Designing A Transition Phase – New Post on!

Check out my new post on “Designing A Transition Phase”  over at

“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

Sunny St. George Part I: Breakin’ The Law

On rare occasions I take a short hiatus from thinking about training, writing about training, and training, to actually go rock climbing.  Over the New Year’s Holiday the family and I headed west to the warm climes of St. George, Utah for a week of climbing.  St George is home to a vast array of rock climbing possibilities, from the Grade VI Big Wall free and Aid climbs of Zion, to the bouldering of Moe’s Valley, and everything in between.  The guidebook lists more than 40 distinct crags, and the area hosts a wide variety of different rock types, including sculpted sandstone, basalt, Volcanic tuff, conglomerate, and some of the best limestone in the US.

Sunny steep stone in the capitol of Utah's Dixie.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Sunny steep stone in the capital of Utah’s Dixie.   Fencing with Tortuga, 5.12a, at The Turtle Wall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

My primary objective for the trip was a power endurance route called “Breakin’ the Law“, which climbs out the upper of two shallow limestone caves at the Black & Tan crag.  The route was the vision of Salt Lake hardman and fellow training advocate Jeff Pedersen.  However, a young Dave Graham nabbed the first free ascent, and the name is reminiscent of the confessionary “I Am a Bad Man” (now known simply as Badman), so-named by JB Tribout after his friend Alan Watts told him, ‘you can have any route [at Smith Rock] except that one’.

The Black and Tan Wall.  Breakin' the Law climbs out the subtle dihedrdal in the left side of the higher cave.

The Black and Tan Wall. Breakin’ the Law climbs out the subtle dihedral in the left side of the higher cave.

The route begins with big moves up a steep wall to reach the roof of the cave.  The crux is climbing out to the lip of the cave, then turning the lip to get established on the headwall. It would be quite a challenge for me to send a .14b in a week, but I’d heard from various accounts that the line was soft.  However, just before we set out for Utah I talked with a prominent, much-stronger-than-me climber, who assured me the route was quite hard for shorter folks.  Apparently tall climbers can get a big stem/dropknee that essentially eliminates the first, harder crux.  So as we left Colorado I was apprehensive and anxious to find out for myself.

Breakin' the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Breakin’ the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave. Photo Dan Brayack.

We planned to split up the long drive with a break in Grand Junction for lunch and a hike out to Independence Monument.  I avoid aerobic exercise when I’m in performance climbing mode, but I like to go on “brisk walks” at least every rest day.  It helps keep my metabolism humming (for the purpose of weight management), and it allows an opportunity to clear my head.  The trail was snowy and muddy in places, but it was still a fun hike.  I’ve climbed Otto’s Route at least three times that I can remember, and I suspect I’ll climb it again with Logan some time in the next decade.

Hiking to Independence Monument outside Grand Junction, CO.

Logan and I on the hike to Independence Monument, outside Grand Junction, CO.

We spent the night in a flea-bag motel in fabulous Salina, Utah, then continued toward St. George the next day, making a beeline for Black & Tan.  We met my friends Dan Brayack and Lena Moinova at the crag, who happened to be on vacation as well.  Dan is a fellow Trango team-mate, and an outstanding climbing photographer.  A hefty chunk of the photos in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual were generously provided by Dan. Some of Dan’s images are peppered throughout this post, or you can check out his amazing gallery here. 

After warming up , I got on my presumed project.  The climbing starts out with fun, huge spans between large holds.  There’s a big jug at the crook of the roof, then the first crux comes traversing from that jug to the lip of the cave.  You can either shuffle or cross between several holds, but you end up with a good incut crimp and a tufa pinch.  Depending on your sequence you can either dyno into a big iron cross, and then struggle to climb out of it, or you can make a wild lunge to a flat edge at the lip.  I think this is where the drop knee would be used if you were tall enough, allowing either sequence to go statically.  Since I was not able to use the dropknee, I tried the two alternatives and settled on the Iron Cross solution. 

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin’ the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Once at the lip, a really hard crank off a thin, sharp crimp gets you onto the slab.  I struggled quite a bit with this move, perhaps because I was tired from working the lower crux.  I figured this would end up being the redpoint crux but I was too exhausted to really work it.  I moved on to the headwall, which was mostly fun, technical face climbing, but hosted one sinister move in which you have to high-step your right foot onto a polished block that slopes away at a 45-degree angle.  There is a faint bit of patina on this block that allows you to toe-in a bit, which is key since you next have to reach for an over-head undercling, using this dire foothold to push against.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall. Photo Dan Brayack.

