Tips for “middle age climbers”

@senderhq asked the following via Twitter:

@climbing_strong Tips for middle aged folks who’s bodies are starting to rebel at a std schedule. Umm… you know… for a friend :)
02/21/13 11:53 AM

Before I start I will say that while I’m not quite middle aged, I’m in my mid-30’s and very much in the thick of my career, with a mortgage, a dog, etc. so I can speak to this with some knowledge. We don’t have children, though, and I know from our climbing friends who do have kids (AKA most climbing couples we know in Squamish) I can say that kids add an additional, significant challenge.

The other qualifier I will add is that for a number of years I worked as a personal trainer in addition to being a climbing coach/instructor, so I have worked with clients up to age 90 doing general fitness training. In that line of work you sure hear a lot about competing interests for one’s time and energy.

Let’s break down the issue at hand for what I will call “mature climbers”, defined as climbers between the ages 30-55 years. This is admittedly a big range and those at the higher end will be more pronounced in how they have to modify their training, but the same principles apply.

  • By age 30 or so our bodies are not as resilient as they once were. It takes longer to recover, and our bodies just can’t take as much abuse as they once did. I remember the 6 hour climbing gym bouldering sessions of my youth, followed by campus board training… sessions like this are a distant memory now.
  • Mature climbers have many competing priorities – work, spouse/children/family time, investments, pets, homes to maintain, and so on. All of these take up time; often taking up all waking hours. So training and nutrition can really fall to the wayside.

I think these points cover the main issues. So now, let’s look at what advantages mature climbers have in their favour. Yes, I believe there are advantages!

  • Along with getting older, we also tend to get wiser, or more sensible. I know in my youth I was much more idealistic. Mature climbers are more able to step back and look at their climbing and life with a long-term view and understand why they climb, what they want to get out of it, and what trade-offs they are willing (or not willing) to make to improve their climbing (or continue climbing into later years). This really helps with goal-setting.
  • Another advantage is that climbing is a sport that you can actually keep improving at relatively late in life. This is evidenced by climbers who climb at a very high level into their 50’s and beyond. For example, Stevie Haston (GB) and Fransisco Marin (ESP) both climb in the 5.14 / 8b+ or harder range and are in their 50s. So, our prospects are much better than, say, someone playing college football or basketball!


Stevie Haston the legend

  • We get more patient with age, generally, which helps in a number of ways. On a macro scale this helps us stick with a training plan and not give up when we don’t get instant results. On a micro scale, being patient helps us when climbing to use appropriate pacing on a climb, taking advantage of rests in order to be more efficient with our effort.
  • Climbing technique and tactics take a long time and a lot of experience on the rock to develop because there is practically an infinite range of styles of routes and boulders.

Maybe by now you’re convinced that getting older is not all bad news for climbers. So, how about some practical advice that you can put to use?

Get Serious About Goal Setting 

What’s most important to you? Getting fit for a sport climbing trip on steep limestone? Multi-pitch climbs in Yosemite? A bouldering trip to Fontainebleau? An epic alpine adventure? Being an “all-arounder” in various disciplines in your local area? Whatever it is, you should tailor your limited training time to that specific goal and if you don’t see a particular activity contributing directly to it, you should substitute for something else. Furthermore, think about how you will measure your success. At intervals make sure to do a reality check on how successful you’ve been at meeting those goals and adjust your training as you see fit.

Set Specific Training Objectives

Objectives, the way I use them, are a level “down” from goals. To meet a certain goal, there must be a number of attributes you need to develop to achieve it. They could relate to completing a certain amount of work (e.g. running X kilometres in Y months); being able to complete a particular exercise according to some parameters of intensity and volume/duration (e.g. 20 pull ups on a bar); some change in body morphology, like losing some excess weight; or a dietary goal like consuming no refined sugar for one month.

