28 December 2010

New year message for your training plan

As another year draws to a close think of all the training/climbing wall/ crag sessions you’ve done in the past year.
Now think of the grade increase you’ve made in the past year. Not your ‘best ever’ grade when everything came good, but your day-in, day-out regular climbing grade. What do you warm up on; 6b or 7c? What can you onsight 100% of the time? What can you always redpoint in a day?
Odds are it’s pretty much the same. But even if I has risen by half a grade or more, try dividing that grade increase by the number of regular sessions you have through the year. Wall sessions particularly all kind of merge into one. Let’s say you did 200 sessions at the wall and increased half a grade. That’s 1/400th of a grade per session improvement. Not great, for an intermediate climber anyway.
Next year, what sessions could you dream up that would crank that fraction up a bit, or a lot? A session with a good coach. A change of climbing wall. Finally attacking the overhangs you’ve avoided for no good reason. What about a whole year of ONLY overhangs?
You can afford to miss a few 1/400th of a grade sessions for the sake of something else. How about a whole week of practicing leader falls? One after the other, every day. 200 leader falls in one week. What would that do to your onsight grade? A lot more than another year of your regular climbing wall session.
My guess is that if you spent the entire next year doing climbing sessions that were nothing like you’ve ever done before, next new year you’d be counting a bigger grade increase. And anyway, what’s to lose by changing everything? Seriously. Another year of same old...
Have a great 2011 climbing year.

11 December 2010

A rehab story

A Rehab Story from Jacob Fuerst on Vimeo.

Nice story of Josh Wharton coming back from a serious injury. For me this is a nice reminder that the diligent work of rehab exercises, no matter how much of a drag (swimming with old folks!), pay off. Also, the rehab is just as much about overcoming the psychological challenges as the physical/practical ones. Like myself in the past and lots of others, it strikes me that the injury ends up making you feel more positive about your climbing in the end.

Thanks to Andrew's blog for the heads up on this.

3 December 2010

Boulderer's transition to route climbing

Ross asked me recently about making the transition to routes from an apprenticeship in bouldering. With ‘bouldering only’ climbing walls becoming ever more popular, there is an increasing body of young climbers who have an entire apprenticeship on them and make a difficult transition to route climbing after a year or two.
These climbers get pumped really easily on F6s even though they can boulder Font 7s. Their initial feeling is to blame lack of endurance fitness, which is of course a part of the problem. But a few weeks of racking up the route laps will see a lot of progress in fitness.
The bigger, but less understood problem is hidden in their technique. These guys have spend 100% of their climbing time trying to learn to pull as hard as possible, on 3-10 move boulder problems. The technique of route climbing - to pull as gently as possible - is a totally different technique. You can’t learn it overnight. 
Often, they want to find a training solution to climbing routes that still involves using the local bouldering wall - i.e. Circuits. That’s fine in theory, but it’s definitely the hard way. The reason is that to learn to climb efficiently for routes, saving energy as opposed to climbing explosively, is best done on long pitches that take 2 minutes to several hours (as in winter climbing). So the best thing to do is get out and climb some big routes, tons of them.
Fiddling with a wire placement for five minutes will always teach you how to relax and find the most efficient position much more effectively than doing circuits or lots of easy problems. Even a week of sport climbing will get you further than months of trying to learn route climbing technique on a boulder wall. Get out and climb at a standard that allows you to do 12 x 30m routes a day or more. That’s 2500 metres climbed in a week minimum - hard to achieve in the boulder wall. By the end of a week your movement and style will be so different.

