Trainer to the JStars: Part 1 – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Trainer to the JStars – Part 1” over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“Over the past six months we’ve been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to train one of America’s most accomplished sport climbers. I can say unequivocally that the experience has been one of the highlights of my varied climbing career. It’s every coach’s dream to work with the very best athletes within a given sport, and we are no different. While we have tremendous confidence in our program, and its long track-record of producing results for mortals like us, we’ve long ‘fantasized’ about recruiting an elite-level guinea pig for some next-level experimentation. Would it work for a top-level athlete? Can it be adapted to the full-time climbing schedule of a legit pro? There was only one way to find out, but we needed a strong climber with an open mind….”  Continue Reading

Lander Days – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out Mike’s new post on “Lander Days” over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“The family and I just got back from a great week in Lander. If you’ve never been, Lander is a throw-back; it’s a small community at the foot of the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming, so the pace of life is a little slower, and life is a bit simpler. When we’re in Lander, for whatever reason, there is no TV watching or any of those distractions. Instead, we’re outside a lot, and we spend time with great friends. On this trip we were fortunate to stay with Steve and Ellen Bechtel, and BJ and Emily Tilden. Thanks for the hospitality!  When we first arrived, I was in the midst of my Power phase, so I sought out powerful routes to supplement my training. That’s a big reason we were in Lander in the first place, to climb at the Wild Iris…..”  Continue Reading

Focus – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Focus” over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“Focus is all about summoning maximum concentration and attention at the moment it is crucially needed.  Most climbers think of this when its time to send, but the ability to summon and maintain sufficient focus is also vital during daily training.  With training cycles that last for months, often involving several weeks of training on plastic, maintaining this focus can be quite a challenge.  When I have to post-hole through two feet of fresh snow to get to the Lazy H for a workout, the moment of tying in for a difficult send may be the furthest from my mind.  Regardless, the effort & attention given to the ensuing workout, completed two months before booting up below my project, could have as much bearing on the eventual outcome as the effort put into the redpoint attempt….”  Continue Reading

Smarter, Not Harder

Tom brought up a couple of questions in response to the Climber’s Fest post which I will start to address here:

tom on July 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm said:
“you brought up two very interesting areas i hope you will discuss in detail:

a) being aggressive in climbing – what’s the mindset, how do you turn it on? how do you get it back when you get out psyched by the rock?

b) trying hard – sometimes it frickin hurts, and you need to try harder to get through. but sometimes trying too hard leads to flailing around….

looking forward to a deeper discussion!”

These are really two different questions, so I’ll address them under separate posts.  Let’s look at “trying hard” first since I have better anecdotes for that topic.  Generally speaking, its a good idea to try hard, but what does that really mean?  Many years ago my brother Mike had a chance to spend some time with Tommy Caldwell, so Mike asked him what he does to train for climbing, in hopes that they would discuss proper set lengths, number of repetitions, etc.  Tommy’s response was, “just try really hard, all the time”.  End of discussion.  I’ve always thought this was interesting advice to give to a total stranger and it brings to mind a classic legend.  An aspiring climber hired a local wunderkind to “coach” him.  The coaching session consisted of aforementioned wunderkind yelling “pull harder” throughout the session, right up to the point of catastrophic tendon rupture in the client. 

‘What do you mean you don’t track your hangboard workouts in an Excel spreadsheet?!’

These stories remind me of a concept discussed extensively in “The Self-Coached Climber”, that is, often people who are really good at stuff don’t really understand what makes them good.  For example, Usain Bolt is the best at running 100m fast, but that does not necessarily mean he would make the best coach for another aspiring sprinter.  Admittedly, this is a somewhat condescending attitude.  Tommy is clearly an extremely intelligent and thoughtful person, so I don’t suggest this theory in anyway as an insult to him.  However, I think it indicates that those standing on the top of the tower, looking down on the huddled masses often under-estimate the amount of drive, focus and effort that even “regular joes” put into climbing.  There is a great line in the excellent running moving “Without Limits”, in which the Bill Bowerman character is lecturing the late great Steve Prefontaine:

