16 December 2008

How many days on?

I get many emails from climbers asking how many days on they can have and whether they can do some supplementary training on the ‘rest days’ like fingerboarding.

Of course, my reply is ‘it depends!’ Most people can see clearly that an elite level athlete can tolerate many more sessions per unit time than a beginner or someone carrying a complication such as an injury. So there is no standard unit of time to rest between training sessions except this one:

Rest as long as it takes your body to recover from the specific stress you have placed on it.

This rule has two messages; the first is that you can only use the messages coming from your body to decide how much training it can handle. If your performance is going down from session to session, while you are training more than usual and feeling tired and sore, then maybe it is too much. If nothing is happening (no improvement but no soreness or temporary fatigue, then maybe you could experiment with more.

The other part is to keep in mind that climbing training requires variety in the venues, modes, intensities etc. of the training stimulus. Exposing yourself to this variety is not just important for training all the elements, it also allows you to spread the stress on the body across different muscle groups and energy systems and hence maximise the overall training load.

So, what does that mean in practice? If you go to the same wall and do the same problems, week in, week out, You will only manage a small proportion of your potential maximum training load without getting plateau and then injury.

But if you mix up your training in any way you can, you will be able to handle much more days on and longer sessions. Even subtle variety will help here – a different board, problems set by a different person, different hold manufacturers etc. But don’t use this to neglect the big sources of variety – routes instead of always bouldering (or vice versa), different rock types, different training venues, different training partners and many more…

27 November 2008

Review: Climbing-Training for Peak Performance by Clyde Soles

I was interested to pick up a copy of this American climbing training manual. Out of the training for climbing manuals I’ve reviewed on this site so far (most of them), none have managed to serve as a single complete reference, and the variations in quality were pretty dramatic.

I was a little confused as to what I’d be reading after seeing the cover image of some snow plodding, and flicking through and seeing more images of snow, skiing, cycling and a lot of weight training. Was this a fitness book for alpinists or what?

The book is actually aimed at the broad spectrum of climbers from boulderers right through to snowy mountaineers. Its real purpose is hidden in the first chapter – it is intended as a supplement to the other books on training for climbing, focusing on ‘conditioning’ where the other books focus on ‘coaching’, according to soles. The problem here is that conditioning for climbers should involve mostly climbing related activites, which this book doesn’t deal with in detail (but the others do!). The bulk of it deals with supplementary weight training for climbers, with sections on general fitness, nutrition, flexibility and planning your training program.

I my opinion, and those of many other climbing coaches, weight training is of very limited usefulness for the vast bulk of climbers out there. It’s value for climbers lies when there is no access to any climbing (like if you work on a oil rig), if you have a muscle imbalance that needs specifically targeting to eliminate injury, or where the climbing you have access to has insufficient variety to work the prime movers hard.

Almost all climbers will be in one of the above situations at some point in their careers, and they will find the content of this book useful. But I found the opening section of the resistance training section where soles extorts the value of resistance training for climbers more than a little cringeworthy and misleading. Apart from this, there is useful information about the use of weights and other resistance devices for climbers and the practical issues surrounding it. But far more detail was needed in the sections on two of the most important basic resistance devices for climbers – the fingerboard and campus board.

The central opportunity with this title is to inform climbers exactly when and how much they should use resistance training. Soles attacks this task in the section on planning training programs for different climbing goals. But in my opinion he has advocated far too much resistance training and the detail on the climbing activities is sketchy to say the least. The result of following one of these programs, I think, would be good weight lifter, but not as good a climber as one could be on a more sport specific program.

Thankfully, the book isn’t all about weights. It real value comes in the nutrition section, which is well written, practical and informative and this is where it earns it’s place on a committed climber’s bookshelf. Good advice on shopping and meal strategies, body mass and composition, supplementation and dietary pitfalls. It would be good to see a committed nutrition for climbers title from Soles maybe? I might disagree a little with the minimum body mass figures for performance climbing given, in fact I’ve proven them wrong myself. But no one has any empirical data to go on here yet.

There are a lot of useful facts generally and Soles writing style is easier to read that some other books out there. If you are already convinced you need to be doing some weights for some specific reason, this book will help you make the best progress, but I would be wary of using this book solely to plan your training, or you will be spending way too much time pumping iron and not enough learning to climb. I think this book will help a great deal of climbers get a better handle on good nutrition specific to climbing situations, as well as some other useful training related facts. If you already own four or more of the climbing-training titles out there, get this one too. If not, stick to something that is aimed more at what’s important for climbers.

Footnote: I mentioned above that I found the opening section on the value of resistance training a bit scary – what specifically?

