Saturday, November 5, 2011

Some Thoughts About Climbing and Fitness

I rarely write about training for climbing. Fitness is something I take pretty seriously as a climber and guide, yet it's something I'm fairly unscientific about. I won't pretend to be an expert on the topic. The things I've learned have come from years of my own personal training for climbing and running.

I'm going to share my feelings about training, a few things that work for me, and my motivations. Most of us have extra free time, or a bit of extra cash. It's rare that any of us has both of those commodities. We either play a lot and make less money, or we work a lot, have extra money and are short on free time. I fall into the former category. During the busiest times of the year as a guide I have zero free time. However, once the season slows I might have 3-4 days each week to play. This has affected how I choose to train for climbing. At certain points during the year I might not be able to train at all, and that's fine. Being able to let go sometimes is important. Climbing fitness can be fleeting, and any serious prolonged training has always led to some form of finger injury for me.

My feeling is that the best training for climbing is.... wait for it, wait for it....
Climbing.

Again, bear in mind that I have a lot of time to climb during certain times of the year. I love climbing in all it's shapes and forms; the movement over rock and ice, psychological challenges and physical problem solving are immensely rewarding. The thought of doing something else to make me better at climbing isn't very appealing. Over the past few years I've seen a lot of people jump on the Crossfit bandwagon, but I'm not sold. I tried Crossfit for a short while and found the short, very intense workouts were quite satisfying. However, I also noticed that they made me so tired and inflexible that I couldn't climb well afterward. This actually scared me. If you can't climb well on lead because you're physically exhausted from a previous day's workout it becomes a safety issue, especially during the winter when you're wearing sharp things.

Two things about climbing, and climbers who climb well seem to stand out. Climbing is movement specific; the more you climb the larger your encyclopedia of body movements becomes, and the better you understand your own body's movement capabilities. If you don't understand how your body moves, and what it's limitations are you need to climb more. The other climbing specific aspect is related to time on a rope. Without “rope time” I'm unwilling to push it, on lead and toprope. When I don't get on a rope frequently enough I'm scared of falling, and I'll psychologically limit myself,

I don't want to diminish the importance of weight training, or aerobic/anaerobic/weight training combinations like Crossfit/Mountain Athlete for certain types of climbing at particular times of the year. It's good to have a base of fitness to avoid injury and build endurance and power. However, it's important to remember what we're training for here on the east coast. Are you training to schlep giant loads up Denali, or to speedily carry a moderately heavy pack up a steeper alpine objective like Mt. Hunter? No, most likely you're training to climb harder rock, ice or mixed routes locally. How do we train for that? Well, if you have a climbing area nearby that's probably your best bet. An indoor climbing gym would be a close second place. The challenging movements and smaller holds found on most harder rock climbs make the more straightforward movement with ice tools on ice seem easy.

We need to be honest about another thing too. As much as we tend to overlook hand/crimp strength, it's probably the single most important factor in determining how well one climbs. Chris Sharma is a great example of an individual with exceptional natural hand strength; he was climbing 5.13 only months after he started climbing. How many people do you know that climb 5.13? Do you think his movement skills were honed at that time? Probably not, but he had strong hands. We forget that without strong hands you can't hold on to small holds or tool handles to make those challenging moves.

I choose to spend what little money I make available for fitness on a membership at a climbing gym. At my local gym I share a two person membership with my girlfriend and the cost is about $45/person each month. That's comparable to a normal gym membership, and much less than the cost of most gyms that offer a workout of the day, especially considering that a remote training program will require a subscription and a local gym membership too. While at the climbing gym I attempt to focus on my own weaknesses or things that are “season specific” and work on being on the sharp end at the same time. Additionally, it's fun, I can do it with good friends and I might meet a new climbing partner or two (they're harder to come by than you think). Right now, for the upcoming ice and mixed season I've really been focusing on hanging on, the way one would on a longer mixed or ice route. The size of the holds doesn't change when you're hanging on your tools, but you might hang for 45 minutes to an hour in awkward positions during a hard onsight or redpoint. At this point mileage is key. Instead of getting fully blown out on any particular route I try to build endurance and work towards the ridiculous pump much later in the workout or day.

I like to supplement as much climbing as I can with a lot of aerobic/anaerobic exercise and core strengthening activities. Don't underestimate the importance of an aerobic fitness base. It helps your body supply much needed oxygen to your muscles when you're working hard and helps keep weight off. My activity of choice here is running. I'm fortunate enough to have good knees and an affinity for running. It's something I've been doing my whole life. I know there are others out there that detest it. I've got news for you though, if you want bang-for-your-buck you're going to have to cross country ski or run to get the toughest aerobic workout in the shortest amount of time. Years ago I was a competitive cyclist and a 4-6 hour ride some days was commonplace. That's just nuts. Most of us don't have that kind of time, and that's where running comes in. You can run for forty minutes 2-3 times a week and put together a pretty solid aerobic base. In the spring I purchased a heart rate monitor and began using it to help identify target training zones. I don't use it all the time now, but it was helpful for gauging how I should feel in certain zones. This year I've also participated in a few local Tuesday night 5k cross-country races and Thursday night track workouts when I'm at home. They've expanded my aerobic fitness which seems to help a lot – even when I'm climbing less I manage to climb well.

Rest is training component that is frequently overlooked. Overtraining happens, and it can land you with a cold, an injury or a lack of motivation. As I've aged I find that rest is has become more important. Mentally I'm able to push as hard as I used to, but afterwards I'm tired. I take full rest days more often, and during weeks that have a lot of hard climbing/guiding and workouts I make a concerted effort to rest. For me, a rest day has no exercise except some stretching and a leisurely walk with my dog.

What keeps me motivated? Doing new climbs is one of my main motivations. They don't have to be first ascents, but hopefully I've never climbed them before. Even as a guide I try not to repeat climbs too often. I seek out the obscure, dirty, and physical lost classics. There's more good climbing at small crags around New England than one might think. I'm not a project guy. I don't work things into submission and I get bored easily, so having a long list of “to do's” at the myriad of small crags in southern New England has been helpful for me. New route development in the Catskills is another motivator that starts to kick in during the late summer. The mixed climbing standard is slowly getting pushed higher, and establishing new routes in the M8-M10 range is going to require good fitness.

Would I benefit from a specific training program? Probably. Do I enjoy what I've been doing with my time? Definitely. Have I been able to climb newer routes and harder objectives each climbing season? You bet. So, if you have the time, a very climbing-focused training program may be just the way to get good results.