9 December 2014

When the regime gets harder

My (latest) board. The result of a decade and a half of relentless work and saving. But worth it.

Andreas emailed to ask about keeping up progress in climbing when your routine gets harder for various reasons. He refers in passing to cases such as injury. Since I have whole book on this subject now in production, I’ll leave this to one side for now. But on his mind is a baby soon to arrive (brilliant news!). 

Having a child is obviously a huge challenge in maintaining the other aspects of your life. Some things have to change, as they should, and as you will want them to. In many cases, your old way of life will be abandoned altogether and replaced with a new one. A better one, if you deal with the challenge properly.

With regard to how to keep your climbing standard high in your new, time pressed routine, here are the three number one priorities:
  1. Build a board.
  2. Build a board.
  3. Build a board.
Did you get that? If you don’t feel you have space to build a board in your house, move. If you don’t feel you have the power to move because of work or other issues, solve those issues. Take the power. There are of course some workarounds such as hiring a garage in your street etc, but they are poor solutions because it’s the fact that the board is immediately accessible and you are immediately accessible while using it that underlies it’s utility.

In the early days of parenthood, the odd 45 minutes here and there may be all the free time you have. You can easily fit a high quality training schedule into this timescale, but certainly not if you have to go anywhere else to access the climbing wall, even if it’s only 5 minutes drive. So just get it built. 

Andreas referred to a comment in 9 out of 10 where I was talking about maintaining a base level of fitness with one session per week. It’s true that you can do a lot in one session a week, as I have done during various busy periods. But my point here was that doing something, even if it’s a little training, is much better than giving in and doing nothing, as many people do. I was not trying to recommend one session a week as a medium or long term solution for training. It is nothing more than a workaround for people who choose (choose is the key word) to fill their entire waking hours with activities other than climbing. For most people, this is a temporary issue related to work trips, although some climbers carry on with a schedule like this indefinitely. That is their choice.

For most with a busy schedule, an aggressive problem solving approach, resourcefulness and an understanding of your priorities are all you need to create a routine that allows time for work, rest, family time and plenty of training on your board in the spare room. If you introduce all the solutions and there still isn’t time, well you’ll just have to work less, wont you! (I’m kind of talking to myself here). 9 of of 10 climbers obviously doesn’t deal with every conceivable circumstance and individual routine. But in it I repeatedly make the point that you have plenty of options, and often more than you think, if you are willing to see them and accept the change and challenge that they bring. If you struggle to think outside the box and your thinking is full of ‘I can’t’ type of thoughts, get a coach to tell you straight. 

If any of this was easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding when we crack it.

One thing out of your comfort zone

Video above: One thing out of you comfort zone, each day.

Una on Twitter was asking me about recovering leading confidence after a bad fall. She felt she was still struggling, even following the advice in 9/10. Was there anything more? In a practical sense, not really. The advice I laid out in the book about progressively exposing yourself to more and more challenging leading situations is the easiest, if not only way to do it. But that’s not to belittle it. For some people, it can be an enormously difficult thing to do.

