by Steve Bechtel
Want to get good at climbing? Be patient.
Every month at our gym, we have a training meeting with the entire coaching staff. These meetings range from exercise technique to invoicing to habit change – basically everything you can imagine when it comes to training athletes. A few years ago, I talked about how we could take an elite-level triathlete and a veteran rock climber and “switch” them. We’d force them to cease all activity in their sport and give them the best coaching and planning we could in the other sport. For two years, we’d let them train, improve their training age, and then we’d put them head-to-head in a climbing contest and a triathlon. One of my coaches was a very competitive athlete and an elite triathlete and was sure that the triathlete would out-climb the climber.
What do you think would happen? If you said the climber would outclimb the triathlete and then get smoked in the triathlon, you’d probably be right. But why?
Most of us give too much attention to the acute outcomes of a training session; fatigue, sore muscles, maybe even sending a harder problem or two. The real effect of practicing a sport or activity comes on so slowly that we don’t really notice it. There was a time when you crashed every time you went skiing or rode a bike. With practice, this happened less and less until finally it happened very rarely. This happens in climbing, too, where climbs we each now consider warm-ups required many hangs, help from our belayer and maybe even an aid move or two.
Over time we acquire more and more motor skill and improve our abilities on many levels all at once. The improvement comes from changes in the brain, more efficient coordination of movements, emotional control, and improvement in at least a dozen other factors. It’s these factors that are almost impossible to shortcut. It’s these factors that can only be improved by climbing for a long time. Thousands of hours of deliberate practice.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code both cover many facets of developing talent through deliberate practice. The now-famous 10,000 hour rule was popularized in Outliers. The original idea came from Nordic researcher Anders Ericsson, and it makes sense – you need to practice a lot to get good. The big variable in climbing is just how present you are during those hours.
The more you can learn during your climbs, both consciously and subconsciously, the faster you’ll get better. The more time you spend in the “improvement zone”, the better. Where is this zone? It’s when you are climbing in the environment where you want to improve (i.e. on lead, on real rock) and are close to your physical limit. This is partially why gym training is less effective, why toproping is less effective, and why climbing easy routes is less effective.
Whether you are optimizing your learning or not, you put the years in and you will probably get pretty good at the sport. Sure your fitness might tank with age and maybe you’ve become a little soft in the middle, but you still have the most important building blocks of a good climber. It’s possible to add fitness to this formula and you can rebuild a great climber even late in life. Contrast this with a super-fit youth that can crank out the one-arms but can’t redpoint 5.10. This is clearly a time for massive amounts of practice and very little training.
So how do you fast-track your training age? Deliberate practice is the start. Here are five methods of making the most of your moments on the rock.
1. Look at climbing as practice, not training. Climbing is a tremendously skill-oriented sport and skills can be developed almost infinitely. On the other hand most of your physical qualities (such as muscular endurance or flexibility) level off after a while. If you make smart assessments of what skills you most need and then work on them, you can move forward very fast.
2. Get feedback. One of the best things climbers do is share beta, but it’s more than agreeing on which hand and footholds to use. Body position, momentum, rest, muscular tension, and a dozen other factors go into each move. Sure you can hire a coach, but simply watching some video of yourself will give you enough feedback to work with for months to come. Do a problem on video, watch the video to see where you had performance errors, then try to eliminate them on the next go. Honest movement tips from a good climber can also help.
3. Do it fast, then slow, then do it right. A few years back, Kevin Jorgeson spent a day at our gym discussing teaching climbing movement. One of the best techniques I took away from his talk was to try problems at different speeds or power outputs. Take a medium-hard problem that you have already done. First, do it very fast and dynamically. Next, do it very slowly and statically (more than twice as slow as normal). Finally, do it “normally”. What did you learn from this exercise? I guarantee it will be something every time to try it.
4. Change it up. This should seem obvious, but spending time on as many rock types, hold styles, and angles as possible is critical to learning movement. We like to do things we’re good at, which hoses us on the fast track to development. Even if you can’t get to different crags, climb the routes that aren’t classic. Have you ever thought about why you don’t like certain climbs? Have you ever considered that awkward moves on strange holds have more to teach you than the chalked up route with permadraws?
5. Write it down. When you fail, note what happened. I have little tolerance for people who complain about making no progress but don’t plan or track their activity. Without some data, you have nothing to go on. Take a notebook to your next session. Write down which route you tried, its grade, angle, style, and the result of your effort. Analyzing and adapting your climbing practice based on your previous sessions is fundamental to moving forward. This is why projecting is so very effective – you try the same moves over and over and constantly obsess over every detail of the route.
You can’t get around putting the hours in. No amount of strength can overcome simply learning how to apply the strength you have. Like I said above, you have two options: You can do what you’ve always done and slowly gain training age or you can get your head in the game and fast track it by using any number of accelerated learning techniques. I highly recommend Coyle’s Talent Code and his follow-up The Little Book of Talent.