Neil Gresham's Guide to Self Coaching

Article by Neil Gresham
Monday 2nd November 2009

A Short Introduction To Self Coaching:

Choosing The Right Approach

Most climbers still scorn the idea of applying a rigid structure or schedule to climbing, either through fear that a more formal approach might remove some of the fun, though more likely to excuse their lack of motivation. Afterall, coordinating the multitude of complex and contrasting performance variables in climbing can be an overwhelming task. Yet a degree of forward planning in your climbing can enable you to achieve some amazing results which simply are not possible with a hit-&-miss approach.

A typical modern plywood training board, as found in many climbing and bouldering walls in the UK: using a resource like this with a clear training strategy will produce far better results than a casual approach. Photo: copyright Adrian Croome

Why Organise Your Climbing?

A personalised training schedule is progressive and will allow you to peak at certain periods of the climbing year and to emphasise areas of climbing fitness that you wish to focus on. Get fit for a sport climbing holiday, strong for a bouldering comp, or improve your power endurance for redpointing. You can also use it as a tool to help you address those nagging weaknesses in your performance which you find it so easy to ignore. A training schedule will also help you stay motivated and get to the wall on those nights when you can't be bothered.

Forget being a slave and having every second dictated to you, a good schedule is always sufficiently flexible and versatile to incorporate minor day-to-day variations and changes of mood or plan. Similarly, don't worry about boredom or loss of enjoyment - a  well thought out plan will actually increase your repetoire of routine sessions and help you explore new avenues which you may otherwise have failed to consider.

Above all there is the need to fit climbing into the chaos of every day life. Most of us have far less time to dedicate to climbing than the ideal World provides and a training schedule will help you get maximum value for time even if it's as little as a few hours a week. Although it may seem like hassle in the short term, a few hours worth of plans and some dedication to follow them will make the results so much more rewarding when they eventually come.

Kitty Wallace maximising the training effect on a long endurance circuit at the Westway, London. Photo: copyright Adrian Croome

The Four Fundamentals Of Personalised Training

1: Plan and review

Despite anything the experts tell you, the best person to learn from is yourself. Keep a training diary and learn from your own mistakes and successes as part of a continuous feedback loop. Identify the periods when you performed well or badly, analyse the possible reasons and incorporate them into future plans.

2: Avoid underesting

The line between peak performance and the onset of serious injury is so easily crossed. A thoroughly planned training schedule should rank each session on a severity scale (usually from 1, the easiest, to 4, the most intense) and intesperse them with appropriate rest periods for optimum recovery. If you keep notes you can also provide your own check system to help you stay out of trouble. 

Having adequate rest from training is as important as having adequate rest from actual climbing: without it, your performance will take a major nose-dive. In the photo above, Sam Whittaker visualises the moves on a project during a rest day in Spain. Image: copyright David Pickford (

3: Maintain momentum and progression

Any phase of training should be started slowly, carefully and at a lower level of intensity to that which you finished a previous phase. Build-up from here progressively, start to train harder, longer and more frequently until the phase reaches an intensity climax, then taper off into a rest period before the next phase training phase commences.

4: Keep strategic variety

If you continue to plug away with the same old training routine your body's level of responsiveness will reduce over time and you will start to plateau. Avoid stagnation with the strategic use of variety. Try fingerboards and weights instead of bouldering to 'shock the system' or try circuits on the bouldering wall instead of routes on the leading wall to spice up your endurance work. However, don't over do it so as to confuse your body - see each theme out to it's conclusion and then move on just as you start to stagnate..


Periodised training - a logical solution

Periodisation involves training on a series of hierarchical scales or cycles. These can be planned on a daily, weekly, monthly or even on a yearly basis, depending on the level of commitment and motivation of the individual.

1) Training units

Firstly some terminology. In periodised training we talk of training units as opposed to sessions. A training unit is a single session of practice which has a specific purpose or objective. For example, a bouldering session in which the aim is to work on short powerful problems. Clearly a day spent at the crag which involved bouldering in the morning, a lunch break and then some routes in the afternoon could be regarded as involving two separate training unit interspersed with a short rest unit. In attempting to organise their training, it is not surprising that coaches and athletes avoid using the term 'training session' as this clearly leads to some confusion. For example, in a training week, one climber may be performing one training unit per day, for six days of the week whereas another climber may be performing three training units a day on only two days of the week.

2) Microcycles

A microcycle is an organised group of training units (of approximately one week in length) whose purpose is to enable optimal value to be obtained from each of those units. The most significant variable in the structure of a microcycle is the ratio between the number of training units and the number of recovery units. Recovery between units must always be long enough to enable effective performance and this can only be determined on a subjective basis with practice over time. Both full and 'active' rest units should be incorporated where appropriate.

