To Tape Or Not To Tape?

Annular Pulleys: A1, A2, A3, A4, A5.
Cruciform Pulleys: C0, C1, C2, C3.

Working in a climbing centre, we’re often asked for finger tape and advice on how to use it, usually by people showing us their hands with an expression of mild horror. So we thought a quick and dirty guide to finger taping tips would be handy – with apologies for any finger/hand related puns that may follow.

There are two reasons for taping fingers and hands – the first is to protect the skin, especially outdoors on sharper rock like granite or gritstone, and when you know that your hands are in for an ordeal – say before a long day of climbing on fist jam cracks, or say an easy day on Dartmoor. At the end of a long session bouldering outdoors people often tape individual tips where the skin is sore or looking especially tasty. However, as with all things in life there’s a trade-off. In this case, it’s that finger tape doesn’t offer the same friction against rock or plastic as skin, and also that the tape tends to slip slightly against your sweaty skin, causing you to lose grip on smaller holds or slopers.

Taping to protect your skin pre-emptively is wise if done when you know that you are almost certainly going to damage your skin beyond what can be repaired overnight. However, plastic holds are much more forgiving than sharp granite, so taping your fingers pre-emptively indoors to protect skin is generally just going to mean that you are delaying building up that tougher skin that you need anyway. In short, rather than taping to avoid skin pain indoors try some of the following tactics: Avoid trying the same move or problem over and over again; try to have more control over how your hand comes into contact with holds; vary your grip positions regularly; & finally man or woman up!

The second reason for taping is to support the underlying tendons & pulleys in your hand which, although harder to injure, do take a lot longer to heal than sore skin. There are two main flexor tendons in each finger: one that flexes your finger, and one that flexes the fingertip. These tendons are supported by a system of pulleys, a bit like rings at intervals along your finger that hold the tendons in their proper place and keep those tendons in the position of leverage required for supporting weight. These pulleys are what this second type of taping is supposed to reinforce.

Pulleys and tendons are not built to stretch, but rather to keep everything firmly in place. An injured pulley is caused by too much force on the tendons that causes a pulley to tear, usually with a sudden pain and a loud popping sound, followed shortly by a visible bowing outwards of the finger around the injured area. Before 1980, cases of pulley rupture were almost unheard of in sports injury literature, but cases are now regularly seen – unsurprisingly mostly among climbers.

Of the five main pulleys, the A2, A3, and A4 on your middle and ring fingers are most at risk because they are strategically placed around the second finger joint where potential pulley rupturing forces are at their highest. Studies also show that the stress applied to the A2 pulley in the raised knuckle “closed crimp” position is about 36 times greater than in the open-hand position, and three times greater than the force actually applied to the tip of the finger. Ouch! In this digital age, a quick search on the internet will bring up a lot of research studies on these things for anyone of a scientific bent. There is a fair amount of debate about the real effectiveness of taping to support pulleys. The often seen taping of the first finger joint, which supports only the A2 pulley, has been studied and interestingly enough appears be more or less useless. However, as this kind of taping is usually done as a desperate response to an existing minor tweak or injury, it’s likely that such taping merely provides a bit of relief through compression of the sore area and some placebo effect through the feeling that you’re somehow dealing with the problem. If you’re thinking to yourself that this doesn’t sound like very effective protection against an injury that can potentially put you out of climbing action for months at a time, then you’d probably be correct.

So, what practical advice can you take from all this to keep your digits in top shape through taping?

1, Tape pre-emptively to avoid sure-fire injury to skin that will cut a session or a trip short, but man/woman up to minor discomfort that will help build tougher skin.

2, Don’t rely on tape to protect your tendons or pulleys from injury or aggravating an existing one. Rest!

3, For general skin and pulley health: try to take holds in a controlled manner; avoid trying the same move over and over repeatedly; and keep varying your grip throughout a session – especially if you tend to favour crimping.

In my opinion it’s best to tape to prevent skin holes but you also need to build up the hardness of your skin so there is a balance. Taping to protect a pulley or tendon is never that effective. Tape can’t anatomically replicate a pulley and if you have a tweak it’s probably going to get worse even with tape so rest is best!
— Fran Brown
The only time I’ve really been using tape was when I started climbing again last year after I’d popped pulleys a couple months earlier. It definitely helped at the time, but in general I’d rather rest a bit longer when fingers are aching / tips are raw!
— Adrian Rott