Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Injuries (Part 16)
Injuries suck, no matter who you are or what you do. For avid athletes like sport climbers and other styles of climbers, injuries can seem like the end of one’s magical little world, or the end of all that’s truly enjoyable, depending on who you are and how much you love your sport. Obviously, having an active passion can have some inevitable downsides, one being that if you’re injured, this often precludes participation in that activity. Dealing with the sense of loss that occurs as the result of sports injuries should not be downplayed, nor should you (or anyone handling an injury) feel badly if you find yourself with a serious case of the blues as a result of an injury and time away from your sport.
It may seem like a strange choice at first glance to dedicate a series of entries about improving your sport climbing (easily extrapolated in many instances to other kinds of climbing/other sports entirely) to injuries. However, I choose to include this in the series not because I think injuries are an inevitable or necessary consequence of participation in sport climbing, but rather, because a) injuries due to sports/fitness participation are quite common (“At least one of every five emergency department visits for an injury results from participation in sports or recreation,” according to the CDC Injury Research Agenda); b) knowledge about how to prevent, minimize, recover from, intelligently handle and cope with injuries can be an invaluable part of the learning/improvement process in terms of sports performance; and c) even if you may personally be so blessed as to never sustain any sort of injury from sport climbing, training for climbing, or from any other sport, you will likely have partners, friends and colleagues who do get injured or flirt with injury – and you might be able to offer them valuable support and insight if you have a greater knowledge base about injuries yourself.
Keep in mind as you read this series that while I’m both an avid athlete myself and a training professional (certified personal trainer and certified yoga instructor), I am not a medical or healthcare professional. Therefore, I am not suggesting or implying that any of the insights or advice in this series should be used as a replacement for the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of sports injuries by educated professionals like physicians and physical therapists who are trained to do exactly that. Rather, my aim is to help guide you along the path toward injury-free climbing and training experiences, using many “you probably shouldn’t do this unless you want to invite injury” and “oops, I did it again” episodes taken from my own past experiences helping to illustrate my points about injury prevention, recovery, and coping. Note too that while I don’t consider myself to be injury-prone, I have been climbing for a long time and I do have some predispositions that have led me down the path of injury numerous times (though at the moment I am – most thankfully and joyously – injury-free).
In this upcoming series of entries, then, I’ll cover an array of aspects of sport climbing injuries – not, however, specific injuries and how to diagnose and/or treat them, which would be totally inappropriate given my knowledge base. Rather, I’ll start with general injury prevention tips next time, and take it from there into injury prevention and tips for handling specific types of injuries – overtraining, overuse and acute/sudden injuries. “So I’m Injured, Now What?” follows this, with basic guidelines for handling injuries smartly, getting the most out of the time you’re injured, and getting back on the rock with no residual injury nagging you in as little time as possible. And hopefully, you’ll read all of this and never need to use any of it, save for the injury prevention tips – because the best climbing and training plan is the one that causes zero injuries first and foremost, and secondly, yields the greatest gains in whatever areas you care most about improving upon in your own climbing.
Five General Injury Prevention Tips
We’ve all heard the saying that prevention is the best medicine, and this most certainly holds true for avoiding show-stopping climbing injuries. I’ve covered many of the areas that are valuable components of injury prevention in previous entries, but I’ll nonetheless reiterate ten of them here (five today and in the next entry), in no particular order of importance – in other words, meaning all of them are important!
- Nutrition. Proper athlete nutrition for climbers is a must. I put athlete in italics because it’d be my best guess that while sports-minded active people tend to listen to expert nutritional advice for the masses the most, these people actually have different dietary needs due to their higher levels of activity compared to the sedentary majority. Proper athlete nutrition includes providing the body with enough carbs to fuel top performance, as well as ingesting a 3: or 4:1 carbs to protein snack within 30 minutes of finishing a workout/climbing day. I will cover nutrition and body composition in more detail in a future Improve Your Sport Climbing series of entries. If you want a head start, grab a copy of Advanced Sports Nutrition: Second Edition and start reading.
- Hydration. Hydration gets its own category here, though I’ll discuss it more in the nutrition series as well. Even slight dehydration negatively impacts performance, as detailed in this excellent excerpt appearing on Human Kinetics: “Dehydration and its effects on performance.” Start your climbing day or workout hydrated, and be vigilant about staying hydrated throughout your efforts. Replacing some or all of your water with sports drinks (likeClif Bar Electrolyte Hydration Pouch) has the potential to delay fatigue. Sports drinks can help you keep electrolytes balanced while you hydrate, also providing an easy way to keep your carb intake consistent throughout a climbing day or workout.
