12 December 2013

The difficult question of sports injuries and disillusionment in youngsters

This good website has some interesting information on the size of the problem of young sportspeople getting injured. Injury rates are going up, to uncomfortably high levels. A serious sports injury is not just a short term issue for a young climber, runner or other sportsperson. It’s one of a few important reasons why so many youngsters drop out of sport before they even finish their teens.

It’s so obviously ironic that parents and coaches both take satisfaction from encouraging kids to take part in sport to foster a lifelong habit of activity and enjoyment. Yet overdoing that encouragement is one of the main reasons behind them ultimately dropping out or getting injured. The number one reason youngsters give for deciding to quit their sport is pressure from parents, coaches or the setup of their sport. So, whatever we are doing, it’s wrong.

Lots of coaches are still wrestling with the idea of whether formal competition in sport is a good idea for kids. There doesn’t appear to be any straightforward answer to that question. The best answer might be ‘it depends’. If the environment is optimal, competition in sport may be quite healthy, if unnecessary. However, it rarely is optimal. There are potential sources of problems everywhere. Therefore, being realistic, maybe no competitive sport until beyond adolescence is better? That is definitely still an open debate.

It’s difficult for parents even to realise how pivotal their role is. For instance, who can blame parents for subconsciously rewarding competition results instead of effort, balance, maturity, sportsmanship and science based training in sport? The very best coaches in professional sport can hardly seem to achieve this, even though they should know better. It’s a tough challenge for parents to assume the role of sports philosopher, role model, coach, sports scientist and sports medic. On the other hand, if you are going to invest time, effort and expense in encouraging your child’s path in sport, you might as well do it properly, in a way that doesn’t leave them either injured or disillusioned and out of sport for good at 13 or 14.

It’s difficult for coaches too. Reliable and useful information on training program design and injury prevention is extremely hard to come by. Moreover, coaches often don’t have enough time with youngsters to provide individually tailored training. In this situation, I think it’s important that they emphasise to both parents and youngsters that the advice they give has limitations, and if they want to make sure they are training safely, they should consider  training themselves to be informed self-coaches, or hire in some more personalised coaching.

In climbing, we are about to enter a dangerous period (in the UK at least) since some new coaching qualifications are coming on-stream. Qualifications, generally speaking, are of course a good thing. However, there can be problems if parents see the word ‘qualified coach’ and don’t think any more about what the qualification means. It’s possible to be a qualified coach in many sports on surprisingly little experience, and unfortunately, depth of knowledge. Parents should be careful to make themselves aware of the level of skill and experience of those coaching their children. Start from the assumption that the coaches are not suitably experienced or resourced to prevent injuries in youngsters, and that you’ll need to consult a range of sources to ensure the best chances of avoiding injury and ensuring youngsters have a good range of influences on their development in sport.

I must say, with my own child, I’d be equivocal at best about encouraging them to get involved in regular competitive sport before adolescence. Non-competitive sport offers so many of the benefits, if not more, without the inherent problems that competition brings. Taking injury risk in particular, non-competitive sports offer the opportunity for more variety and spontaneity in the yearly diet of training, important both physically and psychologically. They also push the focus of performance inwards, to messages coming from the body, rather than outwards, just doing the same training as your peers or trying to keep up with others unrealistically. In other words, they are often healthier all round.

I see advice for youngsters in competitive sport to take breaks in the year from competition. Good advice, although not if they simply stop training completely. Complete rest falls foul of one of the fundamental laws of tendon injuries: “tendons don’t like rest or change”.

I’m talking about parents, coaches and the youngsters themselves so far. They have the immediate responsibility to improve the outcome for the youngster as they move forward with their own life. But what about those higher up, who are in charge of leading sport, spending our money to make sure the potential benefits for all of us are realised? What is the point in promoting sport if it is so hampered by a massive early dropout rate and millions (3.5 million in the US) of injured kids? The idea is that we foster lifelong involvement in sport and physical activity and that sport is something youngsters enjoy over the long term. It’s pretty clear that it doesn’t nearly meet these aims for a big chunk of the participants.

This is a big, serious question, that needs leaders of sport to go right back to basics. When we promote sport, how should it be done? What sports, or sporting practices are healthy in the long term? Should we be promoting entirely different sports and ideas around sport? Probably. I’d like to see data comparing dropout rates between competitive sports and non-competitive sports, such as those based around the outdoors and training. My hunch is that if sporting culture was less centred around rankings or winning/losing and more centred around simple fun, effort, resourcefulness and dedication, that dropout rate would go down.

What specifically should change? It’s a deep cultural change, so no single or simple thing can be targeted. I’d certainly like to see that a session at the gym/leisure centre/sports facility should always be cheaper than a can of cider. Getting an exercise high should always be cheaper than a drug high like alcohol for so many kids who have limited money. Unhealthy goods like cigarettes and alcohol are taxed more heavily to take account of their effects. Why not services? It seems a shame that new sports facilities are not given a more favourable financial climate in which to flourish. At big multi-activity centres, the pizza and cinema tickets could be £1 more expensive so that the indoor snow slope or climbing wall can be cheaper. The many threads of enjoyment of exercise and training for it’s own sake should be promoted over winning and losing. More could be made of urban spaces. Good incentives should be set up for running, cycling, parkour, skateboarding etc clubs to use these spaces. Everyday exercise and sport should be as conspicuous as possible. ‘No ball games’ signs could be banned. If the NHS is going to save money by encouraging us all to be involved in sports, at least some provision is going to be needed to offer proper sports medical care, in recognition that sports injuries do happen and are career ending if left untreated. Surely it’s cheaper to correctly diagnose and repair the ACL tear now than treat the arthritic patient in a couple of decades?

