Preventing Injuries in Youth Rock Climbing

Youth rock climbing is on the rise!

Who are all these little crushers all over the climbing walls? Youth climbing has grown significantly over the last decade and with the sport’s recent debut in the olympics, it’s growth and popularity among young climbers is sure to continue. With the rise in popularity and the growth of youth climbing programs and youth competitive climbing, there is a rise in the number of young athletes specializing in the sport, increased participation in youth development programs bringing in younger and younger athletes and increased participation and intensity in climbing competitions. With this, climbers, coaches, and parents need to increase their awareness around youth training demands and the risks factors for common youth related climbing injuries, and load management.

The risk of early specialization 

The literature looking into training loads and youth sport injuries tells us that athletes have a higher risk of injury when they specialize in a single sport at an early age. The effects of early sport specialization leads to a higher prevalence of overuse injuries, fatigue and burnout amongst specialized athletes as at an early age they begin to develop repetitive use patterns and incur high physical and mental stress loads concurrently throughout the year. Importantly the scientific literature provides some informed guidelines for managing these loads and minimizing risk of injury or burnout. 

How much training volume is too much?

The simple guidelines are keeping your climbing season to 8 months or less and training fewer hours than your age. For a USA Climbing competitor in the youth C category (approximate ages 12-13) this would mean limiting climbing to about 12 hours a week and taking several months off during the year.

What is unique about a youth rock climber?

The body of a youth climber is continuously going through changes as they grow and develop. This time in their life requires different and special attention compared to the typical adult training regimen. For instance, unlike adult athletes, youth climbers are susceptible to growth plate fractures from excessive loading and intensity. This type of injury if not addressed properly may lead to long term developmental changes in the growth of the affected bones. Additionally youth athletes have a whole array of other life stressors that affect their performance and very importantly, their recovery. Amongst all the stressors in a youth athletes life are school workloads which are easily overlooked and important to take into account. It is becoming well known that physical stress is not the only form of stress related to sports performance and injury risk.  High sports performance relies not only on a strong and well rested body, but the neural drive and output from the brain as a control center for movement. When your brain is tired, your performance is diminished and with a highly technical sport such as climbing, decreased technical performance has the potential to lead to injury.

How to identify finger stress fractures in youth climbers

There are numerous downsides and potential detriments to overtraining, from overuse injuries to burnout from the sport. One important overuse injury to be aware of in youth climbing is a growth plate fracture. This injury can manifest slowly over time presenting as finger soreness and can sometimes be misdiagnosed as a pulley sprain, or capsulitis (inflammation in the joint). In the youth athlete with persistent finger soreness or pain, it is important for them to rest the fingers and seek medical attention if the climber’s symptoms do not go away. A simple x-ray can diagnose this injury. Early identification and management is the key to getting back to your sport quickly and safely. 

If you would like to know more have a look at our Webinar on this topic put together by Mitch Owens PT and presented by Chris McMullen MD.

Burnout in youth rock climbing

Burnout and mental fatigue are significant problems for an overtrained young athlete and it is not to be overlooked. Youth burnout can manifest in various ways such as low energy, decreased performance, lack of motivation or emotional outbursts from an athlete. A high stress negative training environment, feelings of failing parents or coaches, and monotonous training routines are large contributing factors to burnout. Keeping variety in the training program, having a positive training environment, realistic expectations, and monitoring training loads and athlete performance will go a long way towards minimizing risk of athlete burnout.

Avoid training into poor form

Training is designed to elicit a level of fatigue from the muscles which is important to develop adaptations to training loads. While in a training routine and accumulating a level of fatigue the youth athletes primary focus should be on maintaining good form, avoiding sagged shoulders, chicken winged elbows, and wild lurches up the wall. As technique begins to fail, the athlete should be encouraged and allowed to either decrease the intensity to allow good form, or take an appropriate break from the activity until they are able to return to the wall with proper form. 

Youth climbing training guidelines

The sport of climbing is inherently a technical movement based activity. As such the pinnacle of training focus need not be on volume overload and increased time on the wall, but rather on good technical form and proper patterns of movement that build a strong foundation of proficient movement up the wall. Tools such as campus boards, system walls, and hang boards all serve their purpose at the appropriate time and under the right circumstances, however these tools should not supersede the importance of foundational movement skills.  They may be appropriate for youth athletes with multiple years of training history in the sport and should only be used in moderation as a supplement to a well rounded program. Weighted hangboard training and campus board training can also increase the risk for finger stress fractures in athletes who are in an active growth spurt. 

Following the guidelines, listening to the athletes body and performance, and taking a more holistic approach to assessing the stressors and fatigue in a youth athlete will provide coaches, parents, and athletes better insight into how best to manage the training of any individual athlete. The most consistent way to progress in climbing is to stay healthy, build your psyche, and have fun! 

What to do if you do become injured rock climbing? 

Not all climbing injuries are season-enders. It can be challenging to know what is going on and if it is important to take relative rest, to strengthen and load the tissue, or to seek additional medical care. If you have a concern regarding an injury and you would like to ensure a thorough diagnosis, create a recovery plan that is right for you and get back out on the rock as soon as possible, please schedule an appointment at our Seattle-based physical therapy office, where we specialize in treating rock climbing injuries. 

About the Author:

Joshua Foster PT, DPT is a Physical Therapist with Union PT in Seattle Washington. With over a decade of experience as a competition level climbing coach and head routesetter, Josh brings extensive climbing experience to the physical therapy profession to get you climbing strong and sending again. 

This piece was reviewed by Mitch Owens PT