Category Archives: Base Fitness

Better Beta: 5 Ways to Break Through

Fall is sending season. Time for breaking into that next grade, sending that nemesis rig, and time for some good old-fashioned try-hard. Sending at your limit is all about the details – the micro beta, the mental game, and every iota of body tension you can muster.

With that in mind, here are 5 (often overlooked) tips for breaking through and sending your fall project.

TIP 1: Expose yourself to different styles

“I think exposure is the most important. If you vary the type and style you climb a lot, you’ll have a larger repertoire of knowledge to apply while climbing.” – Drew Ruana


TIP 2: Movement over Strength

“Focus on movement. A common misconception is that you need to be strong to climb hard routes, but being GOOD at climbing is so much cooler, and more efficient.” – Alex Johnson


TIP 3: Eliminate Worry So You Can Focus

“I think its a systems check. We’ve all tied a figure-eight knot so many times. We do it without thinking and yet a lot of people get nervous when the route starts getting hard above the bolt or cam and they worry about things they shouldn’t be – like their knot or belayer. Take the extra second on the ground to check your partner, have them check you, and test a piece if you need to. Make sure that when the time comes, you’re already totally confident they’ll work the way their supposed to. Who knows, you maybe would have sent through that slippery crux section if you were 100% focused on the moves and not at all focused on something else.” – Jason Haas


TIP 3: Practice Makes Perfect

“In general, I think climbers (both new and really old) don’t take time to PRACTICE climbing. We often tend to jump on the hardest thing we can get on, and that’s not effective. We should spend more time on slightly easier terrain, practicing the movement and other skills needed to climb well.” – Mike Anderson


Ari Novak Ice Climbing - Miami Ice - Cody, Wyoming

TIP 5: Master the Mental Game

“Jeff Lowe once told me 90% of climbing is above the shoulders, and I agree with him. Approaching climbing with the right mental approach and honest competency earned by learning and working the craft is key. Your greatest hopes and dreams can be achieved. If you put a climb on a pedestal it will stay there. If you put a climb on your level and work your ass off you’ll be on top of it faster than you think. It’s as much about attitude and vision as it is about the necessary physical strength to just get up something. Earn it both inside and out. To me ice climbing is not just about the external journey but the internal journey.” – Ari Novak


By Mike Anderson

As I said in my last article (Spring, Sprain, Summer, Send?), I’m having somewhat of a “Cinderella Season”…with things just clicking despite some minor adversity. As I bragged in that post, I sent one of my “life list” routes, Grand ‘Ol Opry (5.14c) at the Monastery. It went faster than I expected, leaving me with just under three weeks of “bonus climbing” before our big trip to Europe…what to do…in Colorado…in the summer?

We tried Wild Iris on the first weekend, and found it too hot, so instead, we opted for Independence Pass…maybe the coolest (coldest) climbing in Colorado.


Mike showing off after sending “Before there were Nine”, 13d at Indy Pass, back in July 2012.


Waaaay back in 2012, I worked and sent Tommy Caldwell’s route Before there were Nine (not his name, as far as I know). While I was working the route, Mark visited and we spotted a “futuristic” (for us) line of holds in the middle of the Grotto Wall that we were sure could hold a route.  I was living in Florida at the time, and the proposed route was out of my reach, literally and figuratively.

Mark returned, however, and bolted the line in the Fall of 2013, and sent it just over two years ago, establishing, Insurrection, 5.14c and the hardest route on Independence Pass. He described his epic send in this article from May, 2014. I always wished we could have worked the line together, but, as I said, it was beyond me, and I’m glad he got the First Ascent.


Mark Anderson on Insurrection, 5.14c, back in May 2014. Stretching for the sloping edge at the end of the redpoint crux. Check out those awesome micro-crimpers!!! Photo by Adam Sanders.

So, with about two weeks, I thought maybe I had a shot at sending Insurrection, and completing what Mark and I envisioned four years ago.  It would be really tight, but if it didn’t work out, I could return in the fall to finish it off.


The best part about climbing at the Pass is the camping!


