Friday, April 4, 2014

Theories & Rules - Training & Chess

As I said, I'm going to write one introductory "theory" article but after this my format is mainly going to be "I wanted to do <goal> so I did <training>. In the end I <result> and I think that's because of <interpretation>." There are already enough people out there taking the "do this workout" approach, which is good, and necessary; but that's not for me, and it's not the audience I'm looking for either. I'm not a great climber but I have trained, pretty scientifically, for over 20 years; so I think I'll have something useful for people.
   Training for climbing is a bit like chess: each is a blend of science and art. It's a matter of feeling what works and what doesn't, of reviewing your history, reapplying what's worked well in the past, and testing new theories. Furthermore, different goals/opponents require different approaches. You must learn your style and all approaches do not work equally well for everyone. Like chess, there are some abstract theories that should be understood and followed before they are broken. For training, my rules are:
  1. The Basics
    1. Don't Injure Yourself
    2. Listen To Your Body
    3. Train Smart, Not Hard
    4. Nutrition Matters
    5. Record Your Workouts
  1. Strength Principles
    1. Strength Comes From Stress and Rest
    2. Specificity & Variety
    3. Periodization
    4. Don't Train Fine Muscle Movements Tired
  1. Force Multipliers
    1. Set Goals
    2. Learn Execute Mode
    3. Know What Is Possible
    4. Have Fun
Don't Injure Yourself
Sadly, I have to review this, the most basic and important principle, since most climbers are still breaking it. Notice how I wrote "don't injure yourself" instead of "don't get injured?" This is because even the language climbers use is broken. If you're injured, you injured yourself. A set of pull-ups didn't jump out of a dark alley and inflict tendonitis on your elbow. If your foot slips and you over-grip a crimp and then your tendon snaps, you injured yourself. Climbing and training injuries aren't like the flu or a cold - they don't just happen to you, you cause them. The bottom line is that your long-term climbing ability (and fun) will be inversely proportional to how often you cause yourself to get injured. This one is a rule - not a theory, not an opinion.

Listen To Your Body
Most people think of this only as it relates to preventing injuries - which is a very valid case - but it's not the only one. I'm learning now that how my body feels at the end of a training day (or phase) is the best gauge for how effective that workout was; or, more importantly, if the workout hit what I was targeting. That is, it's better than "objective" measures like what I climbed, or how much weight I added on hangs. I'll go into this more when I discuss periodized training, but there are only four training phases and each feels significantly different. Being aware of these differences helps me stay on track. I'm convinced this is an essential ingredient for success.

Train Smart, Not Hard
I've definitely done more hard training than smart training. What can I say, I love training. I still put a fair amount of time into it, but I am trying to prioritize quality over quantity. Still, there is a limit (depending on your fitness level) on how little you can train and still get results. I agree with CT Fletcher at 8:17, "20 minute abs, 20 minute butt... 20 minute any-fucking-thing is a pile of bullshit. If you see somebody with great abs, a great butt, a great whatever, they didn't do the shit in 20 minutes." Training well takes time; depending on your fitness level and goals, it can take a lot of time. I also like his thoughts on overtraining - bahaha.
   Another component of "training smart, not hard" is to begin getting a good gauge on exactly where you're at. Many people start training by going as hard as they can and then inevitably turning down the volume and/or intensity - or injure themselves. It is much more efficient to start slow, then add workload. In part this is because when your below your maximum you have some sense of how much more you have in you; whereas when you're above your maximum it's much harder to tell how much to decrease intensity. If you get this wrong, you can ruin a whole workout or two, which is too many if you're doing 3-4 week phases, or 6-12 workouts total.

Nutrition Matters
Jack Lalanne said, "exercise and diet are the king and queen of fitness... but exercise is the king." For most of the last thirty years, I've taken that to mean that if I workout enough, I can ignore my diet. I have always eaten fairly healthy (i.e., no fast food, not too many desserts, etc.) and this plan "worked" well. Then I watched Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead and began seriously changing my diet. So for the last two years, I've done a lot of juicing and switched to organic food whenever I can (within reason.) I am astounded at the results. I am now convinced that proper diet is critical to maximizing your potential. Again, I'm not going to recommend anything specific (I don't buy into any of the fad diets, like paleo, gluten free, etc.) but I will probably do a short post on what I eat and why.

Record Your Workouts
I use a Google Spreadsheet to track my workouts. (After several requests, I made these available in OpenDocument and Excel format. Just delete my data and upload it back to Google Docs.) I haven't always done this but I restarted in June, 2013 and I will always do it going forward - it takes less than 5 minutes a day. Inevitably, sports performance goes up and down. The ability to go back and review what you were doing when things were going well is invaluable. The earlier you start, the more valuable it is long-term. I'd pay a lot of money to have a record of all the workouts I did over the years. I find that the process of writing down what I'm doing helps me spot many problems; i.e. spending too much or too little time on various aspects of training. It also helps vet my rationale for what I'm choosing to work on.

