20 March 2014

Engaging the brain during your climbing sessions

Every day I get emails from climbers who have had success in their climbing after reading 9 out of 10 climbers. Thanks to everyone who lets me know how they are getting on. It is great to know the book is helping climbers get more out of their sport. This morning, Franco emailed to tell me of his recent improvements since implementing some of the ideas in the book. But he picked up on the challenges of concentrating during your climbing sessions, so that some actual technique learning takes place.

In 9 out of 10, I discussed the fact that some climbers progress in their technical skills much faster than others due to how they approach their climbing sessions. Some are pretty passive, without much mental recording, review replay of the details of their movements. This is understandable. There are lots of things we get out of our climbing sessions; relaxation after a stressful day’s work is one of them. One of the ways we can relax is to completely clear the mind and just enjoy the movement over rock without consciously thinking about anything.

I’m not saying this is bad for technique. In fact, this type of approach is one ingredient of successful technique learning, in order to make already learned movement patterns quicker and more automatic.

But if we want to improve, we cannot ignore the hard part of learning new techniques which requires deliberate recording and reviewing of movements and a real conscious effort. If you are tired and in need of a de-stress, you can have the best designed training program ever, but no progress will be made while the mind is not fully engaged.

How can these apparently competing needs be squared together?

There are some suggestions in 9 out of 10 obviously. But I just want to reiterate the point that this is all much easier if the problem solving and movement experimentation mindset is part of the joy of your climbing sessions, rather than something that gets in the way of it. 

This issue of conscious review of movements feeling like a chore is less of an issue among climbers who boulder, since problem solving and repeated attempts are more centre stage in this discipline. So my first recommendation to those who mainly climb routes is to give bouldering a proper chance. Go to a good venue or boulder wall and climb with others who ‘get’ the activity. Sometimes it only takes one good session for the bouldering ‘lightbulb’ to go off in your head and suddenly you connect with the whole game of refining sequences and making subtle changes in position and force to achieve huge differences in how the move goes.

During your sessions, if you would like to have some switch off time to relax and shed the day’s stresses, there are plenty of strategies. Just be inventive and do what suits you best. For some that might be allocating particular sessions to technique training and others to purely mileage and relaxation. Being realistic about what you can achieve might help you organise your sessions better and get more from them. For others, splitting your sessions up and allocating your ‘best’ hour after a long, chilled out warm-up, to a short but effective session where you put in some real mental effort. Or perhaps you can get the required relaxation in other ways. I often sit for 30 minutes and just drink tea at the climbing wall before starting, just to forget the other stuff buzzing around my head, and allow myself to get into rock climbing mode.


However you choose arrange your climbing so that you are ready to put in some serious effort to recording, reviewing and practicing your climbing movements, don’t ignore it. Getting this right will make inordinate difference to your progress compared to worrying about whether you should have more or less rest days or what angle you should climb on etc.

12 December 2013

The difficult question of sports injuries and disillusionment in youngsters


This good website has some interesting information on the size of the problem of young sportspeople getting injured. Injury rates are going up, to uncomfortably high levels. A serious sports injury is not just a short term issue for a young climber, runner or other sportsperson. It’s one of a few important reasons why so many youngsters drop out of sport before they even finish their teens.

It’s so obviously ironic that parents and coaches both take satisfaction from encouraging kids to take part in sport to foster a lifelong habit of activity and enjoyment. Yet overdoing that encouragement is one of the main reasons behind them ultimately dropping out or getting injured. The number one reason youngsters give for deciding to quit their sport is pressure from parents, coaches or the setup of their sport. So, whatever we are doing, it’s wrong.

Lots of coaches are still wrestling with the idea of whether formal competition in sport is a good idea for kids. There doesn’t appear to be any straightforward answer to that question. The best answer might be ‘it depends’. If the environment is optimal, competition in sport may be quite healthy, if unnecessary. However, it rarely is optimal. There are potential sources of problems everywhere. Therefore, being realistic, maybe no competitive sport until beyond adolescence is better? That is definitely still an open debate.

