6 February 2015

Make or Break: Don’t let climbing injuries dictate your success

For the past 4 years or so, I have been working on a book about climbing injuries. It spells out in detail how to treat them once you have them, based on the evidence from high quality scientific research and practice. More importantly, it discusses all the things we do in our climbing routine that cause our future injuries and prolong those we have already caused.

I have titled the book ‘Make or Break’. This is because becoming an expert in understanding the causes and treatments of climbing injuries will be make or break for your climbing career. As Wolfgang Gullich said, “getting strong is easy, getting strong without getting injured is hard”. In my first book, 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes, I suggested that many aspects of training for climbing are not rocket science. Keep showing up, pulling on small holds, pushing the limits of your motivation and learning from others and you will get stronger fingers and get better at climbing.

It will be injuries that will get in the way of your progress, and if you let them, they will dictate how far you get in climbing. The research suggests that nearly all climbers get injured at some point. Finger injuries are most likely, followed by elbows and shoulders. Of course there are countless bits of our anatomy that can break if suitably mistreated. When you get one of these injuries, you need to be the expert, because unfortunately you cannot rely on anyone else to make sure you recover. This is not because doctors and therapists fail to do a good job (although they sometimes do). It is because there is no single source of advice on the vast array of things you must do to make sure you recover well and prevent future injuries. The climbing coaches, physiotherapists, otrhopaedic surgeons etc. that you will see will all give you pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, but it is you who must put them together.

Claire MacLeod dispatching our pre-orders the other night.

During the process of writing the book, I have discovered many pieces of hard scientific information and subtle concepts I wish I’d known when I was 16. They would have saved me so much of the pain and psychological torment of injuries that climbers everywhere share at some point in their career. There are many strands of information in the book. It is a handbook on how to take care of yourself as a lifelong climbing athlete. In this blog post, I will briefly outline three messages that will give you a flavour of what you will find in the book:

1. Tendons don’t like rest, or change.

Surprisingly, sports medicine research still has a lot to learn about tendons and how they heal and respond to training. However, there have been several big steps forward in the research over the past decade or two. The only problem is, new knowledge in sports medicine takes years or even decades to filter through to the advice you receive. Consider the following quote

“In general, it takes approximately 17 years to get 14% of research findings adopted into practice. Moreover, only 30–50% of patients receive recommended care, 20–30% receive care that is not needed or that is potentially harmful and 96% may receive care with the absence of evidence of effectiveness.”

I was shocked too when I read that. I was aware through my own experience that the advice I’d been given to recover from my own climbing injuries was often at odds with research I’d read. But to discover the extent of the lag between research findings and advice given to sportspeople is depressing. We only have one life and we cannot afford to receive outdated advice. Unfortunately, the internet hasn’t made the task of unearthing reliable advice any easier. Scientific journals remain hidden to most behind a paywall, while the same poor quality, outdated and non-specific advice drowns out the few reliable sources.

One of the shifts in understanding from the past decade is that slow-onset tendon injuries such as golfer’s elbow do not respond well to complete rest. In fact, it often makes the condition worse. Moreover, many of the adjunct treatments often offered - stretching, massage, ibuprofen may do little to contribute to healing, and only affect pain. Instead, the most promising treatment has been large volumes of exercise of a specific mode (eccentric) and at a level which causes some pain. Much of this seems counterintuitive at first sight, which is why a detailed understanding of what happens in injured tendons is so important. 

Some practitioners in sports medicine are still working to a pre-1990s concept of tendon healing and will advise you to heal your injured tendons by resting them completely. In contrast, modern research has found that the best way to heal injured tendons is to use them, but only in a way that is specific to the nature of the injury. Tendons do not like rest or change. The successful formula is to provide constant stimulus to tendons to maintain their health. But if you want to change that stimulus, such as by training harder, you must do so very carefully, using all the cues from the body that you can listen to.

Section 1 of the book discusses in detail the limitations of the sports medicine industry and how to get the most out of it, and section 4 details the modern understanding of tendon injuries and how to successfully treat them.

2. Know pain, or no gain

Above I hinted at the difference between the pain level and the healing status of an injury - a crucial concept for any sportsperson to understand. Understanding of the nature of pain has been another area of science that has advanced hugely in sports medicine. It is not enough to be able to listen to your body. You need to be able to decode the messages and see the patterns in them. This is both a science and an art.

