Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Stretching for Climbers

I never used to stretch before climbing. If I was climbing outside, my idea of stretching was the walk to the crag, and climbing an easy route first to "warm up a bit." If I was training at the climbing gym, I would do a lap traversing the gym and call it good.  

Alpine climbing?  

Forget it.  Fortunately, I never injured myself 'climbing cold' like this, but rather discovered the benefits of stretching after going to a few free yoga classes at my local climbing gym.  After the sessions I would go climb, and noticed the difference right away. Suddenly I could pull moves that would usually send me chucking.  High-stepping was no longer such a big deal.  Difficult moves that I would have tried to power through I now had the confidence and flexibility to finesse.  

But eventually I was out of free yoga sessions- surely there were some resources out there for climbing-specific stretches.  

Why Stretch?
Stretching not only helps with injury prevention and flexibility, but also allows you to get more mileage out of your training and climbing sessions.  According to a recent study by Dr. Wayne Westcott, author of more than 20 books on various types of exercise and strength training, stretching the specific muscles used after any type of workout can produce a 20% more gain in strength than can be achieved by just working out.  You can read more about it here.

Before or After?
Research shows that stretching before, during, AND after is ideal.  If done correctly, stretching before climbing will increase your flexibility and prevent injury, while stretching during and after will help with muscle balance and recovery time.  Stretching during climbing may be hard in some settings (alpine/multi-pitch), but if you're at the gym or the crag, it's pretty easy just to do a few stretches in between laps.

I have achieved the best results in performance from warming up with 'dynamic' stretching.  Dynamic stretching is defined as smoothly moving through a full range of motion. When developed for sport-specific movements, dynamic stretching is widely considered the best way to increase blood flow and helps to reduce injury.  There is a great article on dynamic stretches for climbers with detailed pictures here.

When stretching during and after a workout or climbing session, it is best to practice static stretching, which is where you hold a single position for a set amount of time (usually 30 seconds or more).  Doing yoga qualifies, and Kaylee Frano, an indoor-climbing youth team coach, has written a great article with the specific stretching routine she uses for her team, as well as including a more in-depth look on what the benefits of post-exercise stretching are.  Her article is here.

A common problem many people run into when they first begin stretching regularly is called 'stretch reflex', where you stretch too aggressively without any type of warm-up.  At the least, stretch reflex can lead to decreased performance; at its worst, a pulled muscle.  Before you do your pre-exercise stretching, try doing some jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, or very easy climbing to get the blood flowing a bit.  Remember to breathe during the movements and stretch slowly, deliberately, and pragmatically.  Just like climbing at that next number grade, flexibility won't happen overnight!

In a sport where flexibility is so necessary, it is remarkable how little emphasis is put on stretching.   When you first start, it can be painful and frustrating.  For me, the biggest hurdle was focusing on sitting still and being patient, but in the end the benefits are well worth the effort.


Happy Sending!

Andy Stephen, AAI Instructor and Guide

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