Sometimes I ache

Yes, I do. After all these years of almost daily climbing, I would be lying if I denied feeling wear and tear to my body. Yet… it still leaves me a bit nonplussed when people come out with blanket statements like Footlocking killed my knees, Doubled running rope technique is hell for my body and so on. Whilst subjectively this may seem true, my impression is that these statement are far too generic.

I think we need to get more specific in our discussions in what is actually causing the damage. Also, we need to differentiate  pain that dates back to prior, pre-existing damage that has nothing to do with tree care and climbing.

I remember a climber telling me about how constantly climbing with a foot ascender had really mucked up his glutes and lower back. I remember a young climber, maybe twenty three at the time, saying how cutting and chucking branches and bits of wood had done serious damage to his shoulder and elbow. I remember the groundie with the messed up lower back from bad lifting practices. The list goes on and on.

Myself? I have had an on and off issue with pain in my shoulders, neck and base of my skull. I went round and round what was causing it: Stress? Heavy lifting? Unequal loads on my shoulders? Driving long distances? Or climbing? I was really dreading the last one, as the pain is considerable and I was dreading that this might evolve into something that lessens my enjoyment of climbing.

The truth of the matter is, I think, that it is a combination of all the above…

But more importantly over the past few months I have come to understand a key trigger: core vs. upper body strength.

If there is one thing you do not lack as a climber, it is upper body strength. A lot of what we do involves pulling motions, e.g. sawing, ascending, moving around the canopy, lifting brush and wood etc. As such, it is tempting to use mainly this strength when climbing. I realised though, that this was one of the key motions putting load on my shoulders. An easy remedy was to use core strength, stomach and thigh muscles – as well as upper body muscles – when ascending. And guess what? It makes all the difference. Funny how you forget about some things, this type of ascent is, after all, what you learn when you first use a Prusik (Grrrrr! 😡). But when climbing on a short friction hitch, such as a Valdôtain Tresse, you tend slack differently, alternately pulling the line and managing slack, when doing so, you are more prone to be doing this with upper body strength alone.

So I now make a conscious effort to involve other muscle groups, making for a “rounder”, smoother motion, and by doing so, obviously reducing the load on my shoulders.

Another example? When I am climbing and want to take a breather, whilst holding onto a line, I will keep my arm fully extended, like in rock climbing, as this requires no muscular strength. Yet I have come to realise that my elbow joints overextend and cause Golfer’s elbow, a condition that causes pain where the tendons of your forearm muscles attach to the bony bump on the inside of your elbow. The pain can spread into your forearm and wrist. So what I do now is to extend my arm, but keep it slightly bent, consciously taking care not to overextend. This again makes a noticeable difference.

All of these issues are totally subjective, we all need to discover how our respective bodies ticks and what their specific strengths and weaknesses are, where predispositions for certain conditions may lurk and how to avoid them.

Sometimes we ache, yes, but instead of making superficial, generic statements, I believe the key is to listen to your body, analyse your work processes, avoid asymmetric, repetitive, excessive loading and understand what the root cause of the pain is – to then in a next step be able to identify suitable remedial actions.

Not rocket science – and certainly worth doing.