Therefore, the response is to take it seriously as such. A huge problem needs a huge response, in the form of dedicated and relentless application of training over a long period. Here are six common pitfalls with building up leading confidence after a knock:
  • Expecting too much. The apparent unfairness of confidence is that it takes many exposures to build it up, but a huge chunk of it can be wiped away in one go with a bad fall. Patient application of the training is definitely required. No perceptible difference may be noticed for many training sessions. The other problem is that it is harder to measure than pure finger strength. Even if you are making gains in mental confidence, you might not notice until this add up to something quite substantial.
  • Measuring the wrong thing. Lots of people measure the success of their training based on time. “I’ve been working on my leading for two months and I’ve not noticed any changes”. However, if you were only leading for two sessions per week, that’s only 16 training sessions in two months! The result may have been different with 5 sessions per week.
  • Failing to complete the training. Practicing leader falls indoors is just one small part of gaining leading confidence. If you are training for something like trad climbing, you need to have plenty of safe falls, as well as real trad leading. Lots of it. One without the other tends to be ineffective. Yet a lot of climbers complain of lack of time and opportunity to get on real rock, especially at this time of year with dark nights and poor weather. Unfortunately, this is the excuse that separates those who succeed and those who fail. We are training mental confidence in leading - the climbing standard does not need to be high, the rock doesn’t need to be dry and the sun needn't be shining. Get a headtorch and a Gore-Tex and go climbing! You think people don’t do that? Sure, it’s great if you live somewhere like Scotland where you can go mixed climbing all winter - a perfect training ground for leading confidence (people were quick to cite it’s effect on me when I downgraded The Walk of Life from E12 to E9 a few years ago). It’s true that winter climbing makes climbers mentally tough. But if you can’t access this, just go to the crag and climb at the level you can in whatever conditions you find.
  • Kidding yourself. A big problem with training your leading confidence is kidding yourself that you are going out of your comfort zone when you are not. Recently I climbed with a chap who was climbing well but leading confidence was his main weakness. He was more than capable of taking proper leading falls and building up a ‘go for it’ attitude in his outdoor leading. But when backing off from a lead, he said “I need to go back to the climbing wall and do more practice falls”. They won’t work. He was choosing them precisely because he’d already mastered that level. They were now inside his comfort zone, an easy option. Finding the right intensity of experience to build up your confidence is not easy. But it is just as easy to undershoot and unwittingly stay within your comfort zone as it is to overdo it and maintain a state of poor confidence.
  • Asking for failure. When it comes down to it, leading combines the skills of common sense problem solving, mental toughness and practical skills. Many climbers focus too much on the mental toughness part. Young lads are especially good at overriding their fears and just going for it and everyone can do this to an extent. Overriding fears is good if it’s irrational fear, In other words, when your mind ought to know that you have a solid base of practical skills and well developed problem solving approach. Far too many climbers push on with the fear conquering without developing that base of skill in parallel. This is asking for failure, because you will put yourself in situations where you are genuinely unable to wield control. Good leading is about having more control. It is also about having control over fear, as opposed to having no fear. Excess of irrational fear, and lack of healthy fear both lead to loss of control, in different ways. Take care from every training session to learn new details about the practicalities of leading - dealing with gear, ropework, falling technique, anticipation and planning etc. Don’t just focus on being fearless.
  • Not really wanting it enough. This aspect is underestimated in sport and training, surprisingly. Those who want it badly enough simply do not rest until they find the right path through the training to get to the goal routes they cannot live without. Rather than throwing up their hands after experiencing lack of progress, they jump right in and make plenty more errors until they find a formula for progress. Inevitably, we never get the balance of training 100% perfect. No one does. But burning desire to move forward and get to the next level is a crucial catalyst in letting you absorb the stresses and knocks of pushing outside your comfort zone. It creates resilience in people that are not inherently made of hero stuff. So, sometimes a clear conversation with yourself about exactly what this means to you is the fuel you need to get you through anything. What if you have that conversation and realise you don’t want it badly enough to push yourself through all the challenges? Hurry up and do something else then! Life is short.

Training the mind has some similarities and some important differences from training the muscles. It is similar in that it is a ‘plastic’ tissue. Train it appropriately, and it will change. The difference is of course it’s vast complexity and especially how the layers of thoughts, emotions and basic programmed responses all mix together. Mental training demands careful consideration to make sure you are applying a sustained progressive overload, but getting the size of the stimulus just right.

My approach as a youngster was just to climb one thing that was truly out of my comfort zone, every time I went climbing. Every time, no excuses. If it didn’t give me a dry mouth and a small knot in my stomach, I knew it wasn’t really out of my comfort zone. 

NB: The notes above are NOT a guide to what to do to improve your leading confidence. They should be read in the context of applying the advice in 9/10.

2 December 2014

Changing the architecture

One of the important findings from the world of behavioral science is that willpower is a finite resource. Sure, some seem to be able to show more of it that others. But regardless of inherent or learned capacity for it, everyone can run out of it.

The understanding comes from fields of research such as why apparently smart people eat badly or fail to exercise, or other such dangerous behaviours. Moreover, they do so in full knowledge that these behaviours are bad news for almost all aspects of their life and despite their stated intentions to act differently. The idea is that since willpower is finite, if you spend all of it forcing yourself to work long hours, there is none left to help you choose healthy foods or turn your phone off and get some sleep.

Making sure you spend your willpower wisely is the obvious first line of attack. But so often, people don’t feel able to change their routine to allow for this. Topping up your willpower ‘account’ is the second line. You can do this by making sure you are well slept, well fed and surrounded by supportive people, among other things.

The third line is more of a workaround than a solution. But it is better than nothing. You can change the choice architecture. In other words, you can set things up to make it harder to make the bad choices and easier to make the good ones, acknowledging that when you are tired and worn out, your good intentions will go out of the window. 