It’s the notion that if you don’t do weight training to supplement your climbing you are putting yourself at risk of injury. This is not at all necessarily true. Sure, unbalanced climbing that has insufficient variety in one aspect such as hold type, angle move type or movement style often sets up the conditions for dangerous muscle imbalance or overuse syndromes. But varied and sensible climbing need not create these conditions at all. In fact, climbing movement is so varied that it can actually protect against imbalances rather than cause them. I would suggest that self-coached weight training is far more likely to result in imbalance problems that just going climbing.

Poor technique and variety in climbing are the problem, not climbing per se. But Soles opening section gives a different message. Soles also tells us not to listen to “the number one myth about weight training is that you will get too big. Since climbing is a sport where strength-to-mass ratio plays a significant role in performance, this fear is understandable, if misguided”. But then no satisfactory argument is provided for it being misguided. I do not think it is misguided, generally speaking.

I feel that following the programs of weights based resistance training advocated by Soles would indeed lead to some excess muscle mass for climbing as well as a missed opportunity to use this training time for more specific training activities that contributed much better overall to climbing performance.

14 October 2008

How to be a sponsored climber

Another email I get a lot from climbers is one asking “how can I go about getting some sponsorship?” or asking what grade do you have to climb to get sponsored. This is another subject I think it’s important to write about on this blog, because for lots of young climbers it’s a really bad distraction and will influence them to make choices that will ultimately limit their climbing, not empower it.

So, how do you get sponsored? Well the first thing I should say is I am probably not the best person to ask. I am much better at climbing than getting huge sponsorship deals (I like it that way round), but maybe it’s good to point that out - it’s a skill in itself, completely separate from how hard you climb.

On the whole, how much sponsorship you can get has only a little to do with how hard you climb, and the climbing part can be answered in a couple of sentences:

If you want to be a professional climber, take whatever the current cutting edge is in the niche you want to operate in, and better it, convincingly. And understand that you have to do that first, before the sponsorship comes. I know it would help if it was the other way round, but it’s not going to be, so it’s better to accept that from the start.

Right, thats the easy part out of the way, now the hard part. No matter where you are at with your climbing, the challenge to actually turning that into a relationship with a company is your ability to role play the cash strapped marketing manager. This is where most climbers go wrong. This is what you have to imagine:

You are the marketing manager of the company you want to get the deal with, your marketing budget for the year was pretty damn small to start with, and you’ve spent most of it already and allocated the rest twice over already. A glossy pamphlet with a highly professional looking and reading cover letter comes in, among many other bits of mail in a big pile you have to read. It’s a request to be considered for the sponsored athlete team of the company. You’ve got 20 emails to write before your meeting in half an hour, so this request has about 30 seconds to sound good enough to make the headache of redoing all your budget sums for the rest of the year a good idea. (first hint: why should you be sponsored in a couple of sentences, or better still a couple of unmistakeable images?).

If you think your marketing manager might not already know who you are and lots of things about you, wait until they will have. So you have to be able to remind them instantly in words or images why you are exactly what their marketing tactics need to sell more of whatever it is they sell. Did that one pass you by? It does for many young climbers. That last point was where most go wrong. They think that the sponsorship is reward for climbing hard. It’s not. Its about your sponsor being able to sell more product.

So however you go about getting the sponsorship (and there are many ways), remember it is a task of saying “this is how I can help you connect with your customers”, and not “this is how hard I climb”.

How can you help a company present a stronger image, carry a message to more people, through more and better channels and how can you make these ideas sound better than whatever the company are doing right now. Make sure you know these answers inside out, with numbers, and images to back you up, before you approach. 

Another good approach is not to approach at all. One of the big problems with getting sponsorship is budget cycles. Whenever you approach, it’s sods law the budget has already been spent. Sometimes, it can be better just to keep focusing on building yourself into such a valuable target for companies (hint: once again, climbing is probably the least of this) that it’s inevitable at least one marketing manager will recognise that your 20,000 blog readers per month are a far more valuable asset to get closer to than trying to make traditional ads that anyone will notice.

I’m sure I’ve given a fairly clear perspective on how to approach this, but one final point; the most important one. Whatever you do, don’t rely on the hope you’ll ever pay your bills with sponsorship. You won’t. After several years of trying I got on much better when I realised that looking outside of sponsorship for different types of income compatible with a climbing life was a much better strategy. For me it was writing, lecturing, coaching, labouring, internet retailing and, yes, some sponsorship too.

With trying to be a sponsored athlete you are entering the world of advertising, and successful advertising means being ahead of the curve. If you have to ask others what they are doing right now, you are behind the curve. To be ahead of the curve you’ll need to anticipate what will make marketing managers sit up and rub their eyes next year.

Anyone for a marketing degree? Followed by a multimedia masters? Could be a better idea than a gap year ‘to concentrate on your climbing’. I had two gap years, it didn’t concentrate my climbing as much as I’d have liked, but being broke did concentrate the mind.

13 October 2008

Modern trends in city dwelling trad climbers

Following on from my last post where I said people often email and tell me what grades they climb in different disciplines and ask how they can improve. Of course it’s a very complicated picture, but sometimes it’s not so hard to pick out some obvious clues.

