Improve Your Sport Climbing (15): Injuries, Part 6 (MEDIUM-HARD)

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Impact & Other Sudden Injuries

I personally believe that entirely unpredictable and unpreventable impact/acute injuries are relatively rare in sport climbers and boulderers, too. I do believe boulderers tend to be more susceptible to impact injuries on the whole, due to the unroped nature of the activity; every time a boulderer steps off the ground, the risk of landing strangely and torqueing or busting an ankle or wrist exists, no matter how great the spotting might be – and this is a personal choice, to place oneself at risk. Sport climbers, too, can slam body parts into the wall, particularly if the belayer isn’t savvy about giving a soft catch and the climber is on fairly vertical terrain. Holds can break and rock can fall and gear can fail, all leading to potential injuries.

Other acute/sudden impact injuries include the dreaded finger popping as well as ligament/tendon/muscle strains and tears borne from within (rather than external impact); these types of acute injuries are often actually preventable and easily traced back to chronic and cumulative overuse/abuse/overtraining, or alternately, to placing stressors on the body that it is incapable of handling at the present time (i.e. undertrained for the movement in question). Not to blame the victim at all here, but it’s really important to own your part in every injury you incur in order to try to proactively avoid inviting recurrence in the future. In other words, taking as much responsibility for injuries as you can should be an empowering part of the healing process.

Prevention of Acute Injuries

Paying attention to subtle bodily cues can play a huge role in preventing acute injuries that happen from within, injuries like finger pops and muscle strains and the likes. It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment while you’re climbing and try to insist or force an issue, or even to take a conscious risk on a move or hold that you know could incur injury. If you have a split second, try to ask yourself before you commit to a hold or move that you know might be injury-provoking whether or not it’s worth risking injury on for you. Maybe it is, maybe the route or move means that much to you, but I know for me that more often than not, I’ll pass if I think the risk of injury is great – if I feel the slightest hint of a “bad tweak” when I put a finger on the hold or put my body in what I think is the correct position to do the move. It’s not worth it.

It’s true that sometimes you don’t even have the time for conscious assessment and the injury happens before you know it, seeming unpreventable and inevitable. This has definitely happened to me numerous times, and it can lead to real feelings of helplessness and a loss of faith in one’s body. However, it’s also often true that you can trace back through your actions leading up to that moment of injury and recognize certain choices that you made along the way that were likely contributors to the resulting injury.

Taking a proactive approach like this can enable you to feel like you have more agency and are less helpless in the face of the injury, as you can try to put measures in place to help avoid reinjuy or similar injuries in the future. These measures might include examining and correcting overusing and abusive training and climbing patterns, identifying and smoothing out technical flaws or choices that put undue strain on body parts, and addressing strength or muscle imbalance or flexibility issues. Complementary issues like sleeping, nutrition, attitude, stress levels and resting/pacing might also be worth examining.

Unintentional Attentional Mistakes and Accidents

Accidents do happen in sport climbing, both preventable and virtually unpreventable, of course. Attentional accidents on both the climber’s and belayer’s part can have serious consequences, just like inattention while driving a car or not wearing a seatbelt can. The injuries resulting from such accidents can serve as a harsh or even tragic learning experience for those involved. Check your safety system. Check you knot. Check your belay. Check your equipment. Check fixed equipment. Be aware of loose rock. Pay attention. Mind your children and dogs so they don’t distract climbers/belayers or walk under climbers, potentially becoming the unintentional targets for loose rock or dropped gear.

As a general rule, even in the face of the most seemingly unpredictable of acute injuries, it’s worth going back over the scenario and look for ways to try to limit the potential of such an accident occurring in the future – to regain a sense of agency and control over your climbing and the choices you or your partners made and will attempt to make differently in the future. Without this trust and faith in your own ability to moderate and diminish your injury/accident potential, it can be hard to regain climbing confidence and enjoyment after an injury like this occurs.

In the Moment: CPR/First Aid Training

To be blunt: It’s worth getting. The American Red Cross and the American Heart Association offer classes around the country, including blended learning classes in which you do much of the coursework yourself via the internet, and then attend a short in-person session to learn hands-on skills. Knowing the basics about how to handle emergencies at the crags is just a good idea. It’s also a good idea to have the American Red Cross First Aid app on your phone; it provides step-by-step instructions in the event of an emergency.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. 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 observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! 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 and training!

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