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Climbing Research: What’s new from 2019

All the new cutting-edge rock climbing research from 2019. (You probably need a few advanced degrees to understand everything in these papers, but even a layman can get a lot of great information here!)

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When I began thinking about writing a summary of the 2019 rock climbing research, my wife helpfully offered: “People researched a bunch of things, and came to conclusions which need further research.” It’s important to recognize that while each paper only seeks to answer a (hopefully) well-defined research question, the discussion sections are rich with considerations—including the common caveat “needs further research.”  While challenging to translate research into practicality, these discussions can nevertheless be a source for new ideas. Rock and Ice magazine covered the 2018 and 2017 rock climbing research, and if you’re looking for all 49 summaries and links to the research, click here to go to the Beta-Angel Project website.

Display of 2019 (orange) research counts compared to 2018 (green) and 2017 (blue). 27 non-injury articles are displayed. 18 injury articles were omitted in order to avoid skewing the x-axis. 4 articles which were e-published in 2018 are also not included.

An overview of what we found.

We found 49 research papers covering a wide variety of rock climbing topics.  The 49 identified studies are fewer than 2018’s 60 but greater than 2017’s 33.   It’s very likely we missed studies since we primarily use PubMed to search and not all climbing studies are searchable there.  As a percentage, there were fewer injury-specific studies (40% vs. 48.3%) this year which historically make up the lion’s share of rock climbing research.  However, we saw a nice chunk of youth-specific studies on growth plate injuries and nutrition, and more studies on how to measure the climber.  Somewhat disappointingly, studies on energy system responses took a nose-dive.  We’ll continue to watch for the 2019 studies we missed as we move deeper into 2020.

Get me to the highlights!

Researchers did all sorts of neat things.  They paired work on climbing movement efficiency with energy (see Watts et al), they made inroads into bouldering therapy’s potential future (see both Schwarz et al and Dorscht et al), and they looked at the relationship of edge size to pull ability and force (see Vigouroux et al and Stien).  Researchers also used a measure of emotional intelligence called “facilitation thought” to differentiate climbing ability (see Garrido-Palomino et al), became challenged by efforts to measure the impact of taping to the fingers (see Limmer et al and Dykes et al), and wrote about growth plate treatment (see Bärtschi et al) as well as growth plate misperceptions in both youth who climb and medical professionals who diagnose (see Meyers et al and Halsey et al).  I recommend a quick scan to see all of the work this past year.  Below are eight summaries I’ve chosen to highlight this year:

Physiological demands and nutritional considerations for Olympic-style competitive rock climbing

Authors: Michael, Witard, Joubert | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: The authors analyze climbing literature in order to identify potential recommendations for elite climbing competition.  They recommend “nutrition periodization” in order to match their training and competition schedule to their nutritional needs.  The authors start with an estimation of ~10-11 kcal/min of energy expenditure during climbing, and make recommendations for different types of competition (speed vs. lead/bouldering) as well as macronutrients (e.g. carbohydrates for general training should be 3-7 g/kg of body weight per day but recommend augmenting with ~20-30 g/hr during a climbing session). Please see their extensive, practical tables for more.  Beta-angel note: If you have a nutritionist or are considering getting one, I’d recommend handing this open-source overview of climbing-specific analysis to them.  Additionally, this may be the first climbing-specific study discussing a “moderate energy deficit in order to reduce body weight for a competition” following a “train heavier” cycle, that I’m aware of.  However, it’s important to note context: that the authors have anecdotally read about instances of “extreme energy restriction” and thus appear to have a desire to moderate that impact.

Reference: Cogent Medicine, Vol 6 (1), 2019

Tags: Bioenergetics > Nutrition

Performing pull-ups with small climbing holds influences grip and biomechanical arm action.

Authors: Vigouroux, Devise, Cartier, Aubert, Berton | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: 10 elite and higher elite males (7c-8b+ or 5.12d-5.14a) performed maximum pull-ups to exhaustion under 6 conditions: gym-bar, large climbing hold, 22mm, 18mm, 14mm, and 10mm edges.  During the pull-ups, a force plate sensor measured the force exerted by climbers and electromyography (EMG – measuring electrical activity in the muscle) recorded muscle fatigue and activation level in the biceps brachii, triceps brachii, finger flexors and finger extensors.  Additionally, velocity was measured.  There was no significant difference between the number of pull-ups for the gym-bar and large climbing hold conditions; however, co-contraction in the forearm muscles was higher for the large hold condition.  There was an inverse correlation between hold size and number of pull-ups, maximal force, maximal power, and summed mechanical work.  Beta-Angel note: this study looked at non-traditionally measured items in order to understand the relationship between the different pulling muscles in the arms.  The specifics of the hold size for a pull-up will shift the requirements for grip style as well as other factors like wrist stability, speed, and swing.

