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A collection of my climbing improvement related articles in one place. Updated about once every two months - Comments and questions welcome :-)

By johnkettle, Apr 30 2015 03:00AM

Improving your climbing performance is as simple as 1,2,3.

Regardless of whether your goals is to climb grade 9g, flow effortlessly up the rock or simply enjoy Thursday night at the wall without simultaneously battling irrational fears, there are three fundamental things you must do in order to achieve those improvements and make your hopes a reality:

Step 1: Become AWARE of what you currently do

In order to change your wicked ways, first you must become aware of what you are currently doing. This process can be really tough on your ego, but being honest with yourself is key doing this successfully. Phrases like “that’s my style” are classic tactics for protecting the fragile ego from confronting faults - re-brand them as golden opportunities to improve, and seek them ruthlessly! There are three areas of knowledge to explore:

• Climbing attributes you know about - ‘Knowns’

• Climbing attributes you know you don’t know about – ‘Known Unknowns’

• Climbing attributes you don’t know you don’t know about! ‘Unknown Unknowns’

By climbing attributes I mean your physical, mental, tactical and technical skills, your habits on a micro scale (during a typical session) and macro scale (over a typical year).

Evidently conducting a self-assessment will only help with the first two of these bullet points. Ask for honest and critical feedback from trusted climbing peers, read all the great books, video yourself climbing, hire an expert coach ;-) to discover the elusive ‘unknown unknowns’. Document them, score yourself for each attribute if it helps.

Step 2: DECIDE what you would like to do instead

The easiest step: Having rooted out all the sub-optimal areas of your climbing performance, whether they are unhelpful thought patterns, erratic motivation levels, dodgy footwork or inappropriate pacing, you must now decide exactly what you would like to replace these unhelpful habits with. The next move on the climb to enlightenment is writing down exactly how you would like to behave/perform in each one of the circumstances where you struggle at the moment. Some examples:

Current behaviour: When I get to 4 out of 5 for pump, I over-grip and focus exclusively on reaching the next protection.

Goal behaviour: When I reach 4/5 pump, I remain relaxed with a wide focus including good footwork and body positions.

Current Behaviour: I find myself holding my breath and tensing up during cruxes

Goal Behaviour: I breathe deeply, relaxing my shoulders, hands and calves during cruxes

Step 3: BUILD and implement a pathway from performing Step 1 to performing Step 2

The third and final phase (you’ve nearly done it!) is the longest and most rewarding phase. Savour it and you will find yourself on the happy travellator of lifelong learning. Some folks write a training plan for this stage, and if your greatest limitations are physical then that may be appropriate. I prefer to call it a playing plan, as playing is more fun to me than training, it’s why I climb. Structuring your play to make it more effective is the key here. If you don’t know how to implement your progression then once again, seek outside knowledge from peers, books or a good coach. Vetting the knowledge to ensure it is more than ‘pub science’ or internet anecdote is key to avoiding frustration at this stage.

You’ll be working/playing hard to undo existing habits and override them with better, more attractive new ones. This process can be done really efficiently with some knowledge on skill acquisition, types of practice and some basic psychology. Hunt them down.

That’s all there is to it! When you find yourself plateauing or struggling to achieve a goal, return to step 1 and repeat in a rising spiral of wondrous personal growth. Once personal improvement and ‘the climbing process’ becomes the focus (rather than just results) it can be deeply rewarding, and climbing better and harder just happens to be a pleasant by-product. Happy Climbing!

By johnkettle, Feb 24 2015 12:39PM

Five years ago Dave published ‘9 out of 10 climber make the same mistakes’ and in doing so gave climbers a veritable goldmine of tactical, technical and lifestyle guidance to up their climbing game. After four years in the making, Make or Break has now landed and focuses exclusively on climbing injuries. Like its predecessor it takes a holistic approach to the subject, exploring the unconscious choices and mistakes that often precede injury, as well as tackling the numerous treatment options.

For me the most original and essential content comes in the first six (of twelve) sections that address the overall approach to climbing and how this directly affects your chance of injury. Technique, posture, activity and rest are his ‘big four’ pivotal habits that can either reduce or increase your injury rate. In an attempt to filter out all the poor advice available online, research evidence given for every treatment and protocol is rigorously divided into scientific, clinical and anecdotal (experience based) to avoid confusion. Dave has done literally years of research into this, and as a result this makes a great layman’s reference book for those averse to reading academic journals.

