Sometimes you get tweaks and niggles or light injuries and it is obvious where they come from. Say you took a weird fall while bouldering, landed awkwardly and wake-up with a stiff neck the next day. In that case, it is very obvious were that stiff neck came from.
Sometimes, however, it is a bit different. There’s some little tweak that flares up from time to time and you actually have no idea where that tweak is coming from.
Today, I want to talk about one of those ‘unlikely’ causes of small injuries or soreness that you can’t really wrap your head around: belaying.
Disclaimer: This is not a post on how to belay. If you’re not sure how to belay, get lessons from an experienced instructor. Safety always comes first!
The obvious tweak you can get from belaying all-day is belayer’s neck. It is caused by looking up all the time and usually presents itself with pain and stiffness in the neck. You can resolve this issue by wearing belay-glasses. There are also some exercises to strengthen your neck muscle and postural cues to avoid belayer’s neck (outlined here by Jared Vagy).
Another thing that happened to me recently was some sort of shoulder soreness from belaying. At first, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from but I soon identified my belaying technique as the root cause. I had pain in my right shoulder and the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint were very stiff.
For a few months now, I have been climbing with my girlfriend more regularly and as she dislikes bouldering, we’ve been going to an indoor rope-climbing wall. She exclusively topropes and wants the rope to be fairly tight most of the time. I have found that when I pull-in rope and try to keep the rope tight (I use a Grigri by the way), I often find myself in an awkward position with my arm pulling backwards and sideways with the elbow flaring out (away from my body) while I’m looking up. This motion is basically yanking on my rotator cuff and it was the cause of the stiffness I experienced.
Usually, I exclusively belay lead climber which means that I don’t really have to pull-in a lot of rope. Therefore, this is less of a problem with lead belaying.
There are two things that I did to fix this condition. First, I paid more attention to my arm when belaying. I try to keep my elbow close to my body and avoid flaring it out in order to reduce stress on my rotator cuff. Secondly, I push the rope into the Grigri with my other hand (holding the rope above the belay device) and subsequently have to pull less with my right hand. This has also helped a lot!
Sometimes, I also switch to a tube-style device for belaying. This is actually a really good solution for me because I’m left-handed. With the Grigri I have to use my right hand as the brake hand because there’s no other way to operate it. With my ATC Guide I actually use the left hand as the brake hand (belaying with an ATC was also the first belaying technique that I learned when I started climbing). This gives my right hand a rest and I can alternate between the two devices if I want to alternate hands (Don’t alternate hands if you’re right-handed and don’t use a tube-style device if you weren’t taught how to use it).
The lesson here is that you should pay attention to unlikely causes of injuries and soreness. Sometimes it is not even climbing related but could be something like the position of your mouse-arm at work.
When belaying, pay attention to your posture and observe carefully if any motion that you’re doing feels a bit awkward or likely to induce soreness. Keep your elbow close to your body when pulling in rope in order to avoid stress on your rotator cuff. Remember that safety always comes first. I could correct my belaying technique without making any sacrifices in safety. Make sure that any correction you make does not impede safety!