7 October 2006

lessons from Gadd

Will Gadd enjoying Ben Nevis - straight talking is what you need when you want to break out of a rut and improve, Will comes through for us!

The Gadd has posted 8 of his hard earned lessons on training over on his blog. In this post he's talking about a general approach to training, and says he's been re-learning all this wisdom in his rock climbing training recently, not the ice bashing he's really famous for.

The main overarching thing I noticed about Will's list of training thoughts is what I've been trying to get over in this blog and my own climbing blog - that the same rules of life, (work, laziness, lack of time, and general s**t like that) apply to everyone including folk like Will who climb hard. Try being a world class ice climber, rock climber and paraglider all at the same time and throw in lots of work writing books and designing gear - being a pro-athlete means you have to be better at plate spinning that anyone else, and there are more plates, not less!

The best climbers have the same issues as anyone else. A lot of the time it's just about bot accepting the setbacks and getting of your ass and making it happen. Once that attitude is there and you have accepted your circumstances and got on with it, then you can progress to the nitty gritty, and the results will always follow. As Will says "its not complicated... Not enough time, not enough food, too late, too early, too hot, too cold, whatever, there are always going to problems. Deal with it and do your best. Despite my belief that yesterday's effort was a less than perfect it was still a hell of a lot better than having done nothing, and I can feel my upper body did at least get some sort of workout despite the fact I could barely do my normal warm-up problems. I need to rest today to climb on Yam tomorrow, so I'm glad I got it done even if my ego said I sucked at the time. I didn't suck, I trained, and tomorrow I will be stronger for my goal."

Canadians can always be relied upon to give it straight, and Will is no different. Its worth reading his post, 20 years at the top of his game is wisdom worth taking note of. For more of the same, check out Will's book:

22 September 2006

Climber interview - Natalie Berry

From one Berry to another... I’ve had the privilege to interview one of the UK’s most successful young climbers on the indoor climbing scene (and she’s only 14!). Natalie Berry has already been a British champion five times and with her most recent successes on the international competition circuit, she has established herself as one of our most successful competition climbers of recent years. It’s obvious from watching Natalie in action that she has potential to take this ability much further. And I think its even clearer after reading her answers to my questions below that she has the single minded determination to turn potential into reality. Combining a mix of a great attitude like Natalie’s with good training and support at the right time is like mixing magic – its really powerful. So I think most of us have something to learn from her, even if its just sharing a little of that determination…

Natalie Berry
OCC: What age are you now Natalie and how long have you been climbing?

Nat: I am 14 years old and I have been climbing for 6 years – I started by chance when I visited a shopping centre in Glasgow where there was a mobile wall outside!

OCC: What are your best achievements so far in climbing and what are your goals for the future?

Nat: My best achievements so far have been coming 4th in the World Youth Championships in Austria in August 2006, and becoming five times British Champion (The BRYCS, BBC twice & BICC, twice). I aspire to be both European and World Champion in the next few years!

OCC: Tell me about your climbing motivation – why do you climb and how important is it for you? Do you think your climbing motivation has changed any since you started?

Nat: I find it quite easy to be motivated for most things in life – I am driven by a burning desire for success. I climb because I enjoy the freedom of movement and feeling of power that the sport gives me. I also enjoy the fitness – both physical and mental – that I have earned over the years. The mental science of climbing is particularly interesting to me – whether I’m in a competition or simply in training, I find it very interesting psyching myself up to climb, articulating movements and co-ordinating techniques.

OCC: How much training do you do? Do you separate climbing for fun and training, or are they one and the same? Tell me about the elements of your training – what activities do you do?

Nat: I climb four days a week. I incorporate anaerobic training (forearm endurance), some circuits, on-sighting, red-pointing – a mixture really. My training schedule is organised around my events calendar, but I often just follow my instincts and do what I want. I have found that I respond quickly to intense training and enjoy working hard to achieve my goals. I also do pull-ups and other climbing-specific training at home each day. I believe success is 90% hard work and 10% talent.

Natalie training in Imst

OCC: Lots of female climbers are put off or struggle with steep climbing and powerful or bouldery moves. Is this a limitation for you? If so how have you tried to get round it or work on it?

Nat: I have very strong static lock strength and so I therefore often use it to my advantage! Because of my build I have had to work on power, particularly as most international competitions take place on steep, powerful routes – unlike those in walls here in the UK!

OCC: Do you have any elements of your training that you find a chore? I remember reading a article by Marc le Menestrel talking about how he tries to find ways to get to like his dislikes in climbing or training, and that this really helped him progress. Can you relate to that or do you just like everything about climbing!?

Nat: I am lucky in finding training fun – most of the time – and I have great friends whom I see regularly down at the wall and can climb with, making training even more enjoyable. There are days, however, when I have to motivate myself when I’m feeling low! I use competitions and other big events to psyche myself up. Sometimes I just have to remember how it felt the last time I was climbing well, and I push myself to get back up to where I was before.

OCC: Describe your climbing style. Do you think your natural style is good for steep indoor routes or have you had to alter it in any way (i.e. movement pattern, climbing speed etc…)?

Nat: Technique has always been my strong point. I believe I am a very natural climber – I have a good store of engrams in my mind! I have quite a slow climbing speed, so on steep routes I really need to learn to climb faster. I prefer technique over power and I particularly enjoy really crimpy, fingery routes that many strong male climbers can’t do!

OCC: How do you fit all your climbing in with the other things in your life like study and social stuff?

Nat: I always strive for success, so find it quite easy to make time for my schoolwork – I am the Junior Proxime Accessit of my school. I think it is important to show the same care and devotion in all aspects of life – whether it be in sport or academically. My social life is my climbing life really – as I said before I have so many great friends all around the world. At home in Glasgow my climbing friends are really supportive and I enjoy helping them and others with their climbing too.

OCC: You specialise in indoor climbing – How important do you think it is that you train at a good climbing wall? What do you look for in a good climbing wall; big steep routes? a good scene? Other things?

Nat: I think it is incredibly important to train at a good climbing wall – all you have to do is look at the results the European juniors (and seniors) are achieving on the international competition scene, and then visit a few of their walls and understand why! It is not necessarily true that they are simply more talented than other competitors or that they “train better”, but their success – to me – seems to grow from the World-class facilities that they train on. I spent two weeks training in Imst, Austria – where the World Championships were held – prior to the competition. I realised just how beneficial it would be to have such a facility here in Britain. Climbing at Imst is like playing vertical chess. You have to weigh up the steepness of the wall - 45 degree pillars with numerous bulges and roof sections – as well as having to clip many 2 foot long quickdraws, on all 18 metres! I saw countless children from about the age of three or four and above top-roping– and maybe seven or eight year olds leading through the steepest sections of wall. From that moment I realised just how different the foreign attitudes towards climbing are from those here in the UK –start the kids young, encourage them, add some fun and watch them win.

OCC: What do you think is holding you back from getting even better results in comps than you get now?

Nat: I definitely think that the major ingredient missing from my training here in the UK is a European-style training facility – if we want British competitors on the international podium then this appears to be the way forward. I just wish I could have the funds to train abroad if we can’t have the facilities here. I would like to sport climb outdoors more but due to time and financial restraints I am quite content with focussing on indoor climbing for now!

OCC: What climbers most inspire you and why? Having competed on the international circuit what things have you learned from climbers around the world?

Nat: I am inspired by many climbers – not just world-class athletes but also beginners and climbers I’ve met of all ages and abilities – after all “the best climber in the world is the one who is having the most fun”. Neil Gresham has given me a lot of support and encouragement – I admire the positive attitude which he brings to the sport. Angela Eiter of Austria has also impressed me with the array of international competition titles she has won. All of my climbing friends (many of whom I compete against) inspire me too – I love learning from other people and find it very interesting studying their styles and techniques in training and competition. I think it is so important to learn from others and equally that they learn from you; everyone is unique in their climbing, both mentally and physically. I think I’ve learned a lot about life from my travels and competitions – I believe I’ve attained a lot of wisdom from meeting different people of all backgrounds and personalities from all around the world. One common factor I have noticed that bonds all the competitors at a competition is a love of climbing – a desire and determination to succeed, no matter what. After all, out of dreams comes determination, and out of determination comes success…

Natalie has managed to align enjoyment of the process of climbing and training to a clear goal for what she wants to achieve. In this way, more work and dedication equals more fun. This interview raises the important point of what outside support do climbers need to get to where they want to go? In Natalie’s case, she needs access to high quality training facilities to compete at the level she is capable of. As we don’t have steep enough climbing walls in Scotland just yet, this means travelling, which takes money. In most other people’s case, outside support might be as simple as reading some training advice like this website! Natalie has already gained some sponsorship from Scarpa, Glasgow Climbing Centre, Entreprises and Cotswold, but found it hard to secure the levels of support she needs and is hoping to find new sponsors. A familiar story for top climbers. She’s been a nominee for the young sports person of the year, a regional award that eventually went to athletes from Olympic sports who were not selected for international competition like Natalie! Olympic sports are being targeted for encouragement in the UK at the expense of all others right now, for obvious reasons.

