Day 23: Climbing through injury

Injuries are a part of an athlete’s life. Whether you think of yourself as an athlete is irrelevant. If you climb, and dare to improve or expand your potential, then you are an athlete. It’s never fun to get injured and worse when you don’t know if you should climb through it. This is not a medical explanation of injuries nor am I a doctor, but I can offer some advice having gone through my own series of injuries. A different perspective could help you decide whether climbing through an injury is the right thing to do for you.

There are levels of injury. The obvious injury when you should stop climbing is when the pain is intolerable or made worse by climbing. Typically, outside of an injury done while climbing, this can occur when you are healing and rehabilitating an injury. The temptation is to come back too soon, or the feeling that you have been away from climbing for too long draws you back and you try to climb around the injury. My advice here, if you can climb around it, great! But! Don’t push the grade and don’t be stupid. Climb easier more approachable things so you aren’t tempted to try hard and injure something else.

The not-so-obvious injury is the one where it seems like you can climb but you know you are clearly injured. You do something like buddy taping (taping fingers together) hoping you can get leverage out of the other fingers while the injured one heals. This is not a smart idea and commonly causes another finger or two to get tweaked. My advice here, just back off, reduce the amount of time climbing and climb easy terrain so you aren’t tempted to try hard. Don’t rely on buddy taping or any other aide as a way to keep climbing at full capacity. You will hurt yourself more in the long run.

Finally, there is the unknown tweaks and things that happen where we are not sure if we are actually hurt or if we did something minor. After all, it’s common to feel sore after working out and sometimes we do things that hurt but that don’t injure us. These are the situations we need to pay attention to. If we push too much, we can turn a minor tweak into a full on injury. But, if we don’t push through, we might not take ourselves to our potential.

This grey area is an instinctual thing to learn. If you’ve never been an athlete before, this is where you can get hung up. If you are ever uncertain, consult a physician but be warned, they will nearly always tell you to back off or stop climbing. I’m not suggesting this, but you need to learn how to listen to your body. Small tweaks should not be dismissed but they can also resolve quickly if you are paying attention.

Recently Kai Lightner was climbing at Youth Worlds in Austria this past August and he broke his thumb but didn’t know it. He climbed the entire Worlds with an this injury and got used to the pain so much so that he “forgot” about how bad it was until a friend asked him back home why he was favoring his other side. At the doctor’s the manual exam suggested a minor injury, but the X-Ray showed that he had broken his thumb and a splinter of bone had even replanted somewhere else in his hand. The doctor couldn’t believe how numb to the pain he was. If it was an ordinary person, they would have screamed in the manual exam.

That story illustrates why, as climbers, we need to pay attention to our bodies. Start to tune in to understand the range of discomfort and be aware that we may be numb to the real damage done to ourselves. For this reason, I tend to be more cautious about recovery than I used to be. The sooner you get familiar with the levels of injury and your threshold for pain, the sooner you can determine what climbing rehabilitation looks like for you. There’s no cookie cutter solution for a lot of injuries and where there might be, follow the rehab for maximum benefit.

Be safe out there!

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About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climbing athlete and computer software/technology enthusiast.
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