It’s difficult for parents even to realise how pivotal their role is. For instance, who can blame parents for subconsciously rewarding competition results instead of effort, balance, maturity, sportsmanship and science based training in sport? The very best coaches in professional sport can hardly seem to achieve this, even though they should know better. It’s a tough challenge for parents to assume the role of sports philosopher, role model, coach, sports scientist and sports medic. On the other hand, if you are going to invest time, effort and expense in encouraging your child’s path in sport, you might as well do it properly, in a way that doesn’t leave them either injured or disillusioned and out of sport for good at 13 or 14.

It’s difficult for coaches too. Reliable and useful information on training program design and injury prevention is extremely hard to come by. Moreover, coaches often don’t have enough time with youngsters to provide individually tailored training. In this situation, I think it’s important that they emphasise to both parents and youngsters that the advice they give has limitations, and if they want to make sure they are training safely, they should consider  training themselves to be informed self-coaches, or hire in some more personalised coaching.

In climbing, we are about to enter a dangerous period (in the UK at least) since some new coaching qualifications are coming on-stream. Qualifications, generally speaking, are of course a good thing. However, there can be problems if parents see the word ‘qualified coach’ and don’t think any more about what the qualification means. It’s possible to be a qualified coach in many sports on surprisingly little experience, and unfortunately, depth of knowledge. Parents should be careful to make themselves aware of the level of skill and experience of those coaching their children. Start from the assumption that the coaches are not suitably experienced or resourced to prevent injuries in youngsters, and that you’ll need to consult a range of sources to ensure the best chances of avoiding injury and ensuring youngsters have a good range of influences on their development in sport.

I must say, with my own child, I’d be equivocal at best about encouraging them to get involved in regular competitive sport before adolescence. Non-competitive sport offers so many of the benefits, if not more, without the inherent problems that competition brings. Taking injury risk in particular, non-competitive sports offer the opportunity for more variety and spontaneity in the yearly diet of training, important both physically and psychologically. They also push the focus of performance inwards, to messages coming from the body, rather than outwards, just doing the same training as your peers or trying to keep up with others unrealistically. In other words, they are often healthier all round.

I see advice for youngsters in competitive sport to take breaks in the year from competition. Good advice, although not if they simply stop training completely. Complete rest falls foul of one of the fundamental laws of tendon injuries: “tendons don’t like rest or change”.

I’m talking about parents, coaches and the youngsters themselves so far. They have the immediate responsibility to improve the outcome for the youngster as they move forward with their own life. But what about those higher up, who are in charge of leading sport, spending our money to make sure the potential benefits for all of us are realised? What is the point in promoting sport if it is so hampered by a massive early dropout rate and millions (3.5 million in the US) of injured kids? The idea is that we foster lifelong involvement in sport and physical activity and that sport is something youngsters enjoy over the long term. It’s pretty clear that it doesn’t nearly meet these aims for a big chunk of the participants.

This is a big, serious question, that needs leaders of sport to go right back to basics. When we promote sport, how should it be done? What sports, or sporting practices are healthy in the long term? Should we be promoting entirely different sports and ideas around sport? Probably. I’d like to see data comparing dropout rates between competitive sports and non-competitive sports, such as those based around the outdoors and training. My hunch is that if sporting culture was less centred around rankings or winning/losing and more centred around simple fun, effort, resourcefulness and dedication, that dropout rate would go down.

What specifically should change? It’s a deep cultural change, so no single or simple thing can be targeted. I’d certainly like to see that a session at the gym/leisure centre/sports facility should always be cheaper than a can of cider. Getting an exercise high should always be cheaper than a drug high like alcohol for so many kids who have limited money. Unhealthy goods like cigarettes and alcohol are taxed more heavily to take account of their effects. Why not services? It seems a shame that new sports facilities are not given a more favourable financial climate in which to flourish. At big multi-activity centres, the pizza and cinema tickets could be £1 more expensive so that the indoor snow slope or climbing wall can be cheaper. The many threads of enjoyment of exercise and training for it’s own sake should be promoted over winning and losing. More could be made of urban spaces. Good incentives should be set up for running, cycling, parkour, skateboarding etc clubs to use these spaces. Everyday exercise and sport should be as conspicuous as possible. ‘No ball games’ signs could be banned. If the NHS is going to save money by encouraging us all to be involved in sports, at least some provision is going to be needed to offer proper sports medical care, in recognition that sports injuries do happen and are career ending if left untreated. Surely it’s cheaper to correctly diagnose and repair the ACL tear now than treat the arthritic patient in a couple of decades?