2 December 2010

Training for winter climbing - some thoughts

Donald King ready for a big pitch of weirdness on Unicorn VII,8 Glencoe

At this time of year, especially with the deluge of snow, everyone is suddenly psyched to get in their best shape for winter climbing (what? you mean you haven’t been training for months?!).
It’s funny to me how much the prevailing memes about training for winter climbing have changed since I started climbing. In the early nineties, some misguided old souls still trained for winter by walking up hills in the October sleet and bivvying out to harder themselves up. That, together with eating some extra pies to put on a good ‘storm coat’.
Fast forward to 2010 and everyone talks about nothing else apart from dry tooling, dry tooling, dry tooling. Who is right?
To gain some insight, consider the recurring training-for-climbing mystery of the underachieving board beast. ‘beasting’ is all the range right now in bouldeing. Get on the ‘beastmaker’, get ‘beasting’ and ‘beast’ your way to success. Except the strongest lads that are permanent furniture under the steepest part of your local climbing wall somehow aren’t the ones climbing the hardest climbs. ‘beast’ and ‘best’ are linked, but not the same. Right now in bouldering, technique is undervalued. I don’t see it changing for a few years yet. The attraction of the simplicity of pure strength training is too tempting for angry young men of the climbing wall.
Along with the rise in availability of dry tooling in the UK at least, comes a swing in the same direction (pun wasn’t intentional) - towards looking at the whole sport through the lens of how hard you can pull on ice axes. If you’ve ever been to a dry tooling comp, you’ll witness some eyebrow raising displays of lock-off strength, not usually from the winner of the comp. The winner won’t be the weakest thats for sure, but they’ll be the one who magically climbed the problem with the method that you just would never have spotted, and neither did anyone else (especially if they were too busy unleashing the beast). 
The pie eating, sleep out in a seet storm method represents the opposite extreme, both are probably equally ineffective at getting you up hard winter routes, if you use them in isolation.
So my appeal with this post is not to use either pie eating, bivvying in your garden or pull-ups on ice axes in isolation. The best winter climbers are the ones who have an uncanny knack of getting up just about any sort of weirdness you throw at them. In fact, if I could do only one type of training for Scottish style winter climbing, it would be to go and climb weirdness of all shapes and sizes.
The cruxes of winter routes are always weird. So if you melt your technical climber brain into that of neanderthal with nothing but ‘pull up and pull harder’ in the movement repertoire, you’ll fail. Winter climbing done well generally feels like a yoga workout in the cold. You’ll do a move you’d never even thought of before on every pitch. Train for this by climbing the weirdest things possible and do it well. Climb chimneys, loose rock, wet rock, slabs, V-slots, flared offwidths, sentry boxes, buildings, drainpipes, bouncy castles - whatever you see, climb up and over it. Only when you have the cat-like ability to climb any sort of feature that nature throws at you, will your tooling power really count.
Now that’s out of the way, some points about dry tooling:
1 The movement is very fast, similar to rock climbing. This is nothing like real mixed climbing. Climbing problems you have wired accentuates this problem and you’ll not develop either technique or endurance in the right way. Making up new problems on the spot and changing them constantly helps slow things down and keep you hanging on longer and learning to relax and save energy. The ice holds in the video below are one novel solution to this problem (a lot of people ask me where you can get hold of them - here!). You need to keep clean technique to make upward progress. Rushing at it will be terminally counterproductive, which is exactly the drill you need for the real thing.

2 People who do a lot of tooling tend to do it on roofs a lot and get hung up by learning roof tooling specific footwork tricks. That’s great if you are training for the cineplex, but if VIIs on Scottish mixed cliffs is the objective, then the key technical skill is to learn to keep the axe still no matter what other body part you are moving. The hooks on hard winter routes are poor and directional. It’s lack of awareness of axe movement as you reach ‘in extremis’ that causes a lot of the falls in real mixed climbs.
3 Be aware that most indoor tooling on resin holds is just hooking. That’s great practice, because it feels scary at first and once you are comfortable with thin hooks it’s a great confidence booster. But when I wee climbers who tool a lot on real mixed climbs, they miss all the obvious torques, steins, axe head and shaft jams and a myriad of other ways to use your tools that beardy mixed climbers from the 80’s were proper experts at.
4 Dealing with hooks on real mixed climbs often involves a bit of ice as well. Often the hook relies on a tiny bit of ice or frozen moss to work. If you mess around with it too much by taking your axe off it and replacing it, or just plain whacking the hell out of it, you’ll waste it. Learn to know when you have to use the first time placement or nothing. You’ll probably have to train that skill ‘on the job’. But the odd hour snatched on road cuttings or climbing thin-ice boulder problems at ground level while you wait for the roads to clear will teach you a huge amount about this kind of thing.
5 Falling off in mixed climbing is generally not cool. I’ve definitely noticed a trend for people falling off mixed routes more readily than when I started climbing. That’s all fine if you really know how to place safe gear in icy cracks. But if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t go throwing yourself off icy cliffs too readily. Be careful to keep the big separation in your mind between the dry tooling wall and the big scary real mixed climbs.

Review: Racing Weight

Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald is the first dedicated book for athletes on maintaining an optimal body composition. I first heard about it a few months ago and raced to get hold of a copy. As soon as I read it I bought a stack of them for my shop (right here) as I felt this is a must have book for any climber investing time and effort into manipulating their weight for climbing. I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while to explain why.
First off, climbers will notice that this is a book aimed at endurance athletes like cyclists and runners. Why is that important? Because their training is totally different to ours. Aerobic athletes need to burn larger volumes of calories for more hours than climbers do. But despite this, much of the book is relevant to us and even the bits that aren’t help to inform what us climbers should be doing in our nutritional regime.
Fitzgerald has all the credentials to write this book - a successful athlete (triathlon), nutritionalist, coach and professional writer. Although he references the scientific literature throughout, the text is still easy to read if you aren’t a sports scientist and is both well laid out and clear in its messages.
The discussion early on comparing the sizes, shapes and demands of many different sports was very illuminating. We are totally not alone in our challenging nutritional and physiological needs as climbers. While endurance athletes have one killer advantage in the weight loss game (that their sports use up a ton of calories), they also struggle because any caloric deficit interferes seriously with training intensity. If they don’t eat really well at all times, they get unfit.
Fitzgerald outlines in excellent and convincing detail how many angles we can come at these problems using the content, volume, timing and quality of our diet. I learned a great deal about all of these different components, as well as reinforcing a lot of what I had previously learnt in my own study of this subject.
I’d also read a lot of research in recent years about the tactics of appetite management, perhaps the ultimate nemesis for those permanently adrift of their fighting weight. It was fascinating to see an up to date review of all of this in one place. An excellent chapter and surely useful to just about anyone never mind just athletes.
The only place I’d like to have seen an extended discussion was that of intermittent fasting - an increasingly popular protocol in several non-cardiovascular sports that depend on low body fat percentage. Fitzgerald essentially dismisses it as unsuitable for endurance athletes due to the inability to fuel daily training sessions. This totally makes sense. But given that a lot of the book seems to be written with a wider audience of athletes or the general public in mind, I was surprised that more space wasn’t given to it. I suspect that lack of solid research on it’s effects on sport performance was the main reason. It does however leave an opening for someone else to discuss this aspect (or better still research it!) further with a greater range of sports and applications in mind. 
As a coach myself I observe climbers constantly applying bits and pieces of nutritional tactics from all kinds of sources; pseudo-scientific diet books aimed at the mass market, knowledge adapted haphazardly from other sports, out of date knowledge or simple unconscious habits. In my view, every climber who cares about training or knows their body composition could be better should read this text.
It’s in the shop here.

28 November 2010

Tactics: Climbing in the cold

On my main blog I just added the video above about a new 8b I did in Glen Nevis. It was climbed in temperatures of Minus 2 or 3 with a light breeze. I thought it would be a good idea to write a post about working around the cold for doing redpoints like this. The tactics are fairly simple:
1 Start off very warm. Make sure you wear enough clothing so you arrive at the crag at the point of overheating. This way, by the time you’ve faffed and put your gear on, you’ll be at the right temperature to start climbing, instead of freezing already and ripe for an injury or at least a cold pump. If there's no walk-in, you'll have to go for a good 10 minute run in your duvet instead, even if you just got out of a warm car.
2 Warm up on the project. Go bolt to bolt, still dressed in your warm clothes. Make sure you finish by doing a medium difficulty link that gets a bit of a pump on and leaves you feeling a little overheated.
3 Lower down and don’t stand still. It doesn’t matter (for most people anyway) how big your duvet jacket is, if you stand still in the cold for any length of time, you’ll struggle to keep warm enough muscles and fingers to go for your redpoint. Ideally your light pump will have been recovered from after about 15 minutes. During that time don’t stop - get everything ready, blow on your hands, run and jump around. And then get your shoes back on and go for it. You don’t want your heart rate to drop towards resting at all in the whole session.
4 If you do need to stand still, usually to belay. You’ll need to fully warm your body up again. Walk off for a good ten minutes and then power back up the hill to arrive at the crag really hot. By the time you have your shoes on and tied in you’ll be set. Jumping around at the crag to re-warm doesn’t usually cut it. It follows that sport climbing sessions in the cold are much better done in blocks, i.e. Your partner belays you for a whole session with warm-up and redpoints before switching and they re-warm by walking somewhere else for their session. It’s pretty hard to do it swapping belays without a lot of aerobic work in between.
5 Hands - They’ll start off warm from a gloved and duvet clad walk-in. Keeping a warm core is by far the biggest thing you can do to stop them getting too cold and to rescue them if they do. Ideally you don’t want to have gloves on after your warm-up because it’ll soften your fingertips too much. Instead, keep the heart going and jam your hands in your roasting hot armpits to keep them warm before you go for the redpoint. If they aren’t roasting hot, go back to point 4. If it’s short route (like 15 metres) you’ll be fine, but any longer or with a shake out during the redpoint and numb fingers will be a problem even if you started off with hot hands. A ‘teabag’ style handwarmer in your chalk bag is often enough, and was used in the video above. Make sure you open it at the start of the session as they take a good while to reach maximum temperature. You might want to supplement it with the armpit treatment on your shake out if it’s a really good rest.
So, nothing complicated really. Where people go wrong is they just cant resist the temptation to stand still if they start to feel cold, or they go for a jog but not nearly for long enough. Enjoy your cold rock sessions!