- Sleep. If you’re shirking on sleep you increase your risk of injury. Even one night of not enough sleep can negatively impact your reaction time. A study reported at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition in 2012 linked less sleep with greater risk of injury in student athletes, and the risk of injury from not enough sleep increased for older adolescents. How much sleep is enough? This depends on who you are, but normal for most adults is 7 to 9 hours a night, says the National Sleep Foundation. However, athletes may benefit from logging 10+ hours of sleep per night regularly, according to a 2011 study reported in the journal “Sleep.”
- Rest. In addition to sleep, light days and rest days are an integral part of avoiding injury. On the whole, from what I’ve observed, most climbers tend to climb/train too much and not rest enough, when in fact, it’s generally better to be undertrained than overtrained, and more rest (within reason) is almost always the best choice – especially if there’s any doubt in your mind about whether you’re recovered enough to climb hard for the day. This tough reality presents a real mental challenge for dedicated climbers, who are often barraged by mental messages of doubt (“You’re losing fitness! You should be training! Everybody else is climbing more!”), but in reality, rest – including lighter days or even lighter weeks of climbing and training – is an essential part of a smart injury-prevention plan. And of course, resting when you’re sick is a no-brainer. Let your body heal rather than loading more stress onto an already stressed system.
- Pacing. A subset of rest, pacing here involves how much you rest between efforts or sets (for resistance training) as well as pacing yourself when you know you’re going to be climbing multiple days in a row or a lot of days in a relatively short time (like a nine-day climbing trip). Climbing all nine days probably isn’t the best plan for top performance or injury prevention. Planning at least two rest days into those nine days is a smart tactical choice, along with one or two lighter days of seriously moderate climbing for you. In addition to that overall plan, pacing yourself throughout each climbing day can help prevent injuries (and promote better and more consistent performance) as well. This means if you’re climbing two days on and plan to try routes that challenge you on both those days, that you warm up well, then put in two to four fewer efforts in on difficult terrain than you potentially could – so you leave burns in the tank and don’t drain your body’s resources down close to nothing on your first day out. And, you rest between burns more than you might expect, too, so that you allow your body to recover as fully as possible between each effort. (For more on #’s 3-5, see my earlier entry in this series on resting).
Five More General Injury Prevention Tips
The previous entry’s injury-prevention tips are those that I consider relatively easy to incorporate into a smart training plan – at least when compared to today’s tips. All of the first five tips involve adjustments that you can make virtually instantly and also, see virtually instant results from making those modifications. In other words, there’s no delay between cause and effect, and there’s no real training or retraining involved (though you might struggle with more sleep, for sure, if you’ve trained yourself to think that 6 hours is enough – it’s not). Today, however, I’ll touch on five more difficult ways you can work to avoid injuries. These five I consider to be more challenging to integrate into a training plan, as they all take more extra effort than the first five covered.
- Balanced Muscles. Do you train your opposing muscle groups – or the muscle groups that get far less attention from climbers in climbing training and less direct strengthening from climbing? First and foremost, these muscles involve your primary “pushing” and “pressing” muscles in your upper body. If you don’t include exercises training these muscles in your climbing-training or strength-training program, you run a higher risk of an overuse injury. “Strength training is the best prevention of muscle imbalance and overuse injuries,” explains orthopedic surgeon Scott Bissell, M.D., in his excellent article “Muscle Imbalance and Common Overuse Injuries” appearing on SportsMD.Choose exercises with motions opposite to the most common repetitive motions of climbing, such as bench presses, push-ups, dips,shoulder presses, lateral raises and reverse wrist curls, to name a few. Perform two to four sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise to fatigue per session, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine, resting at least two days between sessions. Regular practice of yoga poses like Chaturanga Dandasana (often repeated many times throughout a yoga class) can also provide a solid opposition muscle workout. Work toward incorporating strength training for opposing muscles into your routine at least once a week, if not twice.
