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

Unfinished Business Part 1 – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Unfinished Business – Part 1” over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“In 2011, Denver climbing activist, king of psyche and all-around great guy Luke Childers bolted a stunning arête at The Armory, a compact crag at the top of Clear Creek Canyon.  Clear Creek is quickly becoming the epicenter of sport climbing on the Colorado Front Range, largely thanks to guys like Luke who have a knack for finding great new lines on supposedly tapped out cliffs.  After finishing off American Mustang at the end of March, I had a few more climbing days to spare before beginning my summer training cycle.  I was really psyched to check out Luke’s Armory arête, which looked to me like the best unclimbed line in Clear Creek . I was stoked when Luke generously encouraged me to have at it….”  Continue Reading

Designing A Transition Phase – New Post on RCTM.com!

Check out my new post on “Designing A Transition Phase”  over at RockClimbersTrainingManual.com:

“In this post I introduced the concept of the Transition Phase.  This is the several-week period during each training cycle in which you shift your focus from primarily indoor training to primarily outdoor climbing (and sending!).  Chapter 10: Building a Seasonal Training Plan from the forthcoming  “The Rock Climber’s Training Manual” thoroughly describes how to build a training plan, and it provides numerous sample plans to get you started.  These plans include these transitions, but we’ll talk about some of the “how and why” in more detail here, to help you build your own plan …”  Continue Reading

Sport Alpine Climbing and Siege Sport Climbing

I’m currently reading Greg Crouch’s fascinating book “Enduring Patagonia”. I’ve always had this thought in the back of my mind that when the kids are grown up I’ll go climb Cerro Torre for “fun”.  After reading Crouch’s book I now realize the folly of that idea.  Crouch spent 68 days trying and failing to climb Cerro Torre’s infamous Compressor Route before he eventually succeeded.  Over the course of those 68 days he attempted the route 14 times!  I’ve pondered that number quite a bit and I’m having trouble truly comprehending it. It’s a credit to Crouch’s determination and perseverance. During my currently-hybernating alpine career, I’ve never tried a route more than twice, and even that was extremely rare.  On Devil’s Thumb we were within a few hundred vertical feet of the summit on our first attempt before the weather completely shut us down, so we bailed and returned to base camp and finished the climb a few days later.  Even considering my time as a sport climber, I can only come up with seven routes that I’ve tried 14 or more times. 

Marc Spriner (R) and I climbing into marginal weather on Devil's Thumb, Alaska.

Marc Springer (bottom right) and I climbing into marginal weather on Devil’s Thumb, Alaska.  Photo Mike Anderson. 

Yet siege-style sport climbing is hardly rare. I know plenty of sport climbers who have spent 100 or more days working a single project.  I have a special admiration for people who can stay devoted to a single pitch of rock for that amount of time.  I don’t think I have the perseverance to do that; I lack the attention span, plus I prefer to bounce around between various crags. But mostly, I prefer to avoid siege-projecting because I believe it’s not an optimal way to improve at climbing.  There’s no doubt that putting in countless days can yield impressive results, far beyond what one might normally achieve, but there is often a significant difference between achievement and improvement.  Mega-projecting can be a great tool to accomplish a goal when used sparingly, like a .13c-or-so climber going all out to climb one 5.14 before he retires. However, if the goal is improvement over the long run, I think a superior use of one’s climbing time is to climb many different routes, on different types of rock.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t reach for the stars.  I do that plenty, but my approach is to try such routes until I reach the point of diminishing returns.  On any project you will eventually reach that point where you know all the moves, you’re falling in the same spot(s) over and over, and you’re just hoping for a miraculous star-alignment to occur to facilitate a send.  At that point you are unlikely to improve much as a climber by continuing on the route.  You may get better at climbing that particular route, but not much better at climbing in general.  On the other hand, if you move on to another route, you will be exposed to an entire pitch of new moves and sequences.  If the new route is at another crag, you may also be exposed to a new type of rock, new warmups, etc.  Focusing on routes that you can send in 5 or less days will get you up 20 times more routes as the guy spending 100 days on the same 80-foot climb.

A good exception to this policy is the climber with a mental block that is preventing physical progression.  If you’re someone who constantly gets close to sending but never quite pulls it off, putting in the time to break through that barrier may pay dividends on future climbs.  For example, if you’ve been stuck at the same grade for many seasons, and you are sending routes of that grade quicker and quicker, but you just can’t manage the next grade, it may be that your mind hasn’t quite accepted the idea that you are capable of climbing harder.  Proving it just once (even through a protracted siege), can allow your head to embrace your new level, and you may find that subsequent projects at the higher grade progress much more quickly.

