I’m really enjoying my annual seasonal transition into working on strength and power. I love having problems like this in my life to work on. The best kinds of problems are the ones you can almost solve, but have to come back to later. They push your mind, body and patience. This lifelong process never gets old for me, even as I grow older every year. Sheer fun, this ever-present challenge of seeking workable solutions to difficult puzzles.
Do you love to project hard routes as much as I do?
If your answer is, “Heck no, I just climb for fun/exercise/recreation and get on whatever,” then this article is not for you!
However, if you love to project routes (i.e. give multiple attempts on routes until you redpoint them…or not, as the case may be!), or you want to give projecting a shot, read on.
As a longtime project climber, I have found that the following approaches work best for me:
- Sample what is out there before you settle on your project(s). Even on a super-short trip, getting on more than one route will give you more of a taste of what an area has to offer. Of course, if the first potential project you try is the most awesome climb you’ve ever tried…well, go ahead and stick with it if it makes you happy. I still usually like to try a few routes before I project anything, though – that’s just my preference.
- I think it’s good to have more than one project at a time. I like having a number of projects going that involve different styles, skills, and difficulty levels. I usually have shorter-term, easier projects (routes I know I can do fairly quickly), and I save those for the days when I don’t feel super awesome, actually. This works for me, because I want to put my full-energy, best days into my dream projects, the routes that push me and that I’m not sure I can ever send. I climb to push my limits more than anything, so I enjoy having one or two long-term projects like this.
- Having more than one project at a time keeps boredom at bay and helps me avoid repetitive use injuries, too. It also helps me avoid stagnating/plateauing on any given project (mentally and physically). Having just one project can lead a person to develop the skills and strengths for that route and that route alone, and then when they get on something else of a similar difficulty, even in a similar style, they might find themselves stymied. Keeping diversity in the projecting can help keep this from happening.
- About those “dream projects:” I think these are a great idea so long as you don’t get frustrated or pissed or put expectations on yourself about when you “should” send them by. For a dream project to work for me, I must absolutely love the climb from start to finish. No moves that I loathe or dread – even the hard moves are amazing and fun. Because we’re going to have such a long relationship, I feel that it’s important to love a project like this. A dream project pushes me harder than the projects I can send in a reasonable amount of time. Dream projects make me a better climber; they also teach patience and perseverance. Progress is measured in small ways, and this can become a beautiful process of learning, patience, and self-discovery.
- I always try to include a project or two, dream project or no, that really test and work my weak links – providing me with a steady stream of stimuli to try to improve those areas every time I get on those routes. I also always try to include a project or two that cater more to my strengths – because it’s fun to feel strong and to climb to your strengths.
- I don’t feel obligated to stick with a project if I start to get bored with it or don’t like it or something else captures my attention more. Climbing is supposed to be fun (right?), so if a project is not enjoyable for you to try anymore, you might want to take a break – maybe just for a few days or weeks, or maybe forever.
- I do what I feel like on any given day of climbing, and it’s totally my choice. Above all, never forget that it’s up to you; it’s your climbing. You do it for you and for nobody else. Do what you like!
You trained your weaknesses with dedication during your off-season, focusing on strength development in the areas you struggle with the most. And yet, during your first forays onto the rock this season, you feel worse than you did before.
What did you do wrong?
The answer, in all likelihood, is nothing.
Nothing, except for setting an unrealistic expectation that you would reap immediate and profoundly overwhelming results from your training in your rock climbing performance.
Those types of results are the exception rather than the rule.
For most of us most of the time, the results from training come much more gradually than we’d like them to, and it takes time to mold and adapt raw, gym-begotten strength and power gains into noticeable, usable gains in route-climbing performance. This tends to be true, too, for bouldering power gains, if you spent your winter season bouldering as your main training modality for working toward route-climbing power gains.
It will take time to build fitness into your strength gains, and it will also take time for your mind to fully understand how to utilize those gains to your advantage while you climb – in other words, old habits die hard, and you will probably have to work to make your body understand that it is stronger and indeed capable of doing moves that it may not have been able to do previously.
This need to build fitness into strength gains is also why I don’t recommend dropping all route-climbing training out of a program entirely during the off season, if climbing hard sport climbs is your top interest. Use it or lose it is always in play in athletics, so multiple months of not doing any type of power endurance or endurance training for climbing will leave you with a much bigger hole to climb out of than keeping those skills in play to a certain extent, even while you are primarily focused on strength training.
Having done this in the past – only trained strength – I can certainly affirm from my personal experience that it took more months to work my way back into route-climbing fitness after doing this. Keeping a little bit of fitness work in there while I focus on strength training helps make the transition easier and smoother.
For the same reason, once you start route climbing again as your main focus, you should try to avoid giving up on all strength training throughout your main climbing season. A shorter, more targeted maintenance program done less frequently can help you maintain the gains you have made in your off-season, rather than gradually detraining from your peak strength levels over the course of months and months of route climbing.
The maintenance strength-training program may also help prevent injuries, because of course, you will include opposition muscle work in the program to keep your body balanced. Keeping strength-training in play every two to three weeks can actually boost your performance over the season, as you may find yourself STILL gaining strength, even while it’s not the primary focus of your training.
This approach can also help you prevent plateaus by providing variety to your training – especially if you’re working on the same project or projects for much of the season. Remember, in training we want consistency, but not too much consistency. The body adapts to the demands placed on it, and if everything becomes too routine, that can be a perfect recipe for plateaus.
Also, keep in mind that the body can only hold a true performance peak for about a week, tops – something I will mention again and have mentioned before. It would be a wonderful thing if we could peak all of the time, or at least force the body into peaking exactly when we wanted it to whenever we wanted it to, but the reality is that it’s not an exact science. You’ll have to experiment to find the right balance between training, resting and peaking for yourself.
In general, if you are training hard and climbing hard but you start to feel your performance slip a little bit OR you are getting close to sending your project but just can’t seem to get there, you might be on the brink of having a performance breakthrough – if you can handle resting to stimulate a peak at this point.
This is counterintuitive for many of us, who want to push even harder to eke out the send. While this can happen, you might find that a few days off will lead you to emerge at a higher level of performance, allowing you to peak (send), and then moving into a new training cycle after that effort is complete.
Remember that it’s our minds that want and cling to weekly routines – but our bodies actually will respond better in most cases to a little less routine and a little more randomness. Undulating periodization, in which you stagger what you work on, how hard you work, how many days you climb and train, etc., can be perhaps even more effective in stimulating climbing-performance gains than a predictable exercise routine from week to week.
Summing it up:
- It takes time for the body to adapt raw strength/power gains into route-climbing/fitness gains. Be patient. Enjoy the process of learning how to utilize new strength and power effectively.
- Don’t drop your strength-training program during your route-climbing season. Lift at least every 2-3 weeks to maintain your strength gains and to stay balanced in your body.
- Avoid plateaus by avoiding a completely regimented and predictable climbing/training schedule and routine.
- Rest enough to stimulate peaks at appropriate times.
- Understand that climbing at 100 percent of your potential 100 percent of the time is not possible.