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  • Writer's pictureGordon McArthur

Top 10 Tips for Competition Dry -Tooling/mixed/ice climbing

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

Storm Giant - Photo by Philip Quade

Base level of general strength & Mobility

To be active in any sport, giving your body a good base level of strength is important. Stepping into the competitive realm, specifically dry-tool/mixed/ice climbing, the base level is a must. Your core, your upper body, lower back, legs, and shoulders; they all need to be on a solid foundation. Basically head to toe needs to be firm. Pullups, squats, dead lifts, shoulder press, pushups, dips, tricep extensions; these exercises will give you the foundation moving into sport specific strength training. Of course, not to forget the grave importance of mobility. Your ability to move from A to B needs to be smooth, using the least amount of energy as possible. You don’t need to be able to do the splits, but less time relying on upper body will save you energy for when it’s actually needed. Get your body loose, grease your hips, and flow.

Sport specific strength/power

Once you’ve spent some dedicated time on building a solid foundation of strength, you can then shift your focus to more sport specific strength and power (Power=strength + speed). For competition climbing, the more specific you can train, the better. Take the basic pullup for example (an essential movement in climbing) and then add lateral movement once at the peak of the pull–now you have a typewriter. A typewriter uses the upwards motion of a pullup, but then adds a new dimension of left to right, engaging so much more of your upper body, helping with one-arm lock-off power (as your locking off with one arm, pressing out horizontally with the other). Lock-off power is very much needed when competing in ice climbing or drytooling. To be clear, a one-arm pullup is not a necessity but, lock-off power is certainly helpful when reaching for big moves upwards or laterally. Competition climbing is very 3-dimensional, so being able to sustain a level of power over the course of the route, from start to finish can be the difference between topping out or timing out. Adapt your basic strength into specific movements that relate to the sport. Besides from “fitness gym” fitness, I also like “limit bouldering” with ice axes. Take a series of hard training moves (8-10 moves) that push you to your absolute limit. You are performing at 100% through these few moves. What you’re doing is recruiting your ultimate level of power, which then gives you more endurance on longer routes. The idea is that your level of fitness is at 100%, but that you only have to perform at 70-80% thus allowing you to hang on for longer. You don’t want your body “red lining” half way up the route. You want to have enough reserves for those last few moves, so that when you need to “turn it on”, you have enough juice left to punch it to the chains.

A good training plan

One of the most important things to competing, or going after focused goals, is a solid training plan. It can take years of practice to refine and define what works best for you, but without specific direction, you can find yourself going in circles. I like to break up my plan into three cycles: Strength, Power endurance, and then sport specific technical movement (focusing on refining certain skills and movement that are typically seen at competitions). With these three cycles, I usually take 8 to 12 weeks, depending on your timelines for the competition season. What’s important within your training plan is to change things up. Often your body can hit a plateau if you do the same things over and over. It needs change. Listen to your body and adapt to what it needs. Document everything you do so that you have a reference point to gains or losses. There’s tons of literature out there on how to set up a training plan. But what matters most is what works best for you. Everyone is different, and does things differently. Your body is original and needs what IT needs. Map out your goals, then some timelines (based on competition dates, conditions of routes, etc) and work back from there. Set intermittent goals, that lead you to the ultimate prize (which is reaching your absolute potential). Be willing to change, adapt, and sometimes even go back to the drawing board. We try, learn, fail, and try again. And with some luck, you’ll sort out the best training plan for you, and be set to try your best with all the right tools in place.

Hanging from tools as much as possible

As mentioned, sport specific training is the key to success. I hang from my tools all the time. Whether on a route somewhere in the mountains, in my training gym, or from the moulding of a doorway at my hotel. Be comfortable with the idea of hanging from your tools…for as long as you can. To increase your ability to hang from tools for longer periods of time…takes time. Get yourself a Tabata app and do 5x5 repeaters (10 seconds on, 10 seconds off x5 sets x5 rounds – 25 hangs). Once you can do that comfortably, drop down to doing it with one arm. And once that seems good, add weight. I do this hanging straight up and down, as well as in the figure 4 and 9 positions. I also add variations to make things harder–like hang in the figure 4 position for 10 secs, then drop down (without feet touching) and do 5 pullups, then go back up into a figure 4 on the other arm and hang for 10 seconds. I try to shoot for 10 times. You can play around with how long you hang for in each set. This is just a base/guide. Climbing outside on drytooling/mixed routes is also, of course, a huge asset to increasing your ability to hold onto your tools for longer. The golden rule to getting better at climbing…is climbing. The more you can climb on tools, obviously the better. Sometimes, however, access to outside climbing is limited–we have busy lives, crags are too far, weather sucks, etc. Heck, put to eye-hooks in the opening of a doorway, clip two biners to each hook, and boom…a spot to hang from tools. If you have kids, get one to climb onto your back for added weight…they’ll love it and you’ll get a good training session out of it. You can literally get a good training session in, in under 30 mins.

