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Climbing Research: What’s New from 2018

Taylor Reed, of Beta Angel, gives us an overview of the latest and greatest research on climbing from 2018.

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Acknowledgments: This work is a result of a collaboration between Tallie Casucci, Kyle Trettin and Taylor Reed. Without collaboration, the Beta Angel Project would not be able to keep up with the pace of climbing research. For abstracts on all 60 articles from 2018, click here.


Introduction

Rock climbing research is growing. This past year, the International Rock Climbing Research Association’s (IRCRA) biannual conference in Chamonix, France, saw record numbers.  This upcoming year, a prominent research publisher—Frontiers—will add “Sport Climbing” as a specialty topic, meaning climbing research will finally have a home.  The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), climbing’s governing body on the international stage, is currently discussing science’s role in their decision-making process with leading researchers in the field.

While technology, methods and the science of climbing are generally improving, I would be lying if I told you that the average climber will see the benefit of this work tomorrow.  Research generally isn’t easy to read due to paywalls and language barriers, technology is often expensive (but getting cheaper) and technical to implement, and researchers’ ability to gain funding is a challenge.  Insert corny metaphor: but if you get down on your hands and knees, you’ll find under many boulders the potential for a new sit start.

In mid-2018, I wrote about the rock climbing research published in 2017 for Rock and Ice. This article was created from the Beta Angel Research  Inventory (BARI), an organized inventory of climbing research with summaries.  The BARI is a constant work-in-progress—its intent is to provide climbers with a very simple, practical summary of climbing research. While I only discussed 33 articles from 2017, I have identified 60 articles from 2018.  This is a near two-fold increase in climbing research published within a one-year period. Additionally, this 2018 analysis excludes the 88 IRCRA conference proceedings, which are discussed here.  

Below you will find a selection of 2018 research that may be of practical use, as well as some conclusions about research trends to whet your appetite for the future.

The below write-up is just a highlight of some of the research.  Read all the 2018 climbing research summaries here!

Injuries and Risk Factors

I’ve written about it before but I will say it again: the climbing injury researchers are crushing it.  Injury research makes up about a sixth of the research in BARI. In 2017, it represented 39.4% of the total, but in 2018 that number shot up to 48.3%.  In big news, Schöffl’s 11-year follow-up study (Schöffl et al 1) on the German National Junior Team found significantly more ‘stress reactions’ (including early-onset osteoarthritis) in the Junior Team members than their recreational climbing control group.

Power

In 2018, the first known study of genetics in climbers was published (Ginszt et al).  It investigated the alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3) gene, which has been identified by previous non-climbing related research as one important to elite sprint and power athletes.  The challenging ethical issues associated with genetic determinism in climbing are no longer strictly a philosophical discussion.

Keith Nadeau on The Fin (V1), Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont. Photo: Brian Lewis.

Hangboarding—Where Do You Get Your Strength?

One 2018 study (Vigouroux et al) investigated how finger force changes during a pull-up, and a second study (Michailov et al) approached the relationship between the upper and lower arm by attempting to control for the upper arm.  Both have some interesting observations and recommendations for hangboarding which can be applied to climbing.

Hangboarding—Upgrading Repeaters

The most interesting upgrade to hangboarding protocols likely comes from Giles et al. working with the folks who bring you Lattice Training.  In December, this collaboration published a new protocol for “critical force,” which uses a series of measurements to calculate a ‘threshold’ level for “severe” high-intensity level training.  Once past this threshold, a number of physiological indicators of fatigue ramp up significantly. Additionally, a study by Kodejška et al. showed which factors allowed climbers to take advantage of ‘pre-cooling’ using 15° C water to improve their repeater protocol performance.

Measuring Movement and Energy Systems

Measuring your body’s internal processes and measuring the actions your limbs and hips take while moving aren’t as easy as hangboard measurements.  But both are in the process of breakthroughs. The paper titled “Behavioral Repertoire Influences the Rate and Nature of Learning in Climbing: Implications for Individualized Learning Design in Preparation for Extreme Sports Participation” can arguably be called a landmark study on the relationship between climbing effectiveness and climbing efficiency.

Though still prohibitively expensive, researchers (Baláš et al) are putting effort into a device which uses “near-infrared spectroscopy,” or NIRS, to measure oxygenated and non-oxygenated blood around the tendons used to flex the fingers.  Additionally, there appears to be a renaissance of the importance of the aerobic energy system for climbing. One study (Limonta et al) highlighted the importance of oxygen consumption (over heart rate) as an indicator of climbing intensity, and a second (Fryer et al) looked at distinctions in “local” forearm aerobic capacity and “whole-body” aerobic capacity, suggesting a surprising conclusion.

Challenging Findings

In the spirit of challenging findings, sometimes research finds a result not expected by the authors.  Challenging accepted wisdom, Grønhaug’s large survey of Norwegian climbers found no association between climbing level, chronic injuries, training volume, and/or BMI.

Moving beyond just the unexpected findings, it’s up to us as consumers of research to understand and explore the implications of all climbing research.  As the Director of the Beta Angel Project, I know I don’t have the technical capacity, time, or creativity to see more than a fraction of the potential in our sport.  Which is why part of my mission is providing more visibility into rock climbing research.


Taylor Reed is director of the Beta Angel Project—a project to bridge research and practice in climbing. With one foot in the door of each world, he coaches a selection of athletes, consults and engages in his own research projects. He is sponsored by Evolv Sports. He currently lives in South Carolina with his wife, Jennifer.


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