Mark of the Climber

The number of climbers that sport an injury is astounding. Almost as if a climbing related injury is a form of climbing initiation and without one…… well….. can you even call yourself a climber?

We all seem to know about them, but we struggle to avoid them. Fingers, shoulders, knees. With indoor bouldering booming in Australia I think we are about to see more of what climbing has to offer in this area.

New moves like the palm press flag put climbers at greater risks. Particularly done with poor posture.

There is no doubt that injuries affect optimal performance, although there could be an argument with our ever-developing understanding of injuries, that performance affects injuries. What this means is that so many of our injuries are likely due to poor movement patterns, a lack of opposition work and a general limiting of our overall performance that results in overuse injuries, or improper use, injuries.

Any time you push your body towards its limit, you are bound to find yourself, or the athletes you coach, dealing with an injury. There are research teams all around the world, trying to work out what, if any, markers exist to ‘predict’ an athletes future injury. Yet, even in high-end sports where money is relatively abundant, sports professionals hit dead ends.

Part of the reason for this is probably that everyone is an individual, we all have our own little idiosyncrasies that change the way we respond to training and the rate that we get injured. What is interesting though is that while we still don’t have a firm grasp on the exact mechanics or ‘risk’ factors behind injuries, we are getting better at avoiding them. More on this later….

Single arm catches are another potential for injury, with many climbers not looking after their scapula stability before ‘diving’ into them.

How often do you chat to climbers in your community and talk about your time with elbow pain? Typically Medial Epicondylitis or golfers elbow. Or maybe impingement of the rotator cuff?. Or even the dreaded pulley strain. (you can click on the bold text to check out some good articles on how to deal with these injuries.

The strange thing is, there is so much knowledge in the climbing world with how to deal with these injuries, but so little on how to avoid them. Now before all you sports scientists out there send me messages saying that we can barely prevent hamstring injuries in fully funded football teams, how do we expect to avoid injuries in poor climbing. You are right, as I said earlier, we haven’t got a very good handle on what is really telling us we are going to get injured. We can’t ‘predict’ them, and it is proving exceptionally difficult to pinpoint when athletes are at risk.

Climbers falling from a height, particularly while spinning can increase the risk of ACL injury.

SO….. What do we know so far? In a very basic overview, injury prevention is becoming more and more focused on pre-hab, rather than re-hab. There has been some really good evidence to support the idea that injury prevention really does its job. A great example is the inclusion of the ‘Nordics’ into football leg strength programs, significantly reducing the prevalence of hamstring tears, even in athletes with a history of injury. Another example is the Fifa 11+, which has shown to drastically reduce the rate of ACL tears in soccer teams, as well as some other lower extremity injuries.

The other thing that is slowing changing is the way that we are thinking about the word overuse. As climbers, this word gets thrown around a lot, and for the most part, I think we all see this as this grey area of climbing or campusing too much. What is interesting is when you think about it, repeating a movement with ‘perfect form’ is probably not bad for you. The issue arises when the body fatigues and your form deteriorates. So it’s not necessarily overused, but ‘improper use’ that is driving us into these ‘overuse’ holes. This idea can bake your brain a little and is really a whole extra blog in itself, but if you want to hear more about this, check out the podcast from the power company here – with Eva Lopez and Esther Smith

So what about us climbers? Our major injuries are typically in our fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. I mean, keeping our hamstrings healthy definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing either, but still, where is our Fifa 11?

The key? Thinking about all that re-hab stuff you have ever done. Your wrist curls for elbow pain, your rotator cuff exercises for shoulder impingement and your tendon glides and extensor training for pulley strains and…… yep that’s right…… do them regularly. Do them every week. At least once a week. What has been really fascinating recently is that the effect of Nordics, for example, has been potentially attributed to structural changes in the muscle. Even more exciting for us is that these changes happen with a relatively low volume of input. So once a week seems to cut it. The trick though is that you need to keep doing it because the detraining period is fast, which means your gains disappear in a matter of weeks.

So injury prevention is really like any ‘skill’ acquisition. If you don’t use it you lose it. Our bodies seem to be really good at finding the most energy efficient way of surviving, so unless you tell it these changes are important, well, they get left behind. The challenge then is a mental one, to keep doing them, every week, week in week out. Factor some of them into your warmups and cooldowns, morning yoga, whatever.

The tricky part is, you will never know if it’s working. But for me, it’s worth the risk because it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you’re injured.