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How to Keep Your Job and Family and Still Climb at Your Limit

You want to redpoint your project, but the crag is a day's travel away, you have a job and family commitments. How do you get the ultimate send that you want while maintaining everything else?

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This article was published in Rock and Ice 217 (April 2014).

John J. O’Brien proving that you can have it all, on Root Canal (5.12c), Kalbarri, Australia. Photo: Simon Carter.

Everyone knows that to redpoint a project at your absolute limit you must either take an endless road trip or live near the crag. But what if the nearest cliff is a day’s travel (or more) away, you have a full-time
job and family commitments, and yet you still have the burning desire for the ultimate send?

If you are like me and this describes your situation, then take comfort in knowing that it’s still possible to climb your best. I’m just back from a trip to Spain having sent the hardest route of my life, Welcome to Tijuana (5.14b) at Rodellar. The whole process took eight months and the period coincided with one of the busiest work periods of my life, as well as the birth of my first child.

My strategy was to train for the route remotely in the U.K., then take a series of short trips, two in the spring and two in the fall. This might sound like mission impossible, but I proved to myself that with dedication and meticulous planning you can achieve your climbing dreams without compromising other important areas of your life.

1. Route Selection and Training

Pick short projects for short trips. Long routes may have easier moves, but most climbers find them more stressful to redpoint. It is soul-destroying to fail at the 15th clip after being on lead for 45 minutes, so save the stamina-fests for long trips or local crags.

Not only is it easier to stay stronger mentally for short routes, but you can train for them specifically too. Using wooden holds at my local gym, I built exact replicas of the two key crux sections of my recent project. I was able to work the route effectively during my normal working week, thus buying me time on the route without actually going to Spain. This type of specific training is as much about neurological programming as training the muscles in the required pattern.

With stamina routes, you can’t train with this same degree of specificity, and you will probably take more time to adjust to a route when you return to it, especially if you don’t regularly climb on rock. An additional factor of huge bearing to busy professionals is that power takes way less time to
train than endurance and requires more rest days between sessions. You can either take the “little and often” approach, by doing very short sessions (e.g. 60 to 90 minutes) on two or three consecutive days before resting, or the approach that worked for me, which was a long hard session of up to three hours (involving power first, then power-endurance) followed by one or two rest days.

Be sure to taper two weeks before the trip by shortening the sessions and spreading them out so that you recover fully (e.g. two rest days between the last few sessions, then three or four rest days before the trip). A classic error is to get over excited in the last few weeks and arrive at the crag
feeling burnt out.

2. Diet

This is a crucial area for those who have a medium or heavy build and especially for older climbers. It’s a simple fact that for trained individuals, two weeks of restrictive dieting will do more for your climbing performance than six months of training. My strategy was to go through cycles of eating normally during training phases to fuel my sessions then reduce my complex carbohydrate intake for two weeks prior to a trip to attempt the route. I cut out all rice, bread and pasta and replaced them with salad or green veggies.

This dieting period coincides neatly with the tapering phase, so you will need less energy for training because your sessions are shorter and less frequent. During the dieting period I usually lost four or five pounds, and I took off like a rocket on my final two or three sessions before the trip. There is nothing like this sensation to boost your confidence for the send. I then maintained this pared-down weight during the trip by eating very slightly more in order to fuel my redpoints, while being careful not to put any weight back on. After the trip I rested for a week, ate normally, put the weight back on deliberately, then resumed training for the next bout. This period can feel quite demoralizing because your performance drops. Rise above it and remember that the results will soon come your way again.

It takes experimentation to get this whole procedure exactly right. If you start the diet too early, or over do it, you will lose power and feel burned
out on the trip, but if you leave it too late and succumb to your favorite treats too often, you simply won’t achieve your fighting weight. Note that
this approach won’t work for those who naturally have a light frame. If skinny people attempt to lose weight, it will almost certainly be detrimental to performance. Additionally, juniors should never restrict their calorific intake, even for short periods, as this can be extremely dangerous. Younger climbers can make such worthwhile training gains in short periods that they are better off eating to fuel the machine. However, the older you get, the harder it is to make gains in absolute terms, so strategic weight loss provides a way of cheating yourself into the body of a better climber.

3. Psychology

If you are going to implode at the crag when things don’t go your way on the second or third day, then there’s no point reading on. Remember, Chris Sharma can stay relaxed and positive on his 50th day on a route. Surely you can manage it for less than half that time!

The key is not to even question or notice the number of attempts or days. Maybe your project will take you five days or maybe it will be 50. Who cares? You must be prepared to go home empty handed as many times as it takes. You must accept that you will spend 99 percent of your time “failing” on this route. Look forward to it, because you won’t be failing, you’ll be learning.

Remember, Chris Sharma can stay relaxed and positive on his 50th day on a route. Surely you can manage it for less than half that amount of time.

Enjoy the fleeting moments you get on this incredible route out in the natural world with a good companion. You could always drop the bar and tick routes two grades lower, but that would be old news and it’s time to see what you’re really capable of. It’s ironic that in order to succeed you can’t be goal oriented.

You are not trying to do this route, but practice a climbing ritual that is more akin to yoga or a form of meditation. On each attempt you try hard, not by being more aggressive, but by executing with more grace. Take satisfaction from progress, no matter how incremental.

However, it’s a rare individual who can stifle those pre-redpoint butterflies when the send really is on. If, as is often the case, you find that you can’t detach from the end goal, try to balance every dark thought with a positive solution. For example, there is a reason to fail on every redpoint, but there is also a reason to succeed. For the first redpoint attempt you may not be properly warmed up and coordinated, but you will also be at your freshest and under the least pressure. The second redpoint attempt carries a lot of pressure, but for a good reason as you ought to be at your best. For the third or fourth attempts, you will be most fatigued, but this will force you to climb efficiently, with no expectations.

Remember also not to attach any significance if you’ve worked yourself into a particular mind state, be it nervous, angry or despondent. Hard routes have been climbed in every conceivable mind set, so abandon that flawed line of questioning and just climb. And before you go, don’t forget to notice the bird song and the wind rustling in the trees, then take a few deep breaths and smile to yourself.

Mar Álvarez: How To Train For 9a [5.14d] Routes And Hold Down A Job

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.

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