26 February 2010

Scarpa Instincts review

My sponsors Scarpa have several major new rockshoe models coming through this year. First up of these is the instinct slipper. Trying them on at the trade show in Germany, I thought Wow! They are super comfortable. In fact, excellent comfort is one of the biggest things I have to say about the slippers. The fit seems well designed with no nasty pressure points and my toes feel exceptionally comfortable yet still held firmly enough for good performance. Like the Stix before them please don’t be put off by the toe downturn which feels normal as soon as the boot starts to break in after an hour or so bouldering.
Performance - The shoes have an all new rubber which seems to perform well and the grab is excellent on steep ground. In fact, I’d say they were the best shoes I’ve climbed in for training on steep ground or indoor walls and have now become my staple climbing shoe for all training, indoor climbing or coaching. 
The only downside for me is the softness. My Scarpa colleague Andy Earl loves them for this very reason, and I guess it’s a matter of taste, but for long trad pitches or sport routes which aren’t so steep I do like 4mm rubber rather than the Instinct’s 2mm. 
So like most people now I wear my Instincts for all training/indoor for it’s grab on steep rock, sensitivity and unbeatable comfort. But for trad or big sport pitches I’ll still be in my beloved Stix until I get my hands on the first 4mm Vapour slippers when the stock arrives.
For indoor use I’d rate the Instincts 9/10. Lovers of stiff shoes might think 8/10 and lovers of soft shoes might think they are the best on the market. For trad/easier angled use it’s a 6/10 from me but then my feet seem to need that 4mm rubber or they get tired!

youtube of them in action on my board below:

25 February 2010

Understanding how muscles adapt

Whenever I post on this blog about the nitty gritty of strength or endurance training regimens, many comments come back looking for a more detailed explanation. From my last post, in the comments we got into talking about training anaerobic endurance and effects of training generally on different muscle fibres.

This is where things get tricky because muscles and complex structures, and the adaptations they make to training are also fairly complex. Picking over the surface of some details and using this to make inferences about how to train is shaky ground. My general advice or those who want to understand training at a muscle physiology level rather than the simple prescriptive or principle based level that you’ll get from coaches and coaching books, is to read thoroughly through the anatomy and physiology of muscle. I’m not trying to be difficult here, but understanding training will always seem confusing with only partial knowledge of the physiological picture. Perhaps adding a good exercise physiology text to your pile of training books would be a good help and reference. Any of Ron Maughan’s books are excellent resources. His book Basic and applied sciences for sports medicine has a superbly clear chapter on muscle and it’s adaptations which by an old lecturer of mine Neil Spurway. Spurway’s writing on muscle, like his lectures, are a great pleasure to read!

But back to the nitty gritty. Reeve was commenting just then about anaerobic training, asking:

“What is the certain type of force which a muscle must be exposed to over months and years to develop (presumably) fast twitch fibres? And if I do anaerobic work, thus growing my intermediate fibres, what effect will I notice in my climbing? Will I feel stronger? Increase my muscle's capacity to handle lactic acid? Or just have bigger heavier guns?

Secondly, you state that recruitment will get poorer with endurance training. Is is possible to maintain it whilst endurance training (maybe by a few deadhangs at the start of each session, say)? I imagine (although this is purely specultation) that the body is capable of maintaining high levels of potential recruitment without having to use them all the time (I can deadhang then go to the fridge and hold an egg). Is there any truth to my speculation?”
High (near maximum) forces are needed to develop fast fibres. By high forces I mean hard boulder problems or hanging on a fingerboard with as much weight as you can hang on for less than 10 seconds or so. If you do anaerobic work, you’ll get better at that anaerobic work, and not much else. We come back to the specificity principle! Anaerobic work won’t make you stronger - the forces are too low. In fact recruitment is lowered to make the muscle more efficient at sustaining work over the length of sustained sport routes. Yes this work creates better tolerance of the chemical imbalances of hard anaerobic work in the muscle. Muscles won’t get dramatically larger.
As for maintenance of recruitment during anaerobic training - yes, some high force work mixed in is the thing to do to maintain it. One session a week bouldering while you are training a lot of endurance for a sport climbing trip would be a good example. A little fingerboard before your endurance sessions would have the same effect, but not as good.
Why not? Because ‘recruitment’ is not a simple attribute of a muscle that rises and falls. Lots of people think of it this way - simply the number of fibres the muscle can recruit for contraction. The reality is much more complicated. Recruitment composes of the number of fibres recruited, the frequency and firing pattern and timing of the firing, and the ability of the central nervous system to supply a strong enough stimulus. But we can understand it much more simply as the body ‘learning and remembering’ how to pull hard on holds. 
Endurance training in climbing is a constant reminder for the body teaching it to use the minimum of force. Hard bouldering is the exact opposite on the hardest moves. Using a fingerboard is great to stimulate the forearm muscles and remind the fast fibres to grow and be responsive. But it’s important to show the system some hard bouldering on a real climbing wall in order that the whole nervous system remembers how to pull hard.

