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Here's the Rub

Tuning Sore Muscles with Self-Massage
By Nancy Prichard - August 2nd, 2000

In more than 25 years of climbing, I've been lucky to have escaped serious injury. Aside from getting my elbow caught in an overhanging hand crack hundreds of feet off the deck, I've enjoyed a safe career void of accidents. That is not to say my tenure has been entirely injury-free. There have been plenty of bruised knees, scraped skin, and sore muscles and tendons. While many of these maladies were relatively unavoidable, experience has taught me that practicing preventative medicine can help to limit the wear and tear that climbing invariably inflicts on the body.

A good tape job and impeccable technique can help you avoid scrapes and abrasions, but for tendon and muscle wear and tear, don't discount the benefit of sport-specific massage. Climbing puts strain on your arms, neck, shoulders, hands and feet, not to mention both your lower and upper back. Not only can you expect day-to-day tenderness when you climb, but many days on the rock can result in overuse injuries. Here are a few tips for self-massage that can help keep your body in tune, and hopefully, pain- and injury-free. You may not get the same relief as if you contracted with a massage therapist on a weekly basis, but with a little practice, you can master enough self-help therapy to keep your body running smoothly. Not only can timely self massage help to relieve stiff, sore muscles, but it can also help to prevent injury and speed up recovery.

A good part of self-massage is common sense. Don't push too hard on very sore areas and always lighten pressure around joints. You can rub muscles and tendons both with, and across their fibers. Use long strokes when you are massaging the length of a muscle, and shorter, more brisk strokes for cross-fiber therapy. Oil makes for a smooth rub, but may not be appropriate between climbs. Here are a few tips from top sports massage guru, Joan Johnson. Her book, The Healing Art of Sports Massage (Rodale Press, 1995) is a terrific primer on massage technique (both for self-massage and working on others) for a variety of sports.

  • Arms - When your arms get tired, try these massages for your biceps, triceps, and forearms:
    Biceps - Use your right hand to massage your left biceps and vice versa. Reach across your body and grasp your biceps, thumb up. Massage your biceps with longitudinal strokes from the elbow up toward your armpit. Continue to the upper biceps, pressing your thumb transversely into the junction of the biceps muscles. Continue to exert gentle pressure with your thumb as you move your hand upward along the anterior deltoid on the underside of your arm.

    Forearm - This massage works wonders to reduce inflammation after a climb, but can also help to alleviate a flash pump mid-route. Grasp your forearm palm up with your opposite hand. Moving from wrist to elbow, massage your arm with your fingers and thumb. Turn your palm down, and repeat the massage. Use your thumb to exert deeper pressure on trigger points for several seconds at a time.

    Triceps - You can reach your triceps by placing your arm in front of your body and grasping it above your elbow with your other arm - the massaging arm should be bent at a 90-degree angle at the elbow. Work down from behind your shoulder toward your elbow with your fingertips while slowly straightening your arm. Don't push too hard with the area just above your elbow where the triceps muscle converges at the triceps tendon.

  • Back - Lying on your pack, position a tennis ball directly under the area you want massaged. The more body weight you exert over the ball, the deeper the massage. This technique can also be used for the buttocks. By adjusting your weight, you can move over the ball and work the muscles in specific areas.
  • Hands and feet - Again, using your opposite hand, use your thumb and fingers to palpitate sore areas of each hand. Pressure should be gentle but firm. Massage your palm by interlocking your fingers and exerting direct pressure with your thumb. Do cross-fiber massage on each joint of the finger, avoiding your knuckles. Sit down if possible to massage your feet. Concentrate on rubbing the arch. Stroke lengthwise or in circular motions. Toes can be pulled gently and cross-fiber massaged.
  • Neck and shoulders - In a sitting or standing position, reach your arm in front of your body and lay your fingers alongside your neck, thumb down. Press your fingers firmly into the trapezius muscle, moving from just below your skull to your shoulders. Tilt your head away from your hand as you move your massaging hand from your scull to shoulder. You can massage your neck by pressing the fingertips of your hand (thumb up) into the top of your other shoulder. Move your fingers backward and forewards, like playing the scales on the piano, to massage the muscle.

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