Of course there are countless possibilities along these lines. The cumulative effect would be that youngsters who we do manage to encourage into sport will have enough variety in their activity, so they don’t grow to hate their own sports before they are 15. Moreover, they’ll be less likely to feel the need to enter into serious competition until later, when they are ready. Their parents will be less likely to ‘hang’ their encouragement on success in one sport as well as measuring that success along different lines. And, the youngsters might become more physically conditioned from a longer background in sports before they launch into serious training and hence lower their risk of injury.

Young climbers I’ve met who have been involved in the competitive side of climbing are the only ones I’ve ever seen stop climbing at a young age. I don’t think I can recall ever seeing a climber who was focused on the other aspects of the sport decide to give up. That’s not to say I conclude that competition is bad. It’s just that it can tend to drown out the other reasons for doing sport and become a demotivator after a while.


Whatever is suggested as solutions, the first stage is to really recognise that the injury and dropout rates among youngsters in sport means that what we are doing now is not enough.

3 December 2013

Venezuela Jungle Jam DVD in the shop


Finally, we just got our copies of the new film from the crazy Belgians in the shop: Venezuela Jungle Jam. Nico Favresse, Sean Villanueva and their climbing partners are the undisputed kings of making expedition climbing movies. They are also pretty much the kings of making badass climbing expeditions. It’s a killer combination.

Their previous films Asgard Jamming and Vertical Sailing have been very popular with you and for good reason. They are two of the most fun climbing films you’ll ever see and full of all the ingredients of great adventure - big characters, thrills and spills and unexpected funny moments. Venezuela Jungle Jam is the latest in the line! It’s already picking up a string of awards on the film festival circuit. In this film they are off to the amazing 500m sandstone Tepuy of Venezuela to deal with sweaty jungles, wild animals, loose rock, falls, overhanging big walls and, always, jamming on the portaledge.

The climbing looks challenging, in just about all the ways it could (apart from being cold). The scenery is gob smacking and as you’ll just about see in the teaser (it really is a tease) Sean’s superb sideways plummet off a ledge is another one of those ‘oh my god’ moments we almost come to expect from these guys. Brilliant stuff. The DVD is 58 mins plus extras, Subtitles in English, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Polish and German.

I’ve also just added the Distilled DVD now we have our DVD stock, so you have the option of downloading it, or getting it for your winter partner for Christmas!

10 November 2013

New titles in the shop

I’ve just added a couple of new books in the shop. Both are must reads for anyone keen for inspiration and information on climbing, but both are very different. The last book is a long awaited guide to some of the finest lumps of rock in the UK.

First up is Julian Lines autobiography ‘Tears of the Dawn’. I imagine most of you will not need introduced to Jules, who has been the ‘dark horse’ of the bold trad and free soloing scene in the UK for the past 15 years or so. I’ve done a couple of his routes myself such as Firestone E7 6c in Hell’s Lum which is archetypal of his climbs - no gear, not really any holds either. Just a deep breath and a lot of trust in the frictional properties of thin granite smears. Many of the nailbiting adventures he’s had over the years involve free soloing, by himself on the quiet mountain crags of the highlands. But he’s also well known for his deep water soloing exploits, not to mention jumping off cliffs and paragliding. He’s hit the ground from a long way up too many times to mention, but is either a very lucky man or has bendy bones. It’s a great window into the mind of an solo adventurer, but very much the opposite of an Alex Honhold type of character.

Next is The Art of Ice Climbing, a lovely book which is part coffee table inspiration book, part technical manual. It’s a great production with interesting historical and new photography throughout. It has excellent advice sections on sharpening ice tools, screws, ropework and techniques for ice climbing. I think just about any ice climber would learn something new here. In the past there have been some great books on ice climbing that every climber should have on their shelf. I reckon this is the latest in that line.