18 February 2010

Measuring gains

My last post and comments from them reminded me of a significant problem in training for climbing, or anything where you train component skills/strengths away from the competitive arena of the sport - measurement of gains. 
KT was just commenting noting good gains from training anaerobic endurance on a fingerboard - great! In my head my immediate question was - where was the gain measured? On the fingerboard? Or in the ‘real’ climbing? It made me realise that the significance of this question might not be immediately apparent.
If you train on a fingerboard for climbing, then gains measured on the fingerboard (personal bests on the exercises) give useful information that the training is working or not. However, if gains are happening on the fingerboard but not the ‘real’ climbing, then there is information about whether it’s been the right kind of training.
Naturally, It’s necessary to obsessively monitor both, and any other measure you can get your hands on. Measuring changes in performance variables in as many different situations as possible allows you to make many deductions and useful monitors about the effectiveness of the training choices and how well you are adapting to it.
Some important points linked to this:
The ultimate measure of training effectiveness is the final climbing performance, and this measures both the adaptation of the component skill being trained, and also how much it’s contributing overall. For example if you put a lot of time into improving raw finger strength on a fingerboard over a year or two, but climbing ability actually goes backwards (quite common) then maybe the time taken to achieve the strength gain has caused losses in far more influential areas. Maybe there is some information in there about your real weaknesses.
That said it’s easy to underestimate the value of basic strength or endurance gains from a basic strength exercise because it takes time to work it’s way into your climbing technique. In my book I discussed this effect - The body needs to ‘learn’ that it has the new strength and this only happens when you leave the hangboard and go back to performing for an extended period. An extended period means anything from a month to a year or more.
While you measure gains in one area, remember the ones you are neglecting are going backwards, not staying still. Take this into account when measuring effects in overall climbing performance. Similarly, if your training is improving several separate areas at once, as is normal, don’t be too quick to attribute gains to one possible cause, when it could be the other(s).
The common tendency is for sports people to only measure one or two components of their game - the ones they like training the most, and put all gains or losses in ability down to these.
- Climbers who use campus boards a lot tend to know their personal bests on a given board very well, even if they are climbing well but haven’t been campusing they go back on the board and when unable to touch a previous PB, feel they must have got weaker and their good climbing form must be down to other factors like technique etc. Not necessarily.  The specificity of basic strength exercises is not to be underestimated, and strength measured on one piece of apparatus is only truly a measure of strength on that apparatus, not strength generally.

Icing - for tendon strains and other injuries

A lot of climbers get in touch asking about using Lewis reaction icing on other injuries besides finger pullies. The goal of the treatment is to increase blood flow, which if done well it seems to do very effectively. I’ve written recently about using it on elbows with the aid of a nearby bathroom wash basin. But what about tendon strains?
It seems nearly all tendon strains in climbers happen in the ring finger when using an openhanded three or two finger pocket grip with the little finger not used. The pain is a highly unpleasant twang that runs variously through the finger, palm and forearm right back to the flexor muscle belly. Can you assist healing this whole structure with Lewis reaction icing? The short answer is I don’t know. I’ve not seen reports from other climbers of it’s successful use. The last time I had a flexor unit strain myself was about 9 years ago and I was doing Lewis icing on the same hand at the time for a separate pulley injury. I couldn’t really say how much the icing helped. Possibly not that much, evidenced by lack of responsiveness of the pain level to adhering or skipping the treatment and the fact that the pulley had healed in around three months and the flexor unit strain took over a year to heal.
The tendon seemed to respond more to frequent stretching and long gentle warm-ups. And it didn’t slow my climbing down to much by strict adherence to using four fingers only on holds, either crimping, or with four finger openhanded grip. I’m researching this in detail right now for my book and will hopefully have more on this soon.