Reference: J Sports Sci. 2019 Apr;37(8):886-894. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2018.1532546.

Tags: Kinesiology > Studies of Human Movement or Biomechanics > Limbs

Doping in Sport Climbing: Status Quo in a New Olympic Discipline

Authors: Lutter, Tischer, El-Sheikh, Schöffl | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: Four climbing injury researchers make recommendations about doping in climbing.  Their recommendations include increased awareness of ethics, increased antidoping education, sports medical supervision, collaboration between national climbing and sports ethics organizations, and increased monitoring and controls.  These recommendations are primarily aimed at elite climbers within both a competition and outdoor context, but also include an educational component for fans, athletes, trainers, and officials.

Reference: Curr Sports Med Rep. 2019 Oct;18(10):351-352.

Tags: Kinesiology > Injury

Rock Climbing Injuries Treated in US Emergency Departments, 2008_2016

Authors: Buzzacott, I. Schöffl, Chimiak, V. Schöffl | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: The authors looked at US emergency room data for rock climbing injuries between 2008 and 2016 and classified those injuries based on a scale of 1 (mild) to 6 (immediate death).  The authors found that the number of injuries is increasing (still unknown is whether this is due to a higher injury rate or higher number of climbers), falls accounted for 60% of injuries, and that most of the falls (73%) were less than six meters, and that the most common reported injuries were fractures (27%) and sprains or strains (26%) followed by soft-tissue injuries (11%), lacerations (11%), dislocations (4%), and “other” injuries (21%).  Lower and upper body injuries were 47% and 25% respectively, with the torso and head making up 15% and 12% respectively.  Beta-Angel note: This study has some great tables and builds off the Nelson and Mackenzie study looking at data from 1990 to 2007 and uses the same criteria for evaluation.

Reference: Wilderness Environ Med. 2019 Jun;30(2):121-128

Tags: Kinesiology > Injury

Change in geometric entropy with repeated ascents in rock climbing

Authors: Watts, España-Romero, Ostrowski, Jensen | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: 8 male and 1 female climbers (5.11a – 5.12b) climbed a single route nine time, once a week over the course of nine weeks and were tested for (1) energy expenditure (EE – analyzed from expired air and its fraction of oxygen), and (2) the geometric index of entropy (GIE – defined as movement of the center of mass away from an ‘ideal’ trajectory for the route).  The authors found that EE and GIE were associated reasonably well.  Beta-Angel note: It’s important to note the authors’ caveat (from the 1994 study by Cordier) that some highly skilled climbers have higher levels of GIE compare to lower-skilled climbers, perhaps because certain movements favor more complex skills that increase the hips’ overall trajectory.  As a result, it’s reasonable to suggest that if GIE is used as an indirect indicator of energy expenditure, it may not be an adequate proxy indicator for certain complex skills or climbers.

Reference: Sports Biomech. 2019 Jul 30:1-10.

Tags: Bioenergetics > The Association of Physiology and Technique

TEST-retest reliability of kinetic variables measured on campus board in sport climbers.

Authors: Abreu, Araújo, Cançado, Andrade, Chagas, Menzel | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: The authors put a force plate on the first rung hold(s) of a campus board as a proof of concept.  They tested and retested the impulse (change in movement – center of mass displacement) and peak force (highest force tested – ability to maintain force on the holds) of 22 sport climbers (5.11d to 5.13b) on two separate days using both a concentric (fire) upper-body lunge and a plyometric (drop and fire) upper-body lunge.  Both impulse and peak force were consistent between the two days of testing, demonstrating the two measures and set-up as a potential testing protocol – however, errors were higher in the “drop-and-fire” protocol, indicating the “fire”-only (concentric) protocol may be better for assessment, if not necessarily training.

Reference: Sports Biomech. 2018 May 16:1-14.

