The No-Effort Plan to Improved Performance

At a certain point (the point where the cliffs start to overhang) climbing performance is all about strength to weight ratio.  Most of what we focus on as climbers is the strength part.  In some ways, that’s the easiest thing to do, because it requires action, whereas dieting, or whatever else we might have in mind for weight-loss, often requires restraint from action.  If you’re already skinny in all the right places and sporting six pack abs, pat yourself on your tight butt and skip to the next post.  For the rest of us, there is certainly some room for improvement in the weight area, and reaping the benefits might be easier than you think.  Obviously if you have a beer gut and rolls of flab hanging over your gear loops you can start by seeing a nutritionist about your eating habits.  This post is for folks that are already relatively fit, but looking to eek out a few more pounds of extra performance by cutting out some dead weight.  And there is no greater source of dead weight for the fit climber than the thighs.  For whatever reason, many climbers have thick, tree-trunk thighs.  Thighs designed to dead-lift automobiles, when pushing 100 punds of lean bone & muscle is all that’s required.  How did that happen?  How did our legs get so disproportianately large? Probably a lot of different factors, including genetics, athletic background, and eating habits, but lets cut to the chase.   

Not a lot of leg muscle in this room, yet somehow both of these guys managed to climb 8c+ in the early ’90s.

There is no doubt that reducing your leg mass will have significant benefits to your climbing.  Look around, 90+% of the world’s top climbers have sickly skinny legs.  The steeper the route gets, the more leg mass is a hindrance and the less use it is.  How much leg strength do you really need to rock onto that foothold?  Hardly any, certainly not so much that it requires ten times the muscle mass required to execute a one-arm pull up.

If you are like me, you are probably somewhat skeptical of these comments, but I was fortunate.  I was forced, against my better judgement, to undergo an accidental thigh-shrinking experiment.  The result was the greatest single-season improvement I’ve experienced since I started training. 

Fabian Cancellara, 6’1″, 180lb. The world’s greatest Time Trialist, but can’t hang with the best pro “climbers”

As far as how, there are multiple ways to skin this cat.  Its interesting to note that the top pro cycling “climbers” all have (relatively) skinny legs.  So apparently its possible to ride a bike like a maniac and maintain skinny legs.  I think this relies somewhat on restrictive dieting, combined with high reps at very low weight, but I also think genetics is the primary factor.  If not, why wouldn’t Fabian Cancellara just “deceide” to get skinny and become a badass climber to win the TDF (which he says is his greatest dream)?  All of the freakishly skinny climber types have zero muscle mass anywhere on their body, so my guess is whatever they are doing, beyond genetics (I suspect starving themselves), will be somewhat detrimental to rock climbers, because we need some amount of muscle mass in the right places. 

Andy Schleck, 6’1″, 150lb. The world’s best “climber”* (*that hasn;t been busted for cheating)

Climbing is not an endurance sport in the sense that cycling up Alp D’huez is.  You need muscle that can generate power & force, and given typical genetics, that is going to come with some amount of muscle mass.

The solution for me turned out to be exceedingly simple.  I just stopped using my legs.  My athletic career began when I was ~12, as a long distance runner.  I ran competitively for more than ten years, and maintained my 60+ mile-per-week habits for another five years as I began to seriously pursue rock climbing.  My body tried to warn me of my folly by giving me a foot injury in 2007, but I stubbornly replaced serious running with serious road-cycling, maintaining my disproportianate frame.  Finally when Logan was born I just didn’t have the time or energy to train for climbing and cycling, so I decided I would take a short hiatus from the cycling until I could better juggle the new demands on my time & energy.  I stopped cold turkey the day Logan was born, and within 2 months I lost 10 lbs without even trying.  I didn’t even realize I had lost the weight, I just noticed I was suddenly crushing all the projects in my gym that had shut me down for several seasons.  I couldn’t understand what was going on until I jumped on a scale.