18 November 2010

Avoiding pulley injuries - the hard and easy ways

In the comments of my last post, John asked about how to avoid crimping all the time and hence reduce the build up of stress and microscopic damage that leads to pulley tears. 
Of course there is the short answer of ‘just openhand everything’ and you’ll get better at it. When it comes down to it, that’s what you have to do. It’s not easy to take the temporary drop in climbing grade while you gain openhanded strength. Most climbers who’ve not had pulley injuries yet are miserably weak at openhanding and really have to take a hit. But it’s your choice - it’s only your ego you have to beat.
I’ll make a very detailed case in Rock ‘til you drop not only for why you must do it, but all the ways you can make it easier on yourself. However, since you’ll have to wait a little longer for that, here are a few headlines for now:
- ‘It’s just training’. The biggest enemy of changing habits like crimping is that climbers are always trying to compete, even in training. When you go to the climbing wall, you cannot bear to do something differently to normal because you’ll have to take a grade hit for a while. And maybe your training isn’t going perfect anyway so you are trying extra hard to the standard you’ve become accustomed to. There is only one way around it; stand back and realise that you are just training. You are just pulling on plastic blobs. Who cares what the number is? If you think other people do, you’re kidding yourself. Sure it’s ok to compete once in a while. Climb openhanded most of the time, and allow yourself to crimp when it really matters. If you don’t, you’ll only have to later when your broken pulleys won’t let you do anything else.
- Get off the starting blocks. If your openhanded strength really is that spectacularly rubbish in comparison to your crimp strength, you could get yourself off the starting blocks by a little supplementary fingerboard work with a 4 finger and 3 finger openhanded grip. Use the protocol I described in 9 out of 10. After 10 or 20 sessions you shouldn’t have to take such an ego hammering blow when you climb for real with an openhanded grip. But don’t forget that the subtleties of the movement are realy quite different than when crimping; getting comfortable with openhanded needs both the strength part as well as actually learning how to climb with it on real moves.
- Know the score. A lot of people I’ve coached reckon they just aren’t cut out for climbing openhanded. They usually invent a reason like the shape of their hands or the length of their fingers. Rubbish. If it feels weak, it’s only because you’re weak. And the only reason you’re weak on this grip is because you don’t do it. I challenge anyone to climb solely openhanded for 20 sessions or more and still tell me it doesn’t work for them.
- Do it on easy routes first. Very experienced or expert climbers have a disadvantage in that their habits are very set and egos expect very consistent performance. But the advantage they have is that a lot of the movement decisions are quite automatic. Someone who climbs 8a+ can probably do a 7c while having conversation. So there is room on easier routes during warm-up or mileage climbs to concentrate on learning a new technique like openhanding. 
Crimp everything and you will suffer for it down the line. Don’t worry about it too much - most people have to learn to openhand the hard way (post-injury). But injury is arguably the most wonderful motivator for changing the way you climb. That’s what happened to me. At 17 I scoffed at openhanded climbing. 5 years of constant pulley injuries later I couldn’t believe how much better it is than crimping on the vast majority of holds.

12 November 2010

Injury therapy in Margalef

About a month ago, on the crux sidepull of Muy Caliente E10 6c, I tore a ligament in my DIP joint of my left index finger. I spent the rest of my week long trip there climbing openhanded on it, or at least not using my thumb on half-crimps. Thankfully none of the other routes I did needed any crimping.
After I got home, I spent the next three weeks climbing solely openhanded on my board, bouldering outside or sticking to slabs on trad, even if pretty hard slabs. The tear was immediately painful on crimping, slightly painful on half-crimps but totally fine openhanded. This was all going fine, although the intensity of training on my board was probably still a bit much for it. What is always needed in this situation is a change of scenery.
A couple of weeks hard climbing in the steep walls and roofs of Margalef was exactly the therapy I needed. The point here is that the injured part must be relatively unloaded for a good several weeks to give it a chance to progress and form a strong scar. But doing nothing tends to cause that healing progress to falter. Choosing climbing that will keep everything moving, responding and basically stimulated means healing progresses faster. So the goal is to look for a type of climbing that is kind on the injury but lets you climb hard and keep your fitness. In the case of this particular injury that simply meant climbs that don’t need crimps, or at least that only need them rarely and you can get around it. A lot of the time it’s exactly the same with pulley tears. 
In two weeks of pocket pulling on routes F8b and up I didn’t aggravate the injury once but gained fitness and gave the finger a good stimulus to heal. It totally worked, and now at the end of the trip it’s feeling painless testing it on hard crimping.
Of course that doesn’t mean it’s gone. I’m sure if I spent a week crimping my way up some British limestone face climbs, it would soon go backwards again. It just means it’s made great progress, and with a few more weeks of the same and no mistakes, it should be getting more and more resistant to full normal climbing.

