by AJ Sobrilsky
As a climber, coach, and physical therapist who specializes in treating rock climbers and mountain athletes I half heartedly joke that there are 3 guarantees in life: death, taxes, and injuries. I’ve yet to meet any athlete, new or seasoned in the sport, that hasn’t endured some level of physical complaint or injury which kept them from training and performing at their programmed or desired levels. If you are someone who hasn’t or knows someone who hasn’t please step forward in the name of science; we need to study you, your patterns, and your habits… but, I’ll likely have to continue to wait.
I pretty regularly see and hear the same story. You did everything right, maybe? You hired a coach, or at least read every book and post Steve has written on the CS website. You’ve taken all the supplements, done all the stretches, and even took a whole week off after a climbing trip. But all of sudden you’ve got this nagging complaint, this whisper of an issue. You keep telling yourself it’s just a little soreness, or that you need to shift into a lot of “easy” volume for a while to reduce the stress. You may even convince yourself you need to double down on all the sexy looking antagonist exercises you saw in the most recent instagram influencer post as the key to preventing injuries. The answer is unlikely none of the previous mentioned. As you press on and try a new self directed treatment strategy each subsequent gym visit you’ve now pretty clearly taken yourself down the injury path.
So now what? Well first, let's just quickly frame what an injury is. For the sake of this discussion our working definition will be: “any complaint, physical or sensory with actual or potential tissue damage, that requires modifications to training or cessation from desired climbing activities”. We’ll work to unpack the details, nuance, and context as we forge on but if you’ve had to change what you’re doing or what you want to do because of pain/symptoms we’ll consider that having been in an injured state.
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Sound like something you’ve experienced or currently trying to manage? You’re not alone, nor will you ever be. As both an individual who has endured injuries and someone who deals daily with athletes managing complaints I fully understand their complexity. The battle of too little, just enough, or too much is almost a never ending moving target. It’s something every athlete juggles to a certain degree at some point in their sporting careers, irrespective of ability level: weekend warrior to professional level. In fact, I’d argue that those training and performing at or near their athletic ceilings (elite/professional status),are chasing gains and improvements are always dealing with something. Tip toeing the fragile line of injury with pushing just hard enough to get that 1% change.
So, am I saying that you can’t avoid injuries? Basically. The easiest way to avoid a climbing related injury - stop climbing. I joke, and that is not the answer. But, what I’m trying to get across is that pain and complaints are normal experiences and situations to navigate. Are they the “tax” or cost of participation? Not exactly, but possibly a catalyst in who you are as an athlete and how you approach the sport. More importantly it’s essential to begin to understand the context and meaning of these complaints. Understanding the signs and patterns/symptoms that precipitate these full blown experiences should allow for proper modifications and actions to be taken before things get out of hand. Or, when we do find ourselves down that injury path learning how to positively respond and reframe the situation to put ourselves as athletes in a better spot at the moment and when we get through the other side of the injury.
At the foundation of it seems pretty simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy. I frequently get asked: “how do you prevent injuries?” or “what exercises should I do to prevent this from happening in the future?”. My response, and typical line of thought with this, trends to mirror the fact that we can’t prevent anything. This would be like asking how to prevent a car accident. We can implement and practice specific patterns, behaviors, and skills that might ultimately set us up to most optimally mitigate the potential for injury. People don’t like to hear that answer, and sometimes they don’t believe me, and may even seek out and find someone who will promise them an answer they want to hear. To which, they’ll likely find themselves questioning why they’re injured, again, and seeking the one special thing to fix/prevent it in the future. See the cycle? Let’s think about it though. If we could prevent or keep injuries from happening would any professional athlete who makes their own living and also has a company/team relying on their participation for the success of the company/team ever get injured? No.The amount of money, resources, and science put into these sporting businesses and franchises is tremendous and as of right now we don’t have any tried and true program to provide that injury free guarantee.
Why do injuries even occur?
Why do injuries even occur? The answer is almost always load: too little, too much, too soon, or too consistent without proper adaptation behaviors. The loading patterns are such that we’ve exceeded our bodies ability to handle and properly adapt from the things we’re stressing it with. When it comes to load related injury complaints it’s rarely the “poison” (crimping, heel hooking, lock offs) that’s the issue, but rather the dose (amount of, or rate of increase). Essentially, the dose dictates the potency; and for you chemists out there the titration rate (how quickly we’re dosing) influences the propagation of the situation. Thus, the presence of symptoms and reactive responses from area’s in our body should serve as signals for attention, modification, and action.
So, now what? Assume injuries are a stamp of participation approval and ignore them by avoiding the things that hurt? No, that’s not the answer. Despite there being no strict guidelines or absolutes in the prevention of injuries that doesn’t mean there aren’t actionable strategies to consider while pursuing your potential in climbing. The following will serve as a bit deeper dive into these strategies. These following concepts, patterns, and behaviors are the foundation for consistency in the long haul.
What can you do, be mindful of, and put into practice?
- Be consistent with long term loading habits. Now, this doesn’t mean do the same thing all the time forever (in fact that’s a good way to create some propensity to injury). Varied patterns, durations, and speeds of loading are important programming components which to cycle through. Loading to improve climbing capacity (strength) should be seen as an investment in our ability to practice the sport. This could and should emphasize both global strength demands (squat, hip hinge, pressing, and trunk work) as well as focused loading to the fingers across the entire strength velocity spectrum (which doesn’t always have to be done on a hangboard). Keep in mind that we can’t ALWAYS be trying to make gains, certain points in training/performance the goal will be to maintain or accentuate different aspects of strength. Remember, consistency pays the bills.
