Interview with Lattice Client – Toby Roberts
Overcoming injury, balancing climbing alongside A-levels and climbing 9a; in this interview Toby Roberts talks us through his phenomenal year ticking routes such as Batman 9a/+, Hubble 9a and Stevolution 9a to name a few.
Lattice: You’ve had an amazing UK sport season so far – with some phenomenal sends at both Malham and Raven Tor, congratulations!! Can you tell us a bit more about what you’ve been up to and any specific moments that really stand out for you personally?
Thanks – it’s been a really enjoyable few weeks!
My competition season ended earlier than I was hoping at the very end of August [due to various GB selection criteria]. September was also the start of my A levels… which I can now mostly study remotely. This involved a lot of planning with my school and parents about ‘not doing two things badly’ and to find a setup that worked for both my climbing and my A levels.
By the end of September it felt like things were working well with school which gave me the flexibility to climb outside. I was suddenly able to climb most days and study in the evenings! This felt like a key moment for me – where I could focus on climbing without sacrificing my education.
The other key moments were about the sends of various routes because they each meant something different.
Bat Route took me a few sessions to tick after about 10 months since being able to climb on rock – topping it felt like I’d switched back from comp style to outdoor style. My first attempt on Bat Route was well within the 6 minute comp time limit, so topping Bat Route felt like I’d remembered how to climb outdoors.
Then with Batman I dropped the last move about 10 times till a micro-beta change (changing a shallow 4 finger crimp at the top of the crux to using a deeper middle 2 fingers). This felt like a significant moment as it not only meant topping the route but will hopefully help again when I’m back there on Rainman which shares the same finish.
Evolution, Kabbah and Stevolution all then felt ok and went quickly which made me feel like if conditions hold then maybe I’d be able to tick something harder before\during winter training.
Lattice: I’m sure our readers would love to know more about your climbing history Toby. Can you tell us about how you began climbing and any key moments in your climbing life?
I started climbing at an after-school club and was pretty much hooked on climbing from my first session around 7 years old. After my first hour long introduction to climbing my skin was hurting and I’d taken no rest – 2 things I didn’t know at the time would still be difficult for me to manage over the coming years!
Within weeks I was entered into the first regional round of the BMC Youth Climbing Series by the coach having never been in a climbing centre before – as until then it was just a few holds on a wall at the end of a sports hall and I wasn’t even aware of climbing gyms. I would say that not doing too well in my first ever comp was when I realised I needed to train, practice and get better. It was the start of my training!
At the 3rd regional round 2 months later – at the bottom of Youth E when I think I was 8 – I needed to come either 1st or 2nd to qualify for the National finals… I came 2nd which was a huge improvement from finishing about 12th 2 months earlier.
That was probably the most important period in my climbing life – learning that training and working hard makes a huge difference to achieving my goals. Outdoor grades and competition results were mostly just a reflection of the training and improvement process.
So the key moments for me over the years were probably the first time something happened either outdoors or in a competition. Not necessarily because of the route or competition itself – but because it symbolised the gains I was making. For me these were:
First 8a (Raindogs), Age 10
First 8b (Revelations), Age 11
First 8c (Make It Funky), Age 15
First 9a (Rainshadow), Age 15
First 9a\+ (Batman), Age 16
And for competitions they would be:
First National Win (Youth Climbing Series), Age 11
First International podium (Youth Colours, Austria), Age 12
First IFSC Youth EYC Final (EYC Portugal), Age 14
First IFSC Youth World Final (Lead, Arco, 2019), Age 14
First IFSC Youth Win (European Boulder Championships, Brixen, 2019), Age 14
First IFSC Youth World Medal (Combined Silver, Voronezh, 2021), Age 16
Lattice: You grew up in an area not well known for its outdoor climbing (there is none), how did outdoor climbing become such a big passion and focus for you?
It’s climbing in general that I’m passionate about whether that’s training, indoor, outdoor, competitions, etc. I’m not willing to sacrifice one for the other unless absolutely necessary (such as focusing on a World Championships or hopefully an Olympic opportunity).
