20 February 2011

For young wannabes playing the lottery

As a climbing coach who is always trying to understand and communicate the ingredients of becoming really good at climbing, I spend a fair bit of time observing other disciplines like art and business. An idea I read today looked at the lotteries we play as wannabes in whatever field.
Not the ‘actual’ lottery, but the lottery of getting picked by a talent scout, signed by a big record company or featured in a TV programme. Most people get to show some raw, unrefined talent as youngsters. It’s not really gone anywhere yet. It needs focus and application over years to develop before it has the power to break new ground. If you are gearing everything you do towards winning that lottery, are you accepting that you’re almost certain to be one of the ones who loses? People don’t really keep playing the national lotteries as a way to become millionaires. What keeps them buying the ticket is the buzz of buying the ticket.
A lot of the time, ‘waiting’ to win opportunity lotteries like record deals causes young talents to languish without ever going anywhere. In a flash they are no longer 18 but jaded and tired out from the fruitless wait for something they will never win. I’ve seen a lot of talents in climbing fizzle because they are ‘waiting’ to score a sponsorship deal, strike on a magic training formula, move to a climbing mecca and magically soak up the ability etc.
How would it change your approach if you bet on never winning a lucky break? If you bet on having to get there just on the resources you have right now? That’s when industriousness kicks in and some actual progress happens.

13 February 2011

Clean and messy performance

Climbers who are into training or pushing themselves are often trying to keep everything ‘clean’. Clean in this sense means without complication - black and white, yes or no, all or nothing.
This is good, but it can backfire. It backfires because real life performance in sport (of life etc) is messy, always. Well, OK not always. If you’re a bit older, you’ll look back on a handful of moments, maybe only one, where everything was clean for a fleeting few minutes on a climb. Sometimes that’ll be during a lifetime best performance for you, but not always. Sometimes it happens on an easier climb that just went like a dream.
So the problem is that in all your mental effort and training, you’re pushing to make everything cleaner. Clean training schedule with no interruptions from work, weather or injury. Clean technique with no sloppy footwork, grunting or wobbling. Clean preparation with a good nights sleep, rested muscles, good food and good vibes before you want to climb something hard. It never happens does it? Well apart from those one or two times in your life when it does.
Obviously we can’t go around hoping for one of those once in a lifetime moments to happen right now. We need to find a way to climb well and be comfortable with our performance on a daily basis. It’s fine to try and keep everything clean and optimal. It’s the eternal game of the athlete. But accept that no matter how much you try, you dealing with something that is inherently messy (life) and you will never win. 
Climbers that do try to beat the messiness of life and sporting performance get backed into a corner. Narrowing your field of skills to keep greater control over them. Training fewer performance components so you don’t have to face losses of previous gains. Competing in smaller and smaller arenas, like one angle, board, discipline etc. In the short term it might even work and feel comforting. In the longer term, it is almost guaranteed to fail to make you a good climber and leaves you wide open to taking big hits to morale and motivation. Most of the keen climbers I’ve seen give up completely have done so for this reason.
Keep your climbing, your training, your mental preparation, your schedule as clean as life allows. But be ready to keep going when everything is a complete bloody mess.

6 February 2011

For skinny female climbers

Comparing general performance characteristics between male and female climbers is always interesting, especially when coaching in a group session. The common finding is that the guys can often at least throw for the holds, but fall trying to hold onto them. Meanwhile, the girls can hold on for ages but fall trying to move between the holds. 
The basic reason is that guys have much more muscle to throw their upper bodies around at extreme joint ranges. A lesser appreciated reason is that girls are often reluctant to climb by throwing for holds out of fear of falling, and so adopt a massively inefficient static style. Thankfully, the guys more than balance it out by forgetting to use their feet and still can’t climb a vaguely technical problem despite all that muscle and grunt.
The winner is the guy, or girl who is confident enough to have a dynamic style, considers the best foot sequence before actually going for the move, and lastly (LASTLY!) has the strength to move to the hold, and hold onto it.
For girls, first of all, no progress can happen without addressing the fear of falling first. Every effort will fall flat on it’s face. You can’t climb to your potential without slapping, snatching, deadpointing, dynoing on most moves, or if fear of falling is dictating how you approach every move. The solution is simple, easy to follow and 100% successful whether it’s bouldering, sport climbing or trad. The details are section 3 of my book.
With that out of the way, there is an argument for some girls for a little dedicated work on the larger upper body muscles. In some cases, girls who can move confidently and have strong fingers struggle to clock up enough mileage on steep powerful terrain to ‘fill in’ their lack of upper body power.
The best way to address this is simply by climbing on steep ground with well spaced holds that are big enough that you can actually climb all session long. In many climbing walls, the number of steep juggy problems on the boulder walls aren’t numerous enough to prevent boredom. Answer: ask to set some more yourself. Steep juggy routes does it too - especially if you climb them with your feet on features only. Sometimes though, a little supplementary weights for a few months is useful to get you off the starting line.
I wouldn’t lean on them permanently, because the strength gains will eventually be more than cancelled out by how badly weights make you climb. Basic exercises like a work out of pull-ups (probably assisted at first), lat pull-downs, press-ups, seated rows (but not the low resistance aerobic type), and maybe some hanging leg raises and clean and jerk are all good. Do more of the ones you can feel you are really weak on. A few sets of each, a few times a week, for a few months should get you to a stage where you can drop the weights and progress to doing all the work on steep powerful real climbing moves.
Above all, don’t be intimidated by the ‘wads’ at the bouldering wall with tops off and making loud grunts. They don’t bite! They are often a useful source of new problems to work on, if nothing else. Just remember to burn them off occasionally on the balancy wall problems and high-steps..

