What’s Right For You?

“There is no ‘right’, there’s only what’s ‘right’ for you.”    -Coach Beloit, The Jericho Mile 

John Steinbeck (author of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and many others) has long been one of my favorite authors.  His novels paint a vivid picture of the human condition, and in my experience, provide plenty of cunning insight about the way people behave.  Hands down my favorite Steinbeck quote is this line from The Winter of Our Discontent:

Climbing Training expert John Steinbeck, contemplating the proper 4×4 protocol

“No one wants advice, only corroboration”

Nowhere is this more true than in the sphere of training advice, and climbers are certainly not exempt from this pitfall.  To borrow a phrase, 9 out of 10 climbers are looking for confirmation that what they are already doing is good enough.

So even if 95% of the message is “do something different”, the reader is inclined to only hear the 5% that encourages them to continue with their current routine.  I don’t know why humans are inclined to behave this way.  Perhaps the cause is Newtonian in the sense that objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion.  Often the activities that will produce the best results are among the most unpleasant, so we find a justification to convince ourselves that the path of least resistance (or the path we are already on) is the “right” path for us.

Gratuitous climbing shot: Kate cruising Topographical Oceans over Memorial Day weekend

Needles to say, this creates an obvious problem: How does the “Self-Coached Climber” determine which program or activity is “right”, when you can’t trust yourself to make an unbiased decision?  One tried and true method is to resign from self-coaching.  A good coach will be able to identify activities that will result in improvement, and they will have no qualms about making you suffer.  The downside is that a good climbing coach is hard to find, and they usually don’t come cheap.  The next best thing is a dedicated partner who can observe you in your element and provide recommendations.  If you choose this option, ensure your partner doesn’t have their own agenda.  Chances are they have their own favorite activities on their own personal path of least resistance, and these activities may not be ideal for you either. 

Online coaching, or attending a short seminar with a pro coach can be a good compromise, but when it comes time put your head down and suffer through another set, your online coach won’t be there to crack the whip. Most climbers will have to make do with self-coaching, and although this is tricky, there are things the coach in you can do to get better results from the athlete. 

1. Flatter Your Role Model.  Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, find a role model, find out what they are doing to prepare for climbing, and get on the same program.  In this metaphor, a “role model” is not necessarily someone you “look up to”, or someone who crushes 5.17d, but someone of a similar body type, with a similar lifestyle & priorities, but who climbs harder routes than you.  The more you can find in common the more likely you will have success following the same program.  Keep in mind that the best climber you know may not have the best training program.  If your role model climbed 5.14 in their first year of climbing, will they understand what it takes to break through a 5.11 plateau?

2. Write Down Your Training Plan.  Once you’ve settled on a training program, write it down, in detail.  Do this at a time of rest, when you are far-removed from the pain of training.  Just like shopping for groceries on an empty stomach, if you try to make your plan while you are training, you will be fighting a constant battle against cutting corners.  Even if you have a tremendous work ethic, the problem persists, although the symptoms may present in the form of biting off more than you can chew, thus resulting in injury.  If you have a coach by correspondence, this is the time to get his or her insight on your plan.

A top-level training plan, showing Rest, Local Endurance, Hypertrophy & Max Recruitment phases. In addition its a good idea to have a detailed plan for each individual workout (example below)

3. Follow Your Plan.  As discussed above, you can’t be trusted to make changes on the fly.  Every plan needs to be flexible to account for unforeseen challenges, and every training resource I’ve come across encourages the athlete to “listen to their body”, but this can be taken too far.  My advice?  Try really hard to follow your plan.  If you find yourself considering a change, think it over for a while, discuss it with other informed people, and make the decision at a time of rest.  Over time you will get a better feel for when your coach is being prudent, and when he is cutting corners, but to do so you need to be very honest with yourself and really dig down to the root of what is instigating your desire to change the plan.  I recommend once your plan is set you see it through for at least one season before your try something dramatically different.  If its a good plan you should see results in one season (unless you’ve been training seriously for many years already).

4. Document What You Did; Use It For Motivation.  Often one of the best ways to get the most out of a workout is to have a training partner (or an entire “team” of partners) to work with.  This can bring your natural competitiveness to the fight and encourage you to give it your best effort.  Many of us don;t have this option for whatever reason.  Even if you have dedicated climber partners, its rare that they are following the same plan, and even if they are its unlikely that your training schedules synch up.  The solution is to create a virtual training partner–yourself from last week, last season, last year or five years ago.  Document the results of your training, use the identical (or at least progressive) training apparatus from season to season, and you can use your previous results as motivation.  For this to work you need to have your training records at the tip of your fingers during the workout.  While resting between sets (whether its a Hangboard workout, Campus Session, 4×4, etc), flip through some previous results and see how you compare.  This method never fails to motivate me to push a bit harder on the next set.  Identify thoese magical seasons where everything came up roses and use those as your target.  In a parallel sense, if you ahve a training partner, but you are either geographically separated or train at different times of day, you might consider sharing your results to create some friendly competition.  Just remember, a rising tide lifts all boats–don’t let the competition get in the way of your partnership.