- Have a plan - strategic intentional climbing practice. Do you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it when you go to the gym or crag? Or, does your session usually look something like this: warm up on progressively harder boulders or routes until you get the grade of something that is hard, then stay on that hard problem until you run out of time or have convinced yourself you’re too tired to keep trying; but then you still try one more time? Every time you go to the gym or to the crag you should ask yourself, “what's the goal for the session?” The correct answer isn’t always to send your hardest climb ever. Do you think Michael Phelps showed up at the pool everyday to try and swim a record time?
- Do you hear what I hear? Listen to your body, it knows the answer. When I talk to people who are already injured or struggling with a climbing related complaint I dive into the weeks and months leading up to where they are now. I’m essentially looking for warning signs, “check engine” lights, that might have been missed or neglected. While symptoms aren’t a great indicator of tissue damage or severity of the issue they should serve and be understood as actionable requests to do something: recover longer, switch the loading style, drop the volume, modify the intensity. Noticing and picking up on these cues early on usually means small minor climbing and program adjustments that don’t take you far off, if any at all, from your desired path. These small minor adjustments/modifications could mean chatting with your coach, reaching out to your climbing circle and asking for input, or possibly a quick stop by your local PT or Chiro for their advice. Regardless, the sooner it’s managed the less investment (time, energy, and money) there likely is to be to sort it out. Once you’ve gone through this situation a few times your practice with it will allow you to recognize these patterns and your previous experience will help you dictate the necessary actions to take. All providing more consistent loading, practice, and progression towards your goals.
- Reflect - gain some perspective of your patterns. If it’s not being measured or monitored, it’s not being managed. Beginning to pay attention to how you're feeling, what you're doing, and how you’re responding can provide valuable feedback for mitigating injuries and pushing your climbing potential. This doesn’t mean you have to count every calorie, or dictate verbatim every move on every climb you did in each day's session. But, begin to pay attention to some specifics such as: psych level, volume/density of sessions (time and amount of climbing), intensity of sessions and how long you’re needing to recover from them. Another good thing to consider, and loop into this pattern recognition is the “strategic intentional climbing practice” point. Meaning, it would be good to see how well you are focusing sessions and following through on them. Or do you get distracted by the new comp style boulder set and double dyno? Ultimately these points of reference will serve to support potential patterns. Cluing us in on things that are either not working or highlighting patterns/behaviors/trends that are promoting positive outcomes. Pick up a blank notebook, start jotting some specifics down, reflect on them, and adjust accordingly.
- Take a deep breath, have some patience. One of the things that I really enjoy about our coaching collective and Climb Strong coaching philosophy is that we think about the long term. We’re not trying to pump the latest and greatest hangboard program or get ready for the Red in 2 months with this program type sell. We are dedicated to helping athletes and climbers develop patterns and processes that set them up for long term returns; whether they train long term with us or not. We need to be process oriented and understand that things take time. Whether that's the development of a climbing injury by repeated poor loading patterns and behaviors, or working through an injured state by adjusting your plan and implementing a targeted and skilled optimal loading progression. I’m a firm believer that the training we perform today or this week should be focused on goals that are one, three, and five years out. Not, for next month's trip to Bishop. Adopting a long term mindset will help avoid the boom bust cycles of programming and promote climbing patterns with a foundation that develop long term consistency.
Remember, you are human and shit happens. I’m not sure this point needs much explanation. Sometimes no matter our best efforts things don’t go accordingly. You study all the right material and nailed the exam prep guide but didn’t score as well as you desired. You watched the weather, timed the humidity right, and even rested an extra day only to arrive at the crag as a storm rolled in. You nailed every workout in the training phase, increased your finger strength by 15%, and filled in every tier of your bouldering pyramid setting you up for that top tier on your trip this weekend. Only to have your foot blow, shock loading your finger, and walking away with a sore pulley. Shit happens and lifes not fair. More importantly in the grand scheme of this crazy lifestyle we torture ourselves mentally, physcally, and emotionally pursuing is how we respond to the hardships. A response that should allow us to show up next time as better climbers, community members, friends, and people. Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand, but that doesn’t mean it can’t win the round.
I’m sorry if you were hoping for the secret stretch, recipe of theraband exercises, or twice a day magic hangboard workout to prevent injuries. It simply doesn’t exist; sort of like an empty boulder in Bishop during spring break. Remember: consistency pays the bills, you can’t go wrong getting strong, and our response to the situation is more important than the issue itself.
ABOUT AJ SOBRILSKY
AJ is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Orthopaedic Clinical Specialist who currently lives and works in Bozeman, MT. With a comprehensive background in biomechanics, sports performance, and exercise physiology, he is able to provide a unique perspective and comprehensive coaching and training packages for climbing athletes.
As a Wisconsin native who made his way to Flagstaff, AZ to pursue altitude training as a competitive runner, he soon shifted away from running to pursue the never-ending climbing opportunities in the southwest and around the country.
Living and climbing in the desert southwest allowed AJ to understand and experience what it means to have a year-round climbing season and learn the kinds of programming required to perform at a high level consistently. In contrast, Montana has provided a seasonal climbing trend and the distinct training months/seasons that can be programmed for planned road trips or extended periods of desired peak climbing performance during an athlete's local “climbing season”.
AJ fully believes in the Climb Strong philosophy - supporting and guiding climbing athletes by providing simple, effective, and individualized programming.