Climbers need to be able to differentiate between healthy soreness from training and activity, and damage that demands action. They need to be able to take understand how various treatments affect pain from their injuries and what this means for their daily decisions on how much activity to expose them to. They need to understand how many aspects of their environment and psychological state amplify or suppress pain sensations from their daily activities. Pain sensations are an essential measure for climbers to monitor, but without detailed knowledge of how it works, it is very easy to interpret those messages from pain wrongly.

Section 2 of the book is entirely devoted to understanding pain.

3. The luxury of doing sport badly will not last

A young body can withstand a surprising amount of abuse. But the relentlessness of sport and training amplifies the effect of small imbalances or errors, and it doesn’t take long before these accumulate to the point of injury. Balance is the key word here. One area of sports medicine that has come on a fair bit in recent years has been the recognition that athletes need to develop strength in a balanced way, taking care to strengthen muscles on both sides of joints. That is a good development, but it is not enough.

Balancing of the stress imposed by training for climbing needs to come in several other ways too. Matching increases in training intensity with improvements in the quality of rest is one way. Improving technique and the design of the training progression to spread that stress is another. 

Sections 1, 3 and 4 deal with these concepts and the specific details that climbers should be aware of which commonly result in climbing injuries.

Repeated forceful internal rotation of the arm (the right arm on this move) is a big part of climbing. So it is no surprise that the internal rotators of the arm at the shoulder become dominant. You may well get years out of a healthy young shoulder without feeling a thing. But the resulting impingement syndrome affects so many climbers. If you'd rather prevent it, it's not hard to do a little work to keep the shoulder joint working well. And if you are already suffering, you may be able to reverse it quite quickly, unless you've really tried to ignore it for too long!

Maintaining awareness of the foot during hand movements is a core skill in climbing injury awareness. Slipping feet are a important cause of many finger and shoulder injuries. Do your feet slip too often? Do you know what to do when they do slip? Correct your climbing technique and you can push your body a lot harder before it starts to complain.

Finally, there is the psychological challenge of injuries which is hugely underestimated by both climbers and their friends and families. In sections 1 and 5 of the book, I present the idea that we should see the injuries we suffer as a crucial message that something must change in our way of approaching climbing. By seeing the injury as an opportunity to go back to basics, to understand what must change and make that change, we can not only improve our climbing, but enjoy the process rather than endure it.

I hope the book will help many climbers prevent their future injuries or overcome existing ones. You'll find the book in our shop here, dispatching worldwide.

19 January 2015

My climbing injuries book is up for pre-order!

Readers of this blog will of course know that I have been working on a book on climbing injuries for some years. It has turned out to be a much bigger book than I originally envisaged. It has been a huge project, but in a few weeks I will reach the finish line. The book is currently with the printers and some time in the next few weeks, many boxes of copies will arrive at my house. The final stages were a rather exhausting process, but I’m excited to release it and potentially help healthy climbers stay healthy and injured climbers to get back to the fray.

I’ll write a more detailed post about the content of the book when the stock arrives in early February. If you want to make sure you get a copy as soon as you can, we’ve put it up for pre-order in the shop here, and it’ll be in the post to you as soon as it arrives. I’ve also added the table of contents below so you have an idea of the breadth of the areas covered.

My aim was to write the manual on how to stay healthy as a climbing athlete that I wished I’d had when I was 16. The first priority was to base my writing on the cutting edge of sports medicine research, wherever it was available. The second was to include all the diverse aspects of injury prevention and recovery, and then present them in a way that allows you to see them in the whole context of your efforts to stay injury free. As with the world of training, too many injury texts focus on or overplay the importance of just one aspect of sports medicine.

Having spent around 4 years researching, thinking and writing the book, I do feel that if I’d had access to the information contained in it when I was a teenager, my health and climbing achievements over the past 20 years would have been significantly better. I hope the book can make this difference both for both youngsters who have yet to experience injury, and battle scarred climbers like myself.

Below is the table of contents, so you can get idea of the scope of the book. You’ll find the book in the shop here. 