Grand Ol' Opry turned out to be a protracted-for-me campaign of ~14 total days spread over two seasons.  It took longer than I wanted, but it helped me overcome my mental resistance to climbing harder than 5.14a.

Grand Ol’ Opry turned out to be a protracted-for-me campaign of ~13 total days spread over two seasons. It took longer than I wanted, but it helped me overcome my mental resistance to climbing harder than 5.14a.  Photo Ken Klein.

Generally, if I’m not on the verge of sending a project after 5 days or so, I select another, shorter-term objective, then when the season has run its course I retreat to the gym for more training.  When I feel I’ve improved enough that the objective is within my 5-or-so-day target window, I plan for a block of time to try it again.  Part of this is simply personal preference; I prefer not to spend an entire season at the same crag, doing the same warmups over and over, etc.  But I also think it’s a better approach for improving.  It allows me to keep the ‘send train’ rolling even if my eyes are too big for my stomach, it keeps me moving over more terrain, and it makes my training cycles laser-focused on tangible, motivating goals.  The initial reconnaissance of the route provides extremely valuable information that I can use to tailor the next season’s training to the route.  With these details about the route, I can determine which grip positions to emphasize, particular movement sequences that need practice (which I can incorporate into my bouldering sessions), and how to design a power endurance circuit to suit the route.

The process of redpointing Scarface, my first 5.14, involved three separate campaigns of 4 or 5 days, spread out over two years. Twice I retreated to the gym for more training, and each time I returned I had improved substantially. I eventually sent after 4 days of work in March 2007.

The process of redpointing Scarface, my first 5.14, involved three separate campaigns of 4 or 5 days, spread out over two years. Twice I retreated to the gym for more training, and each time I returned I had improved substantially. I eventually sent after 4 days of work in March 2007. The process never got stale, and by the end of the journey, I had transformed myself into a climber capable of climbing many 5.14s, not just that one 5.14.

Ideally, nearly every day I’m on a project I’m learning new sequences, trying unusual moves, and making steady progress (reducing the number of hang points, or moving my highpoint steadily up the route).  From an improvement perspective, this is the most productive way to project routes.  So how do you know when to go big and when to go home? There is no precise number of days; its a matter of identifying the point of stagnation and making a decision at that time.  With anything in climbing, it gets easier to make that decision with practice.  Generally, you should be able to do all the moves within the first two days (unless a particular move is right off the ground or comes after a great rest, and you have good reason to believe the move will go with another day or two of work).  Once you know all the moves, focus on reducing the number of hangs it takes to get up the route.  Ideally that number will go down by one or more on each subsequent attempt at the route (from 4 hangs to three hangs, and so on), but at the very least try to improve your hang number at least once each climbing day.  If you find yourself repeating the same number of hangs on subsequent days, its time to make a decision.  If you’re falling in the same spots each time, it might make sense to move on to greener pastures.  If you’re falling in different spots, particularly if you’re pushing those points higher and higher up the wall, it might make sense to stick with your project.

This approach should not be allowed to undermine your commitment to your goals.  The idea is not to quit, but rather to re-group, reconsider your approach, and then return when better equipped to succeed.  This cycle of effort only works if you remain committed to the goal during the interim period between attempts. Often you will experience a feeling of loss when you retreat from such a route.  To minimize any “wasted” effort, document your attempts at the route to the extent possible.  Shoot video of the sequences you’ve worked out, create a “beta map”, and take detailed notes on your efforts. Note what worked and what didn’t, what time of year or time of day would be ideal for the next attempt, and how you would train differently in the future to better prepare for the route.  This information, combined with a sound training approach, will optimally prepare you to complete the project in a subsequent season, and there will always be plenty of other routes to send in the mean time.

I first tried Busload of Faith in 2010.  I spent 4 days working the route, before bad weather and waning fitness shut down my climbing season.  At the time, I felt like I was close to sending and I was disappointed that those 4 days had been "wasted" on a route I didn't send.  When I returned in 2011, I sent the route on my second try of that season!  Clearly the time I invested in 2010 was not wasted.  In reality, its likely I would have needed more that two additional attempts to send the route in 2010.  The time away from the route allowed me to improve significantly, and facilitated a faster send once I was able to get on the route again.