At the end of the day I had all the moves worked out.  Typically if I can do all the moves, I can send, but I had no idea if the moves would come together in the four climbing days remaining. The second crux requires a pretty hard crank after a long series of hard moves, and that is something I struggle with.

"Rest Day" hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

“Rest Day” hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

The limestone surrounding St. George is much more monolithic than the stone at most US limestone crags.  That means it’s not very featured, and generally quite sharp.  There are the odd pockets, but most of the climbing is on small edges.  The result is that the climbing tends to be less steep at any given grade than you might encounter at other, more featured limestone crags like Rifle, or the Wyoming crags.  This is great for technicians like me, and these crags really shine in the 5.12+ and up range.  Below that, the climbing often isn’t all that fun; it’s certainly not the type of climbing you want to do on vacation.  Fortunately St George is all about variety, and there really is something for everyone.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a's in the area.  It's a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a’s in the area. It’s a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards. Photo Dan Brayack.

With this in mind, we opted to experiment with some different warmup crags over the next few days.  The notorious Chuckwalla Wall is often derided by serious climbers, but I really enjoy climbing there.  It’s by no means a wilderness setting, but the routes are just plain fun, and the approach takes about 90 seconds, which is key for climbers with kids.  The cliff is stacked with 30+ classic sandstone jug hauls from 5.9 to 5.12, and they make for great warmups and fun all around.  For the next two crag days we started at Chuckwalla, then after my last warmup we hopped in the car and raced down Highway 91 to Black & Tan, slightly frantic to get on my project before my warmup had faded (note: it took us about 50 minutes to get from crag to crag, approaches included; this turned out to be quick enough that I never lost my warmup.)

Unwinding from the Iron Cross.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Unwinding from the Iron Cross. Photo Dan Brayack.

I made good progress on the second day, primarily refining my foot sequences, and rehearsing the big dyno into the Iron Cross at the lip.  I was able to do the crank onto the headwall much more consistently, and on my second go I managed a 1-hang, which is always a nice milestone, but certainly no guarantee of future success.  We celebrated New Year’s Eve by watching Logan’s Strawberry Shortcake DVD 4 or 5 times in a row and hitting the sack at 11pm.

Spotting Logan while while hiking near the Chuckawalla Wall on New Year's Day.

Spotting Logan while hiking near the Chuckwalla Wall on New Year’s Day.

On our third climbing day we revisited Chuckwalla, then hightailed it to Black & Tan.  My last warmup route felt really soft; either that or I was just feeling really strong.  We got the kids situated (i.e., turned on the Ipad), rigged the rope, and I started up.  Often I have a tendency to sprint on short power endurance climbs like this.  Each of the crux sections involve careful foot placements and subtle pressing to stay on the wall.  Perhaps since I didn’t know the moves super well, I took my time and made sure I did every move correctly, following Alex Lowe’s adage to ‘never move up on a bad [ice tool] placement’.  I expected to pump out at any moment, but I just kept motoring, going from one move to the next until I was on the headwall.  After a nice long shake I hiked up the headwall to the chains.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

The total effort took 5 burns over three days.  I think the route is comparable in difficulty to Mission Overdrive in Clear Creek (which took me 6 goes over 3 days), which is to say its a hard 14a or easy 14b, without the stem/dropknee.  I’m inclined to go with b 🙂  I’ve been crushing the campus board lately and I believe my power has reached a new level.  Occasionally periodization doesn’t work out quite like you hope, but this time I think the timing of my fitness was perfect for the characteristics of Breakin’ the Law.

To celebrate, we headed to Kelly’s Rock (named for my old friend Kelly Oldrid) and climbed “K-8”, ‘one of the best 5.11s in Utah’, according to the guidebook.  The climb includes two exciting roof pulls and some of the most amazing jugs I’ve ever seen.  Certainly a worthy line and easily the best limestone 5.11 I climbed that week. 

Tune in next week for Sunny St. George Part II!

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N' Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N’ Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Logan stoked at In N' Out.  His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

Logan stoked at In N’ Out. His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

Training Efficiently

Forunately there's no money in climbing training research, or else this might be me :)

Forunately there’s no money in climbing training research, or else this might be me 🙂

I think if people realized how little I train (and climb) they would be shocked.  I often joke with my wife that I should be quarranteened in a plastic bubble and studied by teams of cruel government scientists (ala E.T.). There is certainly a trend among top climbers to perform massive quantities of training (like, 6+ hours per day, 5 or 6 days per week).  That’s not me.  First of all, I don’t have that much time, between work and my family. Second (and foremost), I truly believe “less is more” when it comes to climbing training. Even if I had more time to train, I would probably spend much of that time resting anyway.

