Articles - Neil Gresham's Training for Climbing: part 2
Photo: Mike Robertson
I keep burning out at the same height on the leading wall, which is usually about three quarters of the way up, and this happens almost regardless of the grade. How can I overcome this?
– Chaz B (London)
There could be two possible reasons for this. The first is that you’re attempting routes that are too hard for you at the front end of the session. This causes you to become so fatigued that dropping the grade still doesn’t make any difference – every route still feels beyond you. If you were to pace yourself more and resist the temptation to push your grade then you would undoubtedly get to the top of more routes and this would also have a much more worthwhile training effect. The alternative is that your endurance is seriously under-developed. If this were the case, then you would rely initially on the energy systems that the body uses for bouldering or shorter sequences of hard moves (this involves the re-synthesis of a chemical within the muscle known as ATP for energy). However, this process usually runs out of steam after about a minute of intensive climbing. At this point we must switch to a more sustainable energy system for endurance climbing (known as anaerobic glycolysis). But if the climbing stays at the same level, and this energy system is under-trained then everything will shut down at the transition point – in your case, about three quarters of the way up the leading wall! The answer, again, is to drop the grade and do more routes at an easier level. You should aim to complete between 6 and 8 routes of the same fixed grade before you burn-out. Alternatively, use circuits on the bouldering wall of between 20 and 30 moves to the same effect.
Why do you recommend loose chalk instead of chalk balls for your training holidays?
– Sandra S (Nottingham)
Although loose chalk is banned at most climbing walls – for good reason – and chalk balls are mandatory, loose chalk is infinitely preferable at the crag, especially when it’s hot or humid. Sometimes it wastes more time and energy to try and squeeze a worthwhile amount of chalk from a chalk ball than it does to press on with greasy hands! Loose chalk also protects your skin much more effectively on rough or sharp rock. Having said this, most climbers develop a nervous habit for over-using chalk which is neither helpful to their performance nor to the environment. It can occasionally be a worthwhile exercise to practice climbing without chalk. Speed is efficiency and you’d be amazed how much time you waste with your hand in your chalk bag. Another crucial tip is to use a chalk bag belt or tie, rather than clipping your chalk bag onto the back of your harness – this way the chalk bag sits at the correct angle and is so much easier to find. Again, this will save you vital seconds spent fumbling around. Every little helps!
I’ve heard that the ideal number of days to train in a row is 2 on and then 1 off, but I’ve tried this a few times and found that I always feel too tired on the second day. What would you advise?
– Dave H (London)
If only there was such a thing as an ideal sequence for rest days and training days. I entirely empathize that you feel too tired to train effectively on the second day, because this is something that I always used to find when I was training on the cellars in Sheffield ten years ago. At this time many of us believed that the ideal combination for getting strong was day-on, day-off, and that any more than 2 days in a row was over-training. It transpires that not only is this incorrect, but if you are to have any chance of developing your endurance to a significant level then you need to be able to climb for multiple days in a row. I remember being astounded to hear that some of the top French competition climbers were sometimes doing 50 days in a row! It’s not surprising they were fitter than us! The whole point is that you need to develop the fitness to train more frequently. Initially you will always feel fatigued on the second day but with time your body will adapt. The best plan is to do a light endurance day on the second day and then to build up to make this a harder session. With time, you may then feel ready to do a light climbing day on your third day on, and so on. However beware that this process can not be pushed ad-infinitum or you will hit a wall. I would never recommend any more than 3 hard days in a row, no matter how fit you are. The fourth day should always be a light ‘recovery session’ before you attempt to push it again on day 5. This may sound daunting to anyone who works full time but I’m afraid that you need to be climbing at least 5 days a week in order to reach your maximum potential. However you can still do a lot with 3 or 4 sessions if you’re really focused!
I’ve been climbing just over a year and have just worn through my first pair of board-lasted shoes (which I’ve been told are for beginners). I’ve been advised to get some slip-lasted shoes now that I’m climbing in the low French 6’s. What should I look for when making the purchase?
– Andy C (Bristol)
First of all, don’t be brain-washed by brand names. Just because your friend, or the local hero at the wall uses a certain make, that doesn’t mean that this shoe will work for you. Go to a specialist shop with a good selection and make sure you get served by someone who is an experienced climber and shoe fitter. The first step is to get an idea about your foot shape, in terms of width and also toe-symmetry. If your big toe is the longest then ask for an asymmetric shoe but if your middle two toes are longest then you’ll need something more symmetrical. This question will usually help you determine whether or not the shop assistant knows what they’re doing! Look at the shape of the soles yourself if you don’t trust them! Regarding sizing, don’t let anyone force you into something that will cripple you. Modern shoes are designed to perform without the need to crush your feet. If any of your toes are buckling under then they are too small. How can you ever hope to stand on a small foothold if you can’t stand on the ground? However, you must ensure that there is no dead-space whatsoever and bear in mind that most shoes will stretch up to half a size. Regarding stretch, if the shoe is lined and if it has a ‘full coverage’ rand then it will stretch less than an un-lined shoe with a ‘partial’ rand. The final question is stiffness. It used to be fashionable to own a soft pair of shoes for smearing and a stiff pair for edging. Sure, if you’re mainly trad climbing then you will benefit from a stiff platform (so that your feet don’t tire when placing gear or so they don’t get crushed in cracks) but for sport climbing, most people go for a ‘mid stiffness’ shoe that will smear and edge to optimum degrees.
If you found this article useful then check out Neil Gresham's Masterclass: Stamina Training
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Neil Gresham’s Masterclass DVDs, Parts 1 & 2 – guaranteed to help you improve your climbing. See climbingmasterclass.com for details of Neil’s forthcoming coaching courses. All in association with Climber magazine.