How You Can Listen to Your Body: Climbing Injuries

Let’s face it, climbing is a tough sport. If you are trying to push yourself as a climber, you will very likely hurt yourself in the process. It may be minor tweaks or it may be a big season-ending injury, but even the strongest climbers get hurt. In 2018, Adam Ondra took an 8 meter ground fall and injured his knees. World cup boulderer, Alex Puccio has had a string of ACL injuries, and even Alex Megos had a season-ending finger injury in 2017 that majorly disrupted his competitive climbing season.

The fact is, you are probably going to come across some sort of injury — acute or otherwise in your climbing career. So brace yourself and learn to listen to your body – you will prevent yourself from turning a small tweak into something bigger.

This skill is hard to learn – and even harder to manage when you are close to sending something and you want to give it one last go. But it is critical if you want to have a sustainable climbing career. I am not perfect at this. No one is, but holding back when you need to is a skill we all should learn.

Even though we’ve all lived in our bodies our whole lives, listening to your body can be tough. Here are four questions that I ask myself when I get the feeling that something is amiss.

What are you feeling?

For me, it usually starts with a tingle. Maybe I wake up with an achy shoulder and it feels better by the time I go climbing. Maybe its a weird feeling in an elbow immediately after executing a non-ergonomic move. Perhaps I felt a sharp pain in my finger.

It is important to notice these things and not ignore them. They might feel small now, and perhaps they aren’t super painful, but keep stock of these little signs. Your body is trying to tell you something. What you do with it is up to you, but ignoring it usually doesn’t work out.

What have you been doing leading up to this point?

Usually when you get injured, unless its something catastrophic like a piece of gear popping or a rock falling, you can typically see it coming. Hindsight is 2020, but you know what I mean. What was the last thing that kept you out of climbing for a few days or weeks? What were you doing leading up to it? Did you climb five days on? Did you hit it hard with a new training regime that was maybe too much? Did you change something or increase the intensity of something in your climbing or training?

Cranking down on small holds was just what my painful shoulder needed.

Here’s an example of a pretty stupid way that I hurt myself in the Fall of 2019:
I was in Rumney, NH and my boyfriend and I were rushing to hop on a classic 5.10a before the crowds got there. But as we kept hiking, a big group behind us was fast-approaching. In the rush to hop on this classic, mantle-filled 5.10 on a cold autumn morning, I did nothing to warm up my shoulders.

And to be clear, 99% of the time before I climb or workout, I warm up my shoulders. The theraband is with me at all times when I go climbing outside.

But I didn’t this time. And you know what, I tweaked my shoulder. Proceeded to climb on my project, sent it through the pain, and then I needed a week off of climbing. My shoulder bugged me a little for the rest of my Rumney season.

What could happen if you don’t listen to your body?

So giving yourself a rest, walking away from a project, or avoiding climbing for a week or two might not sound sexy, especially if it doesn’t hurt “that bad”. But there have been a few times over the past year where I had to put myself in time out. So far, I have tweaked my knee twice in 2019 and have had to rest it for a week or so at a time. I have also tweaked a finger, and taken a week off after feeling an acute, popping sensation. I have also taken a week off after the above shoulder incident.

And what motivates me to have the self-control to not waltz over to the climbing gym when I can literally see it from my house (it is an actual 30 second walk away)? Well, I avoid the temptress by getting a little imaginative. I think things like “well if you don’t rest, you might go into the gym and completely tear your ACL and then you’ll be out for way longer than a week.” That thought usually gets me to take a step back and stay off whatever limb I injured.

Anytime you feel that sudden onset of injury… you immediately rest, stop climbing, stop moving, give it a week or two to see how bad it is.

Physical Therapist and Climber, Esther Smith on the
TrainingBeta Podcast Episode 94

So imagine a few horror stories to motivate yourself to have some restraint. If you feel like something is wrong, pay attention to it and don’t pretend that you’re OK if you’re not.

Lauren - powerlinez bouldering
My first V5 outdoors – would have been a great moment, except that I should not have kept climbing after I blew up my knee in a heel hook on a nearby warm-up….

Is there anything else going on that might effect your likelihood of getting injured right now?

Is there something that happens leading up to when you get injured? Are there any patterns that you notice? Were you really stressed by a situation at work or school? Had you not been sleeping well? Is there anything in life that might make you more injury-prone at certain times? I hurt my knee on a bouldering trip in the Fall of 2019. I started the day with a really tight hip left hip, I had gone on a run that week (which I NEVER do which still had me sore), I was exhausted from a bad work week, and unsurprisingly, my knee blew up in a heel hook on a warm-up route. I had to sit myself out of climbing for a week to let it rest.

That Time of the Month

For all the ladies out there (or men that want to learn something about your female climbing counterparts), did you know that a significant portion of ACL ruptures in women occur around the end of the second week of the menstrual cycle? According to the literature, increases in estrogen levels lead to decreased tendon and ligament stiffness. In women, this spike in estrogen leads to increased risk of injury. Practically speaking, I can confirm that all three times I have tweaked my knee, it has been around the middle of my cycle while simultaneously pushing myself, whether it be skiing, a climbing competition or outdoor bouldering. I joke that I “should avoid going hard for 25% of the year”, but perhaps I need to take this into greater consideration. The chart below is taken from the Effect of Estrogen on Musculoskeletal Performance and Injury Risk.

Look to the Past to Tell your Future

In any case, it may be interesting to reflect on past injuries and tweaks to see if you notice a pattern. Think about all of the things in your life that might wear you down a little. Perhaps you are blocking out the fact that after you do yard work for a weekend and then you try to hit it hard in the gym, your back starts hurting. Maybe you do electrical work and your injuries happen a few days after you work a double shift. Perhaps sitting at your desk all day with poor posture really hurts your shoulders. Maybe your injuries occur the first day out on a climbing trip when you hardly slept because you were traveling the night before. Who knows? Take stock of what happens leading up to your injuries whether they be major or minor – acute or chronic. You just might learn how to keep it from happening again.

The next time you feel something coming on or you get a feeling in your body that something is not quite right, pay attention to it. It might prevent you from being out of commission for a few weeks – or worse.

What are some patterns you notice before you get hurt? Are you good at taking time off when something does not feel right? What hindsight do you have about your injuries? Leave a comment below or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com – I would love to discuss!

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