Blinded by Science

Ten feet off the ground, I knew that everything had already gone sideways on me. It felt far, far more difficult than I had expected. Suckered in by the oversimplification of climbing’s grading system, I fell into the familiar folly: Since I had onsight soloed 5.12a this summer, 5.12a should feel easy right?

Wrong. The pump was building, my forearms felt like they were about to burst, only 20ft off the ground, and the anxiety was rapidly building…. I had never actually been belayed by my climbing partner before now… can he catch a fall this close to the deck? After my summer soloing, and Horseshoe Hell, I was hardwired into the no-fall-mode, and just wasn’t comfortable falling that close to the deck with a new partner. “TAAAAAKE!”

At “only” 5.12a “Kick me in the Jimmie” in the Red River Gorge left me feeling like someone had kicked me in the Jimmie!!! How can 5.12a have felt so easy on the day that I onsight soloed “Tangerine,” but feel so hard now? That thought frightened me and made me think long and hard about my life choices. Had I made poor decisions and gotten lucky? Or is there some logical explanation for extreme success on some routes, coupled with extreme failure on other routes of the same grade?

This summer I fell off the wagon with my training program. You guys know how I am, training is my religion. I can’t get enough of it, and spend my rest days mostly thinking about how I can train better…. but it just felt like something was off. I felt stuck, and I just wasn’t progressing. I lost the stoke and quit training altogether only halfway through a four-month training cycle.

That’s a *lot* of missed training sessions!
To a certain extent, I’d say that my life depends on proper training, so I research training methodology with keen interest. I’ve come to consider myself knowledgeable on the subject, but I could tell that something was very wrong. This left me with a difficult question: if I couldn’t get my own training right, then who could I trust?

Enter Tom Randall and Lattice Training.

For years I’ve been searching for the latest science in training methodology, these folks are the latest science in training. Some of you might remember that I tried to make an assessment protocol to put numbers on climbing fitness for data-driven training… well… these guys have already done it, and they’ve done it far better than I ever could have! When it came time for me to find a coach, there’s nobody else on earth that I would rather trust.

The results are in: Not only were they able to pin numbers on my fitness, compare those numbers to a database of my peers who climb the same grades, and with folks who climb the grades that I dream of… but they also put many years of training and coaching experience in the database, and that enables them to describe a “reasonable” timeframe for hitting my targets, whether they are possible, and how long I should expect it to take. They did all of this without ever seeing me in person. No matter where you live, all you need to get started is a 19mm (3/4″) edge, a pulley, and some weights.

Lattice’s full response was an incredibly thorough 6 page PDF report, but I’m going to skip straight to the exciting part: The data! Any coach can talk long and hard about your climbing, but these folks have data! Why on earth did “Tangerine” feel so relaxed when my experience at The Red felt like a complete shut-down? The data makes it clear!

My report was the best news I could have hoped for: I am weak, terribly weak, in multiple ways! I’m taking that to mean we have numerous avenues which can yield progress sooner than later. During the assessment, all of the tests felt alarmingly difficult, much in the same way that Red River Gorge climbing felt alarmingly difficult. As I performed the tests, I could feel intuitively how off-target my training had been over the summer.

Scientific proof that I’m weak!
Finger Strength:
It’s lagging by a bit. By the numbers, my finger strength is on-par with sending 5.12c in about ten sessions, which is low considering that I’ve sent 5.13a second-go on two separate occasions. But… it’s also something I’d expected to see after failing even to hangdog my way to the top of 5.13a’s on a few other occasions.

Anaerobic Capacity:
Alarmingly poor. My measurement of only 8% explains why my bouldering has always lagged so far behind my roped climbing: Boulderers should score over 30%. Meanwhile, I’m even underperforming the 20-30% mark expected for sport climbing.

Aerobic Power and Lactate Curve:
“Currently a clear weakness.” My score on Aero Power was half as long a duration of hangs compared to the expectation for climbers at the 5.13a grade. The Lactate Curve measures how rapidly your energy stores diminish, and a low score is more desirable as it shows a slower rate of fatigue. My score was almost three times higher than it should be for a 5.13a climber. That explains why I’ve always felt that I get pumped more rapidly than others climbing on the same routes! It’s as if the clock ticks faster for me on hard sections than most folks.

Aerobic Contribution:
Boulderers typically score around 10%, “the fittest of sport climbers” will score above 25%, and I scored a whopping 36%. This is the only score where I outperformed expectations, and I outperformed them greatly! It took a minute, but we found something I’m good at!

This makes sense given the routes that I’m able to send my hardest on, like Tangerine. Tangerine had no sustained hard sections. The individual boulder problems were never longer than four to six moves and were separated by incut resting jugs. Since the hardest move was V4, my fingers still had plenty of excess strength, and the individual boulder problems were too short for me to get pumped before arriving at the next jug. At that point, my Aerobic Contribution kicked into full-gear. Aerobic Contribution is related to the capillarisation in the forearm, and that increased blood flow means all of the pump would disappear at any resting jug, and leave me fresh again for the next four move section.

But the routes I tried at The Red had nowhere to rest. They were long sustained sections of hard moves with no stopping point for recovery. So my forearms turned to concrete within seconds, and my body failed rapidly. It’s quite reasonable to say that I’ve progressed as far as I can with clever route-selection and by exploiting my strengths.

If I want to improve, I have a lot of work to do to become a balanced climber. If all goes well, and I follow instructions, the database at Lattice says it is possible to make a 5% finger strength gain over the next year, which puts me on target for a 12-month goal of sending 5.13b with some reliability. Afterward, the data shows that gains should slow down, but it is conceivable that I could hit the benchmark fitness levels of an “average” 5.14a climber in 5 year’s time. They say that 5-year benchmark is at the limit of what’s reasonable, but…. it is possible.

Needless to say, I signed up for a customized training plan immediately! One week in and I’ve noticed something: it’s fun, every day is something different, and their methods are simple yet effective!

All the gear I need to perform Lattice’s conditioning circuits in the comfort of my own home!
But it’s worth mentioning now that data doesn’t tell us everything. I’m currently sending 5.13a, despite the fact that four out of five measures of fitness were greatly under-performing compared to the average fitness required by that grade. Tom says this could indicate a level of mental game, willingness to fight, and economy of motion that is quite above what they expected from someone “so new to the sport.” Yes, folks, you heard it right: at eleven years of climbing, I am new to the sport. This is a very long game we are playing, and you never stop learning! Fitness is hugely important, but climbing is a skill sport! 

Three times I’ve had ot re-start my climbing career. Twice from catastrophic injuries due to the perils of roped climbing, and once due to burnout from competition. Each time I’ve returned to climbing to find myself weaker than ever before, and it forced me to learn movement and perfect motion for maximum economy. If it wasn’t for that relative weakness, perhaps I would never have developed into the climber that I am today.

Thanks to that proces of re-learning how to climb while weak, I’m sending quite a bit harder than the data would suggest, and so I can’t help but wonder how that will affect my progress? Will those x-factors allow me to hit my performance targets sooner than the database anticipates? I don’t know, but I intend to find out!

For the first time in my life, thanks to Lattice, I feel confident that I will achieve my goals in climbing and in soloing. Not only has this positively affected my psyche for training, but it even feels like I’m sending harder thanks to the newfound confidence! During my first strength session with Lattice, I accidentally set a personal record for “hardest boulder onsight in a gym.”

My training was such a mess this summer that I don’t have any goals, so I have no idea what the future holds, but I know that I’m psyched beyond belief over the possibilities! I can’t wait to take my new fingers for a test-drive this spring!

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