Here’s is a sample set of objectives for a climber with road trip to Yosemite coming up in a few months:

  • Run 25 km per week for 8 consecutive weeks
  • Complete 8 pitches of around 6a / 5.10b or harder, 3 times per week for 8 weeks at the climbing gym or local crag (192 pitches or 2,304 m assuming avg pitch is 12 m)
  • Be able to complete 20 consecutive pull-ups on a bar
  • Be able to complete 3 consecutive laps on the crack simulator route at the climbing gym

Here’s is a sample set of objectives for a boulderer with road trip to Rocklands, SA coming up in a few months:

  • Boulder at the gym 3 days per week for 8 weeks, minimum 1 hour not including warm up and cool down. (no socializing!)
  • Be able to complete 10 consecutive pull-ups on a 1.5 cm edge, “open crimp” grip (i.e. no thumb)
  • Be able to complete 8 dips on gymnastic rings
  • Lose 2 kg through dietary improvements (eliminating junk food)
  • Be able to touch touch the ground with full palm while doing a standing hamstring stretch with straight legs

These are just examples and you can come up with your own (by yourself or by working with a coach/trainer) that are more specific to your fitness gaps.

Focus on Climbing Technique and Tactics (i.e. Climb Smarter!)

Let’s face it. The days of just powering through climbs/boulders without using good technique are limited and best left to the teenage climbers at the gym! We’ve all had the experience where some older dude or dudette gracefully executed a move you struggled on with minimal effort by using some kind of knee-bar, jam or stem that we didn’t think of. Be that dude or dudette! There are plenty of books out there on the subject, and more than I can get into in this post but this area is a gold-mine. Furthermore, you can read all the books you want and it won’t accomplish anything until you APPLY it and EXPERIENCE it, preferably on real rock.

Or, if you can get to Fontainebleau, go there for a few weeks and I guarantee (ok I can’t guarantee) you will see tangible improvements in your technique!

Work on Your Flexibility

Nothing makes one feel “old” quite like stretching first thing in the morning and realizing you can’t touch your toes!  Technique (as above) is highly dependent on flexibility so please see my older post for more on this topic. Also, being flexible will help prevent injuries significantly.

Take Climbing Holidays Instead of Resort Holidays

I know, we all need to de-stress sometimes and that is ok. But to be blunt, you have to make smart choices if you want improve you climbing. There is nothing more motivating than a week or two at a totally new crag to test your mettle. You’ll come back ten times more psyched to train than if you just keep plugging away at your home crag and gym.

Shift Your Emphasis to Endurance Oriented Climbing

There is scientific research to suggest that strength and power maximum potential occurs around age 25, based on Olympic athletes. This is not to say you can’t improve these factors later in life; quite the contrary. However, the POTENTIAL for improving endurance (like technique, above) is much, much greater.

To prove this point, think about running – how many 50+ year old 100 m sprinters do you know?  I know none. Talking about 10 km or marathon distances, there are many people who take this up later in life and do it very well.

Climbing is similar, I don’t have statistics but I would bet there are more climbers 40+ yrs of age climbing 8a / 5.13b than there are bouldering, say, V9 on rock. I suppose it depends what you call comparable between routes and boulders but I think I’ve proved my point.

Be Smart About Injuries

Injuries happen and are more likely if you are pushing your limits. Unless you’re a one of the luck few that don’t ever get significant injuries, learn to recognize and treat them with the help of a healthcare professional. It’s better to scale back your training for a bit, then come back strong, than it is to make something into a chronic, nagging injury that plays our for months or even years.

Consider Getting a Climbing Coach / Trainer / Advisor

I can say from my personal training background that middle age people have a LOT more on their minds than training – work and parenting stress to name a few! But on the upside, they generally have more disposable income than they did in their youth (hopefully at least). So in a way having a climbing coach – virtual or in-person – may be feasible because it allows you to “outsource” the thinking part, and to some extent the self discipline required to stick to a program. If you have to report back to your trusted advisor on what you’ve gotten up to in your training and diet, you will find it easier to stick to it.

In Conclusion

So you’re approaching, or have reached middle age and you still love climbing and want to get better. Don’t give up! Unless you’re already among the top climbers in the world, you still have some significant room to improve. And climbing is one of those sports you can still kick butt at well into the later years. So, identify what you want to get out of if, how much non-climbing time you’re able to sacrifice each week, and make the most of what resources you have!

Disclaimer: This blog post is intended for healthy, active climbers that already have a high level of fitness, know about climbing safety techniques and don’t have any pre-existing injuries, conditions or illness. If you don’t meet this criteria then you should seek professional advice prior to commencing any kind of climbing and training regimen.