This is an interesting subject which I’ll talk more about in future posts. I am no expert on making a living out of climbing although I have been trying myself for a few years. My experience is that the climbing industry is simply too small for most companies to afford the levels of support it takes for an athlete to succeed. The solution? Well there isn’t an easy one. I guess the most productive way for climbers who want to gain sponsorship is to take ownership of the problem of the size of the sport and use their experience and status to promote it to help the sport grow in whatever mediums they choose. Ultimately, giving the sport a higher profile will benefit everyone. More on this later…

Thanks for talking to me Natalie, keep up the determined approach and the results will keep coming! Click here to see Natalie’s website.

14 September 2006

Climber interview - Adrian Berry

Next up in OCC's series of interviews is Adrian Berry, one of the better known british trad climbers and one of our most experienced coaches. In his climbing career Adrian has climbed E10, redpointed 8b+ and been a member of the British competition climbing team. He's begun to coach climbing more and more and I was interested to find out what patterns he's noticed in climbing over recent years and how he's responded to these with his climbing and his coaching.

Adrian Berry (Photo: Duncan Skelton)

OCC: How do you think fashions in the climbing scene affect how climbers at large train/prepare for their routes?

Adrian: To be honest Dave, I think fashions in climbing affect a very, very small number of climbers, generally operating at the higher grades. If you look at, say, deep-water soloing for example, it seems to have exploded in popularity, but in fact there are maybe a couple of hundred climbers at most doing it regularly, there are probably more aid climbers. I would say that considerably less than one percent of climbers actually train, a lot go to the wall, but it’s used as an extension of climbing outside and a bit of a social, more than a training facility. I think this is largely down to the improvement of climbing walls, they are just a lot more fun now.

OCC: What changes have you noticed in climbers over the last decade – are they stronger? fitter? mentally tougher? Moving better? How do you think climbing walls are influencing standards and fashions?

Adrian: I don’t think much as come along in the last ten years, to be honest. Ten year’s ago, the hardest route in the UK was Neil Carson’s The Big Bang (9a), at the time there were maybe a couple of other people capable of that grade in the UK – and the same is true now. There is a larger pool of climbers operating just below the ‘cutting edge’ than there was ten years ago, but I would say the average climber climbed about HVS back then, and still climbs HVS. You only have to go to any busy crag in the country, sit and watch, and you’ll see few climbers even taking on HVSs. I thin that this is simply down to a booming economy, people are earning far more than they were, with bloody big mortgages to pay off. The idea of quitting your job to go climbing just isn’t happening any more. Here in Sheffield there used to be a large climbing population on the dole, just training and climbing, arguably, the boom in standards was the result of the bust of the economy and vice versa, it’s no surprise that the country’s producing the most super-climbers are economically the least developed.

In a word, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.

One more thing that has had a major change, has been the failure of the club system to educate climbers. Today, climbers learn the basics of safety, then they’re on their own. There’s no apprenticeship, you can belay OK? Right then, you’re a climber. This all began with the clubs stopping taking out beginners because of the fear of litigations. The rot started there. For the last five years, I’ve been working to try to reverse that by raising the profile of climbing coaching, which sorely needed to fill the knowledge gap. Fortunately, that’s one thing a booming economy is helping, economic restructuring has merely commoditised the advice that use to be ‘free’, still, it keep us in work, eh?
Photo: Duncan Skelton

OCC: When you coach climbing, what pieces of advice do you find reminding people again and again that surprises you?

Adrian: Boy, that’s a big one, here are some that spring to mind:

- Footwear choice – technical climbing requires technical shoes – you’ve got to have the right shoes, and yes, they will hurt for a bit.

- Rear wheel drive – thinking in terms of following a line of foot holds rather than hand-holds – getting stuck is 95% due to looking for hand holds as opposed to using obvious foot holds.

- Reversing – time and again, I watch climbers climb into the most strenuous position on the route, stay they as long as they can, they call to be taken onto the rope. Reversing – even to the ground isn’t going to get you a ticket from the ethics police – it’s just good sense!

- Following from the last point – I find many Brits obsess over ethics, and what they CAN’T DO, rather than what they CAN. Be positive!

OCC: In getting better at climbing, really attacking your weaknesses, dislikes and bad habits is inevitably the sticking point for climbers improvement. Which weaknesses have you overcome to get to the standard you’re at just now, and which have you still to overcome?

Adrian: I would say my biggest weakness is definitely my head. I like to be in control, and you can’t be all the time. I absolutely HATE falling off, and can go for years without taking a fall, which is really sad! I’ve been dropped, and smashed into the wall a few times, which hasn’t helped me. I have found that on a recent trip through France and Spain, by getting on harder routes onsight (I was working up to onsighting 8a) I found my head got really sorted, just because the climbing felt so hard I didn’t have time to get anxious. I also make sure I do a few practice falls early on a trip now, just to get my head in gear. I don’t think I will ever like falling off, but I’m not afraid to confront it and it gets easier. I have found that explaining dynamic belaying to my partner helps a lot. My other, big weakness is exposure – it really affects me, I have to admit that my tactic here is to avoid it!

OCC: What importance do you place on doing a high volume of easier ‘milage’ climbing (indoors or out) for the purpose of sharpening movement technique? Do you see it as being commonly neglected, or the opposite - overrated?

Adrian: I swear by it – 70% of my climbing is soloing VS – E1 on grit, I can go out and do thirty routes in a couple of hours – I absolutely love it and by the end of the day you move without thought, which has to be the end goal. You can’t really work technique on hard climbs, at least I can’t. It is also great for developing capilliarity (blood supply to your forearms), which makes recovery much faster.
OCC: Many climbers who are not interested in bouldering as an end in itself in climbing, don’t practice it in their training either. Do you agree with this and do you think these people should make the effort to do more? If so, why?

Adrian: There is this idea at the moment that bouldering is a new thing – rubbish, you only have to look at the new BMC grit guide (Burbage and Beyond) to read quotes about bouldering from the early 1900s! The difference bouldering makes to your climbing is stark – when I have a new client, I can tell almost immediately whether they boulder or not. Moving beyond HVS without bouldering is going to be really tough, not just because it’s really hard to develop the strength, and technical range to tackle the moves, but because bouldering teaches you how to TRY. Bouldering is about repeated failure, and getting use to it. It’s about slapping for holds in an all-but-hopeless situation with the hope that just maybe you’ll make it. Applying that to routes will immediately gain you a leap of several grades. I love bouldering – but bouldering with a small ‘b’. I’m not a big fan of Bouldering (capital B) with its sitting starts, and daft rules – but then I’m not very good at it!

OCC: What elements of training do you think have held you back from climbing even harder than your current level?

Adrian: When I was training a lot, back when I was on the British team, there was really no advice as to how to do it. I got into this rut of climbing laps on routes in the mid 7s, then flying out somewhere to compete on routes in the mid 8s – naturally, I didn’t manage too well. After I quit international competitions, I had a big rethink on training, and did my own thing, which involved circuit training, with lots of one handed dead hangs in stress positions – some clips – and at a much higher intensity. This made a massive difference. If I’d know this back then, I would have been getting into the semi finals – though I think I would have had to have been doing since the age of six to have won!

OCC: Is there anything that you know now as an experienced coach that you wish you’d known as a novice climber?

- Being afraid of falling is the single greatest limitation to your climbing.

- Take advice with sceptical mind – mind included.

- Beware of the BS – and never let a tale of woe stop you trying a route – routes are never as bad as climbers who’ve failed on them make them sound.
- Treat your partners better than you would treat any of your kit – they are far more important.
Thanks Adrian! I really like the idea of 'rear wheel drive' - thats something you can tell yourself in the heat of battle when you are about to come off. Adrian has been working on a book about improving at sport climbing which will be out in a couple of months. Click on the cover below to check out Adrian's coaching site.

13 September 2006

Injuries web resource

I came across climbinginjuries.com, a resource with some quick information on common injuries experienced among climbers. The site has a non serious feel and I wouldn't take it too seriously. The advice is very general and the diagnosis and treatment procedures are only a few of a great many that are out there and very important. For example they don't offer any treatment suggestions for pain centered near the insertion of brachialis - almost certainly the most common pain in climbers elbows (although there is no good data on this as far as I know). One obvious suggestion which in my case has eliminated what was a stubborn dampener on my training for several years was simply to pay my dues and do a little regular antagonist work (in this case press-ups).

