In 2013 The International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejected a bid for the inclusion of climbing in the 2020 Olympics. But after being swept to the gutter, the sport cranked its way up onto the 2020 program, thanks to a new initiative that gave host city of Tokyo several additional slots to fill. The IOC then approved these sports on a provisional basis, awarding two medals to each (one for women and one for men).
This posed a dilemma for the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), which was charged with devising a format for a single Olympic climbing event. Up to now, competition climbing has been broken into three separate disciplines—lead, boulder, and speed—with competitors tending to specialize in one or two and with speed the oft-ignored step child to the other two more “legitimate” disciplines, at least in the United States.
Long story short: as most readers know by now, and much to the dismay of many competitors and fans alike, the Olympic spirit of inclusiveness prevailed; the mad dash to the buzzer will be a component of a three-discipline climbing event in Tokyo. And IFSC proponents of the format point out that bounding up a 50-foot vertical wall in a matter of seconds—once just the stuff of action-hero movie scenes—can, for the lay audience, elevate climbing above the watching-grass-grow boredom of other obscure sports. So now many top competitors, heretofore uninterested in honing their skills for a potential Spider-Man casting call, are hard at work training the explosive dynamism needed to compete for a medal in Tokyo.
But speed climbing isn’t just for young crushers aspiring to Olympic glory. Any climber, whether a hardcore gym rat or a casual cragger, can up their game by training this specific discipline. Here we’ll introduce the basic concepts of speed climbing—how to move quickly and efficiently up the wall—as well as give you some simple drills to get you started.
Drill #1: The Zigzag Route
Find your flow
The first thing to realize is that speed climbing, particularly in its current standardized iteration, is more like a track-and-field event (think of the triple jump on a surface tilted up 90 degrees) than rock climbing as we know it. There’s no unlocking intricate sequences or sussing out creative rests and shake-outs. In fact, competition speed climbers don’t really “pull down” at all. The driving force comes entirely from their legs, like in a rear-wheel-drive race car, with their upper body steering up the route. A speed climber’s finger board gathers dust while they train drills that basketball players use to improve vertical rise.
But before you chuck your slippers and lace up the Air Jordans, understand that the critical element of speed climbing is fluid motion. So the place to start is back at the climbing wall on a simple route with large holds set in a “chess” or zigzag pattern (Fig. 1). Climb the route by matching your feet on the handholds, left foot to the left handhold, right foot to the right handhold. You’ll find the easiest way to do this is simply to keep moving, what we call climbing with momentum. Also, having first found a hold with your hand, you shouldn’t need to look at it for the foot placement; your body already knows where it is. You want to learn how to climb with precise footwork without ever looking down, which is the single worst speed-sapping mistake you can make.
Typically climbing coaches have aspiring speedsters run upwards of 100 laps on the basic zigzag route over half a dozen or more separate training sessions. While it might be tempting to move on quicker to more complicated routes, spend some time with the zigzag. You should experience marked gains in your ability to maintain upward momentum and make accurate foot placements before progressing to the next stage.
Drill #2: Offset Footholds
Mix it up
Eventually, of course, you’ll need to develop a broader repertoire of movements, which involves sprinkling some offset footholds—footholds that have not been used by the hands—into the route (Fig. 2). The key here, once again, is not looking at your feet. But you’ll find that, at first, it’s pretty difficult to gauge the distance and location of the offset foot placements, so it’s fine to use visual control for the first few laps as you learn the route. But after that, stop looking down and rely instead on muscle memory to find the holds.
Try different sequences to figure out the most efficient beta. Generally this means alternating left-right movements, which mimics our natural running stride and results in a more continuous flow up the wall. But also give some consideration to how each foot placement allows you to drive off the hold, because, as we’ve noted, your legs provide all the horsepower. Better to violate the left-right rhythm if this results in every foot placement generating good upward thrust. And remember that most mistakes are caused by imprecise footwork. We lack the dexterity in our legs and feet that we have in our arms and hands, so lower-body movements are more difficult to control, especially when moving quickly. Once you’ve dialed in your beta, keep footwork foremost in your thoughts as you work to smooth out your sequences.
Tip: Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast
Many climbers, when starting to train speed, make the mistake of focusing only on time, measuring their progress by constantly pursuing personal records. With this approach you’ll quickly plateau and become frustrated. Instead, when you’re starting out you want to ignore the stopwatch. Gauge your improvement subjectively by how flowy you feel. Making smooth the goal, you’ll discover all kinds of subtle technique refinements. Take your time noticing how each little tweak makes you incrementally more efficient. This slower, more deliberate approach lays the best foundation for enduring progress, and will ultimately make you a faster—not to mention better—climber, whether you’re shredding in Tokyo or merely sticking the crux double-dyno on your newest project.
Oleksii Shulha is head speed climbing coach at Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jeff Chapman is an intern at Climbing.