Considering those factors, my overarching strategy is to train as efficiently as possible.  That is, I strive to maximize my improvement relative to the training time (and energy) invested.  Doesn’t everybody do that you ask?  No, frankly.  Many people figure ‘the way to improve is to pile on more and more training.  Anyway, it couldn’t hurt, could it?’ This philosophy is popular among runners, cyclists, swimmers and other ultra-endura athletes.

The problem is, it actually can, and does hurt.  Low efficiency activities sap energy, thus undermining high efficiency activities.  In the best case scenario, the added volume forces longer recovery periods between workouts, but far more often, the needed additional rest is omitted, and the athlete simply goes into the next workout under-recovered, thus further limiting the intensity of the next workout.  As a result, every workout starts to become an endurance workout, and pretty soon the athlete is no longer progressing, but rather struggling to maintain the fitness he had when he started.

My strategy for maximizing training efficiency dovetails nicely wtih a complimentary training objective — favoring strength and power training over endurance.  This allows me to emphasize high intensity training, which is short in duration, almost by definition (there are brief periods during each season that I focus on endurance training, but even then I favor higher intensity endurance training followed by plenty of rest).  Furthermore, I only perform activities that I strongly believe provide a direct benifit to my performance; I don’t do any filler or “crosstraining”. [More on Training Intensity here]

My actual training/climbing schedule from the Fall 2013 Season.  The Strength & Power Training Phases  are very typical of a normal season.  However, the Performance Phase (outdoor climbing) is atypical; I'm rarely able to squeeze in more than 10 days of actual climbing.  I was able to wranlge about five extra days out of Kate's Maternity Leave and the Government Shutdown.

My actual training/climbing schedule from the Fall 2013 Season. The Strength & Power Training Phases are very typical of a normal season. However, the Performance Phase (outdoor climbing) is rather unusual; I’m rarely able to squeeze in more than 10 days of outdoor climbing in a season. I was able to wranlge about five extra days out of Kate’s Maternity Leave and the Government Shutdown.

This is perhaps easier to visualize on a macro-scale, but it also applies on a micro-scale.  For example, Strength Training revolves around my fingers, because they are the single most important factor in climbing performance.  I work my fingers first, but not for long.  When the intensity is right (really high), my fingers can only handle about an hour of work (or, about 18 ~60 second sets of deadhang repetitions, with 3 minutes rest between sets).  Once my fingers are worked, I perform a modest amount of pull muscle, upper arm, and shoulder exercises. 

During my Limit Bouldering routine, I don’t do “fun” boulder problems.  I only do boulder problems that will make me a better rock climber (as opposed to a better plastic climber).  In other words, the Lazy H has very few pinches or slopers, and the walls aren’t super steep.  It has a lot of sharp crimps, tweaky pockets, and small, greasy footholds.  Very few of these holds are oriented horizontally–my problems require core tension and attention to footwork.  It’s often hard to breath while climbing these problems, and my skin takes a fair bit of abuse, but the skill and strength developed translates directly to the rock.

Warming up in the Lazy H isn't "fun", but its good for my footwork.

Warming up in the Lazy H isn’t “fun”, but its good for my footwork.

That said, it’s only fair to note that I have pretty good technique, and that took many years to cultivate.  Now that I have it, it doesn’t take much to maintain.  However, my training terrain is deliberately designed to maintain my technique (in other words, it isn’t “fun” terrain).  My warmup time is split between a dead vertical wall, and one that overhangs a modest 8 degrees.  The holds on these walls are tiny, and precise movement is required to stay on the wall. Those with performance-limiting technique can apply these same concepts to skill develipment by training on realistic terrain, and emphasizing focused, quality skill practice over zombie-like monotonous quantity.

On A Mission

I’m heading out to Smith Rock in a few days for a two-week trip. The climbing at Smith is extremely thin and technical — and difficult to prepare for. I believe strongly in taining and I generally feel that using indoor tools is superior to “just climbing” outside (for building strength, power, and endurance). That said, indoor training is far from ideal for developing or polishing technique. For highly technique-dependent climbing, like that at Smith, some amount of outdoor skill practice is essential. Outdoor training can also help prepare your finger skin if its done wisely (in moderation).