Lastly, I’ve added the new Torridon bouldering guide which is finally out by local activists Ian Taylor and Richie Betts. It’s great to see this guide finally out. The rock at Torridon is the best I’ve climbed on in the UK. It’s truly amazing stuff, and many of the problems are amazing natural lines too. The guys have done a great job producing this guide which contains around 250 problems to go at, and of course many first ascents still waiting to be explored.


You’ll find all of these, along with the rest of the best climbing books, films and gear out there in the shop.

17 October 2013

Technique training: race face



A case in point. This moment was pretty much the closest I came to falling off all 23 pitches of Paciencia, Eiger North Face in the summer. I wasn't warmed up, felt my skin was 'glassy' with the cold and might slip off suddenly and hence wasn't getting much feedback. So instead of being relaxed I was climbing like a robot (and not in a good way).  In this case, since the pitch was only 7c, the best thing was just to press on. If it had been a couple of grades harder or we weren't pressed for time since it was the Eiger nordwand and not a sport crag, It would've been better to come down and get myself better warmed up before continuing. Photo: Alexandre Buisse

Biting your lip, sticking your tongue out and generally screwing up your face as you climb is pretty common. Most of us think a grimace is related to effort, but the experts in the balance and stability sides of sports science say otherwise. It’s true that our moments of greatest effort and concentration can feel at once effortless, yet require every ounce of focus we have. Sometimes, the one attempt where we didn’t feel we had to grimace was the time we topped out on the climb. It’s one of the great paradoxes of sport.

The stability experts say that we grimace when we need more control and we are not using our balance centres (vision, inner ear, and joint receptors) effectively. In some experiments, when athletes are asked to perform a technical movement and do so with ‘facial fixing’, once they are asked to perform the movement with a relaxed face, they are unable to. In others, a relaxed face can make a movement possible where it was not with facial fixing.

Because facial fixing is part of our motor routine for controlling movement, what you do with your face in training becomes part of your routine for that movement. Lets think about what this means; On one hand, why would it matter if you grimace on the fingerboard or on the circuits, and grimace on the real routes you are training for? That might be fine if the demands of the training and the performance were the same. But they probably aren’t. 

In the training, you are isolating specific components of performance and working them - i.e. Getting pumped on an endurance circuit where you know the moves. Or pulling as hard as you can on a fingerboard, or trying to keep weight on your feet on a boulder problem. Yet in the real performance situation, you may be making all sorts of movement decisions that are different from the above training situations - reading the rock, finding protection and managing your effort. Many of these demands will benefit from maintaining a relaxed face. So the advice is to aim to maintain a relaxed face as often as you can in both training and performance. During the training, you’ll learn to produce maximal physical and technical effort without the need for facial fixing, and so you wont be reliant on it when it comes to performance.

NB: Lots of climbers who do facial fixing have no idea they do. You might well need to get a climbing partner to point it out to you so you realise just how often you do it and become tuned in to the times you do. I once asked a climber I know why he made a ‘click’ noise (quite loudly) with his tongue right before he initiated a hard move. He had no idea he was doing it!

16 October 2013

Technique training: When to think and when to just ‘do’


This blog post makes quite a basic but often overlooked point about technique habits. Over the past 5 years, the awareness of climbers in general of the importance of improving their movement technique has risen dramatically. More climbers, are thinking about their own movements, trying to analyse why the movements are working or not working. This is really good.

However, it brings a potential problem. Conscious thinking is very slow and clunky. The aim is for movements to progress from conscious to automatic. Doing specific technique drills, warming up and working moves for a redpoint are all great times to indulge in conscious self-analysis in real time as you actually move. 

Yet, time has to be made for those movements to work themselves into your subconscious movement repertoire. Thus, there has to be time when you focus simply on climbing the route, without keeping your minds eye on how you are moving between the holds. Can you see the difference? There is more about the timing of self-analysis of movements in ‘9 out of 10’ too.

Some climbers become ‘stuck’ in the mode of thinking about their movements and forget how to just climb. In other words, they fail to learn how to switch from training into performance mode. Just a point to keep in mind. (It goes without saying that plenty of others have the opposite problem - never actually doing any worthwhile self-analysis of their movement).

In a normal climbing wall session, you might switch between training and performance mode many times. Next time you step off the ground, decide which mode you wish to be in for this attempt.