A log sheet for documenting Hangboard Workouts. This particular sheet is used to track my “PR”s for each exercise– a great real-time motivator

5. Make It Suck.  If your workout doesn’t “suck”, it may not be right for you.  In other words, if whatever you are doing comes naturally, flows seamlessly, or feels effortless, you’re proably leaving some stones un-turned.  Usually improving on a weakness will produce the most dramatic improvement, and we tend to suck at our weaknesses.  So if your training is addressing a weakness, it will probably feel unpleasant, uncomfortable.  If you wake up dreading the workout youhave planned, you might be on to something!  It may come as a shock to read something advocating hard work, since all those ads on the internet & cable TV have sought to brainwash us into believing that we can achieve all of our dreams without any sacrifice (other than 3 easy payments of $19.95 plus shipping & handling), but in reality if it were easy, everyone would be climbing 5.15.  (Of course this can be taken to extremes as well.  Sprinting up 10 flights of stares with a sack of sharp rocks strapped to your back is sure to suck, but it won’t make you a better rock climber.)

Lander Bound!

I will be at the 2012 International Climber’s Festival in Lander, Wyoming, from 12-15 July.  For those unfamiliar, Lander is probably the single most climber-friendly town in America, and they really know how to put on a party for climbers.  More details on the event can be found at http://climbersfestival.org/ 

There’s no place like Lander!

I will be at the Trango tent at the Trade Fair on Friday, and teaching a clinic with Chris Barlow on Saturday.  Unfortunately as of today it looks like the clinic is full, but if you’re at the festival, drop by the Trango tent if you’d like to talk training, get beta for Lander’s many classic routes, or just chat.  The fair is supposed to run 8 hours so I’ll be desparate for people to talk to!

I also hope to do some actual climbing and a little bit of beer drinking so look for me at Wild Iris and the Lander Bar if you can’t make the Trade Fair.  I look forward to seeing old friends and making some new ones–hope to see you there!

Q&A #2: Training at the Crag

This is a quick post to answer a pair of questions I received here.

Scotty O. wrote:

“I recently moved back to Bend, OR (and Smith Rock!) where I began my climbing career. I moved from Colorado where I climbed Rifle almost exclusively. After a Fall of screaming forearms, I focused on training my severely lacking endurance over the winter. The gains I noticed this Spring were HUGE and I began to cross Rifle and Maple endurance-fests off my list quickly.

Now that I’m back at Smith Rock, I rarely feel pumped on a route, but find myself falling off more powerful/bouldery cruxes. What can I do to overcome this and balance out my power? What can I do to keep my endurance up while I’m here? I’m not opposed to sessions in the gym, but I would rather maximize my time here at Smith and maybe reserve some days at the crag strictly for training and mileage…”

Thanks for the questions Scotty,

Nothing beats bouldering if you want to build power while climbing on real rock.  Smith has some bouldering, but it tends to be pretty miserable due to the freakishly sharp stone.  As a great compromise, I would highly recommend “roped bouldering”.  In many ways this can be even more effective than real bouldering, as usually the fall consequence is less serious.  The flip side is that it works best with a dedicated partner (although it can be done solo with a rope soloing device and much gear fiddling).  The procedure is simple: find a route with a boulder-problem crux, get a rope on it (preferably toprope through the next highest bolt above the crux) and work the boulder problem repeatedly off the dog.  I find it more motivating to pick a route I’m actually interested in redpointing at some point later in the season.  If you plan to spend a long time on your bouldering sessions, be considerate and pick a route that isn’t super popular, or save it for a weekday.

Smith has a number of great ‘shorties’ that can make for a great boulder project.

If you prefer to actually have a shot at sending something, another option is to pick a really short route.  These routes need love too, and they tend to pack a wallop relative to their grade.  Smith has a number of great mini-routes that could equally be described as extended boulder problems.  Heresy, Da Kine Corner, Energy Crisis, Mothers Milk and Jam Master J are only a few examples.  Remember to get a decent power workout you need to do it while you’re fresh, so do it first thing after a complete warm up.

As for your second question, consider doing “laps” on a pumpy route you know well.  This is a popular past-time for the Smith locals–I’m sure you’ve seen them lapping Churning in the Wake as the sun sets at the end of a long day.  Ideally you would select a pumpy route without much rest (and certainly no hands-free rests; or skip any such rests), and a route you know fairly well.  At Smith another consideration is to find a route that isn’t super sharp (good luck with that!).  Some good choices off the top of my head might be Magic Light, Overboard, Heinous Cling (short or long version), the aforementioned Churning, Aggro Monkey or Scarface.  Obviously its key to find the right difficulty, probably around 1 number grade below your redpoint limit (or just about equal to your onsight limit).  Climb the route from bottom to top, then lower, rest 3-5 minutes (keep track of your rest interval and keep it consistent), then repeat.  Try to do 3-5 laps, building up progressively by reducing the rest interval and increasing the number of laps from workout to workout.   If it becomes trivial, move to a harder route.  If you fall off, try to pull back on and continue  Climb at a normal pace, but don’t milk any really good rests.

Good luck and enjoy the great routes at Smith!

Strongman Fred hucking a lap on Churning