29 April 2007

The Self-Coached Climber review

[Update 2/11/2009] Since this book really is still the best book on improving at climbing on the market right now, and so many of you read the review, I thought it would be a good idea to get some copies in for my webshop! It's here.

The Self Coached climber is the latest in what is now a long list of books on improving your climbing performance on the market. In fact, for the inexperienced eye, it is for the first time getting tricky to decide which is the best buy. So where does Hague and Hunter’s new book fit into the available literature, apart from bringing us up to date with recent knowledge? In my opinion, this book blows away the previous publications, and sets a new standard in self help training books in rock climbing.

To start with, lets look at the scope of the book. For the first time, the authors lay out in detail the importance of establishing balance on the rock, what balance actually means in a rock climbing situation and provide superb descriptive and illustrative examples of balance in action on the rock. Establishing balance underlies all successful movement on rock and any climber will benefit from this tutorial in how different body and limb positions affect your ability to move and the forces on the holds. Beyond that, there is a comprehensive run through the main movements in climbing, with supportive graphics to help you see what is going on in each movement. Right through, the writing and illustration is faultless and shows groundbreaking effort in communicating these ideas in a clear manner, an obvious testament to the author’s decades of experience in coaching climbers. The following chapters take us through the fundamentals of all types of training for climbing, including mental training and putting all the elements of training together, in a far more practical way than other books have managed to do.

The content is detailed and thorough which might occasionally be a little heavy going for beginners. This trade off between detailed information for advanced experts and accessible writing for beginners and the ‘not-so serious’ climber will always be a tricky balance to strike with this type of book. I think they have pulled it off by structuring the book well into shorter essays and enough graphics to do the job without actually referring too much to the text. The real killer though is the accompanying DVD. When I first hit play I was expecting something pretty cheesy and not exactly captivating, but it really surprised me with well organised concise exercises and superb animations which surpass anything before it including Neil Gresham’s DVD instruction on climbing technique (although this is more comprehensive). The chapter of the film covering redpoint tactics is superb too, bringing the lists of tactics alive by following two climbers on the rocky road to linking a route right at their limit over several days. This could have been even better with some additional commentary at the end, but still leaves you more educated about the critical importance of tactics than before.

This is a substantial publication and the price reflects it, but I’d say it’s worth every penny and more for the quality and scope of the information inside and the way it is presented. There’s no doubt that a keen beginner climber picking this book up will feel a touch overwhelmed by some of the chapters. But this is a reference book; keep this in mind. Beginners will get a huge amount by reading over and over the sections on balance, initiating moves and watching the associated sections in the DVD. This is the same kind of content that any climbing coach will have you do again and again, because its so critical to build further layers of ability on top. After the initial read, what you need from a book like this is for it to be easy to pick up and flick back to a section that’s on you mind at a given moment, such as getting home from a frustrating training session, or getting close to a hard route and needing an extra edge. The authors obviously had this in mind when laying out the book and deciding on graphics – its not a chore to use or difficult to relocate particular notes within the book quickly and easily.

So do I have anything bad to say about the book? Not really, all of its content is spot on. I would have liked to see a chapter on common climbing injuries since their prevalence is so high these days among climbers, and perhaps a little more on onsight and redpoint tactics in both the book and DVD. So it’s not 100% perfect. But this is already a massive publication and really puts the rest to shame. Even today with more and more climbing coaches around, the vast majority of people coach themselves in climbing, and make crucial decisions about sourcing information with very little to go on. For these climbers, this book should be the most used looking book on their shelf.

If you would like a copy, you can get it from the webshop here.

The Rock Warrior's Way review

Some books demand extra special attention. You hardly have to read a few pages of Arno Ilgner’s book on mental factors in climbing to realise that this work is an expression of a lifetime of research, study and passion in a subject that has eluded scientific understanding and mass participation with the passage of time; mind control during risky climbing. The intention of the author is to equip you with the means to take control of this, the most elusive of performance elements in climbing and start to make lasting changes. Quite a task.

The angle taken by Ilgner in approaching this is inevitably influenced by his background, incorporating both psychology and various philosophical approaches and fields for reference, example and guidance. We cannot fault Ilgner for taking this approach. Even in this century, the workings of the mind in the area of risk and fear have continued to confound standard scientific approaches for study and developing good practice, and we surely cannot discount at least some of what ancient and alternative philosophies might have to offer sport mental performance? When studying sport psychology myself I was surprised (but later no so) to learn that universities still regularly debate whether to offer psychology related degrees within their science faculties and even if this discipline can be justifiably called a science at all. The mind simply cannot be well understood by applying current day scientific method. That said, my scientific defences were already up before I even got out of the introductory chapter when Ilgner makes reference to possible “divine intervention” in his life!

Some, especially a British audience might well get ‘the fear’ just from the book’s rather romantic title. Do we really want to become “rock warriors”? The book is without a doubt steeped in Ilgner’s personal love for ‘warrior’s way’ philosophy and how it has worked for him in succeeding on bold rock climbs. But it’s also doubtless that there is much to learn from his book.

