24 January 2008

Start reading the rock (and never stop)

Coaching is really great fun. I don’t have experience coaching other sports but I’m guessing climbing must be pretty interesting as sports go. In climbing there are so many skills and abilities that create the performance. Meeting climbers who are at a high level you see that many of these skills are a prerequisite and don’t even need mentioning. With these climbers the challenge is to get them to stand back, and see the bad habits they have developed and to make a convincing enough case for them to see clearly the benefits on offer if they change those habits.

Coaching climbers at a less advanced level is very different. It’s strange sometimes to see different climbers all trying to climb the same problems but using totally different styles and approaches. When in groups it makes it easier to talk folks through the benefits of each approach and the effects of neglecting other parts of the chain. Always the most dramatic image for students is when someone who is obviously very much weaker than the rest (often a female climber in a group of strong young guys) makes climbing steep ground look effortless through applying momentum and lower body muscle groups. I love it when this happens because it’s something I cannot (easily) convincingly demonstrate myself. People assume that if I make a move look easy it’s because I applied more force through the handholds. So I spend a lot of time pointing out my tensed calf muscles as I move on a steep board and generate the force for the movement from my toes and my movement of my hips.

Getting down to the nitty gritty of movement is really great fun. And making breakthroughs in it is even more fun. One big thing that the climbers I coach say to me is that they worry that they will forget my explanations for how they managed a move easily that was previously impossible, so the improvement will be transient.

And that brings me to my most repeated piece of advice in coaching – look at the rock and the holds, and listen to your body as you make the moves on them. Soak up the information it gives you, even though it feels like a brain crash to start with.

At first you will have to process the bits of information consciously, chunk by chunk. Like learning a foreign language, at first you have to piece sentences together by individually recalling words and their basic meaning. Everything is clunky and takes a great deal of conscious effort. There is no sidestepping this stage – you have to go through it.

But gradually, more and more aspects of what the hold layout means in terms of movement decisions will come automatically, and you can deal more and more with understanding it at a higher level and refining the timing and execution of each part.

But the minute you get lazy and stop looking at the holds before, during and between attempts on a climb, your technique learning will slow down or even reverse. It is the conscious (at first) efforts to understand what the holds are asking you to do that makes the connections in the brain you are after.

Look > try to understand > try to climb > try to understand > look some more > and so on

This is the way for steady technique gains.

If you go for:

Try to climb > try to climb > try to climb > brain asleep > try to climb > try to climb

Not much improvement is on the horizon.

The seemingly hard way of trying to understand climbing movement from the word go, rather than hoping you might understand it someday is actually the short cut.

Alcohol and training

Brendan asks…

“I've just read your reply to an OCC question about how drinking coffee affects endurance training. Something I've wondered about is how another drink - booze! - affects performance.
I assume drinking is not beneficial to climbing full-stop, but is it particularly bad to drink soon after a session/on the same day? I often climb on a Friday then go out for a few beers that evening, I'd like to know if that wrecks the physical benefits of the training. Is it worth planning training around evenings when you know you'll be drinking?”

Ah ha, alcohol is definitely a different story! It’s pretty bad for your body in lots of ways, but the main way it will affect your training is by reducing the quality of the recovery and increasing the recovery time. The best way to offset the worst of the effects is to make sure you have a proper athletes meal (high carbohydrate) and plenty of water straight after the climbing. And make sure you avoid the super greasy takeaway after the night out. The combination of a skinful of beer and something as nutritionally evil as a takeaway kebab is what gives so many British climbers a little tyre to weigh them down on the rock.

I can’t believe I’m really writing about this on this site, but for a lot of British climbers, its really holding their ability on the rock down a grade or two.

The funny thing is, just increasing the amount of time between any drinking you do neatly solves the problem, without having to sacrifice the feeling that you can’t relax and have fun when you do go out. The nightly in-the-house beer in front of the telly is the hidden evil here. It raises your tolerance to alcohol a hell of a lot. Meaning that when you do go out, you ‘have’ to drink more, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, if you only ever drink every other week/month when you do go out, half as much or less alcohol will have the same effect, with the obvious benefits of less weight gain and less detrimental effects on recovery from training. I find that these days every time I drink a pint of beer (once every couple of months?) it feels like the first time I drank alcohol, i.e. one pint and I’m a right mess. I like it that way.

23 January 2008

Five year Audit

Following on from my last post about setting up the conditions to get to work on your climbing, and enjoyment of it, here is a practical one minute step to deciding whether your training is correct. It's so brain dead obvious you might scoff. Be warned.

