Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Advanced Tactics (Part 13)
Tactical On-Route Climbing Decisions (B) HANDLING “EMERGENCIES” EFFECTIVELY
Whether you’re onsighting or redpointing, one of the greatest tactics a climber can possess is the wherewithal to dump all preconceived plans and notions about beta in response to an “emergency situation.” I put this in quotes because in terms of sport climbing, we’re much more rarely confronted with a genuine emergency (meaning a life-threatening situation or one with major injury potential) than certain other styles of climbing. However, we do have to deal with realizing that our rehearsed sequence beta (on redpoints) or clipping stances or ideas about how to climb a section of a route (for onsights) are not going to work in the moment when we need to execute. Having the ability to switch into combat mode, moving into the great unknown with everything you have, can be the difference between success and failure.
In other words, when sh#$ gets tough, are you going to say “take,” or are you going to fight it out until the bitter end?
Part of this tactical ability obviously involves the mental training component (topic of the next series here), so I won’t discuss that too deeply at the moment. But you do need to have the mentality that you will fight for it, no matter what – that taking isn’t an option (unless you really are going to get hurt, of course). You have to cultivate this attitude – maybe not for every route you try, since some burns will be sussing out future projects if you like redpointing. But at a certain point in the redpoint process, you have to start pushing this hard. Pushing hard to the point of falling/failure before you’re ready to actually send can help prepare your entire being, both physically and mentally, for the amount of effort you’ll have to put out when you actually ARE sending.
Beyond this, it can be invaluable to possess the knowledge of your own personal strengths that can help you get through difficult situations when what you’ve planned or thought you would do is suddenly impossible. An example of this for me is that when the going gets tough, if I can match my hands, or even match a hand on a hand, or grab an intermediate or even just dab my fingers on the wall where I wish there were a handhold for that hand, this can be the difference between sending and failing. Fingers are my strength; pulling big moves, especially when I’m tired, is not a strength. So when I hit that “I can’t do this move the right way!” point of almost failing, my automatic, trained response is to seek out some way to find another hold that will shorten the move. I will, of course, also look for any way to get a shake, however brief, to try to recoup some big-pull power. And as a last resort (often after matching and shaking), I will fling my hand wildly at the next hold with everything I got – because if I do happen to connect, I might be able to hang it.
This all happens in a fraction of a second or a couple seconds, depending on the situation – so it’s imperative (if you want to succeed more often in sticky situations) to be aware of what your individual strengths are and to drill yourself to virtually automatically take advantage of them when presented with such difficulties instead of giving up and saying take. You don’t get style points, so even if the send doesn’t happen how you anticipated, it still counts, and you should be proud of your ability to change it up on the fly and improvise when needed.
At other times, if I have the strength left, I will down-climb the entire section (sometimes three or four bolts’ worth) I just climbed to get back to a hold that I can shake on, to try to regroup and reassess how I should approach the next section. I think being able to down climb is a huge advantage; it’s well worth spending some time developing this skill, and it can also help you learn how to memorize climbing sequences more quickly.
Other climbers’ immediate tactical reactions to such situations are, of course, different from mine, because we all have different strength and weaknesses. This is an area where being aware of and honest about what works best for you and what you’re best at can help inform your decisions and enable you to succeed in sticky situations. You should ALWAYS and unapologetically draw uoon your strengths when you’re trying to send, no matter how different your tactical decision to get your through the toughness might differ from the standard approach. The takeaway for training purposes if you do differentiate wildly from the normal way is, of course, very valuable – exposing a weakness shows you something can work on.
Finally, for clipping – if it’s safe to fall (clean fall/nothing to hit/trusted belayer) and you find that you can’t make the next clip, having the mental capability to intelligently and quickly make the decision to skip the clip or clip it when you’re almost past it can make the difference between sending and failing, too. Of course, if it’s not safe to skip, you shouldn’t do it; climbing isn’t worth risking your life and limb (if you don’t agree with that, then at least consider how you’ll impact your partner’s day if you blow it and deck or hurt yourself). But if you can’t clip and it’s safe to go on, it’s good to go for it instead of obsessing about the clip and falling because of that.