I first tried Busload of Faith in 2010. I spent 4 days working the route, before bad weather and waning fitness shut down my climbing season. At the time, I felt like I was close to sending and I was disappointed that those 4 days had been “wasted” on a route I didn’t send. When I returned in 2011, I sent the route on my second try of that season! Clearly the time I invested in 2010 was not wasted. In reality, its likely I would have needed more that two additional attempts to send the route in 2010. The time away from the route allowed me to improve significantly, and facilitated a faster send once I was able to get on the route again.

Raise the Roof

Yesterday afternoon I set a new personal best on the Lazy H campus board.  I did a max ladder of 1-8-15 (metolius spacing; 4″ o.c.). 

I realize this is not a super amazing feat, and has been bettered by countless climbers, but its a landmark for me because my board (and therefore my imagination) only has 15 rungs.  When I built the Lazy H in 2008 I scarcely dreamed I would ever need to increase the height of my board; that first season the best I managed was 1-6-11.  The only reason I went as high as 15 was because rungs are sold in packs of five.  The upper few rungs were more of a pipe dream than anything else. 

I bring this up to emphasize two training-related points (besides to spray and post a video of myself with my shirt off): the power of goals and the value of quantfying and tracking the results of your training.  Almost as soon as the dust of construction had settled, that 15th rung became a goal (albeit an unlikely one).  Furthermore, because it was visible and tangible during each campus session, it gave me continuous motivation to get the most out of my training.  Every time I went to the campus board I could see my goal sitting there, gathering dust, waiting for me to get better.  The opportunity to achieve a victory each and every session, even a “plastic” victory, pushes me to put in that extra bit of effort, get enough sleep, eat properly, and focus during the workout.

Quantifying my performance on the campus board, and comparing my progress from season to season has paid huge dividends.  Each season we all strive to be a little bit better than the previous season, but without a yard stick, its really difficult to know what that means.  How good was I last season?  I sent some routes and failed on others.  Were the routes I sent soft?  Were the ones I failed on stiff?  There’s a lot of subjectivty (and therefore ambiguity) on the performance end of our sport.   

This is another area where training (and more specifically, quantifying & documenting our training) can lend a hand.  I know how good I was last season, because I have an emperical record of each hangboard workout, campus session, and power endurance interval I completed.  I can compare that data to this season and its plainly obvious, regardless of how my outdoor projects work out, that I am tangibly stronger than I was last season.  That information alone is extremely motivating; it confirms I’m on the right path (or one of the right paths, anyway) regardless of whether the plethora of circumstances affecting outdoor performance (weather, partners, route selection…) go in my favor.

Now I have a new problem, I need to figure out how to raise the roof of the Lazy H so I can add  the next 5 rungs to my campus board, although that should be trivial compared to the task of expanding my imagination to accomodate those rungs.

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.)

Goal Setting for Climbing Follow-Up

I received some great questions on my “Goal Setting for Climbing” posts, so I will attempt to answer some of them here.  Look for another post in the near future that will address technique drills & other ways to train technique in the gym.

A Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon, CO

Q: I have set a “big hairy goal” this year (Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon), but wasn’t sure about how to incorporate this goal into my training beyond fingerboarding on really small holds.

A: Setting up intermediate goals is a great way to work your way towards a “big hairy goal”.   The great thing about having the big goal in mind, is that it can help determine what those intermediate goals should be.  In this case, I would recommend selecting some project routes that you can use as stepping stones.  Ideally these routes would be at the same crag as your big hairy goal, and of similar style (steepness, hold type, length, continuity).  If geography prevents you from establishing intermediate goal routes at the same crag, try to find some routes nearby that are of similar style.  Some examples of crags with similar climbing to Penitente are Cochita Mesa, NM, Smith Rock, OR, and Shelf Road, CO.  How far you are from achieving your big hairy goal will determine how many intermediate goals are required.  I would recommend trying at least one route at each letter grade between where you are now and where you are going.

When you can’t get regular access to your project, it may be possible to find a similar route to train on closer to home. Mike crushing “Handsome Parish Lady” in Eagle Canyon, NM.

From a training perspective, it can be extremely helpful to identify the characteristics of your goal route and train specifically for them.  The route may have a stopper crux or unusual grip that might be worth incorporating into your hangboard routine (such as a mono move, difficult pinch, or split-finger grip).  Perhaps the route has a shouldery crux, continuous lockoffs, or sustained underclinging, requiring some specific strength training beyond the hangboard. 

