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Tom Randall: Training Tips – Recruitment

There are a few things we can do do to make sure that---for the few times we need them to---our muscles are firing at 100%.

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In this final installment of my three-part series about training for projecting, I want to look at a couple of clever tricks for getting recruitment up to absolute maximum at the crag just before you tie in for your redpoint burns. Recruitment is essentially getting the muscle fibers firing to their maximum capacity. Why does it matter and what difference will it make? Let me tell you a little bit about a particular experience.

A few years back I was working on the second ascent of a long Steve McClure link-up boulder problem about 30 minutes from my home. It was the hardest thing I’d tried at the crag (V12) and my anti-style. It featured lots of crimpy cruxes on hard and steep terrain separated by decent rests. Once I’ve learnt all of the sections on a project it’s normally a forgone conclusion for me that I’ll send eventually (I rarely lack the endurance to link sections). This time though, I hit a brick wall. I was finding that being strong enough and fit enough wasn’t cutting it. Due to it being 39 moves long and continually at my limit, I needed to be above the crux levels of the project to
complete the whole thing. I needed to be able to trick my body in a very short space of time into pulling and performing better than it was used to during the projecting process.

[ALSO READ Tom Randall: Training Tips – Replica Building]

The next four weeks was an intense period of self-experimentation, research and many sessions where I got things wrong. However, one week I got the combination of two particular methods just right (which in
hindsight seems very simple) and suddenly I was there. The final holds seemed to float towards me and, in fact, I wasn’t even sure it felt hard any longer!

So what did I learn?

Recruitment is everything when the crux is near your maximum.

Randall doing his hangs. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Randall.

As climbers, we spend a lot of time—especially during endurance training, for example—teaching the muscles not to activate or fire at maximum capacity. Typically, it’s somewhat counterproductive to over-activate and we often see it in the form of over-gripping, in which we suddenly find outselfs in a very deep, very early pump. You can think of it as an “economy of muscle activation” where we find just the right balance between producing enough force to perform, but not excessive amounts that’ll reduce economy or overall outcome.

My method for breaking this status quo is to do a combination of very heavy
deadhangs and pulls at the crag only just before I set off on a redpoint attempt. I took to carrying a portable fingerboard and installing it on a low bolt and completing my recruitment work 10 to 15 minutes before setting off. Pulls would always precede hangs.

  • Hangs should be at 100% intensity once warmed up
  • Grip position should match those used on your project
  • Pulls should be at 90-100% intensity (I used one armers)
  • Total time under tension for either should be no more than 45 seconds)

Warm muscles perform much better than cold ones.

This sounds blindingly obvious, but too many people ignore this element of performance preparation. In my experience, it’s because many climbers think that the warm up will fatigue them, that cold only Affects injury incidence or that they don’t know that they can pre-load the warm before getting to the crag. To add to this, they’re often going after their hardest projects in cool temperatures, and—guess what—it’s not straight forward to stay warm or get warm in the first place!

My trick for this (and I know many top climbers who do the same) is to warm up at home before driving to the crag. I can get every muscle perfectly prepped inside the house and on the most skin friendly materials available. In your own environment, you can take your time, there’s no rush to be first to the classic warm-ups at the crag and there is very little chance of making your skin sore or splitting a tip. In fact, you can also listen to music as loud as you want and sip an expresso coffee whilst scanning the daily news if that’s your thing!

  •  Cold muscles will recruit less force and less quickly than warm ones
  • Cold muscles will have poorer blood supply
  • Overly hot muscles (and body as a whole) can have a detrimental effect on
    endurance capacity.

So, back to the project. The big link I’d been working on. Previously on all other days, I’d found that my first go on the line was poor, as I wasn’t warm enough. This first failed attempt then ended up being my warm-up and also served to increase my fatigue. This would then result in just a single quality attempt on the line each session; I was reducing my potential for success by 50%!

The second go would be better. I’d arrive at the second hard section, but the recruitment levels I had for the moves—adequate when I was fresh—were not high enough when I was fatigued. I still hadn’t taught my muscles what they were really capable of as my projecting process had been so oriented around operating at the required level of intensity and not above it. An example of this would be a 400-meter sprinter running their 100-meter splits at a 400-meter pace in the last few weeks before the  competition: they wouldn’t do it. They’d be running reps at 100-meter- and 200-meter-pace times for good sections of their peak training.

The day I was finally sent, I had a slow and leisurely warm up at home, wrapped up in a duvet jacket and drove to the crag with the my car’s heat on full blast. Arriving at the base of the cliff I proceeded to set personal bests on the hangs and pulls. I quickly did each crux to warm my feet up and felt
almost too strong—a rarity for me! From there, success felt close to guaranteed. And indeed, I sent my hardest climb at Raven Tor. Since then, I’ve shared this tactic with many of my redpoint-focused clients and seen lots of happy faces and read many very psyched messages when people send. If it works you, too, drop me a line!

TOM RANDALL is a professional climber, entrepreneur and one of Rock and Ice’s new online contributing writers. His partnership with Pete Whittaker as one half of The Wideboyz has seen him establish and repeat many of the world’s hardest cracks. He’s also a renowned climbing coach and founder of Lattice Training. In addition he’s director/founder of The Climbing Station Gym, Sublime Climbing & Wideboyz Volumes.

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