The incomparable Pre

“Your insistance that you have no talent is the ultimate vanity.  If you have no talent, you have no limits, its all an act of will…I’ve got news for you.  All the will and hard work in the world isn’t going to get one person in a million to run a 3:54 mile.  That takes talent.  And talent in a runner is tied to very specific physical attributes.  Your heart can probably pump more blood than amyone else’s on this planet, and that’s the fuel for your talent. Your bones in your feet – it’d take a sledgehammer to hurt them. And that’s the foundation of your talent. So your talent, Pre, is not some disembodied act of will, it’s literally in your bones…”

I think that many aspects of climbing (like finger strength) come naturally to some elite climbers (not that they didn’t have to work hard to get strong, but they didn’t have to put a lot of thought into it), so all that remains is to try really hard at the moment of truth.  They see someone struggling on 5.11, and they think that person just isn’t trying hard.  ‘If only they tried a little harder, they could climb 5.15 too!’ 

Sometimes trying hard can have negative consequences. This flapper took my entire finger pad off after an ill-advised dyno.

I’ve climbed all over with all kinds of different people, and I’ve observed a lot of people trying very hard at the crag, at all different grades.  In my expereince, lack of effort is rarely the limiting factor in those who are well motivated (and there are plenty such climbers).  In fact, I’ve observed many climbers trying too hard on occasion.  That is, beating their heads against a brick wall with no potential positive outcome.  Climbing until their fingers are bleeding, thus forcing additional rest days that otherwise wouldn’t have been necessary.  Taking huge whippers or dynoing repeatedly for blind holds, risking severe injury or bloody flappers, either of which could be avoided by simply hauling up a stick clip.  Or simply “flailing around” as Tom suggested.

One of my favorite expressions is “smarter, not harder”.  One thing I like about this philosophy is that it emphasizes the long view over that which is obvious and immediate.  Performance rock climbing is all about finding the easiest way to do that which is inherently difficult.  Advice to the effect of “Try Hard” is often misinterpreted to mean, ‘squeeze as hard as possible or dyno wildly as you scream like Sharma WHILE YOU ARE CLIMBING’.  However, most of the time, it turns out that squeezing harder is not the answer.  Rather, discovering a new body position, distributing weight perfectly between fingers and toes, rehearsing the accuracy and timing of dynamic movements, pacing the effort correctly–these are generally the keys to overcoming a challenging route.  Rather than trying hard to do a move that requires 100% of your crimping power, try hard to find a body position that allows you to do the same move with 80% exertion!

Furthermore, those that try hard only when they’re literally on the rock are missing out on countless opportunities to improve their climbing.  Try hard to schedule adequate rest, stick to a healthy diet, get enough quality sleep.  Try hard to wake up on time so that you can get to your project when the conditions are ideal.  Even in the unlikely event it does come down to a simple matter of brawn, try hard to use your brain to develop an effective training strategy to develop the needed horsepower, as opposed to simply squeezing until your knuckles explode.

The decision to use your brain is not an exemption from giving 110% come gametime.  Trying really hard on Tommy’s masterpiece, ‘Grand Ol’ Opry’.                      Photo Matthew Oscadal.

Rather than simply, “try really hard, all the time”, how about, “try the appropriate amount, all the time” (really rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?).  Sometimes, maximum force is required to get the job done, the gear is good, and your body is prepared to handle the stress that maximum force will produce.  In that case, by all means, go for it!  On the other hand, often caution is the better part of valor.  Many times it makes sense to take it easy, save some energy (and some skin) for the next burn, or next climbing day. 

So how do you know when its time to give it one last all out effort, and when its time to throw in the towel?  Experience, which of course, comes from bad judgement, or by observing and listening to others.  Dose your efforts with a preference for quality over quantity.  Listen to your body; if you’re too tired to give a quality effort, save whatever you have left for tomorrow.  Don’t climb frustrated, which is a sure path to regret.  When you find yourself facing a tweaky crux move that presents the risk of several months of injury, consider whether it really makes sense to “try really hard”.  Maybe there is another route just as challenging but not so tweaky (or, if you have your heart set on it, hit the hangboard for a few seasons and come back when you are truly ready, or limit yourself to a pre-determined number of tries per day on the tweaky move).  Say “take” during a too-hard warmup to avoid a flash pump that might ruin the entire climbing day.  Take a break to tape up before hucking for that jug yet again, thus avoiding a handful of bloody flappers.  Rest when rest is called for.  Take a moment to consider new beta before trying the same move the same way for the tenth straight time.  Don’t feel compelled to perform for the gallery.

