Extended periods of climbing or long alpine adventures have a way of simultaneously being both beneficial for the body and hard on it. Consecutive days of cramming feet into rock shoes, cramming the already crammed feet into cracks and standing on the toes for long periods of time can turn ones feet into an unsightly mess. This damage adds up over years of climbing and can lead to huge callouses, bunions and disfigured toenails. Long periods of hiking in mountain boots followed by extended periods kicking forcefully into snow and ice can also have damaging effects.
Hiking uphill, carrying a pack, hiking downhill, falling from boulder problems, hard rock overs, heel hooks and various other climbing maneuvers all take their toll on the lower body. Soreness in the feet, ankles, knees, hips and lower back are common complaints amongst climbers from boulderers to alpinists and are often correlated with one another. For example, stiff muscles in the arches of the feet can cause tightness in the ankles which can lead to improper posture while walking which in turn causes knee pain during long approaches. Climbers, especially rock climbers and pebble wrestlers, often spend their training time strengthening and working to prevent injuries in the upper body, but the lower body and legs need an equal amount of attention from an active climber. The legs and feet take much of the weight on all but the steepest climbs, and are your means of getting to and from your climb, boulder, or mountain!
When I was 18 I began to feel a twinge of pain in my right knee, followed shortly by a deeper pain that slowly grew in my left knee cap. Soon I could no longer push the pedals around on my bicycle and walking even one block to the physiotherapist became a chore. The doctor misdiagnosed the issue and as the pain in my lower body increased I felt that I would no longer be able to alpine climb. But over the following years I began to cultivate a body awareness that have helped me self-address the muscular issues that cause this pain. Learning to address these issues has allowed me to undertake ultra-marathon distance days in the mountains again and complete long link ups without being held back by sore knees and tight muscles.
While I am not a physiotherapist or doctor I would like to share a few of my tips for keeping your lower body healthy and well maintained for rock and alpine climbing. These tips are applicable for all climbers from boulderers to alpinists and can help address and prevent some pain in the lower body. This is a short and simple list, a kind of ‘quick guide’ on the topic.
-Your feet are the base of your entire body and must not be ignored!
It is easy and common to ignore the feet but they are your body’s base and used to support every movement of the legs, issues in the feet can affect the entire body. It is important that your feet can splay out inside your shoe and not be squeezed too tightly in order for your muscles to function naturally as you walk. With climbing shoes and stiff boots this is often not the case as your feet are forced into unnatural positions for extended periods of high physical output which can lead to stiffness or even degeneration of the tissues in the feet and ankles. When you must wear tight fitting rock shoes loosen the shoe and pop out your heels in between attempts on that problem, climbs at the crag, or pitches on the wall. For longer days try to find a more comfortable shoe that allows your foot to splay out rather than curl, Mythos, TC Pros and 5.10 Moccasins are all good options for this. Even then, take off the shoe between pitches when you can, it will save your feet in the long run. After long days of climbing, or days spent in mountains boots, releasing the muscles and fascia of the feet will help in preventing injuries. The easiest way to do this is too acquire a Lacrosse ball (or any other VERY hard sports ball smaller than the size of a fist) and roll out the muscles in the foot very slowly. Quick rolling motions are not nearly as effective as spending at least 30 seconds applying pressure to each tight section of the foot. Try to do this exercise daily, even on road trips as lacrosse balls are small and very portable.
-Try to stretch your legs on a daily basis.
Thoroughly stretching all the muscles in the legs every day is much easier said than done. While proper stretching is relaxing, it does require a good deal of focus and time and setting aside enough time for this every single day may not be possible for many. A good rule of thumb is to stretch at least 4 days a week, but aim for more.
-Prime your muscles for stretching by rolling out knots and releasing trigger points.
Imagine an elastic band with a knot in it. Pulling on the elastic will cause it to elongate similar to stretching your muscles, the knot however is not released by this action. An effective way to help release knots in your muscles prior to stretching is by using a foam roller in conjunction with the lacrosse ball mentioned earlier in the article. Foam rollers are available at most physiotherapy shops and many sports stores. I personally use a small ‘Travel Roller’ that I can bring on road trips and international expeditions. Foam rolling techniques can be found with google but here are a few key points to get you started.
- Don’t roll too fast. Find the tightest and most painful location on each muscle and spend 30 seconds to a minute creating pressure on that point. Breathe deeply and try to help the muscle relax with your breath. Quickly passing over the tight muscle with the roller is essentially pointless.
- Breathe deeply and meditate on the discomfort. Rolling out tight muscles can be extremely uncomfortable at first. This discomfort likely means that your muscles are in desperate need of release. Much like in life, working through some level of discomfort will often lead to the most positive gain.
- Use the lacrosse ball for the feet. For the calf muscles and hamstrings I find that a combination of foam rolling and using the lacrosse ball works best. It is sometimes difficult to generate sufficient pressure on some muscles with the roller as it disperses the weight over too large of an area, use the ball for these areas.
- Work upwards from your feet to your hips and try to spend at least one minute on each muscle on each side, two or three minutes on each side is better. Make sure to roll the muscles on both the front and back sides of your legs.
Okay, so your feet, legs and hips are all rolled out! You have loosened up those pesky knots and your muscles might feel a bit sore, in a good way of course. You are now ready to stretch them out. Stretching is best done somewhere comfortable, on carpet or on a yoga mat. Rolling and stretching in front of the TV, or in a social living room chatting with friends will be much less effective due to the many distractions. Really effective stretching requires one to focus the mind on each individual muscle and breathe deeply to supply oxygen rich blood to the area. This is often not as easy as it sounds, especially after a rough day at work, or when your mind is distracted by any number of things that may be occurring in your life. Clearing your mind in order to stretch and relax the muscles can have an equally soothing effect on the mind as mental stress can be released along with muscle tension.
While it may not appeal to some, attending a couple yoga classes can have great benefits in learning how to stretch and maintain a healthy body and mind as well. I personally find that there are many parallels to the headspace of deep focused stretching or yoga in climbing. These parallels often present themselves when I have to mentally myself before a dangerous runout, a committing free solo on loose rock or onsighting an exposed pitch right at my limit. Even stepping up (or sitting down!) to the first holds on a very difficult boulder problem has similarities to focusing on that tight, clenched muscle and helping it release.
Here I have included a handful of my favorite lower body stretches that I personally try to use on a daily basis. Find the stretches that work on your tight areas and try to enjoy the process of taking care of your feet and legs.
-Learn about the muscles in your legs, pinpoint your weaknesses and work on them!
Educating yourself about your own anatomy is the most important step you can take towards preventing and treating injury in your future. Learning how each muscle interacts while you climb, hike, run or do anything will help you pinpoint where you are weak. Strengthening these muscles so that other (and often smaller) muscles do not have to overcompensate for this weakness will help your body function naturally and efficiently.
Information can easily be found online or in books. While the exercises listed in this guide will be a good starting point, further research will be the key to preventing and treating any injuries that may arise in the future.