I busted out of work on Wednesday, the 8th of June, with my good friend and trusty belayer, Shaun. I checked out the route, and it seemed plausible, but hard.  The holds were much smaller than those on Grand ‘Ol Opry, and the rests were not as good (or almost non-existent). Nevertheless, there was nowhere else cooler to climb, or better to prepare us for the granite-laden Zillertal region of Austria, so I figured I’d give it the old college try with the roughly 2 weeks I had left.


Mike Anderson on Insurrection, 5.14c. In the crux section by the 3rd bolt, setting up for a powerful undercling move. Janelle Anderson photo.


Since the 8th, I managed 5 climbing days on the Pass, and squeezed in two ARC’ing sessions at the gym to build up my ability to recover on the route.  This last Saturday, everything clicked…we had great weather (waking up at 4:45 AM helps with that!)  I had the moves dialed by now, and my fitness is peaking, thanks to the work put in on Grand ‘Ol Opry. I sent Insurrection on my first go of the day…a rarity for me. I usually get flash pumped on my first go, and really think of it as a warmup burn.  This time, I warmed up really carefully, took time to stretch thoroughly, and massage my forearms before the send.


Mike Anderson on Insurrection, 5.14c. Making the powerful undercling move. Janelle Anderson photo.

The climbing is a power-endurance test piece with hard, dynamic moves and little rests, so for me, the send was all about rationing my effort.  I really focused on breathing and relaxing my grip on every hold…this is especially important with dynamic climbing because you tend to tense up and stop breathing when you dyno, as you engage your core. The key is to recognize this, and make a conscious effort to relax after every dynamic move. The mileage I got on the rock while working Grand ‘Ol Opry really helped me dial-in this technique, and it showed on Insurrection.


Mike Anderson on Insurrection, 5.14c. Sticking the flake and getting ready to make a strenuous clip.  Janelle Anderson photo.


Insurrection is a brilliant route! It’s in the center of Independence Pass’s most prominent crag, and one of Colorado’s most historic sport cliffs. It’s now the centerpiece of that crag. The rock is excellent, and the moves are really cool, especially if you love crimping like I do!

My experience is limited, but I think the 5.14c rating is legit, and I think I’m in a good position to make a comparison to Grand ‘Ol Opry. GOO took me 6 climbing days, and 14 days from start to finish. I was able to send Insurrection in slightly less time…5 climbing days spread over 11, but that was with the benefit of the fitness and technique I developed working GOO. GOO is longer, and has more moves to dial in, but it has much bigger handholds and pretty good jam-crack rests, one huge rest right before the crux. Insurrection is in your face from the start on very small, crimpy holds, and you have to do a long, 3-bolt crux section with no shakes. You really have to hold it together mentally. Regardless, it’s a great route, and it brings Independence Pass back into prominence as a cutting-edge sport crag, the best summer destination in Colorado.

I’m feeling my strongest ever now, at the age of 39, and I have really high hopes for Europe. This winter and spring were humbling for me, and I had to re-dedicate myself to training and climbing. My birthday was May 5th, and at that time I told myself: “it’s a new year…forget about 38 because 39 is going to be your best year yet!”  It’s working so far, and I plan to keep it up! Training on Trango’s Rock Prodigy Forge, with it’s specially engineered micro cripmp, has really paid off. My crimping is the strongest it’s ever been and it’s showing in my climbing.

Mike hang small crimp

How I got this way! Thank you Forge hangboard for your awesome micro crimps that help me train smart and climb hard!


Thanks Mark for having the courage to bolt this line and see it through to a route. Your passion and dedication are a huge inspiration to us all!

Climbing Gym Workouts for Improving Endurance

January is a pretty popular time to start a training program for many people, what with the combination of New Year’s resolutions and falling off the exercise/healthy eating wagon over the holidays.  And for climbers, this time of the year is the perfect time to start building a training foundation with which to get ready for spring season.  A year ago at this time, I was starting my first training cycle with the Rock Climber’s Training Manual.  I saw great results from the program not only during the spring, but throughout the year, and I’m optimistic for similar gains this year.