When you are on redpoint (or onsight), on a meaningful climb, that is the time to go for it.  If you’re already in dogging mode, don’t be a hero.  Use that seemingly useless blob of ballast above your shoulders to do what makes sense in the long run.

Training Intensity

Intensity is simply a matter of how much effort you put into a given training activity.  In other words, how “hard” you are trying.  You may already be performing the prefect training activity, but if the intensity is wrong, you won’t get the proper results.  After observing many climbers in their natural habitat its clear that intensity levels vary greatly between climbers.  Unlike pure aerobic sports (where a good heart rate monitor or power meter can do the trick), intensity in climbing is difficult to quantify, which makes it very difficult to prescribe.  It also makes it very hard to get accurate feedback as to whether the proper intensity has been applied. 

However, finding the proper intensity for each training activity is vital.  It is absolutely possible to follow a precise training plan and see few results if the intensity is wrong.  There are two primary culprits, the first and most obvious being that many people just plain don’t know how much effort to apply (and many don’t realize how much effort they are truly capable of).  That is primarily what I would like to address in this post.

Applying the proper intensity during a hangboard session.

 
Its worth noting there is a potential to apply too much intensity, especially when recovering from injury, but in my experience the opposite problem is far more common, particularly among folks that came to the sport of climbing without much background in other organized sports.  If you’ve never really pushed your body to the limit you will have trouble knowing just how much effort to put into a workout.  Not all pain is bad, and its worth discovering the difference.  If you have access to an actual coach, it may be worth the money to have them assess your training intensity in real-time, but most of us will end up figuring it out on our own.

Determining the ideal intensity is somewhat personal and will take some trial and error for each athlete to get it dialed in, but here are some starting points for various activities to get you headed in the right direction:

– Local Endurance Training: AKA “ARC” or “CIR”, the earmark of this training is its LOW intensity.  Sounds simple, but this can be one of the most difficult to gauge correctly.  Even if you find the right intensity, it can be difficult to keep it up for the long set lengths involved (routinely greater than 30 minutes).  The danger of too much intensity is that the effort will become anaerobic, theoretically producing different results than those desired.  In my experience most climbers err on the side of too little intensity and I think this is a mistake.  These workouts should not be effortless; try to push yourself by climbing on steeper terrain or avoiding the best holds.  Avoid vertical (or slabby) terrain and any hands-free rest stances.  If you have a heart-rate monitor you might try using it for these workouts to establish a baseline, but don’t assume it will correlate to big-muscle aerobic exercises like running or swimming.  If you struggle with finding the right terrain, consider a “Fartlek” style workout, by alternating between periods (Say, 5 minutes or so) of more intense and less intense climbing.  Varying the intensity will allow you to give more focus during the intense period and relax a bit or hone technique during the easier interval.  During a typical ARC workout, I will keep a pretty good sweat going and will be breathing steadily as you would for a moderate-intensity run or bike ride.

– Movement Technique Training:  Most technique training should be done in the low intensity range.  When new techniques are introduced, the intensity should be very low, but eventually you will need to increase the intensity to “stress-proof” your technique.  At some point you will find yourself using these new skills on a limit-level boulder problem or redpoint crux, but you can’t consider yourself a master until you are routinely applying the technique while onsighting at your limit.  Usually in such a scenario the intensity will be very high.

– Hypertrophy and/or Muscular Strength Training:  This phase can be tricky because its not black or white.  Let’s assume that we are following a strength building regimen that involves different “exercises”, each with multiple “sets” of a varying number of “reps”.  Each individual “exercise” should be done to failure or very near failure, implying 100% intensity.  However, it is unlikely you can achieve failure at the last rep of the last set if you give 100% intensity to each prior rep.  Generally your intensity should ramp up as you work through the sets.  I generally use 3 sets for a given exercise, so the first set will be around 80% intensity.  Not “easy”, requiring attention, but completely in control.  I will be fatigued at the end, but I could do more reps if I wanted to.  By the third set, I will be breathing heavily, perhaps trembling a bit, my form will just be starting to suffer and I will be giving 100%.  For a 5 rep set, by the 3rd rep or so I will have doubts about my ability to complete the set.  By the end of the 5th rep I will just about be sliding off the hold.  If you’re a screamer, you should be screaming on the 4th & 5th reps.  The second set will be somwehere in the middle, starting out controlled and perhaps relatively casual, but will feel very difficult by the end of the set.  If this doesn’t sound familiar, increase the resistance until your experience is similar.  If you are applying the proper intensity, you won’t be able to handle much more than 20 total sets in a single workout (i.e., 7 exercises with 3 sets each).

