Pumping Plastic

For five years now I’ve pursued this sport called climbing with unhealthy obsession. Unwittingly, the physical demands of the endeavor transformed my lanky alien frame into a lanky alien frame with a few identifiable muscles. Throughout this time I’ve explored many of the available resources on training for climbing, and experimented with a few of the more convincing regiments. It is my hope with this post to share some of the wisdom mistakes I’ve made throughout this process.

To begin I should probably mention that I am not a particularly strong rock climber. If you have effortlessly motored up the bouldering or sport climbing grades then you should be the one giving me advice. My interests have centered on larger objectives, alpine and big walls. That is where I have concentrated my efforts and had the most success. But at the heart of these disciplines is still rock climbing and I’ve been able to learn a thing or two about that and perseverance along the way.

Craig Gorder hooking with speed on Lurking Fear
Craig Gorder hooking with speed on Lurking Fear

The foundation for my current views on training come primarily from three books, The Rock Warrior’s Way, Training for the New Alpinism, and The Rock Climber’s Training Manual; what I like to refer to as the Holy Trinity of Training. Over the years I’ve perused a lot of other literature on the subject, some good, some dangerous, but I feel that these three are each the best in the respective disciplines. It is my unproven notion that using just these three references you could climb any boulder problem, route, or 8000m peak in the world. So, if you’d like to read ~865 pages of quality/boring training discussion check ‘em out; if not, read this quick substitute instead.

Before we begin a little inspiration from the Governator for your next pumpy endurance project.

Training is hard. If it were easy everyone would be doing it and warming up on 5.13. I spent several years “training” using the short routines described at the back of climbing magazines, wondering when I was ever going to get strong. It took one visit to a high school friend’s traditional sports oriented gym  to realize I had been working out at a pathetically low intensity. Strength training is not pleasant and maxing out on 3-5 reps requires substantial mental arousal. Since then I’ve tried to bring this high level of exertion to more climbing specific exercises and been more pleased with the results.

Training is easy. While strength training sucks; endurance training can be actually quite casual. Steve House and Scott Johnson in Training for the New Alpinism present a convincing scientific case for optimal endurance training using a foundation of long easy distance. Easy to them means EASY. That’s right you’re probably running too hard. If your cardio workouts involve labored breathing and lots of sweat you’re doing it wrong. Counterintuitively they advocate dialing back the intensity but greatly increasing the duration.

I was skeptical initially, but Steve House’s mythological status and Piolet d’Or convinced me to give it a try. After nine months following the principles they outlined I’ve seen impressive improvement and am now fully converted to the philosophy. Sure, it takes more time but it’s much easier to motivate for a mellow jog than a lung chewing sprint. Seasonally you can substitute in mountain biking or backcountry skiing for monotonous jogging and then it hardly feels like training.

Henry Ross, the type of enthusiastic novice whom this post is intended for.
Henry Ross, the type of enthusiastic novice whom this post is intended for.

Training programs are most often sabotaged by illness or injury. For many practitioners of the sport, climbing is an all consuming passion. We are all so eager to get better, we climb and climb, ignoring fatigue and mounting warning signs from our bodies. The early success of a training program is no different and can easily swell into more and more activity. After all if a little training is good, more should be better. Alas, without adequate rest and recovery overtraining is inevitable and usually followed by a debilitating sickness or a nagging injury. Either will take weeks to fully recover from and by that time you will have lost the motivation to train. Many partners scoff at my prudence but I try to stick to a rule of 2:1 climbing to rest days.

When overuse injuries do occur they are treatable. Rock and Ice columnist Dr. Julian Saunders has a collection of articles on the most common climbing injuries. His rehab exercises, presented with humorous Australian whit,  cured my chronic elbow tendonitis – I hope they can work for you. Additionally, you can keep track of rest and prevent overuse injuries by keeping a…

Training Log which will not only help you stay healthy but also inspire you by documenting improvements. It doesn’t have to be to anything too ambitious, mine is just a sentence or two per day, but it will let you monitor your work load (and more importantly your recovery). A simple ABC’s system works well to grade how well you feel physically each day. When the letters start to decline after a few good efforts, take a break, let the body heal, and read this blog.

The Seasons are changing. Meriel, splitboarding on Tumalo Mountain, OR
The seasons are changing. Meriel Darzen, getting ready to thrash on Tumalo Mountain, OR

Foam rolling, stretching, and yoga are great for recovery. It took me a while to gain the security in my masculinity to finally try yoga. What a waste of potential improvement. The deep stretching and demanding poses are perfect for keeping your climbing body limber and balancing out forgotten muscle groups. I’ve also heard people say that the classes are full of hot chicks, but I regularly go with my mom so whoever says that is an asshole.

Stretching is for men without the time or self-assurance for organized yoga sessions. Similar in effectiveness if you can properly motivate yourself to stretch deep and often.

Foam rolling is another activity that seems like only your arthritic grandmother would do, probably after water aerobics. Actually, however, it is more popular with power lifters. For one, when done properly, it HURTS. The pressure from the rolling is actually breaking up the muscle fascia and allowing it to heal/recover quicker. Better recovery = more training = fame and fortune. Good article, from a good climber about these recovery topics here.

Finger strength is the most common limiting factor for rock climbers. Mike and Mark Anderson make a great case for this in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Essentially, they argue that as the grades increase finger strength becomes more and more important. Yes, technique plays a role in overall ability but if your fingers can’t grip the holds there will be no moves to finesse your way through. Additionally, the tendons of the fingers and hands are some of the slowest to adapt to training (possibly years to strengthen).

Therefore every climber should consistently be working on finger strength; while waiting for the delicate tissues of the hand to respond, movement skills and technical ability can be polished. The hangboard routine that the RCTM outlines is the best that I’ve tried. It uses pyramid repeaters at each grip position along with a harness, pulleys, and a counterweight to precisely reduce weight so that you train on really small holds (like hard routes). Don’t regret neglecting your finger strength early in your climbing career, like I do. Establish a base now and be prepared to crank in a few years time.

Chris Cox high on the Coleman Headwall, Mt. Baker, WA
Chris Cox high on the Coleman Headwall, Mt. Baker, WA

Focus on effort rather than results. This process based philosophy I adopted after reading The Rock Warrior’s Way. The author, Arno Ilgner, has taken a little flak recently on mountain project for the books new agey spiritual component. I understand the criticism but didn’t find it too distracting. Since first reading it a few years ago I’ve tried to implement his suggestions and have been pleased with how it has helped me to enjoy climbing more. I now try to celebrate good effort instead of good results. Grades have shifted into the background. The concern is no longer sending or failure but rather whether I tried my hardest. If I gave it my all and still fell off, I’m happy, and ready to rest up and give it another go.

Or ignore all my bullshit and just heed this advice from Mr. 5.14 trad, Sonnie Trotter…

I do yoga, and I hang on my fingerboard a lot. It works better than the gym

-as quoted in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual


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