Injury Prevention for Beginner Climbers
Do less out of habit, more out of intent.
I work with a ton of climbers. I see all ages, all levels of climbing, and a wide variety of injuries amongst them. I see who injures, at what grade, and usually, WHY. I see what climbing styles injure what body parts. Pain has three general causes: (very basic explanation here for my fellow clinicians).
- Pathology, which we cannot always control in spite of our best efforts to prevent it. This includes cancer, genetic disease, etc.
- Trauma, which you can only control to a point; accidents happen.
- Poor mechanics or poor technique when it comes to sport. This is something we can change. This is the reason for this blog This source of injury keeps all rehab professionals in business.
Upper body injuries dominate the climbing world. It’s a huge bummer to have to take a break for an injury. An even bigger bummer when it doesn’t help to take a break. So what can we do?
My beginner climbers often injure fingers by pulling unnecessarily hard. It takes up to a year for your finger tendons to toughen up. For most young and healthy climbers, it’s generally 6-9 months. For those of us NOT young AND healthy, it takes longer. I go over finger and grip strength in the advanced blog on strength training. We won’t really need this type of workout until all the other preventative pieces are in place. So, you are now mentally yelling “What are the other pieces?” Glad you asked! Finger development at your climbing grade includes:
Learning a bit of anatomy, or at least all the different ways our finger joints and hands move. It helps if you learn elbow too. Knowledge is power, RIGHT? Everyone talks about “pulley tears.” It’s not a pulley tear (probably). It’s that you climb like an newbie (and that’s ok).
Maintaining range of motion for each of those finger joints, both actively (using you muscles), and passively (using something else to apply pressure while your muscles are relaxed), can be a challenge in your first few years. Add in elbow and shoulder complex, and almost EVERY body type can develop shortened tissue with increased strength. You NEED your full muscle length to stay strong and healthy. REMEMBER: “common” is not the same as NORMAL muscle length. A Physical Therapist or Sports Massage Therapist can help you screen these joints fairly quickly. Spine, scapulae, and shoulder mobility come before hand strength.
Develop ability to engage trunk and support muscles properly so you have a good anchor from which to pull. Developing awareness of neutral spine and shoulder position is critical. You’ll need to work on it 24 hrs/day, not just during your climbing warm up. Every movement MUST come from a strong core. Learn when to relax and when to engage each part of your upper body- this includes breathwork. There is a firing sequence in healthy tissue. It starts proximally (close to the spine) and moves distally to smaller muscle groups. This all happens in less than a second. We should activate trunk-scapula & shoulder stabilizers-then anterior shoulder & elbow flexors-then the hand and fingers. This takes practice (part of your warm-up and in slow motion) since we can’t control what happens in a fraction of a second with conscious motor control while climbing with hard effort. Our nervous systems are amazing!
Working on technique and body awareness on the wall is the final piece. AKA: learning to utilize every tool other than your hand. Simply learning to push to the hand holds VS pulling to them is foundational work. You posterior trunk and leg strength, breathing, body awareness, footwork, and balance come before finger strength. Experience gives us options. Experience comes from practice. TA-DA!
More range of motion available, means a longer muscle from which to recruit strength! Healthy motion means more strength, more functional, healthy tissue. Strength and flexibility DO NOT compete with each other! To have one is not to sacrifice the other. We need both for optimal movement as athletes. Your strength work should not be limited to mid-range motion. Go full length to fully recruit your muscles. We are weakest at end range of motion (just before fully flexed or fully extended). Make stretching part of your work day. It’s easy to take 1 minute to stretch SOMETHING each hour. Easier in fact, than taking 10 minutes and setting it aside in our busy schedules.
- Shoulder Mobility Self-Assessment
One arm reaches behind your head and down your back; the other reaches behind your hip and up your back. Now try grasping your fingers together. Normal range of motion should allow this without pain. Switch sides. Any differences? Which arm is painful? Which direction? If you are not able to grasp your hands, seek help from a pro. Body work by a massage therapist, or a physical therapist will help you figure it out.