Dave thoroughly hammers home his three big take-home points of; seeking top quality coaching as a preventative measure, using the most expert medical support you can afford, plus seeking second and third opinions to avoid mis-diagnosis. Anyone with a climbing career blighted by injury will find themselves nodding in agreement with many of his statements!

The next five sections delve in greater details into the most common injuries (and their treatment options) with chapters devoted to fingers, elbows, shoulders, feet and lower limbs, providing an excellent reference tool for that next tweak. The final section entitled ‘Further Reading’ begins as a reading list of all things scientific, but blossoms into valuable further advice, plus the inspiring ‘tale of woe and hope’ that puts it all into a human context with Dave’s own injury history.

For many readers the significant barrier to getting the best from ‘9 out of 10..’ was its editorial style and delivery. An intense, dry and academic style made it heavy going, the superlative content being its’ saving grace. So how does ‘Make or Break’ compare? While it’s definitely no coffee table picture book, readability had increased considerably with the addition of pictures, diagrams, quotes and even occasional jokes to aid digestion of a fundamentally dry subject. The ‘human touch’ of anecdotes and real-life stories on each subject would be the icing on the cake for me, and bring it to life a little more.

How likely is it to be read by those habit-forming teenagers in their first decade of climbing is questionable - I think a condensed, colourful, celebrity-laden ‘Espresso Lessons’ version would better capture that market. For now that responsibility remains with their coaches and mentors. As such I believe it’s essential reading for anyone who considers themselves a coach, and anyone who intends to progress their climbing beyond their 20’s will benefit from this future classic.

Available from Dave's website and online retailers.

By johnkettle, Feb 23 2015 04:50PM

First published on UKClimbing

So you have accepted that career, family, and other interests are going to limit your climbing development, but by how much? While elite performance isn’t attainable on a couple of climbing sessions each week, with shrewd planning you may be surprised what can be achieved in only a few hours a week of climbing time.

As a mountain biker with a pre-school family I decided to spend a year exploring the limits of climbing progress on a tight time budget. I’ll share some of my tactics and results in this article.

How much time?

Be totally honest about the climbing time you have available. I decided I couldn’t guarantee more than twice weekly evening or half-day sessions (including the weekend). Having accepted that either a full day or a third weekly session would be an unexpected bonus avoided the frustration I’d feel if I’d planned to do more than was realistic.

Over the year I climbed 109 times; 52 indoors and 57 outside, averaging 2.1 times (6 hours) per week. I had 5 full days out climbing (3 of these on a sport climbing trip).

‘Man who chases two rabbits catches neither one’

If you really want to progress then narrow the field of skills you’re trying to attain – specialise. I chose to focus exclusively on bouldering as it has the shortest walk-ins, fastest drying rock and isn’t partner-reliant. As I knew this was a one-year plan I was happy to set aside sport and trad for the future in order to get better results.

Goal Setting

Motivation is key to success and there’s no better way to dampen it than to drift goal-less from one summer to the next. The much abused SMART acronym is a good place to start:

Specific – a particular grade, problem or route? Outside or inside?

Measurable – ‘solid at the grade’ is not measurable - is that ten VS’s or thirty?

Ambitious - if it’s not, you won’t get motivated.

Realistic – do you have the venues/money/psyche in easy reach?

Time-bound – Knowing there’s a deadline will aid focus. I picked a 52 week block for my goal.

Swap Quantity for Quality

The bottom line is if you’re going to see continuous gains on less than 8 hours of weekly climbing, the session quality needs to be amazing. Split your climbing performance into the following categories and get feedback on your performance in them:

Technical: Movement quality, body awareness, breathing technique, balance

Tactical: Move reading, sequence and route planning, visualisation skills, pacing, discipline-specific tactics

Psychological: Anxiety management skills, fear of failure, performance anxiety, external/internal motivators

Physical: finger strength, flexibility, power, power endurance, endurance

Having received the feedback with open arms, use it to shape your sessions. Constantly revisit these four elements to try and worm out the weakness which will give you the fastest gains. Try and make you training as much like your goal as possible, for me this meant spending my indoor sessions on walls of a similar angle, hold size and number of moves to my goals outside. Spending the winter climbing 20 move routes in 5 minutes won’t prepare you for 50 move trad pitches that take 40 minutes.

