22 September 2010

Thoughts from technique classes

Some themes that commonly emerge when coaching movement technique with climbers. Thanks to Rick Marland for the pics from Big Rock at the weekend.

The nature of climbing walls - look at the layout of the holds on modern climbing walls. In the main, setters tend to space the holds fairly evenly leading to the sort of position I’m in here, with limbs all at different levels. This makes quite pleasant continuous movement. But keep in mind that a lot of rock types have more patterned arrangements of holds; holds together in breaks with long reaches between and sometimes on good handholds but miniscule dinks for feet or vice versa. If you are training for this, watch out that your regular diet of climbing contains at least some movement like this.
Note also the three finger ‘pocket’ grip on the left hand. Climbers in their early twenties or younger don’t use it much, relying on the crimp much more. They haven’t had the pulley injuries yet - but they will! When we go to the campus board they can’t even hang on it openhanded. Older climbers use openhanded much more through necessity - too many pulley injuries. The serendipitous discovery is that once you get over the initial weakness, openhanded is a much stronger and less tiring grip on more than 50% of holds.

I’m pointing at the left foot in this picture. It needs to be pressed hard against the wall to complete the preparation to move the right hand. Although it doesn’t have a foothold to go to, it’s doing one of the most important jobs of all the limbs here. By pressing directly into (not downwards) the wall, it holds the upper body upright, preventing it falling outwards as the right hand reaches. 
Beginners miss this, experienced climbers do it intuitively but rarely with enough force or often enough and often the foot is systematically placed in the wrong spot. In my classes I show how the flagging foot should be placed various different types of move.

About to pull in hard with the left foot to get in position for the hand move. Climbers are generally too passive with the lower body. It’s natural to focus your aggression on the tiny handholds, because pulling really hard with our fingers is not a natural activity. It grabs our attention. Pulling hard with the feet in rock climbing is a learned skill. You have to force yourself to do at first.

Comparing rockshoes. The move in the second picture was impossible for some because they couldn’t get any weight on the foot on a small foothold. The reason was purely that the shoes were poorly fitting or worn out so the sole had no stiffness left. It’s easy in your normal climbing to convince yourself that this isn’t happening or it’s importance is small. But when we all try the same move and all the chaps who are not as strong can to the move easily it is an illuminating experience and climbers start talking about choosing a good pair of new shoes.

21 September 2010

Thanks to pain...

Leah from the THXTHXTHX blog reminds us that pain has some superb qualities and is worth listening to if you work your body hard. Listen in good times and in bad, and take a moment to make doubly sure you do listen on those days when the immediate holds all of your attention.

9 September 2010

Review: Vapour Velcros and how to use rockshoes

A couple of months ago I reviewed the Instinct slipper which I’ve since been wearing for all my indoor bouldering. Next up on Scarpa’s new rockshoe range is the Vapour Velcro. These are aimed as a more all-round use boot and are hence less aggressively turned down than the Instinct. As is usual for my reviews, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent to talk about how to choose and use rockshoes generally...
Turned down shoes (if you don’t know what the term means it’s basically that the toe box is curled slightly downwards) are the cause of much debate and polarisation among climbers. Some think their only useful for steep climbing, or if you climb hard. Others cannot understand them at all! The first big problem that a lot of people have is that turned down shoes feel downright weird when you first try them on in the shop. 
Book publishers know that no matter how much we hear the old adage about not judging books by their covers, we all do and will always do. Likewise for rockshoes. We can’t help but judge them by how they feel standing on a flat shop floor without being broken in, despite the fact they will probably feel completely different after a session of climbing and standing on actual footholds. If you want to get more performance from your rockshoe, you’ll have to get beyond how they feel in the shop. Most will never heed this advice, which is too bad…
The other problem is that turned down shoes require an actual technique of their own, distinct from traditional flatter soles. Watch some youtubes of leading and bouldering world cup comps. Watch in particular the climbers moving up vertical ground. Watch carefully how they place their feet. See how as they pad their toes downwards onto the foothold, they continue to drop their whole foot down by an inch or so after the toe has made contact. As they do this, watch the downturn of the boot bend back to a normal position. Once in the normal anatomical position, the foot can produce both power and control, but the elastic energy of the downturned rockshoe being stretched has added to the support. A flatter shoe has to provide that support by being stiffer, and that stiffness can come at the expense of sensitivity.
A case in point - Recently I climbed the famous death defying slab route Indian Face. My ascent was just before the Vapour Velcros came out, and I wore a pair of Scarpa Stix. Some climbers asked me why I would wear an apparently turned down boot on a smeary slab climb? The implication is that turned down boots wouldn’t smear well because they don’t bend back enough to make full contact with the smear. But they do! You just have to let them. This is a limitation of climbing technique, not the versatility of the boot. 
So what should one do about this problem of choosing shoes. Well, manufacturers tend to run boot demos around the country from time to time. They aren’t so popular these days as people are turned off by being marketed to during their climbing time. Of course the events are designed to get you hooked on the shoes, but they also save you from making expensive mistakes in buying shoes that don’t work well for you. My advice? Make an effort to keep track of boot demos near you and use them. 
Anyway, back to the review. When I got my new Vapour Velcros through from Scarpa I was all set to get them moving on some trad terrain straight away. But the wettest Scottish July in a decade made sure I tested them out on my board first. Out of the box, they feel very comfortable and indeed not so aggressively turned down. But support on small edges and tensiony steep ground still felt good on my standard tests on my board’s hardest problems. 
On my first outing in them on trad I filled one of them with enough blood I had to pour it out after this injury in preparation for the climb. Thankfully I was able to wear them for the first ascent of the Usual Suspects - a 5 pitch E9 7a first ascent was a good trad test I reckon. And they felt great. Precise and powerful on a 7a drop-knee crux at 50 degrees overhanging, and then supportive on tiny slippy quartz dinks on the pitches above. The heel felt not to hard on my achilles even after 6 hours of hard continuous climbing, but the velcro cinch was good enough to keep in snug for pulling hard on heelhooks. Not as good as the Stix for bat hangs but then there aren’t too many routes that require this! They have softened up a bit since and feel great on granite smears.
All round climbers will love these and they’ll be perfect for sensitivity on indoor routes and problems. With the luxury of having a few pairs, I’m still wearing my Instinct slippers for long board training sessions for the combination of 100% tension grab and soft comfort on the toes. I’m wearing Vapour Vs for indoor and most outdoor routes for comfort and that little bit more support on long pitches. Enjoy..