17 October 2010

Tactics: Anticipation

In observing climbers I’m always looking for running themes that tend to characterise successful climbers versus the unsuccessful ones. My definition of unsuccessful  here is not defined by a given grade but just by failure to make continued improvement over time, almost irrespective of the type or intensity of training they do. Above a certain (fairly low) level of regular climbing time, climbers should tend to get better, just by learning better tactics. How does this happen?
The core skill needed, and missing from so many climber’s fundamental approach to climbing is that of anticipation. In a nutshell, anticipation as a tactic is simply thinking “If I do this now, what effects will it have later?” It could be later in the move, later in the attempt, the climbing day or even in your whole climbing career.
This fundamental basic approach is visible in so many fields not only of climbing but also in task management generally. People have a tendency to knuckle down to the immediate task and allow themselves to be distracted from the wider need to step back every so often and re-assess which tasks are appropriate and how everything is going. “I’m too busy getting on with it to stop and have a re-think”. Successful people either inherently do this or have taught themselves to remember to do this.
In climbing, it’s most obvious in mountaineering situations. You start of the day with a given plan and a long series of small tasks that make up the entire day. The problems start when the unpredictability of mountaineering changes the constraints in real time. Usually this affects you by slowing you down or tiring you out more than expected. Climbers get into trouble when they are too busy following the ‘old’ plan that they either don’t notice the new constraints (weather changes, snow, difficulty, errors etc) or fail to anticipate their effects on the old plan and update it with a new one.
Yet the same thing happens in so many aspects of climbing, including rock climbing movement and even things like planning your training. Part of the natural tendency for us to behave like this I’m sure comes from our aversion of the status quo changing or of loss.
Measuring the constraints that affect your plan for anything you are doing requires you to face the fact that the desired outcome, or route used to get to it, might not happen like you hoped or expected. It might no longer be realistic at all. Or perhaps it never was, but it’s taken going part-way down the path for this to become obvious. Either way, it’s easier just to keep your head down and stick to the plan. But it’s more likely you’ll fail eventually with this approach. And fail more painfully - with more time lost and effort expended. 
For some reason, good climbers, athletes or people in general seem to be able to get past the uncomfortability of the idea that although you might want the plan to work out just as you want, it just isn’t going to happen. In the same way that throwing out old clutter or starting anything with a clean slate gives a weird sense of refreshing bold clarity and therapeutic freedom - the old no longer seems important once you’ve let it go.
Summary: Are you blindly following your own plan without reflection? Is the plan still appropriate based on what you are learning on the way? Do you really know it needs changing but are resistant for no obvious reason?
NB: The opposite problem - of failure to stick to any plan for long enough to actually get anywhere - is less common but just as ineffective. I’m thinking of climbers that keep looking for another hold when it’s obvious there is only one real choice. Or climbers whose only measure of progress seems to be when you actually get to the top of the route (and so never try hard ones for long enough to actually create a chance of doing them).

7 October 2010

Lessons from health promotion

Mark makes the simple but seemingly obvious point about why the health promotion sector has been roundly failing to get people to change their habits. If you don’t have time to click through the stories, the short version is that the most senior elements of the medical profession are still attempting to get people to take control of their own risk behaviours for health - smoking, drinking and getting fat - by issuing a ethical and moral appeal direct at the individual. Mark points out that it cannot work on it’s own. We are social beings and it’s too hard to act individually swim against the tide of what everyone around you is doing. 
Kids that go to boarding school end up with totally different accents from their parents - almost permanently. Go on a holiday where there isn’t a culture of sitting around, drinking, eating and not doing much (like a mountaineering trip) and you’ll probably come home a pound or two lighter, without even trying.
Some goes for your sport performance, training, whatever. The best way to get into a national team is to spend a stack of time with everyone else who is doing the same. I feel that it’s not necessary to make this a permanent move. It’s about hardwiring a new set of habits, norms, standards. It takes a bit of time to get there. But once you are there it’s possible to operate in isolation with only sporadic refreshers. In other words, beyond a certain point you can partially insulate yourself from settling for a second rate effort at being good at sport, even if you regularly train with others who do.

