4 Things I Learned Working with a Climbing Coach
As I sat beneath the holds of my project, gritting my teeth and frustrated with a lack of progress after months of effort, I began to question why I wasn’t improving. By March 2021, I had already been working the project – God is in the Details V12/8a+ – since December. The sequence was long. One particularly fruitless day, I counted out 37 individual hand and foot movements. But at the time, it didn’t feel like the challenge was just physical. The problem was aptly named. Across 37 hand and foot moves, at my height of 5’7 (+ 0inch reach), the cruxes all had to deal with micro beta – the “details”. I had to place a heel blindly just so. I had to ensure the angle of my toe to knee in a kneebar was just so. I had to remember to breathe just so and just in the right places. It was infuriating. And as I worked through the various cruxes, I began to get worn down. I began to question if I was hitting a point of diminishing returns (and in hindsight, I definitely was). As the weather started to warm up and summer approached, I knew I needed help if I wanted to send the project anytime soon.
In April 2021, I hired Jon Procter with Lattice Climbing as a personal climbing coach. Initially, we did what we could with the remaining weekends before summer conditions set in, but soon realized that it would be wise to walk away, regroup, and focus on training hard over the summer.
Obviously, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this if I hadn’t eventually sent the project (more on that later). But as I reflect on the eventual success I saw and the preparation that went into it, it is obvious that the coaching and training I did over the summer was vital to my success. Below are the top four things I learned working with a climbing coach.
1. Training for a project should be project-specific
To most people, this will seem obvious. However, before working with a coach, I often found I would focus on what I considered to be general training for the bouldering season. I’d roughly assess what I’d need to work on, whether that was strength, power endurance, or power, and I’d use self-guided climbing-specific training tools like videos on the Lattice Training YouTube channel to identify exercises that would help. The challenge I ran into, though, was that I simply wasn’t aware of all the exercises I could be doing and I wasn’t adequately mimicking the strain of 37 hand and foot moves on a finger board or on the wall.
When I started working with Jon over the summer, I quickly began to see a difference in how training was structured. I learned new words like ‘meso-phase’ and ‘base-phase loading’. I started workouts that were custom-made to address the strain of God is in the Details. I began doing drills that focused on improving recovery. Everything seemed to make a lot more sense in the context of the project.
The most obvious example of a training-specific exercise for me was a combination workout Jon created. It focused on both power endurance and recovery. The drill was to complete 10 low intensity boulders (~V1), then to complete an exercise called ‘Extended Boulders’, and then to climb another 10 low intensity boulders (~V1-V2). During the extended boulders, I was instructed to create a problem on a spray wall that was 16 moves and one that, if the stimulus was right, I was only completing about 70% of the reps. This was the most taxing workout I did with Jon, but it’s also the workout I most credit with my success on God is in the Details. When I was first working the project, I would often find myself pumped, powered out, and out of breath. By comparison, when I completed the project, I felt like I was not at all pumped, felt I had loads of power left, and had enough air left in my lungs to scream all the way to the parking lot at the top of the boulder.
In creating a project-specific training plan, Jon gives the following advice:
“Break down the entire project. We need to think about grip type, time under tension (TUT), the total number of moves, the style of moves, the speed at which we climb and where the crux sits within the problem. We even need to be asking ourselves “is there a crux?” If there is (or isn’t), then our energy system specific training needs to reflect this. We of course do not have to incorporate all of these within our training but the most important aspects should be considered. And finally, we need to consider our own strengths and weaknesses because there is no point in spending all our time focusing on finger strength if this is not the limiting factor to our performance, we need to find the weak link.”
2. The importance of variety and fresh training stimulus
Before I worked with Jon, I used to do roughly the same training week over week. In hindsight, I realize I was sticking to workouts that made me feel good. I’d do max hangs because they made me feel strong. I’d do a campus workout because it made me feel powerful. I’d do the same ab workouts because that was my routine. The problem was that I never really felt like I was improving.
Jon quickly put a stop to this. In an old email thread discussing my upcoming training schedule, I remember asking Jon why we were no longer doing lock off training and why we were starting to add in max strength pull ups. Jon responded, “The reason I’ve included the max strength pull ups is to keep the stimulus fresh and to ensure that the motor units in your upper body remain well recruited. You’ve now been in a prolonged peak period, which isn’t ideal, so you will almost certainly have de-recruited slightly. Including the max strength pull ups will help combat this.”
An article from UH Hospitals further elaborates: “By creating variation and changing exercises in your routine, you can create a new stimulus, which creates more progress over time. And if you rotate exercises or activity every so often, your injury risk will decrease.”
3. Intentional rest and recovery
Before working with Jon, I was aware of the basic concept of three weeks on, one week off. It’s a principle we still stick to and one that I think allows your body to adequately recover from high intensity training. Two things I didn’t know going into working with Jon, though, were specifically including recovery and regeneration workouts into a training plan and how much to rest while projecting.
Regeneration workouts and recovery drills – whether that’s doing 10 low intensity boulders before an extended boulders workout or Continuity 5×3 (five minutes on, three mins off) – assist with physical recovery from intense training and improve localized blood flow using easier climbing. The general idea of including this into my training plan for God is in the Details was that I needed to be able to rebound as close to 100% as possible after every burn. These regeneration drills helped with that. In the first two sessions back after training over the summer, I found I could put in more high-quality attempts than I was before and that I was consistently hitting old high points.