If you currently engage in some form of leg-training (such as running, biking, tele-skiing, step aerobics, speed skating, rowing, weight-lifting, P90X, Crossfit, etc) several times a week, I recommend you stop, at least for a couple of months to see what happens.  You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.  Maybe you will find the cross-training is vital to your over-all happiness and well-being, and eliminating it is not worth the extra gains in climbing performance.  For those that want the best of both worlds, you can resume your aerobic passion from time-to-time and still reap the benefits of skinny legs.  You just need to plan your cross-training in phases that allow plenty of time to slim-down for peak climbing phases.  For example, I “got skinny” for the Spring and Summer seasons of 2011.  As my summer climbing season was winding down, I began training on my bike to ride down the Oregon Coast, which I did in early August.  I spent the rest of August & September training to climb, and by early October I was lean and mean and sent the hardest route of my career.

From “Grampians Selected Climbs” by Simon Mentz & Glenn Tempest. Copyright 2001, Open Spaces Publishing.

Finally, to answer a common question, in my experience, hiking to the crag is fine, no need to do the Frenchy rest-step on the trek from the parking lot to the Ruckman Cave, place your legs in a cast a la Tony Yaniro, or have your wife push you around in a grocery cart.  Just eliminate the obvious endless hours of quadricep training that serve no purpose for rock climbers.







Disclaimer:  Obviously, there are many health benefits to aerobic conditioning.  Use your own judgement when weighing the risks and benefits of such training.

Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part II)

Part I discussed the importance of goal-setting for climbing and provided some basic examples specific to the realm of mounaineering. Part II will discuss some more specifics on goal-setting for rock climbing.

The subject of goal-setting in general life has been covered by countless self-help books and seminars. Two fantastic resources specific to climbing are Todd Skinner’s outstanding book “Beyond the Summit”, which details his expedition to free the East Face of Trango Tower, and Arno Ilgner’s “The Rock Warrior’s Way”. Both of these are highly recommended for the goal-oriented climber.

Over the ten years or so that I’ve really focused on improving my rock climbing I’ve had several great seasons, several terrible seasons, and many mediocre seasons. The one consistent aspect of all my great seasons was that they all started with a grand goal. At this point I can usually predict if a season will be “good” or “bad” based on the quality of the goals I set for the season. Training for “general fitness” is a surefire path to disappointment in my experience.

So, how does one go about selecting a good goal? It sounds simple enough but you would be surprised how difficult it can be. And since the goal itself is possibly the single most important factor in determining success, its important to set a good goal. Lets start by discussing a poor goal: “I want to climb a 5.12”. Seems reasonable enough, and if popularity were a predictor of quality, this would be the best possible goal in the sport of rock climbing. But there are atleast three major problems with this goal. First, grades are subjective. Unless you set out to climb a sandagged 12d, you will never really know if you achieved your goal or not. If you are capable of climbing a sandbagged 12d, you should probably set your sights a little higher. Instead most people will select the local 12a trade route, and if you’re like me, every time someone utters “11d”, “soft”, or “this would be blah blah blah at Rifle” about your precious trophy route your heart will sink. Don’t live and die by other people’s opinion of your goal. Stay away from grades because they are subjective and goals need to have concrete finish lines.

Second, the goal lacks specifics. Remember, part of the point of goal setting is to steer your training plan. Do you know if “a 5.12” will require good pinch strength, improved endurance or better gear placing skills? Its pretty hard to say since “a 5.12” is so vague. It could entail anything from a 20-foot horizontal roof deep-water-solo to a 1000′ 60 degree slab on marginal gear.

Finally, how motivating is the goal? I’m an engineer and even I’m not inspired by numbers. I’m inspired by stunning lines in a beautiful setting, interesting history, and the heroic characters of each generation that made the sport what it is today. The goal should be there, ready to prop you up at moments of weakness. It should be posted next to your hangboard, your campus board, even next to the pantry, to remind you what you are suffering for. Now what is more inspiring, this:

or this:

Dreamin, 5.12a, Smith Rock, OR

Here’s an example of an improved goal: “I want to redpoint Latin Lover at Smith Rock.” One thing right off the bat, there is no need to debate the grade. Some people say 12a, some say 11d; who cares? The goal has nothing to do with the grade; they are totally unrelated. A goal is really just a stepping stone to the next, bigger goal anyway, so what does the number have to do with it? The goal might even be “easier” than something you’ve already climbed, but requires a new skillset or exploits a weakness that, once improved, will provide access to other, more challenging goals. So forget numbers.

Next, the style of ascent is defined (at least sport climbers know what you mean). The original goal left some ambiguity. Would a toprope ascent, with hangs, count? The new goal makes it clear the intent is to climb from the ground, on lead, with no hangs or falls, but rehearsal of the moves is acceptable (but you can continue to argue with your trad climber uncle about whether or not its necessary to hang the draws on the send).