Of course there are countless possibilities along these lines. The cumulative effect would be that youngsters who we do manage to encourage into sport will have enough variety in their activity, so they don’t grow to hate their own sports before they are 15. Moreover, they’ll be less likely to feel the need to enter into serious competition until later, when they are ready. Their parents will be less likely to ‘hang’ their encouragement on success in one sport as well as measuring that success along different lines. And, the youngsters might become more physically conditioned from a longer background in sports before they launch into serious training and hence lower their risk of injury.

Young climbers I’ve met who have been involved in the competitive side of climbing are the only ones I’ve ever seen stop climbing at a young age. I don’t think I can recall ever seeing a climber who was focused on the other aspects of the sport decide to give up. That’s not to say I conclude that competition is bad. It’s just that it can tend to drown out the other reasons for doing sport and become a demotivator after a while.

Whatever is suggested as solutions, the first stage is to really recognise that the injury and dropout rates among youngsters in sport means that what we are doing now is not enough.

3 December 2013

Venezuela Jungle Jam DVD in the shop

Finally, we just got our copies of the new film from the crazy Belgians in the shop: Venezuela Jungle Jam. Nico Favresse, Sean Villanueva and their climbing partners are the undisputed kings of making expedition climbing movies. They are also pretty much the kings of making badass climbing expeditions. It’s a killer combination.

Their previous films Asgard Jamming and Vertical Sailing have been very popular with you and for good reason. They are two of the most fun climbing films you’ll ever see and full of all the ingredients of great adventure - big characters, thrills and spills and unexpected funny moments. Venezuela Jungle Jam is the latest in the line! It’s already picking up a string of awards on the film festival circuit. In this film they are off to the amazing 500m sandstone Tepuy of Venezuela to deal with sweaty jungles, wild animals, loose rock, falls, overhanging big walls and, always, jamming on the portaledge.

The climbing looks challenging, in just about all the ways it could (apart from being cold). The scenery is gob smacking and as you’ll just about see in the teaser (it really is a tease) Sean’s superb sideways plummet off a ledge is another one of those ‘oh my god’ moments we almost come to expect from these guys. Brilliant stuff. The DVD is 58 mins plus extras, Subtitles in English, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Polish and German.

I’ve also just added the Distilled DVD now we have our DVD stock, so you have the option of downloading it, or getting it for your winter partner for Christmas!

10 November 2013

New titles in the shop

I’ve just added a couple of new books in the shop. Both are must reads for anyone keen for inspiration and information on climbing, but both are very different. The last book is a long awaited guide to some of the finest lumps of rock in the UK.

First up is Julian Lines autobiography ‘Tears of the Dawn’. I imagine most of you will not need introduced to Jules, who has been the ‘dark horse’ of the bold trad and free soloing scene in the UK for the past 15 years or so. I’ve done a couple of his routes myself such as Firestone E7 6c in Hell’s Lum which is archetypal of his climbs - no gear, not really any holds either. Just a deep breath and a lot of trust in the frictional properties of thin granite smears. Many of the nailbiting adventures he’s had over the years involve free soloing, by himself on the quiet mountain crags of the highlands. But he’s also well known for his deep water soloing exploits, not to mention jumping off cliffs and paragliding. He’s hit the ground from a long way up too many times to mention, but is either a very lucky man or has bendy bones. It’s a great window into the mind of an solo adventurer, but very much the opposite of an Alex Honhold type of character.

Next is The Art of Ice Climbing, a lovely book which is part coffee table inspiration book, part technical manual. It’s a great production with interesting historical and new photography throughout. It has excellent advice sections on sharpening ice tools, screws, ropework and techniques for ice climbing. I think just about any ice climber would learn something new here. In the past there have been some great books on ice climbing that every climber should have on their shelf. I reckon this is the latest in that line.

Lastly, I’ve added the new Torridon bouldering guide which is finally out by local activists Ian Taylor and Richie Betts. It’s great to see this guide finally out. The rock at Torridon is the best I’ve climbed on in the UK. It’s truly amazing stuff, and many of the problems are amazing natural lines too. The guys have done a great job producing this guide which contains around 250 problems to go at, and of course many first ascents still waiting to be explored.

You’ll find all of these, along with the rest of the best climbing books, films and gear out there in the shop.

17 October 2013

Technique training: race face

A case in point. This moment was pretty much the closest I came to falling off all 23 pitches of Paciencia, Eiger North Face in the summer. I wasn't warmed up, felt my skin was 'glassy' with the cold and might slip off suddenly and hence wasn't getting much feedback. So instead of being relaxed I was climbing like a robot (and not in a good way).  In this case, since the pitch was only 7c, the best thing was just to press on. If it had been a couple of grades harder or we weren't pressed for time since it was the Eiger nordwand and not a sport crag, It would've been better to come down and get myself better warmed up before continuing. Photo: Alexandre Buisse

Biting your lip, sticking your tongue out and generally screwing up your face as you climb is pretty common. Most of us think a grimace is related to effort, but the experts in the balance and stability sides of sports science say otherwise. It’s true that our moments of greatest effort and concentration can feel at once effortless, yet require every ounce of focus we have. Sometimes, the one attempt where we didn’t feel we had to grimace was the time we topped out on the climb. It’s one of the great paradoxes of sport.

