Climbing Injuries and Health

In a sport like climbing, it's not surprising that people get injured now and then. But many injuries, especially overuse injuries to tendons and muscles, can be prevented with proper training and other techniques. Our experts will show you how, along with in-depth articles on other climbing-related health topics, such as altitude sickness, nutrition, performance supplements, and more.
  • Climbing Nutrition: A Simple Tip for Breaking Plateaus

    Climbing Nutrition: A Simple Tip for Breaking Plateaus

    Every climber plateaus at some point in their career. This one easy nutrition tip can help you break through it.

  • Photo: Steven Depolo/ Flickr;

    Ask Dr. Lisa: Should You Ice a Climbing Injury?

    A deep look at the research behind icing is important for correct self-care application. Icing does have its place in sports medicine for pain reduction and swelling control. Some animal studies show however that aggressive icing of a new significant muscle-based injury can create additional scar tissue and delay recovery.

  • Climbing Nutrition: Don't Be a Carb Hater

    Climbing Nutrition: Don't Be a Carb Hater

    The evidence that going low-carb benefits any athlete’s performance (let alone a climber’s) is weak, mostly anecdotal, and often driven by dogma. Here's why.

  • Climbing Nutrition: How Much Protein Does a Climber Need?

    Climbing Nutrition: How Much Protein Does a Climber Need?

    Most people think they understand their protein needs pretty well—just get as much as you can, right? Or maybe you’re in the camp that thinks "I’m a climber, not a bodybuilder, so I really don’t need much at all. I mean, the forearms are tiny little muscles, right? It doesn’t take much to maintain them…" Either way, I’ve met only a few people who weren’t afraid to admit they didn’t really understand protein and many, many more who had solidly wrong ideas about it.

  • HPOvergripping

    Learn This: The Over-Gripping Myth

    As you move ever higher above your last piece and further outside your comfort zone, you grip the rock for dear life, even though you know the route is well within your ability. Yet here you are, only halfway up and too pumped to continue—everything feels way harder than it should. Most climbers have experienced this unfortunate situation: When you get scared, you hold on too tight and waste precious energy. The perceived solution: Focus on relaxing your hands to stop over-gripping the rock, thus lasting longer. While this does seem to make logical sense, over-gripping is actually not a significant factor in this perceived fatigue. Studies in applied physiology, neuroscience, and sports medicine point to stress itself as the culprit for accelerated fatigue. Anxiety can trigger the release of a certain hormone that can make you feel more pumped and tired than you actually are. Here we’ve provided some tips and tricks to conquer your fears and prevent the dreaded pump.

  • HPTheMindGame660

    The Mind Game: How to Overcome Fear

    After a near-death climbing experience, I was inspired to dig deeper into the psychology of fear and find out what I could learn about its effect on performance, how it wells up in the first place, and what we can do to deal with it. What I found will take your climbing to the next level—and could save your life.

  • HPLightningRotator

    Learn This: Laws of Lightning

    In July 2014, two hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park of Colorado were killed by lightning strikes in two separate incidents on back-to-back days, and collectively, about a dozen others were injured. While these fatalities occurred on hiking trails relatively close to the road, lightning is an even bigger risk for backcountry and alpine climbers who are committed to being far away from a safe place for hours at a time. As the number of these climbers grow, it’s important to realize that lightning is a very serious threat that occurs practically every day in the high country. We teamed up with meteorologist William Roeder, who works with the U.S. space program in central Florida (aka Lightning Alley), and NOLS Curriculum and Research Manager John Gookin to compile the most pertinent information and best protocol for backcountry climbers.

  • HPRestDays

    Training: Efficient Rest Days

    As much as our social media streams may suggest otherwise, most climbers are real people with real jobs, spending a fair share of time deskbound. But fear not, weekend warriors, all that time in front of a computer screen doesn’t have to go to waste: With the proper approach, working at a desk can become a highly effective form of recovery. No joke. Most of our physical gains occur during the rest phase. Muscular micro-tears, swelling, scrapes, and bruises heal quickly with the right nutrients, rest, and support. We are getting work done and paying the bills, and all the while our bodies are restructuring piece by piece. Here are a few tips on how to turn your desk into a rest oasis; they’re small changes, but add it up over several years and you’ll see a huge difference in the health of your body.

