How can I continue to train with a hurt finger?
—Eric Patrick, Austin, TX
Cheer up, a tweaked finger can be a blessing in disguise. An injury is a chance to break ourselves of the same old training routines, which can create plateaus. After rest, your fingers will also respond better when you return to training.
Start by grading your injury from one to three according to severity. One is a minor twinge that you can climb through providing you reduce the intensity and stick to jugs. Two is a notable tweak: You can't climb, but you can do pull-ups on a bar. Three is a severe twang that means no hanging, even from a bar, and hence you will be confined to weights, floor exercises and cross training for a while.
Also consider the type of tweak -- if you injured yourself on a crimp, then you may still be able to use slopers or hang on larger edges with an open-handed grip. Conversely, if you hurt yourself on a pocket, then crimping may still be OK.
Level One tweaks should be rested totally for a week while you ice and take anti-inflammatories. You can run and visit the gym to your heart's content during this week, although you should avoid exercises that involve pulling on a bar or hanging. Some floor exercises for core strength, such as the cross, the bridge and dorsal raises, will work great. Go to rockandice.com and click on the Online Exclusive Content bar on the homepage for photos of these core exercises.
The next week, add pull-ups and leg raises on a bar. You can also start to stretch the injury site and massage it gently, creating moderate pressure across the tendon rather than parallel to it.
The third week after injury you can return to climbing, but no bouldering and no routes at your usual grade. The first session should be no more than a warm-up. The following session, drop it down three or four grades and do double laps on each route to develop low-intensity stamina. Be incredibly disciplined with your choice of routes -- jugs only, and if you come across a tweaky grip at the climbing gym, don't hesitate to use a better hold instead.
When the strain starts to feel better, you can return to harder and slightly more fingery single routes, but avoid the type of hold that caused the injury. Another tip at this stage is to use the finger holds on a hard gym route with your good hand and the jugs on a parallel easier route with the other. If things are still going well, then you can return to bouldering by the fourth or fifth week, keeping well below your usual grade and going for more mileage. A safer alternative to strength work is to use a system board, in order to control the types of holds, you use.
Those suffering Level Two tweaks should multiply the above rehab times by two (as an approximate guide) and those with severe (Level Three) tweaks should multiply by three. If you have a Level Three injury, look into cardio, weights and circuit training in more detail. I know how frustrating it is to stay away from climbing for long periods, but climbers are notoriously specialized in their fitness. You will climb much better when you return if you use this opportunity to build a decent aerobic base. Many climbers experience elbow and shoulder problems because they have a poor strength base or an imbalance in strength. Get your body fit, strong and balanced, and you may look back on this injury as a useful and productive opportunity to improve your climbing.