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How to Train for Climbing by Climbing Outside

Climbing gyms are great. But you can also train for climbing by climbing outside. Here are eight tips from veteran crusher Chris Schulte.

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With the longer days, warmer temps, and sunny skies of spring nearly upon us, the last thing most of us want to do is be cooped up in a climbing gym. Sure, it’s a place to have fun and get stronger, but ultimately don’t most of us want to be testing our limits or cruising classics outside?

With more than 20 years of climbing experience, I’ve been able to get and stay fit while spending very little time in the gym and mostly climbing outside.

To pay it forward, I’ve compiled a number of thoughts here to give you a training plan that doesn’t really feel like training at all, mostly because you get to be outside on real rock. There’s nothing like moving over stone to sharpen your skills, broaden your horizons, and get a little stronger in the meantime. From a quick post-work session to full weekends of cragging, each time you go outside, pick one of these to focus on and become a better climber without the gym.

1. Vary your days—and your mental approach

Try to become more aware of your mental state while climbing. Give a shot at different states of mind on different days. One day, go out and just have fun cruising moderates and racking up as many laps as you can. The next day, go out and be serious about trying something at your limit while working on projecting and redpointing skills. Be competitive with your partner if you need to be. A third approach is to be a kid again, flopping around on dynos, jugs, no-handed slabs, and circus trick problems. Just enjoy being outside and having a physically strong body. Your outlook is such a huge factor in your performance—and in the quality of your day—no matter what your goal is for that session. Cycle through these approaches now and again. Just like it’s beneficial to get out of your physical comfort zone and try new moves or new styles, it’s helpful to try a new mental approach to climbing.

2. Practice downclimbing

Moving your feet first helps develop excellent technique, not to mention engages your muscles in a different way over a wider range of motion. When you downclimb, you’re forced to stretch and search for a foothold, find it, and commit to it. This simple action requires you to rely on the foot, even if it’s not in the “perfect” position it was on the way up. Your tactile awareness will benefit greatly from searching out, feeling around, and committing to that low, lost foothold before you let go with your hands above. Downclimbing also activates muscles at full extension. When headed up, we maintain muscular contraction through the initiation of the move at hand, followed by a slackening of the body and the limb in motion until contact is made with the next hold, when we immediately snap back into flexing. When downclimbing, your muscles are engaged through the entire range of the movement, including the lockoff up high, lowering slowly to full extension down below, and searching for that faraway foothold. You’ll be surprised at how different a problem feels on the way down, how easy it feels on the next trip up, and how in command and confident you’ll feel on the feet. Try to do three to four downclimbs per day on problems or routes that are around your warm-up level, and keep the variety going. It’s a much different workout to downclimb a slab than it is an arête, and a totally different set of techniques and muscle groups to downclimb an overhang.

3. Cross-train with other outdoor sports

The next Saturday or Sunday when weather doesn’t meet your climbing standards, get out and ride a bike, go for a jog, ski, or snowboard. Do anything physical that isn’t climbing to work opposing muscles and gain functional fitness. These sports all require a different speed, different reactions, and a different state of mind. Going for it in the moment on narrow singletrack or in tight trees will help you have the mental fortitude to go for it on a challenging onsight. Activities like yoga or swimming help stretch your shoulders, back, and posture, balancing out your hunched frame and keeping you strong and flexible in those end ranges of motion. Sprint with everything you’ve got now and again. The short burst of all-out exertion will forge cardiovascular power and boost overall fitness, even helping to train the body to recover quickly, which is ideal practice for the ups and downs of trying hard then resting on a difficult sport climb.

4. Try Climbs without watching someone else’s beta

Devote time to learning to read lines and practicing the skill of onsighting. Carve out a few hours and a limit on a grade range that you’re familiar with (about a full number grade below your hardest redpoint), and give a good shot at onsighting all day long. A prolonged stretch with this mental attitude will help your focus immensely and put you in a try-hard, problem-solving state of mind. Our brains are elastic, and training them for this on-the-spot, exploratory state will only increase your chances of figuring out a tricky crux on the fly.

5. Do circuits

Climbing through hours and miles of rock is one of the best things you can do to increase body awareness and to accumulate technique. Set a high bar for yourself, starting with 35 boulder problems in a day. Choose a group of problems you are sure to complete. Keep it mellow as long as you like; moderating yourself with doable climbs and setting limits will enable you to appreciate each movement more clearly and make it easy to focus on the mechanics of every problem. Focus on climbs that are well within your ability and you can repeat a few times without getting too fatigued. Working across the course of several hours or a full day builds fitness and improves technique; you’re forced to do moves cleanly when you’re tired. Here’s another way to do it: Pick problems that are similar and move through groups of them according to style: a few slabs, a few vertical faces, a few roof problems, and so on. Each grouping is a circuit. Putting thought into the flow of your circuits (steeper stuff earlier, slabs at the end, etc.) improves the quality and the effect.

6. Spend a rest day at the crag

Climbing or not, just getting to the climbing area goes a long way in building fitness and technique. A rest day spent at the crag is a great way to learn from others. Watch how people move and how they approach a climb, mentally and physically. Take lessons from their successes and failures. Be a conscious observer. Heading out to a nice area with no intention of climbing is liberating and frees you from the attachment to the mindset of “Getting Something Done.” Some spots have approaches that can be a workout by themselves. The hour-long hike up to Area B at Mount Evans, situated at about 10,500 feet, will surely get the blood pumping, and a scramble through the talus will provide you with a mini-circuit of mantel and slab moves. It’s good for the lungs, good for the legs, and great for the mind.

7. Diversify climbing styles

Next weekend, instead of getting frustrated on your project, take a break and explore a different discipline. If you’re a crack climber, go bouldering or clip some bolts. This will improve your technique by forcing your body and brain to work differently. Boulderers, get out and sport climb to develop endurance and proper breathing methods, which are often necessary but forgotten on short, powerful problems. Try out some cruiser trad climbs to clean your head out; experiencing this heady, sometimes scary mental state will hone your mind when approaching a highball. One of the greatest things about climbing is the variety, so embrace it. If you get a little tired or burned out on your preferred pursuit, switch it up! It’s all fun. Don’t forget about mountaineering, which will give you legs of steel as well as the rich and satisfying reward of topping out a summit or spire. Ice climbing builds tree-trunk legs to help you maintain fitness and strength for climbing after a long and strenuous approach. Even a little aid climbing or jugging practice now and again will familiarize you with gear placements, anchor building, and rope work. Everything helps, and it all translates into very usable skills that apply across all types of climbing.

8. Put in the time

Lastly and most important: Stick with it. It’s not just what you did last week or month that counts; it’s what you did last year, or the year before, or 10 years ago. An old martial arts proverb says that training is like stacking up sheets of paper: It takes a long time for that stack to reach the sky! Commit to an allotment of time for climbing every week that you can stick to. Climb only on the weekend, and you’ll probably remain a weekend climber. Stepping up your training schedule to a guaranteed three or more days a week will absolutely bring results—and fast. The passage of time is your friend. It makes you stronger, then smarter, then stronger again, and so on. One of the coolest things about climbing is that it’s dependent on the accumulation of technique and awareness. Just keep doing it, and you’ll get better.

This story originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of our print edition.