You might ask yourself what’s the difference between bouldering and performance bouldering? It certainly crossed my mind when asked to write this article. Performance is a relative and personal thing. When exactly the moment changes for one person could be different for the next.
For me bouldering just used to be something to do after work, or what everyone else did at the climbing wall in winter. My focus was always routes, but there came a point when key boulder problems such as West Side Story (Font 7b+) or Not To Be Taken Away (Font 6c) in the Peak District suddenly seemed equally worthwhile to the routes that I had my eye on. Some boulder problems simply focussed my day whilst others became long-term goals.
Overall I needed to focus. I needed to channel my technique and training in one direction, whereas previously I had been drifting. In my opinion this is what performance bouldering is – when you personally channel yourself to a key end goal. That could be Brad Pit (Font 7c+) at Stanage or the yellow overhang at the wall. When you get into this mindset, you will start on the road to becoming a performance boulderer. What it is not, however, is worrying about conditions, slopers or getting your video camera out. Anyone can talk the talk. Performance bouldering is about achieving something you have set your sights on and getting the most out of yourself. So how do you reach your target?
More often than not people think that being good at bouldering is all about being very strong. Clearly this helps, but power and strength are often nothing without technique - head to Fontainebleau or climb on the grit for a lesson. And if your chosen boulder problem is an arête, then no amount of crimp training on 45-degree boards will help you keep the barndoor at bay and ensure that the weight is through your feet correctly. And technique can’t be ignored indoors either, as any competition climber will tell you. They’ll spend half their time hooking heels and toes. You need a load of tricks up your sleeve, and you need to be able to think laterally. There are no rules in climbing and especially bouldering. Knees, jumps, upside down, toe hooks – it’s all good. Experiment.
Training is only worthwhile if it’s tailored to an end goal. Once you are clear about that, the rest will follow. The key thing is to consider your aim (such as a specific problem or a trip to Fontainebleau) and then think about what is required. If you’re aiming for a slopey grit mantle, then recreate this at your local wall. If this style of problems doesn’t exist ask your friendly wall setter if they will set some - or change walls. At the start the grade will be irrelevant - if it’s a weakness you just need to climb as much as you can on them. But if your trip is to say, Magic Wood in Switzerland or Hueco Tanks in Texas where it’s all crimpy overhangs, then ignore those slopers. You need to be training on overhangs, using fingerboards and doing core body exercises to improve your body tension. Don’t ignore your weaknesses, they’ll just let you down in the end.
Bouldering is dangerous! It’s totally addictive -so you end up bouldering all the whole time and end up burnt out with a ton of injuries. Stack the odds in your favour with some basic periodisation. Take a second to think about your year, and your training. Plan in sufficient rest days and periods, and add in plenty of cross training (routes, running etc). Be realistic. Even if grit is your thing, there’s no point being awesome on slopers in July when it’s just too hot. Remember that rest is crucial. A frenzied week of last-minute training just before you leave is just likely to make you very tired when you arrive.
Your head can play as many tricks on you when you are bouldering as when you are doing routes. You might not be scared (unless you are on a highball) but there are others things going on that you might not be aware of. Bouldering is all about pulling, and focussing, 100%. Not only do you need to go for it, but you need to really want to do it. Trying hard can often be the reason one person gets up something and the next doesn’t. Your mind needs to be free and clear and you can’t forget what you’re doing half way through. Talk to competition climbers and they’ll often tell you that not having the right mindset can be the crucial difference between success and failure. Being focussed doesn’t mean having no fun, but clearing your mind before trying a hard problem reaps benefits. Chatting with your mate whilst on the problem is unlikely to lead to your best performance.
Get some good boots - holes and loose, floppy rubber just don’t work.
Katherine Schirrmacher is a highly experienced coach, as well as a successful climber in many facets of the sport. Find out more at www.lovetoclimb.co.uk
This issue the training expert is Adrian Baxter. Living in London, Adrian is known for his enthusiastic training regimes. He has bouldered Font 8a+ and came 2nd in the British Lead Climbing Competition this year.
Q. What’s the best way to improve my finger strength?
A. Use a fingerboard and download a good training schedule (e.g. from www.metolious.com) - but warm up thoroughly and don’t push it too hard too soon.
Q. How can I push my bouldering without injury?
A. Warm up slowly, for at least 30 minutes. Stop training when you’re still feeling relatively strong. Stretch every muscle group you’ve trained after your session. Most importantly listen to your body - if it’s tired or aches then don’t climb.
Q. How long should you rest after a hard bouldering session?
A. You shouldn’t really climb between 36 to 48 hours after a hard boulder session. You need all of this time to recover and repair. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other forms of training though like running though.
Q. I can’t get to a wall - are there any other exercises I can do?
A. Loads. One of the most important yet neglected areas you can train for climbing is body tension, or core body strength. After a few weeks of doing sets of sit-ups, leg raises, static hold ups and circles, you’ll notice a difference and find it much easier to keep your feet on overhanging rock and hold strenuous body positions. Also, get a pull up bar - it’s amazing what simply doing some dedicated sets of pull ups and lock offs for a few weeks can do.
Q. How hard can the average climber boulder with a bit of dedication?
A. Font 7a. Only joking. There’s no answer as everyone is different and has different commitments and priorities. But to reach your potential, dedication is the key. I’ve found that it’s all about regular training - going hell for leather for a month and then burning out and not climbing for the next month will get you nowhere. Make sure you train regularly and give yourself set goals.
Q. Are protein shakes any good?
A. I personally think they are. They won’t make you instantly stronger but they will help you recover quicker, so you can climb more often. And if you have a busy lifestyle or are a hopeless cook (like me), they’re a sure fire way of getting the ingredients you need to recover after a training session. I use Maximuscle’s Promax shakes.
Q. Any other tips?
A. Motivation is the most important factor if you want to get good. You can have loads of natural talent but without motivation you’ll get nowhere. I’ve seen complete naturals give up because they’ve realised they’d have to start putting concentrated effort into their climbing. And remember, if you want to improve, you’ll get the greatest improvements by working on your weaknesses. It’s a really hard thing to do but if you can spend just 15 to 30 minutes working on them each time you climb it will make a huge difference.