By Micah Elconin
My buddy Elijah claims his power animal is the sloth. If you’ve seen him climb, this might make more sense. He moves amazingly slow and almost appears to be falling asleep at rests. The man rarely moves with any sense of urgency (on or off the wall), but he’s a damn good climber. Fingers of steel and, yes, endurance that many simply dream of. So, I was initially a bit confused when years ago he said to me,
“Climbing is a momentum sport.”
I mean, yeah, I get it. Moves can/will feel easier when we generate a bit of momentum, but the human sloth had to be talking about something else. I sat with this for a minute, asked a few follow up questions, and then slowly it dawned on me. My time scale was way off. He wasn’t talking about momentum move to move. He was talking about momentum day to day, month to month, or year to year. Call it mojo, energy, stoke, or luck. You're pointing to something very real and important in performance rock climbing.
Remember the last time you felt almost unstoppable at the crag? You had loads of energy, latched holds with authority, and savored the fight on every attempt. It was almost as if there was actually less gravity every time you pulled onto the wall. Goals felt attainable and you saw tangible progress on a regular basis. That is the feeling of positive momentum.
Alternatively, you likely have memories of days or periods in your climbing where it felt like the deck was stacked against you. You fumbled clips, botched top outs, and were generally anxious every time you stepped up to the wall. You also probably moped around wondering why anyone would invest so much time in an activity they were so bad at. Sadly, for many climbers, this is the far too common experience of negative momentum.
Momentum is at play across our entire experience of climbing. We feel it on the wall, throughout the day, and across the arch of seasons. It’s intoxicating regardless of its quality. When things are good, we eat it up and rub our bellies with a big satisfied smile. When things are bad, we wallow in it, covering ourselves in mud and getting it all over everything else in our lives. Finding and keeping positive momentum can be challenging despite our best efforts. However, there’s a number of things we can do to help stack the deck in our favor.
We’ve already established that efficient climbing often employs momentum to create more efficiency on the wall, but I want to talk about the more subtle momentum that affects your experience on the wall. Why is it that some burns feel so good and others so bad?
Fear: Our bodies are wired to shy away from dangling high off the ground. This is a good thing and helps keep us safe. This also means that every climber on the planet is managing some amount of fear when they are up on the wall. Yes, a few incredibly talented and experienced climbers have figured out how to minimize fear to nearly non-existent, but it’s still there waiting in the background. Think about the hardest move you can do at the bouldering gym. Now, imagine doing that same move 20 ft above your last piece of protection. Very few climbers would be willing to even try the move with that sort of exposure, let alone stick it. The point is, fear holds you back on the wall and quickly erodes forward momentum. Get your fear under control and you’ll instantly feel lighter on projects.
Preparation: Climbing something at/around your limit requires more than just strong fingers. You’ve got to be ready to execute. If you’re tying in for a redpoint attempt or stepping up to a bouldering project, it’s essential that you have the sequence worked out and memorized. I know, you’re thinking, “duh, of course,” but how many times have you found yourself lost or out of sequence on an attempt? The key to opening up the floodgates of positive momentum on a project attempt is to have the movement ingrained in your unconscious so that you can just execute.
Pacing: Hard climbing often requires more than one gear and an inability to effectively switch gears usually leads to a stall. Moving quickly is often the key to success in long resistant sections of climbing, but some climbers struggle to pick up the pace (often because of the items above). Conversely, many folks are far too aroused while they are hanging from what is supposed to be a rest stance. Finding the appropriate balance of pace on the wall helps build the momentum you’re looking for.
We all have good days and bad days. There’s an infinite number of variables that can and will affect our performance. It may seem a bit up to chance (some of it is), but we actually have control over quite a few of the things that either make or break our session.
Warming up: First thing’s first. Warming up effectively is probably the best insurance policy for securing positive momentum during the day. This should be fairly obvious, so I won’t dive into the details of how/why warming up is essential. Letting your schedule, crew, or lack of focus convince you that it’s ok to skip any sort of warm up will likely leave you feeling frustrated throughout the rest of the session. Conversely, obsessing over every detail of your warm up when certain variables are out of your control can often lead to sub par results. It’s ok if you don’t love the movement on the easier routes at the crag or if you don’t feel “great” going through the process. See it though, and leave the judgment at the door. We all know that plenty of our best days began with us feeling a bit clunky.
