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.