Is Bouldering When Sore Bad?

I’ve recently started going back to the gym after a long Covid-induced gym closure break and boy have I been sore. This got me thinking, is it ok to boulder while sore?

If the soreness is in your muscles, it is ok to climb a full session. However, if your soreness is related to tendons in your fingers, elbow or shoulder then you should refrain from climbing until your tendons heal and aren’t sore any more. This will minimize your chances of injury and help you stay healthy while climbing. However, there are a few things that can help you feel less sore while climbing.

What Causes Soreness In Bouldering

Soreness often occurs when you use your muscles more than your muscles are used to. For example, if you usually only climb once-per-week and increase your climbing to be three-times-per-week, you’re likely to feel sore the first week or two of this new climbing regime.

According to WebMD, “Muscles go through quite a bit of physical stress when we exercise,” says Rick Sharp, professor of exercise physiology at Iowa State University in Ames.

“Mild soreness (is) just a natural outcome of any kind of physical activity,” he says. “And they’re most prevalent in (the) beginning stages of a program.”

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Even if you’re climbing for the same amount of time each week, if you introduce a new movement into your climbing regimen or do something that requires more effort and muscle than usual, you’re susceptible to soreness.

What Does Soreness In Your Tendons Mean?

The number one injury in climbing is to a hand tendon pulley followed by a shoulder tendon tear. Your tendon pulleys are what make it possible for you to grip a crimp and hold on to the next climbing hold. When you injure one of these tendons, you usually have to spend months in recovery and some even result in surgery with over a year of now climbing for recovery.

One of the first signs prior to this kind of injury is soreness in the tendons. If you feel that soreness in your tendon, stop climbing. Wait until the soreness/pain in your tendon goes away before climbing again to minimize your chances of injury.

What Happens When You Climb While Sore

As long as your soreness is related to muscles and not tendons, in most cases the soreness will seem to disappear while you are climbing. If it is related to your tendons, the soreness will turn into pain and eventually an injury so it is recommended by most every climber and professional to stop climbing if that is the case.

While you are climbing, your muscles will continue to make micro-tares (necessary for muscle growth) just like they would if you were to exercise or climb while you aren’t sore.

Then after you’re done climbing, if you don’t do anything to prevent the soreness from coming back, the soreness will likely come back (though the intensity may be lessened).

What You Should Do Prior To Climbing To Prevent or Minimize Soreness 

If you’re sore and opening the door to your car is difficult, you may be hesitant to go climbing. However, there are a few things you can do to make your soreness seem less before you start climbing. 

The number one thing you can do is drink a lot of water. Water is what your body uses to move molecules and important nutrients to your muscles for recovery so if you don’t drink enough water (which most people have this problem) then it’ll be harder for your body to recover. Thus, drink water to help your body recover.

The next thing that is heavily neglected by climbers is properly warming up. I know you’ve heard warming up as something that is important and you may even start your session with a climb that is below your onsight, but warming up includes a lot that you need to do before climbing. 

Warm-ups should include activating the muscles that you’ll be using during your climbing session in a low-impact movement that pumps oxygenated blood to each muscle. A common warmup for climbers is mountain climbers and jumping jacks as these are great for helping pump blood to your muscles (even your fingertips).

In addition to pumping blood into your muscles, dynamic stretches will help loosen any muscles so that you can use them at full extension without the issue of feeling “sore.” This will also help you prevent injury so it is even more useful.

What You Should Do While You Climb To Prevent or Minimize Soreness 

While you climb, your muscles are actively engaged and usually the soreness is less noticeable. However, there are a few things you can do to prevent feeling sore later.

For example, drinking water is a great way to help your muscles as well as taking breaks. If you are feeling exhausted and pumped, consider taking a break before climbing again so that you don’t overwork your muscles (a common cause of soreness).

What You Should Do After Climbing To Prevent or Minimize Soreness 

After you are done climbing, but before you leave the gym do some gentle stretching. At this point, your muscles are warm and it is relatively safe to do static stretching.

After you leave the gym, here is a short list from Family Doctor of actions you can do to help minimize soreness:

  • Gentle stretching
  • Muscle massage
  • Rest
  • Ice to help reduce inflammation
  • Heat to help increase blood flow to your muscles. Even a warm bath or shower can help.

Listen To Your Body

The number one thing you should be doing while you are climbing is to listen to your body. Our body is built with internal and external receptors that can tell you if you need to take a break or stop climbing to prevent injury. Listen to what it has to say.

If you are sore and “feel” like you shouldn’t go to the gym, identify if that is the couch potato in your head or if that is your muscles telling you it can’t handle any more. If you’re new to exercising or climbing, it may be difficult to differentiate between the two but the more you listen, the better you’ll become at knowing if it’s ok to climb and boulder.

Proper Climbing Technique Can Minimize Soreness

A lot of climber that have soreness in their forearms and biceps often comes from a lack of technique while climbing. 

For example, if you are using your arms instead of your legs or if you are hanging with your arms bent, then your biceps are going to work harder then they need to and thus, you’ll be more likely to get sore.

If biceps are what is sore, consider evaluating if you are using your arms correctly and if you need to focus on straight arms.

If your forearms are sore, it is often the cause of over gripping. Over gripping is what a lot of beginners do when they are still learning what a “good grip” feels like or when you are placing your body weight in the wrong direction in relation to your hand grips. 

Another cause of over gripping that is common with climbers of all experience levels is fear of falling. This fear of falling, at any level, subconscious or conscious, often causes climbers to grip a handhold tighter than needed and thus, making it so that your forearms get overworked and sore.

What Other Climbers Recommend

As you can imagine, there are tons of climbers out there that have experienced something similar to what you’re experiencing right now. Here are a few recommendations that I found on Reddit (an amazing resource for climbers) that may be helpful for your situation:

Rachel Cunning Suggested:

In the hours leading up to my session, I like to eat food that is low/medium on the Glycemic Index because that will give you energy throughout your entire time climbing. If you eat foods that are high on the index you get a big boost of energy, but it doesn’t last because your insulin levels will spike causing you to lose energy very fast.

Post workout is a good time to eat food high on the index, along with some protein source because it will help you to recover faster (there is evidence out there, but I am at work and don’t have time to search for it). The sooner after your workout you eat, the better.

HaliFax Suggested:

Like with any training you can climb while sore. If you are constantly sore, this is a sign of over-training and that you need more rest. Most of my finger tweaks have been due to upping my climbing volume.

Dylvital Suggested:

The biggest thing you need to know is that if you really keep at it and start going 2 or 3 times a week, you need to stretch well, both arms and legs before you climb, every time, no matter what. And then when you feel loose, go climb some super easy stuff for about 7-10 minutes. Otherwise, you’ll pull a tendon in your arm(s) and not be able to climb for weeks.

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