I'll have more on climbing injuries in future so stay tuned. In the meantime, remember there are some comprehensive articles on climbing injuries and rehab strategies on my articles page.

10 September 2006

OCC updates

As you can see I've rearranged the OCC site a little. I've added article categories so you can find the articles you are looking for more easily.

Blogger have just launched the new version and I switched over so I could arrange the site better. It's still in beta so please let me know of any bugs or missing things you find (and of course any feedback would be great). You can contact me here

Perspective - emotional rollercoaster!

I came across some old notes for an event I was dong on training and a comment that came from Marius Morstad about general approaches to training that really stuck in my mind: "training is not an emotionally neutral process" he said. This really sums up the overarching mental approach that underpins everything about achieving improvement (physical or overall), in one sentence". Perhaps its a Scandinavian talent - being so exquisitely blunt?!

What does this mean? For me it means you have to open yourself up to frustration, and to whatever ups and downs follow as you go through the elements of training. This is a process - and it starts with feeling psyched to improve. This psyche might take the form of frustration at lack of ability, progress or disappointment at a bad performance. But I think any person who is ready to improve, and certainly all good athletes, actually feel this as a positive emotion. It is the food of motivation. So don't suppress it!

Personally speaking I feel these things so strongly I think I'm going to explode. But the objective is to let go of this energy through training over time, and reap the rewards of it. The alternative is to start with feeling frustrated, but to suppress this emotion into dull acceptance, or to lose the fire for the activity and drift into other activities (more often than not simply taking the feeling of frustration with you to your new activities).

phew! I was in danger of going a bit 'rock warriors way' there...

7 September 2006

Review - Performance Rock Climbing

In the coming months I’ll be reviewing the books out there that cover all aspects of training for climbing. Most climbers I know have at least one book on training or climbing technique on their shelf. There is a massive difference in standard from the best to the worst book out there. And finding a book that you can connect with and re willing to refer back to can make a crucial difference to your training motivation and success. I’m going to kick off with Dale Goddard & Udo Neumann’s 1993 book, Performance Rock Climbing. It was the first book I ever bought on the subject (circa 1996) and the most used looking book on my bookshelf. The picture link with each of my reviews takes you to Amazon where you might find more reviews and can even buy it!

Isn’t it true that sometime the old school is always best! Performance Rock Climbing was one of the first serious efforts at a comprehensive guide to getting good and staying good at rock climbing. It came out in 1993, which seemed like an exciting time with new things being discovered and applied all the time about training for climbing – campus boards, periodisation, more structured mental preparation and of course the explosion in climbing walls. Not a great deal has changed since then in the fundamentals of training practice among climbers at large, so the book hardly seems out of date 13 years on.

The authors devote a fair bit of space in the first third of the book to trying to help you understand the activity of climbing, from a technical, physical and mental point of view an how they influence each other. Chapter 1 – ‘The Weakest link Principle’ was definitely a good place to start. I’ve heard other users of the book bemoan the extended explanations here, but like most advice that is repeated over and over, it really is worth going through. Without the theoretical knowledge, planning your training activities becomes a hit and miss gamble that you make the right choices. More often than not, you will choose activities that suit your likes and habits, and what you are good at. But training is about stepping outside your comfort zone.

Parts of the sections on the nitty gritty of physical training are dated and their legacy is evident in several schedules I still see being followed. For instance we now understand better that muscle hypertrophy is very slow to appear after strength training, and the neural changes happen rapidly in the initial weeks – not the other way round! However, all the main elements are there and easy to follow. Their efforts at suggesting specific exercises to work on technique seem to depart a little from the principles of training, but they do highlight all the issues and their suggestions might work well for some. The sections on how general aerobic conditioning affects climbing performance are extremely useful and the writing is clear throughout. I particularly like the way the text is punctuated nicely into short titled essays which make quick referencing very easy. Summary: Clear, safe advice and easy to refer to. 4 out of 5. Oh and don’t be put off by the cover, it was 93…

Work, work, work...

I've talked to a lot of people recently with jobs that involve staying away from home for long periods - away from climbing and climbing walls. Maintaining or even increasing their climbing related strength can seem impossible. But some job placements do provide access to weights gyms and we can use these to work hard on basic strength at least. With free weights we are looking to replicate the climbing movements. Lat-pulls downs/weighted pull-ups are priority number one. You can do a lot of them without getting too tired. You can simulate undercutting with seated rows, either pulling through the ROM or doing static locks with a really heavy weight. Beyond these essentials, you can simply simulate the movements you are weak on, and work on them. The second priority is working on core body strength. There are thousands of exercises and bits of kit out there. Personally I like to keep it simple and use Clean&jerk and front levers on a bar. Don't forget to do a little work on the antagonists for each muscle group you target!

So what about fingers? Well gyms are a little frustrating from a finger strength point of view. In the past, folk used slings hung from a bar to do one and two finger pull-ups (on two arms they aren't as a hard as they sound). Metolius have also invented the handy bits of kit in the pic above. I would never think of using these at home. But if ever get a job offshore, they would be the first thing in my bag!

6 September 2006

Fingerboarding - more detail

Following my post below about fingerboarding, Seb asked about finding ways of manipulating the difficulty of the hang when fingerboarding. Often you need to really fine tune the amount of weight or support you have to add to your body weight so that you can just hang on for 5-8 seconds with extreme difficulty.

This takes a bit of imagination and using whats available to you. Seb commented that for him, hanging from one hand was too hard but any support he uses makes it too easy. I have the same problem myself, being able to one arm from an openhanded grip but not quite hang one handed from a crimped grip. I only need a couple of kgs support from my other hand to achieve the correct weight/intensity. The photo above shows how i do it! When hanging from my other arm I do the same using the light switch! If I'm feeling a little weaker or its a bit warmer I'll use a stronger finger, or more than one.

speedlinking Sept 6th - pro-tips videos

Freakclimbing has three interesting pro-tips videos with Jared Roth, Lauren Lee and Malcolm Smith.

The first two are not hugely in depth from a training point of view but still interesting watching. Lauren Lee talks about how body strength was a limitation she's worked on. We see her doing some basic core exercises and talking about targeting steep and burly bouldering, rather than avoiding it like many do! This type of strength will inevitably be a limitation for female climbers, unless you do something about it. It's nice to see her putting her money where her mouth is by grunting through some V9 roofs on the clip.

Malcolm is talking about the benefit of working front-on body positions and big moves to the side during training. I emphasize the during training part. This is not a formula for technique, where twisting and Egyptians are essential to get the most from the feet. What I think Malcolm is saying is that its worth working on front-on moves in training (he demonstrates some system style board problems in the clip) so that when you do come across a move outside where there is no option but twist, that strength is there.

This is always the danger with spending a large proportion of your time training on boards - you can start to see all climbing through the lens of what you do on your training board and a broad range of techniques (especially clever footwork) gets neglected and you forget to use it. A balance between the two extremes is needed.

The clips are here.

Fingerboard choices

Several folk have emailed to ask about choosing a good fingerboard and how to use it once you have one. A fingerboard doesn't need to be fancy in any way, it just needs to be used! All it needs is to have a small enough edge that's first joint (20mm is good) and to have a rounded edge and smooth surface so your skin doesn't hurt. That's all. Above is my fingerboard. It's an S7 campus rung screwed to my doorframe. You could easily make the equivalent for a few pounds from B&Q. One like this instead of a big orange resin moulded thing is less intrusive in your living room too.

I've written some notes about how to use them in my rough guide to physical training on my main site (on page 4 here). The key thing about fingerboards the workouts are very short - play a CD through as you do your hangs, and you're done. The flip side is you need to keep up the dangling for a large part of the year to keep moving up through grades. Most people get bored with them either because they don't like training on their own or the activity itself seems to monotonous. Put your fingerboard up in your living room or kitchen and use as you watch the box, chat to partners, or whatever you spend a lot of time doing.

I've heard people say of fingerboards "but they are only for people who are strong", as if somehow if you lead VS it wont make any difference. Fingerboards make weak people strong. If you are weak, then you need them more than anyone!"

More articles about fingerboarding on the Moon site here

4 September 2006

davemacleod.com updates - coaching services

I've updated the coaching section of my main site to give you more details about whats included in my climbing coaching services and the different levels on offer. Please let me know if there are any questions left unanswered when you look through these! You can find all the details here.

I've also added a shop page where you can find lists of books on training for climbing by Amazon and buy climbing DVD's, including pre-orders for the E11 film (coming out late October).