Section 1: Make or break

Why the treatments you have tried aren’t working, and what to do about it.
How to use this book
The real reasons you are injured
Stress and injury
The reason you are still injured
The language problem
The practitioner problem
The sports medicine problem
The missing link
Exceptional use: the luxury of doing your sport badly
Your visit to the doctor’s

Section 2: Know pain, or no gain

Pain and how to read it
Seeing the patterns in your pain
What is healthy soreness?
Understanding your pain
Going beyond reading only pain

Section 3: Removing the causes of injury for prevention and treatment

Are you only treating symptoms?
What was the real cause?
The big four: technique, posture, activity, rest
Correcting technique
Correcting posture
How to rest
Warm-up and injury

Section 4: Rehabilitation of climbing injuries - treating both causes and symptoms

Acute rehabilitation
When to move beyond acute care
Goals of mid-late rehabilitation
Modern understanding of tendon injuries and recovery
Therapeutic activity - basic exercises
Therapeutic activity - climbing
Proprioceptive training
Walking the line of rehab ups and downs
Therapeutic modalities
Drug and other emerging treatments
When to stop rehab?

Section 5: Psychology of injuries: dealing with the anguish of injury
Face it: it really is that bad!
Take heart
Finding motivation

Section 6: Young climbers
What young climbers should know
Too much, too young: a warning
What parents and coaches should do

Section 7: The elbow
Golfer’s and tennis elbow
Brachioradialis/brachialis strain
Other elbow injuries

Section 8: The fingers
Different grips in climbing and consequences for injury
Pulley injuries
When and how to tape the fingers
Painful finger joints
Flexor unit strains
Dupuytren’s contracture
Other finger injuries

Section 9: The wrist
Triangular fibrocartilage injury
Carpal tunnel syndrome
De Quervain’s tenosynovitis
Other wrist injuries

Section 10: The shoulder
Shoulder impingement/rotator cuff tears
Biceps tendon insertion tears
Labral tears
Shoulder dislocation
Frozen shoulder
Thoracic outlet syndrome 
Shoulder and neck trigger points

Section 11: Lower body injuries
Foot pain in climbers
Plantar fasciitis
Heel pad bruising
Ingrown toenails
Sesamoid injuries
Hallux valgus
Morton’s neuroma
Ankle injuries in climbers
Cartilage/joint injuries
Ankle impingement syndrome
Achilles tendon pain
Knee injuries in climbers
Meniscus tears
Anterior cruciate ligament tears
Medial collateral ligament tears
Hamstrings tear

Section 12: Further reading
Further reading and references
Getting access to good care

The author’s tale of woe and hope

Glossary of key terms



15 January 2015

Hyperhidrosis and climbing

Over the years I’ve heard from a few climbers who suffer from hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) of the hands. For obvious reasons, the condition is a major hindrance for rock climbing and causes much torment for sufferers who love the activity but are constantly hampered by severely sweaty hands.
I do not have the condition myself, but I definitely have more sweaty hands than average and I find that my indoor climbing performance has always lagged as much as a number grade behind my outdoor climbing grade. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to deal with the condition as a climber, having dripping hands with the slightest exertion. 

Hopefully, most sufferers will already know about iontophoresis, but in case not, I thought I should write this post.

I am grateful to Bob Farrell who got in touch last year to let me know that discovering the treatment had completely transformed his climbing. He went from a state of despair about how to enjoy rock climbing to being able to enjoy good friction and dry hands on small holds, both indoor and outside in warm weather.

The treatment involves passing a small electrical current, supplied by an iontophoresis machine through the hands, for 15-30 minutes or so. The hands (or feet) have to be placed in a water bath to apply the current. Despite its remarkable effectiveness, its mechanism of action is still unknown. But it blocks the sweat glands in some way, temporarily. Several treatments are required to see the benefits, and top-up treatments are needed every few days or weeks (with individual variability) to maintain the effects.

But those effects appear to essentially solve the problem for a great majority of sufferers. Although I have not tried the treatment myself, it sounds from Bob’s experience and the evidence from other non-climbing sufferers, that all affected climbers should definitely try it.

It is available, at least in some places on the NHS. But most sufferers who try the treatment and have good results seem to just purchase their own iontophoresis machine and do their top-up treatments at home. Machines cost £3-400 for a standard model. 

