Training Plans: The Good, The Bad, and The Hip Flexors
Before we get onto this week’s main topic I must inform you all that today is my birthday! If Husband has fulfilled my present request, I will have spent the day eating vast amounts of gelatin free gummy sweets of many flavours. This evening, I will be gently soaking my liver in gin and filling my belly with a jacket potato slathered in baked beans and cheddar cheese, followed by an ambitiously large slice of my Mum’s homemade fruitcake.
As with all special occasions, I focus on the food and drink side of things rather than the inedible aspects. Although if someone fancies buying me a new pair of Dr Martens (size 7, black, 8-hole boots if you’re wondering) for my birthday, to replace the ones that have suddenly decided to start falling apart from the inside out, I’d be very grateful.
Unfortunately, in the run up to this happy occasion, my body had a little rebellion, prompting a frank and reflective assessment of the demands I’ve been making of myself lately. This internal conflab initiated in the blog post you’re about to read on the subject of following a climbing training plan.
Let’s dive in before the carbohydrate belly gets the better of me and I doze off into a satisfyingly stodgy state of rest.
I got my plan from Core Climbing Coaching, specifically the delightful Rachel Carr. I filled in an enquiry form, then had a video chat about what I was hoping to achieve, my current climbing level, my likes and dislikes, and anything else that came to mind about climbing I felt like talking about.
The video chats with Rachel have been a huge highlight of the plan. I adore having the opportunity to chat to someone who is as nerdy about and fascinated by climbing as I am. I turn up to each meeting with many pages of notes and she takes them all in her stride. We chat, we giggle, we talk about our dogs, and we nerd out. It’s a good time.
The plan Rachel puts together is in three-month blocks. There are on-the-wall and off-the-wall exercises that target strength, anaerobic and aerobic capacity, and general conditioning. The balance of these sessions depends on how often I can get to the wall and what we’re focusing on for each block.
I then went about the business of following the plan to the best of my ability, which I have been doing since May of this year. Here's a lovely picture of me looking pleased as punch after completing my first three-month block of exercises.
I’m aware that many climbers don’t really enjoy fingerboarding. Apparently some people find hanging off small bits of wood a couple of times a week rather dull.
I find them oddly soothing. I half-watch Coronation Street or listen to a podcast while dangling from a 20mm edge. The sessions are pleasingly structured, which appeals to the part of my brain that is reassured by clear instructions.
Hang for this many seconds.
Rest for that many seconds.
And your fingers get stronger as you go.
Truly delightful. Especially when a pointy dog has a nap at the foot of your fingerboard.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this exercise as it’s a typical hench man at the gym kind of training. And I don’t like conventional gyms. But for some reason I always looked forward to this exercise.
Maybe it’s improved by being able to do it at home rather than in a sweaty gym that makes me feel small and self-conscious. Perhaps my enjoyment comes from the fact that Husband often joins in with this session, turning the whole thing into a mildly obnoxious weights-date/team building exercise.
On the other hand, it could just be fun because it makes me feel strong and awesome.
Could be anything really.
High volume, low intensity, lots of perspiration!
I love projecting hard boulders as much as the next ambitious climber but there’s something extremely satisfying about smashing through loads of lower grade boulders in a short, sweet, and sweaty session.
The reason I enjoyed this session so much was because it challenged my perception of my own climbing abilities. The aim of the session was to flash (climber speak for get to the top on your first go) each boulder and initially I was quite cautious with the boulders I chose, not wanting to overdo the difficulty level.
Eventually though, my confidence grew and I gradually became more ambitious with each session. I realised I’d often talk myself out of flashing boulders before even grabbing the starting holds. I’d look at boulders and be intimidated by them, fretting that if I didn’t climb them first time, I’d be ruining the training session.
I added a couple of spicier boulders to each mileage session, mixing some more complex and powerful boulders in with the jug ladders. And heavens to Betsy, I even managed to flash the majority of them. Not quite all of them. Some took me two goes. Some took more and I had to accept that they weren’t quite right for a mileage session.
But the world didn’t end. My whole training plan didn’t fall apart because I slightly misjudged the occasional boulder. And I surprised myself with what I was able to climb on my first try. Lessons were learned and good times were had.
Least Favourite Exercises
This is not the fault of the training plan. I just hate mountain climbers. There’s very little else to say on the matter. Mountain climbers and burpees, which thankfully do not feature in my plan (yet!), can, quite simply, get in the sea.
Hip Flexor Conditioning
Rarely have I disliked an entire session of exercises. Generally, there’s been one killer exercise within a session. Like side plank in the extended core session or mountain climbers in the toe hook session.
Hip flexor conditioning has been the exception to this rule.
The exercise looks so innocuous. You sit with your legs in a V-shape or straight out in front of you and bob them up and down. Simple. Nothing to make a fuss about. Unfortunately, after several sets of gentle leg bobbing my hip flexors were always screaming for the sweet relief of death. It produced a bizarre combination of the usual pain you get from a buildup of lactic acid, topped off with the feeling of intense cramping.
After three months of this monstrosity I had to ask Rachel if I had somehow inadvertently offended her in our initial meeting. This could be the only explanation for inflicting this tremendous torment on me. She claimed I hadn’t and that this session was actually very good for me despite how awful it felt. Like the trusting fool that I am, I believed her and carried on painfully leg bobbing like a good little climber, which generally caused to me look like the shattered puddle of a human you see below.
