The last year of my climbing has been, by any objective standard, excellent. My now-wife and I had the chance to have a bit of a “mid-30s gap year” and we took it with relish. I got to…
- Move somewhere with more challenging projects
- Spend 7 weeks in Hueco Tanks
- Have a spring climbing season at home in between two big trips
- Spend 5 weeks in Fontainebleau
- Get married and visit with family in Europe
This was amazing, and I regret nothing. It’s been one of the most memorable and joyous years of my life as a whole. But one thing did go terribly wrong this year. I got weak.
Coming home from Europe, I realized my overall athleticism was at an all-time low. Moderate approaches suddenly felt tiring. My strength and balance were so poor that hiking a heavy pad through a talus field wasn’t just hard – it actually seemed dangerous for the first time in my life.
A few months later, I’m on track to correcting this. So what follows is part cautionary tale, part training journal, part strength and conditioning geekery, and a brief detour for an inspired rant.
1. What went wrong
A check of the scale and some strength numbers from a Tindeq confirmed it: I was the smallest and weakest I had been in months. My body sheds weight quickly if I stay in performance mode too long. Thankfully I’ve been through this before, and I understand how to put the muscle back on; but that process is time-consuming, tiring, and takes away from my technical climbing training. The peanut gallery telling me how nice it must be to be so light is also crisply unhelpful.
My climbing performance hadn’t gone far; while I suffered a TFCC injury in spring, I never stopped trying hard. I shifted my energy to slabs and highballs where I could keep my weight on my feet. About a month after the injury I sent one of my hardest slabs on granite. I was still doing a day of strength training a week through most of spring. In France, I climbed tons of grade 7 boulders – more than one for every day of the trip. But I do remember feeling quite tired by the end of the trip.
In retrospect it seems clear that the same things that make going on vacation great, especially in Europe, are terrible for athletic performance. But like our friend the slow-boiled frog, I didn’t notice the warming waters. My guess is that it started in Hueco, where the days are long, and you get very tired. After that trip I didn’t focus enough on my overall strength and capacity before diving back into hard projects at home.
This realization came with a double whammy – that this loss of fitness was going to affect my content mill. I depend on being able to climb stuff to have fodder for social media. Weight room stuff just isn’t my oeuvre – I’m not a professional weightlifter, as inane and unsolicited DMs remind me every time I share a deadlift. And yet, that was what I knew I needed to spend months working on. Not my climbing strength, but the strength to cope with my climbing lifestyle without eroding.
2. Break glass in case of cynicism
One of the hardest parts of being a coach in the modern era is the authenticity trap. Providing useful information is incredibly challenging. Your content needs to be relatable for the average climber, and relevant to the progression-minded climber most likely to buy your product. It needs to be steeped in real-world experience and genuineness, so you must be a continual participant in “real” climbing. And it needs to be laid on foundations of cutting edge science, in which you are expected to be an expert. Finally, you must make that information interesting and catchy enough to compete with the incandescent neon dumpster fire that is the athletic misinformation industrial complex. This is downright vexing.
If you have the personal integrity to eschew evolving backwards into a dancing influencer monkey, the bottom line of your business depends on your ability to walk this tightrope. You need to provide the most interesting and useful information today, and every day – but hey, make it more interesting than yesterday’s, OK? And don’t you dare let the audience catch on that you’re selling something, even if your well-being depends on it.
Many coaches appear to give up under this onslaught, and resort to clickbait and FUD, dancing a pained jig to the tune of a great big sucking sound. If I had a nickel for every time I saw some climbing coach’s post on Instagram that began with something like, “DON’T DO THIS”, “IS YOUR CLIMBING SUFFERING FROM THIS?” and “JUMP TWO GRADES WITHOUT GETTING OFF YOUR LAZY ASS,” I’d have a lot of nickels. (Though not nearly as many as Meta made from advertising on the backs of those posts.)
And I feel for these coaches. Staying relevant on social media is an unrelenting effort. Even Sisphyus didn’t have to feel like a sellout while pushing the boulder up the hill every day.
As far as I can tell, the best antidote to this deeply rooted cynicism is to focus on my coaching. Not my coach identity on the internet, but my actual coaching. Lifting my clients up, helping them understand their own climbing more deeply, and occasionally vicariously enjoying a peak experience through them seems to be damn good medicine. That’s why I got into the coaching game. Not to become a glorified pusher in Meta’s attentional pyramid scheme, but to work directly with climbers on their climbing.
Two pieces of authenticity I do have to offer are that 1) I don’t know everything and 2) maximizing my climbing effectiveness for my given strength level is a huge part of my brand. With that in mind, here’s what I did to rebuild myself since spring.
3. Starting over, or, watch me eat three crows
After seeing the numbers on the scale and Tindeq, I put them away. Measuring is great when everything’s going great, but can be discouraging too, so I’ve barely touched them since. I set myself some process goals, got a robust strength training plan from Tyler Nelson, and got to work.