To Bolt or Not To Be, 5.14a, Smith Rock

To Bolt or Not To Be, 5.14a, Smith Rock

In 2008 I spent two weeks at Smith working and sending To Bolt or Not To Be, perhaps the most technical single-pitch climb in America. My training strategy for that season was pretty unusual, but very effective. I lengthened my Base-Fitness Phase by adding more ARC workouts, and I ordered a bunch of really tiny crimps to add to the Lazy H. I did a standard Strength Phase (but I added a thin, closed-crimp grip to my hangboard routine). After 8 hangboard workouts I immediately transitioned to outdoor climbing 2 days per week (normally I would have a 2-4 week transition period of bouldering and/or campusing). I climbed in the Lazy H a third day each week, doing thin, power-endurance linked bouldering circuits.

The key to this approach was selecting an appropriate “training route”. That season I worked Third Millenium at the Monastery, a barely overhanging, thin, technical, and sustained 5.13d. Ironically I didn’t send Third Millenium in 8 days of work (though I went on to send it later), but then went on to send To Bolt in just 7 days (you do the math on that!). Third Millenium was the perfect route; it got my footwork dialed, my lead head in order, and trained power-endurance on the right types of holds. The point being, if you want to utilize outdoor training to prepare for a goal route, the most effective way to do so is:

Third Millenium, 5.13d, The Monastery

Third Millenium, 5.13d, The Monastery

1. Pick the right training routes, those that are as-similar-as-possible to the route you are training for, in terms of steepness, hold type, continuity, commitment, and length.

2. Accept that the purpose of each day’s cragging is to train for your goal, not to send! This may mean cutting sessions short to avoid trashing your finger skin, to avoid too much fatigue, or to squeeze in a bit of indoor training at the end of each crag day.

In the pre-parenthood era of 2008 I had a lot more options, whereas now there are significant advantages to staying close to home. I decided the ideal training route this time around would be “Mission Overdirve”, a linkup of “Mission Impossible” and “Interstellar Overdrive” in Clear Creek Canyon. Mission Impossible was bolted by Jay Samuelson and immediately offered to the community as an open project. Dan Woods eventually came away with the FA, calling the line 5.14d and the hardest route he had ever climbed, even hard than Jaws II (5.15a at Rumney), opening with a V12 boulder, followed by pumpy climbing to a V11 finish.

Entering the hardest bit of the low crux.

Entering the hardest bit of the low crux.

Jonathan Siegrist actually tried the line first, but didn’t have time to commit to the full route. He established the Mission Overdrive link-up before heading overseas, calling the line 14a/b. This linkup climbs the opening “V12” boulder of MI before joining Interstellar (5.13d) for its notorious “V8” crux. The entire line is about 70 feet long and overhangs 10 feet. The first half is basically dead vertical, with super thin, slopey edges and invisible footholds. The climbing is super insecure and there are about 10 moves in a row where you can pop off at any point. The Interstellar crux is steeper, with very tiny crimps that are fortunately incut-enough to pull out on. The pivotal move is a huge lock-off from a half-pad crimp to reach a slopey finger slot. The route is perfect for me and a great training route for Smith.

I first tried the route last Saturday. I was able to do all the moves on the lower crux but I couldn’t see how I was going to link all those moves, or even let go to clip. By the time I reached the top I was too worked to make any progress on the Interstellar crux. Then on the second go I shocked myself by climbing most of the way through the low crux, ultimately stymied by a precarious clip. At that point I knew the line was do-able and I was committed. I spent some more time on the upper crux, then headed home for a campus session.

Nearing the end of the first crux.

Nearing the end of the first crux.

My next outdoor day was supposed to be the following Friday, but I couldn’t wait that long so I arranged for a short outdoor session on Monday evening followed by an indoor Power-Endurance session on Tuesday. Normally I would never climb two days in a row like that, so the key was to keep Monday’s effort short and minimize any wear on my skin. I did two 30-minute burns, with the goal of working out a viable clipping strategy for the low crux, and dialing the low-percentage upper crux, which comes with a substantial pump. I was able to achieve both goals, but at the end of the day there was still a 10-foot transition section that I hadn’t really worked out. The climbing is ~5.11+, easy enough to figure out on the fly, but just hard enough to get you pumped before the final boulder problem., so I wanted to have an efficient sequence worked out.

