Hey, we’ve been under radio silence for a bit but now I’m back. James has been nursing a shoulder injury and I compressed a disc in my lower back jumping off a boulder problem (I included this in my ongoing file where I collect objective evidence that bouldering is stupid). We’re now more or less back in action thanks to our generous work benefit plans and lots of physio so I thought I’d do a quick overview of the training cycle we have planned for the first quarter of 2016. Ice season is finally in swing here in Nova Scotia too so we’ve also been getting out as much as time allows.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m dedicating 2016 to climbing harder. To help plan this out in an organized way I purchased ‘The Rock Climber’s Training Manual’ from MEC. You can also get it directly from the authors Mike and Mark Anderson from their blog. Note for Canadians – because our dollar is currently sitting at the bottom of the toilet it’s going to be crazy expensive to order from the blog. I initially placed an order before I found it at MEC and the Andersons were cool enough to cancel my order and refund me my money so if you’re in the US or have money to burn, do them a solid and order direct. They’re doubly cool because they provide a ton of the content from their book for free on their site. The main benefit of purchasing the book is that it puts it all together in a cohesive package that is more easily consumed than flicking through blog posts.
The book, in a word, is fantastic. It is to single pitch sport climbing what Training for the New Alpinism is for alpine climbing. The book details a periodized plan for improvement that follows the typical program of base fitness > strength > power > power endurance > performance. The more I read about training in general the more I realize that this is the same programming that high level athletes from every sport follow. The only unique principles to climbing are that the Andersons and House/Johnston applied the process specifically to the particular challenges of their respective sports.
I won’t do a full review of the book apart to say that if you’re interested in getting better it’s $30 well spent. The plan from the book is a four month cycle, allowing a dedicated climber to cram three cycles in per calendar year. Ideally you’ll be able to time the performance phase for either a trip or good climbing weather in your area. This is why an April trip to the Red River Gorge is perfect for me. It lines up well with my work schedule and comes right at the end of a training cycle.
Here’s a brief overview of each phase. If you want a better overview straight from the horse’s mouth, click here:
Base Fitness – the Andersons call this ARC’ing. ARC stands for Aerobic Restoration and Capiliary Training. In practice, ARC’ing means traversing around your climbing gym for sets of time that get allow for progressive overload through increasing volume (time on wall). Ideally the ARC’ing climber will work at a very small percentage of their maximum ability. That means if all you can do is hold onto jugs for 20 minutes at a time as you move around then that’s all you have to do. You’re not working strength here so no need to crush huge dynos or tiny crimpers (unless you can do that for half an hour and not pump out). Keep the terrain vertical to slightly overhanging if you can. If you want a physiological explanation of why this is beneficial you’ll have to buy the book. This phase lasts for about a month of 4-5 workouts a week.
Strength – Hangboarding, pure and simple. You’ll hangboard every 4-5 days and mix in the odd ARC session to help aid recovery. The Andersons recommend a particular hangboard routine. It includes lots of repeaters designed to match the duty cycle of the fingers while sport climbing (7 second holds). It adds progressive overload via extra weight. They recommend building a pulley system and show you how in the book. This phase lasts for a couple of weeks.
Note: There are several schools of thought on hangboarding right now (look up Steve Maisch, Eric Horst, Eva Lopez and the Andersons for what the leaders in this field are saying) without any major winner in terms of proven performance advantages. You can also look into traditional strength athletes for how to make your clamps clampier (Reddit Grip Training sub, The Iron Mind). From my understanding the two main differences split between building max strength (Maisch) and power endurance/hypertrophy (Andersons). Both get results but the strength work takes less overall time. Since I’m a relative hangboard newbie I’m looking for the simplest plan because I’ll almost certainly get improvements doing anything.
Power – Campus boarding and limit bouldering. I’m not ready for full-on campus boarding so I’m going to look into modifying it with feet on, or just sticking to limit bouldering. This phase is about 2-3 weeks.
Power Endurance – Linking hard moves together, like your typical 4×4 workout or linked bouldering. This phase is another 2-3 weeks and dovetails into the performance period since you’re starting to move into redpointing your projects
Performance – crushing your project into dust fine enough that you can sprinkle it on your breakfast during the next training cycle.
We’re on week three of the base fitness period. Our ARC sessions have gone from 2×20 min traverse sets into 2×30 last week and 3×25 this week. A component I didn’t mention above is that the book encourages developing skills while traversing to make the time doubly productive. An example could be telegraphing your foot movements to ensure you’re as accurate as possible. I thought I had decent footwork before I started doing this but my aim is WAY off. It’s getting better but it’s obviously a hole in my technique. There are several other things to work on every session to keep it from being too boring. Anecdotally it seems to be working. I’m able to push the sets into harder holds at the same level of pump and longer periods between on-the-wall rests. The first session of 20 minute sets felt really difficult, but tonight’s workout of 3×25 felt more than manageable.
I’ve read reports online that people feel this work is basically ‘junk miles,’ to borrow from the endurance world, and that the time would be better used doing power endurance work. However, for every criticism there are 10 posts of people writing about how this training plan resulted in huge improvements in climbing level. Since a cycle is only 4 months long I’m going to hold back all judgement and follow it blindly, allowing for as much rest as I feel is necessary. After I complete the plan I’ll have a better idea of where my strengths lay, how much (if at all) my performance improved and how to fine tune it for the next cycle.
Some of the most important lessons I learned from following the TFTNA plan for eight months is that a)training works, b)some of it doesn’t work and c)I’ll be able to train better next time with some specific, applied experience to build on. Within that context I’m totally willing to throw 4 months of my climbing time into following the Rock Climbers Training Manual to see where it will get me. There are worse ways to spend a few months!