The stability experts say that we grimace when we need more control and we are not using our balance centres (vision, inner ear, and joint receptors) effectively. In some experiments, when athletes are asked to perform a technical movement and do so with ‘facial fixing’, once they are asked to perform the movement with a relaxed face, they are unable to. In others, a relaxed face can make a movement possible where it was not with facial fixing.

Because facial fixing is part of our motor routine for controlling movement, what you do with your face in training becomes part of your routine for that movement. Lets think about what this means; On one hand, why would it matter if you grimace on the fingerboard or on the circuits, and grimace on the real routes you are training for? That might be fine if the demands of the training and the performance were the same. But they probably aren’t. 

In the training, you are isolating specific components of performance and working them - i.e. Getting pumped on an endurance circuit where you know the moves. Or pulling as hard as you can on a fingerboard, or trying to keep weight on your feet on a boulder problem. Yet in the real performance situation, you may be making all sorts of movement decisions that are different from the above training situations - reading the rock, finding protection and managing your effort. Many of these demands will benefit from maintaining a relaxed face. So the advice is to aim to maintain a relaxed face as often as you can in both training and performance. During the training, you’ll learn to produce maximal physical and technical effort without the need for facial fixing, and so you wont be reliant on it when it comes to performance.

NB: Lots of climbers who do facial fixing have no idea they do. You might well need to get a climbing partner to point it out to you so you realise just how often you do it and become tuned in to the times you do. I once asked a climber I know why he made a ‘click’ noise (quite loudly) with his tongue right before he initiated a hard move. He had no idea he was doing it!

16 October 2013

Technique training: When to think and when to just ‘do’

This blog post makes quite a basic but often overlooked point about technique habits. Over the past 5 years, the awareness of climbers in general of the importance of improving their movement technique has risen dramatically. More climbers, are thinking about their own movements, trying to analyse why the movements are working or not working. This is really good.

However, it brings a potential problem. Conscious thinking is very slow and clunky. The aim is for movements to progress from conscious to automatic. Doing specific technique drills, warming up and working moves for a redpoint are all great times to indulge in conscious self-analysis in real time as you actually move. 

Yet, time has to be made for those movements to work themselves into your subconscious movement repertoire. Thus, there has to be time when you focus simply on climbing the route, without keeping your minds eye on how you are moving between the holds. Can you see the difference? There is more about the timing of self-analysis of movements in ‘9 out of 10’ too.

Some climbers become ‘stuck’ in the mode of thinking about their movements and forget how to just climb. In other words, they fail to learn how to switch from training into performance mode. Just a point to keep in mind. (It goes without saying that plenty of others have the opposite problem - never actually doing any worthwhile self-analysis of their movement).

In a normal climbing wall session, you might switch between training and performance mode many times. Next time you step off the ground, decide which mode you wish to be in for this attempt.

12 October 2013

The individuality of injury treatment

Yesterday, I was having yet another conversation about golfer’s elbow with a fellow climber and sufferer of the condition (it happens pretty much every time I go to a climbing wall or popular crag). The climber was a highly experienced and skilled ‘lifer’ in the sport with extensive working knowledge of physiology and sports science.

It struck me afterwards how personalised advice about sports injuries needs to be, depending on where the sufferer is ‘at’ with their knowledge and approach. I’m trying to weave this idea into my injuries book Rock ‘til you drop (now finished writing and currently redrafting).

One of the fundamental points of my book is that everyone needs to make themselves an expert in as many of the relevant corners of sports medicine as we can. I’ve provided a road map to achieve this for climbers in the book. 

However, the potential ‘weaknesses’ in your ability to successfully achieve recovery, as with performance weaknesses, are highly individual. In the discussion I was having the other day, the problem I anticipated with golfer’s elbow rehab is being too scared of the pain required for success in the rehab protocol. I don’t mean pain as in the ability to suffer. Almost the opposite. Someone with a good knowledge of sports medicine would quite rightly be wary of rehab exercises that caused any noticeable pain. Doesn’t pain mean overdoing it? 

It depends on the injury, the stage of the rehab and the individual. In the case of golfer’s elbow (and other tendonosis conditions where large volumes of eccentric loading is the rehab protocol of choice), some moderate pain is desirable. The stumbling block for an experienced climber may be backing off due to even mild pain before the loading really has a chance to work. For someone less experienced, it might be the opposite problem; they may not be sufficiently tuned in to their pain signals and patterns to avoid overdoing it.

The subtleties of tracking pain signals and adjusting both your sensitivity to them and the loading placed on the body is both a science and art. All of this underlines the need to seek out expert opinion of the highest possible quality and preferably from more than one source. 

PS While I’m on the subject of golfer’s elbow, I note that a lot of climbers are following a protocol outlined in a homemade video popularised by this article on UKC. Rather predictably, I've talked many climbers are not having success, since this protocol is appropriate when the tendon of Pronator Teres is causing the pain at the elbow, rather than the more commonly injured wrist flexor muscles. Before you use this protocol, make sure you get a specialist (i.e. Not your GP!) diagnosis to make sure you aren’t busying yourself with the wrong rehab program. 

