How to Stay Healthy

You are in three days the last week of your climbing journey, repeatedly trying a fingering project or that tweaky shoulder move. When old finger joint swelling or shoulder pain comes back, you ignore it thinking, I just need a day off. True, but is it the only solution?

Our joints take the brunt of climbing, which can wear down the precious two to four millimeters of cartilage that acts as a cushion between our bones. Although a certain amount of joint stress is essential for maintaining cartilage health, too much of it – through impact, compression, or shear forces – can lead to degenerative changes. Studies like the one on inflammation and osteoarthritis published in Therapeutic advances in musculoskeletal diseases (2013) tell us that even if your joints are currently healthy, chronic inflammation is a major driver degenerative changes down the road. So watch out for recurring episodes of swollen fingers (aka synovitis), a common disease among climbers! Even if science works hard to find solutions regenerate cartilageour best defense is prevention, or changing the things we can.

Here are the top tips for maintaining healthy joints:

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I. Manage your form

Study how you move. The way we move influences stress on our joints and tissues.

So-called “overuse” can be caused not only by excessive climbing, but also by repetitive poor form. For example, usually climbing with our elbows flared can put excessive pressure on the elbow and shoulder joints. Weakness in certain muscles, inability to control movements (such as deceleration or downward movements) or lack of mobility in one area can cause us to compensate elsewhere, creating undue stress on joints and tissues. at the end of the kinetic chain. An example could be that a lack of hip mobility, whether passive or active, causes you to move your lower back more, which puts a strain on the joints and discs.


When pulling down, keep your elbows close to the wall/rock and in line with your core – minimize chicken wings. Sure, most of us get a little lifted when we’re pumped or struggling. However, we can minimize how often this happens. Think of overuse as being like a bank account. We can only take a certain number of withdrawals until there is nothing left. On the flats, try to protect your wrists by keeping them straight rather than bent. Try to keep your hips close to the wall, which can also help direct the line of pull to the wrist and fingers. Imagine the placement of your wrists and fingers on a plate if your buttocks protrude from the wall. The sloper is more difficult to hold, as it is often easier to stay on a sloper when pulling on it. Improper body position can result in using a different grip position and/or having a harder grip to stay on, causing avoidable stress on muscles and tendons.

wrists and fingers

From a training perspective, having better strength and endurance in our wrists and fingers can help prevent abnormal movements, such as chicken wings, especially when we become pumped or try crucial movements. Getting stronger on open-hand grips can reduce our reliance on crimps, sparing our finger joints from the compressive and shearing forces that occur when using crimps, especially when a foot jumps and we accentuate this position unexpectedly.

We can improve our finger strength with the hangboard by using open-handed and half-crimped positions on the edges. Holding on to flats can help build wrist flexor strength. Performing wrist curls is a fine, isolated way to gain strength in the wrist flexors, especially for novice climbers who don’t have a broad base of use. However, I would recommend intermediate and seasoned climbers to focus more on strengthening in positions specific to the demands of the sport (i.e. on hangboards or slopers).
Osteoarthritis is the result of repeated wear and tear and inflammation that can be caused by less than ideal climbing techniques and injuries. The left joint has a healthy cushion of cartilage between the bones, while the right joint has severe untwisting of the cartilage resulting in bone-to-bone contact.

Train for quality rather than quantity

Quality is always better than quantity. Finish your workout or climbing session with enough energy to maintain some semblance of good form. An increased load on a joint or tissue along with abnormal movement creates the perfect storm for injury. A simple example would be to try weighted pull-ups. Let’s say you’ve heard that these are good for increasing tensile strength. Little do you know that you already have bad form with bodyweight pull-ups and are overstretching your shoulders or elbows. Adding extra weight not only aggravates this poor form even further, but creates more load with an already stressful movement. This could cause a sudden or repetitive, gradual injury, such as a shoulder subluxation.

Video yourself

Take a video of yourself climbing. The “why” of how you move may require further investigation. Is an error such as a chicken wing or poor body position a learned strategy (a bad habit) or caused by deficits in strength, control or mobility? Working with a seasoned climbing coach, sports performance coach, or physical therapist (hint, hint) can help.

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II. Increase tissue mobility

Myofascial restrictions, created by adhesions in the connective tissue web (fascia) that wraps the underlying muscles, bones, blood vessels and nerves, can contribute to joint pain in the fingers and hands. Addressing these neck mobility restrictions by hand is important for relieving tension in our upper limbs and reducing stress on nearby tissues such as tendons.

Massage, active release and trigger point

Deep tissue massage, active release, and trigger point release/dry needling are all good options. The frequency with which to perform them depends on the chronicity of the problem. If the problem is recent (i.e. it happened right after a training session) and was treated early, one or two treatment sessions may be enough. More chronic cases may require more daily treatment or some time at each session for several days. Once the spot is no longer tender and feels soft instead of hard, you can decrease the frequency, but reevaluate weekly, especially after back-to-back hard days of climbing/training. If you want to have a deep tissue massage, I recommend doing it two days before the competition or trying to send in a draft, as you may be in pain the next day. Trigger point release can be performed at any time, even during competition. Although you may experience some pain, the benefits should outweigh the harms.

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III. Take advantage of nutrition

There is growing evidence, according to a study presented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2017), that consuming collagen-rich gelatin with the amino acids glycine and proline and with vitamin C, combined with a light exercise, can improve tendon health through a significant increase in collagen synthesis. There are products on the market, but you can also get these amino acids from natural sources such as pork, fish, and chicken, to name a few. To date, I am unaware of any vegan sources of supplementation.

Exercise is important to deliver nutrients to the injury site. Light stress on the tendons helps them absorb nutrients and naturally promotes collagen synthesis.

Based on current literature, it is recommended that collagen-rich gelatin with vitamin C be ingested one hour before light exercise for five or six minutes. For more specific and personalized plans, I recommend consulting a sports nutritionist familiar with the subject. Although the evidence for the use of this combination in rehabilitation is limited, the research has been promising.

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IV. Nuanced Hydration

Hydrate! Water is vital for joint health. Water is the most abundant ingredient in our cartilage, making up 65-80% of its total weight. In addition to lubricating our joints, water helps us withstand heavy loads and nourishes the cells that develop, maintain and repair our cartilage. The general recommendation is to drink 30 to 50 ounces a day; athletes need more. Drink 16 ounces two hours before activity and eight ounces every 15-20 minutes during activity.

Finally and again, your top priority should be becoming aware of how you move. Investigate why you are moving in these less than ideal ways. Assess your tissue mobility weekly and stay hydrated – this is the simplest thing of all, but the key.

Virginia F. Goins