Some examples:

  • If you don’t have the biscuits in the cupboard, you’ll not reach for them ‘just tonight’. Instead have you chosen healthy food at the ready. In moments of good willpower, prepare them for your future willpower starved self. Wash your fruit, put it in a nice bowl or do whatever you need to make it more appealing and convenient to choose.
  • Cycle or walk to work. Once you are there, you have to get home the same way! Make it easier to choose by ensuring you are fully kitted out with clothing to keep you warm and dry for bad weather. Make sure the bike and kit are ready to go by the front door so there are no excuses in the morning when you are running a bit late and bleary eyed.
  • Choose your workplace and house based on your chosen training venue. Make sure you’d have to literally drive past it on the way home to excuse yourself from training.
  • If you climb with a partner who habitually leads and sets up a top-rope for you, climb with someone else or instruct them to refuse to lead for you under any circumstances. Better still, climb with partners who would mercilessly rib you for even suggesting that you skip your turn to lead. The shame would be less painful than just attacking swallowing your leading phobia.
  • If you need to get stronger openhanded, set your wall accordingly (see photo above). Don't have a wall? Make one!

Everyone can think of instances in their own routine where they habitually make poor choices. In 9 out of 10 I described many of the big and important ones, but the number of decisions we make that influence our performance is huge. Try to think of ways you can make it harder for your future willpower starved self to make the right decisions at those crucial moments in everyday life.

1 December 2014

8b - 8c+ How?

Over on my personal blog the other day I was talking in passing about a period in my life about 9 years ago when I took my best sport climbing grade from around 8b to 8c+ in about a year and a half. On Twitter, Sean picked up on this and thought that would be a good subject for a blog post. Here is the short answer:

I started fingerboarding.

But it’s not as simple as that. So here is the long answer. I was replying to Sean in 140 character stylee that I would explain but there are no secrets and the explanation would be nothing that isn’t in my book 9 out of 10. However, personal stories are always helpful if you highlight how the results link back to the underlying principles.

You might be tempted to take my short answer above and think if you just fingerboard, you too will climb 8c+. It’s unlikely to say the least. That’s because basic strength may well not be your weakness. I think it’s fair to say that most climbers would say they feel their strength level is a performance weakness relative to technique. I’ve spent much of my climbing coaching career repeatedly trying to convince climbers otherwise. In fact, in almost every climbing wall on a busy evening you’ll see climbers with enough strength to climb 8c+, but will never even get close to this grade.

What was slightly unusual about my background in climbing was how little I time I spent in climbing walls during that period. I climbed outdoors, year round. My staple diet of climbing was trying super technical projects at Dumbarton Rock. I really valued the fact that they could be cracked by exploring every subtle detail of the technique used to climb them in place of brute strength. When conditions allowed, I’d be teetering about on hard mixed routes, mountain trad, sport climbing, sea cliffs, etc, etc. I had built up a huge depth of experience as a tactician. In other words, if a project was 100% of my strength limit, I’d still have a 100% chance of succeeding on it. Fear of falling, redpoint nerves, mistakes on the lead, finding the best sequence were all things I’d put huge volumes of hours into developing. One thing I hadn’t really done was trained strength properly.

Training was only half on my radar really. I was just a climber having a whale of a time going outside and having adventures trying new routes in places I loved to be. But when I decided to sacrifice some of that to up my level a bit, my strength level was so poor that I had rapid results.

I decided to start in June 2005. The inspiration to start was realising I could climb the Requiem headwall if I really wanted it badly enough. Six days a week, I started the day with around 40 minutes of fingerboard (the same routine I published in 9 out of 10). Then I went round to the Dumbarton boulders and did endurance circuits for another couple of hours, followed by a ten mile run. Sometimes I’d go for a second run late at night, at a relaxed pace, just to wind down. At the weekend I went climbing in the mountains if the weather was good. I worked before and after my training, at home of course - a working from home job with flexible hours is a good catalyst for climbing performance.

I didn’t vary the training all that much for many weeks at a time, although the ‘real’ climbing days were as varied as ever. But I did start gently with the fingerboarding, building up very steadily for the first 6 weeks. And that was against a background of already doing a large volume of bouldering for a decade beforehand. Without these factors, I’d likely have got injured, not stronger.

After three months I went back to an 8c project I’d previously failed on and was completely shocked when I linked it first try from the second move to the top on my shunt in freezing conditions. Later in the winter I completed Font 8b projects at Dumbarton, Rhapsody the following spring, and my first 8c+ sport route shortly afterwards.

I can’t overemphasise the importance of the previous decade of building up those skills in being a solid all-round climber. The pure finger strength was just the final piece of the puzzle. The fashion in the popular climbing culture is very much revolving around physical strength right now. The underlying message is ‘let’s train like proper athletes’ and that means this kind of stuff. That’s great, but it is nothing if you miss the crucial toe-hook that knocks a grade off the problem, or you are so scared you crush the rock as soon as you are 20 feet above a bolt. The strength level generally among climbers these days is mind blowing. Training like proper athletes means being able to use every ounce of strength in your muscles at the right moment. While you might be able to one-arm a crimp in 6 months with nothing but a piece of wood above your doorframe, you can’t shortcut learning to be able to do something good with all that strength.