Many redpoint attempts end at dynos, so if your project has any, it can be helpful to practice the movements invovled.  Pocket routes may require abnormal precision while dynoing, and often present mental obstacles associated with dynoing (fear of injury or lack of confidence in your precision), so practicing dynoing into pockets in a controlled environment like the gym might be helpful (but be mindful not to over do it!).  Dynoing into or out of unusual position can present similar problems, such as dynoing into an undercling.  Practicing the basic movement in the gym can make things progress more quickly once you get to the real thing.

Understanding the endurance requirements of your project can make the difference between success and failure on a short trip.  Ideally you would know the number of moves, and how long it takes to climb the sustained portions of the route (once you have them sussed).  With this information, you can set up a 4×4, bouldering traverse, or other training circuit that mimics the length (both in terms of # of moves and time), steepness, difficulty and hold type of your project.

Q: What types of technique drills would you do to improve for a thin project?  …How do you approach training in the gym…most gym routes seem to have huge feet and promote more “thuggish” style climbing?

A: I will address this more broadly in a following post, but here’s a preview.  Those who know me well know that the enormous-footholds-in-the-gym-thing is a HUGE pet peeve of mine.  How hard  is it to screw a few jibs on the wall?  Even if your gym is anti-screw-in (as many are, due to the increasingly elaborate wall coatings gyms are using these days), there are many bolt-on footholds on the market that require some thought and technique to use effectively.  So to the gym-managers out there: you have no excuse–throw us a bone already! 

Anyway, if you’re lucky, you can build your own gym like me, and set things up to maximize your improvement, rather than to maximize the fun-quotient of transient birthday children.  But most folks are stuck dealing with unrealistically large footholds.  In this case you have a few options. First, don’t be afraid to approach your gym staff and ask nicely for them to add some realistic footholds.  Maybe if enough people ask, they will get the message.  After all, the small holds are actually cheaper than the big ones!  Failing that, you might ask for permision to install some of your own.  Once you’ve exhausted these options, beg your wife for permission to build your own wall.  When that fails, note that many of the gigantic footholds in your gym have smaller “sub-features” that can be used for feet.  Practice using these.  If you gym has one of those fancy plaster coatings mentioned earlier, look for irregularites, pits, cracks, divots, etc, that you can practice smearing or edging on.  Stand in bolt holes, are even on protruding bolt-heads.  Even if you don’t have route-setting privileges at your gym, be creative, look for feautures that fit your needs (perhaps the footholds for the V4 sloper/pinch boulder problem can be used as crimps) and make your own problems.

Another gym issue is that almost all plastic holds can be pinched, making it easier to pull out on holds (versus simply pulling down).  This is much less common outside, so if you find yourself pinching all the small crimps, stop.  You will find big reach moves and long lock-offs are much more difficult.

Finally, in my experience the biggest challenge with thin face routes is psychological.  We are so accustomed to big, incut holds, and overhanging walls that when we get on small, slopey, insecure holds, we tend to freak out a little bit.  This leads to shaky legs, overgripping, and poor-technique.  So get as much mileage as possible on similar terrain.  Once these situations become old-hat you will notice the movement flows naturally.

Q: If you are going to spend a limited amount of time at the crag where your project is([such that] simply flogging the route every weekend is not an option) how would you stillwork your project without constant access to it?

Scottish honemaster Malcolm Smith, crushing Dreamtime.

A: As discussed above, find some routes or boulder problems near your home that are of similar style.  This will help with the mileage aspect, getting you accustomed to the style of climbing required.  If you have a home wall, or route-setting privileges at your public gym, build boulder problems (or complete routes) that precisely mimic your project or its crux sequences.  If you’re OCD like me you can take a tape measure to the crag and map out the distance between holds, and create a full on replica to train on.  This method was the secret to Malcolm Smith’s success when he famously came out of nowhere to nab the second ascent of Hubble, one of the hardest routes in the world at the time at 8c+. 

Another afterthought that is sure to come to the forefront at the worst possible time is skin care.  Thin routes are particularly hard on the skin, concentrating lots of wear and tire on a very small area.  Again, expect a more generalized post in the future, but to summarize, as with most things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Begin taking care of your skin well in advance of your trips.  Get in the habit of sanding your pads when you start your hangboarding cylce so your skin is nice and thick and ready go once its time to transition to real rock.

Finally, following a periodized training schedule can help you ensure that you are peaking at the right time–when you are on the rock–thereby maximizing your likelihood of success on the few days you get to try your project.