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Four Ways to Climb Better Without Training

Hangboards and TRX routines can get awfully old... And they'll only get you so far on their own.

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No one can sustain the effort or enthusiasm for training indefinitely, nor should you aspire to. The beauty of climbing is that, for strategic periods, you may actually get better at climbing by steering your focus away from endless laps and reps toward tactical strategies or, better still, just getting out on the rocks. This tenet should come as a consolation during periods when work is too hectic or you simply can’t find the energy to get to the gym. Don’t get frustrated, just dial into a different headspace.

Here are four ways to get better without training.

1. Set Climbing Goals

There is nothing better you can do for your climbing than identifying a series of routes or boulder problems that you would like to tick in the near future, even if you are unable to train for them. For best results, make a “goal pyramid” and on the first tier, pick five or six climbs you could achieve relatively comfortably. On the next tier, pick three or four at the grade above and then one or two at the grade above that. When you plan your first few climbing trips, concentrate on the first tier, but don’t wait until you’ve completely finished it before moving up a level—try one or two things on the next level up while finishing off the first level, and so on. Before you know it, you’ll be a better climber and you’ll have had a load of fun, without training.

Also consider keeping a climbing journal, in which you track your goals and your climbing days. Journaling allows you to chart your progress over time, and it helps you keep track of what works and what doesn’t.

2. Focus on Technique

Most climbers would like to believe they focus on technique, but what does that mean? If your usual approach is just to concentrate on the climbing, you may actually be treading water and ingraining bad habits. If you can, pay for a session with a reputable climbing coach to see if he can spot technique problems. At least set up a video camera on a tripod and film yourself climbing. Then play it back and try to critically analyze your technique.

Do the following movement drills during your warm-ups:

  • Footwork. Focus on placing each foot with a slight pause before contact. Don’t touch the wall above the hold and aim to set the foot in a single touch, without re-adjusting. Keep your eye on your foot until it’s securely placed.
  • Grip. Next, focus on relaxing your grip and keeping your arms as straight as possible.
  • Breath. Finally, keep reminding yourself to breathe deeply and regularly. Accentuate this if you have to.
  • Cadence. Aim to climb each warm-up fractionally faster than the previous one without sacrificing form.

These drills will facilitate long-term improvements in your movement quality and also help you maintain your form during high-stress situations on harder routes.

3. Give your Mind a Service

Changing your habitual thought processes and behavior patterns is far tougher than summoning the will to try hard or train. Climbers commonly haul out the same excuses or justifications for avoiding or failing on climbs: Routes look too hard, weaknesses are too demoralizing to work on, concern that others will judge us, procrastination and so on. These things hold back our climbing more than anything else. As Adam Ondra told me recently, “The mind is not there to help you, but to hinder you!” The key is to implement practical and functional routines and to keep your expectations realistic. Simply vowing to take a slightly more open-minded, can-do attitude is a good start.

Try this short list of key mental-training strategies:

Pre-climb mental routine

Perform this routine during your warm-up climbs and in cool-off periods. Personalize it to your own requirements and condense it into different time frames (e.g. from 5 minutes to 30 seconds). Practice regularly during training sessions and don’t attempt to use it for the first time in a high-stress situation.

Here’s an example:

  • Attune to your environment: Observe your immediate surroundings, including potential distractions. Breathe deeply and relax.
  • Visualize: Rehearse the sequence of your project while you’re away from the crag. Imagine yourself climbing in real time. Don’t rush. Make the image feel as real as possible by imagining sensory detail like rock texture, temperature, even sounds and smells. Don’t imagine the route being easy: rather, that you are coping with the difficulty.
  • Black box: List all the factors that are worrying you, come up with some positive solutions and then post them in an imaginary black box or even write them down. Return to the box and open it after the ascent, and you will find that the majority of your worries were unfounded. This exercise helps you to trust the process further in the future.
  • Use positive self-talk: Give yourself a final pep talk, using key words you find inspiring. Listen to music that helps to raise the mood.
  • Practice falls (onto bolts or good trad gear): For those who are afraid, or even slightly nervous, of falling onto bolts or other bombproof gear, regular practice falls are probably your most powerful and effective mental-training tool. If you practice falling on vertical or slabby walls, make sure they’re fairly smooth and have no ledges or protruding features. Be sure your partner understands dynamic belaying technique in order to give you a soft catch.

4. Forget the Grade

There is an entire aesthetic side of climbing that can be explored, free from the pressure of goals and expectations. Let the quality of the line, the movement, the environment and the fun you can have with friends be influencing factors behind your choices at the crag. In accordance with the laws of reverse psychology, by taking the focus away from pure achievement for a while, you may actually end up climbing your best, without having consciously tried. After all, this is climbing we’re talking about, a unique and magical activity that sometimes breaks all the rules.

This article first appeared in Rock and Ice issue 220 (August 2014).