For those of you not familiar with the program, the Rock Climber’s Training Manual (aka Rock Prodigy Method, reviewed here) takes the climber through 4 distinct conditioning phases – Base Fitness, Strength, Power, and Power Endurance.  The intended result is a peak sending season that can be appropriately timed for prime climbing seasons or special trips.  The goal of the first phase (Base Fitness), is to gradually build a foundation of endurance that the body can build on during the latter phases to come.

Another day, another auto-belay...

Another day, another auto-belay…

The following is a compilation of my favorite endurance activities to do during my Base Fitness phase, which usually lasts 2-3 weeks for me.   ***On outdoor days, I stray from the plan and just hop on what everyone else is doing :)

ARC TRAINING – Most efficient, and most boring.

This exercise is what the RCTM authors recommend for Base Fitness workouts.  ARC stands for Aerobic Restoration and Capillarity Training, but you don’t need to remember that word.  All you need to know is that for it do be done correctly, you need to feel kind of pumped, but not desperate, the entire time your on the wall.  The RCTM authors recommend that ARC-ing be done 2-4x per week (lower if you are also climbing outdoors during this time, higher if you are not), for 60-90 minutes per session.  As long as each set is at least 20 minutes long, you can break your total “on the wall” time up however you want – ie, three 30 minute sessions versus two 45 minute sessions.  I have found shorter sessions to be a lot less mind-numbing and easier to stay focused.

I’ve also found that changing up the type of ARC-ing between sets is helpful mentally.  For instance, doing one set by doing low traversing across the entire gym, and the next one on an auto-belay.  If you are lucky enough to have access to a tread wall, you can simply change up the angle.  It’s a lot more fun (but a little more time consuming) to ARC with a partner – choose a section of wall with several routes in your grade range, and take turns running laps both up and down, ideally not coming off the wall at all during your set, then be the belay slave while your partner does the same.

GYM MILEAGE – Moderately efficient, and is always fun.

Baby Zu doing a bit of her own traversing while watching big brother’s climbing team practice…

So maybe you can’t convince anyone to belay you for 30 minutes at a time.  Doesn’t mean your stuck traversing 3 feet off the ground for your entire session.  If you’ve got a partner, climb!  Choose routes that are challenging but still doable while tired, and log as many as you can with minimal rest in between.  Don’t get sucked into hang dogging a project, and don’t spend a lot of extra time talking in between burns.

BOULDER FOR POINTS – Least efficient, but always fun.

This is similar to a bouldering interval workout that I like to do during my Power Endurance phase, but a lot less rigid.  Basically, climb as many boulder problems as you can in 45 minutes or so, giving yourself a point for every V grade you send (V1 = 1 point, V5 = 5 points, etc.  If I’m including V0’s, I will say that two V0s = 1 point.)  Start easy and slowly progress your way up to your typical onsight level, but not beyond.  You should aim to be on the wall for as much of the set as possible, and only doing problems that you can still send while tired.  (Problems that have been up for a while and you have wired are great for this!)  Set a minimum point goal to achieve, and then the next time you do the workout, try and increase your score.

COMBINING ACTIVITIES – Best balance of efficiency and fun.

Though it may not be perfect execution of the RCTM program, I’ve found that I stay committed a lot better when I have more variety in my workouts, so my typical endurance workout often features a combination of the above exercises.  After a couple of strictly ARC-ing workouts, I usually start adding some of the other activities into the mix, still aiming for 90 minutes of workout time divided into 3 or so sets.

If you are after a strict, regimented training program, you probably will prefer the RCTM program over my “hybrid-ish” methods.  Buy the book, and jump in full force so you can be crushing come spring time!  But if you are new to training, or like me, are constantly trying to find a balance between family, training, and everyday life, you can still be in plenty good shape for spring season.  While it’s still probably helpful to buy the book, use it as a resource to structure a loose training plan that works for you (and potentially the rest of your family’s) schedule, and then do the best you can with what you’ve got, switching things up as needed.

That being said, who else is boosting their endurance for the sending season ahead?

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The Most Important Phase

Throughout my first several years of systematic training, I believed the Strength Phase (in which hangboard training is the primary activity) was the most “important” phase. That is, I thought the quality of the Strength Phase was the key predictor of whether the upcoming season would be successful or not. If the phase was flat, I improved very little, or failed to surpass my personal bests on most grips, the season was doomed. If I maintained laser focus during each hangboard workout, saw steady progress, and ended on a high note, I could expect to crush my projects a few weeks later.

