by Steve Bechtel

You’ve heard it many times – when someone sends their hardest it feels effortless. We talk about it as the “flow” state or as having an out-of-body experience. No matter what you call it, it’s a performance state you’d like to recreate as often as possible. We usually see ourselves get to this point toward the end of several weeks or months of consistent climbing. If you find it a few time a year, you’re lucky. The worst part is it’s hard to predict when such a performance will happen.

One of the reasons I think these performances are rare is that we tend to “train” too much and “practice” too little. Our training too often overlooks the real performance factors in favor of false ones, such as a feeling of fatigue or the thrill of sending a problem. Sure getting tired training can be important, but it’s not an indicator that anything useful (except a possible endurance overload) has occurred. Likewise, sending is the name of the game in our sport. In training, success on a problem in the gym does not mean that you improved as a climber.

Think about projecting. You go up, learn what the route is all about on the first few goes, then you start to try sections, cruxes, and links. With each time up the project you are probably improving your conditioning, but you’re also ingraining efficient movement patterns and “performance habits” such as where you are looking and the style of your breathing. Breathing? Yes.

When we first try routes, most of us tend to be amped up to some degree. We are nervous (either excited or afraid) and tend to have shorter breaths and a higher heart rate. Over time, the breath calms and the heart rate drops…and the climbing miraculously feels easier. Research into gymnastics shows similar patterns of behavior. Early on in learning a routine, gymnasts’ movements will be forced, choppy, and tight. Their heart rates are high. They lose concentration easily. But over time, the routines smooth themselves out, become more natural, and eventually seem effortless.

This doesn’t happen because they tried to get stronger or more flexible. It happened because they were trying to do their movement perfectly. The task for us as climbers is to learn where “perfect” is. Is it control? Explosiveness? Speed? Pacing?

In climbing, we seek performance. We look to finish the pitch or the problem, and frequently de-focus technique or perfecting movement in favor of completion. Your first task in getting better is to chunk it down. Instead of being focused on the whole problem, you’ll need to analyze each position and movement. Let me give you a personal example: Over the years, I acquired a “hold-based” view of climbing. What I mean is that my sequencing normally only went as deep as which limb goes where and in what order. Left hand: 2 finger pocket, right foot on the little edge… What I realized a few years ago is that body position is one of the big x-factors that separates the average from the elite. It’s not finger strength, not even conditioning most of the time. I could get on the same holds as elite climbers, could even hold them, but the movement failed me because my positioning was wrong.

If you look purely at training parameters such as time to failure on a given edge, pull-up maximums, campusing data, etc., you’ll see that for every elite performer, there are dozens of much-less accomplished climbers that will produce the same numbers. What makes top performers better is better body positioning and movement economy. These are non-training factors – they are practice factors. They aren’t easily quantifiable so we tend to drift toward pursuing things we can more easily attach numbers to.

This is frustrating territory for most of us, more art than science. This is when you need to start really paying attention to how you move and “where you are” in the movement. Although you get a lot of feedback from proprioception (feeling) and your vestibular (balance) system, you might not be getting the full picture. The best way to see what’s happening is to see it. I know, it feels dorky or egotistical to video your own training, but it’s the fast track to owning movement. Many climbers avoid watching themselves perform because they don’t want to see it. But whatever it is you don’t want to see might just be the thing you most need to.

Start with simply videoing yourself on one problem or set of moves. Do the sequence several times, watching the video between each go. Analyze what you think might be improved next try, and attempt to clean it up. 4-5 repeats and you’ll see that there is a lot going on. The most frequent comments I’ll hear from people is that they didn’t realize what it was that made a sequence feel easier until they saw it on video. After doing this exercise only a few times, most climbers see noticeable improvements in specific patterns. And don’t worry…everyone is videoing themselves these days, so you won’t seem out-of-place.

The next level is to get some coaching. I’m not talking about hiring an online climbing coach (how’s this for irony: I don’t recommend ANYONE hire an online coach if at all possible, for this very reason.), I’m talking about spending time at the gym with a movement coach or simply bouldering with a friend who climbs as well as or better than you do. All you need from the friend is honest feedback on how your climbing was on a problem. Feedback such as “it seemed like your hips sagged” or “your feet looked ‘€˜light’ on that move” help you to focus on improving position each time.

Further, simply climbing the same problems as another climber and discussing movement might be the simplest, and most enduring way of improving over the long haul. In such sessions, keep the movement in mind, knowing that getting the parts right is what your goal is. As I said before, sending is secondary to successful movement.

Another simple tactic for success related to the point above is to repeat movements. In some regard, this is the true beauty of the symmetrically-built System Board; you can exactly match left and right movement. This isn’t necessary, though, if you have enough bouldering terrain to keep you climbing different problems all the time. What you’d do in a bouldering session is to pick maybe five problems as your “exercises” for that workout. The problems should be easy enough that you can repeat them each 4-6 times in the session, and should cover a variety of angles and movement types.

The session is set up so that you go through each problem several times, and take time to assess and fix between each move. This is a session for a more advanced climber, as it requires having a “feel” for what correct movement is. You can combine this with video analysis for a thorough skill development session. Again, it doesn’t really matter what you send, it’s whether the movement comes out correctly.

There is a hidden benefit to working hard on technique. By default, the training volume has to be fairly high. By spending the requisite hours working at the sub-maximal “learning zone”, you are also gaining low-intensity fitness. Sport science shows us that capillary density and mitochondria are built not only by continuous training volume such as ARC traversing, but by total load over time. The take home? It’s not the number of moves you do in a row, but the number of moves you do in a training month/year that determine mitochondrial density and the need for blood flow changes.

Focused practice eventually transforms into grooved patterns or habits. Once you have mastered a basic skill such as heel hooking, you can identify when to use the skill and how. You can then add layers to the skill, learning to heel hook on slopers, how to pull further on them, etc. The irony of practicing skills is that the more advanced you are as a climber, the  more you’ll have to work at it. Climbing high grades is far more about refined skill than maximum strength or power, and the window for growth gets smaller and smaller as you improve.

I know… it sounds crazy to suggest that a twenty-year veteran of the sport go back and focus on skills. It wasn’t until I started looking at elite climbers’ performance data that I saw what I didn’t want to see. People climbing 5 or 6 grades harder than I do were no stronger, had no greater endurance…they just did the sport better. The greatest gift you could give yourself just might be to step back and see how well you actually climb, and then do something about it.

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