With another esteemed fall season coming to a close, it’s time to tally up the scores, lick our wounds and retreat to our training dens and caves. The conditions here in the Northwest are dwindling in fits and starts, with the extended forecast barely providing enough optimism for me to keep the crash pads loaded in the truck.
In my continuing quest to improve my own performance, and analyze my ability to improve my own performance, I wanted to make a follow-up to my post from this summer. If you haven’t read that post, the short version is: I climbed a shit-ton this past winter and summer, neglected my training, got really weak and lost a bunch of weight, and changed my training strategy to play catch up. I got a pretty bad severe wrist injury in spring, which I’ve now fully rehabilitated. Oh, and I got married and bought a house. It’s been a hectic year.
The first thing I did was examine my season on paper. Now, I don’t care for comparing numbers, since there are so many other things that go into sending that aren’t related to training or fitness. One of my biggest pet peeves with popular climbing media is the “I trained X, and sent Y, therefore X leads to Y” – a preposterous assumption of causality. We can’t prove that some certain training leads to a specific send, and we can’t prove that some other training wouldn’t have led to that send sooner. We can’t prove that no training wouldn’t have been better, either. Many athletes overtrain and succeed despite that training, not because of it. End rant.
So when I look at these numbers, I’m not searching for a causal relationship. I’m looking for my baseline – my “regression to the mean” in terms of sending. Was I able to perform up to my usual standards given the life and training changes? It seems that way. I repeated my top redpoint grade, on a problem with one of the hardest crux moves I’ve done (see below). I also did what I think is, subjectively, the hardest problem I’ve done of the next grade down, and climbed it in an uncompromisingly physical style. I didn’t match my flash PR, but I came close enough. Volume-wise I did about an equivalent amount of new base-level climbs.
What I’m most interested in, though, is performance outside of the sends – the project work. Even though this was one of my main changes for the season, I only spent a handful of sessions on really hard problems. (We’ll get into why this is in a bit.) I’m including V12 there, but mostly I was focused on V13. Qualitatively I felt great on my main project – I had no major tweaks or issues, and while I’ll change up my preparation for next time slightly, I felt ready to climb on it.
How I feel now, at the end of the season, might be the biggest overall change from previous years. Coming back from Europe late this spring I felt like garbage. Last fall, on the way to Hueco, I was psyched. But I was also reticent to be headed out on an 8-week climbing trip after a few months of pushing hard locally. My memory gets fuzzy before that, but one memory I have of Bend is sometimes being alarmed coming out of fall season – Bend has impressively consistent winter conditions most years, and I would often wonder if I’d have any time at all for the winter training I kept telling myself I would get around to. This year, halfway through November, I’ve been hitting some lift PRs and my working weight RPEs have been low. My finger strength numbers are still good. And deep in the season, trying hard on my projects still feels great.
To summarize: overall it was a pretty normal season, but I feel unusually good now that we’re at the end of it. Let’s look at the things I changed going into this fall. I’ll examine the commitment I made, my thinking behind it, and the outcome as far as I can tell. Since I know lots of folks read these breakdowns with an eye for their own climbing, I’ll also talk about who that change might be good for.
Change #1: Commitment to weight training indefinitely
Contrary to popular belief, I’ve always felt that strength training is an important component of climbing progression. This is tempered by my insistence that climbers not blame their strength first when they can’t do a move or send a project. And even though strength is the last thing we should think about while we’re actively trying to climb something, it’s the first thing we should think about when it comes to longevity. The farther we progress in climbing, the greater the toll on our body from more intense and higher velocity moves. And as we age, that strain increases relatively and our recovery wanes – while we feel more and more pressure from that sunset in the horizon.
For many seasons I’ve committed to at least two seasons of strength training a year, in summer and winter. Deadlifting in particular I’ve been doing for a long time. But as my folly in that prior blog post lays out, I realized this year that I needed a strategy change. Seeing non-climbers I know in their 60s and 70s deal with sarcopenia and loss of independence also provided ammunition for my resolve.