4 September 2013

More on practice falls

Keri emailed to ask about clocking up her practice falls to gain leading confidence. In part 3 of ‘9 out of 10 climbers’ I detailed how essential falling practice is for a large swathe of climbers and highlighted the main reasons for lack of progress in confidence training.

One aspect that Keri picked up on that I hadn’t covered properly is what to do when you don’t have full confidence in your belayer for taking regular falls. I have of course learned the hard way not to be so trusting of belayers I’ve not climbed with before.

Keri’s point was that first, some belayers might not be the best at fielding your falls, but more importantly, even belayers who are pretty competent most of the time become distracted and might not hold your fall very well. 

Like most training problems, liberal use of common sense is the solution:

- Although it’s important to get unanticipated falls in (i.e unanticipated for both leader and belayer), it ought to be fine to remind your belayer that during the session you’ll be taking some falls. 

- ideally, fall off hard routes where both you and your belayer are expecting to see a fall. Do it all the time, year in year out.

- If you are going to take a planned fall, do take a squint at what your belayer is doing just before you let go. If they are making a sandwich (it’s happened to me more than once), then a gentle reminder to pay attention will help. You don’t even need to say ‘watch me’ if you don’t want to. Just a little tug on the rope, or a grunt of effort usually wakes them up. However, don’t get carried away. I’ve climbed with some climbers who become so worried about their belayers they hardly concentrate on the climbing at all.

- A related, but more subtle point is about the monotony of indoor leading. You do route after route, and familiarity with belaying breeds the tendency to become distracted. The skill of a good belayer is to allow themselves to pass the time of belaying without ever completely zoning out. It’s a bit like driving your car. Sometimes you daydream, but hopefully never that much that you can’t snap back into full concentration in a split second when a decision or action is required. Even if you have a conversation with the belayer next to you, a glance upwards every couple of seconds is essential and will go a long way to reassuring your leader too.

- If you are climbing with a competent, but less than expert belayer, you can choose your moments to take practice falls a bit more carefully. Falling from the second or third bolt might not be a good idea. However, you do have to ask yourself - if you don’t have confidence in them to hold your fall at the least favourable moment on the climb, what happens when a hold spins or you do simply slip off?

- Don’t be afraid to coach your belayer. If you feel they are not aware or understand key moments of danger for the leader such as clipping the second bolt, paying out rope effectively, or how to read their leaders body language to anticipate clips or falls, teach them. It might be a long process, so don’t go overboard. Many gentle reminders many be required.

- Communicate with your belayer before, during and after your lead. Things like “I think I’ll be clipping the third off that big sloper, so give me plenty of slack there” or “ I like a little more slack so I can clip quickly, but watch me up there at the crux”. So many problems are avoided by good communication between climbers. If you decide to clip early, shout for slack. If you are belaying and see your leader struggle or anticipate a clip or a fall, say something to remind and reassure them that you are watching. Even a quick ‘ok’ or ‘go on’ really helps. The belayer is still part of the climbing team.

Go to an indoor wall and you’ll see plenty of examples of belayers (and leaders) who are not really there. They are climbing to switch off. They pay out slack only when the rope tugs tight, they have no idea how their leader just did the crux so they know the sequence for their go. If you climb with someone like that, you have a few options; climb with someone else, practice your falls with someone else, or try to subtly gee your switched off climbing partner up a bit. Climbers respond to each other’s demeanor quite readily. If you are energetic, attentive and communicative during your climbing and belaying, your partner is more likely to be too.

A final point is that even when everything is perfect, the danger of both climbing and falling can’t be completely eliminated. This is balanced against the fact that practicing falls makes you a safer and better climber. Exposing yourself to some risk is inevitable. However, if you take all the precautions you can to make your practice falls safer, you can make it a perfectly acceptable part of becoming a better climber.

22 August 2013

Year out

I’ve seen a load of climbers go through the same process. They have a good spell in their climbing and training. Goals are achieved, fingers get stronger, new horizons open up. But what does progress in your sport lead to? The desire to keep progressing yet more. And the higher you get, the more work it takes.

Sooner or later, those with demanding schedules of a western lifestyle bump up against time limitations. Train before work? Too tired. Train after work, too tired, too busy. Weekends? They get filled with things. All good things of course, but they get in the way. 

At this point, the idea of a career break appears. A three month road trip. Or even a full year to climb full time. In some cases it might even work. But there are some problems and this is why as a coach I’d recommend it as a last rather than first resort.

First, what happens when you go on the first trip of the sabbatical and injure your finger and need three months off? A sudden increase in training is always the most risky time for injury. It happens, and it’s a bummer when it does. But that’s a minor concern. The bigger issue is how you are going to feel at the end of the journey? 12 months will fly by. If you make the progress you want to make, you might well just end up wanting to keep going even more than you do now. For many, going back to the old way of life just isn’t an option. So they find a new way of life. Thus, the sabbatical has been a much bigger success than just doing your first 8a.

My point here is that for the effort of arranging or saving for a year out of work, it might be less effort overall to find a permanent solution; a new career, or at least an altered one. Whatever - the world is your oyster. I just want to say that taking a short term break is not the only way.

Proper full time climbing might not even be possible unless your body is really ready for it. There is time left over. For most folk, only working for a portion of the year, either in one block or in intermittent blocks (what I do) is much better and is all that is needed to continue the upward progress of climbing achievement.