There seem to be few side effects, although if you have cuts in your fingers from climbing, these will burn during the treatment, with the workaround of just excluding the cut finger from the iontophoresis bath during treatment

I hope this post provides some help to sufferers who have yet to hear of the treatment.

And another point about fear of falling

I’ve posted on this blog several times about fear of falling, and of course written a whole book section on it in 9 out of 10. But further elements of this complex issue of mental training continue to challenge so many climbers, certainly if the number of emails I get on the subject is anything to go by.

One aspect that just came to mind while reading another of these is the issue of focusing your mind too much on the problem of fear of falling in the process of trying to address it.

So the problem of excessive fear or anxiety in leading may arise subconsciously.  By the time you realise that it is actually a big limitation with your climbing, it may already be quite a large and engrained issue. So you need to stare it in the face and look at the roots of it to first understand its origin and then change your habits to reduce and eliminate it.

But the subtlety of how to approach this effort seems to be important. I notice that some climbers seem to view their fear of falling as a foe in which they are in a constant battle with. Given the time and difficulty involved in overcoming fear of falling for a proportion of climbers, I can completely understand why it must feel like this. Nevertheless, viewing it along these lines could become self-defeating.

Fear is a healthy and and entirely natural human emotion. Again we have to go back to the difference between the actual risk, and the fear we produce from it. Sure, we can swallow fear in a moment of truth. But this is not a training strategy. The training strategy is to alter the inputs that result in the fear. You’re not trying to squash the fear, you’re trying to change how you think, plan and act on the rock so the fear needs not arise. The fear inputs can be reduced either by resetting your sense of what is actually fearful, such as by gaining familiarity with practice falls, or by reducing the sense of uncertainty about your position on the rock, by learning all the countless tactical tricks of leading.

Although you must face the problem directly to get to this stage, you must be careful to maintain attention on the pleasure and satisfaction of leading, as opposed to a constant battle against fear. When people have asked me about the boldest leads I have ever done, I’ve always come back to the same basic idea that the desire to experience and complete the climb simply overwhelmed any fears I had, no matter how serious they were.

You must give active energy to thinking about why you are motivated to have the experience of leading difficult rock climbs. What positives are there. When these elements are front and centre in your mind, the fears are naturally pushed to the side, or rather put in their place.

9 December 2014

When the regime gets harder

My (latest) board. The result of a decade and a half of relentless work and saving. But worth it.

Andreas emailed to ask about keeping up progress in climbing when your routine gets harder for various reasons. He refers in passing to cases such as injury. Since I have whole book on this subject now in production, I’ll leave this to one side for now. But on his mind is a baby soon to arrive (brilliant news!). 

Having a child is obviously a huge challenge in maintaining the other aspects of your life. Some things have to change, as they should, and as you will want them to. In many cases, your old way of life will be abandoned altogether and replaced with a new one. A better one, if you deal with the challenge properly.

With regard to how to keep your climbing standard high in your new, time pressed routine, here are the three number one priorities:
  1. Build a board.
  2. Build a board.
  3. Build a board.
Did you get that? If you don’t feel you have space to build a board in your house, move. If you don’t feel you have the power to move because of work or other issues, solve those issues. Take the power. There are of course some workarounds such as hiring a garage in your street etc, but they are poor solutions because it’s the fact that the board is immediately accessible and you are immediately accessible while using it that underlies it’s utility.

In the early days of parenthood, the odd 45 minutes here and there may be all the free time you have. You can easily fit a high quality training schedule into this timescale, but certainly not if you have to go anywhere else to access the climbing wall, even if it’s only 5 minutes drive. So just get it built. 

Andreas referred to a comment in 9 out of 10 where I was talking about maintaining a base level of fitness with one session per week. It’s true that you can do a lot in one session a week, as I have done during various busy periods. But my point here was that doing something, even if it’s a little training, is much better than giving in and doing nothing, as many people do. I was not trying to recommend one session a week as a medium or long term solution for training. It is nothing more than a workaround for people who choose (choose is the key word) to fill their entire waking hours with activities other than climbing. For most people, this is a temporary issue related to work trips, although some climbers carry on with a schedule like this indefinitely. That is their choice.

