Category Archives: Climbing Training

One Climber’s Story: Five Injury Case Studies (II)


To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.

Case Study Two: Torn Muscles in Left Armpit Area (2006)

Injury: I tore three muscles in my left armpit area. I literally felt them tear, one right after the other – a visceral ripping feeling from within that remains alive in my memory whenever I recall the incident, the “RIP…rip-rip” rhythm of the muscle fibers pulling apart.

Causal Factors: This injury resulted from a combination of drinking too much and not sleeping enough and traveling across the country right before climbing, along with inadequate warming up and inclement (cold and damp) weather, along with a lack of conditioning for the style/angle of climbing (nearly horizontal roof), when literally all I ever climbed on at that point was vertical or very slightly overhung routes. I wasn’t really doing anything hard – I was merely reaching to clip a draw – when I felt those armpit muscles on the side hanging onto the rock rip. Because of all of the above factors – a bunch of poor decisions I made – this injury was most likely 100 percent preventable, and 100 percent my fault.

Recovery: This injury hurt terribly, but not when I did it. It was trying to do anything with the torn muscles afterward that caused excruciating pain – things like pulling on a shoe or picking up a bag. Forget climbing, of course! I thought about quitting climbing for good…it was that bad, not only physically, but mentally, as I suffered withdrawal from my normal activity, and I did not have any sort of real training foundation or knowledge (still at that point in the “training for climbing = climbing” camp, supplemented with running and stretching). I didn’t come up with a recovery training plan to help keep me sane; I simply decided to wait it out. I’m sure I ran and stretched (don’t really remember) while I waited.

I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I never saw a doctor – very stupid, for sure. The decision I did make correctly was to stop climbing and to not climb again for quite some time – not until I could do all of life’s normal activities without pain. After about four months of no climbing entirely, I gradually started back into climbing at about a 5.8 level, and I worked up slowly from there. I was very attentive and took care not to push or overdo it as I moved back into using the area that had been injured. It did not get reinjured, and the following summer, I was back up to climbing at my full capabilities, sending the hardest route I’d climbed in my life – so within 10 months, back to and maybe a little beyond where I’d been when the injury first happened.

For about two years after this injury, I thought all was good/entirely healed, right up until I started learning more about training and
implementing more nonclimbing climbing-specific training methods. This also led me to delve into steep climbing, which soon become first a regular part and then the predominant part of my climbing life. This injury, I believe, continued to plague me and can most likely be linked to my more recent nerve-related injury that I’ll discuss in greater detail in case study number 5.

One Climber’s Story: Five Injury Case Studies (I)


To round out this series on climbing injuries, the next few entries will get a little more personal as I present and discuss five injuries I’ve incurred during my life as a climber. I share these in the hopes that they might help other climbers/athletes first and foremost to avoid similar injuries. I also hope to help others understand that if and when injuries do occur, they can provide great insights and lessons for us in the moment as well as for our future selves as to what we should and shouldn’t do to avoid incurring such show-stopping injuries again. Every single injury or series of injuries I’ve lived through has led to a greater understanding of my own body and being, informing and shaping my life afterward in ways that I maybe never would have expected or been open to had the injury never happened.

Case Study One: Finger Injuries

Injury: One true tendon injury, in which pressing with my finger resulted in tendon pain in my forearm, along with multiple A2 tendon pulley injuries throughout my first few years of climbing, along with a reminder minor pulley injury more recently (several years ago).

Causal Factors: The worst finger injury I ever had, which involved the actual tendon rather than just the pulley, resulted from overuse/overtraining and poor technique. I was a young and inexperienced climber who crimped all the time (despite repeated but little-heeded warnings from many more experienced climbers that this would predispose me to finger injuries). I asked a better climber how they had gotten better, and they told me that they wouldn’t leave the gym until they completed what they’d set out to do that day.

Me being me (mentally willing and able to drive myself to extremes), I took this recommendation to an absurd level, as I so easily do – so I continued climbing on a finger that was already sore and tired until I actually really injured it. This is a great example of how the good old “no pain, no gain” theory can really hinder progress. I’m very good at using my mental ability to push my body past its actual limits, which is generally not a benefit for athletic improvement at all – it’s very counterproductive and results in the overtraining/overuse result time and time again, if it isn’t curtailed.

