27 October 2009

Just because it's not on a foothold...

A bit of movement analysis; This picture from last night’s training session is quite revealing.

Just because a foot is not on a foothold, doesn’t mean it’s not making a massive contribution to the move. This picture, because I’m using tools and trainers really highlights the effect of the counterbalancing (in this case left) foot.

Look at the feet; can you see that they are doing different jobs?

The right foot is trying to pull my left hip into the wall and at the same time I’m pushing upwards from the bent right leg.

The left foot is pushing directly into the wall to help turn the body to face left and extend that right shoulder towards the next hold. Some folk might also notice it’s doing a separate job of toe hooking the pink hold, obtaining a so-called ‘bicycle’ clamp, pulling in with the left foot along the plane of the wall to allow me to get more tension on the right foot. The toe hook probably wouldn’t be needed if I was wearing rock shoes which could get enough tension on their own and my body wouldn’t be so far from the wall as it is holding 50cm tools.

If I was doing normal climbing, the left foot would want be further out to the left and apply more turning force to extend that right shoulder, to save the upper body having to apply this force. Any opportunity to use the lower body to do the hard work of moving the body against gravity, even on very steep angles is the way to get further in climbing.

Because I have long tools in my hands, my body is further from the wall, so that left foot can’t extend leftwards as much as I’d like. It’s pretty obvious that the left foot is pushing extra hard to compensate for this, but the left deltoid and pectorial are having to do a lot of work to obtain the leftward trunk twist. 

The message? When doing a move like this in normal rock climbing, extend the counterbalancing foot well out to the side and push directly into the rock/wall to do the work of creating the twist and shoulder extend. By doing this you save precious upper body strength. Most people are far too passive with the counterbalancing foot, place it too low on the wall, don’t even put it on the wall, or try to place it awkwardly on another foothold thats too close to the body.

Update: BTW I don't have a random dread coming out  the back of my head, it's just a dark coloured hold.

24 October 2009

Annual rest and recuperation time

Nicholas asks about incorporating annual rest periods into your climbing year to stay injury free and healthy. Is it a good thing to do?

The short answer is yes. Of course it’s not possible to handle uninterrupted hard work of the same type indefinitely, and if you don’t give that particular energy system/muscle group a rest every so often, it will force it on you through injury or stagnation sooner or later.

But the mistake is to feel you need to rest the entire body or do something completely different to achieve the rest and recuperative period needed. Normally, doing some sport climbing if you’ve bouldered for months, or so ice climbing if you’ve been clipping bolts all season is change enough for the body. There’s very very few people out there working themselves hard enough in every area to need to rest entirely, or to need something outside of climbing to keep them active during this recuperative period. For almost all of us, regular work and life ‘stuff’ gets in the way enough during the year to give us more than enough periodic rests. If you feel worn down at the end of a season, it’s more likely due to the monotony of your sporting regime than the sheer volume of it. So, instead of hitting the couch, or pounding the pavements for a few weeks, try just mixing up the climbing a bit first.

Some suggestions:

Go to a different climbing wall than normal for a few weeks. Or even just climb on a board/wall you normally avoid.
Climb some slabs
Climb some trad
Climb some psicobloc/DWS
Do some ice climbing
Go on a trip into the mountains
Leave the guidebook (or maybe even the equipment) at home and go climbing by instict for a while, without the need for hard routes, just discovery and enjoying the place you’re in.
Hook up with a new climbing partner with a very different style to you.
Completely re-shuffle the days in the week/session lengths/ venues and activities you do in the week. Do the opposite.

If you still don’t feel refreshed all of that I’ll eat my hat and then suggest doing something good that climbing is always getting in the way of - like lying on a beach for two weeks with your other half, or refurbishing your bathroom.

21 October 2009

To crimp or not to crimp

Crimp to get strong on crimps, but crimp with care!

David points to a common discussion about the wisdom of crimping during training. Crimping is indeed the riskiest grip position for the fingers and the more systematic your training of it, the risk of picking up a pulley injury, or just inflamed and swollen PIP joints gets really high.

So it’s always a balance, but here are some thoughts on how to steer through the injury risks and get the best possible strength gains.

In my experience, crimping is needed to get strong at crimping. So the idea that some support that you can avoid it altogether and still get strong on crimps I feel is incorrect. 

Crimping on boulder problems can be much safer than crimping on a fingerboard or especially a campus board. I never crimp on the campus board - the forces peak so rapidly on the sudden dynamic movements that it gets really dangerous. Crimping on the fingerboard can be quite safe if your form is perfect. And crimping without the thumb helps to make the position more natural when using one hand or two hands quite close together.

I train crimps mostly on steep powerful boulder problems. It is safest, but only if your technique is good. Poor footwork, leading to sudden foot slips, or a violent climbing style will make it just as dangerous as campusing. It tends to be less hard on the body because the accelerations are slower than with campusing, the body is often turned underneath the hold to bring the wrist into a neutral position during the highest force part of the move and the hold is generally grabbed openhanded before closing into a crimp.

Having said all this, the vast majority of climbers crimp far too much and would seriously benefit (in both performance and injury risk) in developing their openhanded grip to a point where they use it more often than crimps and are at least as strong openhanded as crimped.

- Mini case study: I used to be one of those who crimped too much, and averaged about 3 serious pulley injuries per year for 5 years until I finally was forced to get strong openhanded, and to love this crimp position too. Since then I’ve had one very minor pulley tweak (needing only a slight drop in training intensity for a few weeks) in the past five years.

20 October 2009

Fear of falling dictates your technique - yes you too!!!

Recent coaching demonstrated to me once again the inescapable effects of fear of falling on your movement technique on rock, even where you might not expect it.