Write down a very brief description (or just think back) of where and how much you climbed, what type of activities this included and who with. Something like the following would be an example:

...Climbed indoors at the local climbing centre after work tuesdays and thursdays with Brian and Joe and at the weekend on Grit. At the wall I did 5+s and 6as and a little play on the boulder wall afterwards. Outside I did HVSs and the odd E1.

How many things are the same today?

The more things that are the same, the more likely it is your climbing level has not changed.

What to do? Something different of course!

This weekend try a new rock type. This weeknight try a whole session on the panel or angle you used to avoid and see how much you can master (& begin to love) it. Phone up a different climbing partner.

I know some climbers who deliberately train on the very same problems for years on end. This is not training. In the main they do this because of fear of losing the strengths they do have if they diversify their training a bit. I can tell you it won't have a negative effect - strip those problems and start again. Give your body something fresh to adapt to.

Sticking to the stuff you are comfortable with and know you can do is not training,

Don't get stuck.

Planning your training - rule 0

Freedom > success (not the other way round)

Planning your training starts with organising your time to allow time and space to improve at the skill of climbing. Don’t work now to get freedom later. It won’t happen. Find work that gives you the freedom now, and that at least gives you the chance to start now and not later (later is too late).

Understand that this is not a mythical easy option. It’s a real option and it’s the hardest option. Safe = mediocre. Finding the answer to this problem will be the hardest training ask you’ll ever do. It’s great that you have to deal with it first!

Getting through the issue of finding the right work that fits what you want to do (as opposed fitting what you want to do to your work schedule) will most likely involve some radical action and some quite scary decisions or risks. Could you tell your boss that you want to work from home because you could produce more results in half the time? (and that you going climbing more is a good thing for your productivity, not a bad thing)?

It’s easier just to stay safe and not do it.

Then you won’t have to try and wonder how you can find the job that allows you this freedom, how you can redefine your current one, or whether you want the rewards enough to muster the effort.

In no time, twenty years will have gone past. Don’t turn round and find yourself still asking the same question.

16 January 2008

Lactic Acid woes

Nik asks…

is there any way of decreasing the production of lactic acid?

I’ve heard that drinking a lot of water while doing a long climbing session flushes the lactic acid out,
shaking your arms,
breathing deeply while on a route,
not drinking caffeine as this dilates the blood vessels,

Any thoughts or advice?

The answer to this, frustratingly, is that it’s not really the question that needs asking! Muscle fatigue is a complicated subject in general but for the type of contractions we make (I’m talking about forearms here – intermittent isometric contractions) it’s even more complex. If I launch into an explanation it could bring on headaches all round but let me summarise by saying that lactic acid is just one among a long list of chemicals that cause our forearms to fail. Potassium ions, hydrogen ions and many others build up beyond their normal equilibrium and interfere with running muscle metabolism as fast as we’d like.

The goal is not so simply to decrease production of lactic acid, rather to delay it or prevent it to as high intensities as possible, and then tolerate it’s presence for as long as possible at higher intensities. Lactic acid build up in climbers bloodstreams is miniscule compared to most other endurance sports that engage much more muscle at a high intensity. In fact the small amounts of lactic acid we do produce in our forearms are probably easily taken up my the other muscle groups and recycled. So we should focus on the forearm.

Not enough is known about what goes on chemically deep inside the forearms at the moments before we fail on routes. That’s mostly because it’s so difficult/unethical to research (would you like a big apple core of muscle ripped out of your forearm by a man in a white coat just as you pump out?). But it appears that local and pretty transient chemical changes account for a larger part of our forearm fatigue.

The main (non technical) method to avoid forearm pump is of course endurance training! There are no short cuts or tactics that substitute hard hours on the circuits. But breathing well and shaking arms are indeed useful for helping diffuse the local build up of chemicals, delaying the point at which they will inhibit metabolism and also assisting blood flow. Thorough warm-up is also critical, not just at the start of a session but also if you stop and let yourself get cold between climbs.

It’s important though to keep perspective though. Good climbing technique will be far more effective for delaying pump, and spotting rests will do more to get you through a pump than anything else. No hands rests are everywhere, even where you least expect them. Make yourself an expert on kneebars, heel-toe locks, toe hooks, bat hangs, and various scums and body bars. Look out for them everywhere as you climb, and take note of how they are used when you see other using them. They will give you a killer advantage, not to mention make your belayer choke with jealously as you relax and chill in the middle of the crux.

What I’m saying here is that if you are at the stage to be worrying about having a cup of coffee before a climbing session your technique should be virtually perfect!