Learn how to balance climbing (and training) with rest and nutrition to develop stronger tendons and reduce injury risk.

Cameron Horst climbing White Lightning

Cameron Hörst climbing White Lightning (5.14d/9a), Wild Iris, WY.

Climbing is a great activity for the heart and soul, but it can be hard on the body.

Many passionate climbers come to suffer from chronic tendon and joint pain, recurrent finger pulley tweaks, elbow tendinosis, shoulder pain, or worse.

Common Factors Contributing to Climbing Overuse Injuries

Over-enthusiastic training, too few rest days, and chronic protein deficiency are common contributing factors among frequently injured climbers. (Other important factors include age, sex, genetics, loading history, smoking, and medications.) Decreasing collagen quality in the highly stresses tissues (red line) sets the stage for injury. Among runners, this can manifest as plantar fasciitis and stress fractures, whereas in climbers it commonly reveals as elbow tendinosis and finger pulley tweaks.

collagen quality among athletes

Conversely, seldom injured climbers engage in appropriate high-intensity training followed by sufficient rest and low-load training. They also consume adequate protein to support net collagen synthesis and long-term remodeling. These climbers develop stronger tendons season over season, and they have a good chance to advance their climbing ability.

The bottom line: It’s essential to recognize the ongoing battle of collagen breakdown versus collagen synthesis in the most highly stresses connective tissues (fingers, arms, shoulders, torso, and knees). As shown in the diagram below, you can tip the scales in your favor (to “net synthesis”) by optimizing your training load, volume, rest, and daily protein intake.

graph of collagen synthesis versus breakdown

Consuming a nutritious diet is the lynchpin of the process. Most important is consuming 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

The primary building blocks of connective tissues are the collagen-specific amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline), found in the highest amounts in animal meat, bone broth, and collagen supplements. Acquiring them from plant sources is more difficult. Therefore, athletes who consume little or no meat are more likely to be deficient in these collagen-specific amino acids. Might this predispose plant-based athletes to a higher rate of connective tissue injuries? (Anecdotal evidence says “yes”.)

The Value of Supplemental Protein

Hard-training strength-to-weight ratio athletes, wanting to reduce injury risk and accelerate recovery, may benefit from consuming supplement protein in order to meet their 80 to 130 grams of protein per day requirement. A high-quality whey isolate or pea protein complex provides a good amino acid spectrum for muscle recovery and strength gain.

As for connective tissue remodeling and recovery, vitamin C enriched hydrolyzed collagen is the proven solution. Daily consumption, ideally pre-workout, can be remarkably effective at supporting net positive collagen synthesis. (Read more about the research-based strategy for supporting collagen remodeling and recovery in high-stressed connective tissues.)

Traditionally, athletes abstain from consuming nutrients before exercise—after all, sustained muscular blood flow in the hours after training is ideal for directing nutrients from a post-exercise meal to muscles in need of recovery and renewal. Unlike muscle, however, sinew has poor blood flow. Tendons and ligaments are primarily nourished via synovial fluid diffusion, as a result of mechanical loading. Consuming vitamin C enriched hydrolyzed collagen before training, then, is the research-based strategy for pre-hab, rehab, and supporting stronger finger tendons as a result of a regular schedule of climbing.

Related Articles:

Copyright © 2000–2022 Eric J. Hörst | All Rights Reserved.