Climbers that find falling unpleasant (simply because they haven’t practiced it and reinforced the avoiding habit) invariably climb too statically and waste huge amounts of strength. They often also stay very front on to the rock and so miss out on the opportunity to twist their trunk on reaches, bringing the reaching arm closer to the rock and extending the reaching shoulder to reach the hold earlier.

The waste of strength is massive and often even very strong climbers are operating way below their immediate potential.

It’s not just reserved to those who have a recognisable falling fear they are self-aware of. It can also happen subconsciously. One case recently that got me thinking was where a very strong climber with a home board had a slightly less than ideal falling zone below the board. It wasn’t too bad, but just enough to enter the mind when slapping at your limit for the last hold of a problem. There wasn’t quite enough mattage and some protruding wood structure to potentially bang into with a backward fall.

The result - subconscious setting of problems that avoid big moves, twisting and anything other that basic front-on laddery problems. This had engrained a static style and seriously compromised footwork and move repertoire. 

I noticed it myself working between my own board (which is fine to fall off, but still less than ideal for a wild backward swinging fall) and my nearest climbing centre board (The Ice Factor) which has a big amazing board with superb mats that take the wildest fall without any significant worry of nasty consequences. In the ice factor I subconsciouly set big powerful wild moves and my board has slightly more contained, more fingery moves.

The effect is subtle, but significant. The obvious thing to do - practice the falling or fix the landing to prevent or reverse the pervasive effect on your technique. If you can’t fix the landing 100%, at least be aware of it and plan accordingly. The lesson for me is to make sure and have one Ice Factor session per 5 home board sessions, so I don’t start sailing up the cul-de-sac of ‘board head’ climbing style.

10 October 2009

One peak or two?

Rested up and firing on all cylinders, again. But still no success on this project and fitness levels are wavering - what to do?! Photo: Cubby Images

For those who are climbing quite regularly and are at a level where they can feel their fitness slip if they do less days on in the week, here is a thought.

When your local outdoor climbing is not in condition and you are going through a spell of just climbing indoors primarily as training, you’ll tend to work yourself a bit harder right? You train hard, you get better. In the short term, you are often tired, skin and muscles are sore, and performance is a little depressed. This is exactly where you want to be to make physical gains. Many weeks of this, just stopping short of developing injury or wearing yourself out.

The opposite extreme is when your outdoor projects are in condition - you want to be out there, rested, sharp and strong and trying to get them nailed! So you take more days off, basically to peak for the project. In the short term (a week or even two) you feel bionic - the sudden abundance of rest gives the body a chance to fully catch up and you have that crucial last few % of strength to get a bit further and hopefully bag the project.

What if it doesn’t work out? You rested, got the extra few % and you still didn’t quite do it. What often happens is you extend the cycle of resting a lot more than usual to be fresh for the project. You still make progress on it and so often fel that fitness is still improving. It probably isn’t.

What usually happens is that the extended focus on one or two climbs makes you learn the movements ever more efficiently and sharpen up the tactics, but then attribute it to increased fitness. But fitness will be going down.

So it’s a trade off. You have to judge how close you really are. If you are super close to success, another week of rest an focus will see you at the top. If not, maybe it’s better to go back to the training, even for a week or two until you are a bit more ready. But perhaps the end of a trip or a season will influence the decision.

How important is the project overall? Is it worth losing some gains from your training to gamble on success in the next week or two? Sometimes you’ll be so glad you did. Other times you’ll just end up setting yourself back a few weeks. All this logistics is part of the fun though, don’t you think?

1 October 2009

On choosing the right fit for rock shoes

Paul sent through a mail with questions about choosing different fits of rock shoes for different climbing objective, as well as using other options such as wearing socks. Basically his question was whether it’s best to choose different shoes for different jobs or if one can do everything.

The answer is really to choose the best shoe for exactly the type of climb you are trying, especially thinking about where you are going to fall. Paul asked about specific climbs of mine, such as Rhapsody, which has a jamming crack followed by a face climbing crux.

It’s nice to have the toes a bit flatter in a very slightly bigger shoe for shoving them into jamming cracks without it getting too painful to even want to carry on. Socks can help pad things out too, increasing comfort, protecting your ankles if the crack is big enough for getting the whole foot in, and more importantly for keeping your foot held firmly inside the boot when twisted (you lose a lot of the foot power if your feet are shifting about inside slimy sweaty shoes, yuk!).

On Rhapsody, the choice is simple - use a tighter face climbing shoe, because the jamming part is easy compared to the face climbing that follows. Thats where you are going to fall on the route, and anything less that total precision with your feet is going to cost you.

Paul also asked about a multipitch project of mine - to free the Original Longhope route, where there is an E10 pitch after 18 pitches of trad adventuring. In this case, the choice is a little tougher. Too tight and your feet will die by the time you get to the hard pitch. Too baggy, and you just wont be able to stand on the tiny edge at the crux. A simple compromise is the answer and being disciplined with taking the shoes off at every belay, even if it’s only for 15 minutes or so. For this route I’ve been going a euro size bigger than my sport climbing size. NB I also have a super small pair that only come out for bouldering ‘send attempts’ to get every last drop of force.

But a well fitting shoe should handle 90% of situations without being a significant disadvantage.

The best all round rockshoe in the world in my opinion is still the Scarpa Stix in my opinion. They just seem to excel at absolutely everything. Some of my friends went off them in the shop because they feel weird on the foot (agressively turned down) before they’ve been worn. What a shame because this only lasts one session. The Stix are getting harder to come by in the UK because Scarpa are shortly releasing a new generation of shoes. So my recommendation might come too late for some at least.