Training hard only pays off when your body can adapt to the load so it can recover stronger. Learn how to balance climbing and training with rest and nutrition, for the sake of developing stronger tendons and reducing injury risk.

(This article was originally published in July of 2022, but the science behind nutritional support for connective tissues holds true!)

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 sure can be hard on the body—especially without the right recovery tactics. Many passionate climbers end up suffering from chronic tendon and joint pain, recurrent finger pulley tweaks, elbow tendinosis, shoulder pain, or worse. But it’s not necessarily because of the way that they train. It might have more to do with how they approach resting and fueling in between training sessions.

Common Factors Contributing to Climbing Overuse Injuries

Too much training, too little rest, and chronic protein deficiency are common contributing factors among frequently injured climbers (other important factors including age, gender, genetics, training history, smoking, and medications). The quality of collagen in the tissues plays a big role here. As collagen quality in stressed tissues decreases (as per the red line in the graph below), injury risk increases. Runners plagued by injuries like plantar fasciitis and stress fractures can often point to disorganized collagen as the root cause. In climbers, it manifests as elbow tendinosis and finger pulley tweaks.

collagen quality among athletes

Climbers who don’t face these chronic injuries tend to balance their high-intensity training with 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 much better chance of increasing their climbing ability in a sustainable way.

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

graph of collagen synthesis versus breakdown

A nutritious diet wields a lot of power in this process, especially protein intake. Aim to consume 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

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. Vegetarian and vegan climbers will want to pay special attention to supplemental protein, because animal products contain the highest concentration of the primary building blocks for connective tissues (the collagen-specific amino acids glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline). 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 and might face predisposition to connective tissue injuries? Either way, 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 offers a proven solution. Daily consumption, ideally pre-workout, supports net positive collagen synthesis. This is where collagen differs from other protein sources. Athletes most often consume protein post-workout because the sustained muscular blood flow after training helps send nutrients straight to the muscles in need of recovery and renewal. Unlike muscle, however, sinew has poor blood flow. Tendons and ligaments receive most of their nourishment via synovial fluid diffusion as a result of mechanical loading. Research supports consuming vitamin C enriched hydrolyzed collagen before training for pre-hab, rehab, and overall tendon strength.

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