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We've teamed up with professional rock climber, physio-therapist and coach Ofer Blutrich to discuss some of the most common things we all experience in climbing

By Ofer Blutrich

Almost every climber will have experienced the frustration that comes with an injury, but are you more likely to get injured when bouldering? In our latest expert guide Ofer looks at the science behind bouldering and climbing injuries and suggests ways you can adapt your training to reduce the risk.

Image: Billy Ridal by Guy Mor

Not for the first time, a patient of mine told me that they don't go bouldering because it causes injuries. I’ve been hearing this from more and more patients and trainees, so I decided to have a serious look at why that could be.

In its favour, bouldering contains everything a climber needs; learning complex movements, developing strength, the ability to solve problems quickly. It’s not dependent on a partner, and it’s very time efficient. As I see it, those are extremely important components of a successful training session, and I believe anyone should boulder.

So I dug a bit deeper, going back to the professional literature and articles examining the incidence of injuries in both sport climbing and bouldering. As you probably guessed, there isn’t that much information available. The one study that does exist doesn’t distinguish between bouldering and sport climbing. So what did I find?

  • 93% of climbing injuries in both fields are based on overuse and very few of them are severe (meaning fractures/sprains/tears in ligaments).
  • If you had to guess, what would be the area in the body with the most frequent overuse injury incidence? You guessed right - the fingers.
  • The rate of injuries in both fields stands at 4.2 injuries for every 1000 hours of climbing. Just for comparison purposes; in football (soccer) there is a rate of 7.7 injuries for every 1000 hours, and in swimming (which everyone believes to be the safest sport) there are 4 injuries for every 1000 hours.
  • The incidence of finger injuries when practicing bouldering did not correlate with age, gender, body weight, or climbing experience - so you can leave those excuses behind.
  • Only one article found a weak positive relation between practicing bouldering and a higher finger injury percentage.

Image: Holly Rees by Guy Mor

Observing the data and the literature didn’t provide a definitive answer, but one thing did recur again and again in every article I read. Most injuries in bouldering and sport climbing are OVERUSE injuries. This fact can help us understand the causes of injury, and maybe explain why people tend to think bouldering is more dangerous. One of the parameters that can increase the risk is OVERLOAD SPIKE. So, how can OVERLOAD SPIKE appear in climbing?

  1. Training somewhere you are not familiar with.
  2. Training for a longer time than usual.
  3. Shorter rests than usual.
  4. Training under fatigue (You come to the workout feeling tired or didn’t get enough rest between workouts).
  5. New exercises you are not familiar with.
  6. New grades.
  7. Unfamiliar movements
  8. Unadjusted training intensity.
  9. Particularly long workouts while being used to short workouts.

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What can help?

In different fields (not climbing) it has been shown that increasing chronic load has an OVERLOAD SPIKE protecting effect. That means that the chance of injury is lowered when workouts have a high “Work Capacity,” in intensity as well as duration. Nowadays, sport sciences believe that intense chronic training lowers the risk of injuries for athletes and I believe that in climbing it’s probably not that different. The more you are trained the more:

  1. Your muscular power is stronger
  2. Your working ability both in intensity and time is higher
  3. You have better muscle endurance

So, this is how you lower the chance of injury. Of course there are other variants that may influence, and it’s important to remember that the same sharp increase in workout load will have a different impact on each athlete, according to his/her background and the protecting effects they have.

Image: Jermoe Mowat by Guy Mor

So is bouldering more dangerous than sport climbing? The answer is yes and… no.

Let me explain - Many of those injured while bouldering are injured because they aren’t used to the intensity of training, so the injury is caused by OVERLOAD SPIKE and not due to the sport itself. Bouldering is more intense with fewer rests than leading and climbing. In two hours of leading, for example, you can climb 8 routes (at a fast pace) of which there are perhaps 8 bouldering problems - while in 2 hours of bouldering, you climb about 30 of those - if not more.

So, whether you’re leading or bouldering - both of them are great - and you decide to move from one discipline to the other, or just want to try something new, think about where you are on your training continuum and intensity. Reduce the risk of injury by directing your workout to avoid an overload spike.

Further reading:

  1. Injuries in Bouldering: A Prospective Study Josephsen, Gary et al. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, Volume 18, Issue 4, 271 – 280
  2. Paige TE, Fiore DC, Houston JD. Injury in traditional and sport rock climbing. Wilderness Environ Med. 1998;9(1):2-7.
  3. Woollings KY, McKay CD, Emery CARisk factors for injury in sport climbing and bouldering: a systematic review of the literatureBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;49:1094-1099.
  4. Backe S, Ericson L, Janson S, Timpka T. Rock climbing injury rates and associated risk factors in a general climbing population. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2009;19(6):850-856.
  5. Jones, Gareth MSc; Johnson, Mark I. PhD A Critical Review of the Incidence and Risk Factors for Finger Injuries in Rock Climbing, Current Sports Medicine Reports: 11/12 2016 – Volume 15 – Issue 6 – p 400-409
  6. Windt J, Zumbo BD, Sporer B, et alWhy do workload spikes cause injuries, and which athletes are at higher risk? Mediators and moderators in workload–injury investigationsBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2017;51:993-994.

Ofer is a physio therpaist, professional rock climber, coach & speaker based in Israel and is a long term friend of the brand.

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