- Flexibility. The role of maintaining (or regaining) a normal range-of-motion (ROM) for the joints in your body shouldn’t be underestimated both for performance-enhancement and injury-prevention purposes. I’ve always been absolutely astonished at how few climbers stretch regularly, but not nearly as astonished to hear of injuries quite possibly related to or directly resulting from a lack of normal ROM. Flexibility will come up again as its own entry in a future series, so I won’t go into great detail here. But if you’re not regularly stretching post-climbing or post-training (or doing yoga or some other flexibility development activities), you are probably not doing all you can to minimize your risk of injury from climbing, nor are you maximizing your performance potential. For more on the benefits of stretching, check out my prAna Life entry: Flexibility, Stretching & Climbing. Start by setting a timer for 5 minutes and stretching areas that either a) get tight from climbing (shoulders, chest, forearms, hamstrings, calves, etc.) or b) can evidently use work to help you improve your ROM for climbing moves, like high steps, wide-legged rests/stems, full-extension reaches (having typical climber-hunchback posture doesn’t help with this!), etc.
- Warming Up Properly. Though nearly every climber knows that they should warm up, I see people shirk on warming up properly frequently. Take the time to get to know your body and to establish a warm-up protocol that works ideally for you, and don’t let peer pressure or ego get in the way of warming up intelligently. See Ways to Improve Your Sport Climbing/Bouldering (1): The Warm-Up (EASY) for detailed information on how to do this.
- Attention. Paying attention to mundane safety protocols, minor details, and little tweaks and twinges of pain can save you time off from climbing due to injuries of all kinds. I absolutely loathe seeing climbers tie in and race up the start of a climb while their belayer hurries to throw them on belay; no matter how many times you’ve tied in or how many times your belayer has belayed, rushing this process is just asking for pilot error. It’s not cool. Check the biners and draws you clip if they’re fixed, look out for bad bolts/gear/anchors and loose rock. Don’t ignore a small shooting pain in your finger or a vocal muscle in your back; it’s always better to walk away at the sign of any bodily doubt and call it a day instead of pushing through the pain greedily in the moment and sitting on the sidelines for the next few months as a result.
- Stress and Attitude. Are you plagued by anxiety in your workplace or family life? Do you constantly feed yourself negative messages about your own ability, age, gender, height, weight, or body in any way? Situational stressors like the former and ingrained thought patterns like the latter tend to not only interfere with your peak performance potential but also, they can actually increase your risk of injury. How? They can draw your attention away from climbing making for careless pilot errors, or, they can increase your muscle tightness and thereby increase your risk of injury, or, they can eat away at your sleep quality thereby also increasing your risk of injury, or, they can convince you of all the reasons why you “can’t” instead of believing that you can when clinch moments occur on the rock – to name a few examples.
Overtraining and Overuse Injuries (I)
Let’s start with a couple of definitions.
According to Medscape, “Overuse injuries, otherwise known as cumulative trauma disorders, are described as tissue damage that results from repetitive demand over the course of time.”
An article on ACTIVE.com explains, “Overtraining happens when an athlete performs more training than his or her body can recover from, to the point where performance declines.”
At the end of this series of entries I’ll provide five personal case studies of the most major climbing injuries I’ve sustained through my 22 years as a climber, in an effort to help others learn from my own mistakes and hopefully avoid making similar ones. For now, suffice it to say that I am no stranger to overtraining and overuse injuries, so this section is well-informed by personal experience in addition to support from what the scientific literature says on the topic.
I’m not alone in my experience with overtraining and overuse injuries. In fact, overtraining and overuse injuries seem to be a lot more common in avid sport climbers than acute injuries from falling or other climbing accidents. I have no solid evidence to back this up, of course; it’s just based on observation. But contrary to popular public perception and belief, sport climbing is relatively safe, meaning that we tend not to get injured due to equipment failure or falling rock or human operational errors nearly as often as we get injured in a way that’s much more common across all athletic pursuits – via overtraining and overuse injuries.
Too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing, and that’s exactly what happens when a part of the body or the body as a whole endures too much physical stress, whether it’s from climbing or any other athletic endeavor. While a “no-pain, no-gain” mentality of pushing oneself to the limits – e.g. “climbing until I couldn’t hold on to a single hold” – still tends to prevail in sports culture, the reality is that this isn’t necessarily always, or even often, the most productive, efficient or effective way to train or climb to make the most pronounced gains in the shortest time.
Overtraining and overuse injuries tend to be two sides of the same coin, meaning that both result from too much strain or stress on the body, whether we’re talking about a specific part of the body or the body as a whole. Overtraining tends to creep up on a person slowly, just as overuse injuries often first manifest as mild discomfort or light feelings of tweakiness or muscular tightness. For these reasons, identifying overtraining and overuse can be extremely difficult, particularly when they’re first coming into play – because it can be extremely challenging to tell the difference between a tired, sore muscle that’s been worked to a good level of fatigue vs. a tired, sore muscle that has been worked beyond an acceptable level of fatigue, for example. I still find this fine line a challenge, honestly.
