You might not think of skin off the top of your head as a crucial contributor to your climbing performance. However, as every climber who’s ever ripped open a flapper or cracked the tips or creases of their fingers knows, good skin can make or break your ability to climb hard on any given day. A gnat-sized cut on your ring finger might wreak total havoc on your climbing efforts, forcing you to choose between the lesser of two evils – the awkwardness of trying to perform with a clunky, friction-compromised taped tip vs. a potentially bigger rip in your tip that could take two or three times as long to heal. Not as obvious but equally important skin factors that can potentially impact climbing performance include using sunscreen and the link between skin, heat and sports performance.
In this Training Talk, I’ll discuss these three areas as they relate to rock climbing training and performance, including resourceful links that provide more in-depth information about each topic. Note that this Training Talk does not aim to address the importance of maintaining overall skin health; this should go without saying. For basic skin care information, check out the tips provided by the American Academy of Dermatology, the Cleveland Clinic and MayoClinic.com.
By the Skin of Your Fingers
Human skin comes in an infinite variety of textures, colors and compositions, so it’s no wonder that every climber’s skin reacts differently to environmental stressors. This is one of the key reasons why one climber’s perfect sending conditions might be too hot and humid for another climber – who may prefer blustery, cold and dry weather for top performance. So much of our performance in our particular sport has to do with the state of our hands, and more particularly, the state of the skin on the inside part of our fingertips. Optimally, most of us want our fingers to be cool but not too cold (not numb), not sweaty (but with just enough moisture to create friction with the rock’s surface), and most of all, to have our skin not be frayed, flaking, sliced open or rubbed raw – because nobody likes to be stopped from sending by skin.
The best way to keep your finger and hand skin from becoming a showstopper is to take preventative measures before you have cracks, flappers, holes or other open wounds. Every seasoned climber has his or her own preferred preventative methods. My basic steps for maintaining sound finger skin include trimming, sanding and moisturizing. I regularly trim off any visible pieces of dead skin with nail clippers or scissors. I do this immediately at the crag whenever I notice any skin frays or shreds, as well as routinely after showering, when skin is at its softest. I follow trimming with sanding. After showering, I usually wait until my skin is dry and hardened before I sand it. My preferred sanding tool is a Dr. Scholl’s Callus Reducer; other climbers prefer using simple sandpaper or files. Finally, I heal, moisturize and harden my skin with frequent applications of Bonnie’s Balms Healing Salve.
Unfortunately, even the best of skincare procedures doesn’t guarantee against cuts, cracks, tears, abrasions and flappers. Once you have an open wound on your fingers or hands, you want to heal it up as quickly as possible, of course (since climbing with tape sucks, as we all know too well). My method of choice includes washing the wound with soap and water, and then putting Neosporin on it and covering with a Band-Aid. Several hours prior to climbing, I remove the Band-Aid to allow the skin to harden. If possible (i.e., the wound is closed), I gently trim or sand any flakes or shreds that remain around the area to help prevent reopening the wound.
For more information on wound care, check out “Wound Healing,” by D.J. Verret, M.D. Note in particular Dr. Verret’s stress on how nutrition plays a key role in skin health – in particular, your body needs protein plus vitamins A, C, K and E to heal wounds effectively.
Tomorrow, I’ll continue this Training Talk with Skin Savvy Part 2: Sunscreen.