Rock climbing is a physically demanding sport. It requires a lot of strength from our entire body, and is especially strenuous to the muscles in our upper body. This is largely due to the tremendous tension we must generate to keep ourselves on the wall. Eventually, at some point, every climber feels that dreaded ache in their fingers, elbows, or shoulders—a sign of inflamed tendons. The problem is that we’re constantly loading our “pulling muscles,” while neglecting the “pushing muscles.” Fear not, as there are ways to prevent tendonitis so that it will not interfere with your training program or upcoming climbing trip.
Traditionally, it was viewed that tendons and ligaments did not respond to training load, that they only elicited a response to injury. Research over the last decade, however, has indicated otherwise: it has been discovered that connective tissues can sense and adapt to chronic mechanical loading. With this information, new training and nutrition interventions have been developed that can help increase performance and reduce the risk of injury.
The best way to deal with injuries is to not get them in the first place. Prevention, when it comes to preserving healthy tendons, requires a good warm-up, proper technique, antagonist exercises, rest, and proper nutrition.
Warm-Up: Warming up begins with aerobic activity. If you are climbing outdoors, this usually means the approach. For gym sessions, try hopping on a cardio machine or jumping rope. Move next into dynamic stretches where you want to stretch muscles through continuous motion, briefly bringing them to their end range. You can also include some finger specific stretches by utilizing products such as the Pinch Hangblock or the Maverick. Lastly, begin discipline specific climbing on easy boulder problems or routes. By warming up your muscles and tendons, you increase their pliability, which allows them to absorb more force.
Technique: The way that we move influences the stress on our tendons. Injuries can be caused not just by overdoing it in climbing, but from poor repetitive form. Weaknesses in certain muscles, the inability to control movement, or lack of mobility can cause us to compensate. This creates excessive stress on muscles and tendons, which can lead to injury. Video yourself, or work with a coach to identify if you have poor technique or learned body positioning and determine if it’s due to bad habit, deficits in strength, or a combination.
Antagonist and Stabilizer Exercises: Climbing is considered a pulling sport, and overuse of the agonist muscles can lead to all kinds of issues…including poor tendon health. The focus should be on training your stabilizer and “push muscles” to create balance. The following are some exercises that should be incorporated into your routine at least twice a week:
Reverse Wrist Curls
Reverse Arm Curls
TRX I, Y, T Exercise
Rest: To keep those healthy tendons, rest means a few things. When you are training, it is important to take breaks often. Treat rock climbing as if you were lifting heavy weights. There should be periods of rest between each climb that you attempt. Rest also means forcing yourself to take days off from climbing. When you engage in rigorous training, your body is temporally weakened. It responds to this weakened stated by rebuilding itself to better execute the task the next time. If you do not allow your body to rest long enough, your muscles will never repair themselves, and you will never improve your strength, and this opens you up for injury.
Nutrition: There are differing opinions about nutrition with regard to dietary suggestions, but the bottom line is that good nutrition and hydration promote healthy tendons. If you ensure that you are eating a diverse, healthy diet that includes high-quality proteins, and consume sufficient calories, you are setting yourself up for good tendon health.
Tendonitis can be one of the most frustrating and debilitating climbing injuries. This condition might seem like a minor problem in the beginning, so there is always the temptation to simply ignore it and continue climbing. If you think you may be suffering from tendonitis, the most important thing to do is rest. The last thing you want to do is create more inflammation which is just going to create most issues down the line.
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Heyman, E., De Geus, B. A. S., Mertens, I., & Meeusen, R. (2009). Effects of four recovery methods on repeated maximal rock climbing performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(6), 1303-1310.
Watts, P.B., Daggett, M., Gallagher, P., Wilkins B., Metabolic Response During Sport Rock Climbing and the Effects of Active Versus Passive Recovery (2000). Int J Sports Med, 21:185– 190.
Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Rhea, M. R., Wilson, S. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Anderson, J. C. (2012). Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.
Augste, C., Winkler, M., Künzell, S. Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlich fundierten Leistungs-diagnostik im Sportklettern (2020). Augsburg University.