Obsessing: I hate to break it, but you’re imperfect. Even with best efforts, you’re going to make mistakes, drop moves, or come up a bit short on your goal for any given attempt. Sure, it's important to spend a bit of time trying to understand what went wrong, but this process should not consume the rest of your day. Give it a bit of thought, maybe jot down a note to yourself for later, and then let it go. The guy stomping around the crag complaining that he sucks is not experiencing positive momentum, and neither is the other guy who’s sitting there silently thinking the same thing about himself while he snacks on an energy bar dreading his next attempt.
Partners: You can do everything right and have loads of positive momentum working for you only to be stopped dead in your tracks by other people. Of course, the opposite is true as well. A positive and supportive climbing partner can often help break cycles of building negative momentum. Ideally, your climbing partner helps encourage practices that keep things positive and productive. They understand your goals and are on board helping you achieve them throughout the day. Somedays, this might mean climbing a ton of pitches and having a good time. On others, it might be digging in for long project burns together. When things don’t seem to be clicking, always begin by looking in the mirror, but keep in mind that your partners can also have a major hand in the outcomes of your day.
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The long term arch of climbing experience is arguably the most important momentum to be keeping tabs on. Near misses and crap days are going to come up regardless of how well we tend to things, but those looking to accomplish big goals need to figure out how to build positive momentum for the long haul.
Goals: The magnetism of well crafted goals generates incredible momentum and new goals really jump start things. Walk into a gym on January 2nd and you’ll likely be greeted by a horde of people who seem to be really excited about their training. Unfortunately, most of the time, the acceleration generated by a new goal wears off relatively quickly and sooner or later we’re stuck working hard with no end in sight. Progress slows, stops, or perhaps even reverses. Life happens and we give up. Positive momentum is officially non-existent. The key to avoiding this all too common story is to create a well structured series of proggressive goals that pull towards the bigger ones. As a general rule, it’s helpful to have dream (lifetime), annual goals, and monthly goals to help keep things moving in the right direction.
Overtraining: Enthusiasm is critical, but overtraining is deadly. It can be hard to notice when the scale tips, but anyone pushing their limit needs to continually check in here. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of working hard or even grinding a bit to finish up an especially big day, but if this type of session is becoming the norm and you can’t seem to get any traction in your climbing performance, overtraining is likely the culprit. You’ll only lose a bit of momentum if you nip in the bud early, but if left unchecked, injuries will creep in. Getting injured is the absolute worst thing for positive momentum. What’s the first rule of training? DON”T GET INJURED.
Sending: This probably sounds like a truism, but clipping chains and topping out boulders is essential for keeping positive momentum. But here’s the catch: You don’t have to be sending things at your absolute limit to feel wind in the sails. Even successful ascents of moderate level routes pull us forward. Everytime you clip anchors, say take, and lower you’re cutting a very important groove into your unconscious mind. Everytime you top out a boulder the narrative continues to build. “I send things.” “I finish projects.” “I am a good climber.” So yes, please keep working on those dream projects, but carve out time to be successful on other routes and problems that are not necessarily at your absolute limit.
Climbing performance will ebb and flow. There’s no way around it and that’s often totally fine. We won’t always be on the straight obvious road accelerating towards success, but there’s almost always an opportunity to nip negative momentum in the bud and “begin again” in the right direction. The sloth may not be moving fast, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going anywhere.
ABOUT MICAH ELCONIN
Micah has cultivated his climbing practice for more than twenty years. Based in Eugene, Oregon he coaches local athletes through his business Good Stone, and offers remote coaching as a part of the team at Climb Strong. Micah has climbed all over the world including dozens of first ascents on the Central Coast of California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Despite entering his fourth decade in 2021, he continues to slowly, yet steadily, improve.
As a coach, Micah draws on a variety of experiences to support his athletes. He is well versed in climbing specific training modalities and holds multiple Performance Climbing Coach Certificates. He spent the first half of his twenties deeply committed to Ashtanga yoga practicing under the guidance of Steve Dwelley and Michele Nichols. He also spent 3 months at Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. As a former professional chef, Micah has extensive culinary experience and holds Nutrition Educator and Natural Chef’s certificates from Bauman College. He’s also earned an MBA in Entrepreneurship from University of Oregon and a BA in Philosophy from University of California at Santa Barbara.