Monday, June 22, 2015

Make or Break by Dave Macleod: A Review

Rating: 5 stars
Summary: Must have book for anyone seriously involved in high-end sport climbing or bouldering, extremely useful for any climber who wants to understand the physiology of climbing injuries

In the recent Bouldering World Cup at Vail, there were four injuries serious enough for competitors to have to pull out of finals, perhaps the most spectacular being Alex Puccio's knee getting hurt in iso. There's a short story on this on All these climbers were experienced, very strong and as far as I know were professionally coached. Yet they fell prey to the specter of injury. It's unlikely that you have not already suffered something similar or know someone who has within the last year.

Climbing injuries, as in any sport, are a simple fact of life. Rarely do serious climbers go for too long without something turning up and given the increasingly extreme body positions, dynamic movement, and of course ever smaller holds, this tendency is not likely to go away any time soon. Climbing at a high level imply demands a great deal from body parts not intended for that level of stress. So the question is, "How can I manage the risk of injury while still training and working on harder climbs?" And the answer to this is not simple. There are no shortcuts or easy solutions, no wonder salves or miracle devices that will remedy climbing injuries.

Dave coming off surgery for his ankle

The master of writing about things in climbing that have no easy solutions is, in my opinion, Dave MacLeod. There is no better writer in English on the subject of getting better in climbing, and I cannot think of any with a better track record on hard routes of every type, including hard bouldering. In his book, 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, he delivered a clear message that if you want to get better you need to take a clear, objective look at what you are doing wrong. This could mean some fairly harsh self-appraisal in the process.

In his new book Make or Break: Don't Let Climbing Injuries Dictate Your Success, he takes a similar tack, encouraging climbers to look at all the dimensions of injury, especially climbing and training practices and attitudes that increase the chances of injury. He writes, "Even though injuries often seem to be an accidental misfortune it is likely that the causes are are things under your control. You just didn't know it."

Finding the balance between healthy productive training and climbing and injury-provoking unproductive training and climbing has long been the holy grail of serious climbers. The internet and social media has complicated this quest by dumping dozens of possible approaches, many of them without context or explanation and often in the form of "training" videos that showcase the abilities of marquee climbers to do one-arm campus boarding or one-finger front levers or whatever. Training for climbing however is a much more complicated process than imitating the achievements of the famous. A World Cup champion told me recently that the things he did in one of these videos were the result of years of careful training and preparation and certainly not to be imitated without a similar period of training.

Climbing in particular is, as MacLeod puts it, at an "embryonic stage" when it comes to understanding its biomechanical principles. Only recently, for example, have researchers begun to understand the physiology of tendon overuse injuries. Figuring out the best ways to productively stress body tissue and perhaps more importantly, productively recover from these stresses is still in an incipient state. The media reports breathlessly about the latest greatest sends and sponsors are eager to tout their athletes' strength and achievements. Sometimes it seems like all we have to do is go "a muerte" and miracles will happen. MacLeod reminds us that more likely than not, the bill will come due sooner or later, regardless of age or skill level, unless we correctly manage the stresses of training and climbing.

For MacLeod, the key elements for injury prevention are self-knowledge combined with a constant vigilance for bad technique and an awareness of the most likely scenarios for injury. Managing expectations for training and climbing is a critical component for navigating the path between productive and injurious stress. Awareness of good body, limb, and hand positions as opposed to mechanically disadvantageous ones is critical to learning the most efficient movement pathways. Often overlooked are tactical strategies. Shoe fit, chalk, impromptu competitions, climbing when tired, all can play a role in setting up the conditions for a serious injury. Finally adequate attention needs to be paid to posture and resting. As Macleod writes, "Amateurs are essentially trying to lead a double life, one with family and work commitments and another of training." Multiple non-athletic stresses can add up to poor physical and psychological recovery, chief among which is lack of sleep. Lack of mental clarity and focus can cause significant issues while training and climbing.

But what if you do get injured? What then? How can you recover effectively and as quickly as possible. Again Macleod's advice is realistic, accurate and well founded in personal experience, not mention a copious amount of reading in scientific and medical journals. Climbers are notorious for seeking out quick fixes for injuries and MacLeod discusses many of the more popular modes of therapy but with the cautionary note that "there is a gross lack of hard scientific research evidence for their effectiveness in achieveing long term recovery from soft tissue injuries." A similarly skeptical and conservative approach to drugs and surgery is expressed which is certainly to a climber's benefit owing to uncertain (except in obvious cases) benefit and problematic side effects. It's clear that the only effective approach to treatment is serious research and conversation with peers and medical professionals, the latter an especially dismal task in America given our haphazard and expensive medical "system."