Old plan: weightlifting twice a year, as a part of my training plan
New plan: weightlifting forever, as a part of my identity
The outcome: I’ve shifted into this lifestyle quite well. It’s been an adjustment for my climbing schedule. I probably missed 5 or 6 climbing days over the last 12 weeks because I knew I needed to save some recovery volume for my lifting sessions. For me that’s a chunk, maybe 20% or so – but it feels worth the cost.
One big outcome is that instead of building a woody in my new house, I bought a power rack. This was a major shift in strategy but it aligned with bringing lifting into my identity. It was very scary at the time, but a couple months in it feels normal. Lifting at home is natural and convenient. Someday I might need to figure out how to fit a board in there too, but right now the rack feels right.
The who and why: If you’re in your 30s or later and you haven’t started lifting, you probably should. Scratch that. If you’re reading this and you haven’t started lifting, you probably should. It has an extremely low injury risk, the gains are tangible, and the sacrifice is minimal. Yes, you’ll have to give up the occasional climbing day. And while it’s easy to aim this at older climbers who might need more general strength training to cope with life, it also makes sense to take advantage of the genetic benefits you get from being younger before you become one of us crusty mid-30s folks.
More specifically, if you’re the type of climber who struggles with performing throughout a long season, gets injured often, feels super tired at the end of every climbing day, or struggles with basic life crap like moving heavy things, it makes sense to invest in strength training. If you want to have a long and productive climbing career, then you want to age well.
Obviously not everyone can get a rack at home, but traditional gyms are still way more accessible and commonplace than climbing gyms. And weight equipment does tend to be pretty easy to get secondhand. Most people who lift are friendly and inclusive. It’s not as hard to get into as you think.
Change #2: Doubled maintenance training volume
This is related to the above, but it feels like it needs its own bullet point. In addition to committing to weight training in the long-term, I decided to double my usual in-season training. It takes a lot of effort to put on muscle and a lot of effort to maintain it, and I personally seem to struggle an unusual amount with this. Losing strength/muscle during the season is a big hit to my ability to supercompensate for the next season. Logically to maintain better I need a higher stimulus. Rather than increasing the volume of one day of training, which would incur a higher fatigue cost, I went for two fairly short sessions a week.
Old plan: once a week in the weight room in-season, usually as my last priority. Usually this was a 3×3 or 4×3 working set across 3 exercises and some accessories.
New plan: twice a week in the weight room in-season, closer to the top of the priority pile. I won’t skip the only good conditions of the week to lift, but I also won’t go climbing multiple days in a row if I haven’t gotten my lifting done. Generally done as a 4×3 working set, but with higher warmup volume, 4 main exercises and more adherence to my accessory exercises.
The outcome: Out of the last 12 weeks I’ve missed two squat days and zero deadlift days. (22/24 total.) I’ve mostly stuck with the same movements, set and rep schemes, and even loads. Over the season I’ve felt my RPE for my working sets go down, and now that the weather is turning and I’m experimenting a little with some heavy singles, I can tell I’m in the best lifting shape of my life. I’ve never been anywhere close to this strong at the end of a season. So… pretty damn good.
I still might try to do all my maintenance work on one day for some seasons, or some weeks of some seasons – it does hurt to miss out on those extra days of good conditions. Spring here has longer days and tends to be a longer season, so maybe the double maintenance makes more sense as a spring strategy, and I can be more aggressive with my fall season since it’s shorter.
The who and why: This one is a bit more nuanced. I have some hypotheses for this, but whatever the reason, I need a higher volume of training than average in order to maintain or build strength and especially to build muscle. If this sounds like you, then a higher training stimulus would be a smart move. This could take the form of more sets per exercise, more volume per set, or both. Science suggests that in general, older folks need more sets to get a hypertrophic stimulus. For me, it made sense to split it out into two days so that each day was shorter.
