This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 220 (August 2014).
No one can sustain the
effort or enthusiasm for training indefinitely, nor should you aspire to. The beauty of climbing is that for strategic periods, you may actually achieve
better results from steering your focus away from endless laps and reps toward tactical strategies or, better still, just going climbing. This tenet
should come as a consolation during periods when work is too hectic or you simply can’t find the energy to get to the gym. Don’t get frustrated, just
dial into a different headspace. Here are five ways to get better without training.
1. SET CLIMBING GOALS
There is nothing better you can do for your climbing than planning a series of routes or boulder problems that you would like to tick
in the near future, even if you are unable to train for them. For best results, make a “goal pyramid” and on the first tier, pick five or six climbs
you could achieve relatively comfortably. On the next tier, pick three or four at the grade above and then one or two at the grade above that. When
you plan your first few climbing trips, concentrate on the first tier, but don’t wait until you’ve completely finished it before moving up a level—try
one or two things on the next level up while finishing off the first level, and so on. Before you know it, you’ll be a better climber and you’ll have
had a load of fun, without training.
2. FOCUS ON TECHNIQUE
Most climbers would like to believe they focus on technique, but what does that mean? If your usual approach is just to concentrate on
the climbing, you may actually be treading water and ingraining bad habits. If you can, pay for a session with a reputable climbing coach to see if
he can spot technique problems. At least set up a video camera on a tripod and film yourself climbing. Then play it back and try to critically analyze
Do movement drills during your warm-up climbs. Focus on placing each foot with a slight pause before contact. Don’t touch the wall above the hold and aim
to set the foot in a single touch, without re-adjusting. Keep your eye on your foot until it’s securely placed.
Next, focus on relaxing your grip, and keeping your arms as straight as possible. Finally, keep reminding yourself to breathe deeply and regularly.
Aim to make each warm-up climb fractionally faster than the previous one, without sacrificing form. These drills will facilitate long-term improvements
in your movement quality and also help you maintain your form during high-stress situations on harder routes.
3. LOSE SOME WEIGHT
For good climbers who normally train a lot, three or four weeks of calorie-restrictive dieting may do more for your climbing performance
than six months of training. However, note that this is only true for those who have a medium or heavy build. Light-framed climbers will invariably
climb worse if they attempt to diet.
This strategy should only be used by adults. Younger climbers can make such worthwhile training gains in short periods that they are better off eating
to fuel the machine. Juniors may do long-term damage to their performance and health if they attempt to restrict calories.
For those who stand to benefit, a good strategy is to limit your portion sizes (i.e. think how much you would normally put on your plate and simply give
yourself a bit less), cut out all sugary treats and reduce your complex-carbohydrate intake by replacing rice, bread and pasta with salad or green
Be particularly mindful to eat healthy, nutritious foods and make sure you sleep and hydrate well during this period. Do not do this indefinitely or you
will burn out, your climbing will regress and you’ll risk injury. Consider trying it about a month before a key climbing trip, whether you are able
to train or not.
4. GIVE YOUR MIND A SERVICE!
Changing your habitual thought processes and behavior patterns is even tougher than summoning the will to go on a diet. Climbers commonly
haul out the same excuses or justifications for avoiding or failing on climbs: Routes look too hard, weaknesses are too demoralizing to work on, concern
that others will judge us, procrastination and so on. These things hold back our climbing more than anything else. As Adam Ondra told me recently,
“The mind is not there to help you, but to hinder you!”
The key is to implement practical and functional routines and to keep your expectations realistic. Simply vowing to take a slightly more open-minded, can-do
attitude is a good start. Try this short list of key mental-training strategies:
Pre-climb mental routine
Perform this routine during your warm-up climbs and in cool-off periods. Personalize it to your own requirements and condense it into different time frames
(e.g. from 5 minutes to 30 seconds). Practice regularly during training sessions and don’t attempt to use it for the first time in a high-stress situation.
Here’s an example:
Attune to your environment: Observe your immediatesurroundings,includingpotential distractions. Breathe deeply and relax.
Visualize: Rehearse the sequence of your project while you’re away from the crag. Imagine yourself climbing in real time. Don’t rush.
Make the image feel as real as possible by imagining sensory detail like rock texture, temperature, even sounds and smells. Don’t imagine the route
being easy: rather, that you are coping with the difficulty.
Black box: List all the factors that are worrying you, come up with some positive solutions and then post them in an imaginary black box
or even write them down. Return to the box and open it after the ascent, and you will find that the majority of your worries were unfounded. This exercise
helps you to trust the process further in the future.
Use positive self-talk: Give yourself a final pep talk, using key words you find inspiring. Listen to music that helps to raise the mood.
Practice falls (onto bolts or good trad gear). For those who are afraid, or even slightly nervous, of falling
onto bolts or other bombproof gear, regular practice falls are probably the most powerful and effective mental-training tool of all. If you practice
falling on vertical or slabby walls, make sure they’re fairly smooth and have no ledges or protruding features. Be sure your partner understands dynamic
belaying technique in order to give you a soft catch.
5. FORGET THE GRADE
There is an entire aesthetic side of climbing that can be explored, free from the pressure of goals and expectations. Let the quality
of the line, the movement, the environment and the fun you can have with friends be influencing factors behind your choices at the crag. In accordance
with the laws of reverse psychology, by taking the focus away from pure achievement for a while, you may actually end up climbing your best, without
having consciously tried. After all, this is climbing we’re talking about, a unique and magical activity that sometimes breaks all the rules.
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.