Tags: Biomechanics > Power

Long-term effects of bouldering psychotherapy on depression: benefits can be maintained across a 12-month follow-up

Authors: Schwarz, Dorscht, Book, Stelzer, Kornhuber, Luttenberger | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: The authors sought to determine whether a once-a-week, three-hour bouldering session was effective against a control group for reducing depression, and also whether the effectiveness (Beck Depression Inventory II) remained stable across the course of a year.  Those who participated in the bouldering session had a significantly lower score than those in the control group, and the scores appear to remain stable over the long-term.  Beta-Angel note: this study was intended to build on previous research (Stelzer et al 2018 and Luttenberger 2015) suggesting bouldering is a legitimate therapeutic approach for those suffering from depression by using a more rigorous methodology.  Additionally, this study shares members with the even more rigorous protocol entitled “A German climbing study on depression…” also published this year and in the inventory.

Reference: Heliyon. 2019 Dec; 5(12): e02929.

Tags: Kinesiology > Injury

Finger Stress Fractrues in Youth Elite Rock Climbers

Authors: Meyers, Potter, Hobbs, Provance | Year: 2019

Summary/Results: The authors analyzed survey results showing how 267 8-18-year olds at a large championship-level climbing event in the United States perceive risk.  The authors were able to distinguish between athletes who were informed or uninformed about stress fractures, and suggest that youth climbers may be prone to thinking about stress fractures as pulley injuries, and that they don’t have a good sense of the appropriate ages for training techniques.  Beta-Angel note: to determine whether a youth climber was informed or uninformed, the authors used a series of questions surrounding which injuries were most common, the “safe age” for double dyno campus training, and correctly classifying stress fractures.

Reference: Orthop J Sports Med. 2019 Mar; 7(3 Suppl)

What can you implement practically? 

 This is always the most important question, but certainly not always easy to derive.  Here are some thoughts I had during my reading that may be transferable:

— Engage a sport psychologist or climbing mental trainer in whether you are more apt to use emotion to direct attention – and if it’s holding you back.

— Assume that every young climber you meet has no clue what a growth plate injury is or the likely causes of it, and may be using training tools that are a bit advanced for either their chronological, skeletal, or training age.

— Download open source peer-reviewed papers on climber injury and take them with you if you suspect your injury is relatively unique to climbers. Note that you can peruse the injury section of the Beta Angel Research Inventory (BARI).  I also plan to try to highlight a small subsection of likely injuries in the near future you can easily download.

— Consider combining co-contraction (finger flexors and upper arms, e.g. a pull-up) and the speed of the center-of-mass to distinct edge sizes in your training.

— Re-evaluate whether you’ve been considering hip efficiency within your training paradigm and consider reaching out to great local or online trainers, some of whom know a great deal about how to make your path up the wall more fluent.

— Find a climbing-specific nutritionist or take a look at the tables in the Michael, Witard, Joubert paper and take them to a non-climbing nutritionist so they can peruse specifics of the climbing disciplines and the current research-suggested estimations for nutrition for climbers.

— Request your local climbing community bring in a specialist on chronic climbing-related injuries.

What wasn’t practical and is going to “lead to further research.”

Lots.  But I always need new directions to consider – to make sure I don’t give up on climbers before they’ve had the opportunity to overcome barriers.  One example is the importance of memory to the “perception-action” effect on climbing movement.   Very quickly, we know that perception is a huge component to acting (or moving) in climbing.  However, because I still struggle to (a) make movement memorable or “sticky” or (b) even understand all the pros and cons of goal-oriented climbing movement, I plan to learn more about motor cognition broadly, as well as specific theories of interest such as transsaccadic memory theory.

Ok, I lied.  When I first began thinking about writing a summary of the 2019 rock climbing research, my wife actually stated: “you’re going to be writing a summary of a bunch of summaries of rock climbing research.”  Yep.  That about sums it up – but further research into the game of “telephone” may be needed.

Acknowledgments: This brief summary is based on a collaboration between Tallie Casucci, Kyle Trettin, Gudmund Grønhaug, and Taylor Reed. Without collaboration, the Beta Angel Project would not be able to keep up with the pace of climbing research.

Taylor Reed is the Director of the Beta Angel Project, a website intended to bridge climbing science with practice.  Additionally, he is the future director of the Sportrock Performance Institute, a dedicated training center which will open its doors in the summer of 2020 (once it’s safe to do so).  Finally, he is the Secretary for the International Rock Climbing Research Association (IRCRA), an organization whose mission is to bring researchers and climbers together to improve our understanding of the sport.  He currently commutes between Sumter, South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia.