Interview: Madaleine Sorkin—To Train or Not to Train

Pro climber Madaleine Sorkin shares her training philosophy.

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Madaleine Sorkin climbing
Madaleine Sorkin climbing in Wadi Rum, Jordan.Henna Taylor

It’s an age-old dilemma in climbing: train to get better at climbing, or climb to get better at climbing? The first philosophy is rooted in climbing as sport, the second in climbing as lifestyle, but more and more it’s emerging that you can actually do both without being “untrue” to either. That is, even hardcore lifestyle climbers have been spotted in the gym, training, without losing street cred—and they’ve even been known to improve for their efforts!

While big-wall free climber Madaleine Sorkin, the instructor for Climbing’s 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness course, is cut more from the old-school “climb to climb better” cloth, she also realizes she climbs her best when her body is tuned up for climbing.

We sat down with Madaleine to ask her a few key questions about her approach to climbing performance.

When was the first time you found yourself consciously training—not just climbing—and was it with a specific goal in mind? What sort of training did you do then?

Perhaps 2013 is the first time I remember training, and yes, for a goal. I wanted to free the PreMuir route (VI 5.13+) on El Cap. I joined Justen Sjong’s indoor-gym training group that focused on bouldering volume and cross training. This helped increase my power endurance and overall fitness. I also would do an outdoor circuit alone that included rounds of running up stairs and then climbing volume also aimed at my power-endurance. My partner on the PreMuir, Joe Mills, and I did really well on the route. I was able to redpoint the route up through the crux (5.13+) stemming pitch at about pitch 23. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to continue to try and free the remaining 800 feet. Nonetheless, I’m sure the training helped my performance and I would have benefitted from even more!

What, in your experience, have been the top 3 most effective training tactics you’ve employed over your career?

  1. Make big, audacious goals.
  2. Share the goal with a fantastic partner/Train with other people/Have a supportive accountability system.
  3. Sleep, love, and rest well.

What have been the three least effective?

  1. Climb every day without any focus and stress out about the goals I’m not making progress on. 
  2. Try to do everything on my own and don’t cultivate support. 
  3. Not truly resting.

What is one simple thing every climber could add to her training repertoire now to improve her climbing—say an exercise she does every time she hits the gym?

Core workouts and integrating a falling practice into her climbing (OK, those are two things!).

Have you ever experienced any overtraining injuries, and if so, what did you take away from the experience?

Some, and mainly I’ve mainly recognized that I must do other activities than climbing that will stretch and strengthen my body in other ways

Have you ever sent your hardest without engaging in any sort of “extra-curricular” training? That is, simply sent on luck and talent alone? Or have you always needed a “dash” of training thrown in?

Sure, when I’ve simply been focused on climbing a lot. This doesn’t count as training though, right?

The 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness course touches on four key areas for getting back in shape: climbing, core, finger strengthening, and shoulder-injury prevention. If you could add a fifth category to the course, what would it be?

Mental toughness or power (depending on your goal and the strengths you already have).

Want more expert advice on getting into climbing shape? Take Climbing’s 4 Weeks to Sending Fitness online course.