So what elements of value came out of the read for me? Well, the biggest benefit to be had is truly learning that mental performance in climbing is a process, not a sudden event to be conjured out of the depths of your mind when 20 feet out from a runner. And that process starts long before you even tie onto the rope at the base of the route. It also refocuses you on using your mind as a tool to get clearer understanding (and therefore control) over the actual task you are setting yourself when leading a route; observing the right things, focusing on the right tasks at the right time, eliminating extraneous and inhibitory thoughts and tasks and the steps that need to be taken to arrive at the moment of truth – commitment.

Also the power of adopting ‘the witness position’ as Ilgner refers to it, of stepping out of your body and how this can help you make better an more informed decisions on courses of action during climbing and also to prepare yourself to focus on the right things. In fact, throughout the book I recognised most of the mental strategies that have lead to the best performances by climbers operating at the limits of climbing of all types, including bold routes. However, at times I found the writing may have benefited from the influence of more co-authors to sharpen up the key messages and distil out some of the surrounding text that occasionally clouds what are essentially simple practices. For the reader, this means some hard going at times, and I would recommend reading it a couple of times (if you are up to it!) to get Ilgner’s key messages well understood and internalised.

The big question is of course will it actually help you control your fear and reach your potential on bold leads? For some I think it will help, and many of my clients who have read it report that they benefited from it. However, I feel that the practical advice in the Rock Warriors Way may be in need of further development and readers may be left wondering how they can realistically put their new knowledge into practice. This is where a truly effective coach, or self-coaching manual succeeds or fails – in recognising that integration of theoretical knowledge and day to day practice is the most critical aspect for getting to the next grade. Some climbers may be left needing more advice in translating knowledge into results by using the strategies on real life climbs. It is a lot to ask of one book though; to make a comprehensive picture of the theory and provide detailed practical advice as well in what is a massive subject. Ilgner has focused on the former objective.

However, they will have been well educated in the theory behind boldness by The Rock Warriors Way, and at times entertained by the language and terminology that you only find in mental self-help books, especially American ones! So, adopt the warrior position, breathe deeply and prepare for a long night’s reading, possibly aided by some strong coffee to get to the end. But, if you can find a way to put Ilgner’s wisdom into practice, you might just be OK out there on the sharp end next time round??

Climbing Your Best review

American climbing coach Heather Reynolds Sagar has compiled her knowledge of performance in climbing and produced a book detailing good practice in training for climbing. This book is mainly focused on training, with mention only of common climbing positions but little on constructing movements, so I would recommend using it in conjunction with some other source of learning to cover these aspects, as training is only one link in the chain of performance. The book translates the author’s experience as a coach and some application of the limited sports science research so far completed in climbing – a good premise, but does it work?

To start with Heather gives us a battery of tests to perform to assess our strength and fitness parameters in order to establish our strengths and weaknesses before moving on to developing training goals. At the end of the chapter you can compare your scores to ‘normal’ values for climbers at each grade based on data collected by the authors during her coaching experience. This is a good attempt to establish real numbers for strength and fitness targets for climbers. But I would say the ‘normal’ values must be questionable to say the least and we have no assurance of the size of the sample or methods used to collect the data. These might be useful as a ‘wake up call’ for those a mile off the required level for their goal grades, but trying to follow them to the letter (as some inevitably will) could be dangerous! I have to say I skipped right past this chapter, and would advise anyone else to view it with interest but not take it as gospel.

The next chapter is more promising with ‘signs and symptoms’ of potential weaknesses, based on things climbers can see or feel without having to perform exercise tests. This will be much more practical and appealing to a lot of readers. I was glad that Heather warns us of the interaction between technique limitations and physical ones but doesn’t provide much advice to guide us through the common pitfalls of self-analysis.

The following chapters detail good practice in strength and endurance training for climbing, but not technique and mental training. There is also a chapter in climbing injuries which was helpful, but only as a quick run through of preventative techniques, with little information on what to do if you actually get injured – an opportunity missed. I was also disappointed to see good footwork absent from the lists of high risk situations for injury; it is the most common! The book finishes with a run through of common myths about improving at climbing. I liked this section although again it would have benefited from being tackled more thoroughly and might have been better included as a discrete “climbing myths” section in its relevant chapter, rather than at the end, where some readers may have switched off.

Talking of switching off, I found that the layout and writing style in the book was by far its biggest limitation. The first time I read it, I found it pretty hard work (and I LOVE reading this kind of book!) and was pretty disappointed. Second time round, I realised that much of the content is actually sound, if a bit limited. I realised that the lack of structuring of the sections and text and overworked examples defeat the reader, and the decision to abstain from supporting the text with pictures and graphics compounded this. No doubt this was a commercial decision, but may have been a false economy!

It will appeal to those wishing to understand more about physical training for climbing, without spending days reading it, although you may have to give it a couple of read throughs to get to grip with the messages it contains. Its also a good choice if you have a limited budget, but will have to compete hard with the other books out there which offer at least as much value per pound/dollar.

