What the Hell is Speed Climbing?

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

Speed climbing olympics paris
Photo: IFSC; FFME/AgenceKros – Remi Fabregue

In August, 2016, the International Olympic Committee approved climbing for the Tokyo Olympics, but will only allow 20 athletes and one medal per gender. This means that Olympic hopefuls will need to compete in sport climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing in order to qualify and compete for a medal in 2020.

Most athletes are excited that climbing has made it to the Olympic stage, but many have criticized the format. Some have compared it to forcing marathon runners to compete in a 100-meter dash and vice-versa. Boulderers and sport climbers will have to dedicate time to training just for speed climbing to have a shot at the gold. As one competitor admitted, speed climbing is far removed from what most consider to be the spirit of climbing, but what exactly is speed climbing? And what’s the appeal? The discipline typically sees little participation and press in North America, where competition climbers are less inclined to travel internationally for World Cup events.

The standards for speed climbing are determined by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC). The rules for an official IFSC speed climbing competition are simple: Climbers compete on the same route, side by side, and the first to the top wins. Times are recorded by a plate under the climber’s foot at the base of the route, and a light sensor at the top. The route is standardized. Every competitor can train on the same route at any gym that has a speed wall. Although the IFSC has to certify a wall if it’s to be used for an official competition or speed record, gyms can set an unofficial route by ordering the official holds and setting the course according to the IFSC’s specifications. The IFSC used to require each competitor use two belayers in order to keep up, but they’ve recently switched to autobelays.

The IFSC has official speed courses for both 10 meter and 15 meter walls, but all international competitions are held on the 15 meter course. World record may be set on either course, and all non-competition record attempts must be sanctioned by an IFSC appointed Jury President. The current 15 meter world records stand at 5.6 and 7.53 seconds for men and women respectively, both were set at World Cup events.

Speed climbing handhold
A standard speed climbing hand hold.

There is no official grade for the speed route. While many speculative grades float around the Internet, it’s hard to nail down a specific number because speed climbing bears little resemblance to sport climbing. All the hands use one standardized hold (above), which includes a jug, punch, and slopers depending on where it’s grabbed. It’s safe to say that you can climb the route if you can climb 5.10a. The challenge in speed climbing isn’t in climbing the route, it’s in climbing it fast.

Though most American athletes don’t compete in speed climbing, Sean McColl and John Brosler are two exceptions. Sean McColl, a Canadian competition climber, has been competing in speed climbing since his junior comp days, claiming gold medals in 2001 and 2006. Brosler, originally part of the Team Texas youth team, has been competing in speed climbing since 2009.

“I like how when you have an amazing run, you feel weightless and get the feeling of flying up the wall,” said McColl, a thought which Brosler echoed. “The feeling you get when you do better than you ever have before is amazing and addicting,” he said.

Speed climbing has been included in the World Cup Circuit for many years, but there have been few IFSC speed climbing competitions in the United States. Some U.S. gyms have speed walls installed, and some host USA National events, but only Basecamp Reno in Nevada has an approved 15-meter wall for IFSC world records or competitions.

“Speed climbing is not as deeply rooted in North America as it is in some of the Eastern European countries,” said McColl, who is also the president of the Athletes’ Commission for the IFSC. “I think as speed climbing continues to grow, we will see some world class athletes from North America.”

Brosler, who holds the current U.S. record for the 10 meter wall, might be one of those athletes. He sees his primary competition coming from abroad. “It’s actually really funny how much time I spend watching videos of Russians speed climb,” he said in an interview with Twin Dolphin Timing, one of the approved timer manufacturers for IFSC events.

With speed climbing in the Olympics, many athletes who’ve competed in sport climbing or bouldering for the World Cup will now be forced to compete in speed climbing if they want to qualify for the Olympics. Training methods vary from climber to climber, but the level playing field of speed climbing offers an interesting look into different athletes’ routines.

Jan Kriz, a speed climber from the Czech Republic has continued refining his method for the IFSC course since first competing in 2008.

“In my speed climbing career, I’ve changed my climbing technique several times. The last time was in 2015,” said Kriz. “I used to grab almost every single hold, because I wasn’t as strong as today. For now, I’m just working on frequency—doing all the moves as fast as possible and properly as well.”

Brosler also mentioned power and explosive movement exercises, but emphasized the mental aspects of his training.

“Because I know the route so well, most of my training occurs away from the speed wall and in the weight room. If you get stronger, you get faster, without many other variables involved,” he said. “However, mental training is by far the most beneficial aspect of my routine. Being able to replicate high-level performances from practice in competitions starts with having the same, positive mindset in both environments.”

Additionally, training has to match the World Cup schedule, so athletes are at their peak for the championships, while still remaining strong enough and not over-trained during the preceding competitions.

McColl was preparing for the overall World Cup title in Paris when we spoke to him, which includes sport, bouldering, and speed, much like the future Olympic format.

“Paris is special because I’m not going there for only Speed,” he said. “In preparation, I trained a couple days on the official wall and have been doing cross training a few times a week over the past month.”

When all the training is done and hundredths of seconds are on the line, each athlete has their own method to prepare for competitions.

“In the isolation area at competitions, [I’m] psyching myself up with loud, exciting music and positive thoughts about my abilities. One of my favorite quotes, by Vertical World coach Tyson Schoene, runs through my head constantly before big competitions,” said Brosler. “Trust the training.”

For Kriz, the training isn’t over until the competition is a day away. “One day before an event I do easy exercises to activate my body and get the muscles in the right tension. Then I’m relaxing and keeping my mind clear and ready for the comps!” said Kriz.

Ultimately, McColl was eliminated during the speed qualifiers in Paris, landing in 38th place with a time of 8.65 seconds. John Brosler ended the comp in 12th place, finishing the course in 6.61 seconds during qualifiers and 7.21 seconds in the 1/8 finals round. Brosler scored highest among North American competitors.

The thrill of competing in speed climbing is obvious to participants, but those who will never enter a competition can have a hard time seeing the appeal. Competitions are dramatic and almost over too quickly, but Brosler and McColl have both seen benefits in their other climbing pursuits due to their speed climbing training.

“I think it has kept my legs strong for those jump-style boulders and also helped keep my lower body very athletic,” said McColl.

Brosler took it a step further, saying, “The entire basis of my sport climbing and bouldering fitness comes from the amount of effort I’ve put into improving my speed climbing.”