One very common clue to identifying weaknesses is the balance of strengths, or grades across the disciplines. Lets take a wee look at these in turn.

How many pull-ups can you do on a first joint edge (small campus board rung) on different grip types? Based on my observations as a coach, for about 7/8 out of ten climbers, they will do much better using a crimp grip than either four or three fingers openhanded. If thats you, you’ve found a weakness to train. Simple! Keep climbing openhanded on almost everything until you strengths on each grip type match. If you don’t, it’s your loss. If you do the hard learning about why it’s important as I stressed in the last important, you wouldn’t need any convincing why you need to go to all this trouble and spend a couple of years breaking your crimping habit.

A second one that stands out a mile with trad climbers who live in cities and spend a lot of time climbing indoors is their grades. A common one these days is “I climb F7a, Font 7a and HVS/E1” or at a higher level “F8a, Font 8a and E4” To me as a coach this now sounds normal because I’ve heard it so many times. But to me as a climber I think “What?!” 

A friend of mine is convinced if you can do Font 7c bouldering , you should be able to do F8c routes so long as you do any sort of decent stamina work. And it’s probably true for a lot of routes. As for trad - the crux of a benchmark E9 like Parthian Shot is Font 7a!

So what is all this saying? Climbers are often WAAAAY too stuck in a “climbing harder equals being stronger” paradigm and have completely forgotten to value tactics and technique. At most busy city climbing walls, if you come in every night for a week, you will come across a guy who can really climb well, but is weak as a kitten. He’ll consistently flash a certain grade on any type of terrain, every time. Yet he/she is much weaker than you. That person is your coach. Befriend them, watch their every move and ask them relentlessly what their background is. Copy it.

How do I get better?! (in one email)

Averaging out at once every day, I get a very similar email, which goes roughly like this (with minor variations):

“Hi Dave, I’m a really keen climber. I’ve been climbing for (x) years and can do (x) on sport/ trad and I’m bouldering about (x). I go to the wall/crag (x) times a week and out climbing at weekends. I really want to keep improving but I seem to have hit a bit of a plateau and don’t feel I’m getting better as fast as I could. Is there anything I should be thinking about doing now to break into the next level? Thanks in advance.”

Sometimes it adds a couple of lines about what the climber habitually does to train and asks “where am I going wrong?”

It’s great to get these emails and know there are so many keen climbers out there feeling the same way as I do. I know that for every person who sends this type of email to someone they feel might have an answer for them, there are many times more people who feel like sending it but don’t for one reason or another. So I thought I should really share publicly the answer I write back, which is broadly the same each time as you’ll see why:

“Hi, Thanks for the email and good to hear you are psyched to get better at climbing. It’s not really possible for me to identify the areas you should focus on with your training without having much more information about your climbing and training habits. And even then the answers would be a lot more than I could fit into one email.

Basically you have two choices to break out of your plateau, Right now you don’t have the information to analyse your own climbing and identify the areas to work on or change. You could either shortcut the process of learning this information by hiring a coach to make a thorough assessment of your climbing and make the decisions for you, or you could learn to do it yourself. 

Learning this information is really the hard part of getting to be a better climber, doing the training is the easy part! It takes many years to learn everything you need to know to design your own program very well. It took me 6 years of full time study and many more years of soaking up every piece of information I could. I’d totally recommend doing this because you can adapt your training practice as you progress or your goals change. 

The worst situation for your improvement is to fall between two stools and take neither path. You’ll inevitably make lots of mistakes, focus on the wrong things and end up losing a lot of time not improving nearly as fast as you could given your available resources. Choose which path you want to take and go for it! Good luck.”

The first message in this is really worth re-iterating - For one climber, a mix of poor footwork, over-reliance on strength training bringing down technique, lack of variety in angle or hold type, or missed opportunity to supplement climbing training at home could be among a longer list of things needing changing. For the next climber, it might be a totally different set of problems. 

Most climbers carry around an incomplete picture of what to value and work on to get better at climbing. So they only follow the things in their picture. A good coach might fill in the rest for you very quickly. This is the shortcut. If it suits your circumstances and goals, take the shortcut! If you want to be a lifelong follower of climbing, take the hard road and learn the rest of the picture yourself, in the long run this will be a shortcut for you.

For those who take the self-coaching path, you are already ‘on it’ by reading this blog. Good one! Keep in mind that actually doing the training is the easy part. Your constant challenge is to be doing the right training at any given moment. So for every hour of training, it would really get you further if you did at least the same in learning about training (reading, watching, thinking, analysing). 

Make sure you are getting information from every channel available - things like: this blog, many other writers on this subject online, reading books on training and not just ones specific to climbing, motivation, watching good climbers, asking good climbers what they do. (Hint: Lots of very specific questions in a row will get much more than one general question like ‘How do I get better?’).