Time on the terrain

You can have the best beach bod out there, but it will do you no good if you don’t know how to move on the terrain. Your bustling biceps may look good on the ground, but they’ll do you no good if you’re gassin’ out or freakin’ out half way up a route. Get out there, climb on terrain that will push you physically, or mentally. Whether outside on dry tooling routes, or on a woody that you and your buds built, the more time on routes that cross over to the competitive world, the better. Get upside down, work on technically hard moves, practice figure 4’s and 9’s. Swing around aggressively from your tools (in a hanging position). Be ready to make decisions with confidence so that when it’s go time, you’re head (and body) is ready for action. Being mentally stable in the moment will be the difference between having a good shot at sending and backing down from lack of confidence. More time spent in the moment gives us the ability to flow without question. Be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Compete as much as you can

A competition mindset is not easy to come by. It’s not all about strength, or being good at the specific movement you’re competing in. You need to know “how” to compete too. Strategy, preparation, and in the moment; all things that come into play to compete at YOUR best. You need to understand how that realm works (the movement, etc), building a “bag of tricks” to utilize under certain circumstances (tricks meaning you know what move to apply at what time). Obviously competing in the sport you’re dedicated to is important, but heck, get stuck in to any competition realm (in any sport, whether you’re good or not) and practice being ready, handling adversity, and keeping your mind in check (confident in what you’re capable of). Often I’ll try things that have nothing to do with competitive climbing, just to feel that anxiousness of the unknown, allowing me another opportunity to control my mind, and not worry about the outcome, only that whats infront of me…in that moment. It’s important to learn that we can’t control the outcome, only what’s present. We can do our best to prepare for all things, but in the moment we need to be confident in what to do.

The kit you use

There’s tons of different brands out there, and every one of them offers something slightly different than the other. I’ve spent a lot of time trying different equipment (tools, boots, gloves, harnesses, helmets, etc) but there is no real answer to what’s the best, only that what fits you the best, and how you perform on that specific piece of gear. When it comes to ice axes (likely the most important tool in the “tool box”) try a bunch out, and see what works best for you. Ask your friends, or other competitors what they use, and that will give you a good start. In competition dry-tooling/mixed/ice climbing, there’s specific brands out there that make tools for that very terrain (with different pick angles, specific shaft geometry bla bla bla), and so it would be a good idea to try some of those brands out. Something to think about too; which tool can you use for competitions AND outside climbing also. Budgets come into play as tools are expensive–can only afford one set? Pick the best tool that adapts to multiple terrains. They’re out there don’t worry. Be confident in your kit, know the functionality of everything you use. Try, compare, choose. Tune things (like how you sharpen your picks) to YOUR perfection. And always have back up (extra picks, extra gloves, extra front points). Organize everything so that everything can be found. Especially when at the competition scene.

A sound mind; YOUR absolute

It doesn’t matter if you’re the strongest climber out there…if your mind is mush, you’ll get beat 9 times out of 10. We all have busy lives filled with responsibility, to do lists, and relationships that demand date nights. But in the moment, you need to know how to “turn it all off”. Knowing how to ignore intimidation (from other competitors), staying to your game plan no matter what you see others doing, keeping to your confidence in what you know, what you are capable of, all of these things create a steady mindset, allowing you to compete at your absolute level. Know the difference between “on the podium” and “being a champion”. Your goal is NOT to be on the podium, but to be your absolute. A champion is not the one on top of the podium. A champion is the one that can look at him or herself in the mirror, after all the dust is settled, and know that they gave 100% effort from start to finish, that they have a full heart at the end of it all. The podium is a by-product, a result that we can’t control. But having a sound mind, allowing for YOUR perfection to be unleashed, that is absolute, and that’s a champion.

Learn, adapt, progress

Being a competitive athlete; reaching goals, going after dreams, takes time and a whole lot of patience. Everyone wants to get into the ring and be the champ. But stepping out into the unknown (if you’re just getting started), learning to fit into “the scene” of competitions…all of it comes with absorbing your surroundings, taking one step at a time, and remembering to breathe. From competition to competition, things change, competitors change, whether, travel, food, cultures; being tossed out of your comfort zone…you need to adapt, shift, and adjust…all the time. Over the years I’ve changed how I wrap the grip tape on the handles of my tools over 100 times. Once you learn how to do such things, you begin to progress, becoming more confident with what you do, and how you handle “it all”. But again, time demands patience. Take the time to learn, be ready to bend around the unknown, and keep focused on how you can progress. And lastly, keep dedicated to your motivation. It can be tough out there…so let your passion protect you.

The fun in climbing

Climbing captivated me because it’s a world of fun. But over the years, my view on fun has adapted in accepting that fun doesn’t always have the same meaning. Sometimes fun is relaxing, enjoyable in the sense that there isn’t stress, but simply just a good time. On the other side, fun can be exhilarating, electric, and stressful all at the same time. The competition scene isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes work, dedication, and constant focus. But, even on the coldest of miserable days, whether baring down during a training session, getting after it in the mountains with friends, or on the competitive stage, I find the fun in what I’m doing. I find the joy in trying hard, pushing myself, and seeing what I’m capable of. No, it’s not a walk in the park with my family…relaxing and simple (which is also fun), but it’s a different kind of fun that I’ve found myself loving. It’s easy to lose sight of why we do things, forgetting about how things are fun, and in those moments, take a step back and remind yourself why you started doing it, go back to what you know, what you believe in, and resurge the passion you have for (competitive) climbing. Take the “begin again” approach and start over with…this is so fun.

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