Training With a Finger Injury

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. You have no reason to listen to what I have to say. Everyone’s bodies are different, and just because this worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for you. But if you are curious, read on…

training-injuryBack in mid-July, I strained a finger tendon. It was a bit of a tough pill to swallow, as I had just climbed my two hardest routes, within a week of each other, and had never felt so fit. The future seemed bright, the possibilities endless. And then I woke up one morning the day after climbing with a very sore finger. Uh-oh! At first it didn’t seem too bad, and I tried it out on some easy terrain, which went OK, but after a little more trial and error came to realize it was going to need some special love to get it back to working strength.

Once I let go of all the expectations I had built up for my fall season, I was able to get down to the business of focusing on rehab. Fingers are a tricky thing, because they need progressively stronger loads in order to heal properly, but you can easily over do it, especially at the earliest stages of healing. And while it was very tempting to go out and cruise moderate terrain at the crag, I couldn’t fool myself from the truth that climbing injuries are best rehabbed in the safety and controlled environment of the climbing gym.

Some might say, why not just take some time off and step back from climbing? A valid question, but as many people have pointed out, you actually need to rehab finger injuries in a very specific way, as rest alone will only result in weak scar tissue that you will be more likely to re-injure in the future. Here’s what generally works for me.

First, I need to get to a good mental state, which can be hard right after all your hopes for the season have been dashed to pieces. This article I wrote last year after a freak back injury reminds me that once I get over myself, everything really will be OK, and then I can more objectively evaluate what I need to do.

Next, I try to really figure out what aggravates the injury. It may not always be obvious what has happened, and there are a lot of structures you can damage in your fingers/hands. And in my less-than-scientific opinion, in some ways it doesn’t matter, unless you are talking about major damage, because the method is going to be the same. Figure out what makes it hurt, and then develop a rehab training plan around that. In order to help others get through these things, I thought I’d share what this looked like for me with this last injury.

Self-diagnosis was tough, as there was no visible swelling, and I didn’t hear any pops or have any indication that I had hurt it. When putting it into a crimp position, however, it didn’t feel good. So crimping was out. I thought maybe that meant I could climb on big jugs, but also discovered that really incut jugs made it hurt also, so that was out. Weighting it in an open-handed position was OK, which meant some slopers and smaller holds if I was careful how I grabbed them. And some jugs, but not all jugs. Finding out exactly what hold positions are “safe” and which are not is crucial to this process.

With that information, I came up with a plan that included some easy traversing/ARCing on a dead vertical wall, followed by some easy hangboard loading on the fingers (with VERY reduced weight, in the most friendly grip positions possible) and then finishing up with a power endurance oriented pull up workout I got from ClimbStrong. Following this plan in a highly disciplined manner, I’ve made steady improvements and now no longer have any pain while training, or the day after. I also still feel very fit and strong, and hope to be close to where I was in July by the end of this month.

Some other key components in the recovery process have been contrast baths and massage of the injured area. A big problem with tendon healing is that there is very little blood flow in these tissues, so basically anything you can do to improve this is ideal. Some folks have success with cool water therapy, but for me contrast baths have been way more effective. I do 1 minute of cold, 3 minutes of hot (1 cycle) four times. By the end my hands are red and flushed with blood, it’s fairly impressive actually.

A few other key things for me while training with an injury:

Go slow. It can be tempting to add weight or reps or exercises, but going slow is the best policy. I try to only change one variable (increased weight, reps, etc.) each workout so that I can track whether it made it better or worse. And speaking of that, keep track of everything. If you aren’t the notebook wielding type, if you get an injury, you should be.

Soreness during the workout and the day after is OK, but by two days after, it should start feeling better than it had before the last workout.

Discipline is everything. If you try too hard too soon, you’ll simply add time to your rehab and learn a tough lesson the hard way. As Dave McLeod says in his book 9 out of 10, no matter where you are at in your climbing career you have time to recover from an injury and continue to improve.

Like I said before, everyone’s body and experience is different, so here’s some more info for those looking for good resources on training with an injury:

Anderson Brothers – Why Train (Injury Prevention)

Dave MacLeod – The Problem with Layoff

Power Company Climbing –  Pushing Through the Tweaks and Twinges

Climbing Quotient – Recovering From Finger Injuries

Robot Climbing – Training with an Injury

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