Tactical On-Route Climbing Decisions: (A) PACING
Pacing on routes is one of my personal favorites in terms of climbing tactics. I find this fascinating, actually – how one climber’s perfect sending pace or work-to-rest ratio can be another’s worst nightmare, and vice versa. Nothing makes this difference more apparent to me than climbing with my regular climbing partner (my husband, Kevin, who happens to be pretty much my opposite in all skills/strengths climbing). At one point a couple years back, I mentioned that I knew a redpoint project was coming into my realm of potential sending when most of it started feeling like I was running an eight- or nine-minute mile. He looked at me with pure incredulity at this, and then said that he always feels like he’s trying to run a four-minute mile when he’s redpointing.
Obviously, there’s a reason that both of us have cultivated our chosen preferred climbing paces – we’ve learned to manipulate and capitalize on our individual bodies’ physiological predispositions in terms of energy systems and muscle fiber types and strengths/weaknesses and so forth. But I don’t want to delve deeply into all the science behind why this is, why different people’s bodies do better at different paces. More important in terms of our discussion is that you pay attention to your own body’s predisposition and work with that to your tactical advantage, while also striving (if you want to improve your climbing and want a tactical training tool related to pacing to try) to push it gradually but persistently toward performing better at paces that make you uncomfortable.
Start by observing your climbing pace without judgment. Do you hesitate before every single move, never stringing any moves together, but stopping and doing each movement precisely and in control (no use of momentum whatsoever)? On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, are you in a race, moving as quickly as possible from hold to hold, swinging wildly and even sacrificing technique in your effort to get through and get to the top? Or are you somewhere in between these two extremes – if the first is a “1” and the last is a “10,” where do you fall A) in terms of pacing of movement? and B) How about length of time on rests shaking out (also an aspect of pacing). Your number may be different for A and for B. Mine is – I’d give myself a 3 or 4 for A, but a 1 for B. Kevin, I’d say, is more an 7 or 8 for A and then same for B. (I used to be more of a 1 for A, though – and I’d guess that Kevin was more of a 10 for A at some point when he first started climbing).
Hopefully I haven’t lost you, here. The point is that both of us have worked to improve our pacing in the most necessary places – I needed to learn to climb faster sometimes, while Kev needed to know when to slow things down sometimes. I used to be the slowest climber on the planet, with zero explosive power and upper-body strength and all hands/fingers, as I’ve mentioned before. But by working deliberately on picking up my pace, I have integrated a faster pace of climbing into my climbing style, as well as the ability to really move (for me, anyhow!) when I need to keep moving, using momentum and not being (as) hesitant about throwing for holds when it’s called for. Meanwhile, Kevin has slowed things down to improve his technical execution and reduce sloppy power wastage due to the perceived need to get through everything as fast as possible.
But for the resting pace part – well, it would be a stupid tactical decision for me to not take advantage of that when I need to (though I don’t do it on easy routes or warm-ups or when I’m trying to push the pace for interval training). I can get a lot back on rests, and if I need to, I will take the rest and shake out for as long as I need to recover. Sometimes I’ll even count to 500, but usually I get too bored to do that and go after counting to 50 or 100. Counting inside my head at rests is another personal tactic; it keeps me from going too soon because I want to keep climbing, but I know how my body works and it works well to rest way longer than most people rest. So be it. A lot of the time, when I’m working a route, I’ll rest longer than I ever did before during the actual redpoint go – and it’s awesome tactically, because I end up feeling way stronger after each rest than I ever did on the work burns. But that’s me; that’s my pacing for rests that works best for my body.
My actual climbing pace is still way slower than Kevin’s and it always will be. I tend to move better (i.e. more precise, less movement error/power dump) and can sustain movement for longer if I deliberately slow down the movement of the easier portions of a climb that are still somewhat draining to me prior to a difficult section where I have to move more quickly – especially if I don’t get a rest before that section. Just a hair, though – it’s not like I’m not using momentum or moving consistently, but more like I’m holding back a little bit, just dishing out a tiny bit slower pace than what’s possible. I start breathing rhythmically and deeply before I start into any lengthy sections of moves like this, and I try my hardest to maintain that pace of regular breathing for as long as I possibly can, hopefully through the whole section moves. Kevin does better if he climbs as fast as he can without sacrificing technique, taking shakes on rests to get something back, but never nearly for as long as I do (I’d say his rests are about five times shorter than mine, and he probably takes one rest/shake for every three or four of mine).
The reasons for our different tactical decisions surrounding pacing have to do with our bodies’ different physiologies, as I mentioned earlier, and these include our strengths and weaknesses. My lack of failure due to getting pumped in my forearms is a big strength for me; getting powered out in my bigger muscles is a huge weakness. So the more I can dump my energy into hanging out with straight arms on rest holds and recover power for my bigger muscles, the better it is for me. Kevin’s better at big-muscle power and worse at managing the pump. (I use myself and Kevin as examples here to help you figure out where you fall on this continuum and how you should strategize to use your particular physiology to your advantage while you’re trying to onsight or redpoint hard climbs.)
And, as I said, working on your pacing when you’re not trying to send is smart. Slowing things down a bit so you’re more precise and in control and making smart technical choices can be a huge help to the faster-paced “10” climber, as can training the body to recover better at actual shake-out places (if you gave yourself a “10” on the B question above). And the opposite is true for people like me – training yourself to punch it through the hard sections and to use momentum is just smart and efficient, retraining yourself to not be attached to total static control of every movement. As for the resting, well, if you’re a “1” (i.e. you can hang out forever and still feel like you’re recovering) don’t take those 500-count rests unless you really, REALLY need them, or you risk driving your belayer nuts one too many times after your 45-minute redpoint effort and ending up without a happy climbing partner (not spoken from experience or anything like that…not at all).
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!