Tactical On-Route Climbing Decisions (C) INDIVIDUAL TACTICS
My tactical solutions to sticky “emergency situations” that I described in the previous entry also largely shape my plan of attack for difficult redpoint attempts, especially getting through difficult sections that involve large, dynamic movements or series of moves.
But doesn’t this fly in the face of the whole idea of working your weaknesses to improve the most quickly at climbing?
I actually don’t really think so, so long as you’re consciously aware of your weaknesses and working to counter them when appropriate.
As I’ve delved more deeply into steeper and more powerful/dynamic climbing (always my weakness) these past few years , I’ve realized that shirking using my strengths to my advantage when trying routes that are difficult for me on this style is just a silly, self-sabotaging approach. What I mean by this is that I will use intermediates; I will rest and shake; I will take the time to set a good heel hook, toe hook, knee bar, or knee scum that takes a tiny bit of arm/shoulder power away from the next move; I will match (sometimes hand on hand, using the hand underneath as an intermediate to yard of off); I will stuff my fingers into a pocket bird-beaked or stacked to get better purchase; and so forth. In other words, I will find every way possible to take the one-arm power out of these routes, just as I always have done. This is just smart tactical planning; it’s the same reason why Kevin will do almost entirely the opposite on such routes.
Still, though, in the bigger picture, these steeper, more powerful, more dynamic routes demand from me all that I’ve historically struggled with – no matter how much tactical trickery I employ to play to my strengths, I can’t get away from doing big moves, from powerful one-arm dynamic pulls, from having to move quickly through sections (faster than I’m comfortable with), from giving it everything I have and yelling with effort. As I just observed the other day, “The steeper it gets, the worse I am at it, and the more I enjoy climbing it!” I’m out of my comfort zone and forced to climb to my weakness, no matter how much of my strength I try to draw upon.
This is a different approach than only trying routes that actually cater to my strengths and allow me to use them more effectively than the steeper, thuggier routes do, obviously. Not that I don’t ever climb routes that play into my strengths a bit more – of course not. I think a balance is good; it’s fun to feel strong and effective, too. But my point of this entry is that if you’re working on routes at or near your limit that challenge your overall weakness(es), it’s tactically intelligent to employ your strengths as much as you can to help you through. You’ll still work your weaknesses – there’s no way I can’t use power and dynamic movement and one-arm pulls on super-steep thug climbing, just like there’s almost no way to avoid using tiny crimps and little pockets in Ten Sleep Canyon.
The more appropriate time and place to force the issue – for me, to do big moves that I can make smaller, or to rest less, for example – is to do this on routes I’ve already done and know – like my warm-up or end-of-day/cool-down routes. Now that I’ve climbed these lower-than-my-limit routes in my own style, trying to push that style in a new direction can be a way to keep them fun and more challenging. So, for example, after watching Kevin do a huge move on a warm-up that looked way more graceful and less ticky-tacky than my method, I got the beta and started making myself do this every time. This helps me both physically and mentally, as it helps retrain my brain to see and consider such potential movements, instead of the more ingrained approach of grabbing every hold available. Likewise, I’ll try to not rest and push the pace on parts of routes or entire routes that I know better, to help condition my body and brain, both, to be more comfortable and efficient with a faster pace and less rest.
As for the harder routes, I’ve learned to figure out what I’d do if I were stronger and didn’t need to match (i.e. what the majority of climbers on such a route would do), and instead of feeling pleasure at my need to use this tactic to limp myself through big pulls, I always feel a humorous tweak of irritation; I accept that I will likely always do this as the moves get bigger and the pulls get harder (I doubt one-arm pulling will ever be my strong suit in climbing!). Every time this happens, though, I recognize it as a huge issue that still needs work. And I really do love it when I find that I no longer need to match to do a particular move; it’s a little victory than I can be proud of every time.