Finally, a specific route has been identified. This provides tremendous amounts of useful information to help plan a training strategy to achieve the goal. We know the route is dead vertical, with lots of small, sharp edges, some thin pockets, and small footholds. The route requires 50 or so feet of continuous climbing without much rest. It might even be possible to determine a rough number of hand movements required between rests. This information can be used to determine some focus areas for training. For example:

-Crimp strength on half-pad and smaller edges
-Footwork on vertical terrain
-Lockoff endurance on vertical terrain
-Local Endurance on small edges
-Skin toughness on finger pads

The next step is to identify the ideal time of year to attempt this specific route, arrange for partners, request vaction time from work and construct a training schedule that will maximize fitness at the perfect time. All of these critical items would have been nearly impossible to plan properly without a specific route in mind.

Next comes the easy part, following through until the goal is realized. From the anchor, with the redpoint in the bag, you will have a new perspective from which to spy that next, harder goal.

A good gooal route will provide the inspiration to get you through the duldrums of training.

Population Growth

This past weekend I made it out to Moab for the first time in several years.  Based on the rate of expansion the last time I visited I expected to see skycrapers and three international airports when I arrived.  The town had certainly been through some changes, but once we got out into the backcountry I was pleasantly surprised to see things really hadn’t changed that much.

Extreme Diaper Change, Moab, UT

There is no doubt the sport of climbing has exploded in popularity.  With no indication that this growth is going to slow down any time soon its pretty common to hear climbers lament how crowded the crags have become, and how they long for the good ol’ days when it was common to have an entire cliff to yourself.

Based on my experience over the last few months, I’m fairly confident this “overcrowding” hysteria is highly exagerated.  I don’t deny there are more climbers than ever.  And if you choose to go to Cactus Cliff or Supercrack Buttress on a sunny spring Saturday you will surely witness this firsthand.  But these crags are only the tip of the iceberg.  For every Cactus Cliff there are 10 other cliffs, just as good, that are totally deserted.  That’s not to say you won’t have to do a little extra work.  You may have to drive a little further, walk a little further, walk through some brush, clean some routes, maybe sink in some steel, but the rock is there waiting.

Ancient Art

Less than an hour till sunset and they’re still queued up

We hiked the Fisher Towers trail on Friday evening, and I counted 6 parties of climbers…all on Ancient Art.  So if your concept of the Fisher Towers is limited to the one route in the CitiBank commercial, ya, the Fisher Towers are unbelievably crowded.  Ancient Art is a fine route with a unique summit, and I’m happy to have done it.  But there are HUNDREDS of other routes, many that will blow your mind, a stones throw away that go years without ascents. 



The rest of the Fisher Towers

Often the cliffs and routes that we think of as “classic” are really just old and convenient.  They were developed first because they were the most obvious, not necessarily because they were the best.  The routes at these crags have developed a mystique due to their place in history, and the long list of folks that have tried them.  The routes seem a bit easier because they’re heavily chalked, all the footholds have black rubber spots, and you can probably find the beta on Youtube.  But the holds are polished, footholds have crumbled, and a few handholds are probably lying in dust on the ground.  These routes aren’t really easier and they aren’t really any better.                                                                   

That’s not to say the classics should be avoided.  I love climbing classic routes, and a look at my tick list will immediately betray my preference for such routes.  But there are other great routes out there just waiting to be climbed.  You may have to wade through some crowds now and then if you want to feel that special connection to your heroes that comes from repeating one of their legendary lines.  Or you can call in sick and show up at the crag on Tuesday.  Even Smith Rock’s Dihedrals are completely deserted on Monday.  Another option is to watch the weather forecast and show up during the off season.  If you want the Motherlode to yourself the solution is simple.  Wake up at 7am and you’ll have a few hours of solitude before the hoards arrive.

The best sport crag in the Rocky Mountains, totally deserted…

If all else fails, get yourself a used Hilti on e-Bay, walk that distant cliffline you’ve been eyeing for years, and build your own personal paradise.  Once you’re lonely, longing for the cameraderie of fellow climbers, post the beta on the web and watch your creations become the classic lines of the next generation.