Dr. J’s Secrets for Climbing Past 50

Old climbers can keep improving and pushing themselves on the rock—Dr. J offers a few basic health tips to guide you as you do so.

By By Dr. Julian Saunders | April 17th, 2020

Dr. J provides tips for climbers over 50 to keep crushing.
Photo: iStock.

I’m almost 50. I climbed hard when I was in my teens and 20s (before climbing gyms and crash pads), but then I got out of climbing. This last year my kid started climbing, and I donned a pair of rock shoes for the firs time in over 20 years. I’m now carrying much more weight, with a lot less muscle and tendon strength. So after a couple of short weeks my fingers all swelled up and everything hurts.

It’s been about a year now. I’ve tried to manage my fingers—less crimping, more footwork, not leaving it all on the mat for one send. So while the swelling is less and the pain bearable, my question is, is there a path to getting back to 100 percent or is it just the price I’m going to have to pay if I want to climb at my age?

—Inno

 

For the past 18 months I have been building my house. For the first nine months, and through winter, my family and I lived in a tent and a van. As you would imagine there was some urgency to get the house to a point we could move in. That urgency was replaced by other urgencies and, although understandable on a rational platform it is paradoxically anathema/beguiling that I have barely climbed half a dozen times when I have spent the last 30 years incessantly training and climbing.

Yesterday, amid the stay-home order forced upon us by COVID-19, I installed my hangboards in the shed. I did a session. Not too hard, just enough to reacquaint myself. My giddy god, was I thrashed by a Neanderthal during the night? This morning I am prickly, swollen and oddly satiated in my bedraggled state. I am 49.

 

[Also Read Over the Hill or Still Ascending? An Analysis of Climbing Performance and Age]

 

Gravity is the gunnery sergeant of aging, and an unforgiving one at that. The cosmetic changes are all but too apparent. Our skin begins to droop, boobs go southbound and when you hang the washing out your triceps flap in the breeze much like the tea towel you’re pegging up.

Less obvious is the internal dilapidation. Small tears in tendons, narrowed joints spaces, decrepit cartilage, and an immune system that has taken on the response time of a Toyota Camry rather than the Ferrari it once was.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all about forging ahead at the same intensity as usual (thus far, at least). Just not at the same rate. Once upon a time I climbed for two days and rested for one. That became day on day off. Now it’s day on and two days off.

Inno, you need to be cognizant of both the aging process and its outcome—slower recovery—as well as the training process of introducing new loads. That your body may not ultimately tolerate what you are asking is entirely possible. Ask less; it is likely you will be just as happy about what you are doing with a lot fewer physical ailments.

Dropping weight may well take 10 years off your current predicament and quite a few others you don’t even know about. Start today. Go to your cupboard and fridge and throw out everything that you know is shit. I don’t care if you just bought it. Bin it. Buy a bag of apples instead.

Eating, sleeping and exercise have more intertwined feedback loops than a love party. And they are just the ones we know about. Doing each of these well is about as close as you are going to get to the elixir of life.

1. You need a minimum of seven hours sleep a night. Get fewer than seven hours and every metric you care to look at, from heart disease to reaction time, is measurably worse. Turn all screens off 90 minutes before bedtime and start to dim the lights an hour before. Worship the actual sun, not the false one hanging from your ceiling. That one will just mess you up.

2. Lockdown is upon us and so our options for exercise have had to adapt. Try cycling: The bike industry is in a proper boom period, loving the pandemic. Especially since car traffic is now down by 90%. Who knows, people may remember what fresh air is and turn some roads into bike lanes.

3. Buy suspension straps. These are cheap, doable in a small space and, in terms of core strength, you can turn yourself into a hexagonal crowbar just by looking at them. I kid you not, they are that good. I thought this podcast from TrainingBeta was quite good just for general information about suspension strap training.


 

Also Read

 

The Best Climbing Shoes We’ve Used

 

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