The Siren Song of the Board

Convenience is essential to being good at training. If you want to train hard, you need to make training easy.

Living near a decent gym is huge. Most climbers have a hangboard or at least a portable finger training device at home, because it removes a barrier to getting their finger training done. And climbers long in the tooth will tell you that a home wall – even a modest one – is worth its weight in gold if you’re busy with work and family life.

In my favorite climbing book, 9 out of 10 Climbers, Dave MacLeod famously says that if you want to level up your climbing you need to move somewhere close to the rock. Really close – not a few hours drive on the weekend. Not 45 minutes after work. Think 15 minutes or less.

This includes the supportive ecosystem around training, too. Dialing your nutrition isn’t about making complex meals or using spreadsheets. It’s about filling the fridge with healthy things, so you don’t have to make good choices when you’re tired after climbing.

In this brilliant 2018 article, scholar Tim Wu lays out some of the reasons that convenience is a double-edged sword:

But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.

“A constraint on what we are willing to do.” Tim’s not a rock climber, as far as I know, but he is brilliant. And brilliant concepts tend to cut well across different subjects. 

I already listed some of the ways that convenience can be useful, like meal prep or having a hangboard at home. But convenience also has a dark side in climbing.

We skip the uncomfortable routes, with the sharp holds, unclear pathfinding, and mossy sections. We skip finger training, because it’s not as engaging as climbing. We skip flexibility training, because it’s unpleasant in the moment. We tend to climb in the styles we prefer the most, or the styles that cause us the least discomfort. (Or, the converse for some masochistic few – hammer our perceived weaknesses obsessively.)

Eventually, years of skipping the unpleasant stuff causes two problems. Problem #1 is the first order effects: skipping all the one star routes eventually makes you unable to hang tough on sharp holds, or figure out where you’re going when there isn’t an instruction manual of chalk and boot rubber. Skipping finger training makes your fingers weaker. Skipping flexibility training eventually limits your beta options. Climbing in the style you like most tends to make you even more narrowly focused over time. Only working weaknesses lets you avoid the emotional struggle of connecting deeply with a big challenge in your wheelhouse.

Problem #2 is the second order effect: doing all these things lets you stay in your comfort zone, and you slowly forget that part of improvement is pushing that boundary. We’re not talking about physical comfort here. There are plenty of training jocks with a voracious pump lust out there who are snugly inside their comfort zone, despite the fact that what they’re doing might look unpleasant. For them, pushing their comfort zone would look more like climbing a slab than doing yet another 4×4. 

For me, the rise of boards is the ultimate example of this convenience dichotomy. Used correctly, a training board can be an effective tool for developing try-hard, strength and power. Used thoughtlessly, it can become a shortcut around the difficult conversations about climbing.

Don’t get me wrong, here. For those who are truly dedicated to the board craft, it’s a perfectly valid end in and of itself. It can be the right answer to those big questions. Some of my good friends are focused entirely on board climbing. And as long as that’s what they want out of the sport, and it’s not an accidental subversion of their climbing dreams, the board’s convenience is a stunningly beautiful thing.

A board is a simple and ubiquitous solution to the problem of not having enough challenging climbing.

But there’s the rub – most people don’t actually lack for challenges in their climbing.

And if you already have plenty of skills to work on, the comfort and convenience of a board is no longer a boon. It’s a drag, rather than a lift.

A question I’ve had to answer several times in consults is, “How do I train for X thing on a board?” Sometimes there are reasonable answers to this question. Sometimes there aren’t.

As I’ve talked about on this blog before, skills are terrain-specific. An adjustable board can be a partial solution, but it avoids the concavities, convexities, angle changes, and other nuances of other climbing terrain. Even the very best board on the market is a very incomplete venue for climbing movement.

Lots of folks these days lament the “compiness” of modern gym setting. Especially if you’re an outdoor-driven climber, this style of climbing can feel like it’s not developing the skills you need. I can relate. And that’s another example of convenience being double-edged. It’s great having someone set brand new challenges for you every week, but you don’t get to choose what skills those challenges will involve.

I’ve spent most of the last 3 years climbing either outside, or on a short home wall. I’ve probably spent less than 10 days a year climbing in a commercial gym in that time. There are many benefits to this setup. But one difficult part of this reality is that my climbing diet will quickly become limited if I don’t take every single opportunity to go outside and climb on new terrain.

If I want to climb a hard roof problem, I need to go out and climb on that problem or similar ones to get used to the angle. If I want to climb slabs, well, I don’t have those in my garage. So, out to the crag we go. I am certainly lucky to be in a place in my life where I can operate like this – but it is not convenient. Often while I drive to the crag, I find myself wishing I was that stereotypical training junkie, happily cranking out 4x4s. But I’m not.

Most people develop their climbing diet out of a combination of convenience and habit. These choices are tempered by life constraints and catalyzed by motivation. The more drive a climber has, the more likely they are to be able to avoid convenience and do the things that will actually move the needle. The more constraints they have, the more clever they have to be to make sure that convenience is working in their favor.

This dichotomy of convenience is problematic for fitness influencers and climbing coaches who extol the virtues of punching the clock. Getting it done. Trying harder, going further. These taglines are prized, but often vacuous. They will get you over a lot of hurdles. But they can also be a deep pit, into which years can be thrown. The “try hard” mentality can be easily misinterpreted as permission to not think hard.

Effort is great, but you have to set yourself up right for that effort to matter. I used to have a hamster who tried very hard spinning his little wheel. And a damn convenient wheel it was.

Trying hard may get you to the top of the board. But thinking big is what gets you where you’re going as an athlete. So before you hammer out another session of benchmarks, ask yourself what the end goal is.

If you want to get better at climbing on a board, then a board is a great place to be.

If the climbing you want to do looks a lot like a board, then a board is a good place to be.

If you can’t do anything more specific to your needs right now, then a board is a good place to bide your time. (That’s why I have one in my garage.)

If your goals look like something else, you need to consider the convenience of that board. A board can quickly become a constraint on what we are willing to do. At that point, its convenience is no longer serving you well.

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