During off-seasons, I undergo a conscious priority shift in my training. As an example, this might be my in-season priority list:
- Climb on the projects I want to do this season (or climb in a similar style/context)
- Work on 1-2 technical or tactical aspects of my climbing
- Do maintenance level strength training about once a week, including finger strength and loaded flexibility
In off-seasons, my priority list is more like this:
- Rebuild my static strength on the board 1x/week
- Do 1-2 heavy strength training sessions a week
- Do 1-2 finger training sessions a week
- Do 1-2 loaded flexibility sessions a week
- Go climbing as much as I can without interfering with recovery from #1-4
That’s really it. I stay quite focused on my climbing. However, there are lots of other things important to being a well-balanced athlete. Coming back from Europe, in addition to feeling physically weak, I could tell my work capacity and conditioning were also poor. It’s easier to have habits than to make decisions, so as we went into the hot weather season, internalizing a new set of priorities was my first step.
First, I knew that raw strength training was the base that I would use to rebuild my fitness. So that had to be priority #1. Two sessions a week, with a goal of showing up recovered to those sessions. My working sets are in the max strength range, and I make sure to go reasonably close to failure on some sets. For me, combined with a caloric surplus and a good amount of protein, this is enough to build back some of the muscle that I lost in Europe.
With a little luck and a lot of focus on recovery, I figured I could get back to where I was at the tail of summer 2022 by the end of 2023. That timeline should make it apparent what a setback it is to lose ten pounds of muscle.
Ten weeks later and 20-something strength sessions deep, I’m feeling noticeably bigger, better and more robust. I constantly tell people not to think too hard about the strength side of things – and I will die on this hill when it comes to actual climbing movement, especially for climbers who are already freakishly strong. But there’s no denying how good it feels to double down on strength training when you’ve been feeling weak and detrained. There might not be a more wholesome good feeling in the world. For a weak-ass like me, strength training rules. There, I said it. First crow eaten.
4. Getting tired
Once I re-normalized the habit of strength training I started working on the other stuff: capacity and conditioning. Those who follow me know that I constantly rail against getting really tired as a mechanism for climbing progression. However, getting really tired is a great mechanism for getting better at resisting getting tired. And more of that capacity obviously allows for more good climbing experiences – as long as building the capacity isn’t cutting into your climbing practice. My second priority was to rebuild the capacity to tolerate big days of climbing without cutting into my strength training.
Step one was to not let that capacity slide any further. When I’m training clients for big trips, I often include “big day” style programming every 1-2 weeks. When training for strength and power, getting super tired is not the best plan. In that type of training, we don’t want to have multiple sessions a week where we get super tired or go to failure. We want sessions to end with a power loss, and we want to push other elements of our performance (intensity or velocity) because that’s what we want to adapt to.
However, being able to pull from edge to distant edge is not enough if you’re about to spend 6 weeks in Africa. You need to be able to do that pull day-in, day-out, consistently. And for that we do need to get tired. I don’t recommend doing highly coordinated climbing in this fatigued state, so if indoors my preference is to stack some moderate climbing, some conditioning, and some cardiac output all on the same day. For myself, I could do this training outdoors. I had plenty of alpine bouldering to do here in Washington. Alpine bouldering is a great way to have a big day without putting too much emphasis on the coordinated climbing part.
One big day every 2 weeks seems to be enough to maintain without having a huge recovery debt for the next week’s training. One big day per week should result in an increase in work capacity, as long as the athlete’s recovery can tolerate it. To be clear, this is programming for an athlete mostly climbing in the gym who wants to be able to handle big outdoor days. If you’re climbing in the gym to perform in the gym, this kind of training is probably moot for you (and you probably climb to fatigue in lots of your sessions anyway.)
Doing this every other week was tiring at first, but eventually felt normal. By this point in summer I’m going for big hikes every weekend, usually with a pad. Capacity – check. Second crow eaten.
5. Getting tired, but really really fast
Right after we got home from Europe, we had a weekend in Squamish. At this point I was at my physical lowpoint. And since I had just realized this, I was feeling pretty low emotionally too. Like I said before, I was still climbing pretty strong at this point – I did manage some memorable ascents. But my second strongest memory from that trip was walking up a staircase of stones on the way to the boulder. It was hot and humid, my pad was loaded for a long day, and I was astonished at how fast my heart rate cranked up. Each individual step was feeling difficult as I gasped for air. The elevation? Sea level. The total gain of these stones? Probably a couple hundred feet. Ouch.
My third priority was to work on my conditioning. All those flat 3 minute sand approaches in Fontainebleau didn’t do me any favors, even if I was carrying the extra weight of a baguette and a bottle of wine most of the time. My strength training already included plenty of leg work, which I knew would make a big difference. Stronger, larger muscle = less effort with each step = easier to maintain. But I also wanted to explore other metabolic conditioning options.
During COVID lockdowns, I did a lot of kettlebell training. I built a lot of muscle during this period by going close to failure often, and I remember long approaches feeling really good too. Kettlebells are great for metcon and for making you feel like a hero in general. I did so many overhead presses during that time that vertical pressing still feels more natural to me than horizontal pressing, which any serious weightlifter should find pleasantly ridiculous. But the programming I was doing during COVID involved too much fatigue and time cost to be practical to integrate with my strength training without blowing it up.
