I hear this a lot but it’s not something that rings true to me! When I think of sport climbing I think of climbing at my limit, not just physically but mentally too.
Onsighting a hard trad route (the grade is irrelevant, if it’s hard for you that counts as hard) is scary. We have a lot to think about, the moves, the exposure, the gear that’s below your feet, the potential fall you might be about to take, the fading strength in your arms.
Where’s the stress in sport climbing then? We know the bolts are safe, we can see the next one shining away in the near distance, even if we do fall, we’re not going far. The fear factor is taken away. The stress comes from other places.
Redpointing: working a sport route until you can lead it clean, once you have lead it clean that counts as a successful redpoint ascent. Sometimes you might practice that route just once, then get it clean, maybe three sessions, maybe 5 years! In a similar vein, Headpointing is the same thing but on trad routes.
The pressure. The pressure can be overwhelming. The pressure is self inflicted. I suppose sponsored superstars might feel the pressure from their sponsors, but for most of us, the pressure is from within. That’s silly isn’t it?! Be that as it may, the fear of success can cost you that success you want so bad. That fear can cause you to move badly, over grip and waste precious power and fail on your route. It might kick in before you set off, it might kick in when you’re past the crux and you realise you might actually succeed. Fear sucks!
The psychological side of climbing is fascinating and by understanding it better, we can begin to control the fear and stress, hopefully enabling us to tick those projects. Before we can start to address the fear of success, we need to get rid of any other more basic fears.
The standard basic fear when sport climbing is the fear of falling, but is this a rational fear? Falling can be bad, before the first bolt and you’ll need spotting, falling whilst clipping the second bolt isn’t a great idea, but beyond that, with a good belayer (get a good one!) you’re probably going to be ok, assuming the bolting is good and there’s no ledges or protrusions to hit. Whether it’s rational or not we still need to normalise it, so build up that trust with your belayer and when it’s safe to do so, practice falling off, a lot!
What else is there to be scared of? Equipment failure? Thankfully that’s super rare but mileage will sort that fear out.
So you’ve spent some sessions with your belayer, taken loads of falls with them and you’re both properly in tune, with them paying out slack right when you need it, shouting encouragement exactly when you need it, that’s all squared away. How else do you succeed psychologically?
Don’t talk yourself out of it with negative thoughts or words. “I can’t do it”, “The holds are too small”, “I’m not strong enough”, “This is horrible”, “The feet are rubbish”. Go to any crag and you’ll here someone like this, they’re setting themselves up to fail, don’t be that person. That doesn’t mean you need to be an arrogant prat or some super positive hippy, but be kind to yourself and give yourself every chance of performing to your best.
Get a belayer you trust completely…
I’ve written before about performance preparation, this includes your physical warm ups, your dynamic stretching etc, route reading, visualisation, this is your next port of call to get your head in the zone.
So you’ve done all the above and you’re ready to give that project an attempt. Everyone’s different in what they need to do. Some people meditate a little bit, some people visualise themselves cruising the moves and clipping the chains, others have a laugh with their belayer or maybe even just get a tune in their head that helps distract from the pressure. There’s people who specialise in coaching the head game, and there’s loads written on the net, so get reading and put some techniques in to practice.
The last route I worked was one I’d wanted for a while. A friend of mine had mentioned Empire of the Sun, 7b, describing it as possibly the best route of that grade in the country, I immediately wanted to do it. Conveniently Laura’s parents only live about 20 minutes from the crag, Ansteys Cove in Devon, a crag I’d never been to when I lived down South because it’s got a reputation for being hard and steep, even though it’s got a few lower grade decent routes these days. Me and Laura were on a little road trip, starting in Portland where I ticked a few routes including a quality route that had been on my hit list – England’s Dreaming 7a+, which is a really cool line. Next stop was Devon and more precisely, Anstey’s.
Empire was just as steep as I had imagined. I jumped straight on it with the clipstick and the low crux felt hard, I wasn’t sure how I was going to hold the small crimp to make the big moves, then the other big moves and the other big moves and the other big moves..! You might get the picture! The technical crux is low down, but the moves just keep coming, power endurance is the key to this route, right the way through to one last big move to the finishing jug which is easy in isolation, but hard after 20m of steep stuff. I had two days to get it, which might sound a lot (bear in mind some people project stuff for months and years), but I could only have about 4 proper goes a day due to my arms getting so wasted on it. Thankfully I had a bit of a secret weapon (in addition to Laura being my perfect belayer!), by the name of local climber Paul Roberts, who knows every fine detail of every move on the route and probably the whole crag. Paul turned up on my first play on the route and continued to drip feed me and another mate, also called Paul the beta of sequences, holds and body positions throughout the day, most of which worked perfectly, but there’s always the odd bit that I’ll do differently. The route started to come together and on my first decent redpoint effort I did better than expected, I was sure it would go down on day 2!
Paul on Empire of the Sun
Day 2 and I was super psyched and confident, as well as being a bit nervous. Both the Pauls were there again when me and Laura turned up. I got straight on Empire, with the clipstick again to put the clips in ready for a redpoint blast. Paul Taylor was up first and he smashed it, getting so close! He got the big jug but just didn’t quite have the gas to use it to get the last few holds to the chain, gutted! I think I had three proper goes that day and was getting to a similar spot near the top but just running out of gas, I had the moves but my arms couldn’t keep up. A rest day was called for, which was lucky because we had to go and visit my family anyway. We weren’t supposed to be going back down to Devon, but I needed this route and Laura had a route she wanted to do too!
Day 3. I was convinced it would go down first go. It did not.
I got one move from the big jug.
I shouted, like I’ve never shouted before I think! I was gutted. The moves went well, a little key sequence near the top went down smoothly, but I just didn’t have the power to latch the jug.
When I got back down to the floor, I shouted some more, then some more, before launching a ‘draw into the bushes, after which my cap got smashed in to the dirt. Not my finest moment, but that route meant a lot.
Screen shot of the successful redpoint
Second go. I’d rested for about 25 minutes, which isn’t that long but I felt ready to have another go. I can’t quite put my finger on how I sorted my head out, but I felt a lot less internal pressure on attempt number two and this time the moves flowed, each one going down perfectly first time, everything in balance, dropping a knee here and there, really making the most of each sequence. The last move to the jug, my nemesis, eyeing up the jug and tick mark, just about aware of Laura’s shouted encouragements. I didn’t climb these couple of moves as well as I should, but my legs drove up just enough that as my right hand launched up towards the jug, it stuck.
I knew I wasn’t letting go now.
All over in 3 minutes 30 seconds.
The relief, a couple of low key shouts and a smile down to Laura summed up my feelings. Happiness.
That feeling is where the pressure comes from. That feeling is a drug. You want it, you need it. Make it last, enjoy it, soak it up. It won’t last.
I remember the days of trying to climb something at my limit, be it indoors or outdoors, where my warm up would consist of an espresso, waving my arms around a bit, climbing an easy route, then wondering why I got pumped out of my box and climbed terribly.
It was pretty simple really, my warm up routine was lame, pointless really. Sure, these days my warm up might be a bit different depending on whether I’m jumping on a low stress E1 after work, or headpointing an E4, or redpointing that 7b+, again, but I’ll be doing a warm up of some description for sure.
Not quite the warm up we’re after…
Before we go any further I hate the phrase “warm up”, there’s so much more to it than that, so lets call it Performance Preparation – thanks Paul Roberts!
Today’s the day that the route’s going down, the grade is irrelevant (warm up before everything), it’s at your limit though, how are we going to best prepare ourselves?
Rest well, and eat properly. Turning up hungover, tired and hungry isn’t going to work, well, not for me! Be fuelled up and hydrated, I then like to eat little and often through the day otherwise I get sleepy.
Bring a good belayer you trust implicitly – can’t stress this enough.
Make sure conditions are good, if the rock is greasy and your crux move is a smooth sloper, it’s going to be hard to succeed, go somewhere else if need be.
Get your body ready to perform. We need to get the heart rate up (cardio), get your muscles and joints mobilised, and get your body well coordinated so your foot goes where you want it to and your hands hit the holds right first time every time.
Cardio – think star jumps, running, skipping
Mobilisation – such as lunges, gentle shoulder rotations, hip twists (I use a Theraband)
Coordination – turn your brain on with simple exercises like rubbing your tummy and patting your head in different combinations, stand on one leg with your eyes closed and touch the tip of your nose with the tip of your index finger, things like that.
Do some easier climbing (don’t underestimate them though), maybe a couple of routes, maybe some bouldering or traversing, depends a bit where you are, just remember it’s very hard to perform at your limit straight away. This will get your body and brain working, and your muscles recruited
Look at the route, get all the info you can from the ground, where’s the rests, where do you need to climb fast, where’s the gear / clipping positions, where are the key holds etc,. If you’ve already worked the route, still do this to reacquaint yourself with it and run through those sequences. Visualise the moves, visualise yourself doing them, visualise yourself successfully at the top.
When you’re tying in and getting your shoes on, get your mind in the right place if you haven’t already. This varies for everyone. It could be a happy song, it could be visualisation, it could be you going quiet, it could be you having a laugh with your belayer. I have a few things depending on my mood. Be positive.
Once you’ve started that route, give it everything, absolutely everything, if you shout “take” instead of slapping for that next hold you’ll never know if you could have made it! Give yourself every chance.
Putting the warm up to use, Laura working a 7a at Torbryan
There’s two results available.
Failure, well that sucks, but what did you learn? The rocks not going anywhere, rest and have another go, be that on the same day if you’re fresh enough, or another day if you’re not.
Success, yes! Enjoy the moment! I often struggle to make that moment last as there’s always another project to be done. Don’t forget to think why it was successful, we have to learn from our successes to keep achieving our goals. Don’t forget to thank your belayer!
Give yourself every chance of success!
The aim of this blog is to give you a bit of an overview, there’s a lot more to be said on each point!
If you feel like you like to push your grade, check out our Rock Improver courses…
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Looking out the window at the drizzle means one thing, no two. Firstly, no excuse not to go down the wall for some training and secondly no excuse not to write a blog about something… Normally my blogs are super easy to write, this one’s a bit more complicated, requiring more thought, but here we go, just bear in mind this is a massive subject, so this is really just an overview – the internet is full of great articles, and some utter rubbish as well.
For years I was kidding myself “off down the wall to get strong” I’d say, rubbish. Is going down the wall with a mate and doing a few routes training? No. I’m not saying it’s pointless, it’s great fun and you’ll get some benefit, as you will from any climbing, but don’t kid yourself it’s training. Sorry about that.
Time in the wall pays dividends…
Do you need to train, and more importantly do you want to train? If you’re happily climbing a grade and going to a climbing wall is just your way of ticking over when you can’t get to a crag then great, keep doing what you’re doing! If, however, you’re trying to improve your grade, think about what’s stopping you succeeding.
Being let down technically, or can’t work out the moves? Consider working on your technique first, if you haven’t done a massive amount of climbing, this will be a key limiting feature. Before training any aspect of your climbing, you must have a decent technique. It could also be your tactics, are you using the holds in the correct sequence? (Correct for you).
Getting scared? Don’t we all! But we can work on managing this through various techniques this will probably include falling off practice when appropriate to try and get more comfortable with it. The psychology of it all is vast subject in it’s own right.
Arms get pumped silly on climbs when you’re not actually finding the moves very hard, for example on sustained but non cruxey routes? You’re lacking endurance.
Not strong enough to hold the holds? Get stronger!
Unable to do the individual moves even though you can hold the holds? Not enough power.
Not able to link hard moves, even though you can do all the individual moves? This indicates a lack of power endurance.
It’s important to understand a few key words when giving the above points some thought.
Endurance, this is the aerobic capacity of of your muscles, specifically in climbing your forearms (local endurance). It’s the ability for you to keep climbing without getting too pumped (ie. solid forearms that can’t grip any more), which is when your forearms can’t get enough oxygen in them.
Strength, by this I’m talking about contact strength – holding that hold. When we talk about strength, we are talking about a static force, i.e. hanging from a hold, nothing more, so a stronger climber can hand off a smaller hold than a weaker climber (relative to their weight).
Power, doing something with that strength you’ve got! The product of strength plus movement. Think of a boulderer climbing a steep, short, sharp problem, they are using power.
Power Endurance, this is linking hard moves together without your arms giving up. Thinking back to endurance being aerobic, power endurance brings in the anaerobic process as well so to train it you need a good base of all the above.
Some success, Katana (E4) at Holyhead Mountain
How do we train our weaknesses? With hard work! Remember you’ve got to want to do the training, so have a think about what motivates you. It could be a particular route or grade, it could be to burn off your mates, or to make the most of that upcoming trip to the Costa Blanca – whatever it is, use it.
Before anything, warm up! You need to prepare your body to perform, get the heart rate up with some jogging, star jumps etc, do a bit of mobility stuff to get your muscles and joints moving and do a bit of co-ordination work as well. Then move on to some EASY climbing or bouldering.
Endurance, low intensity mileage. Example, doing laps at the wall, 4x4s at a level that makes you moderately pumped, but no more. If you get to the point where you’re feeling very pumped to the point you might fall off then you’ve moved in to the anaerobic phase which is not what we’re after.
Strength, if you’ve not done a lot of climbing yet, embrace bouldering, this will do wonders for your strength. If however you want to train strength specifically and you’ve been climbing a while already then the finger board is hard to beat. But, there’s a bit of a warning here, finger boards are brutal on your fingers, I’ve already mentioned warming up but feel the need to re-emphasise it again! Do a good 30 minutes of bouldering or climbing before getting on the board, and if you’re under 18 seek some advice first as it has the potential to mess up your long term finger development. That said they are massively useful, repeaters on a Beastmaker or similar will improve your strength. My top tip here is to download the Beastmaker App for your phone and start easy.
Power, campus boarding is one choice, and will undoubtably improve your power, like fingerboarding it’s intense so remember that warm up. You’ll see campus boards in every wall but they probably only become of use once you’re bouldering about 7a / V6 or above. Personally I prefer to boulder to my limit and have only ever used a campus board to benchmark my progress, this involves boulder problems near my limit and resting in between each go for a few minutes to recover properly, before doing another one. Using bouldering to train has the advantage of being more enjoyable and allows you to work on technique at the same time.
Power endurance, so you’ve got a good base of all the above? Now you can work on power endurance! Remember back to endurance and 4x4s, for power endurance we’re going to be doing 3x3s, but instead of being at a moderate pump level, we now want to be at a higher pump level, by the end of each set of three you want to be at our absolute max, a move or two from falling off, or falling off very close to the top. We can also achieve a similar result from bouldering. Choose some problems a couple of grades below your limit and aim to repeat an individual problem 3 times, you should be failing or close to failing on your last go, rest and repeat.
Wings of Freedom, 7a+ onsight, Spain. Photo Bennett Barthelemy
This is such a complicated subject. You’ll want to train all these different elements in phases, but we have to keep on top of them all. If we focus entirely on endurance, you’ll be stumped when you come to a crux section on a sport route, if you focus solely on power you’ll run out of gas hanging around placing gear on a trad route.
Don’t forget to rest. All this training requires your body to rest and rebuild to get stronger & fitter.
Remember I asked why you’re failing on routes? We also need to consider what we are looking to achieve from our training, maybe that’s linked to what’s motivating us. If you’re aim is to onsight The Strand, E2 at Gogarth then you’ll need endurance just to keep on trucking, if it’s to redpoint your a cruxey 7a somewhere then it’s probably power endurance you’ll need.
Well done for making it through that lot! Hopefully it’s useful and gives you something to think about. I get such a buzz from succeeding on routes that I’ve had to work hard to achieve that it’s easy to stay motivated to train and I enjoy the training itself, and that’s super important I think. If you don’t enjoy the training, even if it’s type two fun, it’ll be hard to keep doing it, week in week out.
Lastly, remember this blog is just a bit of an overview, this is, as I’ve already said, a massive subject… If you’re going to get training, get as much knowledge as you can, whether that’s reading stuff or seeking advice from a climbing coach.
Get training and smash those goals!
If you feel like you need help or a push in the right direction, check out our performance climbing courses…
Grades are just arbitrary numbers and yet we get so hung up on them. I’ll happily admit I’m motivated by them and they provide goals and targets for me to work towards.
Type “how to climb 7a” in to Google and you’ll get plenty of results, the top one being by Steve McClure, the man who’s just climbed 9b, read it, it’s good.
Unlike Steve, I don’t have many grades in hand when I climb a 7a! My best onsight is only a grade harder at 7a+ and my best redpoint is 7b+, this year is the first year I’ve put some proper effort in to trying to push my grade and I’m about to start working my first 8a (nb. working is a long way from succeeding..!)
Here’s my take on it anyway!
Martin on a 7a+, Oasis sector, Chulilla, Spain
Want it! Whilst it may be an arbitrary thing, 7a does seem to represent the stage at which you need to start wanting it a bit more, if you don’t it’s going to be hard to move on to the other points in my list. We’re all different and I’m sure most of us know someone who can jump on a 7a and onsight it despite being hungover and with a belly full of greasy Pete’s Eats breakfast! No excuses though, you either want it enough or you don’t, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t! Climbing any grade can be fun and is better than kayaking…
Tekkers! Concentrate on your technique, because whilst 7a’s need some strength etc, you’ll need decent technique. These can be drilled indoors or outdoors, but when you’re climbing comfortable grades, make sure you’re climbing as well technically as possible, then that’ll begin to flow in to your climbing when you’re at your limit. Watch some footage of top climbers, they’ll look like they’re flowing up the rock, no sketchy footwork!
Climb lots, you’ll need mileage on the rock. Think of your total number of routes at each grade leading up to 7a and we want a stable pyramid shape. When you’re putting in the time getting this mileage, concentrate on climbing with the good technique as mentioned above, use your feet properly, think about your body position etc.
Benchmarking my finger strength on the Beastamker, my shoulder form is much better these days..!
Train. I spent years going to the climbing wall thinking I was training, I wasn’t! If you go to the wall and just mince around doing a few routes, that isn’t training. It’s still useful, it’s mileage isn’t it, but think about what you’re trying to achieve. Training is a massive subject, about which there’s shed loads written (even how many moves you should be climbing per week to climb a particular grade, or how much weight you should be able to hold hanging on a finger board), but have a think about why you’re failing on routes, lack of endurance, lack of power, lack of strength, lack of power endurance, these will dictate what areas you need to work on. Consider getting some outside advice on this, personally I needed to be told by someone else what I needed to work on, despite having a reasonable amount of knowledge on the subject.
Get a belayer you trust. I can’t emphasise this one enough, you need to have zero doubt in your head about being caught when you fall off (see below), you need slack exactly when you want it and the right amount of encouragement when you want it. Trust needs to be earned. It also helps if they’re available whenever you are (thanks Laura!)
Screen grab of me on my successful redpoint of Face Race, 7a+ on the Orme. Such a sharp hold on the crux
Fall off, again and again and again. The head game is massive and falling off lots will help it. If you slap for that final hold you might hold it, if you don’t try you’ll never know, if you’re scared of falling you won’t slap… Fear of falling saps energy, makes you climb poorly and will hold you back. When I’m climbing laps indoors I never clip the top lower off, just jumping off once I’ve got the top hold, so I’m falling off a minimum of 16 time during my laps session. I used to practice random falling to build up the belayer trust but I don’t need to now, I just climb hard (for me) stuff until I fall off. Go for that next move, that one more move, every time! Bear in mind I’m talking about training here, not redpointing a route, we need to conserve our energy sometimes. Remember though, poor falling off practice could make things worse, so give it some thought and don’t do what I saw the other day – people taking their first ever lead falls on a vertical arete (hard to land well, you’ll bang your shins etc) and then not high enough up the wall so the belayer was almost kicked in the head and the climber getting quite close to the ground.