Technique drills - breaking down moves

This post looks at how moves fit together on steep rock. Hopefully by breaking moves down into their components I can illuminate the crucial stages of each type of move. Because overhanging rock makes the holds feel poor, we often have to make dynamic moves or twist our trunk to get more reach without having to pull up higher on the holds. Below I've broken down the movements of Catch 22 Sit Start V10 in Glen Nevis, which gives a good example of moving on a flat steep wall.
1. The first move is an RH (right hand) reach. The most important thing to notice is that my trunk is facing left, not straight onto the rock. In fact my hips are almost facing the camera. Why? Well, twisting left means my right shoulder is twisted in towards the rock, closer to the hold I'm reaching for. It also means my centre of gravity is pulled closer to the rock = more weight on my feet. My left leg is pushing - creating the body twist and pushing up into range of the next hold. My right leg is pulling my right hip into the rock and is bent, ready to generate the upward momentum to the next hold.
2. Here I am moving my feet around to get in position to reach with my left hand. It's at this point in moves where many climbers go wrong. It feels natural to pull up and then move your feet. But the best way is often to keep your arms straight, move your feet FIRST until you can see that they are in a good position for the move, then pull up. Pulling up on the holds is likely to increase the force you need to generate at your fingers. If your feet are already in position, you can use them to generate the force. Note also it's OK to make several small foot moves. Big reaches with your feet often increase the force at the fingers where several smaller footsteps avoid this.
3. Here I'm in position to move. If you've never seen one of these moves before it's called an 'Egyptian' or 'drop knee'. The second name is more descriptive - basically you are just dropping a knee to help pull inwards and/or diagonally with on foot. I've dropped my left knee which pulls my left hip towards the rock (giving me reach on my left side) and generates more inward force to replace that provided by my left hand as I take it off and reach for the next hold. Note my left toe is really pointed into the foothold and I'm really pulling hard with it. On steep rock this type of move is essential to know if you want to progress.
4. I've completed the Egyptian move and now need to bring my right foot up. Can you see how my centre of gravity (near hips) is now further in (to the left as we look from this angle) than my hands which are both high, and hence further out? This is creating a tendency for my lower body to swing out (i.e. cut loose). I'm pulling in with my feet and keeping tension through my whole body to avoid my feet slipping. But as I move my right foot I need to be really aggressive with my left toe to prevent it slipping off. Mentally I'm also using this moment to gather composure and focus for the crux dyno which is coming next.
5. Ready to move again. Note legs bent ready to thrust upward, arms almost straight (I think I'd started to move as the photo was taken), focusing in on the next hold.
6. Go! Most of the upward thrust has come from my right leg. My left leg is controlling the rotation of my body and also momentarily pulling my lower body inwards to limit the swing. My left hand is doing almost no pulling upward, only pulling inward. I'm still focused on catching the finishing hold accurately and I'm ready to pull like hell on it as soon as I get my hand on it.

Summary: Lots of twisting going on - this helps give you reach without having to pull up and also brings your centre of gravity closer to the rock which means more weight on your feet. I'm only executing each hand movement after I've moved my feet and body into a good position to support me. Most of the stages of preparing to make a hand movement happen with my arms straight or nearly straight.

31 August 2006

Training for climbing books

Amazon have just set up a feature for folk who run websites to make up a page in Amazon with books relevant to their readers. I've set one up here with books about training for climbing (theres a link on the sidebar too). So I hope you find it useful to see whats out there - there are a lot of titles to choose from these days! Talking of which I'm going to try to post reviews of as many of them as I can in the coming weeks to help you choose one. The difference in quality between the best and worst is huge! My favourite is still the old school Goddard and Neumann book, even though a couple of parts are slightly dated from a sport science point of view. The Amazon Astore feature is still in beta at the moment and they need to improve it a bit, but hopefully soon they'll allow us to customise the book catergories better and populate lists better so the service is more useful for you.

Home training facilities - direct comparisons

Michael asked what are the relative merits of different types of home built climbing/training facilities. The answer is always to build as big and good a facility as space/spouse/landlord allows. Bouldering is the most effective training for climbing overall because you learn technique and can work on any aspect of strength and fitness at the same time. But not everyone has the space or the inclination to build a bouldering wall in their house. So lets have a look at the options:

Bouldering Wall

Pros: You can work on strength or endurance, but all the time you are doing whole climbing moves and thus learning technique. Its also much easier to cover and target all aspects of strength you need to work on (e.g. pinches, big moves, undercuts etc).

Cons: Takes up a lot of space. You might end up trying to use it to solve all your climbing weaknesses (which it won't!) and become a super strong wall rat with no technique or tactics.

System Board

Pros: If you already do a lot of real climbing and thus your technique gets lots of work, a system board might be more effective for working on strength. Especially useful for training for a specific type of climbing (e.g. Frankenjura pocket routes). More measurable than bouldering for improvements.

Cons: Again, becoming addicted to it and overusing it at the expense of other training priorities.

Campus Board

Pros: Very effective for gaining strength on big moves and small holds. Doesn't take up as much space as a wall.

Cons: Only useful if you already climb a lot and if used as a supplement, NOT SUBSTITUTE, for this climbing. It can subconsciously alter your technique away from a reliance on footwork if you let it.


Pros: Takes minutes to set up and takes up no space and no money (mine cost less than £10 to make and install). You can put it wherever you spend the most time so you can get steely fingers while watching the box, working, whatever. Easy to build into a busy routine because the sessions are so short - just about everyone can find half an hour in their day.

Cons: It's boring if you don't play music, watch telly, chat to folk or work while your doing it.


Pros: Can be stored away.

Cons: Can waste your time by working muscle groups that are not weaknesses in your climbing and taking your time away from learning climbing technique. So only really useful for people who already do all of the above or have some significant lack of body strength in a specific muscle group.

Time poverty and ways round it

Lots of people who ask me about what types of training they should be doing have one major thing in common - lack of time. They only have time for two climbing sessions in the week and aren't sure how best to improve. The answer to this depends partly on what stage of development you are at with your climbing and whether the lack of time is permanent and year round.

For people without many years of climbing behind them and those climbing at lower grades, increasing the number of climbing moves you make each year is often top priority. There is no point being 5% stronger if you don't have technique with which to apply it. For those who move very well on the rock and have tactics very well sussed, strength is more likely to be the biggest barrier to the next grade.

But there are 2 more points to bring up here:

1. If your routine (and time available to climb) changes during the year you can use the busy times to build in some strength training (preferably boulder supplemented by some basic strength work). This works well because busy times tend to be quite regimented which makes it easier to discipline yourself to spend a session doing organised strength training. Also strength training takes the least training time - short, high quality sessions are exactly what youre after.

2. You need to find ways to spend your time efficiently too. Do you spend ages travelling to a wall? If so build one in the garage, or if you have a tiny flat like me just put up a fingerboard. If you want/need to use big climbing wall for routes and to meet friends then you could do a half hour session on the fingerboard before going there. When you arive you'll already be warmed up.

If your routine is just busy all year round and those two sessions are all you've got, then stick to training that involves actually climbing. But I feel most people can squeeze in very short additional sessions somewhere in their week, to work on basic strength as a supplement. For instance I fingerboard when I have reading to do (I work from home). Others will do half an hour at lunch. Others will put the fingerboard above the kitchen door and do a few hangs every time they are boiling the kettle!

29 August 2006

Many questions in my inbox!

The body is moving, but the finger flexors are contracting isometrically while hanging from the holds.

I've been really overwhelmed with the response to this site and my inbox is flooded with questions and ideas from you. Thanks! I will get round to answering them all and posting up the articles you've asked for, but I've had a great many so please bear with me!

Connor asked:
"For a long time now I have been questioning the effectiveness of training finger strength through traditional training techniques like deadhangs, finger board workouts, etc. All these exercises rely on applying weight to a static hand position, crimping for instance, until failure. But how effective are static isometric contractions for training strength? Other resources on general strength training I have read reject this type of training because it is relatively ineffective compared to engaging the muscle over a range of movement. If I were going to train my chest muscles, I would never just hold the bench press bar in a static position until I was tired. I can't figure out why exactly we train our fingers and forearm muscles this way. The flip side to my thinking is that climbing basically involves a series of isometric finger contractions to get up a route, so is this training simply sport specific, therefore effective?"

Connor has really answered his own question at the end. This comes down to the basic principle of specificity - you get good at what you do. Most sports require using a muscle through a proportion, or all of its range of movement and in a dynamic (moving) contraction rather than isometric. So mimicking this in training is needed. But with climbing we hang isometrically (isometric means the muscle is producing tension but not contracting - i.e our fingers stay still on the holds) from holds so must do this in training too. Of course we use different muscle lengths in the different grips (crimp, openhand etc) so this also has to be done in training because the carryover of strength at one muscle length is limited at another. So stick to the hangboards!