For most with a busy schedule, an aggressive problem solving approach, resourcefulness and an understanding of your priorities are all you need to create a routine that allows time for work, rest, family time and plenty of training on your board in the spare room. If you introduce all the solutions and there still isn’t time, well you’ll just have to work less, wont you! (I’m kind of talking to myself here). 9 of of 10 climbers obviously doesn’t deal with every conceivable circumstance and individual routine. But in it I repeatedly make the point that you have plenty of options, and often more than you think, if you are willing to see them and accept the change and challenge that they bring. If you struggle to think outside the box and your thinking is full of ‘I can’t’ type of thoughts, get a coach to tell you straight. 

If any of this was easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding when we crack it.

One thing out of your comfort zone

Video above: One thing out of you comfort zone, each day.

Una on Twitter was asking me about recovering leading confidence after a bad fall. She felt she was still struggling, even following the advice in 9/10. Was there anything more? In a practical sense, not really. The advice I laid out in the book about progressively exposing yourself to more and more challenging leading situations is the easiest, if not only way to do it. But that’s not to belittle it. For some people, it can be an enormously difficult thing to do.

Therefore, the response is to take it seriously as such. A huge problem needs a huge response, in the form of dedicated and relentless application of training over a long period. Here are six common pitfalls with building up leading confidence after a knock:
  • Expecting too much. The apparent unfairness of confidence is that it takes many exposures to build it up, but a huge chunk of it can be wiped away in one go with a bad fall. Patient application of the training is definitely required. No perceptible difference may be noticed for many training sessions. The other problem is that it is harder to measure than pure finger strength. Even if you are making gains in mental confidence, you might not notice until this add up to something quite substantial.
  • Measuring the wrong thing. Lots of people measure the success of their training based on time. “I’ve been working on my leading for two months and I’ve not noticed any changes”. However, if you were only leading for two sessions per week, that’s only 16 training sessions in two months! The result may have been different with 5 sessions per week.
  • Failing to complete the training. Practicing leader falls indoors is just one small part of gaining leading confidence. If you are training for something like trad climbing, you need to have plenty of safe falls, as well as real trad leading. Lots of it. One without the other tends to be ineffective. Yet a lot of climbers complain of lack of time and opportunity to get on real rock, especially at this time of year with dark nights and poor weather. Unfortunately, this is the excuse that separates those who succeed and those who fail. We are training mental confidence in leading - the climbing standard does not need to be high, the rock doesn’t need to be dry and the sun needn't be shining. Get a headtorch and a Gore-Tex and go climbing! You think people don’t do that? Sure, it’s great if you live somewhere like Scotland where you can go mixed climbing all winter - a perfect training ground for leading confidence (people were quick to cite it’s effect on me when I downgraded The Walk of Life from E12 to E9 a few years ago). It’s true that winter climbing makes climbers mentally tough. But if you can’t access this, just go to the crag and climb at the level you can in whatever conditions you find.
  • Kidding yourself. A big problem with training your leading confidence is kidding yourself that you are going out of your comfort zone when you are not. Recently I climbed with a chap who was climbing well but leading confidence was his main weakness. He was more than capable of taking proper leading falls and building up a ‘go for it’ attitude in his outdoor leading. But when backing off from a lead, he said “I need to go back to the climbing wall and do more practice falls”. They won’t work. He was choosing them precisely because he’d already mastered that level. They were now inside his comfort zone, an easy option. Finding the right intensity of experience to build up your confidence is not easy. But it is just as easy to undershoot and unwittingly stay within your comfort zone as it is to overdo it and maintain a state of poor confidence.
  • Asking for failure. When it comes down to it, leading combines the skills of common sense problem solving, mental toughness and practical skills. Many climbers focus too much on the mental toughness part. Young lads are especially good at overriding their fears and just going for it and everyone can do this to an extent. Overriding fears is good if it’s irrational fear, In other words, when your mind ought to know that you have a solid base of practical skills and well developed problem solving approach. Far too many climbers push on with the fear conquering without developing that base of skill in parallel. This is asking for failure, because you will put yourself in situations where you are genuinely unable to wield control. Good leading is about having more control. It is also about having control over fear, as opposed to having no fear. Excess of irrational fear, and lack of healthy fear both lead to loss of control, in different ways. Take care from every training session to learn new details about the practicalities of leading - dealing with gear, ropework, falling technique, anticipation and planning etc. Don’t just focus on being fearless.
  • Not really wanting it enough. This aspect is underestimated in sport and training, surprisingly. Those who want it badly enough simply do not rest until they find the right path through the training to get to the goal routes they cannot live without. Rather than throwing up their hands after experiencing lack of progress, they jump right in and make plenty more errors until they find a formula for progress. Inevitably, we never get the balance of training 100% perfect. No one does. But burning desire to move forward and get to the next level is a crucial catalyst in letting you absorb the stresses and knocks of pushing outside your comfort zone. It creates resilience in people that are not inherently made of hero stuff. So, sometimes a clear conversation with yourself about exactly what this means to you is the fuel you need to get you through anything. What if you have that conversation and realise you don’t want it badly enough to push yourself through all the challenges? Hurry up and do something else then! Life is short.