A couple of effective and short chapters on the psychological dimension of injuries and special issue relating to youth climbers follows. The latter is an increasingly important aspect of climbing training, not least because relatively few youth coaches have any serious background in sport science at this point. I recommend this chapter especially to youth coaches and would be surprised if a proper text on youth climbing coaching doesn't appear soon. There is a real need for it.

The remainder of the book focuses on specific physical aspects of climbing injuries looking at typical problem spots such as elbows, shoulders, fingers and lower body areas, the latter being of particular interest to boulderers. Injuries to ankles and knees from impact upon landing are a serious problem. These chapters are invaluable reference points for climbers having to deal with the classic issues of elbow pain and finger pulley tears. Again MacLeod is not preenting magic cures or secret tricks, just thorough complete discussion of what we know and can do about these injuries.

I would unhesitatingly recommend this book both to climbers and health care workers interested in treating climbers. It is the best single authoritative resource in English on the subject from a climber with extensive personal experiences with injury (recounted in the back of the book) and experience at the top of the sport across multiple disciplines. It's not an inexpensive book but if it saves you the expense in terms of time, effort and hard cash that an injury can involve, it is well worth it. (Signed copies from Dave's shop)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Bouldering and its Physical Impacts: What Should We Know?

Climbing has reached new heights of visibility so to speak with the widespread media coverage of the Dawn Wall ascent earlier this year, an ascent where the strengths and skills developed through high-level bouldering played a major part (to be discussed in another post). In this country at least bouldering as a competition discipline appears to be much more popular than roped climbing and clearly a favorite for youth team training. In other words the future trajectory for bouldering participation appears to be on an upward trend (haha), which is a good thing.

Along with this popularity, however, there is going to have be a serious discussion of how gyms, youth coaches and the industry in general will mitigate the physical impact of bouldering going forward. This is a topic that is gaining increasing traction in youth football right now and there is considerable concern that parents will be reluctant to allow their children to play football for fear that irreversible brain damage could be a result of hard hits on the playing field. It has been suggested by Dave MacLeod in his new book Make or Break, that repeated impacts on young climbers could affect vulnerable growth plates, just as with finger overuse injuries, stunting the growth of the lower limbs.

It has long been noted that in bouldering, "Every fall is a ground fall" and the (under-reported) fact is that a fair number of old-school boulderers  are paying a significant price for the harder falls of the pre-pad generation. John Sherman, author of the "other" book on bouldering,  was taken to the hospital by myself and a friend after popping off a lowball traverse and bouncing his head on a slab at the base. This was one of several concussions he sustained. He has also had two hip transplants. I had a similar experience a couple of years ago in RMNP, ironically bouncing off a pad and winding up with six staples in my scalp.

It is a concern of mine that we are not anticipating carefully enough the long-term consequences of bouldering falls, not merely hard impacts as mentioned above but also the less-obvious impacts of repeated "safe" falls, especially in the gym. While I don't think they present the kind of threat posed by the collisions of tackle football, I also am not seeing any clear effort made by the climbing industry to fund scientific research on landing materials, landing configuration, wall construction, route setting and of course fall training as it relates to indoor climbing. This is critical because although outdoor falls present the apparently more dangerous outcomes, most falls occur in the confines of a gym where the convenience and apparent safety of a wall allow multiple repeated falls in a short span of time.

As a long-time boulderer myself, I have become increasingly aware of problematic trends in bouldering wall design that have the potential side-effects of promoting long-term chronic injury for their users. The first and foremost of these is height. Despite the glamorization of so-called highball bouldering in climbing media, there are certain basic laws of physics at work that cannot be ignored regarding mass acceleration and the impact forces that result. In a nutshell, the longer the fall the more intense the forces that must be absorbed upon impact.

