How do you train? I can say with confidence that is the question I have been asked the most often over the past 10 years. The answer is complicated.
I don’t mean the intricate spreadsheets, meticulously monitored progress, top-secret exercises, and highly structured regimen type of complicated. I mean the let’s back up and make sure we are on the same page type of complicated. The answer to the question is far simpler than most people would expect, but providing that answer always seems to be the more complex part.
In short, the “training” that I describe to people sometimes leaves them unsatisfied with my answer. Maybe it is because my tactics don’t fit into the definition that many people seem to have for “training.” It seems that when people use the T word these days, they are more often than not thinking mostly of weight rooms, reps, dumbbells, rings, bars, hang boards, campus rungs, stopwatches, supplements…the list goes on. While nearly all of those things have made brief appearances in my 20 years of climbing, I can realistically summarize my training in a few words: I train for climbing mostly by climbing. If you’re already feeling a hint of dissatisfaction with that answer, you likely won’t feel any differently after reading this. However, there is another important aspect to my training that might interest you more than the first (utterly simple) part of my answer to the question: My physical training doesn’t go far without mental training to put my physical abilities to use.
I know, this all sounds very basic, and that’s because it is. If you were looking for the spreadsheets, top-secret exercises, scientifically-based approach, and highly structured regimen, you have now joined the growing contingent of people who have been disappointed by my answer to the how do you train question. I’ll cut to the chase and admit that I use little to no science to inform my preparation for climbing competitions or objectives. That’s not to say that specific scientifically backed exercises couldn’t help improve my weaknesses – I’m certain there are many that could. However, I have more commonly been thwarted in comps by a mental breakdown than physical inability. And I have more often failed to complete outdoor projects because of a lack of belief than because of a lack of strength. Sure, there are times when being stronger could have helped me to do a move, but for every one time that happens, there are 10 times that I failed because my head wasn’t in the right place. So, when I am competing often and preparing for some type of competition, I prioritize the improvement of my mental game.
The way that I most frequently prepare for a competition is to create simulated comp situations. By approaching problems I have never seen or attempted and trying to do them in a finite amount of time or attempts, I sharpen my route-reading skills, overall strategy, and most of all, my confidence. Frequently I climb with my boyfriend, a talented route-setter who enjoys making up boulder problems. In this way, I am able to attempt new boulder problems frequently and hone my ability to do unfamiliar problems quickly. Having the ability to approach a challenge calmly and confidently and read a sequence correctly is a valuable skill, but having a steady head and a feasible solution won’t get you to the top without the ability to try hard. This is a skill that is crucial in climbing and, in my opinion, incredibly hard to train. I try my hardest when I feel pressure, either from myself, others, or the fear of potential consequence. During a training session in the gym, this pressure is absent, and I find it challenging to make myself try my hardest. I work hard to improve my ability to dig deep, but I have yet to find a great way to train this ability. Time and repetition seem to be the most promising tools for sharpening this skill. If I feel like letting go, I try to make myself at least move towards the next hold. Often, I surprise myself by actually doing the move. It turns out that a little belief can go a long way in training one’s “try hard.”
All of this is not to say that I completely ignore the need to improve my fitness and work my physical weaknesses. I have done plenty of 4×4’s to gain power endurance, systems board sequences to target specific weaknesses, tons and tons of dynamic movement learning and practice, and upper body exercises to improve my power and explosiveness. I have definitely made noticeable physical gains by incorporating these exercises into my training over the years, but more than anything, I find that putting time into specific exercises and conditioning has a benefit that is more important than making me physically stronger. Devoting time to training builds confidence, and confidence is key in climbing. If I know I have prepared well for a climb or a competition, I spend less time doubting myself and fretting over what I could have done in the past and more time focusing on what I can do in the moment.
Could I make more physical gains by doing more specific exercises and conditioning structured to work my specific weaknesses? Most certainly. Would I be even more confident in my ability if I knew I could do harder moves? Most likely. Would I ever claim that there isn’t anything I could do better to more effectively prepare for a climb or a competition? Never. In the end, for me it really comes down to time and its limited nature. I choose to spend more of my time on the wall than in the weight room. Perhaps it is because as I get older, I feel that the mental aspect of climbing is becoming more and more important, or perhaps I don’t have the specific knowledge I need to build the most effective exercises….or maybe, possibly, perhaps it could have something to do with the fact that I think climbing is pretty fun, and I like to do it as often as I can.