Training the mind has some similarities and some important differences from training the muscles. It is similar in that it is a ‘plastic’ tissue. Train it appropriately, and it will change. The difference is of course it’s vast complexity and especially how the layers of thoughts, emotions and basic programmed responses all mix together. Mental training demands careful consideration to make sure you are applying a sustained progressive overload, but getting the size of the stimulus just right.

My approach as a youngster was just to climb one thing that was truly out of my comfort zone, every time I went climbing. Every time, no excuses. If it didn’t give me a dry mouth and a small knot in my stomach, I knew it wasn’t really out of my comfort zone. 

NB: The notes above are NOT a guide to what to do to improve your leading confidence. They should be read in the context of applying the advice in 9/10.

2 December 2014

Changing the architecture

One of the important findings from the world of behavioral science is that willpower is a finite resource. Sure, some seem to be able to show more of it that others. But regardless of inherent or learned capacity for it, everyone can run out of it.

The understanding comes from fields of research such as why apparently smart people eat badly or fail to exercise, or other such dangerous behaviours. Moreover, they do so in full knowledge that these behaviours are bad news for almost all aspects of their life and despite their stated intentions to act differently. The idea is that since willpower is finite, if you spend all of it forcing yourself to work long hours, there is none left to help you choose healthy foods or turn your phone off and get some sleep.

Making sure you spend your willpower wisely is the obvious first line of attack. But so often, people don’t feel able to change their routine to allow for this. Topping up your willpower ‘account’ is the second line. You can do this by making sure you are well slept, well fed and surrounded by supportive people, among other things.

The third line is more of a workaround than a solution. But it is better than nothing. You can change the choice architecture. In other words, you can set things up to make it harder to make the bad choices and easier to make the good ones, acknowledging that when you are tired and worn out, your good intentions will go out of the window. 

Some examples:

  • If you don’t have the biscuits in the cupboard, you’ll not reach for them ‘just tonight’. Instead have you chosen healthy food at the ready. In moments of good willpower, prepare them for your future willpower starved self. Wash your fruit, put it in a nice bowl or do whatever you need to make it more appealing and convenient to choose.
  • Cycle or walk to work. Once you are there, you have to get home the same way! Make it easier to choose by ensuring you are fully kitted out with clothing to keep you warm and dry for bad weather. Make sure the bike and kit are ready to go by the front door so there are no excuses in the morning when you are running a bit late and bleary eyed.
  • Choose your workplace and house based on your chosen training venue. Make sure you’d have to literally drive past it on the way home to excuse yourself from training.
  • If you climb with a partner who habitually leads and sets up a top-rope for you, climb with someone else or instruct them to refuse to lead for you under any circumstances. Better still, climb with partners who would mercilessly rib you for even suggesting that you skip your turn to lead. The shame would be less painful than just attacking swallowing your leading phobia.
  • If you need to get stronger openhanded, set your wall accordingly (see photo above). Don't have a wall? Make one!

Everyone can think of instances in their own routine where they habitually make poor choices. In 9 out of 10 I described many of the big and important ones, but the number of decisions we make that influence our performance is huge. Try to think of ways you can make it harder for your future willpower starved self to make the right decisions at those crucial moments in everyday life.

1 December 2014

8b - 8c+ How?