Which path are you on? Don’t fall between two stools.

PS: I am not sure if that final figure of speech is a British thing or not, but for anyone who hasn’t heard it before, please note it refers to stool as in the chair.

12 October 2008

New research published on finger endurance

My undergraduate research project investigating determinants of finger endurance in trained climbers was recently published in the Journal of Sport Sciences. You can see the details here or access the full paper if you have access to the scientific journals through an academic or other institution. A huge thanks to Stan Grant for encouraging me to keep going with the log preparation of the manuscript for submission and to everyone that worked with me on the paper and volunteered for the research itself.

We observed that climbers were not dramatically better at tolerating occlusive isometric contractions of the finger flexors (as you get in difficult climbing), but were surprisingly good at sustaining long periods of intermittent high force isometric contractions compared to untrained people. This could be down to an ability to perfuse the muscles very rapidly and recover from the contractions while reaching for the next hold. Not surprisingly, we also observed yet another confirmation that pure finger strength, and especially finger strength to weight ratio was a strong predictor of climbing level.

The intermittent isometric muscle contractions of our fingers in climbing are not that common in strength and endurance dependent sports, and there is still much to be learned about the exact causes of failure to maintain force output and sequence of chemical events that happen deep in the exercising muscle during fatigue. 

Big up to anyone out there willing to take up this mantle and help us to learn more about the physiological limitations in climbing. The continued dramatic rises in the level of ability of the worlds top climbers really shows that we are nowhere yet, either with our understanding, or what could be done with it.

11 October 2008

Split tips

Many of you have been asking about split tips (cuts in the fingertip pad, usually from using small sharp crimps and most often in the index finger, for those of you not familiar with the term).

I am no dermatologist, so I speak purely from experience here. There are many techniques various climbers use to manage split tips, some of which I haven’t mentioned here because I feel they are not much use! Below is a list of ways to minimise the highly frustrating time out of climbing that such a tiny cut in your finger can subject you to:

Prevention, prevention, prevention. Most of the techniques for managing split tips are pretty useless to be perfectly honest. And if you let yourself get them repeatedly, they may chronically recur. So just don’t get them in the first place! The primary way to avoid them is to watch out for your fingertip skin, and when you are about to get a split, stop climbing or pulling on the nasty edge. If you don’t you only have yourself to blame. Splits sometimes, but pretty rarely happen out of the blue, it’s usually after ample warning of thin fingertip skin.

Notes on prevention: If you are climbing on thin edges or very rough rock, wait until the best possible conditions available, i.e. cool and out of the sun, so your skin is as cool and leathery as possible. Between goes on a climb in poor conditions, do extra to keep your fingertip skin cool and less sweaty. 

If you’re on a trip, make sure you know when the best conditions are - is it out of the sun early morning or evening? Is tomorrow’s forecast windy/cooler/less humid? Make sure you know.
Keep chalking your tips even while resting to keep them from gong sweaty and softening. Stand out of the sun or in a breeze. Blow on your tips and/or wave your hands around to cool them off. Anything you can to keep the skin cool and less sweaty.

Make sure you use enough chalk on the climb, especially right before the sharpest hold.
If you feel a hold is threatening to cut your tip, decide whether the climb is worth the risk of many days off. If you are on a one week foreign bouldering trip, probably best move on! If you are going to persist, keep checking your tips carefully after every go and make an estimate of how many tries you have until it’s gonna go. When you reach the end of the countdown, stop. You know it makes sense.

If an edge pulls up a flap layer of skin, pull it off so it doesn’t catch and assist the cutting action. If you’ve never done this it’s a lot more effective than it sounds. Some people sand down the skin to keep a smooth surface. I usually find this just makes it worse, but others swear by it. Try it yourself. 

Die hards will use superglue (fresh layer every attempt) to keep going when a split is imminent.
Climb with fingertape over your tips until you have it wired, then go without for the redpoint. But be careful here fingertape will make your tips soft and sweaty so give them time to dry and toughen up.

If you take a long rest between attempts, like to have some food or belay, do a little warmup to cool and toughen up your skin again. It will have gone soft.

Don’t go and crimp everything. Get some openhanded strength, give your tips a break, and climb harder too.

Keep your skin in good general condition - repeated immersion in water many times will soften your skin. Use rubber gloves to wash those dishes, we will understand. Develop an awareness of the condition of your fingertip skin, don’t trash it by repeatedly trying a sharp problem when you’re tired and will never get it anyway. Come back fresh instead. Keep your skin tough with frequent bouldering, year round.

Notes on management

So it split. Bummer. Don’t make it any worse by keeping on climbing unless it’s the last day of a trip or you drove 5 hours to be where you are. Stop and bandage it (carry plasters or use tape if you forgot these) immediately. Once you are home, clean it, moisturise it and bandage it with a plaster. Change the plaster often.