Fingerboarding -timings

Several climbers have picked up on routines floating about the web advocating very short rest periods between sets on the fingerboard - like 6-10 seconds hanging with 3 seconds rest. They have compared it to notes in my book talking about 5-8 second hangs with more like a minute’s rest. Confused?
The regimens are very different because they are training completely different things. The former is an anaerobic endurance protocol. It replicates roughly what happens when climbing a route - hanging for some seconds on each move with only a few seconds rest as the hand reaches for the next hold. The rationale for using a fingerboard to do this type of endurance training is two-fold:
Because you can’t get to a real route or bouldering circuit to do this training more effectively. Or…
You already train a ton and need something that bit more intense to keep the body responsive.
Clearly both are a very specific and fairly rare set of circumstances. Most people can get to some real climbing, and they should do that instead because they need the technique element of the training every bit as much as the fitness. And very few are doing enough training to have squeezed everything out of the technique element and need a really intense stimulus to keep the body responding. If you do fit those above special cases, using the fingerboard in this way could be useful as a very intense way to build anaerobic endurance.
The majority of fingerboarders are doing it to gain strength. Gaining strength needs a high force stimulus - pulling at your maximum. If the rests are short, it’s not possible to sustain this - you get pumped and can’t pull your hardest. So that’s why you rest fully between sets and the sets are 90% plus of your maximum force.

1 February 2010

What ‘body tension’ means

Since the explosion of bouldering, especially indoors, many climbers ask these days about how they should improve their body tension. However, the discussion is often limited because of a basic problem in actually defining what this performance quality is, and this leads climbers on the wrong path for training it.
Climbers frequently refer to body tension as a strength component. Most would agree on the objective - to be able to keep the feet on the holds more and to apply more force through the feet. The problem comes when you see this purely as down to body strength, which it’s not.
Body tension is the product largely of technique, but also of strength through the body. Some important (and trainable) parts of it are:
Climbing rhythm. That is not getting too extended with both arms high before moving the feet.
Aggression in the lower body. Many climbers are far too passive with the lower body, and aren’t using the strength they already have.
Placement of the foot - The big toe must be in a position to apply the strength, and it’s often not possible because the toes are not engaged and the heel is dropped low.
Turning of the trunk - Helps bring the tensioned hip close to the wall during a stretch and be more ‘over’ the foothold.
Momentum use. Momentum is essential to apply body tension from awkward positions where it’s hard to apply foot force. For example throwing the hips into a plane in which the foot can apply force during execution of a move.
You could go to a gym and train body strength for a decade and it would make little difference to your body tension in climbing if the above factors are not working for you already. The flip side is that many climbers have enough strength already to get a lot more body tension just by working on the technical elements.
How to go about this? Boulder voraciously on steep ground with limited footholds, in the presence of climbers who can show you the techniques involved in applying body tension. You’ll know you are making progress with the technique when you feel calves, hamstrings and core stabilisers in your trunk complaining from effort from single moves in steep bouldering. And if you’ve got this far, you’ll be training strength in these areas in a far more efficient way than you would achieve in a gym or elsewhere.
All that said, those who do some other whole body work such as Yoga or other activities that break up the imbalances that climbing demands on the body will be protective from injury by maintaining posture and strength across joints.

Potential problems with blobby climbing

Recent days coaching in big bouldering walls reminded me of a potential specificity problem of using these for training for outdoor hard problems and routes. I think a good proportion of those training indoors with a view to climbing harder outdoors get that grabbing big rounded sloper blobs the whole time creates a problem with missing out on gains on the fingery holds you find outdoors. But I’m finding that even the small holds that are about right now, tend to be quite big! I don’t mean big in the sense that they are easy to hold onto. I mean that even the really poor holds have quite a pronounced profile and are fairly pinchable. 
There are even more effects at play when it comes to the feet. Indoor holds are often very rounded and sloping on top. Using them develops a good skill for maintaining contact with the feet, using continuous and carefully directed force application to the foothold. But the technique required to use tiny but positive footholds (like you commonly find outdoors) is subtly different in the way strength is applied using the lower body, foot and toes. The pattern of foot movements outdoors is different too, and habitual indoor climbers often lack ability in foot swaps, matches etc..
All of this means that if you are using big modern climbing centres to train for outdoor climbing, make sure you get enough diet of positive but really quite small fingery holds by seeking them out diligently at the wall.