Isometric contraction is actually surprisingly rare in sport. Endurance of isometric contractions, or more specifically, intermittent isometric contractions in the case of climbing is very interesting from a physiological point of view because of the effect of the high intramuscular pressure on blood flow inside the muscle. There is some interesting research on this in the fields of dingy sailing (yes I know, I was surprised too!) and motocross (also a forearm fatigue issue in this sport). More on this later...

17 August 2006

Climber interview - Neil Gresham

Have a conversation about coaching and training for climbing and the name Neil Gresham is likely to come up pretty fast. Neil is undoubtedly the guru of training for climbing in the UK and has been for years. As well as being the most experienced hands on coach in the country, he has recently packaged much of techniques and tactics he coaches into two DVD's Which are basically a bible for how to move on rock and get to the top of tricky routes. Neil gets down to the nitty gritty of training every month in Climber magazine, so in my interview I tried to ask him some more overarching questions about his experience and general approaches for doing well at climbing.

Photo: Adrian Croome

OCC: Neil you're probably the most experienced climbing coach in the UK, and since climbing is still a young sport in its stage of development, you've had the opportunity to influence many of the trends in training for climbing. Can you pick out one or two key messages that you've tried to get across to climbers over the years that stands out as most significant and/or innovative?

Neil: I guess the most obvious one is that it’s hard to persuade climbers to plan, but if you can convince them to use the principles of periodisation as a guideline for their training then they’re going to climb so much better and be less likely to get injured. The other big one regarding technique is that you have to focus on style and looking good (yes, I know it goes against the grain!) rather than getting to the top at all costs. People find it hard to be mentally aggressive and physically relaxed at the same time, but that is exactly the state you are aiming for.

OCC: The first climbing magazine I ever bought has an article on redpoint tactics written by you, and I still refer to it occasionally now. Is there any piece of advice or writing from your early days that still keeps you on the right track today?

Neil: Yes, for sure, a classic example is the difficulty of getting both strong and fit at the same time seeing as they require such contrasting approaches. I once wrote a piece for OTE in the early 90s which described the requirements of stamina training as being quantity based and the requirements of power training as being quality based. Bouldering work-outs should be short, intense and with good rests in between, whereas stamina sessions should be long slow-burners with as little rest as you can get away with. If you want to develop both at the same time then you need to prioritise one for a while and then switch to prioritizing the other rather than going hammer and tongs with both. There are so many little rules that help out when it comes to coordinating strength training with endurance. For example, if you’re training 2 days on then it’s nearly always best to train strength on the first day, and so on. Another good general principle is that the best time to back off with your training is when things are going well, and this is of course the time when you are least likely to want to. That one has probably saved me from injury countless times.

OCC: I think it's fair to say your notoriety as a climber really took off when you moved beyond the hard sport climbing scene, started doing routes like Indian Face and generally became a super all-rounder. Do you think your attitudes to training and preparation helped you do this, or was it just your sport climbing fitness?

Neil: It was both. Sport climbing gives you a huge buffer for trad in terms of strength, endurance and technical ability. It’s clearly more of a chance game if you turn up at the base of an E9 knowing that F7c+/8a is your limit. It’s only the total headpointing gurus like Nick Dixon who can pull this off. But then it’s people like Dixon, Dawes and Grieve who are the masters of the preparation side and who taught me so much. None of these guys are really strong climbers but they developed a whole new way of looking at bold climbing. Parallels were drawn with the Samurai warriors who had to practice highly complex routines, knowing that the penalty for a mistake would be serious injury or death. Many of the tactics that have been coined both for preparation and for coping with mid-ascent catastrophes are pretty zen-like in nature. It’s a vast subject but the essence of it is to focus so hard on the delivery of spontaneous action that there is no space left in your brain for disrupting thoughts or emotions. There are a few lucky climbers who can turn this on straight away with minimal experience to draw on, but for me it took years to nurture. I was very timid when I started climbing.

OCC: It’s always seemed to me that 'natural talent' in sport can sometimes bring problems as well as benefits. Many climbers who have the most prolific careers have had rather ordinary abilities to start with that have catalysed a determination and work ethic that goes on to surpass the natural talents (who get too used to success without effort). Do you agree with this? If so, do you try to develop determination in your coaching and in your own climbing?

Neil: I couldn’t possible agree with this any more. So often the most talented climbers, especially the young ones are total slackers. In short, they don’t appreciate what they’ve got because they haven’t worked for it. There is nothing like being fundamentally un-talented to make you realize that you have to capitalize on the fleeting moments when you feel that you might be in with a chance. This ethos has defined my entire climbing career. It means that your finishing game becomes your strongest weapon. Can it be coached? Indeed it can! Let’s move away from nonchalant teenagers and look at keen but less-experienced adults – many just don’t know hard you have to try. It was Sean Miles who once told me that one of the big things that goes wrong with his climbing after a break is that he forgets how much effort you need to put in. This statement holds true both in the present sense (mid-climb) and also with your overall approach to training. Look at Rich Simpson and Chris Cubitt – these guys have sweated blood for it. The right attitude can be nurtured with anything from the use of key words as metaphors to tougher goal setting. There are all sorts of devices.
Photo: Adrian Croome

OCC: One issue that is often on the training climber's mind is body shape and how to best manipulate it. What have you learned about this in your experience? Do you think it is best to work with the frame you've got or become either a Dave Graham or a Malcolm Smith?

Neil: I think the answer is hidden in the question by the fact that you picked both those two climbers. They are both at the very top level and yet they have very different frames. It’s elementary stuff: to climb well you need a good power-to-weight ratio. Graham gets there on weight (or lack of it) and Smith gets there on power (or surplus of it). If you’re both heavy and weak then you’re not going to do very well. When Malc did Hubble he was both strong and ridiculously light but it was unsustainable and the combination of the dieting and the training nearly broke him. So long term he has settled to be strong, a little heavier and a lot happier! If you’re naturally a stockier build then you simply have to ask yourself how much you want it and how far you’re prepared to go. It’s easier for lighter framed people as they don’t have to think about all this! That said, a little extra muscle is a good thing for bouldering but for routes it only serves to weigh you down.

OCC: Can you describe roughly what elements you think would be involved training wise, if a climber set a goal of onsighting E9?

Neil: Are you asking for a bit of coaching advice here Dave?! After all, you’re one of few in the UK who’s in with a chance. Firstly I think this is a young man’s game. Leo Houlding was a contender when he was full of precociousness but he got older and worst still he became famous. I think it’s pretty important to still feel that you have something to prove, preferably just to yourself. James McCaffe was (and still is) another candidate. He has a very genuine love of climbing that isn’t media-driven and a high level of talent, but he got that big scare when he went off-line on Masters Wall and I think that really brought it home. It only takes one near miss to make you realize that the confidence building game we play is partly based on delusion. There are a few young lads who I’d like to mention here but to do so would be putting them at risk. If the media start rallying round with something as sensitive as this then the motives become cloudy and it gets even dicier. Back to the question – you need to be climbing outdoors a ridiculous amount and hence would probably have to give up any full time employment for up to 6 months. Here’s what I’d do if I was remotely in with a chance. Go to Europe in the winter and not come back until I’d onsighted 6 or 7 8as and 2 or 3 8a+s. Stop in Font on the way back to get my strength and technique back up and make sure I could flash Font 7cs and do 8as easily in a day. Do loads of onsighting all-round the UK in the spring, starting first with the safe, strenuous ones and then progressively moving on to bolder ones. I’d make sure I’d done a grade pyramid of 1 or 2 ground-up E8s, 6 or 7 E7s and well over a dozen E6s. All these routes would be in a full variety of styles, but then I’d pick my E9 and start focusing purely on that style. Then I’d start mental prep for the 9 and maybe do a few up-&-down style recces on the route. You know the rest. All yours, Dave!

OCC: As you know all too well, trad climbing in the top end E grades is a genuinely dangerous business. How do you decide you are ready to go for a lead you know will be at your limit with real consequences if you make a wrong judgment? What do you think it takes to walk away from a route when doubt creeps in just before you are about to lead it? Harder still, how do you coach these skills?!

