Injury avoidance tips for climbers – by Katie Rendall, Physiotherapist
The following information does not replace any medical advice that you may have been given. It is always advisable to get an injury checked out by a health professional or Physiotherapist to ensure appropriate treatment and rehab can be given. A physical assessment should always be carried out and full medical history explored as appropriate.
If you’ve been climbing for any time at all you will likely have had at least one climbing injury at some point. As climbers, we tend to be stubborn by nature and like to push our bodies as hard as we can to make sure we keep up with the grades we want and save face in front of our peers. This can often lead to ignoring your body and pushing into the realms of injury. Sometimes it can’t be avoided and can just be bad luck, but there are a few things you can do to prevent injury. Sometimes it’s the basics that people forget, or choose to ignore, but it’s these things that can actually make all the difference. No climber wants a long period away from the rock (or plastic!) after all.
You may think it’s OK to skip a warm up but climbing walls and instructors bang on about it for a reason. When your muscles are cold they are not as supple as they need to be for climbing and to work effectively. By warming up you are sending the blood to the muscles you will be asking to work hard as soon as you start climbing. Joints can also be stiff and cold and by warming up you prepare them for the movements you will be demanding they perform on the wall. Most of us have day jobs that don’t involve our bodies the way we do in our climbing sessions, so think about making your warm up specific to the movements you’ll be doing and the muscles you’ll be using.
When you warm up, make sure you use different size holds to focus on the subtle difference between muscles and joint forces throughout your upper limbs. Don’t forget your legs and core as these are often neglected in warm ups. Doing a few minutes of gentle cardio before you start will also help get the heart pumping and the body warm. Warming up is especially important for outdoor climbing in the winter when your joints and muscles are cold and at higher risk of injury. Hand warmers are a firm favourite for those who suffer with cold hands to stay warm in between climbs.
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
I hear many climbers and friends talking about how they’ve pushed themselves despite having an injury and then wonder why it’s gotten worse or they aren’t healing. There’s a simple answer. Listen to your body! If you’re more aware of how you are feeling, how warmed up you are and any niggles you might be experiencing, you’re more likely to avoid injury. If you’ve got a nagging pain you’ve been ignoring, try resting up to see if it clears up or see a Physiotherapist for a professional opinion.
Clearly some injuries can’t be prevented, especially if it’s an accident or if you’ve taken all the precautions and still picked one up. However, learning from the experience can help prevent this happening again. Maybe you can be a bit less gung-ho with your climbing or take less risks? Perhaps you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing and change up your training habits?
ALLOW FOR REST & RECOVERY
As climbers, we are often obsessive about the sport we love and it can be very addictive. It’s easy to think your body can just keep going and keep going. Sometimes we just need to stop and rest. Even the pro climbers have holidays and build rest into their training schedules. Your muscles and joints need time to recover and repair so you can benefit from the work you’ve put in. Pushing yourself until you’re burnt out will benefit no one, especially you!
If you find it difficult resting from climbing, consider if there’s there another activity you can do that suits your body and mind. Climbers often benefit from the relaxing and stretching effects of yoga or pilates, or even meditation. It can directly help your climbing flexibility, core strength and peace of mind when working on that scary route. Speak to a qualified yoga teacher to check it is suitable for you if you have existing injuries or medical conditions.
TAKE ADVICE & GET A TRAINING PROGRAM
If you struggle to put the previous three points into action or formulate a training plan that works for you, then consider booking in with a reputable instructor or trainer. For injury prevention you can also consult a climbing- specific therapist who can run through what you’re doing, any problems you might be experiencing or ways to avoid injury that you may not have considered. This could be especially helpful if you’re experiencing recurring injuries or weaknesses. Sometimes it’s hard to see where we are going wrong ourselves without an outside perspective.
If you’re short of cash and can’t afford the instructor, try speaking to other experienced climbers, especially those who never seem to get injured, to see what they are doing and if they can offer you any advice. You can bounce ideas off each other and hopefully gain some insight into how you can change things up for the better. Getting someone to video you climbing can also help identify issues you can’t see yourself.
ASSESS THE RISK & CHECK YOUR EGO
As humans, we have an ego, whether it’s small or overbearing. As climbers, we often experience this element of ego, whether we like to admit it or not, and it can sometimes get in the way of making good judgement calls. How many times have you climbed with someone better than you or a new group of people and wanted to put on a good performance or save face? Have you taken risks just to try and compete with other climbers or prove you’re just as good and ended up injured?
Sometimes the risk just isn’t worth it. Check your ego and weigh up the risks to ensure you’re safe and avoid injury. This applies particularly to outdoor climbing on risky trad routes, dodgy lead climbs or that highball boulder you’re not sure about. Remember that most people are just thinking about their own performance and not what you’re doing. They couldn’t care less if you bail on a route because you think there’s a risk of injury. If they do, maybe it’s time for a new group of climbing friends!
WEAR A HELMET
This is a controversial topic in the climbing world as many climbers don’t wear helmets when climbing outdoors, especially sport climbing where the risks are perceived as much lower than trad climbing. However, it’s certainly food for thought, particularly as head injuries tend to be on the more serious side. You can never account for falling rock from above, a partner kicking off a hold or a nasty lead fall that results in a head injury. If you need a reminder of the benefits of a helmet, there are well documented stories on UKClimbing.com of Toby Dunn’s horrific skull fracture and prolonged recovery, and the more recent head injury suffered by pro climber, Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, both at Malham Cove.
CONSIDER YOUR NECK WHEN BELAYING
Belaying can be pretty painful for your neck. Most of us that do any kind of rope climbing will have suffered with belayer’s neck where your neck muscles complain at holding your head in an unusual position for so long. After all, our heads are actually quite heavy and when do you normally look up for such long periods of time other than when you’re belaying? Not only are you straining your neck muscles staring up at your climbing partner, but you’re closing down the already tiny spaces between the neck vertebra in your spine. Blood vessels and nerves pass through these tiny spaces and can become trapped over time, causing pins and needles in your hands and arms and constant neck ache.
If you’re struggling with belayer’s neck you can always invest in a pair of belay glasses that allow you to belay with your head and neck in a more neutral position. A word of caution if you use them though; although they are a neck saver, they can alter perspective of your climbing partner and falling rock so take care to ensure you risk assess.
PHOTO CREDIT: Thanks to Sam Parsons from After the Send for the photo.
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