The other various pulley injuries I’ve incurred have always involved relatively minor strains in the A2 pulley in the base of my fingers. I’ve done all of my fingers except my pointers, I believe – though none of them bother me from these injuries anymore. The last time I did this, it illustrated what I theorize was a likely culprit in all of the prior pulley injuries. It was perhaps in 2009, and I was climbing in the gym and crimping on an edge on a steep overhang, moving sideways, when my heel hook popped and suddenly much of my body weight explosively and unexpectedly transferred to the crimping hand, straining the A2 in my pinky (thankfully not the other fingers this time!).

Recovery: Finger injuries tend to take a long time to heal, and climbing on them usually only makes them worse, a lesson I had to learn the hard way. My finger injury recovery period for the tendon took months; for the pulleys, I’d say about six weeks per pulley, give or take (I never tore any pulley entirely). I did stupidly try to climb hard on a few of them as a younger climber, and this (surprise, surprise) led to longer recovery times. For a great rundown on finger injuries and treatment plans, check out Eric Hӧrst’s excellent article on the Nicros website, “Finger Tendon Pulley Injury.”

Long-Term Result: That last pinky pulley injury provided an awesome reminder of why I gradually switched from crimping everything to retraining myself to become a default open-handed climber, who crimps only when need be. Open-handing changed my climbing for the better. Though as always, it was much harder to unlearn a bad technique/habit than it likely would have been to learn it right in the first place (i.e. not crimping every single hold I grabbed like my life depended on it), since I’ve become a default-open-hander, I have incurred only that pinky injury – and it was relatively minor and easy to handle, as I often don’t even use my pinky on climbing holds.

(My pinky is pretty short, so having it on a hold often changes the angle of my hand and arm and consequently the way I can move off of the hold, and it also impacts my reach if I try to get my pinky on the hold. Getting my pinky on the hold actually puts the rest of my fingers into a sort of half-crimped position, which might at least somewhat account for my original over-crimping.)

Anyhow, enough about my pinky – point of all of this is that the finger injuries led me to unlearn a less-efficient and more injury-prone default grip, and this has in turn saved me from a boatload of more finger injuries that I’m sure I would have incurred if I’d just kept on crimping like I did when I started.

Improve Your Sport Climbing (15): Injuries, Part 10 (HARD)


Starting Back After an Injury (or Any Break)

Have you ever come back from an injury only to virtually immediately reinjure that place or injure another body part – or do you know/have you heard of someone who has? It seems so unfair, to put all that time into rehabilitation and recovery, only to be sidelined again right away. Causes for this are usually pretty obvious. Either a) the injured area wasn’t fully recovered and ready to be climbed on again and/or b) the climber in question came back into climbing by doing too much, too soon, and the body wasn’t in shape or ready to climb at the same level as before the injury-mandated hiatus from climbing.

After an injury or any break from climbing, come back slowly and give it time, just like you would ideally with any new training program. Do less than you think you can, and stop way before you think you’re done. This is a smart approach when you’re adding anything new to your climbing/training; you don’t go for broke or to total exhaustion, diving in the deep end and hoping you can swim right away. Instead, you lightly dip your toes in the water and check the temperature, and then you wait for a day or two to see how your toes feel before you put your whole lower leg in the water. And then you wait again, and eventually, as you build up/rebuild your strength and fitness and technical skills and so forth, you will be swimming in the deep end, free from injury, and ready to head out into the open ocean and explore the world.

This can be very difficult, of course, because as soon as you have the go-ahead and you’re feeling better, it can be hard to put the stops on yourself to prevent reinjury or new injury. Give yourself a time/difficulty limit for each session, and stick to it, knowing that in time, you won’t need to be quite so regimented, but that it’s very important now. Don’t get pressured by the fun factor or friends into doing more than you planned – while this can be okay when you’re at peak fitness levels now and again, coming back from injury isn’t the time to push your luck. Remind yourself that you don’t want to get benched again and that a little bit of climbing every other day is way better right now than a glut of climbing followed by two months on the bench (or longer).

And, as mentioned before, keep all of what you’ve learned from your injury in your mind and your planning for future climbing and training efforts once you’re back to full capability. Draw on the experience and lessons of the injury so that you don’t get involved in a hateful cycle of regular reinjury or new injuries. Make sure you know what caused the injury as much as you possibly can and that you also have measures in place that will help you and your partners prevent such injuries in the future. In this way, you make the most of your injury and can actually make it into an overall positive experience rather than an entirely negative one – a process that I’ll delve into in greater detail in the following five entries, which will consist of personal case studies of injuries I’ve incurred as a climber.

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!