Neil: My doctrine here is that there are two voices – the one in your head and the one in your guts, let’s call that one your sixth sense. If you ever let your rational mind over-ride the ‘sixth sense’ then you’re playing a dead man’s game! This may sound wooly and superstitious but if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you simply need to go out and do more trad climbing. Backing off teaches you the parameters and when the sixth sense says ‘go’ then you’ll trust it. But if you haven’t nurtured that inner voice tenderly over time then you have no referral device for your decisions. It’s like a final check: brain says ‘yes’, sixth sense says ‘yes’… ‘off we go then’. On the day I fell off Meshuga, everything was perfect on paper, conditions, skin, preparation, the lot. But something irrational inside me said ‘don’t do it’ and I chose not to listen. Never let your the to get it over with get the better of you. Be quiet, cut through the butterflies and the eternal chattering of your mind and listen to what your inner consciousness is really saying. And if it’s really saying ‘no’ then don’t go - an amber light is the same as a red one! You’ll know when the time is right.

OCC: Who in climbing have you seen or coached over the past few years that has really impressed you? What can we learn from their approach?

Neil: Natalie Berry has really impressed me and I wish I was able to do more work with her. There are climbers three times her age who’ve been climbing three times as long who haven’t worked out half of what she’d sussed by the age of ten. She has a rare grasp of the movement, her tactics are impeccable, she knows how to train and how to learn from her mistakes. To be honest, so many climbers impress me – Ben Moon for being so relentlessly good, Rich Simpson and Steve Mac for taking over where Ben left off so many years ago with sport climbing, Paul Craven for constantly re-inventing his climbing by switching styles, Charlie Woodburn and Matt Birch for over-coming debilitating illnesses and cranking to ever higher levels, you (Dave Mac) for being out there on your own and pushing both headpoint and Scottish winter standards, Oh and Ryan Pascall as a young climber who seems to know what to do with his talent. And also at a much more modest level, there are a few people who I’ve coached - there’s a chap called Paul Bate who’s in his late 40s, with a family and a who holds down a very demanding and high-flying position in the world of finance. On our first session he said to me ‘Now then Gresham, I don’t want any creepy bullshit from you – I pay you to tell me what I’m doing wrong, not what I’m doing right, so don’t spare me any punches!’ I slated him and he went from falling off 6a’s to onsighting 6b+ and redpointing 7a in 6 months.

OCC: I sometimes get the impression that climbing walls have generated a lot of impressively strong climbers, who try but don't succeed in matching this ability outdoors, especially on routes. For example, I was recently talking to a climber who's goal was to do Font 8a and French 8a, feeling that French 8a was the harder goal! What can climbers do to overcome this?

Neil: That sounds like crossed wires to me! Can it be true? I take your point that wall strength is easier to ‘convert’ than endurance because the head side of lead climbing usually sabotages things. However, the tactical side of both bouldering and sport climbing is pretty much the same outdoors as it is indoors. Converting the technique patterns of indoor climbing to rock is simply a matter of putting the time in. So what else can climbers do to overcome disparities? This depends on whether they mainly climb indoors due to time constraints, or whether they are cowering indoors because they are scared of the crag. The former climber will be super psyched when eventually they do get to the crag; however, they should still channel this motivation into skills acquisition rather than the short term desire to tick high grades. To the climber who is more timid, they need to ask themselves if they are genuinely scared of the crag or if it is more to do with their ego. If it’s a pride thing, then it comes back to ‘having a word with yourself’ (as Tim Emmett would say) and dropping the grade and going for mileage. Remember that the indoor and outdoor climbing grades will only equate for people who’ve put roughly equal amounts of time into both disciplines. Only push your comfort zone once you’ve established a base - this is surely the first thing any climber is taught. Regarding the specifics of crag skills – that’s too long to answer here. Sales pitch aside, have a look at my Masterclass DVD part 2!
(OCC: No really! No crossed wires! The psychological issue you brought up of being timid and feeling out of the comfort zone was what I was trying to get at with this question and example. I think that a lot of climbers aren’t sure how to go about training it)

OCC: The last one is a philosophical one: What is the benefit of getting good at climbing? Is it more enjoyable at E5 than HVS?

Neil: For me personally, I’d say that E5 is more enjoyable than V Diff or Severe but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more enjoyable than HVS. That depends on the quality of the route and a great HVS is surely better than a shit E5? I always used to look at Extreme Rock when I climbed in the lower grades and long to be pulling off proper moves on sheer faces rather than shuffling around on polished or vegetated ledges. For me there needs to be an element of exposure and technical intrigue and I can still find that on HVS. What you get from it seems to vary all the time – sometimes it’s the thirst for new experience in the form of increased mental or physical pressure that drives my climbing. But other times, if I can search out a climb that genuinely has something new and different to offer, then I don’t need to be pushing myself in order to obtain some value from the experience.

Thanks Neil! Neil’s masterclass DVD’s are a superb reference for just about all aspects of movement techniques and tactics for sport and trad climbing. A full review of these coming up soon. Check out Neil’s new site which has some great articles on training and tactics from climbers you’ll have heard of.

16 August 2006

upcoming climbing masterclass

I've put details of my next climbing masterclass up on davemacleod.com. Myself and Niall McNair are running the technique sessions at Alien Rock 2, Edinburgh alongside the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival on 21st and 22nd October 2006. Full details here. They sold out a fair bit in advance last year so if you'd like to come then get booked up.

15 August 2006

Climber interview - Lucy Creamer

Photo: Tim Glasby
I’ve been lining up a series of interviews with top climbers, coaches and sport scientists and trying to ask them the questions that need asking to get right up to date with the best knowledge out there for improving at climbing. The first of this series is with Lucy Creamer. Lucy is the UK’s best female all-rounder; 6 times British indoor leading champ, onsighted trad E7 and sport 8a, redpointed 8b and M9 and climbed up to E5 on alpine big walls. You can find out more about her on her climbing interviews. We can find out a lot about improving from all-rounders because to do as well as Lucy has, you have to be able to make all the ingredients of performance; physical, mental, and tactical work for you. You need to really know your strengths and use them to transfer ability across different disciplines, while working efficiently on your weaknesses. In my interview I tried to get to the bottom of what Lucy’s transferable skills are, how she uses them, and how she makes up for weaker areas. I also tried to find out if there were any advantages or otherwise Lucy has experienced as a female climber and how she dealt with these.

OCC: You have onsighted on trad up to E7, which is still pretty much cutting edge in world trad onsighting. I think this is pretty remarkable since this is a lot nearer your physical limit than many of the men who have onsighted this grade. I know that a type of egotistical self-confidence can be used as a mindset to do bold climbing near your limit, whereas some people have a more confident but humble mental approach. What mental techniques or strategies have you used to commit yourself to bold routes? Do you think any particular style is effective or useful for female climbers in particular?

Lucy: One of my strengths in climbing is being able to push myself at my physical limit. It has always baffled me when I compare myself to others (in terms of pure physicality) as to why I can achieve harder onsight grades but as I said I think it has a lot to do with my mental attitude. When I get into physical extremis, I have the ability to override what is going on and push myself upwards rather than panicking and trying to retreat and or fall off. I generally only ever fall because I can actually physically no longer hold on.
I think climbing bold routes requires an inner self-confidence in your abilities and making tactical choices. i.e. I will never go on a route if I am feeling physically under par. For me one of the keys to climbing hard trad has been to do a lot of hard sport and therefore you know in the back of your mind you have the fitness to recover if you get in a pickle and get pumped and also you have the strength to pull off hard cruxes.
Photo: Tim Glasby
OCC: I’ve read and heard several stories of female climbers not being taken seriously or encouraged in climbing, especially in the UK. Do you think there is any truth in that and if so do you think it has an effect on women’s performances, either directly or subconsciously?

Lucy: This is a tough one. I don’t think it is that women are actively discouraged in climbing, I think it has more to do with British society and attitudes towards women and how we are brought up and what expectations are put on us.
Women are generally ‘looked after’ more by society, in a physical sense. i.e. if there is a group situation and there are some heavy loads to carry, it will always be the guys who are asked to do this job- the unspoken assumption is that women can’t cope with this type of activity- which is obviously rubbish.
Take this to a mountaineering environment, I can think of two good examples (of course there are many more) of women who have completely held their own; Louise Thomas and Alison Hargreaves. Speaking to people who have been on expeditions with both, these women were able to completely hold their own and generally perform as well as, if not better than the guys carrying loads etc. The pertinence of these two examples is that they are/were small in stature, not big bruisers. It definitely helps to be bigger in this environment but the point is they could still cope.
Sometimes, for the nicest possible reasons, women are not given the choice to do big physical jobs and I think this reinforces in their minds that they can’t. When in fact if they were a bit pushier, they would find they could. Maybe not at first, guys aren’t always good at things at first but with practice and time it would come.

OCC: You are really a big step above the level of other female all-rounders in the UK. What do you think are the main reasons why you’ve been able to dominate female all-round climbing in the UK for so long?

