Midwinter is a great time to start thinking about getting the most out of your climbing wall sessions to stay on top form, and get even fitter for that next big trip. In fact, a strong focus on high-quality training in the dark months can make a huge difference to your outdoor climbing performance next summer!
This article is for anyone who wishes to use indoor leading walls to stay fit and get fitter through the winter months. It will look at how you can make the best use of indoor climbing wall facilities to replicate the kind of climbing that need to do to maintain or increase your level of fitness. I hope it will give some pointers as to how to spice things up a bit so you don't get jaded climbing the same old routes or bouldering wall circuits.
What this article does not cover is how to structure your training, and at what intensity and durations are required, Neil Gresham's article on self-coaching is available here and is essential reading in conjunction with this.
It is common sense that the more your indoor sessions mimic your desired outdoor climbing, the more effective it will be at improving your fitness, or at least maintaining it through the winter. The development of indoor leading walls has gone a long way towards making the indoors more closely resemble routes outdoors, but it is unlikely that simply going to the wall and climbing a series of routes will do you justice - unless you are very lucky and your local wall is a carbon copy of the sort of routes you want to be fit for.
Looking out across the ridiculously steep tufas of the Grande Grotte in Kalymnos. The very long and juggy (40m+) pitches on crags such as this are almost impossible to train for on a conventional leading wall: other training techniques such as linked circuits must be applied to replicate the length of huge endurance routes.
Here are some of the features of indoor wall routes that you might want to think about in planning your indoor climbing sessions:
Angle and Size of Holds
Indoor routes tend to be steep, and generally juggy, because those routes are fun to climb and make good use of the space available. With few exceptions, routes outdoors are not that steep, and the holds tend to be more complicated and -let's face it - poor! Now ask yourself this question: when you are climbing near your limit on a route outdoors, which part of your body is the weakest link? If you're anything like most climbers, your weakest link will be your finger strength endurance - you get pumped until you can't hold on any more. Steep indoor routes on jugs are not going to do much for your finger strength.
Top Training Tip 1: If you find yourself getting pumped switch to using bigger holds on the same line if there is one, or lower off and re-evaluate your choice of route. Dogging your way to the top is not going to help!
The bottom line is: resist the temptation to focus primarily on the steepest part of the wall, to work on your weakest link, you will probably get better results by spending your time on vertical to slightly overhanging terrain and smaller holds than cranking out jugs on wildly steep routes.
Holds waiting to be placed on a bouldering wall: putting some thought into the weaknesses you want to train, and the sort of holds you need to be climbing on in order to do that will be time well spent.
One of the best things about indoor leading walls is that they are generally much higher than traditional bouldering walls, where the only way of training endurance is traversing. Climbing walls are getting higher and higher, and a rough survey of some of the UK's biggest walls found this range:
Top Training Tip 2: Try using a watch to time how long you spend on routes, both indoors and outside - you may well be surprised by how much longer you spend on routes outdoors than indoors.
Even if you could find an indoor leading wall that was the height of the routes you are training for, endurance training is more concerned with the time you spend than the distance or number of moves. The main difference between an onsight ascent of a route and a redpoint is the time it takes, with more knowledge, less mistakes are made, and more precious time is saved. So whereas the advice outside is to climb as quickly as you reasonably can, when training endurance you need to take things more slowly.
In Neil Gresham's article Stamina & Endurance Training, climbing durations of up to 30 minutes are suggested to get the most from endurance training. Indeed, if you analyse how long you spend hanging off the holds on a typical route outside, compared to inside you will quickly realise what is needed.
If you typically spend 30 minutes upwards on the routes you choose outside, then it makes sense to spend that amount of time continuously climbing during your indoor training sessions. This is especially important in Britain where much of the climbing involves long pitches which are protected by hard-to-find and hard-to-place gear, and the climbing itself is technical and very time consuming. Spending over an hour on a long pitch is not unusual, and the time will pass much more quickly - an hour indoors feels like a lifetime - just try climbing indoors continuously for fifteen minutes - you will certainly need a patient training partner!
Kitty Wallace training endurance on a long circuit at the Westway, London: try and aim to spend at least 15-20 minutes on an endurance circuit and rest for at least twenty minutes between attempts.
Top Training Tip 3: On a lead wall, don't top-rope where you can lead, making all the clips will slow you down and make it more realistic. If down-climbing, stop to make all the clip - this will also stop you swinging out on steeper routes.
By now it should seem like common sense that climbing 16m indoor routes that take less than five minutes to complete is not going to help prepare oneself for spending an hour battling up a 50m trad route. Most climbers would benefit hugely by going about their indoor leading wall sessions more carefully, and should consider increasing the volume and reducing the intensity of their chosen indoor training routes. By using the following ideas it should be possible to create the perfect indoor training 'route', whilst keeping the session fun and challenging.
Once you have identified the angle and hold size that most closely mimics the rock routes you want to succeed on, you need to tailor the length of climbs to match. In most circumstances this will involve adding length, but if you are training specifically for say a 10m route, and your leading wall is 20m high, then there is no rule that says you have to get to the top!
