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Climbing Nerds Converge on Chamonix, France for the International Rock Climbing Research Congress

Research trends from the 2018 Conference

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The following is an abridged version of a longer article available on the Beta Angel Project website, a link to which can be found at the bottom.

In a small town of 9,000 permanent residents and 80,000 hotel beds nestled in the conifer-forested Alps and towered over by the 15,777-foot Mont Blanc, climbers from 29 countries came to nerd out, climb and drink wine.  And the Beta Angel Project partook in all of the above. I wish I could highlight all of the research, but this article is focused on the research that is the most practical for my needs as a climbing coach.

There are some pieces of research (notably RFD and hangboarding) I remain cautious about as a youth coach even as I note their utility for older athletes. Additionally, the intent of this summary is not to point out flaws in any of the research—there were plenty of challenging questions posed to researchers at the conference, most of them warranted. Rather, it’s to give you a taste of how I intend to be a little more creative in my approach to high-end athletes on both rock and in competition.

I may get something wrong here, or I may go further than the researcher intended.  If you are a researcher or climber and have a question, comment, clarification, or—most important—a practical consideration associated with the research, please e-mail me at In September of 2018, I’ll be publishing any comments I get to my website’s spotlight section.  I’ll include responses in an attempt to be as transparent as possible.

Taylor Reed, founder of Beta Angel, at the 2018 International Rock Climbing Research Congress. Photo: Courtesy of Taylor Reed.

A Peak into the Future of Training

Before we get into the research itself, let’s imagine for a moment how a coach might see the practical implications of the work he viewed at a research conference.  Arabella is six clips up a sport route. Through her earpiece, Arabella’s coach whispers an oxygen stat he’s monitoring from the ground which is being fed from a non-cumbersome cordless monitor on her forearm.  He presses a button and a hold lights up to her left which she transitions over to. After a minute of recovery the hold switches colors and a new path up the wall is illuminated. The route has changed to suit her physiological needs.  She finishes the route, and lowers off.

From Mitchell’s presentation on eye tracking technology use in coaches. The left picture shows the view from an expert coach, while the right figure shows the view from a novice coach.

Her coach sets a tablet in front of her and transfers his eye-tracking data to it from the glasses he’s wearing. Arabella watches herself climb; a shrink-wrapped cone maneuvers around her while climbing fluency statistics pop up on the screen for hip jerk, geometric entropy and stationary time on the route.  Her eyes flit back-and-forth in split-screen mode to a previous attempt where she’s able to compare measures of fluency. Little clouds of green, orange and red coalesce around certain parts of her body as she moves, indicating the eye-tracking technology her coach uses to track what he’s looking at any given time.

The route Arabella is training on has been specially crafted with both ergonomic holds and route-setting designed to avoid injury.  However, sometimes you push it just a little too hard.

Jennifer has her feet on a specially-designed platform and she monitors the amount of force being put into the hangboard through an app on her phone connected to the platform which is electronically adjusted for her weight.  She’s using a protocol that involves one-arm hangs in order to shore up weaknesses in her non-dominant arm. She finishes the set and steps off the platform, placing her forearms into a specially-modified cold water bucket that allows her fingers to stay above the water but helps her forearms recover between sub-maximal hangboarding which stresses her fatigue resistance.

Jennifer isn’t sure if she should continue her protocol due to a tweak in her finger. The gym she’s at has a professional physio who’s there during major training periods to monitor athletes and take questions from gym members. The physio tests Jennifer’s finger using a series of pinches, palpations, flexion/extension and questions about pain developed by national level climbing team physios. Jennifer is told to cease hangboarding for the night but that that the injury is minor and she’ll be able to get back to climbing shortly using the physio’s evidence-based rehab protocol.

Figure of the eight phases of a speed route from Legreneur, et al. showing the reductions in energy during the turn phase, 1st dyno, and 2nd dyno.

The physio returns to monitoring Darren who is about to race up a speed wall. Darren shouts encouragement to Jennifer: “You’ll come back stronger than ever!” Jennifer shouts back: “You’re going to break six seconds before I’m hangboarding again.  You’re so close!” Darren’s coach flips two drones which track Darren from the side and from the back. Darren sails up the wall. Each hold he touches measures split times and the drones tracking him provide three dimensional data relayed to his coach.  The coach checks the data against a model that uses the same beta to identify areas of improvement.

The preceding paragraphs imagine potential training ideas for the three disciplines of the Olympic combined format: lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing.  Every single idea within those paragraphs is technically possible at this point, and shouldn’t stress your imagination too much. What they represent are areas that coaches, athletes and normal gym members have been challenged by: getting finger diagnoses, more effective hangboard protocols, ways to measure climbing efficiency and technical effectiveness and improving the accuracy and uptake of information.

Trends in Research

The picture of the near-future described above has a basis in the research presented at this year’s conference hosted by Nick Draper and Pierre Legreneur of the International Rock Climbing Research Association.  There are a number of trends at the conference I’d like to highlight for you. These trends include a significant amount of discussion and thought into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the format; injuries as the largest area of research; how “field medics” are contributing to diagnosis and recovery; how to train power; going in-depth into contact strength; and novel ideas about the factors which facilitate hangboarding.

This figure is from Vigouroux et al., (2018), Journal of Sports Sciences (in revision) showing how force in the fingers changes as the upper arm engages in a pull-up. Study is a part of the “Smart Board project” developed at Aix-Marseille University.

The trends also include the biological and strategic adaptations to route climbing; how researchers and practitioners are collaborating to make gains in speed climbing; the extent of disordered eating in rock climbing; how researchers are measuring and improving climbers’ mental game; the qualitative and quantitative approaches to improving climbing efficiency; the growing use of technology in climbing and climbing research; and how researchers are trying to improve your ability to try hard.  Finally, there are power centers in research which are pushing the game even further.

Schweizer and Bärtschi diagram of the loaded and unloaded crimp position and their impact on the bones at the PIP joint. The intent was to identify the causal mechanism of growth plate injuries in youth climbers.

If you want to dive into any of these trends, I encourage you to go to and scroll to the paragraphs with the appropriate subject heading. If you want to dive even deeper into an area of research, I’m always open to have a conversation as are many of these researchers. The most important trend of all for my translation of research into practice is that when I asked a hard question and a researcher didn’t know the answer, they always pointed me to someone who might. This line of inquiry has the potential to get me (and other practitioners) from what is an “interesting question” that may be just outside of the researcher’s scope to the holy grail of practitioner uptake—direct application to our students.

To read the full unabridged version of this article, click here!

The next Congress will be in 2020, in either Tokyo, Japan or Cadiz, Spain.  

Taylor Reed is a policy analyst who coaches on the weekends.  Taylor teaches Arabella “Belle” Jariel, Ashleigh “LEAF” Kazor, and Charlie “Skittles” Osborne and consults with a small handful of elite kids from half a dozen states.  When not coaching he’s preparing to coach, collaborating with other coaches, and working on his website:  Taylor is married to a gorgeous soldier named Jennifer, lives in Maryland, South Carolina, and is sponsored by Evolv.

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Performance-Related Rock Climbing Research From 2017: The Beta Angel Research Project