Avoiding Fingerboard Injuries

Stuck at home and with a new toy it’s too easy to overdo it.

By Dr. Julian Saunders | March 31st, 2020

 

To train with less than your bodyweight, you can prop your feet in a chair, or rig a pulley and weight system as shown here.

The supermarkets are cleaned out. Oddly, dunny roll was the first product of choice. There were knife fights in Sydney over a six pack! The world’s gone mad. If you dug deep into the statistics of gold rush items you may find an even more peculiar one—the hangboard.

What with all the coronavirus lockdowns, climbers are scrambling to get their hands on whatever they can to train at home. In a world of cautionary steps, might I suggest that you approach your new training device with a level of timidity? Now is not the time to blow your elbows into next year.

Easy to say, not so easy to do when you are forced to stay home and your propensity as an eager climber is to over-train. A critical point to keep in mind is that tendons do not gain strength as quickly as muscles, which is why climbers have a disproportionate number of tendon injuries relative to muscle twangs.

It doesn’t help that while muscles tell you when they’ve had enough (you get sore and tired), tendons keep quiet. Feeling fine, and without apparent feedback from worn tendons, you are inclined to over train, leading to a paradoxical increase in muscle strength and a decrement in tendon strength.

This strength differential is the main catalyst for golfer’s and tennis elbow, pulley strains, lumbrical tears, and just about everything that could possibly go wrong from an injury perspective.

In your hand this differential manifests as tenderness, often in the base of your ring or middle finger. If you’re lucky, the pain may become enough to notice, although by then you have likely done chronic damage. Often, the pain goes from barely a whisper to the cracking sound of an A2 pulley snapping. Pay attention to any soreness in your hands and rest. Did I say rest?!

The tendon-attachment points in your elbow are vulnerable to overtraining. Tendons strengthen at a slower rate than muscles, and need more time to recover. Your muscles may feel up to a fingerboard session, but you should pay attention to the subtle warning signs of tendon fatigue and overuse, and back off the training, especially so if you are a novice to fingerboard training.

You may think that the elbow, more of a slow burner in terms of tendon pathologies and pain, is more forgiving, but it can take months for tendonoisis, the most common elbow overuse injury, to subside.

Further, the pain in your elbow could have originated in your hand: Most finger and wrist flexors are anchored at the elbow. When you generate a strength differential between muscle that control your hand and wrist and the tendon that they attach to (common flexor tendon),  the situation is like a tug boat pulling against an anchor line that is not quite strong enough. At first it is just single fibers tearing, then strands start to separate and it all goes rather pear shaped from there on. For more information on elbows read “Dodgy Elbows Revisted.”

There are some great apps out there that can help keep you in line and out of trouble. Be conservative with your level of ability.  A quick search for online resources pulled up heaps of great advice from coaching services like the PowerClimbingCompany. Even better, get a virtual coach. Neil Gresham, who writes the Training column for Rock and Ice, is found here. Professional coaching can help keep injury free and/or manage the injuries you’ve got, plus you’ll employ someone, another big positive during these troubled times.

 

Advice for Beginners

 

If you are inside two years of your climbing mission, I would stay away from hangboards were it not for the fact that they are now your only option. Man, just be careful. Use big holds (two-finger pads wide) and don’t use full body weight. Reduce the weight you have to hold by placing your feet on a chair. Take a humility ticket and approach with care. Fingers and elbows that aren’t used to holds and pullups are easy to wreck.

Train endurance rather than power. Hang for longer times on bigger holds. Try one-minute hangs with your feet on a chair, or two-minute hangs on jugs with your feet on the ground.

 

Advice for Intermediates

 

Danger Danger Danger! In the world of training, you gals and guys are the ones that most need guidance. Your screaming desire to train hard puts you at risk. Recognize your drive and ambitions, and rest more than you think you need, and/or mix in easier training sessions with your hard ones. You will see faster gains and fewer injuries by training not quite as hard and much as you want.

 

Advice for Advanced

 

You are the least likely of the groups to be injured. Why? Because you have been injured a bunch. Your training is more likely to be structured and sensitive to change if you note any risk of another injury.

 

Injury Warning Signs

 

Small twinges of pain from the same area (any area!) are tremors before the earthquake that should cause a seismic shift in your training program.

Pain that hangs around for more than two days is a bad sign. Joints will tend to be a bit stiff after a large workout, but don’t do another session until the stiffness has gone away. Be patient.

Any elbow pain is problematic, especially so because the pain goes away after you’ve warmed up, so you keep training, doing even more damage. Ignore elbow pain and continue to train, and you will be in a right pickle—sore elbows can plague your entire life.

Although your shoulders are less likely to get injured than your fingers and elbows, they are not necessarily immune. The small muscles that connect the top of your arm to the edge of your shoulder blade are susceptible to tearing when you hang on for every last second you can muster. Endurance programs that go to failure, or close to, are the usual culprits. Watch your fatigue level and quit before you are totally blasted—it is easy to injury yourself in that last second.

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