That theory wreaked havoc on my psyche for years, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that further reinforced it. If my Strength Phase was good, I would enter the Power Phase with enough momentum to carry me through my Power Phase and eventually onto the rock. If the Strength Phase was poor, I would mail it in for the rest of the season, resigned to muddle through on easier projects. A quirk of fate finally provided the test-case that disproved my theory, though it took me many years to comprehend what transpired.

Working my way back into shape in the spring of 2004 on Spank The Monkey, 5.12a, Smith Rock.

Working my way back into shape in the spring of 2004 on Spank The Monkey, 5.12a, Smith Rock.

In the spring of 2004, I trained like a maniac in anticipation of quitting my job and embarking on a year of dirtbag climbing. I had only been training for a few years, and I was still seeing a letter grade or more of improvement each season. I expected to make huge gains, and I did on the hangboard. I entered my Power Phase with new bests on each grip. And then I got the flu. I was useless for a solid week (though I still hauled my infected carcass to the gym a few times in hopes of maintaining my fitness–sorry Albuquerque!). Here was the first example in my career of a stellar Strength Phase followed by a piss-poor Power Phase, and the results were telling.

Once I recovered from the illness I resumed my training schedule, but I could tell I wasn’t at my best. Not only had I not improved, it seemed I had regressed. The previous season I sent my first 5.13b, and was close to sending Smith Rock’s Aggro Monkey (5.13b) during a one-week road trip. Now I was completely shut down on .13b, and struggling to climb .13a. For the next month I climbed outside every other day, struggling to regain the previous season’s fitness. I managed to redpoint a pair of 13a’s during this time, and early in the second month I finally sent Aggro Monkey. I was stoked, but I should have managed all of these ascents in the first couple of weeks, if not more difficult climbs.

Attempting Aggro Monkey, 5.13b, Smith Rock.

Attempting Aggro Monkey, 5.13b, Smith Rock.

Essentially it took me an entire month of climbing outside daily to overcome the lack of an effective Power Phase (had I been working, I would not have had the opportunity to climb so much, and I likely would not have recovered my fitness at all, resulting in another season down the drain). Furthermore, I never demonstrated any quantifiable improvement that season; I trained like a fiend, climbed outside much more than I ever had in my life, and only managed to return to my previous level of fitness. For many years I attributed this disappointment to the flu. But then I had kids. Now I get the flu every year and it rarely affects my climbing like it did in 2004 (despite being older and generally weaker/whiny-er).

Over the past several years my goals and circumstances have forced me to push through at full speed to the Power Phase regardless of how the Strength Phase goes (at my age, I can’t afford any more bad seasons!). Since then I’ve had several successful seasons that followed relatively poor Strength phases, and vice versa. Nearly every fall season is preceded by a mediocre Strength Phase during the month of August, in which I’m overweight from riding my bike all summer, and the temps are too warm for optimal hangboard training. And each September, as better conditions return and my weight drops, I’ve managed to get my season back on track. As result, I now believe that the quality of the Power Phase is usually the best predictor of my season’s success (although I don’t believe it’s a hard and fast rule). That spring 2004 season wasn’t derailed because the flu sabotaged my fitness, it was derailed because the flu killed my momentum, distracting me from persevering through the Power Phase.

Based on this data, it would be reasonable to predict that my Winter 2011-12 Season would be far superior to my Fall 2011 Season. The reality? In the Fall of 2011 I sent my hardest route to date; in the Winter of 2011-12 I sent one 5.12a, one 13a, injured an A2 pulley, and then spent literally the next 6 months rehab’ing my injury.

Based on this data, it would be reasonable to predict that my Winter 2011-12 Season would be far superior to my Fall 2011 Season. The reality? In the Fall of 2011 I sent my hardest route to date; in the Winter of 2011-12 I sent one 5.12a, one 13a, injured an A2 pulley, and then spent literally the next 6 months rehab’ing my injury.