– Power/Max Recruitment Training:  This one is pretty simple on paper; give 100% or more to each set, once you are properly warmed up (if campusing, your warm-up should inlcude some low, then moderate intensity campusing), then rest however long you need to be able to give 100% again.  The tricky part is summoning 100% intensity for a 5-10 second effort.  In my experience that is easier to do during a progressive strength training or power endurance routine, where you can gradually dial up the intensity over several minutes.  In a true Power scenario, you will need to summon that intensity very quickly.  A gradual warmup can help with this, as well as learning how to tap into elevated states of arousel.  The cliff notes version: screaming, boisterous encouragement, and aggressive breathing can all help with arousel.  Fortunately dynoing can be painful if you aren’t very accurate, and pain will help stimulate arousel as well.  Succeeding on every set is a good sign that the intensity is too low.  If you’re really attempting the most powerful movements, you should be failing most of the time.  Another indicator is number of movements in a single set.  True Power or Max Recruitment should trend toward a single extreme movement, but certainly no more than five.  In my experience after three movements you can’t really give anything more of value.  If you’re doing more than that, and they’re all ‘hard’ moves, then the workout is not  really  targeting Max Recruitment.  As for warming up, while its important to be thorough, be careful not to waste all of your power during your warmup.  Power is the first thing to fade during a workout so experiment with different warmup lengths and keep track of what works best (I’ve seen  a clear decline in performance when my warmup last more than 45 minutes).  Finally, once the warmup is over, there are no easy campus sets.  If you can’t give 100% effort then the workout is over.  Move on to something else or save it for antoher day.

In this example, only the 2nd movement is truly at my limit, the others being mostly window dressing.  I’m not a grunter, but I did grunt spointaneously during the hard move.

– Power Endurance Training:  Similar to Hypertrophy, PE workouts should begin in control but get progressively more intense to the point where you can just barely finish.  Near the end of the last set, my motor skills will be totall shot, and I’ll have to swing my feet to get them from hold to hold; every hand movement will become a dyno.  At the end of my best PE workouts I literally feel like vomitting and passing out (not necessarily in that order).  My breathing is completely out of control, on the verge of hyperventillating, and I can’t stand up unsupported.  My forearms are totally pumped; not only can I not squeeze anything, I can’t relax my grip either.  When I go to record my effort, its difficult to write because my hands are shaking.  Unless its extremely cold, I’m dripping with sweat.  Some plans suggest taking a 10-15 minute break and then repeating the workout.  There is no way I could do this, and in my opinion if you can, then the intensity is too low for PE (but it would make for great stamina training). 

– Rest:  A bit tongue-in-cheek, but many climbers aren’t very good at resting.  Proper rest will probably take some effort.  Digging a trench, building a retaining wall, running a marathon; these are not rest activities.  Plan to do basically nothing for at least a week, and take it easy on your fingers for the entire rest period, or add anditional rest time once the retaining wall is finished.
Beyond an understandable lack of knowledge, the second most common cause of improper intensity is a simple lack of effort in one form or another.  This is usually not caused by laziness, but a number of other possible causes including  external distractions during the workout time, unexpected interruptions, general fatigue from overtraining or lack of sleep, and other factors that culminate in a gneral lack of focus on the task at hand.

At the end of the day, you’re unlikely to get much out of your training program if you’re just going through the motions.  I’ve found myself in this position on many occasions.  If you’re scratching your head after a season of ho-hum results, think hard about the effort you put into your training.  Were you giving it 100% (when 100% effort was called for), or were you mailing it in through your Hypertrophy phase, just counting the workouts until you could start bouldering again?  Did you save some strength for the Campus Board during you Max Recruitment phase, or did you blow all your power during your so-called warmup? 

Most of us have a large resorvoir of desire and are able to access it when needed*, but focus and attention are not so easy to maintain.  The majority of my own sub-par efforts stem from a lack of focus or attention when the opposite was required.  Fortunately this can be simple to correct once you learn how.  Look for more on this topic in the near future….

(*If you routinely find yourself struggling to muster the desire to give it your best effort, check out some of my tips on motivation here.)

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.)