How many days of you take depends on how much you want to risk a re-split. Re-splits are really bad news. 2 splits in a row and it might take a month or two to fully regain strength. Three or four splits back to back and you might have a chronic weakness in the skin for a year or worse. So take the days off.

One day is asking for a re-split, two days is risking it even if you climb on nice smooth holds. Three days might be enough for some, but not others. Four is good.

Even after you’ve taken your four days off, don’t be fooled that it’s gone. It’s not. It’s not bad luck if it splits again, it’s ignorance. 

You need to adjust your climbing to take account of the remaining weakness for a couple of weeks until the skin fully regains it’s strength. Avoid nasty sharp crimps wherever you can, and be extra careful about wearing your skin right down between sessions. Don’t underestimate this last point - it’s the most important aspect of preventing further splits.

For frequent sufferers

Chances are it’s purely down to your tactics, but I do know a few smart, tactics savvy climbers who still suffer a lot from splitters. They have not really found an definitive solution apart from following the above rules even more studiously. Others have experimented with stump cream and other formulas that promote growth of thicker skin with mixed success. If you suffer from repeated splits, the answer like for most problems in sport is to experiment - try everything as systematically as you can.

18 June 2008

What to do when overtrained?

training hard and strange things are happening to your motivation and mood. What can you do to get the ship back on course?

Before I look at this question, lets start by looking at the more common possibility – you aren’t really overtrained at all! I suspect that most climbers with symptoms of overtraining are not doing more volume than their bodies can handle. Instead they are often suffering from zero variety in training. Always training at the same wall, same rock type, same scene, same anything? If so, before taking action against overtraining that inevitably involves resting a bit, try just doing something different first. Think about any aspects of your climbing schedule that are constant and then try switching to something else for a bit. That is probably all that is required.

However, if you are really sure you have been doing everything right keep your body going through what you ask of it, perhaps you have simply added too much volume. This situation is extremely rare in amateur athletes. But there are three options:

1: keep looking for the ‘real’ cause of the overtraining symptoms such as not enough sleep, poor diet, poor variety of climbing stimulus, poor warm up etc etc. The mantra here is that if you are going to ask your body to handle more training than ever before, you need to take better care of it than ever before.

2: Introduce a short reduction in training load combined with some TLC for the body. What form this reduction takes depends totally on the individual. For one athlete it might be two or three days of complete rest, for another it might be dropping one part of the daily training sessions for a day or two. The big markers to measure whether it’s working are your performance on some reference climbs of exercises you have, muscle soreness, mood and motivation level and the speed at which you ‘bounce back’ after rest days. You might be frustrated at the vagueness of these markers. There are some accurate chemical markers, but you are unlikely to have access to them unless you are on a premier league football team! Using the self-measures well is possible if you follow them closely over time. You develop a bit of a sixth sense here. But it’s still one of the most difficult aspects of being an amateur athlete and the easiest to get wrong.

Remember that rest from training is only half the picture – don’t forget to reduce other inputs of physical and psychological stress, eat well, get a change of scenery and generally give your body a chance to get well.

3: Taper properly, and peak for a project. If you have been doing many weeks of uninterrupted hard training, you know you are very fit but also a little beaten up, perhaps your body is saying if this intensity carries on then problems are starting to happen. This is a great place to be! A few weeks of reduced training, with more rest days than normal, more variety and more emphasis on integrating the technical skills than pure physical training should bring about a good peak. The key mistake here is not to rest enough! You feel as though you will lose all the hard earned gains. But so long as the climbing is still regular, what is happening is that your body will recover from the depressed state of performance you have enforced by leaving it chronically in recovery from hard sessions, and it will shine. Time to go forth to your projects, get amongst, forget about training for a while and focus on ticking those lifetime projects!
Thanks to Tom for the question.

2 May 2008

Muscle loss - don't be distracted by it

In the comments to my previous post on reasons for lack of improvement, Ian asked:

“I understand how to lose weight, but is there any specific way to ensure that as you lose weight you reduce fat% and not just body mass?”

With a weight loss program there isn’t any way to guarantee you lose only body fat, but you would almost never want this anyway in climbing. Most climbers could do with losing a fair bit of lower body muscle as well.

You minimise the loss of muscle associated with general weight loss by training those muscle groups you need while losing weight on an athlete’s diet.

The only situation you really need worry about loss of muscle is if you diet the unhealthy way i.e. by reducing the proportion of carbohydrate you eat and/or dieting aggressively but then letting it go and putting on fat again.

30 April 2008

Common reasons for zero improvement despite seemingly getting everything right

So, you eat well, sleep well, climb three+ times a week and mix up the training venue/activity/angle/rock type etc, but you STILL don’t improve. What’s going on?!