Strength Comes From Stress and Rest
Yes, this is obvious. Training involves always doing more (intensity, volume, etc.) and this is difficult - it takes a lot of time and motivation. What people often do when these components are lacking is cut workouts short, or go at a lower intensity level. The problem with "going light" is that if you're capable of doing 10 reps and you do 9 then you haven't worked out. (Because you haven't stressed the muscles - the 10th rep is the rep that stressed the muscles.) Also, I find this does little to recharge motivation levels. If I don't have the proper motivation for a workout, I quit for the day. I watch a movie or drink a martini instead. Fortunately, this only happens once or twice a year.
   Do your exercises (climbing, weights, whatever) in good form - it will pay off in the long run. If you're into CrossFit, you're wasting your time here, I have nothing for you. Also, remember that time under tension, not reps, is the measure while doing an exercise. If a pull-up workout recommends doing 4 sets of 10 reps, it's because they want you to do about 20-30 seconds of pull-up work. I would say 30, because I think a proper pull-up takes about 3 seconds. If you manage to do 10 shitty pull-ups in 15 seconds, you haven't done the recommended workout. People count reps because it's a proxy for time. (Also, when you do pull-ups, don't do the old "chin above the bar" bullshit. Pull as high as you can on every rep. Why? Because if you pull on a hold, but fall because you still can't reach the next one, you don't get to say "well, my chin was above the hold, so I'll just count it as a redpoint." When watching climbers, it quickly becomes clear which ones hammered out a bunch of useless reps, and which ones are strong.)
   Finally, remember that your muscles get stronger when you rest. It's the proper balance between stress and rest that produces success. Resting is hard, especially for those of us who love training. I'm learning that resting is an unavoidable fact of life. Structured and periodized training can help prevent you from getting caught up in climbing or training and thus doing too much.

Specificity & Variety
Specificity simply means the training needs to be applicable/specific to the end goal. Obviously, if you do a lot of steep climbing then pull-ups, lock-offs, and typewriters are a better exercise than push-ups. By "variety" I mean that it's better to do three exercises (again, like pull-ups, lock-offs, and typewriters) than just one. Climbing involves many large and small muscles and it can often take several exercises to maximize results and simulate the target environment. Start learning which exercises correlate to certain motions and how this feels when applied to the "real" goal. I won't go into a broad array of exercises; but I will describe what I do and detail the more obscure ones.

Training for aerobic endurance, strength (hypertrophy & recruitment,) and power endurance require completely different workouts. Peaking - when you attempt your goal - is yet another phase because when you're training your body is too broken down to perform at it's highest level. Optimal structuring these five phases is the goal of periodized training. If you don't like the concept of periodization, think of this alternative: always doing the exact same workout forever. That doesn't sound like fun or a recipe for success does it? You should never just campus, just hangboard, just boulder, or just anything - you will stagnate and/or get injured. You can keep doing the exercises you like, but you should alter something about the routine. I campus almost year-round, but I significantly change what I do campusing every 2-3 weeks, I'm not always doing my harder moves. Periodization can also be thought of as simply mixing up your workouts, because that's all it really is. Some of us make this step more complicated and structured, but you don't have to.

Don't Train Fine Muscle Movements Tired
Bruce Lee said it, so it's true. Power relies on your neuro-muscular system and it needs to be fresh to learn and perform well. In general, your workout should start with power and decrease in intensity. A big mistake in climbing is to work on something tired and ingrain the wrong body mechanics for the moves. Learn new movements fresh, practice them (in proper form) tired, and stop before you're flailing.

Set Goals
Having specific goals is required in order for your training to succeed. The goal is the benchmark by which the training is judged. Goals like "get stronger" and "climb 5.13" are lame and ineffective. Go out on a limb, pick something specific, pick a route, pick a boulder problem, pick a campusboard move. Then tell your friends, make it real, build a support team that can motivate you when you need it. I think many climbers avoid stating a goal for fear of not attaining it. But this is not failure - to me, failure is not pushing yourself. Don't fall into the trap of retrospectively calling whatever you did your goal - that's a cop-out and shortchanges what you could really be accomplishing.
   Next, try and set some waypoints between where you are and your end goal. These objective landmarks will serve to motivate and guide you. Depending on how far out the goal is, these waypoints might be the goal of an entire cycle. I broke my goal of doing 1-5-8.5 into 3 waypoint goals: 2 months each to do 1-4-7, 1-5-7, and 1-5-8. That left me six months to do 1-5-8.5. (I'm behind schedule because I didn't hit 1-5-8 in December.)

Learn Execute Mode
By "Execute Mode" I am referring to your ideal performance state; that is, the state of being in which you perform best. Top competitive athletes learn this over years. Stereotypically "clutch" players (like Michael Jordan) know how to put themselves into this performance state when it really matters. Executing is a skill that can take a long time to develop, and is never mastered. Start learning it now.

Know What Is Possible
Inevitably, when pursuing a goal, the thought will come into your mind that it's too hard - it's not. By looking at what true masters have done we can see that our goals are very attainable. 25 years ago people were climbing V13 and 5.14d. (The first V13, Le mouvement perpetuel, was done in 1989; and the recently uprated Hubble the first 5.14d, was done in 1990.) The goals most of us are attempting are not new and are not difficult and they get easier when seen in this light.

Have Fun
Since none of us are pushing any world standard, have fun with it, see what you can do, set a crazy goal and see how close you come. I see people at the gym get all edgy because they didn't do some Vmeaningless-route-that-will-be-gone-in-a-week; that's crazy. I'm gonna reuse the Todd Skinner quote, "Never take climbing too seriously - have fun. Because no matter how much you train, and how long you climb, someday some kid you've never heard of is gonna show up and climb harder than you can imagine." And speaking of masters...

Finally, back to chess...
I'm a slightly better than average player (maybe) but here are my rules for chess anyway. These days, I only play chess960, because it's better. If you're up for a game via email, challenge me (requistp) on
  1. Play with the pieces, i.e., never push a pawn if you don't know what to do.
  2. No early queen sorties.
  3. Castle, remember you are the king, defend yourself.
  4. Develop pieces with an attack, this keeps your opponent on the run.
  5. Don't have "grand schemes" for what's going to happen 4 moves from now, it never works.
  6. When your opponent has made a move with an "obvious" response, avoid playing it. If you can find an equally good, or better move this can throw them off.
  7. Have fun. Contrary to popular opinion chess ability is not an indicator of intelligence, it's an indicator of how much you've played chess.