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.