Ways to Improve Your Sport Climbing/Bouldering (6): Promoting and Maximizing Recovery (EASY)

This WI entry covers five major areas to consider integrating into or expanding upon to promote faster/better recovery throughout each workout/climbing day as well as throughout each week, month and beyond.

1. Resting: The topic of the previous Ways to Improve (WI) blog, rest is an often underutilized but key tool for climbers/boulderers interested in maximizing the results of their workouts and climbing days. Key takeaway points:

• Resting enough between efforts during a workout/climbing day can yield greater successes;

• Muscles only grow stronger when you rest. If you never rest enough between workouts/climbing days, you’re likely sabotaging your efforts to get stronger;

• Without adequate rest, you increase your risk for overtraining/overuse injuries; and

• Getting enough quality sleep on a regular basis is essential for top athletic performance.

2. Nutrition: This will be covered in greater depth in a future entry (hopefully!), but for the purposes of encouraging recovery, climbers and boulderers should make sure to:

• Stay hydrated and fueled throughout each workout/performance day. This means drinking before, during and after the activity, AND taking in adequate carbohydrates throughout the day to keep blood glucose levels high enough to avoid bonking (sports drinks are a great resource for maintaining energy throughout the day);

Some of my current favorite Clif Bar offerings that help keep hunger at bay and energy levels high both during and after workouts.

• Ingest a 3: or 4:1 carbs-to-protein recovery meal/drink ideally within 30 minutes (and definitely within two hours) of finishing a workout to optimize muscle recovery;

• Aim to get about 60-70 percent of your total dietary calories from carbohydrates, as suggested by the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s Optimal Dietary Intake Guide, which explains, “carbohydrates…are the most efficiently broken-down and metabolized form of energy for the body. Athletes doing stop-and-go activities were found to have better speeds and to delay fatigue when consuming a higher carbohydrate diet;” and

• Focus on incorporating lean proteins and healthy fats into your daily diet along with healthy carbohydrate sources to ensure an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals as well as macronutrients. Don’t rely on supplements to make up the difference.

3. At-Home Treatments: Resting doesn’t need to be completely passive. While you’re chilling between workouts or climbing days, you may be able take some proactive measures beyond simple resting plenty and eating well to encourage faster recovery, such as:

• Using RICE – rest, ice, compression and elevation – to treat lightly strained muscles, tendons or other aches and pains, as outlined by MayoClinic.com;

• Taking over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help alleviate inflammation and pain whil encouraging healing. Be aware that these medications also come with the potential of negative side effects to your digestive and excretory systems, among others. They may also have long-term negative effects on your muscle growth, as explained in the September 2009 “New York Times” article “Phys Ed: Does Ibuprofen Help or Hurt During Exercise?”

• Possibly incorporating natural alternatives to NSAIDs into your regular diet. Certain foods have proven anti-inflammatory properties, including tart cherry juice, extra-virgin olive oil, fish oil and cayenne pepper, to name a few. Many more have unproven potential in this department, including ginger  and pineapple; and

Two of my top topical picks for helping to relieve sore muscles and skin after hard climbing days.

• Applying external remedies, trimming skin/removing calluses, and using self-massage to promote recovery. External remedies include hydrotherapy – “the use of water (hot, cold, steam, or ice) to relieve discomfort and promote physical well-being,” as defined by The Free Dictionary by Farlex – as well as topical pain-relieving/skin-healing ointments, creams, gels and oils, such as Zheng Gu Shui or Bonnie’s Balms Healing Salve. Trimming flappers and skin shreds off of hands and feet and sanding down calluses can help you avoid painful flappers, cuts and blisters on future climbing days. Apply Neosporin or a healing salve and bandage as appropriate to promote healing. Self-massage sore muscles with your hands or better yet, with one or more of the many self-massage tools (my favorite is the Thera Cane Massager) available, to potentially alleviate pain and improve circulation to sore, tight muscles.

4. Active Recovery: Not to be confused with, “climbing below your limit but still trying hard,” active recovery may indeed help prepare you for your next hard climbing day. However, try to keep the following in mind:

• If you’re using climbing for active recovery, true active recovery should involve easy (read: very submaximal and not taxing at all) movements of your limbs through the ranges of motion used in climbing. Active recovery may help muscles recover faster than simply resting. However, if you overdo it – very easily and often done by climbers laying claim to the active recovery concept – you won’t reap the rewards and will interfere with your recovery. Avoid this pitfall by following the 30/30 protocol – a maximum of 30 minutes of total climbing time at 30 percent (or less) of your maximum intensity. Basically, the climbing should feel completely effortless, like taking a nice, easy stroll on a flat street. The point is to get the muscles moving and to stimulate blood flow without impeding muscle recovery in the least – thereby encouraging recovery in the process.

• Other physical activities can likely be similarly and effectively used to help promote faster recovery, so long as they’re done with the same premise of not overtaxing already taxed muscles. Swimming, yoga, light jogging or cycling, walking/hiking and dancing offer just a few body-moving activities that could help enhance your climbing recovery – so long as you keep the idea of recovery front and center, of course.

Yoga offers an awesome off-day, active-recovery activity that can also enhance your flexibility.

• Finally, stretching muscles as a part of your active recovery routine may help promote faster recovery, reducing muscular pain and tightness while improving your climbing-relevant flexibility.

5. Professional Assistance: Don’t resist what’s available to assist you in a professional capacity, particularly in the event of a climbing-impairing injury:

• When in doubt, consult with a healthcare professional first, preferably a physician who has experience treating rock climbers and your injury in particular, if at all possible. Don’t just tape it up and keep on climbing, and don’t rely on your best buddy’s advice about what he/she did when he/she had a similar injury. Protect your climbing future by getting a proper diagnosis and treatment plan immediately from a qualified professional.

It’s been my personal experience that a great professional massage therapist can help relieve sore muscles and improve recovery time.

• Explore alternative options that won’t impair your healing but could enhance it or shorten your recovery time. In addition to appropriate self-care and self-prevention measures, healing professionals like massage therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists may be able to offer you some pain relief and reduced recovery time. Some people may find that these types of therapy offer little to no help, while others will swear by them. Scientific studies aside (and they are conflicting and inconclusive at this point for these and many other alternative therapies), the bottom line is that if one of these or another healing modality helps you, personally, recover faster without causing harm to your being, it may be worth your time and money.


Whew, that’s a lot of information about how to use those recovery days to your best advantage – and I’m sure I didn’t manage to cover the half of it! To learn more about using recovery tactics effectively to enhance athletic performance, check out Sage Rountree’s “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery: Rest, Relax, and Restore for Peak Performance.”

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up. Remember that my designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20 years of climbing along with my observations from climbing coaching throughout the past 4+ years. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change than I do/did. Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.

One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing, bouldering and training!

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