Most of the athletes I see in my practice are climbers with finger, shoulder and elbow injuries. These injuries seem to be pervasive in the climbing community at large. Over the last few years I have begun to notice a curious underlying commonality in many of these cases, regardless of the type of injury. I’m not talking about mobility issues, posture, rotator cuff "stability" or even poor technique. I’m talking about something a little more insidious. Something that a lot of people don’t even consider...failure to manage training stress.
Even if you don’t formally “train” for climbing this concept still applies to you.
Callus or Blister?
Stress isn’t inherently bad, in fact it is necessary to drive adaptation and improve as climbers. Stress is dose dependant though. The callus/blister metaphor works well to explain this.
Think of it this way, if you want to build up skin callus for an upcoming climbing trip what do you do? You climb at your local climbing area producing just enough stress on the skin that still allows it to heal between sessions (aka minimum effective dose) so that it will grow thicker.
What happens if you don’t stick to your plan and maybe climb for too long, too many days in a row or wear the skin too thin? You get a blister or tear the skin and it bleeds which takes even longer to heal.
Callus formation means we used the minimum effective dose (a combination of the right volume, intensity, frequency and rest) which allows for positive adaptation. Tissues become stronger and more resilient and able to handle the next training stress.
Blister formation or flappers are a sign of a failure to adapt. An inappropriate dose was applied and tissues were overloaded causing tissue failure to occur. This can happen in a single training session or slowly over the course of a several days, weeks or months.
This same concept can be applied to your climbing. I’m going to explain in more detail below.
The General Adaptation Syndrome
The General Adaptation Syndrome is a concept discovered by Hans Selye that is used when designing ALL smart training programs. You apply stress, you then recover from that stress resulting in a beneficial adaptation.
The stress must get progressively harder over time to continue to elicit the adaptation. This is the concept of Progressive Overload.
A classic example of these concepts is the story of Milo of Croton and how he developed his incredible strength.
Milo of Croton
Milo of Croton was a six-time wrestling champion at the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece. One day, a newborn calf was born near Milo's home. Milo decided to lift the small animal up and carry it on his shoulders. The next day, he returned and did the same. He continued this strategy for the next four years, hoisting the calf onto his shoulders each day as it grew, until he was no longer lifting a calf, but a four-year-old bull.
This is a core concept in training. The human body does not change unless it is forced to and the only way to make it change is to make the stress of the training sessions progressively harder over time. Most climbers naturally progress linearly when they first learn how to climb, first trying V0’s and V1’s and later V2’s and V3’s and pretty soon they are strong enough and skilled enough to climb V4, V5, V6 etc.
At the beginning of our climbing careers we can get away with being super psyched, climbing frequently and progress every session but as we improve our climbing skills and the volume and intensity increases, most climbers start to have trouble recovering from their sessions.
Intense exercise like hard bouldering causes a lot of stress: joint & ligament stress, muscular damage, neural fatigue, and hormone disruption.
Experienced climbers tend to have more skill, climb harder grades, and can typically have longer sessions than new climbers. They are therefore are able to apply more stress on their bodies over the course of a single session and can accumulate a lot of fatigue over the course of several weeks. This is called accumulated fatigue.
Accumulated fatigue is stress that is compounded on itself and successful training is predicated on this idea and is necessary when applying the principle of progressive overload. But failure to appropriately manage accumulated fatigue over the course of weeks or months can result in a situation known as overtraining.
Overtraining can occur when the volume and intensity exceeds what the climber is able to recover from and adapt to. Symptoms of overtraining can range from:
feeling tired all the time
decrease in the ability to climb with technical correctness
a decrease in power output
decrease in strength
losing weight, loss of appetite
pumping out super quick
developing weird aches and pains
suffering from an actual overreaching event (aka acute injury)
“In climbers, residual fatigue is one the most common obstacles to improving one’s overall baseline level of ability. Not being able to recognize and identify when the body is sufficiently recovered makes it extremely difficult to know when it’s productive to physically stress the system again. Without stress there is no adaptation but without proper recovery there is insufficient resources to sustain both neurological and structural improvement (i.e. overall ability)” -Rob Miller, SSC, climbing coach.
Managing training stress is what most climbers need to take a closer look at when it comes to maximizing training, optimizing performance, recovering from and preventing injuries. Intermediate and advanced climbers require individually specialized programs for this.
In the upcoming posts we will talk a little more about novice, intermediate and advanced climbers, what a specialized program should look like and how it is different from traditional training programs like running, swimming and weightlifting, and introduce a training approach for intermediate climbers (which is most climbers).
I have learned so much over the last 4 years of strength training and 6 years of my sports medicine practice so I would like to shout out to some folks who have helped me learn some of these concepts I’m going to be talking about in this series. I’d like to thank my partner and coach Josh Garza for introducing and patiently teaching me these training concepts and influencing how I approach these topics in practice. Starting Strength and Mark Rippetoe, Andy Baker, Jonathan M. Sullivan et al, for making this information understandable and widely available through books, articles and podcasts. Rob Miller for guidance and clarification via email and pioneering the application of these ideas to the sport of climbing through coaching and informative blog posts.
***Featured photo: Simon Moore on The Buttermilker (V13), courtesy of Simon Moore.***
Rippetoe, M. (2017). Starting strength: basic barbell training(3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Company.
Rippetoe, M., & Baker, A. (2013). Practical programming for strength training(3rd ed.). Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company.
Miller, R. (n.d.). - Rob Millers Granite Page. Retrieved January 6, 2018, from www.granitepage.com
Milo of Croton. (2018, February 05). Retrieved February 06, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milo_of_Croton