- Hip Mobility Self-Assessment
Laying on your belly, press the bottoms of your feet together with knees out wide. How far can you now rotate your feet to the floor without your hips lifting off the ground? Try one hip at a time if you can’t make this happen. Press your hip into the floor as you keep your knee and the side of your foot flat. Stretch gently until you progress into a full frog legged position!
The intermediate section of my blog covers spine, and the advanced section covers hands and feet.
Balance & Joint Stability
My dentist says floss only the teeth you want to keep. I say strengthen only the joints you want to keep. Balance is a great way to kick in those tiny joint stabilizing muscles. We should all be able to stand on one foot and brush our teeth with eyes closed. Sounds easy? Great! Then you should always be able to put your climbing shoes on and take them off while standing on the pads at the gym. Watch your foot as your stand on a BOSU or any unstable object . All of those tiny twitches are muscles firing to keep you upright and your joints safe. This is happening from your foot to knee to hip to spine. The more challenging a position is, the more we use our core to keep balanced. If you have an injury and are unable to lift heavy, no worries… Use balance as a way of making an exercise more difficult without overloading an at-risk-joint. It’s where most rehab programs start.
Remember, we are talking injury prevention here. If you do have an injury, ask a rehab profession where to start and if it’s safe for your body yet.
Your body is made of everything you put in your mouth, everything your breathe in, everything you absorb through your skin. It’s that simple! What are you building your cells out of? Let’s think about that for a second.
Food science is another industry that has made incredible gains in the last few decades. We are easily suckered by the next fad. Marketing companies that sell food are very well aware of this, as well as how to stretch profits. Food manufactures have perfected making processed foods that are addictive for our dopamine response. In the advanced section, I touch on this a bit.
We are in an age in which a tremendous amount of information is available to us. We have to be educated as consumers and skeptical of every article we read. We MUST begin to seek out not just the source of what we are reading, but where that authors’ information came from. Misinformation is validated when passed along numerous times. Look to see who paid for the “research” you are reading.
I encourage using a log for a few weeks. I don’t recommend logging calories obsessively over long periods of time. It won’t take long to see trends in your diet. When do you binge and why? How could those habits be mitigated?
A few healthy habits to get into:
- Meal planning & meal prep. Don’t wait until you are hungry to try to make rational decisions about what to eat. Your body will be craving calorie dense foods by then. There are tons of great apps that can track groceries, recipes, and make shopping lists for you.
- Schedule time to eat. Many of get so caught up in work, we can forget to stop, sit, breathe, eat. You think better and perform critical thinking quicker when you are not dealing with low blood sugar. Your brain isn’t a muscle. It requires stable blood sugar to function properly. When I look at athletes food journals, especially those who identify as more female, they are rarely eating enough calories!
- Never shop hungry. Poor choices lead to cabinets full of poor choices. Shopping when your body is craving calorie dense food is a bad choice. Avoid the isles of dry goods that have no actual food items. If it can sit on a shelf indefinitely, it’s most likely not actual food. Edible doesn’t not mean ”food.” Food is meant to build your body and supply it with nutrition, not empty calories.
- For travel and road trips, eating healthy can be a real challenge. Again, try to prep and shop ahead of time. Consider making time to go to a grocery store for food instead of fast food. Healthy proteins can be difficult at drive throughs. Get your butt to the store; you have tons of options there.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”
-Most likely a fake Einstein quote, but it’s a lovely sentiment.
What amazed you today?
I’ve included an excellent sleep journal from the National Sleep Foundation. We have tons of modern gadgets to help us monitor our quality of sleep. While these don’t compare to the accuracy of an actual sleep study, they give us an idea. They are also found to be fairly accurate.
Looking to keep yourself accountable as you work on progressing in your climbing? Contact us at ATHENA where we specialize in injury prevention, massage therapy, strength training, climbing assessments, core training, and sports nutrition. And be sure to follow us on social media at Athena_massage.
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