24 April 2007


Dave Redpath setting up for the crux of Anabolica 8a, Siurana – never mind that recruitment Dave, can you up that firing frequency, coordinate those neural waves and reduce the inhibition enough? (Ph: Hot Aches)

Based on the information in books out there about training for climbing, it has become many climber’s understanding of muscular strength and strength training that it comprises of two elements; muscle size and muscle fibre recruitment. This understanding is useful at a very basic level because it helps to underline the point that getting strong for climbing is not just about getting bigger muscles. Even for those not interested in training, it helps us to understand our observations that the best climbers are clearly not the muscliest! This is nowhere clearer than if you compare the physique of two of the world’s most famous and best climbers of today, Dave Graham and Chris Sharma.

But if you are at the stage of planning your own training for climbing based on your knowledge of strength and the factors that influence it, then it pays to have a deeper understanding to avoid making poor choices and losing out on training gains.

Muscle strength is indeed influenced by the size of the muscle and the number of fibres it can recruit, but its also influenced by the frequency of firing (rate coding) of the muscle fibres, the length of the muscle, the speed of contraction, the reflex potentiation or inhibition of the muscle and the coordination of the muscle group (after all movements involve several muscles working at once through different stages). Beyond these there are even more factors besides! So in reality there is quite a lot going on there. This helps us to see why the best climbers come in different shapes and sizes and appear to move in different ways.

So what do all of these factors mean for our strength training. I guess the best way to summarise this would be to say that the demarcation between muscular strength and technique is not as clear as it may seem. I’m not going to go into all the implications because there are several books worth of them! But the main implication is to recognise the importance of integration of gains in both tissue growth and the neuromuscular activation aspects (recruitment & rate coding) in the setting you are ultimately training for.

In real terms this mean making sure you mix up basic strength training on things like fingerboards with bouldering. This will ensure that your muscles learn the correct rate coding for given movements. In some cases this will be learning to use more force, in some cases it will be less. Both are obviously just as important, as in climbing we have to string moves together so strength is a commodity that we must save on certain moves and be able to use in abundance on others.
In future posts I’ll write up some pointers to recognise when there might be a problem with the proportions of different types of strength training in climbing. But this is a very complicated subject and worth getting help with it if you can!

Layoff vs slow return to activity

One of the main worries climbers have after getting an injury is whether to take a complete layoff from climbing activity and how long that layoff should be. Some reading about rehab in sport will tell you that extended layoffs are very bad news not only for losing form but also recovering from the injury. Here is quote from a review of strength training in sports rehab which really rams home the point:
"it is now clear that during the remodeling phase, occurring theoretically from the 21st day after injury and even lasting 300 to 500 days, the collagen tissue remodeling can only take place efficiently when put under stress (or load)."
The initial layoff (up to three weeks) allows the acute phase of the injury to pass (that is inflammation causing swelling, tenderness and lots of nasty chemicals in the wound). Beyond that, it takes training for the injury to respond with improvements in exactly the same way as normal training, except of course that it is starting from a very low load capability. What has to be remembered is that sporting function is not normal function. If you layoff for a long period, an injury will recover to the point it can handle what is being asked of it (i.e. lifting kettles, tapping keyboards in some people's case!). You would'nt stop climbing for six months and then jump back on your hardest grade would you? So if you have an injury where the capability of the damaged tissue drops to a very low level, you shouldn't let it languish at that level and then expect it to suddenly perform a massive jump in standard by starting normal climbing again.
The bottom line is, rehab from injury is (beyond the initial phase) analogous to normal training, with progressive overload to stimulate the tissue to respond. All the aspects of normal training also apply; monitoring of progress, regular and stuctured exercises, careful lifestyle support (which in this case will include rehab treatments like Lewis reaction icing, stretching and maybe friction massage).

Elbow injury - lessons from tennis

Here is an interesting wee link to some summary data about rehab of Tennis Elbow on the Sports Physiotherapy For All website. Tennis elbow in climbers is pretty rare (I think, but there is no data on it!), but does sometimes happen. Where it does happen I suspect its most likely caused by a discrete event such as a sudden tear, or due to a very unusual climbing technique. The main reason I posted about the link was to draw attention to the comments about late stage rehab of this type of injury. In climbers this will more likely be medial epicondylitis or problems with brachioradialis, although it applies to any sports injury. The article stresses the importance of good technique and relying less on strength and making more fluid and efficient movements. This is most often the underlying cause of overuse injury in the first place, and the reason why certain people are plagued with repeated injury of the same type. In climbing, key risk factors for finger and eblow injuries are probably poor footwork, a 'rushed' climbing pace and a habit of locking off and pulling up to initiate moves rather than initiating movements with your feet. Of course, there are risk factors in the areas of training practice, nutrition and lifestyle and genetics as well, but these may be less significant that movement technique.
So, the message is clear - to prevent injury occuring or recurring, look at your movement technique.