First, the Power Phase is important because, if you’ve done well, the Strength Phase has created a bunch of big dumb muscles. You should be stronger, but not necessarily capable of efficiently applying that strength to the rock. The Power Phase will hone those big dumb muscles into a well-coordinated machine that can perform with speed and precision on the rock. But foremost, the Power Phase is critical because it is often the ‘transition phase’. This is the period during your training cycle when you shift your emphasis from training on plastic to climbing on actual rock. The beginning of a Transition Phase provides the final opportunity to pour every ounce of will into your training, ensuring you are in tip-top condition before deteriorating skin, weather, and other facts of outdoor climbing interfere. The latter portion of the phase is often the time when you will select, or confirm the season’s primary performance goals. During this time, you need your head ‘in the game’ as much as possible, to focus on training, but also to get your skin in shape, manage body weight, mentally prepare for your goals, obsess over the 10-day forecast, line up partners, and organize other logistics to facilitate effective outdoor climbing from day one.

If you’re unable to attend to these matters, it’s easy to find yourself at the wrong crag, at the wrong time of year, with no clear goals, or on a project that is too hard or out of condition. I’ve found that a few bad days early on can sink an entire season, causing me to question my fitness and doubt all the hard work I’ve done, thus undermining my motivation to continue. For that reason, this phase of my cycle is hands down the most important in determining the success of my season.

If you're training for a (relatively) crux-less pumpfest, like some routes found at the Red, the Power Endurance Phase might make more sense as a Transition Phase.  Sean Corpron rises again to crush Resurection, 5.12c.

If you’re training for a (relatively) crux-less pumpfest, like some routes found at the Red, the Power Endurance Phase might make more sense as a Transition Phase. Sean Corpron rises again to crush Resurrection, 5.12c.

For some climbers, other phases are more critical. For example, if you climb at a crag like the Red, where virtually all of your projects are long enduro pump-fests with cruxes few and far between, the Base Fitness and Power Endurance Phases will likely be the most important for you, because (from a purely physiological standpoint) you will almost always be limited by your body’s ability to supply energy to tiring muscles. Your Power Phase will probably be minimized, and so the Power Endurance Phase may serve as your transition phase (in my case, by the time I begin my PE Phase I’m almost always neck-deep in my season’s project. During such times motivation and focus are plentiful and it’s easy to summon maximal attention and effort for training, recovery, and climbing).

Finger strength will eventually become limiting for the vast majority of performance-oriented climbers.

Finger strength will eventually become limiting for the vast majority of performance-oriented climbers.

This is not to say the Strength Phase is unimportant. It too is the ‘most important’ season, but for different reasons. While I no longer believe it is an accurate predictor of the ensuing season’s quality, I do believe that for many climbers it is the most critical factor in determining long-term improvement. Unlike some other aspects of fitness, strength is “cumulative”. That is, you can build on your strength from one season to the next. Once a climber has learned and refined the fundamental climbing skills, finger strength will likely determine his or her long-term progress in the sport. Finger strength takes a long time to improve, so it’s important to start early, and stick with it, season after season, year after year. One season of poor strength training every other year will not have an enormous impact in the long run, but if a climber routinely sleepwalks through hangboard sessions, year-in, year-out, their progress over half a decade will be severely hampered.

In the end, it may be appropriate to take the Zen approach, that the most important phase is the phase you’re in right now. Each phase is important in its own way, and included in the program for specific reasons. If a phase is worth doing at all, then it is worth doing well, with maximum focus, optimal intensity during training, and proper attention to preparation and recovery.

While I’m probably closer to the end of my climbing career than I am to the beginning, I’m still counting on achieving significant improvement in finger strength over the coming years to help me achieve my long-term goals. But I also realize that I’m likely near my career fitness peak, and the time I have near this peak is limited. I still have a lot of routes on my ‘to do list’, so I need to make the most of every individual season (alternatively, a younger climber who takes the long view might decide that near term success is unimportant and solely emphasis long-term improvement through finger strength training). I will continue to strive to get the most out of each Strength Phase in order to realize as much long-term improvement as possible. As the Strength Phase ends, I will stoke my motivation so that I can optimize my Power Phase in order to get the most out of the climbing opportunities that are immediately in front of me.

Learn about Designing a Transition Phase here..

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