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How to Improve Climbing Efficiency (and Climb WAY Harder!)

vince-stolen-dream2The technical paramount is to climb with perfect economy. Make those two words, perfect economy, your mantra every time you touch the rock. Perfect economy means discovering the way to do each move—an entire route, for that matter—with minimal energy expenditure. If you have a cat, you can observe highly economic movement firsthand. Most of the time a cat moves in a slow, smooth, deliberate way; sometimes, however, a situation demands a powerful, dynamic leap to maintain perfect economy. Catlike movement should be your technical model for efficient climbing: smooth, quiet, leg-driven movements, but with an unhesitating shift to an arm-pulling, dynamic movement when it is required to most efficiently execute a difficult move.

While in reality “perfect economy” will never be achieved, but it’s in striving for perfection that you achieve excellence. Here are five attributes of highly economic movement to work on every time you touch stone.

Quiet Feet
Quiet foot movements are one of the hallmarks of a climber with great technique. Conversely, feet that regularly pop off footholds or skid on the wall surface are typical of an individual possessing lackluster footwork and poor economy. For many climbers, noisy footwork is just the way they climb—it’s a habit that developed over a long period of time, as well as a flaw in their technique that will prevent them from ever reaching their true potential. Your goal, of course, is to learn to climb with good foot technique even in the toughest times. This means concentrating on each foot placement, keeping your foot steady and firm to the hold, and standing up on the foot with confidence as you proceed smoothly to the next hand- or foothold.

Rhythm and Momentum
Like any dance, climbing should have a natural rhythm that utilizes momentum and inertia. Climbing in a ladderlike motion yields the rhythm step, reach, step, reach. However, a better rhythm for effective movement is often step, step, reach, reach, since it allows the legs to direct and drive the movement. There are obviously many other rhythms, and every unique sequence possesses a best rhythm of movement and, more important, a best use of forward momentum to help propel successive moves. This is especially important on difficult climbs with large spacing between holds. Consider how you use momentum in moving hand-over-hand across monkey bars at a playground, with each movement blending into the next in a perfect continuity of motion. Make this “monkey bar” model of smooth, continuous motion your goal when climbing through strenuous sequences. (Ironically, many climbers do just the opposite, engaging crux sequences in a slow, hesitant way.)

Relax and Climb with Smooth Moves
Smooth, fluid movement is another hallmark of high economy, while stiff, mechanical movement is a sign of poor technique and a high burn- rate of energy. One of the keys to smooth, efficient climbing movement is learning to contract only the muscles necessary for engaging the rock and directing movement (usually these will be the muscles of your forearms, shoulders, abdomen, thighs, and calves). The easiest way to achieve this is to periodically switch your focus to the antagonist muscles and scan for unnecessary tension (in the upper arms, hips and legs, torso, neck, and face) that is making the agonist muscle work harder and burn more energy than need be necessary. Take a few slow, deep belly breaths and visualize the tension escaping the antagonist muscle like air from a balloon—such mental imagery really helps the process. Now return your focus to executing the next climbing movement, but continue alternating your focus back and forth between directing movement and directing relaxation.

Optimize Your Climbing Pace
Pace is another aspect of climbing economy that becomes increasingly important as a route gains in steepness and difficulty. While an easy climb with large holds allows you to ascend at a leisurely pace, a crux sequence or overhanging terrain will demand that you kick into high gear and surmount the difficulty in short order. When climbing near your limit, it must be your intention to move as briskly as possible without any drop-off in technique (skidding feet, botching sequences, and such). Reduce the pace at the first sign that your technique is suffering. It helps to identify obvious rest positions ahead of time, and then make it a goal to move from one to the next as fast as possible. Ultimately, knowing just the right pace on a given route is a sense you will develop with experience. Practice climbing at different speeds and on different types of routes, and you’ll quickly foster the subtle skill of proper pace.

Strive for Steady Breathing
A steady flow of oxygen to the muscles is important for energy production and recovery, and it’s the slow, deep, steady belly breaths that best get the job done. Many climbers, however, have a tendency to shift into shallow, rapid breathing as fatigue and mental anxiety grow. Worse yet, some climbers unknowingly hold their breath at times of high stress. These are two tendencies that you must be aware of and proactively counteract if you are to climb your best.

Before every climb, pause to close your eyes and take several slow, deep breaths. Feel your belly expand outward as you slowly inhale, and then allow the air to escape sparingly through pursed lips in a slow ten-second count (count in your mind). As you commence climbing, strive to maintain the same slow, steady breathing that you initiated on the ground. This is, of course, often difficult, since a dicey sequence or strenuous move can trigger irregular breathing patterns. Consequently, it is critical that you use every rest position as an opportunity to reset your breathing cycle with a few slow, deep belly breaths. Such proactive breath control is like topping off your gas tank—do it frequently, and you’ll rarely hit empty.


Copyright 2012 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.