Climbing gyms are opening up for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic and going back to the climbing gym after months of being away may make you feel anxious or not sure how to get back into the rhythm of climbing. I’ve been back in the gym for a few months now and I remember feeling out of sync when I started climbing again.
The best thing you can do when getting back into climbing after a long break is to ensure that you are warming up thoroughly to prevent muscle and tendon injury. Start on easier climbs for a couple of sessions and work your way back up to the grade you were projecting on before the long break. In addition, shortening your climbing sessions and using a hand salve after each session can help you build your skin durability up faster.
For many people who have taken breaks from climbing, they feel like their strength and technique suffered because of the break and they are probably right. This is especially noticeable when returning to bouldering. It is easy to lose strength and the natural feeling that you built up for implementing good technique can be lost as well. In addition, the lack of strength and technique causes your confidence to go down so the mental part of climbing gets a nasty hit too. Strength, technique and mental confidence together may make getting back into climbing feeling daunting.
Here are some quick and easy tips for getting back into climbing shape.
Some climbers say that they don’t warm-up, but the fact is that warming up actually helps you perform better, which is a critical point for the mental part of getting back into climbing after a long break. For example, warming up your muscles makes it so that they can carry heavier loads and also keep blood flowing so that you don’t get pumped.
I recommend the following warm-up if you are looking for something that is super quick and easy:
- 2 minutes of jumping rope
- 2 minutes of mountain climbers
- 4-6 minutes of dynamic stretching such as arm circles, high kicks, etc. (don’t do static stretching. Static stretching before your workout can lead to injury)
- 1 minute of jumping rope (yup, jump rope another minute after you finish your dynamic stretches)
Start with Easier Grades
Starting your first day back at climbing by starting at the grade you were climbing when you left at will likely make you feel weak and frustrated so it is important that the first climbs are well below your past grade level. I recommend starting with a few climbs that are half your level. So if you were bouldering V8s before your break, climb V4s. If you were climbing V1s before your break, climb V0s, etc. If you were sports climbing, I recommend starting the climbing scale at 5.8. So if you were 5.11Cs before your break, then half the climbing grade would be 5.9A-Bs. This will not only bring back the rhythm and technique of climbing, it will also help with your mental climbing game with confidence.
To make this even more effective, climb up and down the climbs a couple of times in a row (reps of 3 are common) before moving onto another climb of the same level. Once you have completed reps of 3 on a few problems/routes, start doing a problem one level above that, and then another higher level above that until you are working on climbs from the grade you were working on before the break.
You may notice that climbs that used to be easy have become harder and that is ok. The nice thing about getting back into the swing of climbing is that the more you do it, the faster and easier it becomes.
What If You Can’t Climb The Same Grade From Before Your Break?
Depending on how long your break from climbing was, it is highly likely that the climbing grade you worked so hard to get to before your break is above your skill level when you get back, especially in bouldering. This is totally normal and ok. When you are in this situation, it is important to evaluate your muscle strength, technique and mental toughness. Identify what you need to improve and set a goal that you can focus on while climbing.
If you have lost strength, then identify exercises you can do every day to get better. If you are struggling with technique, evaluate what you need to work on and spend more time in your climbing session focusing on that technique. If your mental game is down, then work on easier climbs to build your confidence and identify a routine that will help you build your mental toughness back up.
Some climbers feel defeated when they lose climbing skills/grades but you can actually benefit from losing that skill. For example, by re-learning and re-training, you are able to skip the mistakes that you may have made in the past and pick things up that you didn’t notice before. This will make it easier to come back stronger than before, which should help make the journey a little easier.
Do Shorter Climbing Sessions
You may have been doing two-hour climbing sessions before your climbing hiatus but you need to work back up to that. There are many reasons for this, one being how much your hands can handle. Unlike when you were climbing almost every day, your hands have likely become soft so it can’t handle a long session like it used to. I recommend taking at least half an hour off your climbing session or taking longer and more breaks during your climbing session so that your hands can recover for the next climbing session.
In addition to your soft hands, your finger, wrist and elbow tendons need to be worked back up as well. One of the worst things that could happen is coming back from a long break from climbing and getting a finger injury that prevents you from climbing for another month. This is especially true if you are coming back to climbing or bouldering after an injury. Ease back into climbing and avoid hangboards for a while. Don’t jump in head first, you’ll just hurt your head.