Lucy: Again, many reasons. One might be that over the years I have had many different climbing partners and have never had one person who has tried to look after me; I have always been independent and had to look after myself.
Right from the beginning, I wanted to do everything myself. I never wanted help on routes, I always wanted to find ‘my’ way of climbing it, even when I was seconding VS’s etc.
Also I have a strong inner confidence that has enabled me not to limit myself. So when I was only climbing E3, I didn’t sit back and think ‘oh well, that’s it’, I looked at others around me (generally always men) and thought well if they can do it why can’t I? So I would apply myself and work towards that next level.
I think women are not expected to be pushy or confident and therefore aren’t a lot of the time, it’s all about breaking ingrained attitudes and learnt behaviour patterns.

OCC: Steep bouldering and basic strength training are pretty essential for getting to high levels in climbing these days. This type of training tends to be popular with guys but not so much with female climbers - Do you think that’s true? Do you enjoy training for strength? If so, do you think you have a different mindset from many women climbers? Or do you not enjoy it but have just found a way to motivate yourself to do it!?

Lucy: Yes I do quite enjoy it. I used to do weights even before I started climbing, not full on hard-core pumping iron but just general stuff and it’s something I’ve always used. I’ve always been naturally quite strong, I could always do pull ups etc but I do have major strength weaknesses too and I think if you want to improve you have to work out what your weaknesses are and address them.
Photo: Niall Grimes
OCC: I know you emphasise the benefit of doing a huge volume of routes in your progression. What additional training do you do on a regular basis such as weights, campusing, fingerboarding etc?

Lucy: As I said, I do weights regularly. I’ve never really got into campusing etc. Partly because I think I would break/injure myself if I went for it, partly because it’s hard-core and more so because I find I can make improvements doing other things I enjoy more. I’m sure if I had done more of this, maybe I would’ve improved quicker but I feel my body wouldn’t have coped with it very well (not very strong fingers and not the best strength to weight ratio for this style of training).

OCC: Who have been your role models in climbing and how much have they helped you? Have they been mainly male or female and is that just coincidence? Do you think it’s important for aspiring female climbers to climb and compare themselves to other female climbers, male climbers, both or does it not matter?

Lucy: I’m not sure I’ve consciously had role models, I don’t seem to work like that. I’ve been lucky enough to climb with many very good climbers over the years, like Ian V and Ben B and I’m sure I picked up things along the way but I tend to look at what I’m doing and work out ways to improve. I’ve always chatted to my peers about what they do and how they train etc but at the end of the day you have to find out what works for you through trial and error.
I think comparing yourself can lead you up a blind alley sometimes. It’s good to admire what other people are doing but as I said you’ve got to work out what works for you, we’re all different.

OCC: Female climbers have a disadvantage compared to males in terms of potential for developing strength, what strengths or advantages if any do you think females have that they can use to offset (or eliminate??) the difference?

Lucy: Yes we are at a definite disadvantage here. It’s interesting watching the juniors grow and develop; I’ve had some interesting chats with some of the young lads. You won’t see them for 6 months, the last time you saw them they were puny little weeds and then the next time you see them they are these muscle bound young men who can do 2 finger one arm pull ups on a pocket! They haven’t done anything different, sometimes they haven’t done anything, they’ve just grown muscles. This rarely happens to girls, you don’t wake up with muscles popping out everywhere and pulling one armers.
At this stage, the boys generally overtake the girls quite dramatically, mainly on steep stuff though. The girls just have to play catch up for a while trying to work on their strength deficits. I suppose an obvious difference is that girls really have to use what strength they have in a very economical way, which will generally mean developing a good technique (this is not to say guys don’t have or need good technique). Also, girls tend to work on their flexibility more and this can be a useful tool for ‘bending’ round hard moves. I think if you were a guy with all these attributes, it would be very hard for a girl to be better.

OCC: What do you think you need to do to climb even harder grades than you do now (assuming you want to!), that you aren’t currently doing?

Lucy: I spent the winter trying to improve my bicep and lower ab strength. These have always been two of my weak links. I was also working lock offs and reverse negs. All this combined has definitely made a difference to how I feel on routes. It’s made a difference to my grade but not a huge one. Making big gains at this stage is hard. However, I definitely feel better on routes.
I think I need to carry on with these weaknesses (when I go away on a months climbing trip, by the end of it those gains have pretty much gone, it’s a case of starting from square one again. Just going hard sport climbing does not, for me, work my particular weaknesses.
The other thing I could do, would be to wake up and miraculously have developed some power and be able to do one armers but that isn’t going to happen- oh well!

OCC: What other female climbers have inspired and/or informed you and why?

Lucy: When I first started doing comps, Fliss Butler was the queen of rock. I didn’t really know much about her as I wasn’t a big climbing magazine reader (I think it’s more of a guy thing) but she was an inspiration because she was awesome in the comps and on the rock, a woman after my own heart. And of course Lynn Hill, what can I say that hasn’t already been said. She’s pretty much one of a kind- you don’t get many Lynn Hill’s to the pound,

OCC: Finally, do you have any hard earned pieces of wisdom for female climbers that you wish you’d been told when you started to climb seriously?

Lucy: I can’t think of one nugget. But I suppose things like:
• Try not to let other people tell you what’s best for you, only you know what works for you and your body.
• Don’t be afraid to experiment, even if it feels like one step forward two steps back at times. Get in there and fall off boulder problems and routes, it’s the only way to improve.
• Have the strength of your convictions. If you want to work out your own way to do a move, do that. Find the inner confidence to tell your climbing partner to "shut up and mind their own business" (in the nicest possible way). What works for a 5’10” guy, will generally not work for a 5’2” girl.
• Girls, yes we are short, yes we are weaker. Unfortunately, that’s life, get over it. Try to work with what you’ve got. Get extra strong at locking off etc to gain height. There are ways round these things. But you do need to get stronger, if you want to push into the harder grades. We all know strength isn’t everything but it helps a lot.
• Finally, don’t let anybody tell you can’t do something, that’s solely your decision. Try to break the mould of deferring to men, be your own boss. I hope I don’t sound like a man hater because I’m absolutely not. But they will try to take charge of a situation, show them that you can look after yourself and your climbing needs. This is as much the fault of women as it is men. Be your own person.

Thanks Lucy and well done on your second 8b!

8 August 2006

For young climbers - case study

After three years of learning to boulder, mainly on my own, I got good at being pretty damn tenacious, and learned that the process of climbing stuff was actually the fun bit of climbing rather than the tick.

I've been asking lots of young climbers what they would ask a coach if they had one and all of them asked me what I did when I started! So I'll briefly tell you what aspects of my start in climbing resulted in my best efforts since then.

One of the main blessings I had was to do a lot of bouldering on my own. I got really used to visualising moves in my head rather than just watching a mate try the same problem. Of course, you can learn climbing faster by watching good climbers, but learning to visualise moves in your head, and getting used to putting in a lot of effort into trial and error are very useful skills. Basically I developed a habit of looking at many different ways of doing a move I am struggling with, and being very open minded about the options. My attitude is that there is a way, it's just a matter of finding it. And finding it just means applying your mind more and being more patient and tenacious. It works!

Being able to climb hard on your own comes in very handy later on when you find your partners dry up for a while through circumstances. You have to be able to keep training or find other ways to keep your momentum up. Because I started on my own it just comes naturally to me now.

Training wise, once I started I worked fairly hard, but not hard enough. I used to climb indoors Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then outdoors at weekends. Indoors I'd warm up, do hard bouldering for and hour and a half, then ridiculously intense weights sessions for 2-2.5 hours, then back up to the wall for mileage problems for another hour, then sometimes a 30 min run to finish. I had a big tree in my back garden and I cut lots of holds in the bark. I used to run outside and climb my problems on it every ten minutes, every day! I did that for three winters when I was 16, 17 and 18 and my standard went from Font 6b to 7c. After that I went through a massive phase of getting injured fingers all the time, which I put down to poor diet, poor technique and choosing the wrong routes to try at the wrong time. Poor footwork and body awareness is probably the cause of most pulley injuries, along with poor warm-up or tiredness.

Injury got me into trad climbing and my climbing level took a massive leap because the volume of routes I was doing jumped and my technique got the chance to catch up with my tenacity and finger strength. Losing a stone and a half probably helped too! Those changes took my level to F8b, Font 8a and E8 headpoint/E6 onsight.

The main things that got me beyond that level were just tightening everything up - improving my lifestyle (more sleep and better diet), gradually building up to training 6 days a week, more variety in my climbing, sharpening up all my tactics and especially working diligently on the fingerboard to increase that finger strength foundation.