I certainly never found the fun in this session and hip flexor Friday fast became my least favourite day of the week!
2 Minutes On, 1 Minute Off
Climb for 2 minutes, rest for 1 minute, and repeat.
One of my reasons for sticking with bouldering rather than sport climbing is my total lack of interest in endurance training.
Again, this is not the fault of the plan. I simply found this exercise a little tedious thanks to my somewhat limited attention span!
Has It Worked?
Short answer, yes, as you can see from this picture from my Instagram story on September 5th, 2021.
I would not have achieved my goal of climbing my first 7a by the end of this year without the plan.
I’ve attempted to cobble together training plans of my own before, based on a lot of reading and YouTube tutorials. I’ve even seen results from these efforts and made progress while going solo.
However, my efforts pale in comparison to the benefits of having a plan put together by a coach with the experience and know-how of Rachel.
Firstly, I’ve trained harder than ever but haven’t been injured. Whenever I’ve put my own plan together something has been out of balance or I’ve pushed myself too hard. This has resulted mostly in minor injuries or more wear and tear on particular parts of my body (usually my shoulders) than I’d like. When I’ve stuck to Rachel’s plan, performed the exercises with good form, and kept up my stretching, I’ve experienced nothing more than minor aches and pains from good old fashioned hard work and physical exertion.
And screaming protest from my hip flexors but apparently that was to be expected.
Additionally, I’ve seen far more noticeable improvements. I don’t just mean in the grades I’ve been climbing. I managed to achieve my goal of climbing my first 7a boulder but, perhaps more importantly, I’m more confident on the wall, I’m a more well-rounded climber, and I can perform a much wider range of moves than I used to be able to. There’s still plenty of 7a boulders that I definitely cannot climb but there are far more 6c and 6c+ boulders that I can.
Finally, having a plan put together by someone who knows what they’re doing has significantly helped my mental game. When I was following my own plans, I was never entirely sure that what I was doing was for the best or if it would be beneficial in the long run. With my current plan, I have faith that the unhappy hip flexors and time spent dangling off a fingerboard are leading me somewhere better. I believe in the plan!
But (There’s Always A But) The Plan Is Not Enough
All that good stuff being said, having the plan does not guarantee success and prevent human fallibility and stupidity. This is where we come to the slightly gloomy conversation I had with my somewhat shattered body last week.
At this point I should acknowledge my extremely privileged position. I am mightily fortunate to be able to afford a personal training plan and to have the time (usually!) and resources to follow it. I’ve been dealt an excellent hand in life and I am incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to devote so much time to my climbing.
That being said, my schedule has been getting gradually busier over the last few months. As well as the climbing training I’ve been taxing my brain with a new unit of my psychology degree, taxing my body running around a very busy café carrying a lot of heavy pots and crates of beverages, and stressing myself out trying to organise a house move. I acknowledge that there are many people who spin far more plates than I do every day of their lives. However, I turned out to be an amateur plate spinner and have been smashing crockery all over the place.
I may have managed to complete all the sessions during this busier time but it turns out it’s possible to follow a plan badly. I’ve been more tired than I was during the first few months of the plan. I’ve not been eating well or in sufficient volume considering the amount of physical activity I’ve been doing. And I’ve not been realistic about the time it takes to complete each session due to worrying about getting other things done like homework, house related paperwork, and packing.
This has led me to pay less attention to my form while completing the exercises and rushing through the sessions to get them ticked off the to-do list. As a consequence, my shoulders feel rubbish, I've pulled a muscle in my neck, I’m far more sore than usual, and my lack of enthusiasm for training is making me feel guilty as fuck.
This all rather crept up on me. With the benefit of hindsight I can see this has been building for a while. But human beings are very good at missing what’s right in front of them and masters of the art of denial. It was only when my wrist, my right shoulder, and my neck started hurting in the space of five days that I realised I’d got a problem. This photo of Amber is a pretty accurate representation of how I was feeling earlier this week.
I sent Rachel a slightly sorrowful message saying I was mentally and physically rung out and I needed to take a break from the plan until after the house move. She naturally took the whole thing in her stride and reassured me we’d sort everything out during our next chat.
She really is ever so lovely.
I will be catching up with Rachel again once we’re in the new house (assuming the Virgin Media people successfully install our internet) and I’m looking forward to starting my new training block without the stress of the impending move. I don’t have a clear goal for my next climbing chapter. I’m just excited to get things back on track and continue to push my body while also taking care of it.
- Having a training plan is not a short cut to success. You have to put the work in, do the exercises properly, with sufficient time, care, and attention.
- You can follow the plan and still head down the wrong path, possibly without even realising you’re wandering down injury avenue with your shoelaces undone. Being exhausted and under fuelled is going to seriously impact your performance, even if you’re technically following the plan to the letter.
- Being honest with your coach is very important. There’s no point in a personalised plan if it doesn’t work for you and your situation so tell the person putting your plan together what you’re able to achieve with your time and resources.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that something isn’t working for you. Rachel has always been able to suggest alternatives if I struggled with an exercise (actually struggled, not just in an ‘I hate mountain climbers' kind of way) or adjust the plan when my circumstances (weather, access to climbing walls, injury, despair at moving house) changed.
- Have fun and enjoy it. You’ll work hard and challenge yourself but it will be a hoot, you will make progress, and you will see the effort pay off. Remember this crucial lesson while executing your thousandth mountain climber!