12 October 2013

The individuality of injury treatment


Yesterday, I was having yet another conversation about golfer’s elbow with a fellow climber and sufferer of the condition (it happens pretty much every time I go to a climbing wall or popular crag). The climber was a highly experienced and skilled ‘lifer’ in the sport with extensive working knowledge of physiology and sports science.

It struck me afterwards how personalised advice about sports injuries needs to be, depending on where the sufferer is ‘at’ with their knowledge and approach. I’m trying to weave this idea into my injuries book Rock ‘til you drop (now finished writing and currently redrafting).

One of the fundamental points of my book is that everyone needs to make themselves an expert in as many of the relevant corners of sports medicine as we can. I’ve provided a road map to achieve this for climbers in the book. 

However, the potential ‘weaknesses’ in your ability to successfully achieve recovery, as with performance weaknesses, are highly individual. In the discussion I was having the other day, the problem I anticipated with golfer’s elbow rehab is being too scared of the pain required for success in the rehab protocol. I don’t mean pain as in the ability to suffer. Almost the opposite. Someone with a good knowledge of sports medicine would quite rightly be wary of rehab exercises that caused any noticeable pain. Doesn’t pain mean overdoing it? 

It depends on the injury, the stage of the rehab and the individual. In the case of golfer’s elbow (and other tendonosis conditions where large volumes of eccentric loading is the rehab protocol of choice), some moderate pain is desirable. The stumbling block for an experienced climber may be backing off due to even mild pain before the loading really has a chance to work. For someone less experienced, it might be the opposite problem; they may not be sufficiently tuned in to their pain signals and patterns to avoid overdoing it.

The subtleties of tracking pain signals and adjusting both your sensitivity to them and the loading placed on the body is both a science and art. All of this underlines the need to seek out expert opinion of the highest possible quality and preferably from more than one source. 

PS While I’m on the subject of golfer’s elbow, I note that a lot of climbers are following a protocol outlined in a homemade video popularised by this article on UKC. Rather predictably, I've talked many climbers are not having success, since this protocol is appropriate when the tendon of Pronator Teres is causing the pain at the elbow, rather than the more commonly injured wrist flexor muscles. Before you use this protocol, make sure you get a specialist (i.e. Not your GP!) diagnosis to make sure you aren’t busying yourself with the wrong rehab program. 

4 September 2013

More on practice falls


Keri emailed to ask about clocking up her practice falls to gain leading confidence. In part 3 of ‘9 out of 10 climbers’ I detailed how essential falling practice is for a large swathe of climbers and highlighted the main reasons for lack of progress in confidence training.

One aspect that Keri picked up on that I hadn’t covered properly is what to do when you don’t have full confidence in your belayer for taking regular falls. I have of course learned the hard way not to be so trusting of belayers I’ve not climbed with before.

Keri’s point was that first, some belayers might not be the best at fielding your falls, but more importantly, even belayers who are pretty competent most of the time become distracted and might not hold your fall very well. 

Like most training problems, liberal use of common sense is the solution:

- Although it’s important to get unanticipated falls in (i.e unanticipated for both leader and belayer), it ought to be fine to remind your belayer that during the session you’ll be taking some falls. 

- ideally, fall off hard routes where both you and your belayer are expecting to see a fall. Do it all the time, year in year out.

- If you are going to take a planned fall, do take a squint at what your belayer is doing just before you let go. If they are making a sandwich (it’s happened to me more than once), then a gentle reminder to pay attention will help. You don’t even need to say ‘watch me’ if you don’t want to. Just a little tug on the rope, or a grunt of effort usually wakes them up. However, don’t get carried away. I’ve climbed with some climbers who become so worried about their belayers they hardly concentrate on the climbing at all.

- A related, but more subtle point is about the monotony of indoor leading. You do route after route, and familiarity with belaying breeds the tendency to become distracted. The skill of a good belayer is to allow themselves to pass the time of belaying without ever completely zoning out. It’s a bit like driving your car. Sometimes you daydream, but hopefully never that much that you can’t snap back into full concentration in a split second when a decision or action is required. Even if you have a conversation with the belayer next to you, a glance upwards every couple of seconds is essential and will go a long way to reassuring your leader too.