So – be aware of your strengths and strategize smartly to use them to your advantage when you’re working out the beta on hard redpoints or going for a difficult onsight. At the same time, understand that often our go-to strengths also can help us realize more fully what our weaknesses are, showing us what we could potentially work on in training to improve our overall climbing game. And, unless you only want to be good at one style of climbing, diversify your efforts and climb more routes that force you to work your weaknesses. Throw in some strength-showcases there for sure, but spend two to four times as much time climbing on terrain that exploits something you’re relatively “bad” at. That, too, is a smart tactic for overall improvement as a climber.
Identifying and Effectively Training Your Weaknesses (A)
Almost everyone gravitates towards climbing what they’re best at, and we tend to do the same thing when we train for climbing, too, whether we pursue a structured training program or just wing it in the gym a few times a week. However, as you well know, this isn’t the best tactical approach to improving your overall performance, just like only climbing routes (or problems) outside that cater to your strengths and don’t exploit your weaknesses isn’t the best approach for using on-the-rocks experiences to improve your overall performance.
To help you identify your own weaknesses, pay attention to the moves and types of climbs that you like and don’t like. If you studiously avoid a particular angle or style of climbing or your heart sinks when you approach a crag and see what it has to offer, that’s another good indicator of what your weakness might be. If you don’t like a particular climb or even a move/series of moves that everyone else loves, that can be a strong indicator that that climb/move(s) exposes one of your weaknesses.
I’ve also noticed with myself that sequences that I deemed “disgusting” and that felt awkward and thrutchy to me in the past have been rendered fun and fluid and cool moves once I’ve gained enough strength in the right areas – the added strength enabled me to climb them as they should be climbed, instead of feeling like every move was unpleasant. So now, when I encounter these “disgusting” types of movements or sequences, I pay attention to how others view them as well as to what it is about my body that makes this sequence or move feel not-so-awesome.
Beyond this, pay attention to why you fall, and I mean really pay attention and break it down – sometimes, what seems like the culprit might be a part of a chain reaction, as in you may feel like your core gives out when it’s your fingers or your arms that start to fail and then your core tries to compensate and then it, too, fails…and so forth. Ask your partners for feedback as well; heck, even shoot some videos with your phone and watch what happens when you fall if you want to get really nerdy about it. I do. It helps.
If I watch two videos back to back of myself failing on a sequence and then succeeding on the same sequence, it can cut out a lot of internal feedback effort by giving me the external feedback I need to process what’s happening and what needs to happen (both in the moment and in terms of greater training plans). You can’t watch yourself climb (obviously), so it’s a good double-check that can really help you out and expedite the learning process.
On to training weaknesses effectively, a topic I’ll start into today and finish in the next entry. As a general rule, the more the climbs you choose to attempt challenge your areas of weakness, the less likely you’ll be able to spend a ton of time on those weaknesses in training without risking injury or overuse. This makes sense, if you think about it. If you hammer an area that holds you back to extreme fatigue or failure during a climbing day or for multiple climbing days – like fingers, forearms, biceps, lats, core, you name it – and then you try to load up on training that same area on top of that, you’ll just be adding injury to insult, most likely. However, by just climbing to your weakness you may also not be drilling that area (or those areas) to leap up to a stronger level in the most efficient and effective way possible.
First of all, whatever fails first in climbing on a particular route/move makes everything fail, meaning you may train one movement to fatigue/failure, but the rest of the areas of weakness that hold you back don’t get pushed nearly as hard. Added to this, if you’re carrying any fatigue when you reach the move(s) in question, you’re not training them at a true strength-gaining level of repetitions (generally three to six reps of your one-rep maximum of any given motion/resistance exercise). Climbing is so varied and intricate that it’s hard to push weaknesses forward evenly just by climbing what challenges you.