Here are the top two reasons why this happens in climbing:

1. You aren’t trying hard enough. Yep, that’s right, you just don’t give it 100%. Most people simply don’t realise how hard they can try. Don’t believe me? It’s been proven time after time in muscular strength research. Get your average non-athlete and put them on a strength testing apparatus of your choice and tell them to generate their perceived maximum force. Add screams of encouragement – force goes up. Add some fear – force goes up. Think about it – there are lots of extreme circumstances in life that people adapt to handle, that would be unthinkable to the untrained person. Soldiers in wars can function around sights and sounds of death, whereas an untrained person would fall apart put in their shoes. A grim but real enough analogy.

Athletes are trained to know how to generate massive amounts of neural activation and send that like a lightning bolt to the muscles to squeeze out every last drop of activation. It’s no surprise the muscles are stimulated to adapt. Much time is spent in climbing coaching just trying to communicate the fact that often the strength for the moves is already there, it’s just being able to muster the level of effort to tap into it.

Think of something in life that gives you a little shudder of fear because it’s so hard for you or you know it requires so much effort. Apply that level of effort to every route you do, and you cannot fail to improve.

2. You are too heavy. Climbing hard demands a body composition that is skewed as far as possible (palatable) in the direction of light and strong. Carrying excess weight acts like a dampener on improvements made in other performance effectors.

Consider two hypothetical male climbers, one with body fat 9%, the other 25%. Otherwise they are identical. It takes both the same amount of training to achieve a 5% increase in maximum finger force output. For the 9% fat man, this is enough to destroy all of his current projects and throw him comfortably into the next grade at least. For 30% man, it might be hardly noticeable. The lesson? Be 9% man.

How much training can you handle?

Something that people ask constantly is how much training should I do? How often can I climb? Of course the main worry in the back of folk’s minds is injury. It’s a constant trade off between training hard enough to make an overload and giving your body too much to recover from between sessions and descending to the point of chronic tissue damage.

The answer is of course ‘it depends’. It depends on how much your body is ready for the training. The more years of training you have behind you, the more you can deal with. Ultimately, the only person who can decide whether you are training too much of little I you. Fortunately, your body is constantly giving you messages informing you of whether this is happening or not. Lets look at a few of them:

‘I am not getting stronger/fitter’ – This message means you are not training the attributes you wish to target hard enough.

‘I really have to force myself to do each session and I’m feeling tired, sore and unable to maintain a similar level of performance to previous sessions. – This message means you are doing more than your body can recover from. But before blaming too much training, first ask yourself if it’s the quality of your recovery that is actually to blame – too little sleep, too much additional life stress, poor diet, too much alcohol etc…

To start answering the question of ‘how much should I train?’, a good place to start is ‘try a bit more that you are used to’. Your body will tell you whether your choice is broadly correct or not. If its not enough training, you will stay at the same level. Too much and thing will hurt.

Another complicating factor that will confuse the messages coming your body (besides how well you take care of your body in recovery) is training choices you make. So if you train harder and harder than before and still nothing happens, you probably need to add some variety in the training.

Pulling on the same holds, on the same wall or crag week in, week out, for years is not training, it’s just going through the motions.

The bottom line is – listen to your body, if you really pay attention to it, it will give you almost all of the clues you need to choose the right workrate.

13 March 2008

Breathing in climbing

Something that people occasionally ask about in climbing is breathing during difficult climbing – how important is it and how can it help your climbing?

Obviously we need to breath almost constantly and during exercise of any kind its even more important to fulfil it’s most basic function of delivering enough oxygen and removing carbon dioxide so metabolism can keep happening at the desired rate. But breathing is also extremely important psychologically.

Breathing can be used to set or assist the pace and rhythm of movement and even to help control aggression on moves. Climbing movements at your limit require constant changes in speed of movement and delivery of muscular effort. Regulation of breathing can be a sort of link between body and mind for managing this task. The best way I can describe it is to say that the mind expresses the desired type of movement through breathing, which tends to be followed immediately by a similar body movement, tension or force delivery.

Often, A sharp or deep intake of breath happens before a movement is executed, followed by a longer exhalation during or after the movement has been completed. Many climbers find that they hold their breath far too long during climbing until the breathing centres force them to breath and this breaks up the body’s climbing rhythm and they ask how they can break this habit?

The answer is by running some technique drills. Technique drills are nothing scary, so don’t be put off by the jargon - it just means repeated exercises focusing on something in particular that you want to practice. A really good time for any breathing or movement technique drills is when you warm up.

Because the climbing is not hard, you have ‘space’ in your mind to concentrate on something within the movements (like your breathing rhythm) as opposed to having to give your full concentration to just staying on the wall. Practice climbing a route or problem you can do comfortably again and again. Separate the two main stages of climbing movement – preparing to move (where you set your feet and body) and moving (where you execute a hand movement). While preparing to move, focus on making smooth relaxed breaths as you set your lower body in preparation for the next reach. One complete breath cycle for each foot movement is common on lots of moves but not on every one. Take a breath in as you stare and focus on the next hold and exhale as you grab the hold.