Over on my personal blog the other day I was talking in passing about a period in my life about 9 years ago when I took my best sport climbing grade from around 8b to 8c+ in about a year and a half. On Twitter, Sean picked up on this and thought that would be a good subject for a blog post. Here is the short answer:

I started fingerboarding.

But it’s not as simple as that. So here is the long answer. I was replying to Sean in 140 character stylee that I would explain but there are no secrets and the explanation would be nothing that isn’t in my book 9 out of 10. However, personal stories are always helpful if you highlight how the results link back to the underlying principles.

You might be tempted to take my short answer above and think if you just fingerboard, you too will climb 8c+. It’s unlikely to say the least. That’s because basic strength may well not be your weakness. I think it’s fair to say that most climbers would say they feel their strength level is a performance weakness relative to technique. I’ve spent much of my climbing coaching career repeatedly trying to convince climbers otherwise. In fact, in almost every climbing wall on a busy evening you’ll see climbers with enough strength to climb 8c+, but will never even get close to this grade.

What was slightly unusual about my background in climbing was how little I time I spent in climbing walls during that period. I climbed outdoors, year round. My staple diet of climbing was trying super technical projects at Dumbarton Rock. I really valued the fact that they could be cracked by exploring every subtle detail of the technique used to climb them in place of brute strength. When conditions allowed, I’d be teetering about on hard mixed routes, mountain trad, sport climbing, sea cliffs, etc, etc. I had built up a huge depth of experience as a tactician. In other words, if a project was 100% of my strength limit, I’d still have a 100% chance of succeeding on it. Fear of falling, redpoint nerves, mistakes on the lead, finding the best sequence were all things I’d put huge volumes of hours into developing. One thing I hadn’t really done was trained strength properly.

Training was only half on my radar really. I was just a climber having a whale of a time going outside and having adventures trying new routes in places I loved to be. But when I decided to sacrifice some of that to up my level a bit, my strength level was so poor that I had rapid results.

I decided to start in June 2005. The inspiration to start was realising I could climb the Requiem headwall if I really wanted it badly enough. Six days a week, I started the day with around 40 minutes of fingerboard (the same routine I published in 9 out of 10). Then I went round to the Dumbarton boulders and did endurance circuits for another couple of hours, followed by a ten mile run. Sometimes I’d go for a second run late at night, at a relaxed pace, just to wind down. At the weekend I went climbing in the mountains if the weather was good. I worked before and after my training, at home of course - a working from home job with flexible hours is a good catalyst for climbing performance.

I didn’t vary the training all that much for many weeks at a time, although the ‘real’ climbing days were as varied as ever. But I did start gently with the fingerboarding, building up very steadily for the first 6 weeks. And that was against a background of already doing a large volume of bouldering for a decade beforehand. Without these factors, I’d likely have got injured, not stronger.

After three months I went back to an 8c project I’d previously failed on and was completely shocked when I linked it first try from the second move to the top on my shunt in freezing conditions. Later in the winter I completed Font 8b projects at Dumbarton, Rhapsody the following spring, and my first 8c+ sport route shortly afterwards.

I can’t overemphasise the importance of the previous decade of building up those skills in being a solid all-round climber. The pure finger strength was just the final piece of the puzzle. The fashion in the popular climbing culture is very much revolving around physical strength right now. The underlying message is ‘let’s train like proper athletes’ and that means this kind of stuff. That’s great, but it is nothing if you miss the crucial toe-hook that knocks a grade off the problem, or you are so scared you crush the rock as soon as you are 20 feet above a bolt. The strength level generally among climbers these days is mind blowing. Training like proper athletes means being able to use every ounce of strength in your muscles at the right moment. While you might be able to one-arm a crimp in 6 months with nothing but a piece of wood above your doorframe, you can’t shortcut learning to be able to do something good with all that strength.

7 November 2014

Mental training, 3 simple mantras

Natalie Berry stepping out on her first E4 trad lead.

There are now several books available on the difficult subject of mental training specifically for climbers. If you add in the wider sports psychology literature out there, you could read yourself to death on this subject. And yet I’m not convinced that all that literature has made as much impact as the equivalent literature on physical training.

