Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Case Studies (Part 18)
To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.
Case Study One: Finger Injuries
Injury: One true tendon injury, in which pressing with my finger resulted in tendon pain in my forearm, along with multiple A2 tendon pulley injuries throughout my first few years of climbing, along with a reminder minor pulley injury more recently (several years ago).
Causal Factors: The worst finger injury I ever had, which involved the actual tendon rather than just the pulley, resulted from overuse/overtraining and poor technique. I was a young and inexperienced climber who crimped all the time (despite repeated but little-heeded warnings from many more experienced climbers that this would predispose me to finger injuries). I asked a better climber how they had gotten better, and they told me that they wouldn’t leave the gym until they completed what they’d set out to do that day.
Me being me (mentally willing and able to drive myself to extremes), I took this recommendation to an absurd level, as I so easily do – so I continued climbing on a finger that was already sore and tired until I actually really injured it. This is a great example of how the good old “no pain, no gain” theory can really hinder progress. I’m very good at using my mental ability to push my body past its actual limits, which is generally not a benefit for athletic improvement at all – it’s very counterproductive and results in the overtraining/overuse result time and time again, if it isn’t curtailed.
The other various pulley injuries I’ve incurred have always involved relatively minor strains in the A2 pulley in the base of my fingers. I’ve done all of my fingers except my pointers, I believe – though none of them bother me from these injuries anymore. The last time I did this, it illustrated what I theorize was a likely culprit in all of the prior pulley injuries. It was perhaps in 2009, and I was climbing in the gym and crimping on an edge on a steep overhang, moving sideways, when my heel hook popped and suddenly much of my body weight explosively and unexpectedly transferred to the crimping hand, straining the A2 in my pinky (thankfully not the other fingers this time!).
Recovery: Finger injuries tend to take a long time to heal, and climbing on them usually only makes them worse, a lesson I had to learn the hard way. My finger injury recovery period for the tendon took months; for the pulleys, I’d say about six weeks per pulley, give or take (I never tore any pulley entirely). I did stupidly try to climb hard on a few of them as a younger climber, and this (surprise, surprise) led to longer recovery times. For a great rundown on finger injuries and treatment plans, check out Eric Hӧrst’s excellent article on the Nicros website, “Finger Tendon Pulley Injury.”
Long-Term Result: That last pinky pulley injury provided an awesome reminder of why I gradually switched from crimping everything to retraining myself to become a default open-handed climber, who crimps only when need be. Open-handing changed my climbing for the better. Though as always, it was much harder to unlearn a bad technique/habit than it likely would have been to learn it right in the first place (i.e. not crimping every single hold I grabbed like my life depended on it), since I’ve become a default-open-hander, I have incurred only that pinky injury – and it was relatively minor and easy to handle, as I often don’t even use my pinky on climbing holds.
(My pinky is pretty short, so having it on a hold often changes the angle of my hand and arm and consequently the way I can move off of the hold, and it also impacts my reach if I try to get my pinky on the hold. Getting my pinky on the hold actually puts the rest of my fingers into a sort of half-crimped position, which might at least somewhat account for my original over-crimping.)
Anyhow, enough about my pinky – point of all of this is that the finger injuries led me to unlearn a less-efficient and more injury-prone default grip, and this has in turn saved me from a boatload of more finger injuries that I’m sure I would have incurred if I’d just kept on crimping like I did when I started.
Case Study Two: Torn Muscles in Left Armpit Area (2006)
Injury: I tore three muscles in my left armpit area. I literally felt them tear, one right after the other – a visceral ripping feeling from within that remains alive in my memory whenever I recall the incident, the “RIP…rip-rip” rhythm of the muscle fibers pulling apart.
Causal Factors: This injury resulted from a combination of drinking too much and not sleeping enough and traveling across the country right before climbing, along with inadequate warming up and inclement (cold and damp) weather, along with a lack of conditioning for the style/angle of climbing (nearly horizontal roof), when literally all I ever climbed on at that point was vertical or very slightly overhung routes. I wasn’t really doing anything hard – I was merely reaching to clip a draw – when I felt those armpit muscles on the side hanging onto the rock rip. Because of all of the above factors – a bunch of poor decisions I made – this injury was most likely 100 percent preventable, and 100 percent my fault.
Recovery: This injury hurt terribly, but not when I did it. It was trying to do anything with the torn muscles afterward that caused excruciating pain – things like pulling on a shoe or picking up a bag. Forget climbing, of course! I thought about quitting climbing for good…it was that bad, not only physically, but mentally, as I suffered withdrawal from my normal activity, and I did not have any sort of real training foundation or knowledge (still at that point in the “training for climbing = climbing” camp, supplemented with running and stretching). I didn’t come up with a recovery training plan to help keep me sane; I simply decided to wait it out. I’m sure I ran and stretched (don’t really remember) while I waited.
I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I never saw a doctor – very stupid, for sure. The decision I did make correctly was to stop climbing and to not climb again for quite some time – not until I could do all of life’s normal activities without pain. After about four months of no climbing entirely, I gradually started back into climbing at about a 5.8 level, and I worked up slowly from there. I was very attentive and took care not to push or overdo it as I moved back into using the area that had been injured. It did not get reinjured, and the following summer, I was back up to climbing at my full capabilities, sending the hardest route I’d climbed in my life – so within 10 months, back to and maybe a little beyond where I’d been when the injury first happened.
For about two years after this injury, I thought all was good/entirely healed, right up until I started learning more about training and
implementing more nonclimbing climbing-specific training methods. This also led me to delve into steep climbing, which soon become first a regular part and then the predominant part of my climbing life. This injury, I believe, continued to plague me and can most likely be linked to my more recent nerve-related injury that I’ll discuss in greater detail in case study number 5.
~ 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