Consistent practice during easy climbing will help you find a breathing rhythm that works well for your climbing style and it will become automatic so it happens without you even thinking about it on the hard stuff. It’s most often relative beginners (less than two years regular climbing) that notice breathing as a problem. It’s hard for them because there may be no such thing as easy climbing! Just being on the wall is enough to feel so tense you have to force yourself to breath. If this is you, don’t worry – you will find a rhythm and with patience it will come once you get a change to be more composed on the rock.

24 January 2008

Start reading the rock (and never stop)

Coaching is really great fun. I don’t have experience coaching other sports but I’m guessing climbing must be pretty interesting as sports go. In climbing there are so many skills and abilities that create the performance. Meeting climbers who are at a high level you see that many of these skills are a prerequisite and don’t even need mentioning. With these climbers the challenge is to get them to stand back, and see the bad habits they have developed and to make a convincing enough case for them to see clearly the benefits on offer if they change those habits.

Coaching climbers at a less advanced level is very different. It’s strange sometimes to see different climbers all trying to climb the same problems but using totally different styles and approaches. When in groups it makes it easier to talk folks through the benefits of each approach and the effects of neglecting other parts of the chain. Always the most dramatic image for students is when someone who is obviously very much weaker than the rest (often a female climber in a group of strong young guys) makes climbing steep ground look effortless through applying momentum and lower body muscle groups. I love it when this happens because it’s something I cannot (easily) convincingly demonstrate myself. People assume that if I make a move look easy it’s because I applied more force through the handholds. So I spend a lot of time pointing out my tensed calf muscles as I move on a steep board and generate the force for the movement from my toes and my movement of my hips.

Getting down to the nitty gritty of movement is really great fun. And making breakthroughs in it is even more fun. One big thing that the climbers I coach say to me is that they worry that they will forget my explanations for how they managed a move easily that was previously impossible, so the improvement will be transient.

And that brings me to my most repeated piece of advice in coaching – look at the rock and the holds, and listen to your body as you make the moves on them. Soak up the information it gives you, even though it feels like a brain crash to start with.

At first you will have to process the bits of information consciously, chunk by chunk. Like learning a foreign language, at first you have to piece sentences together by individually recalling words and their basic meaning. Everything is clunky and takes a great deal of conscious effort. There is no sidestepping this stage – you have to go through it.

But gradually, more and more aspects of what the hold layout means in terms of movement decisions will come automatically, and you can deal more and more with understanding it at a higher level and refining the timing and execution of each part.

But the minute you get lazy and stop looking at the holds before, during and between attempts on a climb, your technique learning will slow down or even reverse. It is the conscious (at first) efforts to understand what the holds are asking you to do that makes the connections in the brain you are after.

Look > try to understand > try to climb > try to understand > look some more > and so on

This is the way for steady technique gains.

If you go for:

Try to climb > try to climb > try to climb > brain asleep > try to climb > try to climb

Not much improvement is on the horizon.

The seemingly hard way of trying to understand climbing movement from the word go, rather than hoping you might understand it someday is actually the short cut.

Alcohol and training

Brendan asks…

“I've just read your reply to an OCC question about how drinking coffee affects endurance training. Something I've wondered about is how another drink - booze! - affects performance.
I assume drinking is not beneficial to climbing full-stop, but is it particularly bad to drink soon after a session/on the same day? I often climb on a Friday then go out for a few beers that evening, I'd like to know if that wrecks the physical benefits of the training. Is it worth planning training around evenings when you know you'll be drinking?”

Ah ha, alcohol is definitely a different story! It’s pretty bad for your body in lots of ways, but the main way it will affect your training is by reducing the quality of the recovery and increasing the recovery time. The best way to offset the worst of the effects is to make sure you have a proper athletes meal (high carbohydrate) and plenty of water straight after the climbing. And make sure you avoid the super greasy takeaway after the night out. The combination of a skinful of beer and something as nutritionally evil as a takeaway kebab is what gives so many British climbers a little tyre to weigh them down on the rock.

I can’t believe I’m really writing about this on this site, but for a lot of British climbers, its really holding their ability on the rock down a grade or two.

The funny thing is, just increasing the amount of time between any drinking you do neatly solves the problem, without having to sacrifice the feeling that you can’t relax and have fun when you do go out. The nightly in-the-house beer in front of the telly is the hidden evil here. It raises your tolerance to alcohol a hell of a lot. Meaning that when you do go out, you ‘have’ to drink more, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, if you only ever drink every other week/month when you do go out, half as much or less alcohol will have the same effect, with the obvious benefits of less weight gain and less detrimental effects on recovery from training. I find that these days every time I drink a pint of beer (once every couple of months?) it feels like the first time I drank alcohol, i.e. one pint and I’m a right mess. I like it that way.

