How Rock Climbers Spend Their Training Time

Most of us have full lives and struggle to find time to do all the things that we want or need to do. I find myself constantly having to make tradeoffs in how I spend my time to balance my work, family life, climbing, writing, and other pursuits. I’ll bet that you’re not that much different than I am when it comes to this situation.

In our book Vertical Mind, Jeff Elison and I provide a training framework based on psychological research that requires a climber to do drills to develop their abilities. I will sometimes hear that people want to implement the training, but just don’t have the time. To better understand how climbers spend their climbing time and training time, so that I could offer some tips to help, I conducted a survey of hundreds of climbers of all ages and abilities. This article summarizes what I found and offers some suggestions on how to find the time to implement the mental training drills that Jeff and I present in Vertical Mind.

In Vertical Mind, Jeff and I suggest that in order to accelerate your climbing development it is important to first understand where you should invest your training time. This will have you focusing on the areas which will yield the biggest return on investment for the time and energy invested. To understand how much time climbers spend analyzing their climbing to identify areas to focus on in their training, I asked the following question in my survey:

Survey Question #1: How much time each week do you spend analyzing your climbing so that you can adjust your training?

The results of the survey are shown in Figure 1. What caught my eye from Figure 1 is that over 50% of climbers spend less than 15 minutes per week analyzing their climbing to adjust their training. I suspect that if one of the choices in the survey were none, that most of this 50% would have had that answer. It seems to me that a climber who wants to improve would want to spend more than 15 minutes per week to understand how best to train and improve. I do know that most climbers want to improve based on a previous survey that I conducted and wrote about here on my masterrockclimber.com blog. In that survey, I found that more than half of climbers surveyed are motivated to train and climb by the joy of accomplishment.

Figure 1

I might be an oddball, but I have long been a believer in taking the time to work on improving myself. I think it started a long time ago when I was a young engineer and first read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. In it he tells the story of coming upon a man sawing a tree down. The man looked exhausted and Stephen asks the man how long he has been sawing at the tree. The man says that he has been at it for hours. Stephen suggests that maybe the man take a step back and try sharpening the saw, as it will probably make his task much easier. This “sharpen the saw” analogy has stuck with me ever since.

Something else struck me in Figure 1. Some people spend more than an hour a week thinking about their training. Could it be that these are the people we all envy? The ones who advance much more rapidly than we do? That’s maybe a topic for another survey.

Something that I do in my training in order to have time to do mental training drills is to use my warm-ups and times when I climb easy routes for the fun of it, in order to practice my drills. To understand how much time climbers devote to warming up and easy climbing for fun, I asked the following two questions in the survey:

Survey Question #2 and #3:

What percentage of your climbing time is devoted to warming up so that you can climb harder climbs?

What percentage of your climbing time is spent climbing easy routes just for the fun of climbing?

The results from these questions are shown in Figures 2 and 3. What these data suggest is that many climbers spend up to 25% of their climbing time warming up. If you climb 10 routes in a week, each having 50 moves, this translates to 125 moves that could be used to develop a specific technique to a much higher level of execution. This seems like a significant opportunity.

Figure 2

Maybe more surprising to me is how much time climbers spend climbing easy routes just for fun, which is shown in Figure 3. This is an ideal situation to practice drills to improve your climbing. I wrote about the importance of play in the learning process in this blog on masterrockclimber.com.

Figure 3

Some might argue that doing drills would diminish their fun. Maybe so. I think it boils down to whether you are motivated more by the joy of accomplishment or by the joy of climbing movement. According to the other survey I did for masterrockclimber.com, most climbers are motivated to train and climb due to the joy of accomplishment. If you are one of these climbers, you might want to consider using your warm up time and the time spent climbing easy routes for fun as opportunities to do drills that improve your climbing.

In Vertical Mind, Jeff and I suggest that drills and repetition are optimal ways to build scripts that improve your climbing. They take movements, thoughts, and emotions from your conscious mind to your subconscious, enabling you to execute them efficiently and reliably. You can read a lot more about this in Vertical Mind. You can also find out more in this blog I wrote on masterrockclimber.com.

To understand the amount of time that climbers devote to such drills, I asked the following question in the survey:

Survey Question #4

What percentage of your climbing time do you devote to doing drills to build specific skills?

The results are shown in Figure 4. This data shows that in general, climbers don’t tend to spend much of their time doing drills to improve their climbing. Nearly 70% spend less than 10% of their time climbing. Here too, I suspect that many climbers spend no time at all on drills. Drills may not be fun to do, but they are a proven way to accelerate climbing performance.

Figure 4

Given the amount of time that climbers spend warming up or climbing easy routes for fun, the reason can’t be that they don’t have time. Can it be that they don’t see the value? If so, we hope to change their minds with Vertical Mind, where we explain the psychological research behind why using drills to build scripts is the best way to accelerate your climbing performance.

I experienced this first-hand recently when I took a climbing movement class at my local climbing gym. The instructor had us doing repetitive drills focused on our footwork and our use of momentum. At the end of the four week class, I had sharpened the saw on these two critical skills. I wrote much more about this experience in this blog on masterrockclimber.com.

I hope you found this survey interesting. I certainly gained some insights into how climbers spend their time. My takeaway is that climbers who want to improve their climbing have a significant opportunity to do so by changing just a few behaviors. First, by taking at least 15 minutes per week to analyze their climbing to figure out where they should invest their time and efforts, they will improve more rapidly. One suggestion that Jeff and I give in Vertical Mind is to ask your climbing partner for feedback on areas that they think would be good for you to focus on. Then set your mind to working on improving in one of those areas.

Use your warm-ups and time that you spend climbing easy routes for fun to practice drills in the area you have identified as a focus area. If footwork in the area, in your warm-ups and on easy routes practice careful and precise footwork placement. If relaxation and resting is the focus area, find restful positions and really focus on keeping your arms straight and practicing shaking techniques.

Practice these drills consistently and you will rewrite the scripts that you have that drove your old behaviors. You will find that over time, you will exhibit the newly developed skills without having to think about them. You will have successfully built more effective scripts that will have you climbing better.

But don’t stop there. Work on another skill, and then another. Continuing to sharpen your saw and become a better and better climber, hopefully getting more and more joy out of the pursuit that both you and I love…climbing!

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