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Be Your Own Training Coach—10 Tips For Building A Simple, Effective Program

Apply these key principles to your planning and watch your climbing improve.

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You’ve thought about producing your own training plan, but there are so many different options out there in the baffling world of online training, and many climbers devise their own programs. While there is no best way to produce a training plan for climbing, there are key principles that always apply regardless of your planning method. Here are 10 of them.

Keep it Simple

To a large extent, any training plan is better than no training plan. Training plans work because they drip-feed the training in regular, measured doses and, fundamentally, because they motivate you to train, especially on those nights when lethargy kicks in. A training plan doesn’t have to be complicated to work well. The devil is not in the minutiae of the protocols, the main benefit comes from the overview plan, where you decide the overall themes and priorities and roughly what you’re going to focus on each month, whether base-building, max-strength, endurance and so on. It comes down to the beautiful basics—prioritize your weaknesses and goals, make a steady start, build-up gradually, introduce a few strategic, rest or “deload” weeks and that’s about the size of it.

Define Training and Performance Periods

It’s really important not to train on endlessly, all-year round. You’ll get better results and also feel happier about your climbing if you switch from periods of hard training to periods where you just climb (call them performance periods if you like). The aim in these performance periods is merely to maintain form, rather than to make significant gains. You do this by training lighter and less frequently and are guided more by whim based on your short-term needs (for example, top up your strength prior to a bouldering trip or your power-endurance prior to a redpoint project). All this is in the interest of enabling you to feel sharper and more recovered so you can achieve your goals. If you just keep on training, eventually you’ll burn out or get injured and you may lose sight of the point of it all, which is surely to do some really cool climbing!

Linear Or Non-linear

Without going into detail with periodization you need to decide whether you want to be on reasonable form during the training period or whether you’re happy to sacrifice form while training, in the interest of being on peak form at the end of the plan. The decider here is whether you’ve got trips or comps scheduled during the training period, and, in which case, go for shorter training phases (of say 2 weeks). If not then go for longer phases (of say 4 – 6 weeks) with the aim of hitting a mega-peak at the end. The latter the approach is great for big projects, but many climbers prefer to be on a more consistent, year-round schedule.

Goal setting

You’ve heard it countless times before but it actually makes a huge difference if you set goals. Don’t be vague, if you want to onsight your first 5.11d or redpoi5.12d in the spring, then write those goals down so there’s a visible target to hit. Do this both for the short-term, after, say, two or three months and the mid-term, after five to six months. Many climbers are reluctant to commit to goals—and deep down, fear of failure is usually the reason; but this is the all-important “Step 1.”

Establish Benchmark Tests

Climbing grades are subjective and many climbers find it hard to tell whether or not they’re making gains in their training. Before starting a plan, benchmark yourself with some test-exercises on the hangboard, such as a deadhang with a half-crimp and open grip, as well as pull-ups, lock-offs, leg-raises and front-levers. These need to be tailored to your level, so use a foot-stirrup or add weight as required. You can then track your progress by repeating these tests at the mid-point of your training plan, and also at the end to see if all the effort has paid off.

Prioritisation—The 80-20 Rule

Sport climbers always face a dilemma when planning their training, when it comes to deciding the ratios of strength and endurance training. For example, if you were to train both strength and endurance hard and in equal measures then you’re unlikely to make maximum potential gains in both. However, if for example, you only trained strength and cut out endurance altogether then you’d maximize strength gains but would sacrifice endurance. For most, it usually pays to split the training into phases and focus slightly more on one, while keeping the other topped up. For example, in strength phases, you’d train strength 70 to 80% of the time and endurance 20 to 30% and then in endurance phases you’d switch the priority back round. Many variations are possible but this classic periodization principle invariably delivers good results.

Begin At A Comfortable Level

No matter how keen you are, don’t go off the blocks like a sprinter. Start off completing sessions comfortably rather than getting thrashed. Avoid jumping on hard projects, as you may risk injury to your tendons and ego. Instead, favor high-volume sessions such as mileage-based bouldering or laps on mid-grade routes and then build the intensity up gradually over time.

Vary The Routine

Are you pretty much doing the same things at the climbing gym as you were doing last year? If so, you’ll probably be getting the same results and it’s time for a change. An example would be to train more on the board if you normally boulder on plastic or training endurance by doing circuits instead of using a leading wall. You could also change your hangboard protocols—for example do longer-duration hangs of 20 to 30 secs if you normally do shorter hangs of 6 to 12 secs. If you normally do long, exhaustive training sessions interspersed with a day or two of rest then you could try doing shorter, high-quality sessions more frequently.  A further example would be to change the overall structure of your plan by doing shorter phases, if you did longer phases last time.

Be Flexible

Many climbers fear being trapped by rigid plans but a good training program should always be flexible and accommodate minor changes of whim. A practical solution is to make the sessions interchangeable so that you can switch them around within the week without compromising the effect. So for example, if you’d planned to train endurance on Tuesday but you get to the gym and there’s an amazing new boulder set then get stuck in, and train endurance on Thursday when you’d planned to boulder. Another ploy is to allocate one “freestyle session” per week when you can do whatever you fancy; for example, climb on rock if weather permits.

Include Skills!

If you only focus on physical training components, such as strength and endurance then you’re missing a huge chunk of the potential benefits. Do a diagnostic on your technique and head-game and then include relevant drills in your training plan. For example, you can do drills to help you climb faster or more fluidly, or move more dynamically, place your feet more accurately and so on. A good time for this work is during warm-ups when you’re feeling fresh and focused and you’ll be on easy and mid-grade terrain. Above all, if you’re still not happy about falling on to bolts then incorporating leader-fall drills into endurance sessions. A training plan doesn’t have to be about pure training and a more holistic approach will always produce the best results.