  • HPPlat

    Training: Never Plateau Again

    Climbing is addictive. One reason is that you can see massive strength gains and technique improvement from day one of your climbing career. But after a few months—or for the extremely lucky, a few years—a plateau can sneak up on you, slow your progress, and frustrate you beyond belief. During my own personal three-year-long plateau, I heard every kind of advice from doing more pull-ups to climbing every day despite the pain to even going vegetarian (not gonna happen). On a quest to find the one true way, I started to interview top climbers to see how they handled these annoying performance flatlines—both mentally and physically—and the answers I found were as diverse and interesting as the climbers themselves.

  • HPMassage

    Recover Faster: How To Perform A Healing Self-Massage

    Doing a ton of what you love (climb, train, climb, climb, train, repeat) naturally makes muscles tight, sore, and knotted—especially those forearms! Without effective recovery, you can experience a drop in performance, an increase in pain, or even worse, injury. The key to quick recovery is flushing out lactic acid and metabolic waste, so you can come back the next day feeling fresh and ready to crush. These simple self-massage procedures will help you do just that.

  • HPLowering

    Essential Skills: Safe Lowering

    Lowering a climbing partner is one of the most common situations that leads to injuries and rescues in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, the American Alpine Club’s annual analysis of climbing accidents.

  • OppAndOppHP

    Essential Skills: Opposite and Opposed

    Carabiners act as important connection points in climbing, and whether it’s between the rope and a bolt or you and the anchor, we trust our lives to these tiny pieces of metal. While non-locking biners are acceptable in many applications, certain connections are more critical (e.g., belay biners, clipping into the anchor) and require a gate that can be locked into a closed position, which keeps it from accidentally opening.

  • ProFuelHP

    Eat Like A Pro

    Food can make or break your ascent. Packing and carrying sustenance on a route is crucial, whether it’s on snow or rock. But it starts before that, too. The night before the climb, eat a nutrient-rich, carb-heavy dinner consisting of whole grains, beans, and fruits to store glycogen—your fuel source for climbing.

  • The Comeback: Recovering From Climbing Injuries

    Life would be great if we bounced back quickly to 100 percent after recovery. But the reality is that once you get back on the vertical horse, you are still in recovery. Comeback climbing takes patience and acceptance of your vulnerability. It takes stepping back to the grades you began at and working your way back up.

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    Stretch and Strengthen

    Stretching is an often-overlooked aspect of the pre-climbing routine. The following stretches pull double duty; not only do they lengthen your muscles, tendons, and ligaments for the approach—therefore preventing injury—but they also provide more mobility and flexibility on the wall so you can climb smarter and stronger.

  • The Right Approach: Backcountry Preparation

    You learned to walk a long time ago. But add 60 pounds of rope, rack, food, and other gear, and you might feel like you need a refresher course. While the rewards of a long approach—soaring routes, solitude, and wildlife sightings—may offset the pain of a long slog, these posture, stretching, and packing guidelines will do more to limit your aches and fatigue. This may be just the preemptive strike you need to go a little farther.

  • survival7

    Improvise, Overcome: Survival in the Backcountry

    In the context of medical emergencies, the wilderness is defined as anywhere beyond an hour from definitive medical care. That includes nearly every climb featured in this issue. However, that doesn’t mean you need to pack an ambulance-worth of specialized equipment for an overnight trip. Bring a small first aid kit of items you can’t improvise (like an Ace bandage or ibuprofen, for example), and then learn creative ways to treat common injuries with what you’ve got. This primer is a starting point, but no replacement for wilderness–first aid training.

  • Lose Weight Safely

    As high-end sport climbing emerged in the 1980s, another climbing trend also surfaced—and no, we don’t mean the bright pink, tiger-print Lycra that littered the pages of Climbing mags of yesteryear. Body weight became a huge factor in the sport; some climbers were unhealthy about it and developed serious eating disorders. Here’s how to lose weight the right way.

  • How-to-Rappel-Clinics-660

    Rappelling: Learn the Basics of This Essential Technique

    The process of rappelling is simple in concept, but it can seem complicated in practice, especially at first. Mistakes are easy to make; accidents happen all the time—and they’re often fatal. Here’s the step-by-step process of rappelling plus some tips to prevent mistakes.

  • Climber's-Toe-Graphic-660

    Prevent Chronic Climber's Toe Pain

    Climbers are used to having sore little piggies, whether it’s from jamming them into cracks or cramming them into tight, high-performance shoes. But toe pain is more serious when it doesn’t disappear after a few hours, and it happens to a lot of climbers because of the way we use and abuse our feet. Chronic stiffness and swelling in the big toe joint is an early sign of osteoarthritis that could permanently cramp your climbing style.

  • Incorrect-Quickdraw-Setup-1

    Prevent Quickdraw Failure

    The death of 12-year-old Tito Traversa, an Italian who climbed multiple 5.14s, shocked the community in early July—not just because of the tragic loss of a young life, but also because of the almost unbelievable way it happened. While warming up at a crag in France, Traversa borrowed a set of quickdraws from another member of his group. Unbeknown to the young climber, the draws had been assembled incorrectly: On eight separate quickdraws, the biners had not been threaded through the sewn strength-rated loop in the end of the dogbone, but only through the rubber “string” used to keep clipping biners from flipping out of position. When Traversa weighted the rope, these draws failed, sending him into a ground fall that led to his death.

  • Figure 3

    Build an Anchor in Poor Rock

    Learning how to build an “anchor in-series” will not only give you a solid option for bad rock, but also offers numerous solutions if you run into any other tricky anchor scenarios.

  • Drop the bight of rope behind your entire body and step backward out of it. Then pull the strands (not the bight) tight.

    How to Tie an Alpine Girth-Hitch

    Unlike the butterfly, this method doesn’t require using an extra locking carabiner, and it relies on a basic technique that most climbers employ regularly. You simply girth-hitch yourself into the rope.

  • Essential-Bivy-Survival-Kit-660

    The Essentials: Survive an Unplanned Bivy

    Everyone knows packing the 10 essentials is a good idea, but most people don’t actually pack them. It’s easy to get lax about loading things you hope not to use, but would you cancel your car insurance just because you haven’t had an accident yet? We consulted professional mountain guides as well as the venerable Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills to create this visual checklist for what you need to cover your ass if your perfect day in the alpine goes awry.

  • Rock! Prevent Rockfall and Calmly Handle Emergencies

    Yosemite’s El Capitan claimed two climbers’ lives in a two-week span in late May and early June. Both incidents involved falling rock, but causes and effects in each scenario were quite different. Even if you’re the safest and smartest climber in the world, climbing is a dangerous sport, and it exposes you to a number of things out of your control, including rockfall. We talked to Yosemite climbing ranger Ben Doyle and Yosemite Valley District Ranger Jack Hoeflich about what we can do to mitigate rockfall and what to do in an emergency.

  • Forearm-stretch-massage

    How to Rest for Redpoint Attempts

    You've just fallen off your project for the fifth time, and now you’re back on the ground wondering what to do next. You’re still psyched and ready to give it another go, and that forearm burn isn’t too bad. But should you rest? If so, how long? Should you keep moving or conserve energy? Hard bouldering and sport climbing don’t fatigue a body as much as running a marathon, which can take even an elite runner several days to bounce back from. But how quickly you recover and how well your body is fueled greatly affect your climbing performance.

  • Training: Maximize Your Endurance

    Training: Maximize Your Endurance

    By the very nature of our sport, there are two kinds of rock climbers: those who use a rope and those who don’t. And many climbers fall into two further categories: power or endurance climbers. Unless you’re Adam Ondra, you likely don’t have an equal balance between the two. Because most climbers don’t simultaneously focus on both sport climbing and bouldering training, their endurance-to-power ratio (and vice versa) is usually pretty skewed.