Friday was a dedicated outdoor day, so I took my time with a thorough warmup. I climbed a rad .12b face climb at the Monkey House called The Reward. This is a brilliant thin edging climb with a committing crux. If only it were twice as long! My first burn on Mission Overdive, I sent most of the way through the low crux, but botched a foot sequence and pumped off. I took the opportunity to work out the 11+ transition section, but then I was unable to do the Interstellar crux. The move is very precise and requires the perferct coordination of all four limbs. You need to move just high enough to reach the hold; any higher and your low hand will pop off. The high hand has to slide perfectly into a narrow slot, requiring a precise deadpoint. Both “footholds” are miniscule, and must be weighted just enough to complete the move but not so much that your feet slide off. After a few tries I was able to find the right timing.

Preparing to turn the roof.

Preparing to turn the roof.

I took a 45-minute break, and then tried again. This time I recalled my sequence for the first crux perfectly. There are many subtle foot shifts, so that was not a trivial feat. I was pumped, but not overwhelmingly so. The low crux ends at a decent left handhold, allowing a clip and a brief shake. Next the route tackles an intimidating roof with a really cool highstep and dyno to reach an awesome rest. I was able to recover completely at this rest, then I cruised up the 5.11+ section. At the high crux I was notably pumped, but there is a so-so shake just below, and I took my time here and got back what I could. My forearms felt powered-down, but I reckoned I could still bear down for a few moves, so I went for it. When you hit each move just right, this crux almost feels easy, and you can understand how this could be called V8. I got the finger slot, then a few more slopey pods to reach damp jugs and the anchor.

Overall the line is fantastic, hands-down my favorite route in Clear Creek Canyon. I’m really stoked to try the full Mission Impossible, but I think that will have to wait until I return from Smith. I’m not too sure about the grade; this is the fastest I’ve sent a 5.14, so based on that logic it seems unlikely that its 14b. On the other hand, I’m in great shape on paper, so who knows? I highly doubt the low crux is V12; I’ve never even tried an established V12, so I really have no clue, but I assume V12 is harder than that! I would say more like hard V10 or easy 11; and a realistic V9 for the Interstellar crux. The real challenge of the route is keeping it together over a large number of difficult sequences.

The end of the Interstellar crux.

The end of the Interstellar crux.

I think it goes to show how strengths and weaknesses can affect grades. Ideally these factors should be accounted for when assigning a grade but its not simple to extrapolate and so these factors often have a big effect. There is a tendency to assume that certain climbers have an absolute understanding of the grade scale (Adam Ondra, for example) but it really doesn’t work that way. The style of route and the climber’s tastes are critical to their perception of a route’s difficulty. The bottom line is, any time you find a sequence that is hard for you, take it as an opportunity to improve, regardless of the grade.  If you find something feels easy, enjoy it!  The pendulum will swing back the other way soon enough.

I’m off to Smith on Thursday, with pretty thick skin, decent footwork, and high confidence. I’ll be teaching a footwork clinic (8:30am at Redpoint Climber’s Supply) and giving a slideshow (8:30pm), both on Saturday April 20th. Come out and say hi if you’re in the area.

Passing the Time

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of climbing, traveling, and more climbing.  I apologize for neglecting my blog, but now you will be rewarded with a barage of tails of my exciting adventures 😉

I spent the latter half of October working a route in Clear Creek Canyon called “Primetime to Shine”.  This is a linkup of two popular Peter Beal 14a’s, “Primeval” and “Shine”.  I’m usually not a big fan of linkups but this one is a rare example of a linkup that actually improves on the piece parts.  The Primo Wall is fairly short (maybe 35 feet tall?) and the geometry is such that the ‘straight up’ lines are really only continuous for a little over half the height of the wall.  The ‘Primetime’ linkup traverses left and up through the middle of a steep shield of stone, keeping the line hard for a good 30 or so hand moves.  The result is one of the most continuous hard lines on the Front Range. 

Most of “Primetime to Shine”  Photo: Jay Samuelson

The route is basically a classic power endurance sprint, so it made for a good objective to focus the efforts of my Power Endurance phase.  Lately I’ve been experimenting with different types of Interval training, besides the classic “4×4” method that I have extensive experience with.  I used a 32-move “route” for my intervals.  I did about one workout a week, which consisted of at least 4 laps (but as many as I could do without failing), starting with 4 minutes rest for the first workout.  A lap would take a little bit less than 2 minutes to climb, so the work to rest ratio started at about 1:2, with the goal of getting it down to 1:1 by reducing the rest interval by 30 seconds to a minute for each subsequent workout.  When I first set this route in the summer of 2010, I couldn’t send it once with several sessions of work.  Its very motivating to now see myself sending 5 or 6 times in a 20 minute period!

