There is no escaping the pump, but many climbers are too quick to blame a lack of endurance for their aching forearms. In reality, missing
rests and poor mid-route recovery strategies are more likely causes. It is easy to become absorbed—by the sequence, placing protection, etc.
You can forget to switch on the “separate brain” that deals with resting, and neglect to think about flushing out the pump until too late. Conversely, your aim should be to take every opportunity to prevent it setting in, rather than waiting and trying to cope.
Climbing gyms do not provide the best environment for learning to rest—unless you think outside the box. Indoor routes are usually short and sustained, with all the moves at a similar level of difficulty and few or no rests, which means that it is usually more efficient to sprint for the anchors than shake out. Rock routes are often much longer, and the difficulty of the terrain will fluctuate, with hard sections followed by worthwhile rests. The secret to success is to adapt your pace and climbing style to the intensity of the climbing: essentially to speed up when it’s hard and to slow down when it’s easier. The key to mastering the endurance style lies in spotting rests and effectively utilizing them.
1) Finding Rests
Sometimes you have to deviate from a natural climbing sequence in order to locate “hidden” rests. This may require using the holds in a different sequence or side stepping to find a more comfortable position. This is especially common on complex, three-dimensional rock such as limestone with tufas and stalactites. Look out for knee bars, arm bars, chimney rests, body braces and so on. Consider changing your grip, such as hooking your entire arm over protruding holds.
2) Types of Rest
After arriving at a potential rest, quickly assess how good it is in order to help you decide how long to stay there.
Good rests: At a ledge or comfortable bridge position with good footholds, for example, stay as long as it takes for pulse, breathing
and forearm pump levels to return to resting levels. The goal should be a full recovery.
OK rests: On merely adequate rests such as stems with poor footholds or a knee bar that still requires leg strength and body tension
to maintain, the climber should spend long enough to reduce pulse, breathing and lactate levels as much as possible, but not so long as the legs and/or core become excessively fatigued (eg: 2 -10 mins). The precise time spent resting will be subject to fitness levels and the exact nature of the rest.
Poor rests: A poor rest might be a jug or jam with reasonable footholds but without a stem or knee bar. Recovery times might range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, again, subject to fitness levels and the exact nature of the rest.
Minimal rests: On very sustained routes with no obvious rests, it is still necessary to shake or even flick each hand quickly and intermittently. Do this if you find one hold or position that feels slightly better than the other holds or positions. This should take anywhere
between 2 and 30 seconds, depending on how good the holds feel.
3) Recovery Technique
Always shake from a straight arm unless it’s a very quick flick, as shaking from a bent arm defeats the purpose. When shaking from good holds on a steep wall, you may need to change feet every time you change hands in order to maintain balance. Keep your center of gravity directly below the arm you are hanging from, as if suspending a weight on the end of a piece of string. While placing or arranging protection on trad routes, keep swapping hands and shaking out. Make sure your chalkbag is easy to locate (tied-on bags are preferable to clipped-on, since they will slide and be more accessible). Keep the body as still as possible and try to relax all muscles that aren’t contributing to keeping you on the wall. Avoid vigorously shaking the arm, which can create instability in the body and waste energy. Breathe slowly, deeply and regularly. Climb easy sections of the route at a slow, steady pace with great attention to technique.
4) Advanced Pump—Management Strategies
One of the best sport-climbing tips is to swap the pump from arm to arm by deliberately tiring one arm in order to freshen the other before a clip or a hard pull on a small hold. For example, if you need to hang on with your left hand in order to clip with your right, then shake your left hand before making the clip. Think ahead and resist the temptation to reach for the clipping hold as soon as possible. Note that this is highly counter-intuitive for most climbers! The fear of pulling up the rope when pumped will stop us way before the point of absolute failure, and with this method you can climb further into the pump zone. Another advanced tip for redpointing is to find the latest possible opportunity to shake an arm for a specific move. For example, if it’s a right-hand pull, then shake your right hand from a position as near as possible to the move, even if it is three or four moves beforehand.
5) Bouldering Versus Routes
Boulderers who get into routes often find that they become extremely pumped, but movement style is often more responsible than lack of endurance. Boulderers are trained to pull as hard as possible, whereas endurance climbers are always attempting to do the exact opposite. To do well on hard sport routes, you need to have plenty of power, but boulderers who wish to make the conversion should drop the grade and do laps on really easy routes in sets of three or four, while focusing on relaxing and conserving energy.
Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and last year established Freakshow (8c/5.14b) at Kilnsey, also in the U.K. On October 13, 2016 he made the first ascent of Sabotage—an 8c+ (5.14c) extension to Predator (8b/5.13d) at Malham Cave, North Yorkshire, England. Sabotage is Gresham’s first climb of the grade.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 199 (January 2012).