30 April 2008

Common reasons for zero improvement despite seemingly getting everything right

So, you eat well, sleep well, climb three+ times a week and mix up the training venue/activity/angle/rock type etc, but you STILL don’t improve. What’s going on?!

Here are the top two reasons why this happens in climbing:

1. You aren’t trying hard enough. Yep, that’s right, you just don’t give it 100%. Most people simply don’t realise how hard they can try. Don’t believe me? It’s been proven time after time in muscular strength research. Get your average non-athlete and put them on a strength testing apparatus of your choice and tell them to generate their perceived maximum force. Add screams of encouragement – force goes up. Add some fear – force goes up. Think about it – there are lots of extreme circumstances in life that people adapt to handle, that would be unthinkable to the untrained person. Soldiers in wars can function around sights and sounds of death, whereas an untrained person would fall apart put in their shoes. A grim but real enough analogy.

Athletes are trained to know how to generate massive amounts of neural activation and send that like a lightning bolt to the muscles to squeeze out every last drop of activation. It’s no surprise the muscles are stimulated to adapt. Much time is spent in climbing coaching just trying to communicate the fact that often the strength for the moves is already there, it’s just being able to muster the level of effort to tap into it.

Think of something in life that gives you a little shudder of fear because it’s so hard for you or you know it requires so much effort. Apply that level of effort to every route you do, and you cannot fail to improve.

2. You are too heavy. Climbing hard demands a body composition that is skewed as far as possible (palatable) in the direction of light and strong. Carrying excess weight acts like a dampener on improvements made in other performance effectors.

Consider two hypothetical male climbers, one with body fat 9%, the other 25%. Otherwise they are identical. It takes both the same amount of training to achieve a 5% increase in maximum finger force output. For the 9% fat man, this is enough to destroy all of his current projects and throw him comfortably into the next grade at least. For 30% man, it might be hardly noticeable. The lesson? Be 9% man.

How much training can you handle?

Something that people ask constantly is how much training should I do? How often can I climb? Of course the main worry in the back of folk’s minds is injury. It’s a constant trade off between training hard enough to make an overload and giving your body too much to recover from between sessions and descending to the point of chronic tissue damage.

The answer is of course ‘it depends’. It depends on how much your body is ready for the training. The more years of training you have behind you, the more you can deal with. Ultimately, the only person who can decide whether you are training too much of little I you. Fortunately, your body is constantly giving you messages informing you of whether this is happening or not. Lets look at a few of them:

‘I am not getting stronger/fitter’ – This message means you are not training the attributes you wish to target hard enough.

‘I really have to force myself to do each session and I’m feeling tired, sore and unable to maintain a similar level of performance to previous sessions. – This message means you are doing more than your body can recover from. But before blaming too much training, first ask yourself if it’s the quality of your recovery that is actually to blame – too little sleep, too much additional life stress, poor diet, too much alcohol etc…

To start answering the question of ‘how much should I train?’, a good place to start is ‘try a bit more that you are used to’. Your body will tell you whether your choice is broadly correct or not. If its not enough training, you will stay at the same level. Too much and thing will hurt.

Another complicating factor that will confuse the messages coming your body (besides how well you take care of your body in recovery) is training choices you make. So if you train harder and harder than before and still nothing happens, you probably need to add some variety in the training.

Pulling on the same holds, on the same wall or crag week in, week out, for years is not training, it’s just going through the motions.

The bottom line is – listen to your body, if you really pay attention to it, it will give you almost all of the clues you need to choose the right workrate.