Speed in Sport Climbing: Using Speed to Increase Climbing Ability
Speed in Sport Climbing: Using Speed to Increase Climbing Ability
written by Matt Lloyd
The best climbers in the world share a certain climbing trait. It’s something you probably don’t often consider when assessing your own progress and performance; and it’s probably simpler than you might expect. So, what is this vital component to performance and how do I incorporate it into my own climbing practice?
Speed. The best climbers in the world are averaging an upward speed that is about a 1/3 faster than their amateur counterparts. Put simply, we all have a limited amount of time that we are able to hold on, and the less of it we waste with slow or inefficient climbing, the more we can put it to productively moving up the rock. Here’s how to take the speed technique to the bank (hint: it starts with going faster!).
This data was collected by watching and timing video samples of climbers on varying sport climbing routes from 5.9 to 5.15, both on real rock and outside. The source videos encompass a broad, random selection of climbing across gender, location, and style. In each video, I tracked the average number of hand movements a climbers accomplishes over a period of time extrapolating the average pace of the climber, excluding deliberate/intentional rests. I recorded only upward-positive movement. I also simultaneously tracked how often a climber adjusted their hands (a non-productive climbing movement) and how long their average rests were.
The observations of my research speak volumes. The better the climber (i.e the harder they climb) the faster and more efficiently they move. 5.14 climbers are averaging nearly 16 moves per minute, even during onsight and personal limit climbs. Climbers who are getting on (and sending) routes harder than 5.14, climb quickly and with urgency. They do pause and rest (to shake out), but those rests are deliberate and spread out between faster sections of climbing. Basically, when they climb, they climb quickly, when they rest, they rest deliberately. They don’t touch holds more than once, meaning they grab a hold and don’t re-adjust, they just move on to the next hold, increasing their efficiently. In contrast to this, climbers in the 5.9 range often average about half the speed of a 5.14 climber, accomplishing about 8-10 moves per minute. They pause randomly and very often touch holds more than once before settling onto them, ultimately adding to the time spent to complete the climb.
After seeing the evidence I believe it’s time to incorporate speed into our training for climbing performance. For years, coaches and climbers have advocated a slow and smooth climbing style when the evidence just doesn’t support it as being helpful to performance.
Here are 5 tips to help you capitalize on speed:
1. Climb as fast as possible without losing focus of your technique. What does this actually mean? Sometimes it’s ok to cut your feet or swing, provided you can move into the next move faster (aka more efficiently) and with momentum/intention. In assessing whether or not the cost of some lost control is outweighed by the improved efficiency, remember that forearms tend to be the limiting factor. Spending additional effort in your core or biceps (while swinging) can give your forearms a rest from holding on through a more controlled movement.
2. Rest only when it makes sense and climb fast during the crux. This technique works for the same reason as #1 above, it gives those forearms a break. How do you do this? Avoid taking rests on subpar holds, and sprint through the more difficult sections. This makes sense, but it’s not as prevalent as you might imagine. Despite what you might expect, most climbers do the opposite and end up somehow climbing slowly during the most difficult sections of routes. Start just by noticing where you’re spending your time, where you’re moving fast, and where you’re moving slow. Trust me, this one can pay off big once you start to execute it.
3. Practice; and by that I mean practice climbing fast! In order to execute with speed on more difficult routes, train your body by moving as quickly as you can on climbs below your max. Pick routes with moves you feel very controlled on and climb them fast! This teaches your body as well as your mind what it feels like to move fast while maintaining good technique. You have to practice and know the feeling of speed before you can apply it at your limit.
4. Don’t listen to your mind so much. This one reminds me of that somewhat annoying cliche so often touted in yoga classes. Your mind gives out before your body. More often than not, the ‘need’ to slow down and observe is mental. When you’re scared, amped, or uncertain, your instinct is to stop and collect your thoughts. This is almost always unnecessary and is really a sub-point to #3 above. If you force your mind to cope with increased speeds and stimulus (think race car drivers), it will eventually adjust to the increased speed. When you start moving beyond your comfort pace don’t be deterred if at first it feels detrimental to your climbing (it will), stick it out and try to be a bit objective here. Trust the numbers.
5. Be efficient and don’t make unnecessary movements. If it doesn’t move you up the rock face, don’t bother doing it. This one makes sense too, but it can be hard to execute without taking an honest assessment of how you currently climb. How many little adjustments do you make on each hold looking to find that “sweet” spot? These types of adjustments are unnecessary and inefficient actions that slowly deplete your energy. Watch the pros again and you will find that they just flat out don’t do this. So just focus on grabbing, pulling, and repeating. Stop messing around searching for the perfect feeling hold.
How should I train to climb faster?
To truly train for increased speed (or anything really), it’s important to set a baseline and track/follow something measurable, in this case, productive hand moves per minute of climbing.
Establishing your baseline of climbing speed takes a bit of time and effort, but doing so will be by far the best way to measure improvement over time. Simply making an effort to climb faster will provide some positive results, but if you really want to get serious, you’ll want to invest in finding your baseline speed.
With a partner, find and climb three routes that are very near your peak ability level (pick routes just below the hardest grade you can climb).
Have your partner time and count your hand movements over the each climbs (if you fall record up until that point). Only record functional movement, so if you grabbed a hold but didn’t use it, it doesn’t count. Count only the moves that resulted in upward progress. Disregard clipping and foot movement.
Take your number of hand movements and divide it by the number of minutes the climb took you. Find this for each climb. Then add them all up and divide that by 3 to get the average of the three routes.
Use this number for future training, this will be HSA – Hand Speed Average. Your goal is to improve this number with only a minimal technique loss.
Figure out what 25% above your HSA is. HSA x 1.25. This is the number of productive hand moves per minute you’d need to complete to climb 25% faster.
Do this for 50% (HSA x 1.5) and 75% (HSA x 1.75).
During your warm up start focusing on an increased HSA. Try doing the first route at your HSA, the 2nd route at +25% , the 3rd at +50%, and the 4th at +75% (pick routes that you can accomplish with the added speed requirements, they might need to be considered easier routes for you). We generally learn things at lower levels and only after mastering them can we effectively apply them to our peak performance. Expect a significant loss in your ability over your first few speed sessions.
After warming up, attempt your project route (something that’s at or above your max ability). Attempt it on lead if you are comfortable but top rope would also be acceptable and might even be ideal for this.
With adequate rest between efforts (up to 20-30 minutes even if needed) try the route three times, each time try to noticeably increase your speed. When you fall, rest and get back on trying to maintain the pace. You will learn to gauge your speed just by counting in your head and ultimately without much thought. The end goal will be to climb faster than necessary, which will make slowing down from +50% to +25% pace feel reasonable while remaining effective.
Keep in mind, it’s not necessarily about climbing a specific speed in order to send your route, but you might find it’s largely about climbing with intention while trying to send.
Be patient, enjoy the process of working towards improvements, and remember that climbing is meant to be fun!
Matt Lloyd is an owner of a climbing training and CrossFit gym, Mountain Strong Denver. He has been climbing nearly two decades, has climbed 5.14, and prides himself on always being ready to rock and doing whatever it takes to succeed.
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