If you are prepared to walk out on a perfectly good job for the sake of climbing, why not negotiate a better schedule as your first resort. If you’re thinking of leaving anyway, what have you got to lose? Naturally it will be an easier sell if you offer the solutions on a plate or point to an example of when it has worked in the short term before. Since jobs come in infinite shapes an sizes, there is no universal solution. It’s up to you to use your imagination, and then just about every other skill under the sun to make it actually happen.

In the end it might be better than a year of fun with the clock constantly counting down. Whatever you choose, DO IT! Don’t leave it as a dream on the table.

Video: Training during recovery from injury

What’s your excuse?

PS. This programme might well not be the best for everyone. But the level of commitment definitely is.

15 May 2013

Scottish Sport climbs guide is here

Finally, we have the first stock of the new Scottish Sport Climbs guidebook by the SMC. It’s in the shop here. It has certainly been a long time coming. I first submitted a draft of the sections I wrote in November 2004! A lot of bolts have appeared across the lowlands, highlands and islands since then, so the book is a lot fatter than it would’ve been if it had been released at that time. So the wait has an upside.

Flicking through the guide as I took it out of the box, I was struck by the great selection of sport crags all over the country now. There are 1300 routes in the guide, on 100 crags. Who out of the slightly older generation of Scottish climbers would’ve thought we would have 1300 sport climbs in Scotland. That’s great! As you’d expect from an SMC guidebook it’s a nicely produced book with careful descriptions, good maps and plenty of nice pictures to inspire. So many of Scotland’s new routing activists have been very energetic over the past decade and the options now available for routes to enjoy has basically exploded. Now, there are sport crags for us to visit no matter what corner of Scotland you find yourself in or fancy travelling to. Also, the diversity of locations mean that I can’t see many days of the year where there won’t be some dry rock on which to clip bolts somewhere in the land.

Kudos to all who made the effort to open new sport routes, as well as all the authors and producers of the guide. It is so badly needed. Talking to the new generation of young sport climbers coming into climbing through Scotland’s climbing walls, it frequently nagged at me that so many are unaware of the lovely crags that are out there. Some of them in stunning, wild and far flung locations like Gruinard in the north west. Some of them just up the road from our major towns and cities. 

The guidebook brought back some nice memories for me of places like Dunglas just outside Glasgow, where I did my first 6b (Negotiations With Isaac)and 6c+ (The Beef Monster). I remember being very excited when Andy Gallagher asked me to give him a belay on the first ascent of Persistence of Vision (7a+) after watching him bolt it. A year after my first 6c+, my first 7c+ (Dum Dum Boys) was a liberating experience and straight away I wanted to get to the ‘happening crags’ of the day.

I found myself at Steall for the first time shortly afterwards, abseiling down Cubby’s project (Ring of Steall 8c+) and being totally inspired by how poor the holds were. The whole ambience of hard physical climbing in beautiful highland surroundings was where it was at for me. So in the following years, we made after school/uni/work hits to Glen Ogle, Dunkeld and Loch Lomondside sport crags, with weekend trips to Tunnel Wall, Weem and the Angus Quarries.

Once I got involved in exploring new routes, under the influence of Dave Redpath and Michael Tweedley, I immensely enjoyed tearing about bendy roads in Argyll developing crags like Tighnabruaich and eventually the Anvil.

One thing that I like about Scottish sport climbing particularly is that the easier graded routes in the 6s and 7s are often so much better to climb than those on the continent. In Spain or suchlike, the majority of the time, the hard routes on big overhanging sweeps of limestone are the most inspiring lines, while the easier lines can sometimes be either a bit scrappy or, dare I say it, a little boring. As with our trad, the variety of rock types we have in Scotland often make for much nicer routes in the lower and mid grades too. However, if you are into hard stuff, the two hardest routes in the book (Hunger, 9a and Fight The Feeling, 9a) give as good climbing as you’ll get anywhere. Both were climbed in good conditions in the summer and you wont find any queues or some barky dog wondering about eating your lunch at the base of the crag. The only negative on offer from Scottish sport climbing is, of course, the midge. Just remember that the wind direction is as important as the rain when you look at the forecast. Choose a crag exposed to a breeze on the day, and you’re sorted.

Enjoy the guide, enjoy the climbing. It’s here.

Review: Scarpa Instinct VS

I’ve a bit of backlog list of things to review on this and my main blog, but lets start with what will always be right up there in any rock climbers list of choices to get right - rockshoes. Scarpa have brought out a string of pretty awesome shoes over the past year, not just in rockshoes. The Rapids are amazing for running and general wear, and look pretty damn good. Since I live in an ever so slightly wet country and spend my life in the outdoors, I still spend half my life with my feet in Baltoros (replacing the old ZG65s which were also ace) for walking around boggy mountains. 

When the new Instinct VSs came out I was obviously champing at the bit to see what tweaks Scarpa had made to the balance of attributes that make up a good rockshoe. As always before reviewing shoes, I need to explain my perspective a little first. I’m 34, and a life of jumping around on mountains and falling from great heights has given me some quality battle scars. I’ve badly broken both ankles, have Hallux Valgus and sesamoiditis in both feet. Oh, and a touch of equinus. Sound bad? It is. I can barely walk for the first 30 seconds when I get out of bed in the morning. The last time I had my feet X-rayed, the doctor failed to spot my dislocated sesamoid because the bones of my feet were so out of alignment they all looked dislocated. All she could offer was a horified “your feet look weird!”.