Outdoor climbing is a massive contrast to competitions where it’s all about on-sight and time limits so going outside I have focused more on having some definite projects that I feel are pushing me closer to my limit at the time.
We live about 45 minutes South of London where it is about a 3 hour drive to the nearest decent rock so outdoor climbing is always a trip for a few days when it fits in to comp and training schedules, and obviously when conditions are hopefully good.
If anything I think this means I value my time outdoors even more. For example, right now I know my winter training starts in early December when conditions are also likely to be bad – so I’m obsessed with trying to top as many routes as I can before a return to training!
Everyone knows that you don’t win most of the competitions you enter and most days you don’t send – but when you focus so much on something you make a lot of friendships.
I love going away to compete and to climb outdoors because I’m around like minded people who also love training and climbing.
Lattice: You’ve worked with Lattice coach Ollie Torr for several years now, so the Lattice team are very aware of your exceptional drive and determination. However, we all thought you showed a new level of this mindset when overcoming an unfortunate injury at the end of last year. Can you tell us about this and what helped you stay motivated and even improve during this time?
Sure – but it’s a long story!
For me the most important part of being injured was not the injury itself and what I couldn’t do – but what I could do and where I could make gains.
By mid-December 2020 I realised I was going to need some time out so I committed to a 3 week complete climbing and training rest in line with the Christmas holidays before starting a specific training program working around my injury.
As I had a finger injury I decided to focus on my shoulders, core and flexibility when returning to training early in January 2021 and I carried this through until I could climb again in April 2021.
I was stretching for at least an hour every day, and almost every training session was a combination of TRX, bar work and core floor work.
I knew I would be losing finger strength, contact strength and climbing movement – but still being able to train was huge for me and I realised I was starting to make massive gains so I focused on these with short-term motivational goals.
For example, I was initially struggling to hold a front lever for too long which slowly became easier so I started increasing reps by a second a time.
Ollie told me the maximum I was allowed to stay in front lever was 10 seconds which then became easy, so I started improvising and quickly removing 1 hand from the bar whilst trying to stay in front lever. It was sketchy at best – but it was the challenge itself and mixing things up that became important.
This was still clearly a massive gain and I was starting to feel stronger than ever before whilst at the same time dealing with what felt like a horrible injury with a lot of unknowns – so I was trying to make the positives outweigh the negatives.
My finger injury started in September 2020 and felt like a really tough injury for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was wrongly diagnosed twice because it was quite a rare injury (Avulsion fracture to my left middle finger). This was almost certainly caused by hitting my finger on a hold during a board session but I didn’t realise at the time. After my session when I realised my finger was swollen I immediately stopped climbing until I’d sought advice.
Given the symptoms and lack of any obvious fracture I saw a physio and was told it luckily wasn’t too serious and some acupuncture, massage, rest and strapping all reduced the symptoms and I started climbing again about 2 weeks later. In hindsight I needed an x-ray and at least 8 weeks full rest – but I was actually told the injury should resolve itself and to just avoid dynamic sideways movement and follow some prescribed rehab exercises.
I managed the injury taping as advised and ended up going on to climb Rainshadow where none of the moves seemed to aggravate things too much. However 3 months on and certain movements were still very painful so I decided to fully stop climbing in early December 2020 and I saw a 2nd physio who said I now probably just had a build up of scar tissue that needed breaking down.
I ended up having ultra-sound, laser treatment and shockwave therapy over the course of 5 weeks – all to no avail.
In early January 2021 I was able to get an appointment with Paul Houghhoughi (Huffy) in Bournemouth who diagnosed an old\healing fracture (potentially a growth plate) using ultra-sound. I’d already rested for 4 weeks by this point and Huffy then said I should rest for at least another 4 weeks or so before an assessment and before any return to loading\rehab.
After 4 weeks I tried some basic climbing exercises and immediately felt pain which led on to another series of appointments and rest, and a referral from Huffy to Mike Hayton in Manchester (a hand surgeon\specialist who I know operated on other GB team climbers).
After ultra-sound, an x-ray and CT scan I was told that the exact injury was an Avulsion fracture almost certainly caused by an impact and that the inside of the bone near the growth plate had been slightly damaged – although my growth plates themselves had all fully fused.
