says the athlete. “When that I happens to me I have to go through some self-therapy. I tell myself, ‘Alex, it’s time to put on your big girl panties and be ok with starting over. Get it together and make the most of a bad situation.’”
She adds that it’s important to think about the long-term and not get bogged down by momentary setbacks, especially if the ultimate goal is to have an extensive climbing career.
Finally, she says, “Being ok with failure is a part of success. That’s something we forget about. It’s not about sending every project right away. And the harder the challenge, the more patient you have to be.”