Swap Volume for Intensity

The bonus of not climbing more than 2-3 times a week is that you’re well rested for each session, and you can make every session a high intensity one. If you have a local wall, buying a block membership is a good way to ensure you leave when you’ve still got some energy left (instead of staying to ‘get your money’s worth’), and still turn up for a session even when you’ve only got an hour or so. Regular short, high quality and intensity sessions will always trump sporadic mega-sessions.

Injury Reduction and Management

If you want high performance or a long career (maybe both!) in any sport, you must play ‘the long game’. Injuries aren’t really avoidable; it’s more about reducing the rate of them, and managing them well. Talk to any veteran high performer in sport and you’ll see they’ve not dodged every injury, they’ve dealt really well with (and learnt from) the injuries sustained, however minor. Apply the same zeal and focus to fixing tweaks as you would to getting fitter. Ignoring problems or extended periods of total rest are rarely what the body needs.

The proactive approach: ‘before any long journey, check the oil level and tyre pressures’. Rather than wait for something to fail, ask a recommended physio to check your biomechanics and find out what you’re doing wrong. If you can’t sit, stand, balance and breathe with the right muscles, the foundations are too shaky to build on. You’ll leave with a servicing/maintenance schedule that if followed will keep you from the chronic injuries caused by long-term movement dysfunction such as lower back, shoulder, neck, elbow, hip and knee troubles.

Seeing a physio when I was uninjured was the best £35 I’ve ever spent on my climbing.

Here’s my years’ injury summary. While it may look a lot, by careful management they remained minor injuries which I climbed through, except the big toe that cost me three weeks off the rock:

Nine minor finger tweaks

Minor tennis elbow in both arms

Minor golfers elbow in both arms

One muscle strain (Latissimus Dorsi)

One bruised heel

One dislocated big toe – 3 weeks off (don’t ask how!)

Supplementary Training

Climbing is fundamentally a skill based activity so fingerboards, campus boards, weights and core workouts only work as a supplement to a high volume of quality climbing movement, and mostly at an elite level. If more than 10% of your total climbing time is spent on these, it’s unlikely it will improve you more than extra climbing would, and it may make your technique worse. Compare the numbers in my training here to my injury reduction exercises:

Fingerboard sessions: 20 (5 during foot injury period)

Campus board sessions: 2 (whilst unable to climb due to foot injury)

Core workouts, flexibility training, other training: None

What non-climbing training time is really about for the time-starved climber is injury reduction exercises. Your chance to ensure your body is finely tuned and maintained ready for the next climb.

My years’ injury reduction exercises:

2,861 repetitions of shoulder physiotherapy exercises

Elbow eccentrics: 2,745 repetitions

30 Finger icing sessions

22 Foot icing sessions (following dislocation)

Dear Diary

Keeping a training diary or joining a forum of like-minded climbers is a great way to maintain focus and motivation. Remember to record your state of mind, injuries and external influencing factors as well as your climbing - it’ll help you recognise patterns and foresee future issues. I draw grade pyramids, pin them on the wall and colour them in as I go - anything to aid motivation. Finally don’t forget to celebrate you successes, I know it’s not British but it works! I have a pie from the local butchers every time I break a new grade.

So how did I do with my experiment? My previous best was V8/font 7B. After a year on my 6 hours a week schedule I’d gone from a five month lay-off to bouldering three font grades harder than before at V10/font 7C+.

Being short of time doesn’t mean never improving. What could you achieve in a few hours a week?

By johnkettle, Feb 23 2015 04:20PM

First published with pretty pictures on UKClimbing

For many the greatest satisfaction in their climbing comes from that elusive feeling of moving smoothly and lightly across difficult terrain. But when searching for improvement, it is all too easy to focus on the task of increasing strength and fitness and hope that good technique will somehow happen unprompted given sufficient mileage.

Climbing movement is really important. Our delicate fingers and slender forearms can only take the majority of our body weight for a very short period, so if we are not moving as efficiently as possible, all the time, our prospects of climbing success are dramatically limited.

But changing the way you move on rock is no small matter. In the next three sections I’ll attempt to explain how you learnt to climb the way you do, becoming aware of the way you move, and how to change your movement.

Part 1: Know Thyself

To improve your climbing technique, firstly you must understand how you learn movement, and secondly analyse how you move at the moment, so that you can modify your technique to achieve your climbing goals and reduce the risk of injury.