  • Tape-Splint-Injured-Ankle

    Treat an Injured Ankle

    The potential for injury while climbing outside is frighteningly infinite, and boulderers sometimes feel the pain more than anyone, with their repetitive high-impact landings on rocky and unfriendly terrain. The most common non-finger-related injury among boulderers is a sprained or broken ankle, and while it’s not always preventable—no matter how many crashpads you stack—it is easily managed in the field.

  • Belayers-Neck-Muscle-Strain

    Belayer's Neck

    Although “belayer’s neck” is not an official orthopedic diagnosis, it is an official pain in the ass—er, neck—for most climbers. We focus so much on avoiding injury while climbing that we ignore the possibility of chronic injury from belaying. It’s particularly bad because the long hours spent with your head thrown back or twisted awkwardly can wreak havoc on vital body parts like your spine and neck.

  • Ask the Climbing Docs: The Screaming Barfies

    Google “screaming barfies” and you’ll find a confusing selection of blog reports, questionable wiki definitions, and dozens of video clips of climbers on the verge of crying (next to a giggling cameraman). The symptoms are familiar to any ice climber: intense, often scream-inducing pain in the hands, nausea, and the occasional “man tear.” But for such a common ailment, the misinformation and paucity of research available is staggering.

  • Frostbite-Chart-660

    Prevent and Treat Frostbite

    Climbing often takes us to high, wild places with harsh conditions. And one consequence of prolonged exposure to cold temperatures and high winds can be frostbite: the freezing and subsequent death of body tissues. Frostbite generally occurs to extremities that are farthest from the heart, including the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin.

  • Finger-Injuries-Drawing-1

    Finger Fixes

    What climbers fear most isn’t heights, falls, or mangled toes—it’s finger injuries. And with good reason: While climbing is a full-body exercise, fingers make the most contact with the rock, thus taking more abuse than other limbs, especially from pockets.

  • Shoulder-Elbow-Stretches-158

    Prevent Elbow and Shoulder Injuries

    The repetitive motions of rock climbing and training are hard on the body, especially when done for years on end. Our sport involves lots of pulling down and in toward the body, and the required muscles become well developed at the expense of other muscle groups. Add common daily activities, such as sitting hunched over a desk or driving, and the potential for problems gets even worse.

  • Rope-Litter-158

    The Rope Litter

    It’s a picture-perfect October day of climbing with a cool breeze and just enough sun filtering through the changing leaves to keep you warm while belaying. Perfect, that is, until your climbing partner takes a looping whipper that ends with a grunt, a snap, and a wail. You lower her to the deck and find her lower leg is obviously broken. Now what? The walk up the trail was easy, but a return trip is not happening on that leg. Here’s how you can create a litter out of just a climbing rope to evacuate an ailing partner.

  • Basic First Aid Skills

    Any time you have to utilize self-rescue techniques, you’ll more than likely have to deal with an injured rock climbing partner. The most useful first aid skill is assessment of injuries, a critical skill for all medical personnel as well as anyone who recreates outside, including climbers. These skills are pertinent, whether you’re at the local crag or on a remote ridge in the Himalayas. There are many effective methods to assess a climber who is injured, and below is one of these accepted techniques.

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    Fuel Up

    Any serious climber knows the intense stress of a sun-up to sun-down climb. To maintain flexibility, power, balance, and muscular endurance, you need good nutrition and hydration before and during your climb. Making smart food and drink choices can help you move quicker, tame those screaming muscles, and achieve better mental focus (read: less risk of injury). Here’s how to fuel the machine.

  • Pulling Down While Pregnant

    Deciphering what you can and can't do on the rock when you're pregnant is no easy task. Few scientific studies even mention rock climbing and pregnant women in the same analysis. We sought general advice from Long Huynh, an ob/gyn doctor and climber practicing in Boulder County, Colorado.