Instead, I decided to incorporate some exercise “snacks.” These are 4-10 minute workouts that you can do any time, including on a rest day. They’re short, but brutal, usually involving going to failure over and over but with such a small total volume that they’re still easy to recover from. I experimented with a few things, but usually stuck with the classic Tabata interval: 8 rounds of 20 seconds all-out effort, 10 seconds rest, reliably resulting in the worst 4 minutes of your life every time. Most weeks I would do one full-body snack and one lower-body snack. The full-body was usually either burpees or alternating burpees and some kettlebell move like the snatch. The lower-body was on the exercise bike at the gym (pure, fiery hatred for this) or clean & squats at home. Hill sprints would be great if you have a big enough hill.
This is a type of training I would have balked at a few years ago, back when I was still an invulnerable youth. But now that I’m a batty codger, I can tell it’s the bee’s knees. Will it make you a better climber? Absolutely not. Is it a reasonable thing to care about for climbing programming? No. Will I be programming this for a client I don’t know well any time soon? Definitely not. But does it work? Yes. Incredibly well. The gains are quick and substantial. Each snack was better session to session and week to week. This is one of those exercise prescriptions that I’m hesitant to tout, because I don’t want people to get the wrong impression that they should add this to their regimen. Most people probably shouldn’t. But if you’re gasping for air on a brief uphill with a heavy pack, and you have a few minutes in your day a couple times a week, it’s worth a shot.
A couple weeks ago I had the chance to contend with that stone staircase again, with even more pads and crap than before. I could hardly believe how much easier it was after a couple months of dedicated time in the gym. Did the snacks make a big part of that difference? I’m not sure, but they felt low cost. And as a side bonus, the sheer effort made me feel good about myself and my training. I’m convinced that this is why people love things like 4x4s – they feel fucking hard, and that feeling of effort is eminently cravable.
When you’re clawing out of a post-Europe-weight-loss-depression-hole, that confidence certainly ain’t nothin’. Conditioning – check. Third crow eaten.
In retrospect my priorities for the season have been:
- Two hard, heavy days of strength training a week. Nothing can interfere with these.
- Once I normalized #1, a “big day” every 2 weeks. Once that normalized, I started doing a big day every weekend.
- As long as I was recovered from #1 & #2, I’d do 2-3 exercise snacks a week. I didn’t think about these too hard. 1 minute of warming up, 4 minutes of pure suck, and I’m back at my desk.
These training priorities didn’t include any climbing – at all. And it’s true, my climbing over the last couple months has taken a backseat. But I’ve still managed to get out at least once a week, and climb in my garage or in the gym at least one other time. This is a bit less climbing than I like to do, but I know it’s setting me up for future seasons in an important way.
When I returned to that stone approach after two months, I felt like I had borrowed some other, better human body. And I guess I had. Physical improvements are temporary if we don’t make the effort to hang on to them. So it’s all borrowed, really.
Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this detraining scare is that it’s harder and scarier to juggle aspects of fitness as a mid-30s climber. There are so many variables in play that it’s easy to accidentally take a few for granted. You can get away with some of this, but in the end you want to account for it in your training. The skill of noticing what you’re missing in your training is a tough one, but it can be learned. A coach can definitely help with this, but in the end it’s up to the athlete to feel it. This is why my philosophy is to make climbers better self-coaches. If I just tell them what to do, I’d have to include the whole kitchen sink and they’d wind up drowning in it. And this does seem to be a popular strategy among many trainers.
Lesson two is that when things go sideways, we need tools in the toolbox to adjust our plan. I did a lot of things right so far this summer. The training knowledge I have now and the confidence I have in myself as an experienced athlete were what allowed me to get back from where I was after Europe to where I am now. And I’ll come out of this trial a little smarter and better.
My third lesson is that these days, it doesn’t take much for alcohol and poor diet to totally derail my fitness. The food in Europe was amazing, but not high-performance. Another extremely effective rule I implemented during this phase of training was that I never drank alcohol when I was recovering from a strength or climbing workout. This was a great rule for me and, for whatever reason, much more effective than a rule like “only 1 drink per week” with about the same end result.
Looking forward, my priorities for the climbing season now are going to be a little different. I think two days of strength training are going to stay on the menu for a while. That might mean getting fewer sessions on projects this season; but it also means starting the next training season without such a huge training debt to repay. In the long run that means more climbing days into my 40s, 50s and beyond. Next time I go on a big trip, I’ll be bringing a bag of protein powder with me. And hitting up a climbing gym on a rainy day sounds like a better and better idea, especially if they have a weight room.
I hesitated to write this post because there’s a lot of stuff in here that feels like I’m admitting I was wrong. But I was wrong. I think that’s what really irks me about that derisive clickbait – this gurufied, “you’re broken and I can fix you” projection. This game is hard, and belittling it does no one any favors. I don’t nail the programming with every athlete, and we work together to figure it out. I often don’t even nail it with myself, but I do what I must to get back on track.
That’s what my life trying to get better at climbing really looks like. Not a series of clickbait phrases, but a complicated thought process of what to work on when. No head-snapping leaps of performance. No epic feats of will. Just a humble sine wave slowly, slowly trending upward.