Onsighting Wings of Freedom 7a+, Spain
Performance Preparation. Mine used to consist of an espresso and an easy climb or two and that just doesn’t cut it. I remember chuckling to myself seeing people running around, doing star jumps, getting a theraband out and so on, now that’s me, every time. Again this is a massive subject but think about getting the cardio going, mobilising the joints and muscles and getting your co-ordination kick started, then get on some easy stuff for a bit to recruit your muscles. This happens at the beginning of the session and also before each climb when I’m outdoors. Part of the performance prep is route reading, spotting the rests, clipping positions, particular moves, where you’ll need to move fast and visualise yourself doing it and succeeding.
Mike busting out the theraband to help tick the mobility section of performance prep, he still took a whipper off Left Wall, E2 5c!
Don’t be afraid of failing and always take the positives. You want to push your grade? It sucks but sometimes you won’t get it. Take the positives though, it’s so important! Many years ago I threw my sport ‘draws on the floor and shouted “sport is sh*t, I’m never climbing sport again”! These days, to be honest I’m usually smiling when I fail, something will certainly have gone well or I’ll have learnt something about my climbing or the route itself and it motivates me to try harder!
Have fun, what’s the point otherwise?!
Reading that won’t make you climb 7a, sorry. Reading that and giving each point some more thought might do… Each point could be an article in its own right and you might need to do some further reading or even get some outside help, but maybe it’ll be worth it. There are also other things to think about, such as nutrition, self discovery is all part of the journey, and there’s a lot that’s applicable to pushing your trad grade too.
One day I might write a how to climb 8a blog, but we’ll have to wait and see on that one!
Last year was a good year, in many ways, but especially in a climbing sense. I’ve loved climbing for as long as I can remember, but 2016 was the year I really started training properly and I made a conscious decision to try harder.
In terms of training, I mixed it up with bouldering, finger boarding, laps on the auto belay and some core workout sessions. The single biggest piece of enlightenment came from bouldering, and I’m saying that as someone who would never call themselves a boulderer! It was the realisation that sometimes you have to try hard, I mean really hard, every last bit of energy you have might need to go into that move and instead of not trying, and letting go, giving it everything and trying might mean you get that route. Outdoors I bouldered Font 7a and indoors 7b and this has really translated to my sport and trad climbing, if you don’t give things a max effort attempt, you’ll never know if you could have got it or not.
The other biggest improvement came on my climbing trip to Spain. A month of climbing with super psyched people (in some amazing places!) really sorted my head out, not being held back by unrealistic thoughts of hurting yourself etc. really frees up your climbing. On that trip I managed to onsight my first 7a, then 7a+ and redpointed my first 7b then 7b+.
On returning to the UK I’ve been super keen to keep riding the wave of psyche so I’ve tried to translate the extra fitness I’ve got from the sport trip and the good mental state from taking loads (I mean loads!) of falls on sport routes. Yesterday I managed to get my first non slate E4, Katana on Holyhead Mountain, which has really got me excited for the climbing possibilities of 2017.
Super happy to have ticket Katana E4 6a
The list on my fridge helps give me some focus, sometimes I find the amount of climbing on offer a bit overwhelming and struggle to know what I want to do. Last year the list was 43 routes long and I only ticked about half of them, but the list provided a bit of structure and my total number of routes was just shy of 200. Highlights included routes like Left Wall E2 5c, The Strand E2 5b, Khubla Khan E4 6b, Heading the Shot 7a+, Quartz Icicle E2 5b and Dale Duro Negro 7b.
This year’s list is going to be hard to complete, I’ve made it quite challenging! But I’ll love every minute of working through it!
The 2017 list of psyche, some “easy”, some requiring more effort!
I love climbing, obviously, and I love sharing my passion for it with all my clients, none of us should ever stop learning so this year I’ve enrolled on some coaching courses to improve my own delivery so I can really make the most of my clients time with me.
A massive part of the fun hasn’t just been the climbing, but also the amazing places I’ve been and the awesome people I’ve met along the way that have made the last year so brilliant.
Anyone can improve their climbing if they want to, I’ve just been lucky enough to meet the right people to give me the drive and determination to up my game a bit, but if you need any help working towards your own targets, get in touch!