Remember that very intensive power-training methods such as campus boarding can require more recovery units than more conventional wall-based training. Photo: copyright Adrian Croome

In short, full rest is best used after heavy strength sessions or immediately after detecting an injury, active rest is best after medium intensity sessions or for rehabilitating an injury, or in conjunction with stamina training). The extent to which units are linked together or separated by blocks of rest will clearly be a product of the nature of those units are and their overall stress affect. In short, contrasting training units can invariably be linked together with less rest than training units which tax equivalent energy systems. For example, tecnical slabby bouldering can easily preceed a hard redpoint whereas steep pumpy endurance climbing would be ill advised!

The structure of loading principle

Ensuring that the different types of climbing are organised in the appropriate chronological order for maximum training affect is perhaps the crux issue of compiling any training schedule. So often you hear climbers discussing the issue of when or when not to train, for example, strength and stamina in relation to each other. The answer to this is to adhere to a simple 'intensity scale' where shorter, high intensity, activities such as bouldering and strength training should always preceed longer lower intensity, activities such as stamina training. This is true both within training days and between them and sample layouts for each are given below.

3) Macrocycles

A series of microcycles that are repeated in the interest of emphasising a common training theme is known as a macrocycle. For example, a weekly microcycle which includes predominantly anaerobic endurance units will, if repeated several times, have a cumulative training affect which shows a definitive bias, thus determining the nature and title of the overall macrocycle. It is preferable not to extend a macrocycle beyond a period of roughly 3 months as this will cause bost mental and physical stagnation to set in.

Planning a macrocycle - prioritised phasing

In training for any sport which involves a wide range of skills, there is the obvious risk that losses and gains will occur simultaneously. That is to say, when we are training purely stamina we will lose strength or when we are working only our fitness aspects we will lose technique. If we train in 'blocks' where macrocycles are devoted exclusively to one form of training then clearly we will lose out on others.

The answer is to organise a macrocycle to allow specialisation in one aspect, whilst simultaneously maintaining all other apects as far as possible. This simply involves biassing the total number of training units towards the overall goal of the phase whilst splitting the remainder of the time up between all other aspects. For example, in a 4 week macrocycle that was prioritised towards stamina, you may aim to complete 10 stamina training units, 4 strength training units and 4 anaerobic endurance units. This will allow improvements in stamina whilst strength and anaerobic endurance stay 'topped-up'. A macrocycle could also balance all three components in even quantities for the truly balanced climber who has no major weaknesses and who aspires to improvve their 'all-round performance'.

The 'peaking cycle'

A peaking cycle is a series of linked macrocycles, designed to maximise either all-round or specific performance, at given points throughout the climbing year. For example, you may wish to do be at full power for the Winter bouldering comps and then take a break before reaching a stamina peak mid-season on the crag.

Dani Andrada, one of the world's best sport climbers, putting it all together at peak performance on a 9a+ project through the roof of the huge cave of Sector Ventanas, Mascun, Spain. Image: copyright David Pickford (

Constructing a peaking cycle

The length of time that a peak can be sustained is proportional to the duration of the peaking cycle which precedes it. Quite simply, the longer the build-up, the longer the peak. Many climbers will also find it desirable to have several mini-peaks for 'off-season' activities within their overall peaking phase during the training season. This can be achieved most conveniently by coinciding these smaller peaks with the end of each macrocycle in the overall peaking cycle. For example, a mini-peak for a bouldering competition could come at the end of a strength and power macrocycle and a mini-peak for a leading competition could come at the end of an anaerobic endurance macrocycle. As a rough guide though, overall Peaking cycles should be anything between 4 and 8 months in length with resultant peaks of 2-3 weeks.

Sample 6 month peaking plan for 'all-round' performance

Training Macrocycles:

1) Stamina macrocycle                                                  
2) Strength & power macrocycle                    
3) Anaerobic endurance macrocycle                                    

Peaking Macrocycle

4) De-Specialisation phase - where intensity decreases but all 3 types of activity continue.
5) PEAK phase - where desired hard climbing activity takes place
6) Re-generation phase - where light recuperation / active rest takes place


We must accept that the curve for climbing improvement can never be straight, yet by structuring our training we will give ourselves the best chance of making it as free from sticking points as possible. Remember, don't try too hard to break the mould. Even if you are super-keen, you may have the sort of personality which detests any form of structure or regimentation in your life. In which case a spontaneous, day-to-day approach, guided by instinct and the underlying principles of training structure may be the only possible approach to maintain sanity.

For more information about Neil Gresham's performance coaching services and coaching holidays, visit

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