If I was 16 again I'd do little differently, my tenacity and being able to solve problems for myself and use my head are the foundation for everything else. If I'd had a home board like Malcolm, I reckon I could have got Malcolm type strength if I'd started while that growth hormone was still floating about. I definitely would have slept and eaten better, and got into trad earlier as well; more moves= more engrams =better movement. If I hadn't had those three first winters of pretty gruelling training, I don't think I would have believed I could climb hard grades. The feeling of coming outside again and pulling easily on holds that were impossible 5 months ago was such a revelation. I couldn't get enough of that feeling.

7 August 2006

Tactics - Rock-bootcamp

A deep egyptian on Devastation F8c. On this route I needed to wear different shoes on different feet as I needed a specific heel shape for the crux heelhook. (Photo: Pete Murray)

Wearing a good quality and well fitting pair of rockshoes is so basic for rock climbing, I used to think of it as not even worth mentioning. But then I found myself telling about 50% of the climbers I've coached that they need a new pair (& different model). As I was saying in my last posts about the true basic rules of climbing technique - feet are the key. So if you hinder them by wearing boots which don't fit your foot shape, are too big so you can't put weight through your toes, or have lost all their support and are ready for the bin, you are slicing off a big chunk of your potential ability straight away. Usually, climbers using ineffective rockboots will avoid routes with small footholds, or fall of when they come across them. In my coaching sessions when we work with small footholds, the true effect of wearing the wrong shoes comes out instantly. Climbers with relatively poor footwork but good shoes can swap feet or move off small smears/edges, while climbers with good footwork flail. Unnecessary.

And maybe you think it doesn't matter in the short term, you can buy a new pair anytime right? Well it does matter - Having crap shoes you can't trust and rely on works it's way subconsciously into your technique. You start to solve move problems using your hands, because your brain subconsciously isn't trusting your feet. Once this happens, it's extremely difficult to erase. It will pull your standard down massively.

Take time to try on lots of different brands in the shop, get info about how much they stretch (it differs massively between brands). Find a pair that fit your foot shape. Watch out for what models good climbers are wearing, you can bet your life its for a reason. Ask them. And don't make the mistake of thinking something that good climbers do/use is only for good climbers.

5 August 2006

Climbing beginners - top 5 technique basics

Much of the advice out there on improving climbing technique is aimed at climbers who have a bit of experience behind them. If you are a true beginner and just been to the wall/crag for the first time you probably were shown the basics of safety and the rules of the game (use only one colour of holds etc) but many will learn their climbing technique intuitively from a mate and won't know what to look for.

It takes a bit of time to get comfy with being at height and moving on rock before the more detailed technical drills will help you improve. Try them in your first few sessions and they sometimes just frustrate and confuse. So here are 5 basic things to repeat in your head on your fist few sessions.

1. Feet are the key:
Your body is built to be supported by your feet. The more weight on your feet at all times, the better. When you struggle on a route, you're arms are giving in and you start to rush, think FEET - they will almost always be the reason you are stuck and the solution to keep you on the rock.

2. Arms straight:
Keep your arms straight as much as you can (i.e most of the time). The basic climbing movement is to keep arms straight, move feet into position to reach the next hold, pull up momentarily to reach next hold, arm straight again to move feet, and so on. This helps you in lots of ways but the most important benefits are reducing the muscular effort from your arms and being able to see what's going on at your feet much better than if your face is pulled hard against the wall.

3. Lots of small foot moves:
Many beginners automatically assume the making more foot moves is bad. Your footwork will become more efficient in time, but it's still normal to make 2-3 foot moves for each hand move in many types of climbing.

4. Quiet feet:
This technique has nothing to do with keeping the noise down in the climbing wall, its just a simple technique for good footwork. Avoiding jumping or scuffing your feet up the wall as you move your feet means you have to get in balance to place them carefully.

5. Make the most of each hold:
In indoor climbing, each hold will have a 'best' spot on the hold which is the part you should use. You need to try and find it (hand and feet!). Beginners tend either to grab and pull without 'feeling' for the best bit first, or, when they get stuck on a move, they feel around for way too long trying to find that magic hidden incut that isn't there. Somewhere in between is best; look and feel the hold to find the best bit, then move on. If you get stuck, concentrate your efforts on feet (see No. 1) and looking for other holds.

4 August 2006

When is the climbing 'off season'?

Enjoying the last of May's cold days on a project before the summer sweat comes. Hopefully by the time October comes around I'll be fit from my off season training...

The issue of when to go into 'off season' mode and put immediate climbing objectives aside and focus on training is always on my mind as an all round climber. We are sort of conditioned to think of summer as being the 'climbing' season and winter being the off/training season. But I noticed early on that there is really much more going on in winter.

Yeah the weather is bad, but even though there are fewer days rock climbing outdoors, the other aspects like winter climbing and indoor training all add up to mean I feel way more worn out and stretched than in summer. In summer when sport and bouldering is somewhere between a bit sweaty and unbearably hot, there is really only mountain trad to fill up large chunks of time. So about 4 years ago I switched my labels for the seasons and started doing the bulk of my foundation strength and endurance work right through summer (who needs good conditions when you are just training?).

In autumn I'll start prepping to peak and then in winter I scale down training but end up climbing 5/6 days a week (I'm lucky to live near crags, work from home and have a flexible schedule - this is obviously tricky with a 9-5). So in summer I tend not to be climbing so well as I do lots of basic strength stuff, but it doesn't matter too much since trad is a little easier technically than the equivalent overall sport grade. In winter I get loads of variety by mixing up bouldering, sport, mixed and indoor, sharpening up my technique. And conditions are good (if unpredictable but you can't have it all ways) for nailing hard projects. In summer I earn money and do basic strength training, punctuated by trips to the mountains.

I'll never look back from this set up, it works so well for me. Anyone else out there do the same?

2 August 2006

New to climbing? - the basics

First climbing steps in the old Kelvin Hall wall (I miss it!). Note chalk clogged atmosphere!

One of the things I'm finding on my web crawls for good climbing training sites is a lack of god resources for beginners. My memories of getting into climbing were not being too intimidated by all these grades, ethics, rules of the sport and the jargon of training - sets, reps, intervals, Egyptians, etc I just tried to soak it up. But I know others find it off-putting. Starting out in climbing is a bit of a magical time (of course it doesn't have to get any less magical as time goes on!), and I think what you are exposed to when you start out often shapes your likes and skills later on, even if you diversify your climbing.

Strictly speaking, basic climbing safety is outwith the scope of this site, but there is certainly a lot of overlap between basic climbing tactics and skills and performance factors and they must fit together. I've added a link to the New to climbing? section for a series of Planetfear guides for starting out in various types of climbing. I'll be searching for more and writing some myself for taking your first steps in getting better at climbing once you decide you have the 'disease'.

Specific technique - feet are for pulling too!

1- Getting into position: my feet are pushing down through the footholds to support my weight, but also pulling inwards (towards the rock) to allow me to put more downward force through my feet, reducing the force on my fingers. Centre of Gravity (hips) low, arms straight.

2- Initiating the move: throwing my hips in to the wall by pulling in aggressively with my feet (note foot angle, bent legs and arms still straight).

3- exploding off my FEET using my bent legs to generate the momentum to the next hold. (side note: even though I've jumped for the hold I've maintained the tension through my body to limit the swing - note pulling in from the shoulders, forcing torso inwards and already eyeballing the next foothold and aiming for it).

One of my aims with this site is to focus on some of the themes I've seen to be most problematic in climbers I've coached. I'll be adding a steady flow of short tutorials on specific techniques. Please comment if you want me to write something specific that's on your mind or want me to expand on a point. Although these are designed to be applied by novice-intermediate climbers, even the best often don't use nearly the full repertoire of techniques out there. I've seen 8b climbers who don't understand the topic below.

One of the most common footwork issues I come across is that people don't realise that feet are for pulling as well as pushing and that they should be used as much like hands as possible. On overhanging rock, your COG (centre of gravity - note to self: add a training glossary/abbreviations guide to the site!) is pulling you away from the rock, reducing your ability to get weight through the footholds. In climbing getting more weight through your lower body is priority No. 1. So you have to pull (and I mean REALLY pull) inwards even on small footholds so you can get more weight on them. When I coach climbers I see this pulling and pushing at the same time idea is a little confusing at first, but once experienced/understood is always a revelation. The next stage is to find out just how hard you can pull with your feet. Legs are pretty damn strong limbs (compare the volume of your forearm to your thigh) but often people don't really use them because it feels natural to concentrate on pulling with our arms. Next time at the wall, seek out a good climber. Stand and watch them and look out for when they are pulling with their feet. Watch how they hook their big toe over the foothold, pull in and then execute the move. Now copy it.