Keep in mind that it will impact your available recovery for climbing volume, in the immediate. But in the long run, being stronger and having a higher work capacity is only going to be a good thing for your climbing.
Change #3: Eating real food, on a real schedule, every climbing day
This might be a facepalm for a 37-year old but here we go. This season I committed to eating real food when I’m climbing. This was largely due to talking to Tom Herbert, or I should say, finally taking Tom’s advice a year after working with him. My in-session nutrition used to generally consist of sugar in between attempts, and bars or snack foods in between boulders/climbs. Sometimes I would bring a sandwich, especially if I was sport climbing, but rarely. And sandwiches never really gave me sustained energy anyway, even when they did contain real food.
Enter rice! I love rice, but for some reason it never occurred to me to take it climbing. It’s been a super busy year and I was already making shredded chicken in bulk for easy dinners. Making rice in the instant pot only takes about 15 minutes, so it’s something I can do even if I’m heading out climbing first thing in the morning. I can add whatever premade vegetables I have in the fridge, or just microwave some broccoli florets if I don’t have anything. I put some soy sauce and sesame seeds on there to give a thin veneer of adulthood.
I’ve eaten this meal pretty much every time I’ve gone climbing. If I bring it for lunch, I eat it around 11:30 or 12, the same time I eat lunch at home. If I bring it for dinner, I eat it around 5pm, the same time I eat dinner at home. Because it’s food that my body finds agreeable, I don’t need to take a huge break to digest.
Old plan: clif bars, various protein and granola bars, jerky, haribo gummies, etc. I still eat all of these things at certain times, but they’re a backstop, not the main plan.
New plan: bring chicken & rice and eat it at the same time I would usually eat a meal.
The outcome: It’s been great. I know rice is having a moment in the climbing performance sphere but truthfully, it’s crazy energizing. Sandwiches are comforting and delicious, but rice is the GOAT and not any harder to make. This is something I’ll stick with for a long time.
The who & why: Everyone’s probably tired of hearing this, but eating real food does help you perform better. It does take a little bit of planning ahead to make your protein in bulk, although I still don’t think it’s that hard. This is the kind of thing that might only make a few percent difference in your session, but that few percent could be the extra redpoint attempt where you send. And the effects of being better recovered compound over time.
A couple random pro tips: always use chicken thighs, not breasts. They’re harder to overcook and the fat won’t kill you. Marinate your chicken in lime juice and spices overnight. After cooking, use an electric mixer to shred it. I do rice in the instant pot: pressure cook high for 8 minutes, then let it sit for 10 minutes before venting. Add rice vinegar and aji mirin. Keep a spork in your pack and a spork in your car. Sporks are way easier to eat with on the move than forks.
Tastes pretty good to me but I love rice. This ain’t a cooking blog.
Change #4: Fully automating my finger training
I haven’t done any kind of max hang or weighted finger training for several years now. Those training modes do have a place for some athletes. However, experienced climbers, especially boulderers, can continue making progress with their finger strength just by bouldering. For a few years I’ve still done occasional recruitment sessions outside of my climbing sessions. Usually these are recruitment pull clusters in-season. Since I moved into a new house this year, and I haven’t mounted a hangboard, I’ve been doing all my training on a portable block. It was a logical step to go a little harder in my warmup and get it over with. This is when I preferred doing max hangs, too, when I used to climb in a gym and do those.
For the last 12 weeks, my entire finger training plan has been:
- Concentric finger curls in the start of my warmup, 3-5 sets of 3-5 curls per hand, up to about 70-80% RPE. I do these every session.
- Recruitment pulls at the end of my warmup, 2-4 clusters of 2-4 pulls per hand up to about 80% RPE. I do these most sessions.