The lesson? Get rock shoes that fit your feet well. Dont persist with a painful, ill fitting buying error. Don’t hit the ground from a great height and take your rockshoes off when you don’t need them on. 

So you’ll understand if I have high expectations for the fit of rockshoes. Scarpa shoes generally fit my feet extremely well, the care put into the design and manufacture is obvious. However, everyones feet are different. The original Instinct slippers I found great on steep ground but just not supportive enough for me. That’s probably down to the physiological tale of woe I just described. I know from climbing with Tim Emmett that he felt they were perfect for him on long trad pitches or whatever else. I know a lot of folk are going for softer shoes these days, probably because of the proportion of time spent climbing indoors, but I still like the support. In this area nothing has yet surpassed the design of the Stix, which I still wish Scarpa would revive.

However, the new Instict VS does seem to have a little more support and I found them great on long sport onsights on vertical terrain. On 45 degree, tensiony climbing where grabbing small edges with the toes is the critical attribute, they are second to none. Other shoes in the Scarpa range such as the Boostic are also unbelievably good at this though. The biggest performance development with the Instict VS is probably the heel, which has been completely redesigned. It’s compact, supportive and extremely powerful. I used to set aside a special pair of heelhooking boots for different types of heelhook on really hard projects. Magos for grabbing rough spikes or ripples, Spectros for raw power and stiffness on bigger more positive edges and a very small pair of Stix for rounded stuff. Now, the Instict VS does all of this at least as good as any other shoe I’ve tried. The story is exactly the same with toehooking - the VSs are as good as anything I’ve tried, and I toehook a LOT. 

The proof of the pudding is how much they get chosen for different types of terrain. I’ve been using them about 80% of the time on steep sport routes, any type of bouldering or indoor training. My first route in them was an 8c on the Costa Blanca in January. There was a heelhook rest just before the crux. I had two other pairs of shoes with me but kept finding my heel was sliding out of the thin, polished heelhook so I couldn’t really relax on the shake out. My VSs were quite small and were a bit tight for a Scotsman adjusting to the Spanish heat straight after shivering on Ben Nevis. But when I put them on, I could get much more bite on the heelhook and did the route soon afterwards.

Fit wise, they are prefect for me, barring two points. First, the toe hooking rubber running right down to the toes feels a little cramped and doesn’t quite give my toes room to expand. So they do need to come off quite regularly for comfort. Second, as with the Instincts, when standing on slabby terrain, big footholds or on the ground, there is too much weight centered over the sesamoids. However, those youngsters yet to grind their unsuspecting sesamoids to dust will wonder what the hell I’m on about.

The single velcro cinch works perfectly and doesn’t get in the way of any moves, especially toe hooking, which is the achilles heel for the Boostics which have a the second velcro tab set quite far down the shoe. Sizing wise, they seem to me consistent with the rest of the Scarpa range of rockshoes. I'm 41 in street shoes and use a 40 in VSs for training and also have a 39.5 for hard redpoints only. If I wanted to wear them all day on multipitch trad I might go for 40.5.

So I’d say they come with a full recommendation from me for any time of climbing. I think you’ll be very impressed. They’ll even be great on trad terrain unless your feet are as much of a mess as mine are.

A final more general note on rock shoes. I still hear from climbers in coaching clinics that they worry that shoes like the VSs and other ‘performance’ shoes that appear to have an aggressive turn down on the toe are not for them because they ‘look uncomfortable’. This is a misunderstanding. It’s true that turned down shoes can feel a little strange before they are worn in. But providing the fit hugs your foot evenly with no painful pressure points, they should be comfortable to wear once they break in. And when that happens they will no longer feel weird when standing on the ground, but retain the body tension power on steep ground. I’ve always felt that it would be nice if retailers had pre-worn pairs (not so much that they are minging though!) for people to try on so they can get over the initial novelty of how good rockshoes feel on the feet for the first time. Hence why if you ever have a boot demo at your local climbing wall - take advantage of it. You might just find that model that was designed just for your feet and will make rock climbing genuinely more pleasurable.

13 May 2013

New stuff in the shop

We’ve just added three new books to the shop, all very different.

First up is The Boulder by Francis Sanzaro, published by the Stone Country Press. What does it mean for us to be involved in bouldering? How does it’s movement and sporting challenges relate to other activities like Parkour, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, or even art disciplines like painting. Are you doing it to engage in a sport? Simply play on rocks? Compete with others? Enjoy movement. Possibly all of these and many more reasons besides.

The boulder explores the philosophy of bouldering, what it can mean for boulderers and how we can use and examination of this to improve both our bouldering and what we take from it. For many readers, discovering bouldering will no doubt have changed your life. But  surely starting out in a new found activity isn’t the end of the story? There are many life changes to be found as you learn more and more about what bouldering is doing for you. I would expect most readers to be helped along this path. It’s in the shop here.

