Rachel

28th Jan 2016

Question:

I have a question for you in your online climbing clinic, it's a bit unusual but maybe its just not talked about.

I get pain in my calves when performing a heel hook. The pain itself is very similar to cramp: Sudden onset, sharp almost unbearable pain. It differs insofar that it tends to be a smaller area, not the whole muscle, and goes almost the moment I stop (unlike cramp, which requires stretching out a bit and the pain then lingers on).

The issue is making me reluctant/tentative to use heel hooks, and stopping me from progressing on routes that need them.

Any thoughts as to the cause, and anything I can do to overcome the problem?

Answer:

My first piece of advice, would be to go and see someone who specialises in anatomy and physiology, such as: a physio, osteopath, chiropractor, those sorts of health professionals.
I am not qualified in this area apart from what I’ve learnt from my own body over the years.
But what I can say in my fairly amateurish way, is that from experience, heel hooks are a pretty full-on move that puts A LOT of strain on the back of the knee, hamstrings and related areas.
So it may be that the pain you are experiencing is due to excessive stress on your connective tissues in this area; IE. The tendons and ligaments. It may also be, that your muscles and connective tissue are not quite strong enough yet and therefore not up to the job of heel-hooking, which as I said is quite an extreme move, if your body isn’t used to it.
So my advice would be to do some strengthening exercises in the calf, knee and hamstring area but also combine the strengthening with flexibility. Tendons and ligaments (and of course muscles) can be gently stretched which will increase potential movement and help towards avoiding injury.
If up until climbing you were either sedentary (desk job) or exercised using the lower body without any stretching, your ligaments, tendons and muscles may have shortened which could possibly lead to the pain you are feeling.
So in short, look into some strengthening and stretching and almost definitely get checked out by somebody who knows about lower limb anatomy and physiology if the pain is persisting.

Having strained a hamstring myself doing a pretty extreme heel hook, I would advise steering clear of anything too full-on until you feel your body is ready. 

The other thing possibly worth mentioning, is that I have also learnt that some bodies are more adept at heel hooking than others, due to genetics and physiology. I am very interested in this myself, as I never been very good at heel hooks, so have generally steered clear of them unless absolutely necessary. So I have spent time looking at other peoples bodies in relation to the heel hook and chatting to them and one of the conclusions Iv’e come to, is that my body was not made to heel hook. It seems to be about the relationship between the ankle, knee and hip mobility. And mine just don’t seem to turn outwards in the same way as people who are good at heel hooks. An example for me was when I was working on a classic boulder problem at Raven Tor called The Weedkiller Traverse. There is a move that everybody puts a heel hook in on and I kept trying but the heel hook just didn’t feel like it was doing anything for me. So I turned the heel into a toe-hook. This made the move ultimately more powerful, as it changed the shape of my body in the move but it also made the move doable. And this was how I did it. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else doing it like that.
Heel hooks are very popular moves these days and rightly so, especially indoors. But even now, I will rarely use one unless absolutely necessary. For me they don’t massively help in getting my hips in closer because my hips don’t seem to bend outwards that way.
I thought this is worth mentioning because it is possible to climb a lot of things without heel hooking. Although when people are good at it and use them a lot, it does look lovely and efficient. But just bear in mind that we aren’t all built the same and what works for one, won’t necessarily work for someone else.

Good luck!