These forces multiply very rapidly so that a fall of two meters has half the impact of a four meter fall, basically a doubling of impact force created by a negligible amount of additional vertical rise in climbing terms. You can check this out thanks to the Splat Calculator, a page posted by a climber. What this implies for a boulderer is that a common gym design, that is a steep lower wall followed by an upper more slabby portion, is tacking on vertical gain in such a way as to make that upper portion much  more dangerous in the event of a fall. This danger can be augmented even further by a problem set with a crux move near or at the end, raising the chances for a fall and even worse an out-of-control fall.

It's my view that bouldering gyms are now making walls that are much too high. Tall walls look better in photos and create an initial perception of adding value to the visitor's experience but for regular users may have the opposite effect, raising the chances for catastrophic acute injury and inevitably, and unnecessarily adding to the cumulative impacts of repeat falls and deliberate dismounts from the wall (as when a climber is forced to drop from the top). Ironically tall walls inhibit effective training for this reason as the climber pays a real physical cost for repeated impact in exchange for uncertain training benefit, especially with movement that is all too often affected by awareness of the wall height and the potential impact of a fall.

I hear from route setters and others that actually these walls aren't that high, remarks that are often tinged with a hint of young male bravado, implying that my concerns are a byproduct of timidity or cowardice. However, I have seen too many young climbers quit the sport for various reasons, especially injury, and have heard from too many older climbers who are intimidated precisely by the potential real-life consequences of an injurious fall to take these responses seriously. Regardless of one's reserves of courage, the laws of physics are strictly enforced in the event of a fall and it seems incumbent on gyms to maximize the well-being of their customers over the ego of the setters and wall designers.

Another issue is the landing surface and its configuration. While there are commonalities with gymnastics there are also significant differences as well, especially regarding the height and irregularity of the falls, not to mention the skill level of the athlete and lack of spotting. Basically bouldering gym flooring is in a state of infancy regarding its materials and how it is set up. Gyms want a surface that is safe and durable, two qualities that do not always coincide.

So what is to be done? Obviously the first option is the status quo which so far is building high walls and hoping for the best. In my view to do this is missing a great opportunity to seriously study the costs and benefits of different bouldering setups to find the one that best maximizes climbing potential and minimizes risk of injury, whether acute or chronic. The industry is currently on a binge of wall construction which provides a great laboratory for next generation walls and landings to build upon.

If you are a frequent boulderer and want to stay healthy, focus your training time on low-impact high difficulty problems that won't cause repeated high-impact falls. If you are motivated to work a particularly high problem, a good tactic to use inside is climbing up on big holds to establish on a high crux in a less tired state, so you learn the move quicker and are less likely to take repeated falls. Avoid gratuitously dangerous high moves such as big sideways dynos as they have a tendency to wreck shoulders and pitch climbers upside down. Outside, if feasible, working a highball on toprope is a really good idea to spare your ankles, knees, hips and back the repeated stress of landing. It goes without saying to pad things as well as possible. Lastly, inside or out, learn how to fall correctly, dissipating impact forces by rolling away from the landing whenever possible. Always analyse in advance the most likely places to fall and anticipate your possible body position in flight and at impact. A competent spotter can be a big help in limiting these forces as well. Good luck and safe bouldering!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Friction Labs Chalk Review

Friction Labs Chalk Review 

The logo for Friction Labs Unicorn Dust

For bouldering, there are three essential tools: shoes, chalk and pads. Of these three, shoes probably get the most attention which makes a certain degree of sense. But the fact is that most of us really have no clue about the nature of the stuff we put on our hands to keep them dry. I have been increasingly frustrated with the chalk manufactured and sold by the bigger names in the industry, noticing that its texture and drying power seemed "off" somehow. I was also concerned about the nature of the "drying agents" and the lack of transparency in regard to the actual ingredients involved. Some of this I addressed a few years back in a post called "The Chalk Review" 

Since then some better chalks have emerged including that branded and sold by Mammut which I have used successfully in the past. However the most interesting development is an entirely new company, based in Colorado, called Friction Labs which has basically taken the approach of creating and selling via mail-order pure pharmaceutical grade chalk designed specifically for different kinds of climbing situations.

Kevin at FL was kind enough to send some samples my way that I had the opportunity to try out over the past few months, mostly in RMNP and the gym. There are three varieties of texture called Bam Bam, Gorilla Grip, and Unicorn Dust. Across the board, I was struck immediately by the excellent "hand" of the different chalks, what I would describe as a dry and slightly tacky feel when your fingers rub together. This tended to remain the case when actually gripping holds even the slippery and conditions-dependent gneiss of Lower Chaos Canyon. Kevin at Friction Labs explained that the key is the high percentage of magnesium carbonate which acts to trap moisture inside the chalk. Other chalks contain larger amounts of calcium carbonate which lacks this absorbent capacity, not to mention other unspecified filler materials. I recommend you read the chemical analysis posted at the FL website, something that to my knowledge no other company has done previously.

