Finger health is a top priority for climbers. I think we can all agree on that.
Finger injuries can be devastating, and whether the injury is major or minor, reducing the time that we have to be away from the rock or climbing gym is likely on the top of every climbers list.
In fact, sometimes we are a little too eager and desperate to get back on the wall that we convince ourselves that our fingers feel ‘good enough’. Unfortunately, that decision often results in regret, re-injury, and more time off climbing. Hopefully that’s a mistake that’s not made more than once.
Luckily, there is something we can do to keep our tendons healthy that also speeds up recovery!
It all comes down to blood flow.
Blood is what heals injuries. PERIOD.
Blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to your cells, while also flushing out toxins and waste. This is vital to the overall health of your body. The catch with finger health is that tendons are not vascularized very well. Blood supply to all tendons (yup, including finger tendons) is quite poor compared to muscles, and since good blood flow is vital to health and healing, injuries that involve the tendons can be significantly delayed if this fact is overlooked.
Tendons already take longer to heal, there’s no need to prolong the process.
Plus, in addition to being poorly vascularized, injuries, and any resulting inflammation from injuries, also result in restrictions in blood flow.
The question now is:
“How can you improve the blood flow to your tendons?”
Improving blood flow helps maintain a healthy, strong body, and allows your body heal faster by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to both the tendons and ligaments (finger pulleys) and fortunately, there are several things that can be done to facilitate it. All of the suggestions listed below should not only be used to improve healing after a finger injury, but should become a regular part of your routine to maintain healthy tendons.
Before even concerning yourself with how you can improve blood flow to your finger tendons and ligaments, you should ensure that you are getting an optimal supply of blood to your hands in the first place. The major vessels that supply blood to your hands are located in the space between your collar bone and the top of your rib cage, on both the left and right side of your body. If this space is restricted, either from poor posture or even too much tightness across the chest, it can impede blood flow to your hands.
Improving your posture can be a challenge if your body is already accustomed to poor habits. Although stretching (like chest openers, see below) can help undo and correct some of the poor posture that’s developed, tackling the root of the issue and putting better habits into place is 100% the way to go.
If you sit for long periods throughout the day, sitting on the edge of your chair can help reduce the urge to slouch. Or, maybe swap out the chair altogether and replace it with an exercise ball.
Reducing the amount of time you sit on a couch can also be very beneficial. Try sitting on the ground instead!
The key is to become more aware of your body and the situations or environments that encourage poor posture. In general, focus on plugging the shoulders back, sliding the shoulder blades down and tucking the chin slightly back so the ears stack on top of the shoulders.
Also keep in mind that a strong core acts like a girdle, keeping you upright with more ease, and strengthening the muscles in the upper back can help balance out the tightness across the chest.
Chest openers are stretches that work to dissolve any tightness that’s developed across the chest and the front of the shoulders, which can be especially common in climbers. Feeling more open across the chest not only feels amazing but also creates more space for those major vessels to allow for optimal blood flow. Some of my favourite chest openers are illustrated below. Hold each for at least 30 seconds.
Melting Heart: Start in a table top position with your hips stacked over your knees. Keeping your hips stacked, walk the hands forward and allow your heart to melt down towards the floor. A juicy variation is to place blocks underneath the elbows, bring the palms together, and bend the elbows to bring the thumbs to the base of your neck.
Supine Chest Opener: Lay down on your back and place a block, bolster, rolled up mat, or similar, right across your shoulder blades. Allow the weight of your body to completely surrender down and extend your arms out to the sides, palms facing up, or grab opposite elbows up over head.
Shoulder Stretch: Come to a comfortable standing or seated position and clasp your hands behind your back. Straighten the arms, reach the palms towards each other, and reach the knuckles down as you open and roll the chest up. If the hands don’t reach behind, hold onto a strap or towel.
Massaging your fingers can help improve blood supply as well as promote the development of strong and healthy tendons. Massage each finger individually with a decent amount of pressure, lingering a bit longer on any fingers that have old or existing injuries. Be cautious not to go the point of pain. Mild discomfort is ok.
Stretching has many benefits besides improving blood flow. It helps to slow down (or even prevent) the development of scar tissue, restores your range of motion, and even plays a part in improving your climbing performance. When your fingers become immobile (especially during a finger injury), they can become stiff and experience a loss in strength. Below I’ve shown some of my favourite finger stretches. Come into each stretch until you feel the tension beginning to build and hold for about 30 seconds. Avoid any feelings of pain.
Like I mentioned above, mobility helps prevent loses in strength by preventing the development of stiffness. It also promotes healing by delivering nutrient rich blood to the target area (in this case, the finger tendons). Two awesome exercise that can be done anytime, anywhere, are shown below.
Fist and Flex: Make a tight fist, followed by strongly extending the fingers out. Continue repeating until you feel a nice pump in the forearm.
Individual Finger Mobility: Work your way into a fist by closing each finger individually, then reverse that action by individually extending the fingers back out. Keep the fingers strong and extending straight out. Start by creating a fist working from thumb to pinky, then extend from pinky to thumb. Repeat 15 times then perform it again this time creating a fist starting with the pinky and working towards the thumb, then extending back out from thumb to pinky.
Heat and Ice
As long as you don’t have a recent injury, alternating between heat and ice can be a simple way to promote healing. Heat draws healing blood toward the target area, while ice flushes it away along with any waste. Putting heat on a recent injury that is already inflamed is not a good idea. In this case, your body is already rushing fluids to the site of the injury and adding heat will just increase inflammation and pain. Alternate 4 minutes of heat with 4 minutes of ice and repeat 3 to 4 times.
Cleaning up your diet by focusing on consuming whole foods can reduce inflammation while also providing your body with quality nutrients. Fruits and vegetables are excellent nutrient dense food sources. Try having fresh fruit as a snack and filling half of your plate with some colourful veggies! Your body can only operate as good as the food you supply it with. Make it count!
Remember, happy fingers equals happy climbers. Improving blood flow to your fingers may not have been on your radar before but hopefully now you understand it’s importance and the critical role it plays in overall finger health.