So, for (a very simplistic) example, if you have trouble with one-arm power and the route you’re trying has one really hard pull halfway up for your right arm, you may indeed fatigue your one-arm pulling power in that arm…but what about the other arm? And what about all the relatively easy reps you had to do to get to that move (as you obviously have to bend your arm repetitively on almost any climbing route to get halfway up it)? Clearly, you’re not training that motion in the strength-gaining range, so you won’t gain strength in that motion as quickly as you potentially could by breaking it out away from climbing and training it (and its buddies, your other weaknesses) in a strength-training program on its own.
Identifying and Effectively Training Your Weaknesses (B)
Climb to your weaknesses, using your strengths to your advantage while doing so, and also, train your weaknesses outside of climbing…it seems like a rather simple recipe for improvement, until you bring in what I discussed yesterday – that training your weaknesses after (or even worse, before) climbing to your weaknesses can cause overtraining and overuse injuries. This can happen especially when you first start trying to address weaknesses in training; it’s very easy to embrace a new training program with enthusiasm and quickly overdo it, and then to decide that training doesn’t work and isn’t for you.
Instead, make a conscious decision about when you’re going to climb to climb, and when you’re going to climb to train and train to improve your weaknesses and not put performance on the rocks first on the list of priorities. So when you climb to climb, you train your weaknesses by challenging them on the routes you choose to try (within reason, giving yourself some candy routes, too, that make you feel good and strong, as needed), but you don’t do much, if any, external strength training (beyond opposing muscle work, plus maintenance work as needed if you’re going to lose specific strength because of the style/angle you’re climbing on – like if it’s all jugs, you might train your fingers a bit, or if it’s fingery and vertical, you might try to keep your core work going).
You can get stronger with this approach, too – don’t get me wrong – you can see strength gains and adaptive power gains, both, from spending time climbing, especially if you climb mainly or solely on routes that challenge your weaknesses. In fact, I consider this a crucial part of the training plan, the conversion-to-power/climbing movement part of the plan, when you take any raw strength gains you might have made and refine/adapt them through repetition and conditioning into very real tools you can use on the rocks.
You have to mold strength gains; if you come out stronger from resistance training, your body-being doesn’t usually immediately understand them fully, nor does it get how to apply them properly in every situation. So (simplistic example again) if you’re stronger at general one-arm pulling motions, you might still have to spend some time on that big one-arm move specifically to adapt your strength to it, learning the timing, learning how to coordinate the take-off and connection, learning how to recruit the appropriate amount of explosive/dynamic power to execute, and building up the fitness to execute the move where it falls in the route.
For some period(s) of time in the year, though, it’s more efficient and effective for most of us (or for those of us who want to improve by training, anyhow) to put the eternal quest for sending on the back burner a bit and to bring those weaknesses front and center in training. I’ve talked about strength training a ton in previous entries, and I’m not going to go into which exercises you should select here and how many reps/sets you should do, as that’s beyond the scope of a tactical blog and depends largely on the individual (in terms of strengths and weaknesses, age, lifestyle, years climbing, and training background, to name a few). The point here is that a person needs to have self-discipline and a dedication to improving in the big picture in order to sacrifice climbing time and climbing performance in the here and now, and as a regular part of his or her yearly training program.
This may mean not climbing to your weaknesses as much, as hard, or at all when you’re training, depending on how much fatigue you carry as a result of the training. There’s absolutely no point of training if it makes you overtrained or injured, especially if you keep getting injured on a regular basis or repetitively in the same areas. Injuries do happen to most people who play hard at some point in their lives, so don’t feel badly if it happens to you or like you’ve failed – instead, try to learn what you can to avoid this in the future by making smarter choices (more on injuries in Improve Your Sport Climbing 15: Injuries).
