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Alpine Knee: How to Get Better at Climbing in 2021 (Without Really Trying)

We both know you’re not going to use that hangboard. Try these 8 ideas instead.

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Corey Buhay once scared a party off The Diamond because they misinterpreted her battle cries as death throes. Alpine Knee is her column celebrating the scrappier, messier, sometimes comically unglamorous parts of climbing.

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#8. Try a new discipline. Even a weird one.Courtesy Corey Buhay

We all start the new year with the best of intentions to get stronger, train harder, and finally send that project. Yet, every year, those intentions fizzle out by mid-February. The reasons, psychologists say, can be complex, but they mostly boil down to the fact that lofty goals and new habits are emotionally uncomfortable—all the more so if they involve 6 a.m. wake ups, fingerboarding, or both.

For anxiety-prone perfectionists (Hi, nice to meet you) there’s an added layer of complexity. I once told my therapist that goals made me panic, and she nodded sagely and said, “Corey, goals aren’t for people like you.” At the time I was a little bit offended, but I think the takeaway is this: If, like many climbers, you already put a lot of pressure on yourself to succeed, the added pressure of big goals (i.e. a dream project, a competition, or an upcoming expedition) can send you into a fear-of-failure tailspin if you miss a few training sessions in a row. Before you know it, you’ve given up the endeavor—just as February rolls around.

Due to quarantine, this was the first year I haven’t made any concrete resolutions around sending a particular project or a new grade. It’s also the year I’ve seen the most progress, by far. Since I’m bad at goals, I had to trick myself into training by making it fun and interesting, breaking it into bite-size pieces, and taking away all the pressure. Here’s how.

1. Count your pitches

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Say yes to more outings, no matter how hard (or easy) the climbing.Courtesy Corey Buhay

Coming off of quarantine, I had no idea what level I would be climbing at. So, to motivate myself without piling on expectations, I simply set a goal to climb 250 outdoor pitches in 2020. Because the goal was just to get out, rather than to have “high-quality” sessions, I felt much less pressure around climbing. As a result, I got out more. I said yes to more outings, stayed out longer, and worked harder to get to the top of every pitch. And because following 5.6 and hang-dogging 5.12 were equally valuable for achieving my goal, I felt successful after almost every outing, no matter what grades I climbed. That helped build confidence and momentum—essential for long term success.

2. Climb with someone who’s better than you

If you respond well to heckling, then by all means climb with someone who will peer-pressure you outside of your comfort zone. My recommendation, though, is simpler. Scroll through your phone contacts, find those climbing partners you know are stronger than you, and make a point to set up casual climbing plans, either in the gym or outside. If you can, set up a weekly session.

The reason? If you’re the stronger climber, it’s easy to try something, fail, and write it off as too hard or not your style. But if your partner gives it a try and makes it look easy? That’s inspiring. It gets you stoked and makes you want to try again—and that’s the secret to progress. (Outdoor bonus: It’s a lot easier to try something at your limit if you know your partner can retrieve your gear for you.)

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Climb with someone stronger than you, and you’ll always have someone to hang a toprope for you on the hard stuff (thanks Liz ?).Courtesy Corey Buhay

3. Climb with different people

Climb with people who are shorter than you, taller than you, exactly your size, way better, or way worse. This year, I’ve worked three nights a week at a local drytooling bouldering gym, and, as a result, have climbed with and watched a huge spectrum of climbers. I’ve learned something different from each one. More importantly, I’ve been inspired by the range of problem-solving techniques I’ve seen applied to just one move over the course of a week. I’ve also learned a lot about movement from teaching it to new folks. As a result, I’ve become a smarter climber.

4. Make a goal to climb in three new areas.

I usually gravitate toward the same few zones every year. But over the past 9 months, forced to stay in-state, I spent more time at unfamiliar local crags. Climbing on different kinds of rock with different grading ethics and styles of climbing has improved my onsight ability, and forced me to dial in styles of climbing I normally avoid. Except slab climbing. Still avoiding that one.

5. Time yourself in the gym.

Efficiency can be a hard thing to train in a casual session, but it’s an important skill. Next time you go to the gym, pick a route. The grade doesn’t matter, but something at or just beyond your onsight level is ideal. Hit a stopwatch when you leave the ground. Again, no pressure—just think of it as gathering baseline data. Note your time at the last hold you get to, whether it’s at the top or not.

Throughout the session, week, or month, try the same route a few more times and try to improve your time to that hold. The ticking clock will force you to focus, think harder about your movement, and be more strategic about clipping and resting—all skills that will pay off outdoors. Over the season, you should see improvements in both power and efficiency.

6. Sign up for a competition.

Find a couple of friends and register for a small, local comp. (This year, I was only able to find one local socially-distanced competition, but I’ve got high hopes for the 2021 comp scene.) Putting a competition on the calendar does add pressure to your training schedule, but most one-off, gym-sponsored competitions have a supportive, laid-back atmosphere, and the deadline will force you to stick to a workout routine. Conning friends into it ensures you have training partners and accountability.

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Find a laid-back local comp to motivate your training. Plus, you never know what might happen.Courtesy Corey Buhay

7. Reframe your idea of a session.

For me, it’s easy to congratulate myself on a solid gym session—and then not come back for the rest of the week, hamstringing my progress. An easy way to start building consistency into your training schedule is to reframe your idea of session length. Instead of ticking your mental checkbox after a two-hour stint in the bouldering cave, think of your session as seven days long. Sit down on Monday and map out five workouts for the week. Hit the gym on Tuesday? You’re one-fifth of the way done. Your “session” isn’t over until your week is over.

Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve started thinking “This was a good week” or “This was a bad week” instead of “This was a good/bad session.” For me, that’s been more useful in sticking to a plan, because a “bad week” is easier to salvage halfway through, and skipped weeks are much harder to excuse than skipped sessions, which can pile up if you’re not watching. I’m also more intentional about my workouts when I have to sit down on Monday and block off days for lifting, hangboarding, or climbing.

8. Take up a new discipline.

Sometimes people talk about how cool it is to feel like a beginner again. They’re wrong. Being bad at something sucks—unless you commit yourself to thinking about it as training for your main discipline. If you’re a sport climber, mix bouldering or drytooling into your routine twice a week for two months. Then, go back to sport climbing. When I did this, I saw astronomical improvement in power and control, just from switching it up and working different muscles and skills for a while. It’s also a great way to battle burnout—and the longer you stay stoked on climbing, the better you’ll get. 

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