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..

11 August 2010

5 ways to sabotage your training session

If you wanted to learn how to mess up your training and stay as crap as possible at climbing, or better still injured and disillusioned with your sport, you could learn any of these five habits that you’ll see in fellow climbers all the time. Guaranteeing failure to improve at climbing is a lot easier that guaranteeing success, which is why so many people manage it with the following:
1. Wait until you are tired. Slower reactions and lazy movements will add more peak forces on working tendons and joints, giving you more microscopic tissue damage. So you can add the same damage as you would with a heavy training session, even though you burned out after a short time and gave up. Because you only measured the training load as route grades X volume, you wont notice the extra damage and fail to rest long enough. Repeat for several sessions and you have an overuse injury.
2. Listen too closely to fear. Could be fear of falling, or fear of failing. Doesn’t matter. The research shows that we are driven by fear of loss. It worked well at the time our brain architecture was being designed by evolution, a few years back when something stealing your food or worse still eating you meant it was game over. But the trait causes some big problems in modern life. Like in sport climbing when falling is safe but still feels terrifying. We are scared of the wrong things and worse still when we expose ourselves to them in the wrong way (too much too soon) we become hypersensitive to them. A crippling negative feedback cycle. Slow, incremental exposure to scary things like competitive situations, pressure to succeed when you’ve invested a lot in a goal, or even just taking a lob is the way to conquer. Try and shortcut it or skip the training and go straight for the performance and you’ll fail spectacularly.
3. Do the same as last time. Humans love routines, so this one couldn’t be easier to slip into. Successful training is about maximising the total load on the body across the different energy systems, muscle groups, techniques etc. Working on one while the other rests allows you to fit in more stimulus per unit time. If you do the same routes, on the same length of wall, same angle, hold type pattern of session intensity you’ll manage to overtrain a few systems while detraining the rest. Worst possible place to be. Ever wondered how olympic athletes absorb 10 times the number of training hours you do, but have less time out to injury?
4. Compete like it’s a competition. It rarely occurs to amateur athletes that there is a difference between competing in training and competing in competition. Mainstream sports are pretty messed up, but if there’s one thing they are good at it’s knowing where the difference lies. The (superficial) goal is competing in competition is to win the game, be the best, outdo the other guy. So you have to bend over backwards, go that extra mile, ignore pain, tiredness and not look over your shoulder, just focus on the finish line. Competing in training is about learning from the other guy. So the point is for you to watch them, not for them to watch you. But if they are watching you while you show off your skills, they can catch up faster by assimilating what you do and adding it to their individual strengths.
5. Get angry. I don’t mean simply release the tension of a big effort with a power scream - that’s fine. I mean get ANGRY! Kick the wall, tear your hair out, have a rant at the hold that moved, the heat, the grease, the duff beta you got off me and the guy who was watching and made you feel nervous. That will distract you nicely from the things that might actually make a difference.

20 July 2010

Basic technique - saving energy on trad

I’ve not posted on basic technique for a while, so here is something that my own summer of trad has been reminding me of recently. In trad climbing, the actual climbing bout is not just a little bit longer than sport or bouldering, it’s WAY longer. 20, 30 60 minutes instead of seconds up to a few minutes on many sport climbs.
The implications of this are very important. Most of us train for trad on short steep sport routes in climbing walls - this is fine - we need the endurance for the crux sprints even during long routes. But the movement is very different on trad.
The amount of time searching for handholds, footholds or gear, or resting takes up the vast majority of the total climbing time. Actually making moves is quite fleeting between long periods on the same holds. If you’ve ever edited a piece of video of a climber doing a long trad route you’ll readily appreciate this!
Let’s go through the pictures (BTW these are from our Triple 5 trip to St Kilda - nice route eh?):

A rare moment of actually making a move. Note bent arms, trunk close to the wall and shoulders pulled back in tension. On a climbing wall route, you move almost continously by comparison and your body tends to adopt this sort of position a lot - like maybe 60% plus of the time.
So what? You get into the habit of staying in this position. If you can’t find the hold or need to clip gear, you just freeze in this position and sort it out before continuing seconds later. Because the climbing bout is short, it doesn’t matter too much. In fact, the moves are probably hard enough that it’s actually more efficient not to set up a full resting position, just to go back to ‘progress’ mode a few seconds later. Next photo >>