In the climbing video 'One Summer' Ben Moon attempts a long endurance 9a 'route' by combining a hard low traverse with a route at Raven Tor, in the Peak District. This is a traverse-in, and a great way of making an indoor wall route longer than the height of the wall. Mark up a traverse of a difficulty in keeping with the rest of the route, which ends at the base of the route. Tie in first, then just traverse in to the start holds of the route, and keep on going! Some climb walls have strict policies about bouldering on the leading walls, so worth checking that this isn't going to cause problems, and, needless to say, it's not the wisest thing to do when the wall is busy. If you are likely to fall off the first few moves of the route (which indicates that the route is too hard) then it would be a good ideas to get the first few clips in before setting off.
Being able to down-climb is a useful skill in its own right, whether you use it tactically on a route at your limit, or to retreat from a dangerous situation. Down-climbing is also a simple way of adding length to an indoor wall route. Even though the intensity is reduced due to the assistance of gravity, the workload on your fingers will be enough to add important extra duration to your effort.
On most walls it will be possible to lead to the belay on one route, then traverse to the belay on a neighbouring route which you can down-climb to add variety. This is best done when the wall is quiet, and never clip two ropes through the same lower-off.
All modern indoor leading walls have colour coded set routes, which are graded to help you choose a route. This is helpful, but shouldn't dictate what you do. A fun way of varying your training is to try a line using all the holds - it works best where the individual routes that follow the line are harder than you would ordinarily try - so for example, if you were training around f6a, and you're getting bored with the existing 6a's then why not follow a line which has a 6b and a 6b+ on it, and use all the holds to find a way to the belay? This is also a good onsight test as the hold choice is so much wider - just like outside. If using the holds of more than one route for hands and feet is too easy, then why not try limiting your hands to one colour, and your feet to all the colours - do whatever you can to 'create' a route of the right level of difficulty. Walls that have large features add a further dimension to the game, add or remove them (not physically!) as you need.
Conversely, to make things harder, you can bar the use of features for feet, or if there are plenty of features, use features only for feet. You don't have to use a leading wall to get a great endurance training session, indeed top competition climbers - who should know more about endurance training than most - principally use circuits on bouldering walls. Most of the comments above regarding choosing the right angle and hold size apply equal well to circuit training on bouldering walls.
Charlie Woodburn training endurance on a very long (80 move) circuit at Boulders Climbing Wall in Cardiff.
Top Training Tip 4: To slow down circuits on a bouldering wall, place a series of quickdraws and clip them as you go with a short piece of rope tied to your waist. If your bouldering wall has holes for 10mm bolts, then most bolt hangers will fit perfectly - you could even use some really long hanging draws for some tricky clips!
Clearly a 'nails-hard' board where you train pure finger strength and power is probably going to be too hard to climb around for in excess of five minutes (!), so make sure there are enough reasonably big holds - but not too many jugs.
An ideal home training board for both circuits and shorter problems: it is not excessive steep and has a variety of angles (including a horizontal roof on bigger holds) so circuits can be created with a variety of climbing styles, which replicates longer pitches that often have contrasting sections. Photo: copyright Adrian Croome
The next thing you need to do is mark out circuits, a circuit is a series of at least twenty moves that start and end in the same place. A good circuit wall will have several circuits of varying difficulty that all start and end in the same place, this way you can link them together to create the perfect training 'route'.
TOP TIP FOR CREATING THE ULTIMATE TRAINING CIRCUIT: As with training on leading routes, you can tweak the circuit by introducing rules about which footholds can and cannot be used - the more strict you are with feet, the closer it will be to the real thing, and the more you will work your leg muscles, core strength, and technical ability.
With circuits, it is important to closely monitor the time you spend on them, as increased familiarity will mean you can complete the circuit more quickly, reducing the work you fingers have to do - which after all is the object of the exercise. By varying the speed at which you climb, and introducing pauses between, and during the moves, you can more closely resemble climbing routes - the slower you climb, the more you benefit your onsight climbing, and the faster you climb, the more you gain for redpoint climbing.
Top Training Tip 4: Slow down! The temptation is always to climb too quickly on terrain that you are familiar with - but here your finger strength endurance is the target, not your speed climbing ability.
If you want to train endurance on a bouldering wall, but don't have circuits, or want to spice things up a bit and are training with a partner of an even standard, then some games can be used, here are a couple of good ones:
The Stick Game / 'Pointer'
All you need is a long stick, a toothbrush extender is ideal. In this game you take turns to direct each other Your partner points out the next hold for you to use, and so you get a more 'onsight' experience. If the holds are all obviously named, then you could leave out the stick.
This can be an exhausting exercise, so a group of 3 or more is recommended to ensure you get enough rest. Start off with a few easy moves, then take turns to complete the problem, and when you get to the last hold, add another move to it, then step off. This is a great exercise to finish your warm up with, and is also a good memory exercise. If adding only one move at a time seems too slow, then by all means add two or more.