The following principles generally represent my approach to training for climbing, based on about 10 years of flailing around on boulders, crags and mountains.
1. Specificity Make your training specific to your goals and your goals specific to the aspects of climbing you stand to gain the most from
For most aspiring alpinists this is simple: go climbing as much as possible, either rock (preferably trad climbing) or ice/mixed climbing, because its technical skills on steep ground that will be lacking. True technical proficiency can only be gained from doing the real thing as there is a wholeness to climbing that you cannot get from training the parts. A huge part of it is the mental aspect (see below), which is best trained with real climbing and often is more of limiting factor than the physical. If real climbing isn’t an option the climbing gym is the next best thing. Failing this, cross training (i.e. running) is still beneficial but don’t be fooled that it will directly improve your climbing.
2. Technique before strength Good technique is the foundation of becoming a proficient technical climber
In the mountains you may not get a chance to give something a second go so being able to onsite is a huge advantage. Bouldering is one of the best ways to improve rock climbing technique and build up a solid base of engrams (muscle memory). Make up lots of different style boulder problems and always try to onsite them. The same for routes, always go for the onsite. Technique also includes things like clipping and placing gear: basic stuff like clipping straight armed, and racking gear properly. There is always room for improvement.
3. Zen focus The mental aspect of climbing is one of the hardest to train
Many climbers gain confidence from being (or feeling) strong and fit, but in reality this is a poor substitute for real mental ability. The aim of mental training is to develop the ability of the mind to focus on the task at hand, thus blocking out distractions like fear or random thoughts. Think of it as zen focus. My preferred way of doing this is to focus my attention on the feel of each hold, move, my centre of gravity etc, what I call body feel or awareness. The trick is not to force the body but just to be aware of how it feels and let your subconscious do the climbing (providing you have the necessary engrams). For more on this see the Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. Another aspect of mental training is being able to maintain your zen focus when things get really stressful i.e. its cold, wet, dark, and the climbing is run-out and scary. Being able to focus in this situation is probably one of the most useful skills to have, beside actually being able to climb the route you’re on. How to train it? Simple: go climbing in cold, wet or dark conditions and practice your zen focus.
4. Structured physical training
There are four main types of physical training (in increasing order of intensity): 1. Aerobic capacity (endurance) 2. Aerobic power (power endurance i.e. for route climbing) 3. Anaerobic capacity (strength endurance) 4. Anaerobic power (maximum power i.e. for bouldering) Basically to train each type requires a different level of intensity, number of moves, resting period, number of sets etc. Obviously aerobic is with air, anaerobic without. I’m no expert on these, other than to say that in simple terms capacity is about how long you can go for and power is about how hard you can pull down! Alpine climbers generally need capacity more than they need power, particularly pure endurance, although strength endurance is important for those short difficult sections on long climbs. Obviously, hard mixed climbing requires more strength endurance, as well as some power endurance. Generally it’s recommended to focus on training one type at a time, except it’s always good to maintain some endurance training as this is the foundation for good physical fitness.
5. Endurance training
This involves doing lots of moves (long relatively easy routes or boulder problems) at lower intensities, up to a moderate pump (i.e. shake out once). If you have a training buddy, split your indoor wall sessions into 20-30 min blocks, instead of alternating turns. For bouldering, pick a section of wall that you can stay on for at least 20 mins. Gradually increase the intensity of endurance to the moderate pump level. If you need to improve your general climbing fitness then do lots of this type of training, and even if you’re fit maintain at least one session a week. Improvement should occur relatively quickly (i.e. within a few weeks).
6. Strength endurance training
This involves training on shorter routes or boulder problems at close to maximum strength so you get very pumped! If you have a good base of endurance and want to move up the grades or improve at mixed climbing, this is the type of physical training to focus on. Apparently it takes 18 weeks for strength endurance training to come to fruition so sustained effort is required. Do 3-4 short hard routes or boulder problems that get you very pumped with short rests in between (about the time it takes to climb each one), to make one set. Do 3-4 sets per session, resting 15 min between sets. Otherwise known as interval or circuit training. Make sure you can finish the session, adjusting the intensity if required.
7. Pure strength and weight training
Remember that strength on its own is no substitute for technique, i.e. one arm pull ups will only take you so far before technique becomes the limiting factor. With this in my mind, focus on strength exercises that support and translate into climbing. Key areas to focus on are core strength and the shoulders, which are often forgotten or weak links. Front levers are wicked training for overhanging routes!
8. Maintain a training program and diary
Write up a training program with the different aspects and types of training you want to focus on, and keep a diary to monitor your progress. Try to focus on one aspect/type of training at a time and for a period long enough to notice improvement. If you stop improving re-evaluate the program. Avoid stagnating by keeping your training varied and interesting. And take note of any niggles and pains that may signal an injury.
9. Maximise your talents, manage weaknesses
This is a new idea which I’m still pondering about. The concept is that there are certain things we are naturally good at (talents) and other things not so much. It goes against the old saying of “work on your weaknesses” but makes a lot of sense in that there is no point in putting huge amounts of effort into something that you are only ever going to be average at. For example, in rock climbing I suck at reading sequences from the ground, my brain just doesn’t work in that way, but I can usually work them out fine once I start climbing, so no point in trying to improve my sequence reading. Another example is my preference for using a crimp, instead of open hand grip. I’m naturally much stronger at crimping than open handing, although the latter is generally the stronger and better grip to use. The idea is not to ignore your weaknesses, but work out where you can gain the most by training. Requires attention to the subtleties of how you climb, and trying different techniques and styles.
10. Recovery and diet
Make sure you allow for rest and recovery in your training program, remembering to rest for at least 2 days after any strength training. Eat nutrient dense food (lots of greens and coloured vegetables and good quality protein (meat, fish, nuts, seeds, or the old rice and beans/legume combo), remembering that if you’re training a lot in winter your body needs all the good stuff it can get to fight off colds and flu. And finally, start re-fuelling as soon after training as possible, i.e. have food with you. The glycogen window may not be as important as some studies make out, but I’ve always found recovery to be faster when I eat sooner rather than later.