The Speed Barrier

by Steve Bechtel

“Here lies the contradiction of developing speed. On the one hand, to increase speed, the movement must be repeated many times, but on the other hand, the more repetitions, the stronger the speed barrier grows. Increasing the amount of work does not help; on the contrary, it consolidates the speed barrier.” – Thomas Kurz

Ask any pro-level comp climber over the age of about 25 and they will lament the fact that speed climbing is included in the Olympic format next year. They will trot out any number of reasons it is silly or stupid or ridiculous, but it’s part of the competition and that’s not changing. Griping on social media only goes so far…and won’t change the fact that they need to get going on speed training if they want to impress their countrymen next year in Japan.

Interestingly, younger climbers seem to be more accepting of the rules of the game. They developed during a time that speed was required – and trained for it just like their coaches asked. There is a possibility speed climbing might not make you better at bouldering, but it is sure as hell going to make you better at being in the Olympics.

However, I’ll argue that deciding that speed training, whether on the comp wall or in the weight room, is a waste of time is an error. I think the implications of developing quicker movement, better reaction, and better-tuned energy systems can benefit us across the whole gamut of the sport. We’ve all heard the experts – the faster you climb, the less time you spend fighting fatigue, the less strenuous each pitch is on your system. It’s easy enough to see that spending 15 minutes dangling in the Flatanger Cave would be less taxing than spending 45.

Although there are times that climbing slow and in control and resting a lot can be superior, having the option of not climbing slow is clearly a positive. This is not to say you need to quit your gym and move near one  with a speed wall. You just need to climb fast. That being said, the fabulous thing about the official speed wall is that you can get crazy fast quickly because the terrain never changes. You learn to climb without conscious processing of the moves, and your muscles start to learn to contact and release quickly. Best of all, you get good at going up in a dynamic and less controlled fashion.

No speed wall? No problem.

The big key to having different speeds to choose from is to train at different speeds.

  • In the weight room, you should train everything from zero speed isometrics, to slow grinds, to explosive lifts and jumps.
  • In the bouldering gym you can do Kontrast drills (from Gimme Kraft, German for “hand me the processed cheese.”): doing each boulder problem as slowly and statically as possible, then each as dynamically as possible, then each in a logical combo of the two. Since most of us have a preferred style, we tend to all benefit from this drill.
  • On full routes, an easy method is to climb a warm-up level route, then immediately speed top-rope it. Over a series of weeks, repeat the same exercise, and try to beat the previous week’s time.
  • Even on limit-level projects, part of your preparation can be climbing easier sections more quickly, trying to arrive at cruxes fresher.

You don’t need to dedicate entire sessions to speed. A couple of speed drills in a power-focused session should be plenty to get you started. The main thing is to do it at all. An interesting problem that many runners  and cyclists face is the “speed barrier.” In short, by training high volumes in order to develop max speed, we get stuck developing that speed only, even if our body becomes capable of going faster. This is where we will begin to see given speed climbers’ numbers level off…there is no real benefit to climbing more slowly, it is difficult to develop that same kind of speed on anything but the official wall, and the more they practice, the more likely they are to hit the barrier.

There are ways around this, even in climbing, but luckily most of us are not in need of complex interventions. (These complex interventions are how we’ll see the 5-second barrier broken in the next few years.)

Remember that speed can enhance power, even power displayed at “slower” speeds. This means a few days of speed climbing might actually help you move faster on limit-level boulders simply by “taking the brakes off” your nervous system. This applies across the board to all facets of climbing, too…not just for aging pros with an Olympic dream.

Spending less time hanging upside down in a cave means more energy for the next try or the next route or the next day of climbing. Learning to climb at varying speeds will help your climbing across the board.

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