- If you are climbing with a competent, but less than expert belayer, you can choose your moments to take practice falls a bit more carefully. Falling from the second or third bolt might not be a good idea. However, you do have to ask yourself - if you don’t have confidence in them to hold your fall at the least favourable moment on the climb, what happens when a hold spins or you do simply slip off?

- Don’t be afraid to coach your belayer. If you feel they are not aware or understand key moments of danger for the leader such as clipping the second bolt, paying out rope effectively, or how to read their leaders body language to anticipate clips or falls, teach them. It might be a long process, so don’t go overboard. Many gentle reminders many be required.

- Communicate with your belayer before, during and after your lead. Things like “I think I’ll be clipping the third off that big sloper, so give me plenty of slack there” or “ I like a little more slack so I can clip quickly, but watch me up there at the crux”. So many problems are avoided by good communication between climbers. If you decide to clip early, shout for slack. If you are belaying and see your leader struggle or anticipate a clip or a fall, say something to remind and reassure them that you are watching. Even a quick ‘ok’ or ‘go on’ really helps. The belayer is still part of the climbing team.

Go to an indoor wall and you’ll see plenty of examples of belayers (and leaders) who are not really there. They are climbing to switch off. They pay out slack only when the rope tugs tight, they have no idea how their leader just did the crux so they know the sequence for their go. If you climb with someone like that, you have a few options; climb with someone else, practice your falls with someone else, or try to subtly gee your switched off climbing partner up a bit. Climbers respond to each other’s demeanor quite readily. If you are energetic, attentive and communicative during your climbing and belaying, your partner is more likely to be too.

A final point is that even when everything is perfect, the danger of both climbing and falling can’t be completely eliminated. This is balanced against the fact that practicing falls makes you a safer and better climber. Exposing yourself to some risk is inevitable. However, if you take all the precautions you can to make your practice falls safer, you can make it a perfectly acceptable part of becoming a better climber.

22 August 2013

Year out


I’ve seen a load of climbers go through the same process. They have a good spell in their climbing and training. Goals are achieved, fingers get stronger, new horizons open up. But what does progress in your sport lead to? The desire to keep progressing yet more. And the higher you get, the more work it takes.

Sooner or later, those with demanding schedules of a western lifestyle bump up against time limitations. Train before work? Too tired. Train after work, too tired, too busy. Weekends? They get filled with things. All good things of course, but they get in the way. 

At this point, the idea of a career break appears. A three month road trip. Or even a full year to climb full time. In some cases it might even work. But there are some problems and this is why as a coach I’d recommend it as a last rather than first resort.

First, what happens when you go on the first trip of the sabbatical and injure your finger and need three months off? A sudden increase in training is always the most risky time for injury. It happens, and it’s a bummer when it does. But that’s a minor concern. The bigger issue is how you are going to feel at the end of the journey? 12 months will fly by. If you make the progress you want to make, you might well just end up wanting to keep going even more than you do now. For many, going back to the old way of life just isn’t an option. So they find a new way of life. Thus, the sabbatical has been a much bigger success than just doing your first 8a.

My point here is that for the effort of arranging or saving for a year out of work, it might be less effort overall to find a permanent solution; a new career, or at least an altered one. Whatever - the world is your oyster. I just want to say that taking a short term break is not the only way.

Proper full time climbing might not even be possible unless your body is really ready for it. There is time left over. For most folk, only working for a portion of the year, either in one block or in intermittent blocks (what I do) is much better and is all that is needed to continue the upward progress of climbing achievement.

If you are prepared to walk out on a perfectly good job for the sake of climbing, why not negotiate a better schedule as your first resort. If you’re thinking of leaving anyway, what have you got to lose? Naturally it will be an easier sell if you offer the solutions on a plate or point to an example of when it has worked in the short term before. Since jobs come in infinite shapes an sizes, there is no universal solution. It’s up to you to use your imagination, and then just about every other skill under the sun to make it actually happen.

In the end it might be better than a year of fun with the clock constantly counting down. Whatever you choose, DO IT! Don’t leave it as a dream on the table.

Video: Training during recovery from injury

What’s your excuse?



PS. This programme might well not be the best for everyone. But the level of commitment definitely is.