This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 207 (January 2013).
Managing a climbing injury is tough. When it comes to major injuries, everyone knows that the right call is to take the time needed to rehabilitate, while focusing on other forms of fitness training. However with minor tweaks, it may be possible to keep going without aggravating the injury further.
For younger climbers, the right advice is to stop and rest. But if those climbers who have many years in the game waited for every little injury to heal, they could easily spend more time resting than climbing. Experienced climbers are often aware which injuries they can climb through and which ones require full rest. By reducing the intensity of training and adjusting your climbing style, it may be possible to maintain or even improve strength or fitness during periods of injury.
This is not a comprehensive guide to dealing with injuries. Always seek professional advice, but note that medical practitioners often advise against any form of training with an injury because they lack detailed knowledge or under- standing of climbing. You can bend the rules if you your body’s natural pain threshold as a governor.
Start by determining whether the injury is chronic (i.e., did it build up over a long period?) or acute (did it suddenly go twang?). The next step is to rank the injury from one to three. One should be for a mild twinge that may only hurt after climbing. Two will be for moderate pain that impairs you when climbing, and three is very
painful and may hurt all the time, even outside of climbing.
The first stage is simply to rest, ice, massage and gently mobilize the injured area. The next stage will involve light rehab exercises such as squeeze balls for a finger injury, or rubber-band work and light weights for an elbow or shoulder. The third stage is continuing these exercises and returning to climbing, aiming to rehabilitate the injury rather than to train. This whole process may take only a week or two for a level-one strain, or as long as a year for a level-three injury. The more experienced you are, the more capable you will be of devising a rehab plan yourself, but it’s clearly worth consulting a physiotherapist who has experience with treating climbers. Always go through the above three-stage recovery process, no matter how minor the injury. If you pick the right types of training, you may be able to break out of the third (rehab-climbing) stage much more quickly.
Training with Minor Finger Injuries
With a minor level-one strain it is usually possible to carry out moderate endurance training on routes that are either vertical or gently overhanging and with big holds. Boulderers should stick to mileage on easy problems. Always tape the injured finger and consider splinting it to the adjacent finger for support. Ditch the tape as soon as the injury heals. With moderate
level-two pulls, stick to easy, vertical routes or problems and treat the climbing as rehab rather than training. Tape the finger to a popsicle stick to completely immobilize it. Adjust your gripping technique according to the type of finger injury you’ve incurred. If you injured yourself crimping, then it may be possible to climb open hand. Similarly, if you injured your finger on a pocket, you may be able to crimp without pain. If training indoors you can use small holds with your good hand and jugs with your injured hand. Always climb statically and in complete control. If you need to stop and shake out, favor the good arm. Many climbers have found that a climbing trip has cured a minor finger twinge. If the finger injury is more severe, then you may still be able to climb cracks.
Training with Major Finger Injuries
With severe level-three finger injuries, do not climb at all. You may be able to perform pull-ups and core exercises such as leg-raises on a bar, but let pain be your guide. Use a weight-lifters’ strap to take the strain off your grip, but avoid training only on one arm as you will develop strength imbalances. If the injury is too severe for any bar exercises then stick to cardio, weight training, antagonist exercises, flexibility and core. Running is the best form of cardio training as cycling may cause your legs to bulk up.
Training with Elbow Injuries
Elbow injuries are prone to becoming chronic. Never climb with a major or even a moderate level-two elbow injury. With a very minor level-one elbow injury incurred from a tweak, it may be possible to climb if you go very easy, but if you suspect that it is the first sign of tendonitis/tendonosis (which can come on gradually), stop immediately and commence rehab. Stick to cardio, flexibility and antagonist training during the time out. When you return to climbing after an elbow injury, keep up your rehab, stick to easy climbing and adjust your style. Elbow injuries are aggravated by crimping,
pinching or locking off—avoid these moves and develop a more fluid, controlled style. If only one elbow is injured, you can make harder moves with your good arm.
Training with Shoulder Injuries
The same overall principles apply to shoulder injuries. Don’t attempt to climb unless they are minor. During the rest and rehab stages, rubber-band exercises are crucial. Avoid
any weight training exercises such as bench press and shoulder press that use the shoulders. When climbing through an injury, adjust your technique and remember that shoulder injuries tend to be aggravated by catching holds at full stretch with a straight arm, especially at speed, as well as gastons, press moves and compression moves. In general, stay clear of steep routes or problems with widely spaced jugs, especially if the footholds are poor. Route climbing is less stressful than bouldering. Adopt a static climbing style.
These are generally caused by using underclings or slopers, especially during dynamic moves. Follow the advice given for elbows and shoulders. Avoid all heavy weight training during rehab and do light weights for rehabilitation.
Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and last year established Freakshow (8c/5.14b) at Kilnsey, also in the U.K. On October 13, 2016 he made the first ascent of Sabotage—an 8c+ (5.14c) extension to Predator (8b/5.13d) at Malham Cave, North Yorkshire, England. Sabotage is Gresham’s first climb of the grade.