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Climbers’ Tendon Injuries and What Causes Them

Climbers’ Tendon Injuries and What Causes Them

Climbing on sore tendons is inevitable, the harder the climbs get, the more crimpy they are. You may start grip training and it’s likely you’re going to start noticing soreness in your hands while you’re climbing. For me, this was waking up in the morning and picking up a cup of coffee and noticing it hurt and then like pinching a tendon and it was really tender to do so. This was an indication for me that something was wrong. And when I looked it up, I Googled it.

There wasn’t that much information out there. There was a lot of the same information, I should say. There were a lot of people saying “stop climbing” and there wasn’t anything about actively recovering from sore tendons.

It’s definitely a topic that has been ignored.

Eric Horst said that he’s been climbing for 40 years and people didn’t ever talk about this stuff until they got an injury. But of course, if you can inform people ahead of time and you can be proactive, it doesn’t reduce your risk to zero, but you can reduce your risk.

Today, we’re going to go through the science behind your tendons and what you need to know to make sure that you’re recovering and improving your tendons strength as safely as possible.

Of course, this is all made possible by a great interview with Eric Horst. I saw a video that he was doing on his Training for Climbing YouTube channel and reached out to him for more information. He’s one of the leading spokespeople in this space, as well as the author from Training for Climbing (among other climbing books), one of my favorite self training, climbing books.

The building blocks of Tendons and Connective Tissue

 I don’t think it’s well understood by most people and even some coaches aren’t familiar with the science of it, but tendons are composed of water and collagen. And so the collagen fibrils in the  tendons and ligaments degrade slightly. They weaken. There’s things called cross links in there that help kind of cross brace the collagen fibers and adds stiffness to the system.

And those connective tissues, just like muscles, are weakened a little bit, are disturbed a little bit from training, from climbing, and then given rest and proper nutrition, they remodel into becoming stronger and more aligned and denser and eventually stiffer so you can perform higher. But that process of breaking down and recovering, we can’t sense it the way we do in our muscles.

Muscle recovery vs tendon recovery

For most climbers, hopefully, you wake up the next morning and you don’t have any pain in your tendons. You could then say, well, my tendons are fine and you’re not even aware of any issue.

My muscles are a little sore, but my tendons are fine. And so I’m just going to go climb today because my muscles are just a little sore. I can still climb a pretty high level. 

What you don’t know is the tendons haven’t recovered because as a rule of thumb, connective tissue actually recovers more slowly than muscles. And the reason for that is the lack of blood flow. So it’s very easy for a climber who pushes their muscles and the things that they can sense,and they push that to the limits.

Often, they don’t climb so much that they ever get muscle injuries or muscle pulls but the tendons are falling behind week after week after week.

They’re falling behind and they’re actually getting a little more degraded on top of existing degradation. That’s when the pain starts to reveal. 

Common tendon and connective tissue injuries

If you don’t dial things back and you continue on your way, climbing on, then that’s what that’s what can precipitate one of two things, 

  1. In the A-2 pulleys, it’s often a partial tear or rupture. And that’s when you get that acute pain at the base of your finger and it hurts to crimp. That’s not to be ignored, obviously, because that’s more of an acute injury. 
  2. In the elbows, you don’t tend to get a rupture. What you do is you tend to get into this cycle of failed healing of the finger flex muscles that connect to the epicondyle or even shoulder. And so that’s when you get into what is called tendentiousness, old school, they would say tendonitis, which is inflammation of the tendons. The tendons don’t swell up all that much like a bruised muscle or a broken bone does. The tendons just become more degraded and painful. And the medical term most commonly used now as tendonosis, which is a more of a chronic injury.

So the bottom line is most climbing injuries start off as just this low grade overuse type injury. 

What causes tendon and connective injuries?

A runner’s analog to that would be somebody gets into running, buys a new pair of shoes, its New Year’s and they set the goal to run a marathon this summer. They start running every day when they had previously not been running every day. They ramp up their mileage really fast. And what do they have in a month or two? They have shin splints or plantar fasciitis. Those are leg-typeleg type injuries that came about the same way. 

Climbers get sore fingers or sore elbows or sore shoulders from too much too soon or too much too often. 

And then. On top of that. Oftentimes, maybe nutrition, that’s not quite where it should be and maybe not enough sleep and enough rest days, and so it’s kind of becomes a perfect storm when you have a highly motivated climber, a passionate climber, who, if they had the time, would climb every day because they love it so much.That’s a lot of us. 

Then you add to that, climbers tend to do one more rep on the route or one more burn on the boulder, and then maybe if they’re really trying to get in shape, maybe they’re cutting their diet back in the wrong places and then having a few too many late nights if they have work or school or family or things that also consume time and again, then you start to combine those factors.

And what do you know, a few months later, you have an injury that unfortunately, if it’s ignored, can mean a forced withdrawal from climbing, where you have to just take time off and we don’t like that, we love climbing and so we don’t want to go there.

So now what?

There are two more videos in this series. Check out the next video here. Recovering for sore tendons using exercise. And then also check out part three where we talk about the nutrition behind recovering your tendons.

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Exercises to prevent tendon injuries for climbers