Personally I preferred the chunkier harder texture of the Bam Bam variety but I recommend you try out each of the different textures to see which suits your skin and climbing style the best. The only caveat is the price as it is much more expensive than other climbing chalks. However the subscription plan price includes free shipping and handling, an arrangement which is a real plus in making sure you always have the good stuff at hand, so to speak. Otherwise if you are left at the mercy of the local climbing shop's stock, you may be stuck with one of the "other" chalks, something that I have found makes a real difference, especially if you are working problems right at your limit.

For serious climbers, I think this is a great development and a chance to help a small start-up providing a very high quality product and service at a reasonable price. If you are looking for an extra tool for getting better results from your valuable climbing time, I strongly recommend checking them out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual: A Boulderers Perspective

Images from the cover and contents of The Rock Climber's Training Manual

Over the past decade, Mark and Mike Anderson, brothers with a lengthy and substantial climbing record across disciplines, have been developing a training protocol called the Rock Prodigy Training Method. It’s clearly having results. For example, Mark has emerged as a very strong climber, repeating various testpieces here in Colorado and in Utah and Oregon, as well as doing 5.14 first ascents in places like Clear Creek Canyon and Shelf Road. When their book The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (referred to from here on out as TRCTM) came out I was very interested to see what they would come up with. As a climbing book author myself, I understand all too well the challenges inherent in gathering and presenting what can be at times a very complex subject.

Fixed Pin Publishing very kindly sent me a copy of tTRCTM for review and I was immediately impressed by the richness and finish of the book. The writing is very clear and the organization logical and coherent. The basic premise of the book is that climbing improvement is a quantifiable process and that a climber who wants to improve has to base that process on a predictable plan with measurable goals and benchmarks. I think on this level alone the book is very successful.

TRCTM is primarily intended for mid-level to advanced sport climbers, an audience that is more likely to be interested in the kinds of progression outlined in its pages. This is both its strength and weakness, at least as far as bouldering is concerned. The front cover and indeed many of the illustrations throughout the book are from the Red River Gorge and Smith Rock, areas that emphasize continuous endurance climbing and in the case of many routes in Smith, relatively low-angle technical small hold climbing. The Smith Rock photos especially give the book a bit of a retro feel, since the progression in high-end sport and bouldering in America has been on relatively steep power-endurance routes such as at Rifle or problems like those found in RMNP or Hueco Tanks.

The gist of TRCTM is that following periodized cycles of training will result in the greatest gains for your climbing, something that has been at the heart of most training books in English since the groundbreaking (and surprisingly current) Performance Rock Climbing by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann was published back in the 90s. Establishing levels of strength, power and power endurance by means of the hangboard and campus board along with regular trips to the gym are the heart of this training program. Reviewing the basic outline of the training programs in the book, I found the workout plans and tactics made sense, although I found the means by which one finds the optimal weight at which to train on a fingerboard not entirely easy to understand. I am terrible with charts and graphs, though. Everything is presented in a relatively logical and analytical fashion and this is reassuring to anyone embarking on a training plan. It’s a solid and comprehensive guide to getting better, no question, especially for sport climbing.

For the specific pursuit of bouldering however I think this book could stand some revision. Among other things I found curious was the proposition that hangdogging and refining beta while working routes was easier and more typical than in working boulder problems because the boulderer climbs from the ground. In actuality boulderers often work problems close to the ground with sit starts or steep features that allow stepping into crux moves or sections quite easily. Boulderers are obsessive with refining beta to a degree that might astonish some sport climbers unfamiliar with this aspect of the sport. A closer look at the practices at the leading edge of bouldering today would help iron out some of these issues.