23 January 2008

Five year Audit

Following on from my last post about setting up the conditions to get to work on your climbing, and enjoyment of it, here is a practical one minute step to deciding whether your training is correct. It's so brain dead obvious you might scoff. Be warned.

Write down a very brief description (or just think back) of where and how much you climbed, what type of activities this included and who with. Something like the following would be an example:

...Climbed indoors at the local climbing centre after work tuesdays and thursdays with Brian and Joe and at the weekend on Grit. At the wall I did 5+s and 6as and a little play on the boulder wall afterwards. Outside I did HVSs and the odd E1.

How many things are the same today?

The more things that are the same, the more likely it is your climbing level has not changed.

What to do? Something different of course!

This weekend try a new rock type. This weeknight try a whole session on the panel or angle you used to avoid and see how much you can master (& begin to love) it. Phone up a different climbing partner.

I know some climbers who deliberately train on the very same problems for years on end. This is not training. In the main they do this because of fear of losing the strengths they do have if they diversify their training a bit. I can tell you it won't have a negative effect - strip those problems and start again. Give your body something fresh to adapt to.

Sticking to the stuff you are comfortable with and know you can do is not training,

Don't get stuck.

Planning your training - rule 0

Freedom > success (not the other way round)

Planning your training starts with organising your time to allow time and space to improve at the skill of climbing. Don’t work now to get freedom later. It won’t happen. Find work that gives you the freedom now, and that at least gives you the chance to start now and not later (later is too late).

Understand that this is not a mythical easy option. It’s a real option and it’s the hardest option. Safe = mediocre. Finding the answer to this problem will be the hardest training ask you’ll ever do. It’s great that you have to deal with it first!

Getting through the issue of finding the right work that fits what you want to do (as opposed fitting what you want to do to your work schedule) will most likely involve some radical action and some quite scary decisions or risks. Could you tell your boss that you want to work from home because you could produce more results in half the time? (and that you going climbing more is a good thing for your productivity, not a bad thing)?

It’s easier just to stay safe and not do it.

Then you won’t have to try and wonder how you can find the job that allows you this freedom, how you can redefine your current one, or whether you want the rewards enough to muster the effort.

In no time, twenty years will have gone past. Don’t turn round and find yourself still asking the same question.

16 January 2008

Lactic Acid woes

Nik asks…

is there any way of decreasing the production of lactic acid?

I’ve heard that drinking a lot of water while doing a long climbing session flushes the lactic acid out,
shaking your arms,
breathing deeply while on a route,
not drinking caffeine as this dilates the blood vessels,

Any thoughts or advice?

The answer to this, frustratingly, is that it’s not really the question that needs asking! Muscle fatigue is a complicated subject in general but for the type of contractions we make (I’m talking about forearms here – intermittent isometric contractions) it’s even more complex. If I launch into an explanation it could bring on headaches all round but let me summarise by saying that lactic acid is just one among a long list of chemicals that cause our forearms to fail. Potassium ions, hydrogen ions and many others build up beyond their normal equilibrium and interfere with running muscle metabolism as fast as we’d like.

The goal is not so simply to decrease production of lactic acid, rather to delay it or prevent it to as high intensities as possible, and then tolerate it’s presence for as long as possible at higher intensities. Lactic acid build up in climbers bloodstreams is miniscule compared to most other endurance sports that engage much more muscle at a high intensity. In fact the small amounts of lactic acid we do produce in our forearms are probably easily taken up my the other muscle groups and recycled. So we should focus on the forearm.

Not enough is known about what goes on chemically deep inside the forearms at the moments before we fail on routes. That’s mostly because it’s so difficult/unethical to research (would you like a big apple core of muscle ripped out of your forearm by a man in a white coat just as you pump out?). But it appears that local and pretty transient chemical changes account for a larger part of our forearm fatigue.

The main (non technical) method to avoid forearm pump is of course endurance training! There are no short cuts or tactics that substitute hard hours on the circuits. But breathing well and shaking arms are indeed useful for helping diffuse the local build up of chemicals, delaying the point at which they will inhibit metabolism and also assisting blood flow. Thorough warm-up is also critical, not just at the start of a session but also if you stop and let yourself get cold between climbs.

It’s important though to keep perspective though. Good climbing technique will be far more effective for delaying pump, and spotting rests will do more to get you through a pump than anything else. No hands rests are everywhere, even where you least expect them. Make yourself an expert on kneebars, heel-toe locks, toe hooks, bat hangs, and various scums and body bars. Look out for them everywhere as you climb, and take note of how they are used when you see other using them. They will give you a killer advantage, not to mention make your belayer choke with jealously as you relax and chill in the middle of the crux.

What I’m saying here is that if you are at the stage to be worrying about having a cup of coffee before a climbing session your technique should be virtually perfect!