In trad, not only will you have to make these stops between moves many times more than on a short climbing wall route, but they might be of much longer duration. So the climbing style has to change. You can always tell a very experienced trad climber when the adopt the position in the picture 2 almost immediately when they have to stop on a pitch. The hips are in, back arched and leaning back on straight arms. The maximum amount of weight is on the feet, but you can lean back a bit to scan the rock ahead more effectively. Next picture >>

The other common position in trad is when searching for footholds. In this case, the shoulders are in, drooping from straight arms and the bum is out to give a clear view of the  footholds.
If you haven’t been tradding for a while, you often have to remind yourself to take these resting positions immediately by conscious reminder and accentuating them, so you fall back into the habit. If you haven’t developed the technique at all, long steep trad pitches will feel a lot harder than they should. But even a delay of a few seconds in assuming these positions will really add up as you might use them 100s of times in a single long pitch.

8 June 2010

Glycogen dumping (and why it probably won’t work for you)

Tim just did a new E10. Looks fantastic. He mentioned in his blog post about it that he used glycogen dumping to help him close the deal on this long term project of his. He had been asking me the previous week about strategies for making yourself a bit lighter for a hard redpoint such as dehydration. It’s really hard to get dehydration to do anything other than make you feel ill. But carrying less glycogen up your route is a strategy that is occasionally useful. Talk of this ‘new’ (it’s actually very old) strategy peaked some interest and various emails asking me to explain it. It’s really simple, so I’ll explain it in two sentences.
For each gram of muscle glycogen, the body has to store 3 or 4 grams of water. If you eat less the day before your big lead you can deplete the store, lose a few kgs and maybe get a small but crucial advantage.
The explanation of why it probably won’t work for most climbers needs more words, but is really worth reading, so you don’t waste your time, energy, food and chances of sending.
The first and biggest reason why it won’t work is that people will try to use it to replace ‘real’ preparation. The real reason why Emmett climbed his E10 is because he’s Emmett. This accounted for 99% of the success, the new strategy only making up the tiny difference which was crucial in this case as it sounded truly at his limit.
That 99% - ‘being Emmett’ - is what most people should really be concentrating on; learning how to go for it without hesitation, without fear of falling, with every shred of effort you can muster. It’s the tactics of learning to know your body, mind, strengths, weaknesses, equipment, conditions etc unspeakably well through endless consideration, planning and testing over years. It’s the boring old stuff - the hours of training, the getting over the excuses that get in the way of getting the hours in.
The second reason why it won’t work for most people is that their technique, especially foot work is not good enough for small differences in weight to make a noticeable difference.
The third reason is that it won’t work if you overuse it, or use it when you aren’t already really really close to success. This technique by it’s nature depletes your energy reserves for the session. So it’s good for one, maybe two all out redpoints in the day and then a good recovery. It causes a reactive glycogen loading afterwards (indeed it’s used for carbo loading by endurance athletes) so using regularly has the opposite effect. If you are still working the route and aren’t ready for a pure redpointing session, you’ll just burn out after a short session. Depleting the glycogen store to really low levels takes much longer to recover from.
If you are thinking I’m trying to put you off, you’d be right. Used well, it can be useful once or twice a year for your career best project, and only in addition to your very best in the real methods of preparation and good tactics. The trouble with tactics like glycogen dumping is that most people use them (subconsciously) to replace real effort, real thought, real preparation. It’s such an easy psychological trap to fall into, and most the time, we do fall in.

25 May 2010

Don’t do what they do

Remember that being a successful athlete, not matter which arena you compare yourself in (peers, amateur, professional) by definition means doing what other people wouldn’t.
Lots of people model their technique, training and tactics on what their peers are doing. But if you want to get better than them, they are exactly the wrong people to look at. 
The modelling can be conscious and deliberate, but most of the time you actually do it subconsciously. So wake up! The greatest success you can hope for by doing what everyone else (in YOUR world of peers) does is to assimilate the same level of mediocrity they have. More about all this in my book.
While we’re on the subject of role models, an important point about them. Yes they are useful, even essential to help you get more out of yourself, so long as you chose the right role models. But keep in mind it’s the approach they have that you’re copying, not the exact actions. Their life, physiology, schedule, resources etc can never fit with yours. So don’t try. So the question is “What would they do if they had this (my) circumstance right now?”.
And one other thing… Good role models in sport are ones you can actually find some details about - someone you can feel you know through seeing them, reading about them or even better, being coached by them! If it’s someone who never speaks, blogs, writes coaches, it’s pretty hard to ask the question above and get near a useful answer.
You have two choices, pick a better role model, or ask them to keep in touch more. Interview them for your blog or your favourite website and ask them all the questions you want in one go. Just an idea.