The Green Traverse, 5.13+?

The rock on the Primo Wall is nearly flawless Gneiss, and the route climbs a variety of interesting features, starting with wicked hard crimping up a steepening prow to a series of desparate moves to reach a big sloping ledge.  At this point the climbing transitions from frantic crimping to desparate sloper moves as the line veers left, away form the Primeval finish.  Gymnastic slaps and heel hooks lead straight into the ‘Shine’ crux, which involves a combination of slopers and crimps to reach an odd pegmatite scoop that is best compared to a 2-finger pocket.  If you latch this hold you’re most likely going to send (eventually), but there are still another 10 or so pumpy sloper moves that dashed my redpoint effort more than once.

The campaign was a rollercoaster ride with a lot of ups and downs, and a good lesson in the perils of over-confidence.  The wall is tricky to hit in good conditions in the fall; ideally you would climb here in the dead of winter when cold temps would be guaranteed.  The wall is in the shade until around 10am or so, then bakes in the sun until 4pm.  We bounced back and forth between morning and evening climbing sessions which made it hard to find a good rhythm.   The evening sessions were agonizing because I had to sit around the house all day trying to “save” myself for the evening climbing.  The morning sessions were a complete waste; either the rock was bitterly cold and I would numb out, or I would fail to get a sufficient warmup and get shutdown on the powerful starting moves. 

I one-hanged the route pretty early on, which lead to the ill-advised “next try” mentallity.  Thinking I would surely send “next try”, I put less and less time into each burn, in order to “save” my skin/strength/etc for the next try.  In my experience this is the ticket to a long, protracted and frustrating series of fruitless burns.  The silly part was that I was well aware of what I was doing, but still so confident that I figured it was worth the gamble.  It wasn’t! 

But some lessons are so helpful they’re worth learning several times.  Near the end of October we got the first real snow storm on the Front Range, which brought nice cold temps along with 6″ or so of snow.  The conditions made it possible to climb mid-day which was just what I needed.  For some reason trekking to the crag through snow drifts seems to bring out the best in me.  Perhaps its the solitude that comes with such situations, but I think its simply the cold stone.

Icicles over Primeval. The wet pinch appears to be about a foot directly below the lowest quickdraw.

When we arrived I was disheartened to see big icicles coming off the top of Primeval.  The wall is so steep it hadn’t really occured to me that seapage might be a problem.  The route looked pretty much dry, except for a right hand pinch that sets up the dyno to the big sloping ledge at the end of the Primeval crux, and the last 2 or 3 holds below the chains.  I always figure when redpointing its worth a try no matter the conditions, but I had pretty low expectations.  The dyno had shut me down on a number of attempts so I couldn’t really see sticking it with a wet hand. 

The rock was crisp but not overly-frigid.  I flowed through the opening sequence with relative ease.  After a risky and strenuous clip the right hand moves to an awkward spike, then a big high step and left hand to a small, sharp crimp.  Perch on the righ foot, suck in the hips and then slap the right to the wet pinch.  I could feel the water but my hand stuck.  Fortunately I’ve dialed this dyno to the point that its virtually static; the key is to keep the feet from cutting loose in order to control the swing…stuck.  Dry my hand and shake.  Wetness is no longer  an issue but the hand is much colder than usual from the water.  This is one of those rests that isn’t really that restful, and you wonder if you would be better off sprinting.  At only around 10 moves in, you aren’t pumped, just numb.  I stay long enough to get most of the feeling back in my hands and press on linking intermittent rails. 

De-booting post-send with the upper route behind.

A newly discovered foothold makes a once-desparate slap trivial, and on to the Shine crux.  This part always feels desparate but if you just keep motoring and ignore the insecurity you won’t fall.  Match the sloper rail, left foot way high, rock up and reach high to the pocket.  Gaston with the right, then dyno for the “jug”.  This time I’m not pumped.  Clip the bolt, chalk up, and finally appreciate how peaceful this canyon can be on a secluded snowy day.  The second-to-last hold is wet but incut, leading to a blind slap to a jug over the lip; probably wet–hopefully not filled with snow or worse, ice.  I consider clipping from the lower crimp, but after a slight hesitation I go for the jug.  I’ve never been so relieved to find a hold full of water!

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.)