For one reason or another, I’ve always struggled with training. This typically shocks people, since I’ve been climbing for thirteen years and spent the majority of that time preparing for competitions. However, I’m not good at training. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever properly trained. There were never a predetermined number of routes I had to complete each day, or an ordered series of weight exercises I had to fit in between sets of routes. I’ve never experimented with, nor understood, interval training, whereby low and high intensity workouts are offset by periods of rest to achieve peak performance. In my mind, this type of training was for swimmers and runners. I was a climber.
When I was young(er), I simply climbed until I was tired, and then climbed a bit more. My fitness never “peaked”. Instead, my performance depended on motivation, not physical strength. I knew how to climb, and success relied on pushing my body to its limit under a moment of pressure. This method worked splendidly, until my motives for climbing changed from performing under pressure in front of a crowd of people, to performing under only my own pressure, on a route of my choice, outside. Suddenly, there were no set grades, no expectations, no colors marking my ascent. “Finals” could be a route far beyond my ability, chosen for personal reasons, at a crag I enjoyed, rather than a route built specifically for me and women of similar size and strength that would almost certainly be around 5.13d. Here on the rock, my motivation could exceed my abilities, dragging me through a monotonous cycle of failure, disappointment, frustration, and rope burns. It was not until I repeated that villainous move over and over until my muscles screamed with targeted fatigue and my skin oozed with dark blood where that tiny crystal pierced again and again that I would I learn. Then I would practice again, rest, and climb through the move without falling. This was my first taste of training.
However, it was not a lack of necessity that kept me from training in my early days of climbing. Over the past few years, school has often kept me from maintaining a schedule that seemed worthy in my mind. Some semesters only allowed for an hour of climbing twice a week. During these times, I found it best to set aside my climbing expectations, rather than grow frustrated over a goal to which I simply could not commit. Yet often, circumstances allowed me to train until my heart’s content. The problem here was that I never saw results. I would run and never experience improvement, only the side wrenching, shin busting, chest heaving burn that one measly mile evoked. I would work on pushups every day for two months, only advancing from 10 to 12 (pushups, not sets of pushups), an embarrassing claim for an athlete defined by upper body strength. I would spend hours a day in the gym, climbing until my body rid itself of all sweat and my muscles had nothing left to give, yet I never noticed a gain. I would eat protein and nutrient rich foods, but felt that my body only weakened.
This lack of belief in training only intensified when I would take a month off over Christmas, stuffing myself with the richest of foods and exercising no more than a family walk to the mail box, only to return to the gym to find I floated up routes with ease. Why would I train if training made me worse and not caring made me better? Yet I knew something was wrong with this equation. I like to work hard to achieve a goal. I wanted to work hard to achieve a goal. I despised being awarded for laziness. Without explanation for this system of work and reward, I decided to set it far from my mind. I would climb when I wanted, as hard as I wanted, for as long as I wanted, as this was the only system that worked for me. Until a month ago.
At the beginning of September, I had to get a mole removed from my leg. A two inch long row of stitches meant no climbing for six weeks. The antsy side of me longed to ignore this advice, yet past experience had proved that jumping the gun would only result in torn stitches, large scars, and double the recovery time. So for the last month, I’ve not tied in once. Instead, I’ve slowly designed a (dare I say it) “training” plan to stay fit while I can’t climb. A long list of excuses attempted to stall this plan, from “it hasn’t worked before” to “the campus board gave me tendonitis last time I tried”. However, when upon my first day at the campus board three knowledgeable gentleman nearly fainted over the atrocities of my poor technique, I realized why this didn’t work in the past and why I hurt myself. So to conclude, here is what I’ve learned about campus training.
1. Don’t use your thumbs. I’m sure everyone reading this just thought “well duh”, but personally I like my thumbs and felt as though they protected my fingers. Alas, this is not the case. Don’t let them touch the campus rungs or you’ll get a scolding.
2. You need a systematic routine (again, duh). In the past, I would sporadically attempt exercises until I was exhausted. I would grow bored easily, so would only perform each exercise once before moving on. Yes, I would be tired and sore, but without repetition, I never improved.
3. Controlled swinging is good. I always thought stiff-as-a-board body tension was the best possible form when campusing. However, it seems as though a bit of a controlled hip sway is actually the proper campusing technique.
4. Pull and push. It’s not all about pulling with your leading hand. Half the exercise is about pushing with your following hand.
When combined, these four tips led me to my first ever noticeable progress as a result of training. While a few weeks ago I could only make it halfway up the campus board, I can now get to the top. While a seemingly small feat, this is actually a significant mental accomplishment. When pre-planned, coordinated, and targeted to your weaknesses, perhaps training really can help after all. We’ll see!