21 November 2012

What to do at the crux…

...And what not to do.

Movement technique, within a given climber, is not a fixed quality. It changes depending on  the constraints the climber operates under, and how they respond to those constraints. Generally speaking, your technique is probably at it’s best when you are warming up or fully warmed up, relaxed, in familiar surroundings and feeling confident. It gets worse when we are nervous, scared, over aroused or distracted. But this post is more about how it changes during fatigue.

If you watch climbers at the crag on an onsight or redpoint effort, a common finding is that technique starts off well and errors creep in progressively as fatigue progresses. This is not consistent though. Some climbers’ technique deteriorates so markedly that their movements are completely different as the pump sets in. Foothold choice and accuracy goes down, fluid dynamic movement slows and becomes erratic, pacing becomes either rushed or hesitant. On the flip side, the best climbers can try hard, right on their limit of physical effort, with good technique maintained right to the moment of failure, even on dangerous trad routes.

This quality starts off as a simple choice not to let technique change in the fatigued state. When made over and over, it becomes a habit and eventually set in stone and resistant to the most stressful and rapidly changing situations in climbing.

Obviously, getting off the starting blocks with making that choice to keep the technical standard high right to the point of failure is easier said than done. For a start, climbers themselves don’t necessarily know what their good and bad technical habits are, or may not even be aware that they change. So it starts with an ambitious self-assessment at least. More likely a good coach will be necessary to get it right. Videoing your own climbing efforts is not just an exercise in entertainment or ego trip. It can provide a window to really understanding why you fell off (it might not just be because you weren’t strong enough).

Providing you can find out what negative changes are really going on as you get to the crux, you can make the choice to keep your technique ‘clean’ when it matters most.

16 November 2012

Sweaty hands? - manage it

For me and many others, sweaty hands is a serious pain in the ass for indoor climbing or in warm climates. It may be because your hands are sweaty, or because various aspects of individual physiology (e.g. body shape and size) make it difficult to maintain an even body temp during physical work. Most likely the problem is a bit of both.

It’s true there might not be much you can do to remove the underlying cause, but there is of course plenty you can do to make workarounds or offset the problem. Lots of folk accept they have sweaty hands and this limits their climbing in a few situations, but don’t do nearly as much as they could to mitigate this. So what can you do?

Well, it’s obvious as hell, but loads of folk still don’t do it; take clothes off! Although showing off might be a side effect for some, the reason those guys at the climbing wall take their t-shirts off is just to stick to the holds better. Shorts and vests are kind of out of fashion just now, which is a shame since they are good for keeping cool. Climbers used to be good at ignoring fashions. How good are they now at this?

Resting between attempts isn’t just for replenishing power. I also allows you to cool down again. If you are getting close to a boulder problem, you could go and stand outside for 5 minutes and speed up the process. Be careful with this though, it’s your fingers that need cooling ultimately. Muscles shouldn’t be allowed to get too cold or the benefit will be negated. If you are outdoors and you cant find cold air for sweaty fingers, cold rock can really help. Placing your hands on the smoothest, coldest bit of rock you can find will help silence the sweat glands and keep your skin from getting soft. The fact that the rock warms up so much that you need to move to another area of rock after a few minutes underlines just how much heat is transferred.

Thin skin also sweats more. If you’ve had multiple days on, you can plan for this and remember that your good attempts might be earlier in the session. Folk with really bad sweaty fingers have had success with antihydral, applied very carefully and sparingly after climbing sessions to the tip pads (never the creases, which causes semi-permanent cracking!!). I've heard some climbers tell me this transformed their indoor climbing experience to something much more pleasurable, but only once they refined just how little to apply. Overdo it, and you'll get the dreaded 'glassy' skin which is even worse than sweaty skin.

Keeping your hands from going too sweaty and soft during the session is also critical. A little chalk and generally waving your hands around during your rests helps keep skin dry and tough. On my own board at home, which I keep pretty cold with a fan and wide open window (my favourite bouldering temp is about -1 celcius) if I leave the board and go into my warm house for a few minutes, continuing on my hardest problems is a waste of time. Once skin is soft, I have to move to more powerful problems on bigger holds, or the skin friendly fingerboard.

Finally though, When there really isn’t any way to avoid the problems of trying to climb in the heat, accept it. I’ve driven myself spare so many times trying to climb in poor conditions. The best thing to do is climb in places or at times of year that will have good conditions. It’s a whole lot nicer!

10 November 2012

Less waste

Just had another email from a climber with an amazing story of determination to break personal climbing barriers at a relatively old age and following the diagnosis of a serious health condition. The thought that crossed my mind straight away was ‘why can’t we all learn to be this determined and resourceful 20 or 30 years earlier’.

Of course, in the young, there is probably a classic ‘bell curve’ of athletes, some who develop great mental toughness, determination and general steeliness against problems at an early age.

As a coach dealing with climbers in their 40s and beyond, the advice needed is often practical; do this, try that and nothing more. You know that when pointed in the right direction, these hardened athletes will go off and work their backsides off to get where they need to go. Energy is maybe a little harder to come by, but it doesn’t have to matter because almost none is wasted.

Youth has a lot of energy to throw at things, but it’s too often poorly directed. Too focused on the fun stuff, ignoring the boring but important stuff. So much of that energy is wasted.