Next is Fiva by Gordon Stainforth, which is only recently out but fast accumulating a big reputation for a brilliant read. Gordon was previously more famous for his excellent photography books. Eyes to the Hills was one of the first mountain books I borrowed from my library as a 15 year old novice climber. We don’t tend to get many mountaineering stories in the shop, but Gordon’s big win with this book at the Banff Mountain festival in November prompted us to check it out and we were impressed. I won’t say too much about it other than it describes a death-on-a-stick epic on Troll Wall in Norway. If you know anything about how serious the Troll Wall is, the Fiva route sounds particularly toe-curling just to read about. Much recommended by us if you like reading about proper adventures. It’s in the shop here.

Finally, and with some satisfaction I can finally report that we have the first stock of the new Scottish Sport Climbs guidebook by the SMC. I wrote a reasonable chunk of the text myself, and since I first had a draft of ‘my’ crags completed in November 2004, I can appreciate as much as anyone how long it’s been in coming. A more substantial introduction to the book is coming in another post in a minute, but for now the book is in the shop here.

8 May 2013

Injury case study: Knee ligament tear from drop knee

Watch the video below with Dave Graham (which is entertaining anyway) and check out the knee ligament injury he suffered while doing a deep drop knee move.

This injury does happen from time to time in climbers without much warning, so all climbers should read this for prevention’s sake.

One month ago I suffered a very similar injury in an almost identical scenario while training on my climbing wall at home. The striking thing about the injury was that there seemed to be very little I could have done to foresee the injury. I’d just performed the same move several times (falling higher up the problem). The only difference was that my foot didn’t hit the foothold at the perfect angle. But this didn’t feel dangerous or painful until the moment of injury. So was it actually preventable? Well, thats debatable.

Prevention of sports injuries has two main strands. Firstly, by preparing the body for the demands of the sport, usually by strengthening the relevant areas and making sure they are the correct length (stretching muscles to make them longer is not always good). Secondly, by learning about the scenarios that cause the tissue to fail. In some injuries, like the one I’m describing, that’s acute tearing of otherwise symptom-free tissue. In others, it’s degeneration that builds up over years and gradually shows progressive symptoms. 

Taking these strands in turn, is there anything that climbers can do to strengthen the knee to protect it from injuries in drop knees? I’d say it’s pretty difficult. The muscles most forcefully activated during a drop knee depend largely on the exact positioning of the foothold and leg. Moreover, much of the force on the foothold is generated by passively ‘sitting’ on the medial collateral ligament (MCL) that runs down the inner side of the knee. Ligaments are strengthened by general use of the joint. Thus, the best way to strengthen them against the stress they are placed under during drop knees would be to do a lot of drop knees. Albeit less aggressive ones.

The simple maxim when it comes to prevention of tendon and ligament injuries is “tendons don’t like rest or change”. When they are rested, they become weaker. When you increase the demands placed on them, they take a long time to adapt. So perhaps the best protection would be to keep the leg musculature and knee ligaments strong with regular climbing involving this type of move for as much of the year as possible. Supplementation with basic leg exercises with weights or body weight may be a good idea if a specific weakness has been identified that is relevant. But at least some of the time, these exercises are so much of a shot in the dark that they may have little real effect in such specific movement patterns as demanded by climbing. Only a really good physiotherapist or an expert in stability and functional exercises is realistically going to be able to identify these weaknesses through manual testing of an individual. Are you about to go and track down an expert and book a session based on this blog post? Thought not.

So that leaves mitigation of the injury scenario itself. It’s probably fair to say I use drop knees more than most. I’m weak and it allows me to climb things that I otherwise couldn’t touch. I previously irritated my right MCL by trying the crux drop knee on Ring of Steall (8c+) too many times in a row. You can see it in the video in BD's new catalogue here (page 9) Bizarrely, the altered movement I was forced to do because of the pain led me to find the beta tweak I needed and it tipped the balance for success on the route. Most injuries have an upside, somewhere.

I think I’ve got away with only two fairly minor knee injuries in 20 years despite all those drop knees because I learned to take them seriously as a dangerous move. I always take great care to concentrate and ‘feel’ the feedback from the knee to see if I’m properly and safely set before making the hand movement. Also, as I make the hand movement, I remember to keep thinking about the knee so I’m ready to react and let go if the ligament starts to strain or tear. Finally, if it’s a really deep drop knee and and on a redpoint project, I’ll make sure and have a couple of non-committal tries at the move to get a feel for it before fully committing.

Fast movements in such a dangerous position as a deep drop knee are probably more dangerous. Ligaments are ‘viscoelastic’. If they are stretched quickly, they are stiffer. When ligaments are injured at slow speeds, they tend to pull off a chunk of bone (avulse) at their end. When the movement is fast, it’s the body of the ligament itself that tears. So movements where you drop the knee and then move the hand all in one rapid motion are of particular concern.

Another issue pertinent to climbing is the cold. Especially in bouldering, hard ascents are often done in cold conditions with the core body temperature and especially lower limb temperature rather low. Probably dangerously low. In my board I train in just a pair of shorts and my favoured training temperature once warmed up is about -1, with the window wide open to let the highland winter winds in for maximum friction. Ligaments and tendons are stiffer when cold as opposed to being more elastic or compliant when warm. Moreover, joint proprioception (movement and position awareness) is poorer if the joint is cold. Keeping your knees warmer might be a good idea. If you’ve been getting colder for a while, put your shoes back on and run up and down the hill with your duvet jacket for a while. You’ll probably get on better on the boulder too!