As I observe climbers these days I see more and more physical strength and fewer tough performers who can get the most out of themselves when it matters. Why is this? It’s debatable. Maybe it’s because mental training is inherently less quantifiable, so less likely to get done? Maybe it’s because the cognitive habits we form are so hard to break and the impact of a book on it’s own is rarely enough? I also sometimes feel that the complexity of trying to explain performance psychology makes the literature hard going, maybe even self-defeating for some.

While writing on this subject elsewhere, I thought of a few simple messages I tell myself while preparing to climb or actually on a climb which distill these complex ideas down to a tool you can use in the heat of the moment. I hope they are useful to at least some of you:

“If it felt easy, it wouldn’t be hard, and I’d want to try something harder”

“Nobody cares about this effort except me. So relax, you’ve got nothing to lose by just trying and trying hard”

“There are no prizes for holding back”

Four reviews

Every so often I write the odd gear review for this blog, mainly of gear that I already like and want to share, and occasionally I’m asked to write. Here are 4 things I’ve seen over the year that I have tried and liked.

Boot Bananas

I was given a pair of Boot Bananas at the Outdoors show in London and they have lived in various pairs of my shoes and rockshoes ever since. Like a majority of folk, my shoes are boufing (Glasgow slang, in case you didn’t know) and I’ve tried quite a few things to make them less anti-social. Deodorising spray is the closest I’d come to a solution. But the effects on the smell seemed pretty short lived and it was a faff to keep a bottle of it handy. Boot bananas are simple shoved into the offending shoes and a mixture of various deodorisers (including charcoal and baking soda) do an excellent job of killing the odour. I found them to be more effective than spray or anything else I’ve tried. Their practicality was even better though - you just shove them in your street shoes while you put your rockshoes on, and vice versa at the end of your session. Well worth £13 to put an end to offending your own nose and more importantly your family and fellow climbers.

YY Belay Glasses

YY sent me a pair of their new belay glasses to try out which are very well made, with attention to detail and crucially a robust and secure carry case for throwing in your sack for a day at the crag. Not being a serial sport climber, it was a while until I got to use them and it's the first time I've used a pair of belay glasses. Perhaps it’s because I’m not always sport climbing and generally train on a bouldering wall that when I do it, the ‘belayers neck’ is that much worse. As expected from just looking at their good construction, they did the job perfectly and are now flung in my sport climbing kit along with my Gri Gri and quick draws. If I was going to buy a pair of belay glasses, I'd definitely get these ones.

Bouldering Essentials

David Flanagan’s new book Bouldering Essentials is aimed at those just starting out in bouldering. It makes sense that there is a reference there for the large numbers of boulderers coming into climbing by introduction at the large bouldering centres in most cities. The does a good job of listing those basics you need to know from types of hold to how to fall and various other things you’d otherwise have to pick up in a peicemeal manner through experience. However, I’m not too sure it’s something I’d have read as a beginner. I found myself reading through wishing the information had been written by some of the famous names in bouldering, with some anecdotes that would have brought those lessons and tactics alive and made them easier to relate to. But if you are the type of person who likes the facts and techniques listed in a direct way, then you’ll find them here and you'll love it. It was nice to see a section on bouldering destinations which will no doubt start the imagination for some boulderers just starting out in their local bouldering centre.


Eva Lopez is one of the famous names in the world of training for climbing, and someone who has demonstrated the value of her own wisdom, climbing 8c+ at the age of 42. The Transgression is her own brainchild and a beast of a fingerboard. But it’s a bit more than that. The concept isn’t hard to understand. It’s a resin fingerboard with progressively smaller rungs, going from big and positive right down to a very thin 6mm. It comes with a well thought through recommended program to follow and several climbers at various levels right up to the top grades report good strength gains having followed this. The question of course, is can you not get the same gains from some of the more famous wooden fingerboards on the market. Especially since these might be both kinder on the skin and considerably cheaper. I’d say that is debatable. I must admit that although I’ve experimented a bit with the Transgression, I simply preferred training on wood. Only time and dedicated experimentation by numerous climbers would give a clearer idea if the concept of the small incremental increases in difficulty afforded by the board’s design yielded noticeably better results. It wouldn’t surprise me if either it did yield better results due to the steady progression of intensity. It also wouldn’t surprise me if there was no difference. Noone can confidently say I don’t think. However, if you can afford the price, I certainly don't think you will find a much more useful fingerboard available.