23 May 2010

The middle way of rock movement

Cubby throws in another drop knee, Glen Etive

A session with Mr Cuthbertson got me thinking of changes in movement fashions in climbing since I started. Where Cubby dotted his feet around miniscule smears on blankness, I tended to swing and heelhook. Cubby was obviously leading world trad climbing in the early 80’s, often on routes that were hard because they were completely suicidal. When he got into sport climbing at it’s birth at venues like Malham in the mid eighties, the fashion was for precision. Climbing like a gymnasitc performance, with effortless grace. I have this idea that even grimacing and grunting was not really ‘in’.
Fast forward, and watch a modern climbing film like Progression. Quite a difference - Ondra is racing up the rock before you can blink. The American boulderers are leaping with feet off and one hand as you reach the for the remote control to turn down all the yelling.
The popularity of bouldering and the influence of famous climbers has tended to make climbers move faster and more aggressively, with less foot moves per hand move. What does this mean? It adds efficiency because you get through the moves quicker and more momentum is used and more aggression is good for realising the maximum force you can produce. But it loses efficiency by getting less weight on your feet throughout the whole move or sequence and adding a lot of swings into disadvantageous positions that must be countered with muscle power.
You might have guessed the punchline already - somewhere in between is best. Race up the rock or leap wildy for holds if your technique is quick enough or you have shoulders like Daniel Woods. But if you are more average in your build, background and climbing ability, someone like Fred Nicole or the female climbers in the world cup competitions would be better movement role models.
One other thing… One positive trend in modern rock climbing is that crimping everything is much less in fashion than it used to be. Thats definitely a good thing for all out tendons.

7 May 2010

Repoint tactics: pacing

Finding the most efficient pace in repointing is huge area and isn’t as simple as climbers might hope. The basics of pacing are that it’s a good idea to climb fast; as fast as possible without sacrificing accuracy. But even this isn’t so simple as occasionally on steep burly climbs with big positive holds, it can be better to err more on the side of speed even if accuracy is sacrificed a little bit.
Climbing fast comes from being good at climbing. And being good at climbing comes from having a lot of routes under your belt. So if you realise you are climbing too slowly on a redpoint, but can’t seem to go faster without making mistakes, there’s no shortcut unfortunately - if you clock up more routes, you’ll slowly be able to make movement decisions quicker. The only short term fix for the route you are trying right now is to learn the moves better. A lot of the time there is some mileage to be gained out of this. The technique is two-fold: First it’s to have a clear separation between ‘working’ mode and ‘linking’ mode. Often, climbers are too busy trying to make better links and forget to remember all the little movement tweaks they are learning. So progress is much slower than it needs to be. Stop linking for a bit, and just do shorter sections or single moves until you are super slick before moving on.
Apart from overall climbing speed, the amount of resting during the climb is a big variable that could make the difference between success and failure. The main point of this post is that the correct amount of stopping/resting time depends on the character of the climb as much as the length or number of moves. 
Here is a video of yesterday’e efforts of mine on a long project (estimated grade V14). It’s about V12 to just before my failure point and the next few moves are the crux, so I need to have plenty left in the tank to make any more progress.

You can see this is an all out sprint with no rests. But I’m climbing for nearly two minutes straight on very steep ground. 120 seconds for just over 30 hand moves. The climbing is pretty technical and there is a lot of footwork to be done for every hand move. It contrasts with a 9a I did in spain a while back which is 30 moves in 30 seconds. Massive difference. On the 9a, the correct strategy (after much trial and error) was to go as fast as possible. I skipped clips, didn’t chalk up once - just continuous sprinting to get to the end before the anaerobic system started to falter.
On other projects I’ve tried for a long enough time, I’ve experienced through trial and error that many different strategies for resting worked - sometimes stopping only enough to chalk up, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes longer. In general, the trend has been that resting less has been better.
However, On this cave project, I’ve just realised that my previous strategy of no rest might not be the best. I started with this strategy partly because there’s no obvious place to rest, and partly because its only 35 moves to the crux. But once the climbing time starts to creep above 60-90 seconds, the need to stop and rest, at least briefly becomes more and more important. It’s a moving target though depending on the nature of the climbing. 
Last thing in the session (after this attempt I lay down and slept for half an hour!!) I worked out a rather unreasonable rest from two toe hooks just at the point I fell. My plan is to get the climbing time to here down 25% to 90 seconds, and rest for about 2 chalk-ups each hand. Ill let you know how it goes…
Summary: experiment with different resting times and pacing on your redpoints, the character of the individual climb often confounds expectations.