Normally this injury would have potentially injured tendons causing a ruptured pulley or something similar; but in my case the tendon had pulled a part of my bone off. I was also told that the fracture itself was also now fully healed but due to the nature of the injury if there were any lasting effects due to the way things healed then there was very likely nothing that could be done.
It was a truly horrific thing to hear 🙂
However I was still working harder than ever and focusing on my training plan and in every session felt like I was making big gains which psychologically was huge.
It was now mid-March and I’d not loaded my fingers at all for over 3 months and although I was now in theory ‘fracture free’ I had ‘chronic’ swelling and pain in my finger whenever I climbed.
However, knowing that my fracture was now healed – but I was still feeling pain – I started to climb again with 2 very light home board sessions 12 hours apart followed by 2 days off.
Thankfully over the coming weeks the pain and swelling started to reduce and I was slowly able to increase load. After about 4 weeks of incrementally pushing things I was able to go for a full ‘Boulder on-sight Session’ which I felt was the biggest possible test.
I was both relieved and incredibly excited to be able to climb freely again – and also a little surprised that things came good so quickly from where I was at. I also felt my fingers were incredibly weak but my core, shoulders and flexibility were stronger than ever. All I needed to do now was climb which is all I’ve been doing since April till now!
I still feel I’m massively benefiting from the conditioning foundation that has carried me through this season. Ultimately it’s been a great year and the foundation of that was committing to training hard when injured.
I am also extremely grateful for the expert advice, support and motivation provided by Ollie Torr, Paul Houghhoughi (climbing physio) and Mike Hayton (hand specialist).
Lattice: Is there anything you would recommend to other climbers coming back from an injury?
– Research; get help, support and recommendations from people you trust
– Get a diagnosis that makes sense and explains your symptoms
– Get a proper rehab plan for the injury and stick to it
– Listen to feedback from the injury through the rehab process and adjust
– Look for opportunities to make gains elsewhere which will help with focus
– Maximise structure, map out every session and stick to it
– Try to make small measurable training gains not related to the injury itself
Lattice: As coaches we know how hard it is to train for different goals in climbing at the same time. How have you found splitting your time between outdoor climbing and competitions? Do you find that certain types of training works well for one but not both?
I don’t really feel I’m training for different goals at the same time – I feel like I’m training really hard to be balanced and not have any weaknesses.
I also try and establish what my weaknesses are and then try and turn them into strengths with periods of focus and training – such as flexibility, walking on volumes, strength across my shoulders – or even non-physical things such as comp simulation or route reading.
However this all changes the closer I get to a particular goal when everything becomes tailored for the upcoming discipline or challenge.
For example, if I’m specifically focusing on a boulder comp, then for a few weeks I’ll almost exclusively focus on as many different on-sight sessions at different walls as possible. The same goes for lead where for weeks before a big lead comp I’ll try as many on-sight attempts of indoor routes as possible.
For the last 2 Youth World Championships this has meant going to Innsbruck to prepare – one of the few places with access to speed, lead and boulder facilities.
The end of the Youth World Championships is normally the end of the comp season and I’ve almost immediately headed outside where a lot of the comp training is transferable.
However I still notice it takes a short while to get accustomed to the style whatever that is (recently it’s been limestone sport climbing).
For example right now I’ve been climbing outside for almost 2 months and feel I’m now in good sport climbing form – but if there was an imminent boulder comp coming up then I might need at least a few weeks. Although this year I have been trying to do at least 1 indoor powerful bouldering session a week alongside my outdoor climbing…
Lattice: What’s next Toby? Any plans for the near or distant future you want to share with the readers?
Yes – definitely. Short-term I’m really looking forward to competing in my first senior BLCC’s.
I have 3 UK routes I’d love to climb at some point in the future – Mutation, Brandenburg Gate and Rainman.
I’m really hoping to be selected for the GB Senior team and then represent GB at some IFSC senior comps in 2022…
… and I’d like to compete at the Olympics!
Thanks Toby! Really great to get a bit more of an insight into what goes on behind the scenes of such a driven climbers life, we really can not wait to see what you do next.