7 November 2014
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”
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.
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
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.
Posted by Dave MacLeod
26 April 2014
Some holds going on the climbing wall at last!
After a month straight of 16 hour days on average, my climbing wall is finished. Well, apart from getting all the holds on. I must admit that after completing the build and various other jobs that needed doing at my place, I was a bit too broken to even climb on it. I just wanted to sleep! But now there are some holds going on it I’m getting more and more excited as it turns from a building project into what I had originally envisioned - a brilliant place to train.
However, rather than jump straight on it, I opted to take advantage of the dry weather and head to the Outer Hebrides for a couple of days new routing and prospecting with Calum Muskett. We did a handful of new lines from E3 to E5 and I worked on this immaculate 40m wall of perfect Gneiss that has been on my projects to look at list for a few years. It was just as good as I hoped, if maybe a little hard.
There were a couple of different ways you could go. The best, and hardest looks upwards of 8b+ climbing with adequate gear. But the crux is super hard. On the first day I was climbing all day in a Citadel jacket and still had numb hands in the wind. In those conditions I could get some purchase on the crux crimps, but couldn’t see how to use them. The next day it was much warmer and I needed a bit of help from the rope to stay on, but did get a sequence that may work. So now I have something great to direct my training, and an excuse to get the ferry back to Harris pretty soon.
A very very hard project to go back to.
Posted by Dave MacLeod
Categories: climbing wall
We’ve just added four great new books and DVDs to the shop. The first three books are all major contributions to the literature on improving at climbing and I’d recommend getting hold of all three. Well done to the authors of all of them who have made a great contribution here and no doubt these books will be the first step to many hard ascents and goals realised in the future.
Gimme Kraft: The Cafe Kraft gym (Kraft = strength btw) in Nurnberg, Germany has gained a great reputation for coaching a string of fantastic climbing talents over the past few years, most notably, Alex Megos who became the first climber to onsight 9a. Their coaches have put together a new book and DVD detailing the principles and exercises they have used to help their talented young climbers become super strong and fit beasts.
So the book is very focused on physical strength and endurance training, both on and off the climbing wall. It provides a great and easy to follow manual for sharpening up weak areas in your strength. This is particularly useful since it can be hard to choose or adapt core strength routines from other sports for climbing.
Both the book and DVD show clearly how to do the basic strength and endurance exercises and the DVD contains many interesting interviews with climbing legends about training and climbing performance.
Training for the new Alpinism: Steve House and Scott Johnston’s new book on training for alpinism is a much awaited and weighty addition to the available literature on training for climbing. It is the first book to focus solely on alpinism and brings the field right up to date. It is very much training focused (as opposed to skills focused), which is both it’s greatest strength and weakness.
It contains clear and extensive sections on the basic principles of sports physiology, but with the discussion relating directly to climbing in an alpine setting. So you no longer have to learn and then adapt the principles used in other endurance sports to effectively plan your training regime. It also has great and focused sections on strength, mental skills, nutrition, altitude, schedule planning and choosing your training goals. It also contains some fantastic contributions from other world class alpinists, sharing what they have learned about the most effective ways yo improve your alpine climbing.
Its focus on physical rather than technical skills training means there should probably be more than just this book in your training library. However, it joins a collection of titles that are essential reading for climbers who are serious about improving.
The Trad Climber’s Bible: The skills for trad climbing are about as broad as in any sport. This is especially true if you wish to climb in many different settings - hard, technical single pitch climbs, big walls and and alpine faces. The Trad Climber’s Bible comes at the challenge of passing on these skills from a different angle from most instructional manuals.
I jumped at the chance to order it in for the davemacleod.com shop simply because it was authored by the American trad legends John Long and Peter Croft. I was fascinated by how they had approached the challenge of writing about trad skills. They have written the book in a narrative style, with many stories and anecdotes from their combined 70 year experience of pushing their limits on trad all over the world.
Some of the sections, such as those on ‘fiddling’ and ‘embracing the weird’ made me smile as they highlighted the sheer range of unusual skills that are nonetheless essential to be a successful trad climber. It’s a big, thorough, entertaining and inspiring book which will provide much food for thought and arm you with many more skills to throw at your next big lead. Excellent photography throughout and great value for what has clearly been a huge project for the authors.
Wideboyz II: The Wideboyz, Tom Randall and Pete Whittaker, have decided to turn their hand to finger cracks, with the goal of repeating the hardest and most famous of all finger cracks - Cobra Crack (8c) in Squamish. In their own Wideboyz style, they convert their offwidth training den into a finger sqaushing setup and proceed to train, hard. Still, Cobra Crack put up a good fight! Entertaining as ever, and a reminder that focusing and trying damn hard goes a long, long way.
20 March 2014
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Posted by Dave MacLeod
Categories: Technique Drills