Another key aspect here was knowing when to end a session. Going back to that concept of rebounding to 100%, in the past my approach to projecting was to put in attempts until I made an obvious regression and then to isolate the crux sequence and drill that until I had absolutely no energy left. What I didn’t realize was that this made it hard to get back to 100% the next session, even if that were a week away. That approach causes so much fatigue that by the end of the season, you’re exhausted and climbing at a fraction of your potential.
While in a project session itself, the rule I stuck to per Jon’s guidance was to rest at least one minute per move. Because I was working across 37 hand and foot moves, I rounded up to 45 minutes of rest in between attempts. After all, the project I was working was essentially a route. I made sure to keep my fingers warm with some basic isometrics on a crimp block, but otherwise I would walk away from the boulder entirely to give my mind a break from the anxiety of projecting and allow my body to recover.
4. Getting enough carbs
As I was rounding off my training and heading into my performance phase, one of the unturned stones I had left was nutrition. It’s the aspect of training I knew the least about. All I generally knew was to target between 1.2 and 1.6g per kg of bodyweight of protein. I personally used Bub’s Collagen Protein for the added benefits regarding tendon and skin health. But beyond protein intake, I didn’t know much. So, I hit up the Lattice 365 Community, a subscription-based Facebook group that gives climbers access to expert coaches, physios, and nutritionists.
I asked the group a general question about what is best to eat around a projecting day, and the answer surprised me. Nutritionist Edward Gibson-Smith replied: “From a nutritional perspective, the number one priority when it comes to performing at your limit and sustaining this performance is optimizing carbohydrate availability. Assuming the day prior to projecting is a rest day, a carbohydrate intake of around 3g/kg body weight should be sufficient. You could also consider a ‘low residue’ (low fiber) approach to help shed a little bit of the matter we carry in our gut. On the day, depending on the energy demands of the session, typical needs might be somewhere between 4-6 g/kg of carbohydrate. Timing and type of intake is crucial on projecting days. Generally speaking, you’d be aiming to consume 1g/kg of carbs at breakfast and again around 90-120 minutes before you begin your session. During your session, you would aim to keep carb stores topped up between attempts by consuming around 30g of carbs per hour. Good crag snacks include flapjacks, dried fruit, fruit juice, or sports drinks”.
This response blew my mind. I can’t stress enough that this made a profound impact to my energy levels. Eating dried fruit and rice cakes or drinking juice during rest periods in my last few projecting sessions made me feel more awake and alert than any other time in my climbing history. Before, I wasn’t properly fueling myself at the crag. I was too focused on protein and I wasn’t giving myself the energy I needed to get through and have a productive projecting session.
Sending the Project
I recall feeling oddly calm as I made the approach up to the project in early October. My plan for the day was simple. In the first two sessions back on the project, I had relearned the beta for the boulder and was able to pinpoint down the sequence I knew would be the most problematic for me. Towards the end of the boulder, as I transition over the lip, I knew I would need to apply maximal tension with my legs. All I had planned for the day was to make sure my feet didn’t cut through this sequence. After warming up my fingers, I pulled on and did the moves first try. To make sure this wasn’t some kind of fluke, I rested for a few minutes, pulled back on and did the moves perfectly again. At this point, my confidence rose.
Per Jon’s advice, I rested 45 minutes before trying again. During this time, also per Jon’s advice, I ate a snack and walked away from the boulder altogether. Having had anxiety reap havoc on me the last few sessions, walking away from the boulder allowed me to collect myself, perform a few breathing exercises, and stop my heart from racing so hard. Moments before my timer expired, I saw a large group head to the boulder, so I put in ear buds to drown out the noise and walked back up.
I was fortunate to have a few close friends with me that day. They helped me clear space to prepare myself. I had to re-brush every single hold. I had to ensure a few tick marks were in place to help me with a few blind foot placements. I had to pull both shoes on and fasten them extremely tightly before putting a kneebar pad on at just the right place in my knee. Apply liquid chalk. Breathe. Pick the perfect song (Obamacare by Quelle Chris). Crawl into the cave. Wipe the dirt from the bottom of my shoes. Chalk my hands, again. Pull off the ground.
What happened next is a blur. I proceeded to execute every single move of the 37-move hand-foot sequence perfectly. No mistakes, no feet cuts. As I topped the boulder out, I began to realize what had just happened and let out a primal scream. Months of work finally manifest. I did it.
If I had to boil down everything I learned from training with Jon and Lattice, it’s that it’s impossible to know everything. Challenge your assumptions. Ask questions from experienced climbers. Don’t be afraid to do things differently, and consider hiring a coach. Most of all, be tenacious.
I’m painfully aware of the fact that I may not be the most talented climber in the world. My technique will never be as good as Janja Garnbret’s. I’ll never be as powerful as Jimmy Webb. I’ll never be taller or extend my reach. But what I can control is how hard I work. Guidance from a coach can help direct you and maximize the work hours you put in, but the tenacity still has to be there. Your coach has to have something to work with, and the more you give them to work with, the better you’ll see that hard work manifest in your climbing.