I learnt all this the hard way, after my appalling wall-bred, static strength-based style contributed to shoulder injuries that prevented me from climbing more than once weekly for 4 years. It took this period of enforced down-time (including double shoulder surgery) for me to figure it out, save yourself the trouble and read on to find out how to get better, without needing get fitter!

Beginners Mind - how you learn to move

The science: To make any movement, information must be sent from your brain to the nerves that operate your muscles. This information travels along neural pathways. All the time we are conducting complex movements involving many muscles and numerous pathways are being travelled simultaneously, from sitting upright to operating a mouse.

These movements that now seem natural had to be learned, the neural pathways had to be ‘discovered’ and travelled regularly by your brain signals before you were confident and relaxed whilst performing them.

Creatures Of Habit -how your movement develops

Initially these neural pathways are like a rarely travelled footpath - overgrown, hard to find and bramble-ridden. With increased traffic they broaden into a large path, then a track. If enough traffic passes through, the (Brain) Council will tarmac the track, and given years of heavy use, it’ll become a five-lane super-highway.

Our habits employ neural superhighways – those movements we make all the time because they feel easy and familiar. We often do them without even realising it. Some of the many common climbing bad habits include: repeated repositioning of the foot on every hold; flagging on one side regularly, and avoiding it on the other; or crimping holds only because it feels more secure than open-handing them.

The more developed the pathway is, the less mental effort - ‘brain bandwidth’ - it takes to use it. That’s why after the initial mental overload, the complex task of driving a car gradually becomes less demanding, and soon you begin to find room to think about other things, as your driving technique becomes a ‘habit’.

Stress, either mental (e.g. fear of falling, social/performance anxiety) or physical (the unrelenting pump) interferes with your ability to use neural pathways. Our brains have a very limited bandwidth for conscious thought. If this is inundated with stress alarms, your brain automatically opts for the most well travelled neural pathways (habits) for movement, because they require less bandwidth to perform.

Fascinating, I hear you say.

But wait! What this means for the climber under stress is they revert to using the ‘habitual’ moves they’ve repeated the most before – often those front-on, over-gripping, foot bashing moves you’ve done every time you got stressed since starting the sport. Sound familiar?

In Part 2 we’ll face the consequences of our movement so far, and search for answers.

Part 2:Repetition and Feedback

So movement is reinforced through repetition – to make those graceful moves work for you, you must repeat them numerous times, and gradually stress-proof them by progressively taking them from the security of a top rope or crash-matted bouldering room into increasingly demanding environments; pumpier, riskier and higher pressure. Thoroughly developed neural pathways can be operated at a subconscious level by the brain, so you can focus on the other issues troubling you mid-climb without your technique suffering. It often looks unexpected when a top competition climber falls, because their movement does not degenerate as they become exhausted, their arms may be screaming and their eyes popping out, but the subconscious is still wombling away pulling smooth moves out the bag – moves they have rehearsed countless times.

The Bad News

Unfortunately it’s not just your best moves that get reinforced, it’s every move, every time you do it. Damn! When you’re seconding, cold and rushing to get to the belay, you’re reinforcing those neural pathways of hasty movement and careless footwork. When – for the sake of fitness - you get back on the yellow traverse you cruised earlier that evening, and flail your way exhausted through it, you are further ingraining those wild and sketchy manoeuvres. As you hang from a fingerboard, or campus up the rungs, the pathways that focus on pulling really hard while your feet dangle uselessly are reinforced. These last two training methods are effective supplements for climbing, but if used as replacements you can see their effect on your technique may be detrimental.

You Want The Truth? - Becoming aware of the way you move

To find out how you move, you need to get some feedback. You receive enormous amounts of feedback from your body every time you climb, but it takes time and effort to tune in to it, and use it effectively. Here’s a recording I made of body-brain feedback from a climber who’s just slumped exhausted onto the seventh bolt of a 6b+:

Body (screaming): “My forearms are pumped solid!!”

Brain: “Thanks for the feedback, I guess I failed because I’m not fit enough - better do more endurance training”

In this case Brain only listened to the loudest feedback – so concluded that fitness was at fault. In fact if every move up to that bolt had been executed in a more efficient style, and every slight shakeout exploited, the arms would have still been fresh, and the route completed easily within the existing fitness level.