  • Finger Yoga

    I've found that finger yoga helps keep my climber fingers from becoming painful claws after hard climbing. Of the many possible stretches and "poses," the ones described below are my after-climbing favorites.

  • NLYoga

    Six Yoga Poses for Climbers

    My physical therapist, a triathlete, recently told me that climbing puts more intense stress on my body than any other sport does. "Your lats are overdeveloped, your shoulders pull forward, your neck is strained, your hamstrings are tight," she told me. "Just stop climbing." Of course, I won't stop climbing. So what to do? Yoga.

  • Avoid Finger Blowouts

    Avoid Finger Blowouts

    Taping to support finger tendons can help prevent injury, but studies show the most commonly used taping method doesn't do the job. Here's a better way. There are two main flexor tendons in each finger: one that flexes the middle phalanx, and one that flexes the fingertip.

  • Rescue Insurance

    One of the beautiful things about climbing is the ability to see the world on the cheap. But be warned: Rescues—especially internationally—are the opposite of cheap. If you're climbing in the U.S., rescues are often free to the victim, but it's still wise to have some basic insurance.

  • The What-if Plan

    These eight tips, garnered from rescue volunteers and experienced climbers, can add life-saving speed and clarity to a rescue effort. So before you throw your rack in the truck and set out for the walls, have a cozy chat with someone who likes you and write down all the details below so there can be no mistake.

  • Tales of Power

    You can train long or you can train hard, but not both - which is probably why so many of us train power so wrongly. (By “power,” we mean the product of strength and speed, i.e., the explosive force recruited any time you use momentum, or “go for it.”) Properly training power allows you to get stronger—to muckle through otherwise impossible cruxes.

  • Targeted Opposition

    Targeted Opposition

    If you’re an avid climber, at some point you’ll feel that deep, dull ache in your elbows or shoulders, a sign of inflamed tendons. The constant tugging is what does us in — using loads of pulling muscles (lats, shoulders, biceps, forearms) while neglecting the pushing muscles (pectorals, anterior deltoids, triceps), thus placing unidirectional strain on your tendons.

  • kneeHP

    Injury-Proof Your Climber Knees

    Climbers stress the knees, especially when heel hooking, kneebarring, and highstepping, or taking bouldering falls — in fact, a fall from five feet can tear an ACL just as easily as one from 20, especially onto an uneven surface. It’s possible to prevent tears with proper nutrition, conditioning, and strength building.

  • To Supplement or Not to Supplement?

    To Supplement or Not to Supplement?

    Climb long enough, and you’ll experience setbacks: tendonitis, torn pulleys, injured tendons/ligaments, joint pain, or shoulder injuries. They’re our war wounds from battling gravity. But just as year-round conditioning is important to stave off injury, so, too, is “training” from the inside out.

  • Stayin' Alive

    Stayin' Alive

    There are small, basic steps you can take toward epic avoidance in climbing, especially on long alpine routes. Your first line of defense will be intuition: if at any point you feel something ain’t right, take a few minutes to evaluate. The next line of defense will be a little thoughtful care, as outlined in these seven simple tips.

  • Storm's a comin'!

    Storm's a comin'!

    It happens to the best (and even the fastest) of rock climbers. Hundreds of feet off the deck, you suddenly find yourself trapped, pinned down by an ugly beast spitting white-hot lightning and drowning the rock. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees when dealing with objective hazards like lightning, but here are a few ways to decrease the potency of your epic.

  • High Exposure

    High Exposure

    Don't get caught in the cold on a long rock climb, unprepared to stay the night in the open air if you can't continue until daylight. Here are six tips for surviving your next unexpected bivy.

  • The Month

    During “The Month” training, I rock climb at least four days a week; I do approximately 6,000 moves, 550 minutes of stretching, at least 150 one-arm pull-ups, and several days of cardio. After The Month, I’ll rest briefly (a few days), and then work the project in earnest. By applying similar volume principles, at several letter grades below your redpoint ability (i.e., if you redpoint 5.12a, then train 5.11b/c), you’ll see similar results.