But avoiding injuries during your training time(s) of the year should be your No. 1 goal – getting stronger and eventually climbing harder comes in just behind that, but again, no point to training if you get injured from training. If you can’t be disciplined about resting when your body needs it and making your decisions about what/when/how much to climb based on how recovered (or not) you feel from training, don’t train. It’s better to be able to climb injury-free than to train and get injured and not be able to climb at all OR train at all.
Be disciplined. Be smart. Know when you’re climbing to perform. Know when you’re climbing as part of your training plan. Letting go of your ego is often a huge part of this. Consciously decide when training trumps climbing performance and vice versa. More on this in the final entry on Tactics…
Planning Peaks and Plotting Progress
One of the craziest things about climbers and boulderers is that virtually all of us want and almost seem to expect that our performances on the rocks should be consistent and linearly progressive – in other words, that we should be constantly peaking in performance as well as constantly improving our ability levels.
This is completely misguided and actually impossible: a totally unrealistic expectation. If you truly push yourself to climb or boulder at your true physical limits frequently, you will not experience this type of consistent performance output, nor will you feel awesome and like you’re ready to crush on every single day you climb. If you don’t climb at your true physical limits, you may always feel consistent and energetic – but that’s because you’re not actually taxing your body on most, if any, days in the same way that someone who does push this hard regularly does.
Being tactically intelligent about this reality and comprehending how it works is a key to maximizing your successes in both climbing and training, minimizing your risk of injury and burnout, and enjoying the sh#$ out of every climbing day and training for climbing, too. More about that last bit in the next series on mental training. I’ll finish this series by giving you 10 takeaway points to remember about how peaking and progression work and go hand-in-hand:
- True athletic peaks can only last for two or three weeks, tops.
- To stimulate a peak, you need to taper (or unload) your current climbing/training regimen. This means that you need to do less than what you’ve been doing and rest more.
- Decreasing the volume of training/climbing for one or two weeks may be the best method of tapering, meaning you use shorter sessions but maintain the intensity and possibly the frequency of climbing/training.
- You’re better off doing less than you think you should before a big climbing competition or redpoint attempt than doing more than you think you should – or probably by even doing what you think you should. Three or four or even five days of rest can actually be a magical ticket to sending if you’re well prepared to send but haven’t dissipated fatigue or had a bunch of rest days in a while, but only if you can handle it and not feed yourself negative messages about losing fitness. What the mind believes, it achieves, You have to have faith in this process.
- After peaking (send or fail, win or lose), no matter how stoked you are to start training hard or climbing hard again, it’s not uncommon for the body to crash a little or even a lot, depending on how hard/how long you pushed during the peak. Be careful with getting back into climbing or training and move more slowly back into it than you might want to. Listen to your body and let your level of recovery and psych be your guide. Taking some time off (up to a month) and doing something different for exercise/fitness can help prepare you to resume training and/or climbing again at full recovery/energy levels.
- The best-made training program does not result in linear progression; undulating ups and downs in performance and ability are normal.
- A slight downturn in performance in training or climbing is not an indicator that you should train harder or more; it indicates that you need to rest more and focus on recovery. Training regularly or harder than usual in an already downturned-performance state can lead to overtraining, burnout and overuse injuries.
- Training programs usually take more time than you want them to take to generate visible results; seeing tangible climbing performance results after three or six weeks of training is the exception rather than the rule.
- Most of the time, progression from training happens so gradually that you won’t really notice it until you think back a year or two and realize that you’ve come a long way from where you were when you started.
- Because of the gradual nature of performance improvement for most people, deciding to sacrifice climbing time for training as a part of your regular training program requires an incredible amount of discipline and faith. It is an efficient and effective approach in the big picture for most, meaning it leads to faster overall gains that just climbing would, especially if you’ve never tried to train your weaknesses or address them outside of just climbing before, and especially if you have some pretty glaring weaknesses holding you back. However, because it takes so much time to see results and because it limits your climbing and climbing performance during some of the year, it can be intolerable for some people. More on this in the next series…Improve Your Sport Climbing (14): Mental Training (HARD).
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey