Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part II)

Part I discussed the importance of goal-setting for climbing and provided some basic examples specific to the realm of mounaineering. Part II will discuss some more specifics on goal-setting for rock climbing.

The subject of goal-setting in general life has been covered by countless self-help books and seminars. Two fantastic resources specific to climbing are Todd Skinner’s outstanding book “Beyond the Summit”, which details his expedition to free the East Face of Trango Tower, and Arno Ilgner’s “The Rock Warrior’s Way”. Both of these are highly recommended for the goal-oriented climber.

Over the ten years or so that I’ve really focused on improving my rock climbing I’ve had several great seasons, several terrible seasons, and many mediocre seasons. The one consistent aspect of all my great seasons was that they all started with a grand goal. At this point I can usually predict if a season will be “good” or “bad” based on the quality of the goals I set for the season. Training for “general fitness” is a surefire path to disappointment in my experience.

So, how does one go about selecting a good goal? It sounds simple enough but you would be surprised how difficult it can be. And since the goal itself is possibly the single most important factor in determining success, its important to set a good goal. Lets start by discussing a poor goal: “I want to climb a 5.12”. Seems reasonable enough, and if popularity were a predictor of quality, this would be the best possible goal in the sport of rock climbing. But there are atleast three major problems with this goal. First, grades are subjective. Unless you set out to climb a sandagged 12d, you will never really know if you achieved your goal or not. If you are capable of climbing a sandbagged 12d, you should probably set your sights a little higher. Instead most people will select the local 12a trade route, and if you’re like me, every time someone utters “11d”, “soft”, or “this would be blah blah blah at Rifle” about your precious trophy route your heart will sink. Don’t live and die by other people’s opinion of your goal. Stay away from grades because they are subjective and goals need to have concrete finish lines.

Second, the goal lacks specifics. Remember, part of the point of goal setting is to steer your training plan. Do you know if “a 5.12” will require good pinch strength, improved endurance or better gear placing skills? Its pretty hard to say since “a 5.12” is so vague. It could entail anything from a 20-foot horizontal roof deep-water-solo to a 1000′ 60 degree slab on marginal gear.

Finally, how motivating is the goal? I’m an engineer and even I’m not inspired by numbers. I’m inspired by stunning lines in a beautiful setting, interesting history, and the heroic characters of each generation that made the sport what it is today. The goal should be there, ready to prop you up at moments of weakness. It should be posted next to your hangboard, your campus board, even next to the pantry, to remind you what you are suffering for. Now what is more inspiring, this:

or this:

Dreamin, 5.12a, Smith Rock, OR

Here’s an example of an improved goal: “I want to redpoint Latin Lover at Smith Rock.” One thing right off the bat, there is no need to debate the grade. Some people say 12a, some say 11d; who cares? The goal has nothing to do with the grade; they are totally unrelated. A goal is really just a stepping stone to the next, bigger goal anyway, so what does the number have to do with it? The goal might even be “easier” than something you’ve already climbed, but requires a new skillset or exploits a weakness that, once improved, will provide access to other, more challenging goals. So forget numbers.

Next, the style of ascent is defined (at least sport climbers know what you mean). The original goal left some ambiguity. Would a toprope ascent, with hangs, count? The new goal makes it clear the intent is to climb from the ground, on lead, with no hangs or falls, but rehearsal of the moves is acceptable (but you can continue to argue with your trad climber uncle about whether or not its necessary to hang the draws on the send).

Finally, a specific route has been identified. This provides tremendous amounts of useful information to help plan a training strategy to achieve the goal. We know the route is dead vertical, with lots of small, sharp edges, some thin pockets, and small footholds. The route requires 50 or so feet of continuous climbing without much rest. It might even be possible to determine a rough number of hand movements required between rests. This information can be used to determine some focus areas for training. For example:

-Crimp strength on half-pad and smaller edges
-Footwork on vertical terrain
-Lockoff endurance on vertical terrain
-Local Endurance on small edges
-Skin toughness on finger pads

The next step is to identify the ideal time of year to attempt this specific route, arrange for partners, request vaction time from work and construct a training schedule that will maximize fitness at the perfect time. All of these critical items would have been nearly impossible to plan properly without a specific route in mind.

Next comes the easy part, following through until the goal is realized. From the anchor, with the redpoint in the bag, you will have a new perspective from which to spy that next, harder goal.

A good gooal route will provide the inspiration to get you through the duldrums of training.


5 thoughts on “Goal-Setting for Climbing (Part II)

  1. Really great blog! Keep up the great work! My wife and I started training, using the Making of a Rockprodigy, about a year ago. We have been completely blown away by the results (e.g. we still feel like we should be projecting the crag warm-ups, not warming up on them). We really appreciate the effort you put into writing up your approach.

    Anyway, I have set a “big hairy goal” this year (Virgin No More, Penitente Canyon), but wasn’t sure about how to incorporate this goal into my training beyond fingerboarding on really small holds. A couple of more specific questions, these probably obvious, but perhaps I am just really dense:

    What types of technique drills would you do to improve for a thin project? My technique and tactical approaches are likely a place where I can make big gains.

    How do you approach training in the gym? I still find a large portion of my gains come from working on technique (e.g. better foot work and breathing) and tactics (e.g. optimizing a rest and improving my clip positions). So I try to include a fair amount of gym climbing. However, most gym routes seem to have huge feet and promote more “thuggish” style climbing.

    Finally, if you are going to spend a limited amount of time at the crag where your project is (simply flogging the route every weekend is not an option) how would you still work your project without constant access to it?

    I apologize in advanced for this being overly vague and thanks for any help you can provide!


  2. Pingback: Goal Setting for Climbing Follow-Up | Lazy H Climbing Club

    • Hello Mark,

      Thanks so much for the response! I will be at the anchor replacement and will definitely take you up on your offer to discuss this more.

      Lets just hope the weather man’s prediction is wrong.



  3. Pingback: Training Intensity | Lazy H Climbing Club

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