Overtraining and Overuse Injuries (II)
Identifying and Handling Overuse Injuries
Overuse injuries tend to be easier to identify than overtraining syndrome. There comes a point when a person simply has to admit to him or herself that not only is that tweak or twinge or sore muscle not going away but also, it’s worsening every time it’s used. As touched upon in an earlier entry discussing muscle imbalances, often the appropriate course of treatment isn’t to merely sit on one’s butt and wait for the pain to go away, thinking, “Well, I’ll just avoid whatever movement/motion caused pain in the first place as much as possible in the future.” A more proactive approach involves setting up an appointment with a physician or physical therapist to determine whether an imbalance or other structural deficit is in play and contributing to the injury. If so, such injuries can often be actively rehabbed and prevented in the future through corrective exercises. Of course, resting of the overused part may be a key part of the recovery prescription, too, but it’s worth getting some professional insight in order to understand how to hasten recovery and to potentially prevent reinjury.
Identifying and Handling Overtraining Syndrome
Overtraining happens when the body just can’t keep up with the pace of physical activity that a person is placing on it. It tends to happen in people who enjoy training/climbing hard, who feel more and more energized and motivated the harder they train/climb in any given session, who have the mental drive to push themselves through the pain and past their limits, who would train or climb all day every day at their peak potential if this were possible and who are frustrated that this can’t happen, who have unrealistic expectations about their bodies’ capabilities but try to meet them anyhow, and who fear rest as the mortal enemy instead of the welcome friend who will integrate the efforts of hard training if given a chance.
Overtrainers tend to not be as cued into the signs and signals of tiredness or soreness marking the end of the quality workout or climbing time. They think more is always better and harder is always better. They don’t like to rest and feel lazy and bad if they rest. If they learn about a new training technique they’re likely to seize upon it and try to implement it so thoroughly and immediately that they incur overuse injuries and overtraining as a result.
(Hint: I know all of this because I fit this description/mentality exactly. Untraining myself from thinking and acting this way has been way harder than training and climbing too hard/too much. Wayharder.)
You increase your risk of overtraining if you suddenly and dramatically increase the volume (frequency plus duration) or intensity (difficulty) of your workouts or climbing days instead of gradually moving into a new training program or style of climbing or difficulty level. This risk increases even more if you frequently and regularly reject signals from your body telling you you are too tired or sore to perform a workout or climb hard on a given day; every time you do this, you dig your overtraining hole a little deeper, detracting from your body’s ability to recover that much more.
In climbers – even those who don’t train, but just are climbing too much – overtraining can manifest psychologically as “not feeling the love,” just a sense of all-around burnout and apathy about climbing hard or climbing at all. Overtraining can impact you systemically on multiple levels, not just impacting your climbing and performance but also, your overall mental state (increased depression and anxiety), your appetite (or lack thereof), your sleep quality/quantity, resting heart rate (increased or decreased), and your susceptibility to illness and overuse injuries, to name just a few areas.
Unfortunately, avid trainers and participants (from all sports) often interpret waning energy levels and lower performance outputs as indicators that training “isn’t working anymore,” meaning that they should increase the volume or intensity of the training, when what the body needs more than anything in order to rebound and continue making progress is the exact opposite – more rest. Rest is the cure for overtraining; how much rest depends on how severe the overtraining is and whether any overuse injuries have occurred in tandem with the overtraining. Minor overtraining takes less rest for recovery than major overtraining, obviously – but exactly how much rest is needed will be individual.
Overtraining & Overuse Together: Double-Whammy
Of course, overuse injuries can occur in conjunction with overtraining, and to confound this matter even more, you don’t even have to avidly “train” for climbing in order to be overtrained and receive an overuse injury for your troubles as a part of the overtraining manifesting itself. Overworked bodies are more susceptible to injuries, meaning that if you stubbornly continue to crimp like your life depends on it on the hardest project you’ve ever tried long after your climbing day should end, day in and day out without ever taking enough rest days to allow for full recovery, you may be inviting an overuse injury in one or more of your fingers as well as just generally becoming overtrained on a whole-being level. This is not fun at all, of course – you’ll already feel bad enough from the overtraining by itself, but adding an actual overuse injury or more than one on top of the general malaise felt from overtraining makes it much more difficult to cope with, I promise.
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey