Remember that being a successful athlete, not matter which arena you compare yourself in (peers, amateur, professional) by definition means doing what other people wouldn’t.
Lots of people model their technique, training and tactics on what their peers are doing. But if you want to get better than them, they are exactly the wrong people to look at.
The modelling can be conscious and deliberate, but most of the time you actually do it subconsciously. So wake up! The greatest success you can hope for by doing what everyone else (in YOUR world of peers) does is to assimilate the same level of mediocrity they have. More about all this in my book.
While we’re on the subject of role models, an important point about them. Yes they are useful, even essential to help you get more out of yourself, so long as you chose the right role models. But keep in mind it’s the approach they have that you’re copying, not the exact actions. Their life, physiology, schedule, resources etc can never fit with yours. So don’t try. So the question is “What would they do if they had this (my) circumstance right now?”.
And one other thing… Good role models in sport are ones you can actually find some details about - someone you can feel you know through seeing them, reading about them or even better, being coached by them! If it’s someone who never speaks, blogs, writes coaches, it’s pretty hard to ask the question above and get near a useful answer.
You have two choices, pick a better role model, or ask them to keep in touch more. Interview them for your blog or your favourite website and ask them all the questions you want in one go. Just an idea.
A session with Mr Cuthbertson got me thinking of changes in movement fashions in climbing since I started. Where Cubby dotted his feet around miniscule smears on blankness, I tended to swing and heelhook. Cubby was obviously leading world trad climbing in the early 80’s, often on routes that were hard because they were completely suicidal. When he got into sport climbing at it’s birth at venues like Malham in the mid eighties, the fashion was for precision. Climbing like a gymnasitc performance, with effortless grace. I have this idea that even grimacing and grunting was not really ‘in’.
Fast forward, and watch a modern climbing film like Progression. Quite a difference - Ondra is racing up the rock before you can blink. The American boulderers are leaping with feet off and one hand as you reach the for the remote control to turn down all the yelling.
The popularity of bouldering and the influence of famous climbers has tended to make climbers move faster and more aggressively, with less foot moves per hand move. What does this mean? It adds efficiency because you get through the moves quicker and more momentum is used and more aggression is good for realising the maximum force you can produce. But it loses efficiency by getting less weight on your feet throughout the whole move or sequence and adding a lot of swings into disadvantageous positions that must be countered with muscle power.
You might have guessed the punchline already - somewhere in between is best. Race up the rock or leap wildy for holds if your technique is quick enough or you have shoulders like Daniel Woods. But if you are more average in your build, background and climbing ability, someone like Fred Nicole or the female climbers in the world cup competitions would be better movement role models.
One other thing… One positive trend in modern rock climbing is that crimping everything is much less in fashion than it used to be. Thats definitely a good thing for all out tendons.
Finding the most efficient pace in repointing is huge area and isn’t as simple as climbers might hope. The basics of pacing are that it’s a good idea to climb fast; as fast as possible without sacrificing accuracy. But even this isn’t so simple as occasionally on steep burly climbs with big positive holds, it can be better to err more on the side of speed even if accuracy is sacrificed a little bit.
Climbing fast comes from being good at climbing. And being good at climbing comes from having a lot of routes under your belt. So if you realise you are climbing too slowly on a redpoint, but can’t seem to go faster without making mistakes, there’s no shortcut unfortunately - if you clock up more routes, you’ll slowly be able to make movement decisions quicker. The only short term fix for the route you are trying right now is to learn the moves better. A lot of the time there is some mileage to be gained out of this. The technique is two-fold: First it’s to have a clear separation between ‘working’ mode and ‘linking’ mode. Often, climbers are too busy trying to make better links and forget to remember all the little movement tweaks they are learning. So progress is much slower than it needs to be. Stop linking for a bit, and just do shorter sections or single moves until you are super slick before moving on.
Apart from overall climbing speed, the amount of resting during the climb is a big variable that could make the difference between success and failure. The main point of this post is that the correct amount of stopping/resting time depends on the character of the climb as much as the length or number of moves.
Here is a video of yesterday’e efforts of mine on a long project (estimated grade V14). It’s about V12 to just before my failure point and the next few moves are the crux, so I need to have plenty left in the tank to make any more progress.
You can see this is an all out sprint with no rests. But I’m climbing for nearly two minutes straight on very steep ground. 120 seconds for just over 30 hand moves. The climbing is pretty technical and there is a lot of footwork to be done for every hand move. It contrasts with a 9a I did in spain a while back which is 30 moves in 30 seconds. Massive difference. On the 9a, the correct strategy (after much trial and error) was to go as fast as possible. I skipped clips, didn’t chalk up once - just continuous sprinting to get to the end before the anaerobic system started to falter.
On other projects I’ve tried for a long enough time, I’ve experienced through trial and error that many different strategies for resting worked - sometimes stopping only enough to chalk up, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes longer. In general, the trend has been that resting less has been better.
However, On this cave project, I’ve just realised that my previous strategy of no rest might not be the best. I started with this strategy partly because there’s no obvious place to rest, and partly because its only 35 moves to the crux. But once the climbing time starts to creep above 60-90 seconds, the need to stop and rest, at least briefly becomes more and more important. It’s a moving target though depending on the nature of the climbing.
Last thing in the session (after this attempt I lay down and slept for half an hour!!) I worked out a rather unreasonable rest from two toe hooks just at the point I fell. My plan is to get the climbing time to here down 25% to 90 seconds, and rest for about 2 chalk-ups each hand. Ill let you know how it goes…
Summary: experiment with different resting times and pacing on your redpoints, the character of the individual climb often confounds expectations.
As you can see the site looks rather different. I’ve just spent a good while reorganising and redesigning it. Hopefully it should all be a bit more user friendly now. But I’m eager to hear your feedback. If you like or dislike anything or find any problems I should know about. Please do leave me a comment. I don’t get much time to go through everything with my site very often so sometimes I don’t always spot problems. Thanks for your help!
Apart from the structural and style changes to the site I’ve substantially reorganised my shop, adding more products and shopping in the Euro and US dollar currencies for those whom that will help. These days you are ordering your training books and DVDs from all over the planet. Thanks so much for the support of our shop - it really helps us.
Below I’ve re-posted some really old extended articles I wrote on research and finger injuries that used to live in a different place on my old site. Sorry if you’ve seen them before. I just didn’t want them to disappear altogether.
Now that I’m (hopefully) over the task of site redesign, I can get back to writing posts…
Been talking to Tim Emmett over the past couple of days and sharing ideas about training when you are into a lot of different sports. The same points apply if you work a lot and generally have limited time to climb. If routes are ‘your thing’, you’ll want to do mostly routes in your limited time of going climbing. And if you have any time in the year when you’ll be training indoors, it’s likely that endurance will be an immediate high priority.
This presents a problem for longer term development of strength to move to the next level in climbing. There simply isn’t enough time in the year spent pulling super hard on small holds to get really strong fingers. As always, there are workarounds and they are basic stuff when it comes down to it:
1 - Use brief fingerboard sessions to effectively ‘concentrate’ the strength training into the most time efficient hit. Think of it as the ‘espresso’ of finger strength training. You can get away with it because your time on the routes is keeping your technique sharp. For example, if you are an expedition climber, hang that wee fingerboard rung you packed at basecamp and camp near those lovely granite boulders.
2 - When you do find yourself with enough time to get some bouldering in between routes sessions, you really need to make the most of that time. If you are frequently visiting unfamiliar climbing walls/crags. It’s easy to waste precious time finding the good problems at the right intensity or making some up. Try extra hard to eliminate this by tagging onto locals who can show you what’s what. Don’t be shy, they really wont bite. And if they sandbag you, so what? You wanted a hard session didn’t you. Try not to be put off when you can’t complete many problems. It’s normal if its an unfamiliar situation. Just try hard and you’ve done well.
NB: This article used to live in the articles section of my old site. I’ve reposted it here since it was really popular. Note that it’s nearly ten years old now!
Sport climbing is the branch of rock climbing involving routes protected by pre-placed anchor bolts. The explosion in popularity of sport climbing and organised competitions have prompted a significant rise in participation and standards in recent decades. The focus of this new discipline is the athletic and competitive aspects of movement on rock (Jones, 1991). Coupled with this has been the development of structured and sport specific training techniques among professional and amateur climbers alike (Goddard and Neumann, 1993; Morstad, 2000). Climbing is a physical activity involving repeated movements of the body against gravity by producing forces on the holds on the wall surface via the upper and lower limbs. A considerable movement technique and psychological performance element is also universally recognised in the climbing related literature. The rise in participation, training and organised competitions in climbing and well documented increases in the occurrence of climbing related soft tissue injuries underlines the importance of research which evaluates the physiology of climbing.
The aim of this review is to critically evaluate the current literature concerning the physiological demands and determinants of performance in sport climbing. Particular focus will be given to the forearm, specifically the finger flexors, and the physiological characteristics and adaptations occurring in trained climbers, which confer increased forearm strength and endurance. Future research objectives will also be outlined within this specific area.
Physiological demands of climbing
Rock climbing involves moving over the wall surface supported by four limbs, described by Quaine et al. (1997) as “vertical quadrupedia” (Fig. 1). Early attempts by climbers to identify key aspects of performance on which to focus their training recognised that the centre of acute fatigue during climbing lay invariably in the upper limbs, especially the forearms (Hurn and Ingle, 1988; Goddard and Neumann, 1993). It was observed that in general, the difficulty of the climbing becomes greater when the wall angle becomes steeper and the holds (particularly handholds) become smaller and further apart. The apparent limitation of the forearm in climbing makes physiological sense given its comparatively small muscle mass, not anatomically designed to support forces comparable with body mass (or exceeding it to produce accelerations against gravity). Morstad (2000) (citing unpublished quantitative analyses) argued that even at wall angles 45 degrees beyond vertical, where the lower limb cannot support much of the body mass in the vertical direction, successful movements must be initiated using the lower limb and trunk in order to reduce peak forces required at the hand holds. Although there are few reports in the climbing related literature of significant lower body fatigue, there is anecdotal evidence that lower limb strength is an advantage on certain types of moves, particularly to maintain contact on the footholds on very overhanging rock (Morstad, 2000).
Unfortunately, no studies have examined lower limb or core strength in trained climbers.
Bouts of sport climbing last for several minutes with sustained periods of intermittent isometric contraction in the finger flexors. Schadle-Schardt (1998) observed mean climbing times of 4.5 minutes during indoor competition climbing. Thus, sport rock climbing must be considered an endurance event. Few studies have attempted to analyse the movement patterns associated with climbing. Billat et al. (1995) observed that upward movement during indoor climbing occurs intermittently. Video analysis revealed that 63% of the total climbing time was spent ascending (vertical displacement of the hips) and 37% was spent maintaining an ‘immobilized’ position (static equilibrium). In climbing, static equilibrium must be maintained at certain times in order to clip the rope into protection bolts, rest individual fatigued limbs and scan and reach for the next holds (Goddard and Neumann, 1993; Sagar, 2001). Schadle-Schardt (1998) measured mean contact times for the fingers on each hold in competition climbing of 10 seconds with 2.4 second rest periods in between holds (presumably spent reaching the next hold and replacing chalk on the hands).
The angle of the wall surface has been shown to be an important influence on the physiological demand placed on the body due to climbing. Noé et al. (2001) examined the biomechanical constraints of static climbing positions at different angles (vertical and 10 degrees overhanging). When vertical and overhanging quadrupedia were compared there was a large shift in the distribution of the supporting forces to the upper limbs, from 43% to 62% of body weight supported by the upper limbs in the vertical and overhanging positions respectively. Given that rock climbs can feature angles of up to 90 degrees beyond vertical, this magnitude of shift appears remarkable and certainly explains the physiological findings (described below) of performance studies which showed much greater energy expenditure and lactate production with only small increases in angle beyond vertical (Watts et al., 1998). Unfortunately this is the only study to compare supporting force distribution at different angles. Further studies examining a greater range of wall angles would give further insight into the dependence on the upper limbs for support at overhanging angles.
Finger flexor strength has been extensively measured in trained climbers by a number of studies. The conclusion of these studies appears to be that trained climbers have higher finger strength compared to controls, although methodological differences have provided varying results (Sheel, 2004). An early study by Watts et al. (1993) observed no differences in absolute values of hand-grip strength measured by hand-grip dynamometry in world class climbers and controls. It was suggested that climbers may not need high grip strength per se. Rather, strength to mass ratio was thought to be a more important variable and this was significantly higher in climbers (due to low body mass). Several later studies have measured hand-grip strength, some observing no differences in absolute forces between elite climbers and recreational or non-climbers (Ferguson and Brown, 1997; Watts et al., 2003) and others observing that climbers have higher grip strength (Bollen and Cutts, 1993; Grant et al., 1996, 2001). Grant et al. (1996) recognised that grip strength dynamometry might not provide an accurate assessment of the type of strength required in rock climbing, and developed a climbing specific device for measuring finger strength that simulated more closely the grip styles used on climbing holds (Schweizer, 2001) (Fig. 1, 2). All subsequent studies using this type of grip specific measurement have recorded higher finger strength in trained climbers (Grant et al., 1996, 2001, 2003; Quaine et al., 2003; MacLeod et al., unpublished data; Reid et al., unpublished data). Although climbing moves often involve hanging or moving underneath horizontally aligned finger edges, the types of moves and positions experienced in climbing are extremely varied and it seems likely that some may involve a force requirement greater than that needed to support the body in the vertical direction (such as using ‘undercut’ holds) (Goddard and Neumann, 1993; Sagar, 2001). This view would challenge Watts’ suggestion that climbers do not need to produce large absolute forces. Unfortunately no biomechanical analysis has been carried out on a range of climbing positions/movements to date, in order to determine the supporting force requirements of climbing positions.
Anthropometric characteristics of climbers
Several studies have measured anthropometric data in various populations of climbers. Watts et al. (1993) studied a highly homogenous group of climbers; semi-finalists in a sport climbing world cup event. This study observed that this group were characterised by low stature and very low percentage body fat values (4-14% for men, 10-20% for women). This finding has been supported by several subsequent studies of trained climbers (Binney and Cochrane, 1999; MacLeod et al., unpublished data; Mermier et al., 2000; Sheel et al., 2003; Watts et al., 1996, 2000, 2003) and percentage body fat has been proposed as a key predictor of sport climbing performance. Grant et al. (1996, 2001, 2003) failed to observe any differences in percent body fat between trained climbers and controls or other athletic groups. However, the absence of significant differences might be attributable to the comparatively low ability of the climbers compared to the studies mentioned above and/or different equations used to estimate body fat percentage..
It is logical that a large body mass or any excess body fat would be disadvantageous in elite level climbing as body mass must be repeatedly moved against gravity. However, it is well known that climbers have long considered excess body fat to be a disadvantage and control it strictly. It is also considered advantageous to avoid hypertrophy training of lower body muscle groups. Hence, the question remains whether body mass and body fat percentage are important determinants of climbing performance or merely a feature of climber’s training patterns (Farrington, 1999). It is conceivable that any performance advantage conferred by maintaining very low body fat may be offset by problems with consumption of sufficient caloric energy to support a rigorous training regime. Longitudinal study of the effect of manipulation of percentage body fat on climbing performance would yield more meaningful data on the subject (Sheel, 2004). Low stature might be an advantage in climbing due to volume-mass ratios. However, any advantage may be offset to some degree by a reach limitation in shorter climbers (Sagar, 2001).
Reach is universally recognised as a common limitation on climbing moves among rock climbers. This has led to ‘ape Index’, a measure of reach relative to height, (arm span/height) being proposed as a performance predictor. Watts et al. (2003) measured ape index in adolescent competitive climbers and found small but significant differences relative to age matched controls. There was no relationship between climbing ability and ape index. Watts suggests this may be due to the lack of variability between climbers. Grant et al. (1996, 2001) found no differences between trained climbers and controls for leg or arm length. The significance of these findings is limited due to the small sample sizes and ability level of the climbing groups. It is not possible to make any conclusions about these variables from the available data.
Given that climbers perform repeated contractions of the forearm muscles and appear to possess greater finger strength than controls, it has been hypothesised that climbers will develop greater forearm muscle mass. Muscle force is highly correlated to muscle mass, whereas no consensus has been reached on whether force per unit muscle mass is influenced by training (Fukunaga et al., 2001). Only three studies have attempted to measure forearm muscle mass in trained climbers and controls. MacLeod et al. (unpublished data) measured forearm circumference is 12 elite climbers and found significantly higher forearm circumference to body mass ratios in climbers. The absence of significant differences in absolute values is explained by the difference in body mass between the subject groups. This finding agrees with those of Watts et al. (2003) who observed similar forearm volumes in competitive climbers and controls, despite the climber’s lower stature and body mass. Reid et al. (unpublished data) measured forearm circumference in height and body mass matched trained climbers and controls. Climbers had higher forearm circumference although the difference was not significant. Again, the low variability in this anthropometric measure calls for further study using larger subject groups and more sensitive methods of measurement.
Mermier et al. (2000) attempted to quantify the relative contributions of anthropometric variables (Height, mass, leg length, percentage body fat), hip flexibility and training variables (grip, shoulder and leg strength, grip and hang endurance, lower body anaerobic power) in a study of 44 trained climbers of varying standard. It was concluded that trainable variables were much more important predictors of climbing ability and that anthropometric and hip flexibility variables were very poor predictors of ability. It was concluded that climbers do no need to possess particular anthropometric characteristics to be successful sport climbers.
Body flexibility is another variable which is thought to be relevant in climbing performance as the ability to reach distant holds and maintain positions at extreme joint angles can provide a clear advantage on certain climbing moves (Goddard and Neumann, 1993; Sagar, 2001). Grant et al. (1996, 2001) measured hip flexibility in trained climbers and controls but observed no significant differences. However, issues with the standard of the climbing group discussed above may have affected the validity of the comparison. An intervention study into the effect of flexibility in competitive climbers would yield more useful information.
Fatigue factors in climbing
To successfully complete a sport route, climbers must maintain the ability to make high force, intermittent isometric contractions of the finger flexors. Indeed, competition routes are designed to have progressively more difficult individual movements (the purpose being to separate out climbers of different abilities). Failure to produce the required finger force, coupled with burning, stiff and painful sensations in the forearm (known as ‘pump’) are recognised as being the dominant symptom of fatigue associated with failure to complete a climb, resulting in a fall (Goddard and Neumann, 1993). Finger endurance has been identified as a key attribute of elite level climbers by several studies (Binney and Cochrane, 1999; Ferguson and Brown, 1997; MacLeod et al., unpublished data; Quaine et al., 2003; Reid et al., unpublished data). Grant et al. (2003) demonstrated that intermediate level climbers do not differ from other athletic groups with respect to finger endurance.
The intermittent isometric contractions seen in climbing are unusual in sport generally (Spurway, 1999). The nature of isometric exercise has several important consequences for the development of muscular fatigue with repeated contractions. Asmussen (1981) characterised this type of contraction as causing significant increases in intramuscular pressure. This change causes blood to be squeezed out of intramuscular blood vessels and hinders or even completely stops blood flow through the muscle. Blood flow can only resume when the contraction ends. The magnitude of increases in intramuscular pressure, and hence blood flow occlusion, is dependent on the intensity (that is, the percentage of MVC) of the contraction. It is thought that contractions below 10-25% of MVC receive adequate blood flow and can be maintained without muscle fatigue (Asmussen, 1981). Above 45-75% MVC, blood flow is completely occluded in the forearm and fatigue patterns mimic those where artificial occlusion is present (Barnes, 1980; Heyward, 1980; Serfass et al., 1979). Between these values, blood flow is reduced and fatigue occurs, but at a slower rate. There is considerable variability in the extent of occlusion in a given subject and muscle due to the following factors: the prevalent muscle fibre type, the size and structure of the muscle. MacLeod et al. (unpublished data) measured finger endurance using a climbing specific protocol (a ‘crimp’ grip with 10/3sec contraction/relaxation ratio) in trained climbers and controls. The intensity was 40% MVC and times to failure in the climbers were similar to the total climbing times observed in a world cup climbing event (Schadle-Schardt, 1998). The authors suggested that 40% MVC may be representative of the average MVC percentage required from the finger flexors in climbing.
Carlson and McGraw (1971) observed lower isometric endurance in subjects with higher MVC and hypothesised a negative relationship between these variables. Based on these findings, it would be anticipated that the climbers would have shorter endurance times as they exhibit higher MVCs than non-climbers. The literature has demonstrated that this is not the case and it is thought that adaptations present in trained climbers appear to offset any disadvantage due to higher force production (MacLeod et al., unpublished data). Quaine et al. (2003) demonstrated that muscle fatigue, measured by the decline in median frequency of surface electromyogram (EMG) in the active forearm muscles, in a climbing specific finger endurance task was delayed in elite climbers compared to non-climbers. The rate of fatigue in climbers was twice as slow as controls at 80% MVC. The authors concluded that this delay was due to climber’s enhanced ability to recover between contractions, speculating that enhanced vasodilation during rest periods accounted for the climber’s advantage. Reid et al. (unpublished data) also observed EMG fatigue using a similar protocol to MacLeod et al.. Trained climbers and controls had similar times to fatigue and decline in EMG median frequency. However, the climbing group had higher MVC and hence produced significantly higher force for a given test period. Watts et al. (1996) measured maximum hand-grip force before and immediately after a climbing task to exhaustion. Hand-grip MVC decreased 22% after the climbing task and remained depressed for 20 minutes post-exercise. However, later work by Watts et al. (2000, 2003b), which also measured maximum hand-grip and finger strength before and after a fatiguing climbing task showed no drop in ability to exert maximum force. Watts et al. (2003b) showed no change in root mean squared EMG values pre and post climb. However, change in median frequency was not measured. It seems possible that the results of Watts et al. (1996, 2000, 2003b) may be affected by the delay in measuring MVC after the climbing bout ended. It is noted that the measurements were taken within one minute of failure on the climb. However, Quaine et al. (2003) points out that the difference in endurance capacity between climbers and non climbers is due to an ability to recover significantly in the short (5 seconds in this case) rest periods between contractions. Future study employing continuous EMG data during a climbing or climbing specific task is required to fully establish whether loss of finger strength occurs during strenuous climbing.
MacLeod et al. (unpublished data) pointed out that loss of fine muscular control may be an additional causative factor for failure to complete a climbing task. Climbing movements require precise timing of force development, as well as extremely rapid and complex movements of the body. Indeed, it is often necessary to lunge for handholds which require precise placement of the fingers in the most advantageous position on the hold to provide adequate support (Goddard and Neumann, 1993; Sagar, 2001). It seems plausible that falls could be caused even by small decrements in force production on such precise holds, or by loss of coordination due to the effects of muscle fatigue on muscular control. Bourdin et al. (1998, 1999) observed a hierarchical organisation of reaching movements between climbing holds (measured on a climbing ergometer). It was noted that reaching duration was shortened by increased postural constraints, regardless of the destination hold size (and therefore accuracy requirements). This factor appeared to override the speed/accuracy trade-off seen with seated or standing reaching movements. Postural constraints are greater in vertical than overhanging climbing, however, overhanging positions are characterised by greater force requirements from the fingers to support body weight (Noé et al., 2001). It seems plausible that this factor would produce an additional demand for shorter reaching durations. This hypothesis has anecdotal support in the climbing literature (Morstad, 2000). Future studies using a similar protocol to that of Bourdin et al., comparing the organisation of reaching and grasping movements at different wall angles would help resolve this question. Such a study has not been undertaken to date.
Physiological responses and adaptations to climbing
Climbing involves whole body movement against gravity for sustained periods. It appears that the upper body is the primary centre of fatigue in climbing, but the role of the lower body in climbing movements has yet to be quantified (Sheel, 2004). Several studies have measured whole body VO2 during climbing on an indoor wall or climbing treadmill. These studies have shown that VO2 rises during climbing to a moderate proportion of running VO2 max (Billat et al., 1995; Watts et al, 2000). VO2 values are markedly variable between studies, but this can be explained by differences in testing protocol and subject groups. It appears that average VO2 during difficult sport climbing is about 25 ml.kg.-1 min-1 (Sheel, 2004). However, values of 43.8 ml.kg.-1 min-1 were recorded in a maximal treadmill climbing task to exhaustion (Booth et al., 1999). Sheel et al. (2003) showed that climbing VO2 was related to climbing difficulty, with VO2 values reaching 45% and 51% of cycle ergometer VO2max for an ‘easier’ and ‘harder’ climb respectively. However, Watts et al. (1998) observed no increases in climbing treadmill VO2 as treadmill angle increased (four minute climbing bouts at angles between 80 and 102 degrees). It is suggested that arm specific peak VO2 may have been reached, rendering further increases impossible when climbing angle became steeper. In addition, the active muscles may be completely blocked from general circulation during contractions, limiting large increases in VO2 (Asmussen, 1981).
Several studies have measured blood lactate concentration after a climbing bout (Booth et al., 1999; Billat et al., 1995; Grant et al. 2003; Mermier et al., 1997; Watts, et al., 1996, 1998, 2000). The values for blood lactate following strenuous climbing range from 2.4 to 6.1 mmol/l. This large variation is likely to be attributable to different modes of climbing (wall, treadmill or simulated climbing), different subject groups and different intensities of the climbing bouts. Watts et al. (1998) demonstrated that lactate production is related to climbing angle. This finding is supported by Mermier et al. (1997) who observed that lactate production is related to climbing difficulty. Large increases in blood lactate may be surprising given that climbers report that muscular pain and fatigue lies predominantly in the forearm. The small muscle mass of the forearm would not be expected to produce large amounts of lactic acid. However, as mentioned above, the relative contributions of different muscle groups to movement on rock have not been quantified to date. Given that such increases in lactate are observed, and that blood flow may be partly or wholly occluded in the forearm during intermittent exercise at high intensities, it seems likely that lactate may accumulate to high concentrations within the forearm muscles during climbing. No studies have compared lactate production in elite and novice climbers in order to establish whether there is any adaptation in trained climbers which affects metabolite build up during climbing (see section below on blood flow). Grant et al. (2003) observed greater increases in blood lactate during a climbing specific forearm endurance task. It is possible that greater blood lactate could be an indicator of increased lactate clearance from the exercising forearm due to increased blood flow.
It has been suggested above that climber’s superior finger endurance may result from an increased ability to recover from isometric contractions. Ferguson and Brown (1997) measured forearm blood flow by venous occlusion plethysmography after intermittent isometric contractions of 40% MVC. Trained climbers had significantly higher vascular conductance following the exercise bout. The authors concluded that climbers demonstrate enhanced vasodilator capacity, which is attributed to adaptations of the local vascular bed, including increased capillary density, capillary cross-sectional area or alterations in local dilator function related to endothelial change (Delp, 1995; Smolander, 1994; Sinoway et al., 1986; Snell et al., 1987). MacLeod et al. (unpublished data) monitored changes in forearm blood oxygenation continuously during a climbing specific endurance test using near infra-red spectroscopy (Fig. 3). Oxyhaemoglobin levels in trained climbers were significantly lower during contraction phases (attributable to higher force production) than controls, but recovered to a significantly greater extent during 3 second rest phases. It was concluded that ability to restore forearm oxygenation (by increased blood flow) was an important predictor of success in an endurance test of this type.
The pressor response to isometric exercise has also been identified as a variable of interest. Isometric exercise causes increases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP) greater that would be expected for equivalent dynamic exercise, reaching a peak at the point of fatigue (Asmussen, 1981). The large increases are caused both by rises in intramuscular pressure, exceeding systolic pressure and blocking blood flow into the active muscles, and sympathetic vasoconstriction in other tissues in order to re-direct blood flow to working muscles. Increased sympathetic activity is triggered by the muscle metaboreflex and a central command component. Significant rises in systolic and diastolic BP have been observed during a climbing specific task (Ferguson and Brown, 1997; MacLeod et al., unpublished data). Increasing central arterial BP has been shown to enhance force production during isometric contraction (Wright et al., 2000). MacLeod et al. hypothesised that an increased pressor response would confer a performance advantage in the endurance tests by opposing occlusion caused by the muscular contraction, thus permitting increased intramuscular blood flow. No differences were found between BP responses for trained climbers and controls during a climbing specific task. Ferguson and Brown (1997) observed an attenuated BP response in trained climbers, an adaptation known to occur following endurance training. The authors hypothesised that the reduction in muscle sympathetic nerve activity could be caused either by reduced chemosensitivity in of the metaborecetptors or reduced build up of metabolites in trained individuals. The latter possibility would seem to be contradicted by the evidence of MacLeod et al. who found significantly lower muscle oxygenation during climbing specific contractions, and by those of Mermier et al. (1997) who found that lactate production is related to climbing difficulty. However, further study is required in this area to fully elucidate the responses and adaptations of pressor response in trained climbers.
It is concluded from the available data that sport climbing relies on both aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways. It seems likely that increased climbing difficulty and/or angle causes more reliance on the anaerobic system. Further research is required, examining both central and peripheral adaptations and responses to climbing, in order to fully understand the physiological determinants of climbing performance.
Current understanding of the mechanical and physiological demands of sport rock climbing has revealed that performance is dependent on a wide array of physiological, anthropometric, movement technique and psychological factors. The centre of physiological fatigue and performance limitation lies predominantly in the forearm musculature. It appears that successful sport climbers have developed greater finger strength and endurance than other populations. As climbing difficulty increases there may be increased reliance on the anaerobic system, particularly in the forearm, coupled with increased lactate production and blood pressure. Enhanced climbing specific endurance may be the result of an increased forearm vasodilatory capacity allowing better recovery from intense contractions of the finger flexors.
Future research objectives have been noted in the text. Much of the research to date has focused on comparison between trained climbers and controls and is descriptive in nature. It seems likely that the results of several studies seeking to establish their physical characteristics have been weakened by problems with availability of subjects of appropriate training status (Sheel, 2004). The diverse nature of the sport of climbing, with its many disciplines compounds this problem. Future studies of this nature should seek to recruit subjects who participate in similar patterns of climbing activity, for example sport climbing competition teams.
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NB: This is an old article and is now superseded by the book I've written on climbing injuries. There is a whole chapter on finger injuries and what you can do about them! Make or Break is in my shop here.
Finger pulley tears are now more common than any other in rock climbing, yet few climbers know much about how to treat or even avoid pulley tears. After trawling the scientific and climbing literature on the issue (not to mention treating my own injuries!), I realised there was plenty of knowledge out there…
Definitions and Diagnoses
The first problem is deciding what your injury is! Most of us can’t afford to pay for specialist sports injury consultations or therapy and it’s safe to say that your GP alone is unlikely to provide an accurate diagnosis or strategies for repair of this extremely sport specific injury.
There are two tendons which flex your fingers and are tensioned while you pull on holds. The tendons are held in place by the flexor pulley system; a series of ligamentous bands stretching over the tendons, along the length of the fingers. The pulleys withstand astonishing forces, especially during crimping. If these forces are high enough or if there is a sudden additional loading, they can and do tear. The severity of the tears can range from partial tears of isolated pulleys to complete rupture of several pulleys!
Often there is an audible popping noise if a pulley ruptures, (remember you might not hear this if you are concentrating on the job in hand!). Later there may be visible bowstringing, where the tendons can be seen to bulge in the finger when you flex it against resistance. This might not be obvious if the finger is too swollen and painful to examine. If you suspect a rupture, you MUST try to see a specialist to have a scan (ultrasound, MRI or CT) and receive expert advice. Complete rupture may require splinting and/or surgery to repair and ignoring the problem can lead to further tears, permanent loss of ability to bend the finger and arthritis.
Partial tears of isolated pulleys are much more common and heal remarkably well compared to certain other ligament injuries. You might feel a sudden twinge of pain in the affected finger (and possibly a small pop). However, it is possible not to notice the injury at all during the climb or session. There might be localised pain and tenderness over the area the next morning or the next time you climb. The most commonly injured pulley is A2, which is near the base of your finger. A1 or A5 tears almost never occur. If you have a pulley injury, and the acute inflammation is not too bad, it should still be possible to pull on holds with a fully open-handed grip without pain. If the pain becomes much worse during or after crimping, this indicates a pulley injury.
Another common finger injury is flexor unit strain. These are tendon strains which often occur in the ring finger when using two or three finger, open handed holds. Unpleasant twinges of pain are felt along the length of the tendon through the finger and palm. For this injury, follow the treatments below and avoid gripping positions which irritate it.
Preventing pulley tears
If you have a history of repeated finger injuries, or even if you just want to protect against ever getting one, you must look at your climbing and lifestyle. Tears are most often caused when you are pulling hard on a crimp and your feet slip off, placing a sudden additional load on the pulleys. To avoid injuries in general, you must try to be in control of your movement as much as possible. This is a difficult and multifaceted skill to learn! An important thing to understand is that it is possible to stretch your abilities to the absolute limit, pull with 110% and climb explosively, yet still be ‘in control’. The goal is to be more aware of what your body is doing and how it moves. In this way you can predict what it will do before it happens. If you can improve this skill you will not only prevent injury but climb better too! Try to feel how your feet are positioned on each foothold, feel the traction. If you can do this then you will be ready if they slip.
Climbers who don’t get injured often tend to have a good balance of gripping styles. Before my first pulley injury, I was one of the many climbers who crimped everything, even pockets. Once I was forced (by injury) to train using open handed, I realised that this grip is much stronger and less tiring on certain holds. You don’t have to learn the hard way!
Some climbers use finger tape on healthy fingers or old injuries to try and prevent pulley tears. The consensus of a few scientific studies is that tape is not strong enough to absorb injury causing forces. Tape appears to be useful only in the early stages of repair when the pulley is weak and you are not climbing hard. It’s also important to consider your general health, diet and lifestyle. Good sleep is essential for tissue repair during training and if you are tired, your sloppy technique will predispose you to tweaking your fingers. Don’t underestimate the importance off gentle and progressive warm up during a session.
Treating pulley tears
In this article I have focused on the self administered treatment/prevention of minor pulley injuries (where hand function is not severely limited). If you suspect a pulley rupture you should see your doctor/specialist straight away. For less serious tears, long lay-offs and surgery are thankfully not necessary and with prudent care, the injury should heal very well. It is crucial to understand that the extent and speed of your healing is down to what YOU do during the recovery. The outcome is dependent largely on the effort and diligence you contribute to the process.
Contrary to popular belief, months of complete lay-off from climbing is not required and is likely to stunt the healing process! All injuries follow a well defined and staged healing process. The first stage is inflammation and this usually lasts a few days to a week. Inflammation is a good thing as it triggers the later stages of tissue repair. However, chronic inflammation (from climbing too hard, too soon) can cause further tissue damage. It’s important to stop climbing completely until the inflammatory phase is past. It’s hard to know exactly how long the lay-off should be, but in general it should be 1-3 weeks. Too short and you risk chronic inflammation and too long and the tissues become naturally weaker and scarred. Once you can move the finger through its normal range of movement without pain, its time to start using it again gently. Using the injured part encourages healing in the same way that training makes your body stronger.
Build up carefully over weeks and back off if the pain and tenderness increases. Climbing with a completely open handed grip produces little strain on the pulleys and thus you may be able to climb harder by using strictly only this grip until you can crimp again. Such discipline and change to your climbing style is extremely hard to maintain and it might only take one lapse of concentration to crimp again and risk further injury! It follows that this approach may be best confined to careful use of a fingerboard and certainly not where any dangerous climbing is involved.
Increasing the blood flow to the area helps to speed healing greatly. Gentle climbing or exercise is an obvious way of achieving this. A little used, but massively effective method of increasing blood flow is ice therapy. If significant cold is applied to the skin, the blood vessels in the nearby area (in this case the hand) constrict to reduce blood flow and prevent cooling of the blood. However, when moderate cold is applied there is an initial reduction in blood flow followed by significant dilation of the blood vessels and subsequent increase in blood flow of up to 500%. This is called the ‘Lewis reaction’. The cycle of blood vessel constriction and dilation takes around 30 minutes and thus the cold application should last this long. Place your injured hand in a pot or small bucket of cold water with a few (roughly 5) ice cubes added. Leave your hand in the water for the length of the treatment. If your hand hasn’t gone pink and feels flushed with blood after ten minutes, the water is too icy. Try to use the ice at least once or twice a day. Don’t use this treatment on a freshly injured finger where there is significant inflammation!
Deep friction massage (DFM)
DFM helps to break up the loose network of scar tissue which forms in an injury, promoting its realignment and strength. Rub the pulley with your thumb, applying firm pressure (moderate pressures dont produce the desired effects). The thumb motions should run lengthwise along the affected part of the finger. Only use DFM when your injury is already well past the initial inflammatory stage and stop if you feel the massage is irritating the pulley or causing excessive pain. Use DFM for a few minutes at a time and begin with very brief applications.
Stretching the injured finger is another vital treatment you must apply to ensure adequate healing. Stretching promotes blood flow and tissue growth. You should stretch the finger until it feels tight and hold this position for 10 seconds. After holding it may be possible to stretch a little more, held for up to 30 seconds. Never stretch the finger aggressively; it shouldn’t be painful. You can stretch the injured finger as often as you like but particularly important before and after a climbing session.
Some climbers use anti-inflammatory drugs such as Aspirin or Ibuprofen (from a class of drugs called NSAIDS). NSAIDS have been used to reduce ongoing inflammation and allow continued training. NSAIDS can be useful where there is chronic inflammation, in conjunction with lay-off. However, in general the inflammatory process should be seen as vital and upsetting its progress will prevent normal progression to the tissue building stages of healing, and ultimately result in permanent dysfunction. If a pulley injury is persistently painful and tender, you need rest or reduction in your climbing level and perhaps a change in climbing style until the injury has a chance to progress.
Taping allows you to climb while taking up to 10% of the strain off the affected pulley. Recent scientific studies have confirmed its effectiveness in supporting the injured pulley in the early stages of healing. It was suggested that the greatest support came from taping nearer the middle finger joint where A2 was injured. Tape has poor tensile qualities compared with healthy pulleys. Therefore, there is no advantage in continuing to use tape once the injury is nearly recovered.
The single most important aspect of any rehabilitation is that you are in control of the recovery and you recognise that hard work and patience brings good results. Work hard at the treatments outlined above and be positive! Seeing results of rehab treatments can be just as rewarding as seeing results from hardcore training. Recovery from pulley tears will still take time, so be patient and don’t overdo it. It can be very disheartening when the pulley is still painful after three months despite all the effort. However, if you just stick with it you will be cranking it out again a few weeks later. Finally, it’s also my experience that my best ever periods in climbing have always been just after recovery from finger injuries!