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A Safe and Injury-Free Return to Climbing

A few ways to ensure your return to climbing is injury free

As climbing gyms and access to crags begin to reopen, many climbers are getting psyched, dusting off the chalk pot and awaiting that “We’re open!” post on social media. With all of the excitement, it can be easy to forget that many of us gotten weaker during isolation. That means that there is a potential for injury.

For those of us that entered isolation injured, the forced-rest gave our bodies time to recover. That said, many of us have likely lost some strength and there are consequences to an aggressive return to climbing. Here are a few things to consider as you build back into the sport.

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PEACE & LOVE ❤️💛💙 Should we all be moving on from the old (but easy to remember) acronym many of us have been using when it comes to injury? The RICE protocol has been around since the 70s and whilst it had some common sense foundation, it’s subsequently been superseded by further methods like PRICE (The P being “Protect”). One of the latest suggestions – see Blaise Dubois above – is moving into a more rounded approach of taking the whole athlete picture into account. Not just the physical!! Many thanks to @tim_pigott (we use him a lot for Physio work – it’s great he’s an elite athlete himself! 😁) for putting together this info graphic for us. Always amazing to see others sharing our passion for expanding the knowledge and understanding of the sports community. #climbingtraining #moonboard #climbing_is_my_passion #tradclimbing #sportclimbing #bouldering #gritstone #ukclimbing #indoorclimbing #latticetraining #latticer #climbing_lovers #climbing_pictures_of_instagram #climbing_is_my_passion #klettern #escalade #klatre

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Fingers

Perhaps the most endangered and important part of the climber’s body are the fingers. Though tendons retain much of their tensile strength during rest, the muscles surrounding them will have atrophied. These muscles, the flexors and extensors of the forearm, become weaker after not climbing. Hangboarding does not absolve the athlete of this issue. Climbing allows these muscles an aerobic element that hangboarding does not provide. Your flexors are those muscles that allow your hand to contract while your extensors are those muscles that allow your hands to open as you move between holds.

Though tendon strength is essential to holding grips, the muscles supporting the tendons take on a lot of that stress. Add to the strain that additional stress that comes from weaker shoulders, biceps, and core. The fingers are now hanging with the most pressure they have felt since your body was this weak. The only difference is that the fingers are likely stronger than the rest of your body. It can feel like pulling hard is just as easy as it always was. In some cases, a climber might feel even stronger due to the muscle weight lost during a relatively sedentary isolation. As such, it is important to return to climbing slowly. Four-by-fours or limit bouldering might feel like the best way to return to climbing, but taking the time to avoid injury is more beneficial. Injury is the quickest way to lose strength.

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Knees

Knee problems are more of an issue for boulderers and lead climbers than top rope climbers, but the information applies to all disciplines. Even for climbers that have spent all of quarantine training, nothing changes the fact that isolation forces a more sedentary lifestyle. That means less walking, less standing, and muscular atrophy. In the same way that our finger-tendons are supported by flexors and extensors, our knees are supported by our quadriceps and biceps femoris.

If a climber returns to heal-toe cams, heel-hooks, toe-hooks, and drop knees without rehabbing their leg strength, they may find their joints weakened and unstable. Additionally, falling is risky at the best of times. It is made more risky as a result of weak joints. You may have been able to take thick diggers before isolation, but perhaps a bit of rehab is required before returning to 30-foot whippers or slamming into crash pads.

Elbows and Wrists

We should appreciate that we may have attained a muscular imbalance. For climbers’ arms, that can mean large biceps compared to smaller triceps or large flexors compared to small extensors. When our biceps are unsupported by our triceps, we put additional load onto our elbows. Without maintenance, this leads to tendonitis in the elbow. Similarly, if we allow our flexor muscles to grow to an imbalanced degree, it puts unwanted stress on our wrists. In both cases, the stress results from constant strain, unbalanced by the weaker opposing muscle which should be working to keep the elbows and wrists pulled back into a neutral position.

Exercises to prevent injury:

Fingers

Ease into climbing slowly. Work your way back into routes or boulders of lower grades before even attempting those of greater difficulty.

Knees

Complete sets of squats until pistol squats, a one-legged variation of the squat, become manageable.

Elbows

Complete elbows-back push-ups.

Wrists

Climb on pinches, but gently. Strive to pump-out your upper forearm. Do not complete limit bouldering when your forearms are pumped. A rice bucket provides similar benefits and is one of the safest ways to strengthen the wrists.