Golfers/Tennis elbow etc - what eccentrics do.

I’ve been asked a lot about eccentrics which are a really big part of successful rehab from tendonosis, in climbers that’s usually Golfer’s or Tennis elbow. What to they do? How do they work to heal the tendon?
There are no definitive answers, in fact, right now the various teams around the western world researching such things are arguing more about this subject now than they were a few years ago. Here is a little discourse on where things are right now.
The protocol of eccentric wrist curls was first brought to prominence by two Canadian physiotherapists (Stanish and Curwin) who reported very impressive and consistent success rates with their tennis elbow patients using a protocol that stopped short of provoking pain in the tendon. Since then, lots of studies have followed over the past decade and a half, also generally reporting good or excellent results with various protocols. These days, the evidence is mounting that nearly everyone with elbow epicondyle tendinosis should be able to get rid of it without resorting to surgery, so long as they do the exercises (the hard bit!), do them right and eliminate the original cause (the other hard bit!).
Protocol - The various different research teams have, generally speaking, had success with three different protocols. One is to do 3 set of 10 reps daily, with a weight that stops just short of provoking pain throughout the exercise. A second is similar, but at an intensity that provokes a little pain in the final set. The third protocol, favoured in a string of papers by a Swedish researcher Hakan Alfredson and his team, is to do 3 sets of 15 reps daily at an intensity that causes mild pain throughout. Several other teams replicated good results using eccentrics only three days a week.
The allowance for pain during the rehab exercises runs counter to much of orthodox sports medicine, even from researchers in the same field. Far from being settled, it’s a question that is only just being opened in tendon research right now. However, the successful healing demonstrated by Alfredson’s protocol does speak for itself. Briefly, the idea behind it is that tendons suffering tendonosis (degenerative tissue changes) grow numerous and sensitive new nerve endings that serve as a protective measure to self limit the condition. In order to stimulate the tendon enough to grow new collagen and remodel immature scar tissue, the exercise must be a little painful. If the exercise progression is correct, a little exacerbation in the first few weeks should give way to steady pain ratings while the exercise intensity gradually goes up.
So why eccentrics only? Well a lot of researchers were unsatisfied with the rather simplistic explanation that this mode of contraction (lengthening under load) preferentially loaded the tendon rather than the muscle, preventing the muscle from getting strong ‘too quickly’. It’s true that muscles respond better to a combination of concentric and eccentric loading. What tendon strength responds best to is nearly impossible to research (would you let a man in a white coat train you for weeks, chop your bicep tendon out and pull it on a strain gauge until it snaps?).
One idea from Alfredson was that the eccentric loading breaks up the adhesions of disorganised scar tissue, as well as abnormal blood vessels and free nerve endings that proliferate in degenerative tendons, allowing both pain free stimulation and collagen maturation. There are various other ideas about how the tendon responds biochemically to eccentric loading related to growth factors, inflammatory processes and other very complicated processes of cellular messaging.
An intriguing new hypothesis is emerging that tendonosis might be down to underuse, rather than an overuse injury as it’s traditionally been perceived. Research into painful achilles and patellar tendons is suggesting that unequal distribution of loading exists within tendons that are chronically loaded at a certain joint range. Some areas are overworked and strained, other areas ‘stress shielded’ become atrophied and weak, and eventually strain as well. This lends weight to the importance of technique, training design and posture as being the direct causes of these injuries in at least a proportion of cases. There is some evidence that eccentric loading allows more even loading in the tendon, stimulating both the overused and underused portions in a way that allows them to recover normal collagen content and arrangement.
Whatever the underlying mechanism, there is quite convincing evidence that these exercises are the thing to do and seem to get through to even the most unresponsive tendons, except in a few extremely advanced cases where the tendon has been trashed so severely it literally turns to bone. Which protocol you choose largely comes down to experimentation I’m afraid, as no studies have compared the effectiveness of each in a reliable way. Personally, I’ve found that either pain free, or with a little pain worked on all three of my injured epicondyles (two now symptom free, one more recent injury well on the road to complete recovery).
People tend to fail at this by simply not disciplining themselves to do the exercises. Simple as that. I’ve read a couple of studies that demonstrated clearly that tennis elbow sufferers tended to recover much better on identical protocols if they were done with the physio there. 
Remember that doing these exercises, although a gift to climbers who are suffering chronically, are only one part of the response. Unless your technique, posture, training all change to remove the reason you got injured in the first place, it’ll probably come back the minute you start trying to push your grade or training volume again.
This post is just a snippet about one aspect of elbow rehab. The above discussion should reinforce that healing a tendon for sport is a massive field and way more than a few blog posts. There is much more you should know - about the stretching, fitting the rehab in with climbing, and the detail of the changes to make in your technique, posture, training, lifestyle. Hence I’m writing the book. I know, I know, it’s not out yet… I’m working hard on it, but couldn’t resist a moment out to write this as I’ve been asked so many times…
Happy curling