- Bouldering on problems that are hard for me and have small holds
That’s it. I’ve done 3 sessions of finger testing where I do all-out efforts with a Tindeq. My peak force numbers haven’t budged downwards. My coordination and rate of force have improved on small holds. Since I’m only climbing 2, sometimes 3 times a week, this is a great stimulus. I don’t need to fit it in anywhere else in my week.
Old plan: finger training fits in somewhere outside my climbing sessions
New plan: finger training is done in the warmup of every session
The outcome: Fingers are still strong. Coordination and rate of force have improved, as one would expect during a season of trying hard boulders. These are good results given the low effort level – I can’t emphasize enough how little I’ve thought about finger training this season. Enough said.
I’ll probably change this up for the off-season, but this is going to be my in-season plan next spring. If I was strictly trying hard boulders with bigger holds, I might reconsider, but my projects all have small holds.
The who & why: If you’ve been doing high recruitment finger training for a while, and especially if your gains have plateaued, this is a sensible move. I’d watch C4HP’s two most recent YouTube videos on finger training to get started with a simpler (or at least lower overhead) methodology. (Video 1, video 2.) This is an especially good training move if a) you climb outside a lot and b) you climb about 2-3 times a week.
Change #5: Simplified my decision making about what to try
Last season I had a process goal of spending a certain number of sessions on V13s. Unfortunately, I also had lots of specific problems I wanted to send. The latter outcome goal got in the way of the former process goal. I did spend some sessions on super hard projects, but when I had to make hard choices about what to try I picked stuff it seemed I could send.
So this season, I committed to always spending my first fresh effort on something very hard. Combined with the double lifting, I knew that would cut into my overall climbing volume a lot. But this was part of the plan. As I spoke about on my recent Nugget episode, and have mentioned on the blog, I didn’t make any outcome goals this season.
Old plan: mix of outcome and process goals
New plan: if the weather’s good, you’re recovered, and you haven’t already tried one this week, go try V13
The outcome: This took away all my excuses to not try really hard. I can’t try V13 over and over, so most of my sessions were focused and short and I still tried and sent a lot of second tier problems. This might have been sheer luck, or maybe I was making good decisions this year, or maybe I was well recovered from the relatively lower volume of climbing – not sure. Since I also made pretty good headway on my projects (which I never really expected to send this season) I’m pretty happy with this change. Overall though I don’t think it would be psychologically sustainable in the long term. I’ll go into next season more specifically prepared for certain projects and try to have phases where I try them more often. I should be able to try my projects some over the winter, and spring tends to be longer here, so that should work out well.
The who and why: This strategy might not apply to everyone. Most climbers aim for a mix of progression and fulfillment, making the grade range a bit less “limit.” In my case, because I’ve been a high level boulderer for a long time, trying to perform at my limit is a necessary element of progression. If you feel like you’ve been avoiding next level projecting, then taking away your excuses is certainly worth considering.
Overall, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. But good performance isn’t made of fancy ideas or new gadgets. Most of the work is mundane – making basic daily decisions well. Taking the guesswork out of my nutrition, finger training and project selection helped me stay focused on the climbing. And while lifting has taken time away from climbing, it’s providing numerous benefits too.
I want to be clear that I don’t think that my sends happened because of these changes. Rather, it seems that both a) I was able to have a good season despite whatever else was going on and b) I also qualitatively felt better in my body with these changes.
Will this stuff work for anyone? Maybe for the right person at the right place in their climbing. For me it was a good season of revisiting basics and doubling down on stuff I’m always preaching to my clients. Strength training isn’t a panacea for climbing, and lots of climbers probably wouldn’t notice a big difference from adding it or increasing their volume. The point of strength training is to increase your tolerance for climbing itself, so you can develop the skill and coordination directly. As long as you go into it understanding that indirect relationship, it should be incredibly productive.
I have lots of new things to turn my attention to this winter, like hopefully increasing my lagging work capacity and working on some specific finger training for the projects that feel closest. Onward to the winter training season – a bit wiser, a bit stronger, and perpetually psyched!