In terms of training, bouldering is not just about adding more intensity or weight, it is also about mastering very different body positions, learning types of dynamic movement, coping with mental pressures, and developing effective tactics for safe successful attempts on problems, all in ways that will differ drastically from an enduro route in the Red. Boulderers need to closely understand complex heelhooking, kneebars, toehooks, and the overall intricacies of compression climbing. Dynamic movement, though key in bouldering, is given relatively small space in the text as a whole and not much in the (very short) section dedicated to bouldering. Of course in bouldering dynamic climbing is critical to success on any limit problem. The mental pressures of working out multiple limit moves that must be linked flawlessly are similar to sport climbing but take on a qualitatively different intensity in bouldering where success and failure can occur almost arbitrarily. In other words, if training for climbing can be described as a science, as TRCTM clearly intends, bouldering still feels more like an art where criteria for advancement seem qualitative and subjective.

Is TRCTM desirable for boulderers? Yes and no. Given the relatively short space dedicated to the sport in the book, it is clear that it’s not primarily intended for bouldering, though ironically bouldering is seen as critical in providing power for improving one’s sport-climbing level. However, for any climber looking for a current and comprehensive understanding of the basics of training theory as it applies to climbing overall, TRCTM is a great and relatively inexpensive place to start. The effort and diligence of the authors is apparent throughout and the publisher’s care in terms of layout and production is clearly evident. But for bouldering training specifically, it has significant limitations. The book on bouldering training hasn’t been written though I have been working on it a bit. Watch this space.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Myths of the Fingerboard 2

In my previous post I discussed why I think that most commercially produced boards are not the best investments. In this post, which is related to a much earlier post, I want to discuss why fingerboard training may not be the most effective use of your training time.

As I mentioned before, there seems to be a lot of interest in fingerboards right now. There isn't a training forum out there that isn't visited weekly with posts about whether fingerboards will help and how to use them and so on. Every post pretty much asks the same thing: will a fingerboard make me stronger? The truth is simple; it depends. Here is my view about some common beliefs about fingerboards.

First myth: Fingerboards are essential for making a step up the grades. For the climber operating much below V5 or mid-5.12, fingerboards really have no place in your climbing training unless you are stuck for time and don't have access to a climbing wall. At that level, the use of a fingerboard is a waste of time better spent getting stronger actually climbing and understanding what climbing harder is actually about. It's about moving well, using your feet, and keeping your focus when the going gets tough. Fingerboards do not train those skills. If you ask around, the vast majority of top-end boulderers spend next to no time on a fingerboard. They climb instead.

Second myth: Fingerboards should be a constant part of your training plan. I would recommend phases of fingerboarding, no more than two or three times a week for no longer than a few weeks in duration with a month or two break in between. The potential for getting stale and worse, injured, is too high considering the limited benefits. Use the board to kickstart your next power training phase and then set it aside for a while and train while climbing.

Third myth: Fingerboards make you a stronger climber. The ability to climb hard, in my view, is not merely catching a hold and hanging on, but instead is reflected in how far you can lock off to the next hold with the last hand well below you. Independence of both arms when moving on steep terrain is what it's all about. Fingerboards will not necessarily help this kind of strength as hanging on with two hands is much easier than with one, and hanging with one is infinitely easier than pulling up on one hand on an edge.

Fourth myth: you can train power on a fingerboard. Power is work produced in a given unit of time. If you can generate maximum force in half a second instead of two, you are using more power to do that and that is very helpful in doing hard moves. Power is everything in hard bouldering but it is very hard to generate power effectively on a fingerboard. Everything points to the campus board for that but as with the fingerboard, it's not that simple. Again, maybe in another post.

Fifth myth: Hanging on smaller holds equals a stronger climber. See myth 3. Hanging with two hands off a super thin edge is of minimal use because most problems don't require that kind of hold. More typical is the scenario mentioned above, a long pull from one decent-sized hold to another, repeated 6 to 10 times. That said, many commercial hangboards feature holds that are simply too big to be much use for the serious climber.

Sixth myth: Adding weight is a constructive way to increase resistance. See myth 3 again. Hanging on with two hands is too easy, even with weight on. It's much more constructive to work on your one-handed ability than to add 50 or 75 pounds and get meager gains.

Seventh myth: While I'm hanging, I might as well do some pull-ups. Sure, if they are one-arms. Otherwise, you are just training endurance hanging on with two hands which happens in bouldering, well, basically never.

So what are fingerboards good for? I like them for waking up my fingers on a regular basis in getting a power phase started but really only for a short time before moving on to campusing and then real climbing. And then there is the problem of effective pinch strength development. Again, these training tactics might be better handled in a later post