You are a sport climber or boulderer operating in the strong intermediate levels. You have no desire to compete and just want to send in cool projects and go on cool climbing trips. You have familiar, fixed workout routines, but things may have stalled. If you’re looking for new ideas and inspiration to help you get off a plateau…look no further than an Olympic team climber’s approach!
At a glance, you’d think these guys and gals might be climbing on a different planet than yours, but closer inspection may surprise you. The drills and drills they use are relevant to others to transform performance and enhance your enjoyment of regular crag and indoor rock climbing.
Training and planning
1. Build up to a vertex.
Most climbers want to be in good shape all year round, but the Olympic climber sacrifices performance at certain times in order to be in top shape for the competition season. This approach applies if you want to climb your best on a particular trip or send a project. Start by taking time (eg 1-2 weeks), then slowly and gradually increase the volume and intensity of your training (over a period of, say, 4-12 weeks). Finally, release the gas and allow for further recovery, to peak just before that planned trip or big send-off.
2. Phase your training.
There are a multitude of approaches to structuring your training, but a classic formula adopted by many Olympic teams is to divide your overall plan into thematic phases, such as: strength, strength endurance, speed and skill, aerobic endurance, etc. . Each phase follows the theme, although you still maintain other aspects by training them to a lesser degree. For example, if you want to focus on strength, do 60%, then 20% speed, and 20% endurance. A popular strategy also used by Olympic climbers is to follow certain themes for longer phases such as 4-6 weeks, a strategy known as linear periodization, during the off-season; and for shorter phases or non-linear periodization, for something like 1-3 weeks during performance season.
3. Rotate your formation.
An Olympic climber juggles a huge list of performance variables. If you try to work on everything at once, things get diluted and you risk wearing yourself out mentally and physically. Still, if you work on things individually, you may never check off the list! A good system is to focus on, say, three things per session. For example, start with strength-based bouldering problems, move onto slabs to rest your arms, and finish with some endurance laps on the circuit board. Athletes like Adam Ondra usually do things that way.
4. Build a supporting force.
If you hit the campus boards and panels hard and consistently without doing much in the way of conditioning supporting strength, the injury will likely occur before long. The Olympic climber is meticulous when it comes to supporting routines, which train antagonist (opposition) muscles to help prevent injury. For most of us, the key is to change the way you view this type of training and see it as fun rather than a chore. Not only will supportive training make you climb harder in the long run, but you will generally feel more robust and athletic as a climber. Watch climbers like Alex Megos in action and you’ll know what I mean!
5. Fix your diet.
Luckily, you don’t have to eat as strictly as an Olympic athlete, but you can certainly take inspiration from this approach. There’s so much mental, physical, and emotional value in ditching sugary snacks and unnecessary calories and putting quality fuel in the machine. You can even take things to the next level by syncing your nutrition with your training. It doesn’t have to be a big deal: just get more protein when you’re strength training and more carbs to fuel endurance sessions.
Nutrition plans should always be personalized, which means experimenting and learning from your own feedback, and adapting generic plans so they work better for you. In case of allergies and intolerances, consult a sports nutritionist or dietitian. Come on, do it now. You know that makes sense!
You’re not aiming for the world speed record, so why train for speed? Answer: In countless sport climbing and bouldering situations, such as managing hard and sustained crucial sections, it is beneficial to be able to climb more dynamically and pick up the pace. Older climbers, not to mention traditional climbers, tend to slow down, so try picking up the pace in the gym. Use timed walking intervals on campus or time yourself on the circuit board (be sure to maintain proper form). Add dynamic exercises such as burpees, plyometric box jumps, etc. to your warm-up routine, and the next time you go out on your regular aerobic workout, throw in some intervals and do like a sprinter.
Many climbers wonder if they have to be good at coordination issues. Commonly encountered in competitions, these require momentum between large sloping holds. You certainly don’t have to be as good as French Olympic hopefuls Mickael and Bassa Mawen, as it’s rare to come across these kinds of extreme, stylized moves on a rock; Still, we can find minor variations, and often the best way to avoid using a bad grip is to move on to the next one as quickly as possible! A small amount of practice can hone our nervous system and teach us to move more fluidly, but more importantly, practicing coordination issues can teach us to let go of the high levels of control that we instinctively build into most movements. The gym is the best place to train, so clear your mind and let go!
3. Think outside the box.
Olympic climbers draw their influence from a wide and eclectic range of sources, from ballet to contemporary dance, martial arts, gymnastics, parkour, callanetics (deep muscle exercises) and so on – anything that can add diversity to their training looking for that extra edge. Investigating in other disciplines can bring a change of perspective or even a “Eureka” moment, in addition to being generally fun! You won’t have time to try everything, so why not pick the thing that looks the most appealing? I started ballet recently and was amazed at how much it improved my flexibility and coordination. Adam Ondra also worked with a ballet coach.
1. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
The best Olympic competitors don’t hope to win, they expect to win. They don’t actually believe they can fail a task, and that’s because they’ve practiced it so many times. You may think you have your project or a particular climbing skill, but an Olympian develops supreme levels of self-confidence by drilling endlessly. Don’t be complacent. Practice the specific move or moves you’re training for (whether to fix a weakness or advance a project), then repeat – and again just to be sure! And when you’re done practicing the move at the gym, repeat it in your head on rest days, and when you go to the grocery store, do the dishes, and stay in bed.
2. Treat the performance environment like the training environment.
You may not intend to perform in front of huge crowds and be seen on TV by millions of people, but embark on your red dot project or a grand visit to the rock or the gym can always be intimidating. We know how peak level climbing performance is gained or lost versus our ability to stay calm and focused, so the burning question is: how do Olympians hold up? The answer is to make you believe that the performance environment is no different from normal training in the gym.
Easier said than done, but as Janja Garnbret said, you do it by focusing on the task at hand, not the outcome. Stay in the moment and focus on what you are doing right now, which is performing your skills to the best of your ability. This advice benefits all of us.
This article originally appeared in GymClimber 10.
Climbing coach Neil Gresham from the UK has been at the forefront of rock climbing for over two decades. To see www.neilgresham.com