Taking all this together, perhaps I injured my MCL because I was cold, I’d just taken a break from rock climbing to do some winter climbing for a month, I was having a good session and may have got a little overconfident. Lastly, it was late in the evening. That is usually my preferred time to train as I’m a night owl. But that particular day I’d done some manual labour moving rocks and mixing cement, followed by a 13 mile run at a good pace, followed by 3 hours of bouldering at my limit. I was probably getting tired and might have been better to stop the session 10 minutes earlier (it was pretty much my last problem before I was going to stop and go to bed). 

On the other hand, the tries immediately preceding the injury went without incident. This goes to show that we always tread a fine balance between training hard enough and injury. The right path is only impossible to see without hindsight.

I got away lightly, I had a partial tear of the MCL and a partial tear of the semimebranosus tendon (hamstrings) which I’ve already largely recovered from in just one month. A bigger concern in drop knees is that they often tear the knee menisci and or the ACL ligament with much more serious complications for the long term recovery and health of the knee. That little nightmare is too long for a blog post, but I’ve just finished writing about them for my injuries book Rock ‘til you drop. There will also be a little more on drop knee injuries in the book, since the MCL isn’t the only ligament hereabouts which can be injured by this move and some of the other ligaments are not so straightforward to rehabilitate.

In summary: Do drop knees, they are a killer climbing technique. But be careful. Concentrate, keep warm and do them year round to keep your knees strong.

7 May 2013

Old school drills - foot off bouldering

I guess foot off bouldering was what folk did before campus boarding got so popular. It’s now pretty out of fashion as a strength training tool - campusing is cooler. But is it better?

In some ways it might be (since noones ever tested it properly, noone can tell you either way). It’s more basic which might mean you end up pulling harder. It’s on nice skin friendly rungs which might mean you get more high quality sets done. However, it’s main problem is probably that such a large proportion of climbers doing regular campusing lose all the gains and more by getting injured on it.

Although it’s currently uncool, foot off bouldering might be at least as effective for gaining strength since it’s varied, could be a little safer if you do it right and might be slightly less bad for your technique that campusing. The irony is of course that although foot off bouldering is out of fashion, some indoor boulderers footwork repertoire is so bad that their normal climbing isn’t that far off being foot off anyway.

Now, This post isn’t actually about getting stronger, I just wanted to get the above paragraph out of the way. It’s actually about technique. Foot off bouldering can be a useful technique drill for those who are seriously unaccustomed to movement on steep rock.

There still exists a cadre of climbers who do not like to move dynamically. There are different reasons why they got this way. Some are scared to fall off, so won’t slap for anything. Some are used to balancy, slabby trad climbing, or were brought up on outdoor vertical cliffs such as granite walls. Some simply haven’t done enough of the steeper stuff.

Without a coach, these climbers might never break their static habit on overhanging terrain. It’s just too engrained. Even if they try, they’ll still initiate the move by pulling up and locking off, rather than dropping down to leave room to accelerate. They’ll hesitate, hang on for too long, get pumped and come down. All of this reinforces the feeling that steep climbing is beyond them.

If there is no coach to break this habit down bit by bit, a drill is needed to force it. Moving statically is all but impossible with the feet off, so long as the holds are the correct size. Foot off bouldering on steep bouldering walls (45 degrees is good but anything between around 35 -horizontal will work) can forcefully break the habit of trying to find a static way, and start to build understanding of the balance required to move dynamically on steep ground.

This balance is hard to describe without showing you. But here is an example. When you start move dynamically on a 45 degree overhanging wall to a distant hand hold, your upper body feels like it is falling backwards. It feels unnatural. Your subconscious naturally wants to hang your ass down, making your trunk more vertical. But this takes weight off the feet. However, if you pull the ass in and try to reach the hold without the ‘falling backwards’ feeling, you have to stay too low to be able to reach the hold. If you watch relative novices climbing steep ground in climbing walls, you see this movement confusion happening constantly.

In a sense, bouldering foot off, breaks part of this unnatural feeling. It forces familiarity with dynamic motion between every hold. It no longer ‘feels wrong’. Second, it gets you used to the feeling of jumping backwards across the overhang, and help you realise that balance is restored when you grab the next hold.

Once you have mastered this, you can deal with the fact that keeping your feet on means your body stays more horizontal and the falling backwards feeling is even more pronounced. Steep climbing is a learned skill which is counter intuitive. For novices, it’s ok that it feels wrong at first, even if you are an expert climber on vertical terrain. Once you become expert, the feeling of staying more horizontal as you make the move that felt so wrong gradually becomes the part that feels right; it means you will have body tension to keep your feet on when you get the next hold.

A few carefully chosen foot off problems towards the end of your session might be all that is necessary. If jugs are all that you can move on, that’s fine. But as soon as you can, move onto good holds but slightly smaller than jugs. It’s probably better to do small moves on smaller holds than bigger moves on buckets. If you are climbing on set problems at the wall, you might need to tweak them by adding the odd different coloured hold because some moves just wont work foot off.

Rules of thumb:

- If you do this so much that it becomes your party piece, you are doing too much and doing more will become detraining.
- The idea is to move dynamically, but with control. Try to learn how to accelerate in the preparation for the move, make a controlled lunge for the next hold, and decelerate using both the arms and your swinging legs to absorb the swing.
- Violent thrashy moves are a fine way to get injured and throw away all your gains.
- Start small. It doesn’t matter if this is a single move to a hold 2 inches above. Progress from here.