Every climber knows it all too well: Suddenly nothing works anymore, your hands open and you fly to the next safety point or - hopefully - onto the crash pad. In today's guest post, Christoph Völker explains to us what happens physiologically in the forearms.

A guest post by Christoph Völker from target10a.com

What happens in perennial routes or bouldering traverses is very complex on a chemical and biological level. Slightly reduced it can be said that by holding small grips depending on the strength of the load, the muscles are contracted so strongly statically / isometrically that little or no blood can flow through the muscles of the finger flexors.

Working with a muscle contraction greater than 20% of maximum capacity will already affect blood flow. At 50% and more it is completely closed. It can then flow neither oxygen, nor lactate and other metabolites can be removed.

From the aerobic to the anaerobic area

If the metabolism described above is stopped, we are in the anaerobic area. The result: The so-called "pump" in the forearms begins. In the completely anaerobic area, you can stay around for one to two minutes until the energy systems collapse. If you do not manage to get out of this anaerobic area, because, for example, there is no resting place or easier passage, the Red Alert is quickly announced and you fall out of the wall.

Fortunately, there are usually shaking points and easier passages in climbing, where we can switch from the anaerobic area back to the aerobic. By shaking, but also by the advancing, you get the blood flow in the forearms again in momentum. Thus, routes can be climbed that are significantly longer than the theoretical, purely anaerobic phase of a maximum of two minutes.

The cardiovascular system does not matter much

This brings us to a point that some climbers see as controversial: namely, that the cardiovascular system does not have a major influence on endurance performance when climbing. If you compare climbing, for example, with the 400-meter run, then with the 400-meter run, the relatively large thigh muscles are supplied with blood and oxygen through the movement. So the heart has to pump the blood to these muscles. Therefore, the performance in the 400 meter run is actually limited by the cardiovascular system. Accordingly, jogging does not help much for endurance performance when climbing - but it should be done for other reasons.

When climbing, the thing is different. Here, on the one hand, we have these static contractions, which restrict the blood flow in the forearms and therefore provide the anaerobic environment. And on the other hand it is so that the forearm muscles, so the finger flexors, a very small muscles, which can not absorb as much oxygen and blood, as the cardiovascular system could provide. Therefore, it goes without saying that intensive cardio training has little effect on endurance performance when climbing.

Trail running in the Alpstein - Michi Wohlleben - Photographer Bernard Rohr
Trail running in the Alpstein - Michi Wohlleben (Photo: Bernard Rohr).

Jogging makes sense as a balance training

However, I'm not saying that you shouldn't go jogging at all. For me, I go jogging for 20 minutes once a week to counteract degenerative symptoms in my knees and hips. So as a kind of compensation training. In addition, cardio training improves your general fitness and you can do a higher workload. But if you do excessive cardio training, you will eventually come to the point where the need for regeneration becomes very great and the climbing-specific progress suffers. Rather, we have to make sure that we adjust the forearms for the load when climbing. And the best way to do that is by climbing itself.

The solution for climbing: Capillarization

In order to increase strength endurance for climbing, we have to achieve increased capillarization. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels that run between the arteries and veins in the muscles. The higher the capillary density, the more the muscles can be supplied with oxygen and blood and the better by-products can be broken down.

Easy come easy go

Now, the capillary density in the forearm muscles increases relatively quickly if properly trained. But beware: As fast as the capillary density is built up, you lose it as fast. Once the training is stopped, the capillaries go back and the strength endurance performance decreases.

There are a number of other chemical and physical factors associated with increased strength endurance activity. These are not fully understood and are neglected for simplicity at this point.

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Credits: Cover picture Adam Ondra; Text Christoph Völker of target10a.com

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