By Steve Bechtel
Why is it that some people just keep getting better while the rest of us are stuck? Further, why can I follow the same program as another climber and watch him rack up the grades while I still fail at the same level year after year? As hard as it is to accept, a lack of progress is probably nothing to do with where you live, which shoes you climb in, or how good your training spreadsheet looks – it’s probably how hard you try when the time comes to try hard. 

I’ve written about this before. Have you ever noticed that all of the best climbers at the crag have one thing in common? They are the ones falling off routes. They fail more often than novices, so that they can succeed more often, too. Are you one of the ones who tends to stick to the same routes, the classics, or the toprope area? When it comes time to drop the clutch, do you grit teeth and go up or do you scramble desperately down to your last piece of pro?

I sometimes think that Dave MacLeod’s brilliant book 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes should have started “Dear Steve,” as almost everything he addressed seemed aimed right at me. Among my favorite parts of the book: he lays out the idea of trying hard indelibly: “4% less effort doesn’t get you 4% less results. Often, 4% less effort gets you 90% less results.”

How about in the gym? How many problems do you fall off in a typical session? A few? Half? Nearly all of them? If you are training for endurance, it’s OK not to fall. But if you want to get better at rock climbing, you have got to do limit-level climbing in the gym. The more times you fail, the more your body will be delivered the message that it needs to improve. A common tactic in heavy weight training is to push the intensity forward for 6-8 sessions, followed by a couple of easier sessions before pushing the intensity again. If you can’t lift more weight, do another set with the same weight. Try to add a rep. Do whatever it takes to demand more of the system.

Relatedly, do you take it easy when you’re supposed to? Do you climb only easy routes on mileage days? When the plan calls for an easy hike, is what you do really easy? How hard do you try to train at the correct level? Turning it up is relatively easy. Keeping yourself in check is hard. If you can’t do both, chances are you’ve found that purgatory called “training medium” where every session is pretty much the same. Your results will be medium, too. So, in a sense, training easy is also training hard.

Trying hard happens on a bigger scale, too. If you’ve been into training for very long, you probably have some sort of plan. Have you ever looked back on the plan to see how closely you followed it? I am fairly disciplined about getting the sessions in and pretty good about doing everything that session calls for. Even so, some months I’ll look back and see my plan adherence is only about 60-70%! How can I say the plan didn’t work if I didn’t do the work?

That’s the step where I see more climbers fail than any other. They look for a more and more complicated, restrictive, and prescriptive plan in hopes that it will help them toe the line. It won’t. What you need to do if your adherence sucks has to be attacked two ways. One, yes, you have to harden the hell up and do the sessions. Two, you have to set up a plan that doesn’t conflict with your other commitments. Simplify the plan and make it a little more flexible. Once you have a month of good training under your belt, you can make it harder / more complex / longer.

Balancing your efforts with recovery is key. Maybe you’re the world’s best when it comes to training hard in the bouldering gym and you never miss a strength session. But what if you undermine the effort by eating poorly before each session and throwing back a few too many beers afterward? How hard you train must be balanced by how well you recover or you’re just going to spin your wheels.

Sleep and good nutrition can make up for a ton of bad training, but as Alwyn Cosgrove says, “you can’t out-train a crappy diet.” Drink plenty of water. Ice your elbows. Do whatever the hard work of recovery requires.

There are no shortcuts. There is no easy way. If you want to get better, you’re going to have to bleed for it.

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