Eat More Protein After Climbing
When climbers take a break and they stop exercising for a while, the body adjusts and doesn’t intake as much protein or nutrients that it did when you were active. This makes it difficult when you are getting back into climbing because your body won’t have as many nutrients in the system to help keep you going and recover after climbing. Because of this, it is especially important to get good food after your first few climbing sessions to replenish any nutrients that your body may be lacking. Once you are back into the swing of things, your body will go back to adjust throughout the day and prepare for your climbing/exercise session.
No need to over-eat though. Overeating after exercising may be worse than not eating after climbing because overeating can put your body into shock. Stick with something simple in the first hour and then add additional food as needed later. My favorite thing after climbing is a protein smoothie because most protein shakes have many nutrients that are easily absorbed into the body quickly and are important for recovering muscles.
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Use Climbing Salve
After a long break from climbing, your hands become soft and they won’t be able to handle as much. One thing that you can do to help your hands recover better/faster is using a climbing salve. Climbing Salve is a wax-like substance that is a skin healer and commonly a pain reliever too. Most climbing salves come in a bar and they are made with essential oils and nutrients that help heal your skin faster, decrease inflammation and calm any stinging sensations you may be having.
There are many different brands of climbing salve and I have tried a few. My favorite is the DIY one that I made at home with beeswax, shea butter, Melaleuca and Peppermint. It not only helps heal my hands, but it is an anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and provides a cooling sensation, which has been a lifesaver so many times. If you don’t have climbing salve and don’t want to purchase or make your own, at least apply lotion to your hands. Dryness on your hands is only helpful when you are in the mountains. Otherwise, you need the moisture from lotion to make your skin more pliable and able to heal itself easier.
Epsom Salt Baths
Since your muscles have gotten out of practice while you were on break from climbing, they may be more sore than usual and recovery may seem longer or more difficult. Something to counter the long recovery and sore muscles is a nice Epsom salt bath. In addition to soothing sore muscles, Epsom salt helps to replenish the magnesium lost in the body. Magnesium helps with energy production so this is extremely helpful when you are trying to recover faster and feel better.
Many climbers don’t like getting their hands soggy in warm water because pruning can soften the skin that you have been building up for climbing. To counter this concern you can keep your arms out of the water for the duration of the muscle soak.
In addition, a warm bath with Epsom salts can make you sweat so the loss of water should be replenished with water after the soak. I like to drink cold water while I soak because it helps me handle the heat a little longer and I don’t feel like I am getting dehydrated from sitting in a hot bath.
What If You Getting Back Into Climbing After an Injury?
Coming back to climbing after an injury can feel like quite the barrier. In addition to avoiding repeated injury, you may also have a greater fear of falling that seems to keep you from trying difficult moves or climbing very high. Unfortunately, a lot of climbers have been in this situation and it seems defeating. However, there are a few things you can do to help make the transition better. Here are four steps that I recommend you start with:
- Identify what you “can” and “can’t” do. Ask your doctor what movements should be avoided and ask about any weight, pulling or pushing restrictions that you should be wary of. If the doctor says you can’t move your wrist in one direction, then avoid any climbs that use that movement until your doctor says it is ok.
- Only climb as high as you feel comfortable. If you start getting scared of falling, then climb down. It may seem in the moment that you will always have that fear. However, personal experience and many other climbers accounts have proved that eventually, you will feel comfortable to go a little higher and eventually you will be able to climb as high as you were before.
- Climb with friends who understand. Whether you are bouldering or rock climbing, make sure that you talk to your friends climbing with you about your fears, limitations and ask them to help you feel comfortable with climbing back down or when you want to keep going. Some friends are really good at recognizing how hard they should push you, but some friends aren’t this way. Some of my friends have told me horror stories about people belaying them that wouldn’t let them down until they finished – that is not the type of friend you want with you while you are climbing.
- Practice kindness toward yourself. This is a theme that I noticed was very important for climbers coming back from injury. Be understanding of yourself and recognize that any limitations or fears you have are acceptable and temporary. Being kind to yourself will make the transition back to climbing a lot easier.
Feel More Confident Getting Back Into Climbing
No matter how long your break from climbing has been, it is important that you feel confident and are able to get back into the swing of the climbing rhythm quickly. In addition to what you do during your climbing sessions such as a thorough warm-up, easier climbing grades and a shorter climbing session, there are also things that you need to do after climbing. After you climb, you should replenish any nutrients you may have depleted while climbing with a protein shake or something like that, apply climbing salve to your skin and soak in a warm Epsom salt bath so that your muscles can recover. All of these things will help you regain your strength, technique and mental confidence that you need to perform well and have fun while climbing.