So tuning in to the quieter body feedback is essential – how much your hips twist during a long reach, how straight your arms are, how hard your left toe pulls in while your right hand moves, how much your core swings after you grab the sloper..

The information is all there but to exploit it takes deliberate reviewing and a purposefully developed awareness of your whole body during climbing.

Using internal feedback is only half the story – you’ll learn faster if external feedback is also listened to. This can be from any external source, usually fellow climbers, a coach, or video footage. Fellow climbers’ feedback will be based upon their own experience, so consider the depth of this when taking it in: Are their high performances in the same arena as yours – and are they indoors or out, all-rounder or specialist?

Seeing yourself climb on video is invaluable but - be warned - it is brutally honest, and as it gives you all the information it can be hard to pluck the most useful points out. A good coach should combine the perceptiveness of video with the delicate and relevant feedback of a highly experienced friend, so you get a manageable dose of the right information. This can save you years of misguided time and effort, but unfortunately you have to pay for it!

So you’ve gathered this vast array of feedback, but now what to do with it? In Part 3 we’ll tackle the process of changing your moves for the better.

Part 3: Getting Better All The Time - how to modify your movement

Having decided that you don’t currently climb like a gecko/lemur hybrid, how to go about hatching out of that chrysalis and fluttering up the crag?

With the help of your feedback-gathering techniques mention in the previous article, you will no doubt become aware of a few habits, or neural super-highways. The aim is to neglect these tired favourites and focus on all the weird and unfamiliar elements of climbing that your subconscious has been avoiding all this time, until they become super-highways too. The eventual outcome of honing these is - when faced with a tricky move under stress - you’ll choose the most efficient way to climb it from a huge selection of stress-proofed options in your repertoire, rather than grabbing an old favourite that may make the move much harder than it needs to be.

So get the strimmer onto those overgrown neural pathways and start deadpointing, fist jamming, and drop kneeing without delay! Whatever you’ve avoided, master it and you’ll improve much faster that chipping away at a technique you have already spent years refining. Finding out what you avoid is not as easy as it sounds, we all avoid some things consciously (offwidth anyone?) but it takes careful attention to feedback to pick up which side you avoid flagging on, or which foot you avoid rocking over onto. These are both examples of left/right favouritism and it’s a good place to start.

Practicing Movement: Turn up the volume

You need both a high volume of practice and it needs to be of a high quality for you to make steady gains in climbing technique. It is generally agreed that in order to perform at an elite level requires ten thousand, yes 10,000 hours of high quality practice. That’s about 10 years at 2-3 hours of daily practice. Phew. You can’t move the genetic ceiling (that decides the fitness for climbing) of your body, but anyone can clock up the practice hours if suitably motivated, and there isn’t one elite climber out there that hasn’t put in those hours.

Quality Street

So the volume of practice is directly linked to your climbing performance. The quality is equally important. When an elite athlete practices, everything they practice is solely for one reason – to get better. This level of focus can lead to a seriously unsociable climber (if you cannot find others equally focussed), but with a little thought you can steer your climbing more directly towards improvement without dropping off the social radar for a decade. Alongside targeting your neglected moves, make sure everything is practiced on as many different wall angles and rock types as possible. When climbing indoors I rehearse unfamiliar moves on huge holds on the bouldering wall, then repeat them countless times at differing angles on ‘rainbow’ on the auto-belay, progress from here to harder bouldering and indoor leading. Begin stress-proofing as you feel more confident with them. Whilst training technique your agenda is simply to improve your movement. This means the grades, style of ascent, and ‘getting to the top’ habits are irrelevant –save them for when you’re performing, and know the difference. Keep returning to the video camera and seeking feedback from all sources, and keep asking yourself if your practice is still purposeful, and taking you directly towards your goals.

Go To It!

It is never too early- or too late - in your climbing career to focus on your movement, great climbers are those that move well first, and then get fit/strong later. Although there is lots of information out there about what makes ‘good technique’, the bottom line is it’s about what is most efficient for you - your build, flexibility and body shape. Only blame your failures on fitness as a last resort, be creative and experimental in your movement, and embrace the process of problem-solving moves.

Before you know it you’ll be carefully orchestrating those ‘at one with the rock’ sensations, rather than wondering why they happened.

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john kettle

climbing coach and guide