By Steve Bechtel
If you’ve ever had breakfast at a Las Vegas buffet, you know that quantity doesn’t always mean quality. At first glance, more seems to be better…but the lackluster experience and the ensuing gut ache will remind you that getting a lot means nothing more than getting a lot.
My brother-in-law, Matt, is an outstanding chef. Over the past several years, I have had the pleasure of eating several multi-course gourmet meals he’s prepared. These are hours-long affairs where we eat between five and seven courses. Each is remarkably tasty, and yet each is served in a relatively small portion. The result at the end of the night is not a buffet gut-ache, but a feeling of having eaten very well. We’re not sluggish, nauseous, or in pain – just satisfied.
There is a parallel with training. You’ll remember that I don’t love the fact that many of us lump everything physical that we do into the training category. Call it exercise. Call it activity. Be smart, though, and remember that training is planned and progressed, and has a start and finish both in terms of sessions and phases. Zumba is not training, unless your training goals are shin splints and embarrassing memories. Likewise, climbing until you can no longer close your hands is not training, unless you have planned to do so, built the base for it, and plan to rest a good few days afterward.
So what makes “good” training? There can be many components, but here are the big four:
Build a plan. In college, it was never my plan to read as much as possible or up the amount of time I sat in a lecture hall. I also didn’t sign up for the hardest classes simply because they were hard. Further, I didn’t take classes just because they were popular. Although I’ll admit I did take one class just because of a pretty girl, I’ll hold that it was not part of my otherwise well-built educational plan.
In college, my plan was obviously to do the exact amount of reading, studying, and testing it took to get my degree. By doing only those necessary things, I achieved my goal, and reserved precious time and money for other activities, like climbing. Your training plan should be no different. You should train to the exact demands of your goals. You should decide whether your need more general strength, finger strength, power, whatever – and then figure out what to do to get it.
A good plan includes several levels. You should have a five-year view, a one-year view, a 6 month, a 3 month, and a one month view. With each layer, your plan should be more and more detailed, including schedules and goals for each month of training for the next few months. The more detailed you make your plan, the easier it is to stick to – and know you’re doing enough.
Follow the plan. If you’re interested in training, you probably follow a few blogs and read every training article you can get your hands on. As a young climber, my problem was that each new program I read attracted me like a moth to flame. In years past, no matter where I was in a cycle, I’d jump to the next new thing as soon as I read about it. I did the first few weeks of innumerable programs, and experienced the results you might expect.
There are always hiccups along the way, but you have got to stick to the plan if you want the plan to work. Barring injury or illness, a mediocre plan followed through to its end will produce better results than false-starting a better one. Spoiler alert: The part of a program that feels stupid or a waste of time is probably the part you need most.
Fitness is the result of what you did, not how it felt. Even if you feel like the session was too easy, or you could handle more workouts, don’t get dumb. Make a note of how you feel, and plan to make adjustments to the next phase if you still feel the program wasn’t correct.
Finish strong, most of the time. Strength coaches talk about training as “digging the hole.” What this means is that during training, you break your body down, dropping to a level below your baseline. Over the next 24 to 48 hours (if you did it right) your body slowly crawls its way back to your previous level of strength, and a little bit higher – an effect called supercompensation. Supercompensation is the whole deal in training. If you miss it, either by under-training or overdoing it, you get little out of the session.
Although there is some value in stacking hard sessions and training while in the hole for some high-level athletes, most of us are better suited to training when fresh, and training only until we start to see a performance decline in the session. If we continue to bury ourselves as we get weaker and weaker, we leave the realm of strength and power training and we extend the required recovery time – two things you do not want. The exceptions to this rule is when you are at the end-stages of a work capacity cycle, or if you are doing a rare “a muerte” session.
I remind my athletes that it is always better to under-train by 5% than to go over by 1%. If you left a little too much in the bank and you’re going into that next session a little too fresh what’s the worst that can happen? You perform better and maybe send a new personal hardest problem? But going 1% over…that’s when you tweak a finger, start to see your numbers drop in subsequent sessions, etc… Always stop after a personal best, whether it’s weights or in the rock gym – go celebrate, pat yourself on the back, and then get some sleep and be ready to train again the next time.
Assess constantly. Last year, I talked to a competition climber on the phone about how she could go from sitting at 3rd – 6th place in most comps to winning. I asked her how much she trained each week.
“Well how many hours did you train each week leading up to Millau?”(Her last comp, in which she did well.)
“Well, I’m not sure, maybe 15 or something.”
“How did you feel leading up to the comp? How were your sessions?”
“OK, I guess. I’m not sure.”
“Did you have any significant training breakthroughs before that comp?”
“Umm, not really. Well, I don’t know…”
You get the gist. She had had a great season two years before, and wasn’t sure what was different this season. Without some general information – simple stuff like hours per week of activity and bodyweight – it’s hard to pick apart your year-to-year. There are any number of training log apps out there, and there are even some, such as Addaero, that are actively trying to make their programs user-friendly for rock climbers. 8a.nu has a primitive training log that integrates with a scorecard – both useful tools for climbers. If you are old-school, a notebook will do the trick, as long as you set aside time for monthly assessment of your program. Finally, if you are an egotistical douchebag, you could post all your training data on Facebook.
Good training starts with clear goals. If you don’t know what, exactly, you want from going to the rock gym, skip tonight’s session and get your notebook and calendar out.