Transitioning from Gym to Crag

By Neil Gresham
Training outdoor

Barbara Zangerl takes her gym training to the crag on this early season attempt of the trad pitch Prinzip Hoffnung (E10, 7a), Bürser Platte, Austria. Zangerl redpointed the route in March for its third ascent. Photo by Beat Kammerlander.

No matter how many hours you put in at the gym, the first few early-season outdoor excursions can be frustrating. Why is it that you can tolerate a pump while running laps indoors, yet it overwhelms you as soon as you have to hold on to place gear or hang draws? Often it feels like you’re back to square one.While some climbers appear to make a seamless transition from plastic to stone, for most of us there is a gulf of difference between these two contrasting vertical media. Of course, there’s no substitute for experience, but nonetheless a few key tips can minimize those early-season problems.

1. Pace Training: Slow Down

We all tend to sprint up gym routes at three times the speed we climb on rock. Outdoors the holds are nearly always harder to see and the sequences trickier to read, so for your last few sessions at the gym, force yourself to climb slowly. Pause for three or four seconds for each hand and foot move to simulate the rhythm of a typical sport onsight. Alternatively, if you are preparing for trad, count for five or six seconds per move and then, every fourth or fifth move, pause for a minute regardless of the size of the holds. This exercise will improve your ability to shake out in awkward positions and remind you how it feels to fiddle in wires when you’re pumped out of your mind. For sport onsighting, stay on the wall for eight to 12 minutes and for trad stay on for up to 15 to 20. Climb up and down if necessary (using an easier route for the down climb), or lower off quickly, pull the rope and continue leading upward. If you can’t find a patient belayer, then perform this exercise on a bouldering wall by following circuits or climbing around at random, provided the territory isn’t too tough and you’re not hogging the space.

2. Pointer Training: Make it Awkward


Whether we care to admit it, when training, most of us gravitate toward sessions that we find comfortable—both physically and mentally. Rock is rarely so generous, especially when it comes to onsighting. Even if you are familiar with the rock type, you never know what’s coming next and the route may dish out an uncomfortable surprise. To break out of the common trap of climbing in your comfort zone, add a rock-specific onsighting element to your endurance sessions—but you’ll need a motivated and like-minded training partner. Take turns using a stick to point each other around randomly made-up sequences on the bouldering wall. The idea is to maximize the element of awkwardness, for example by suddenly going quiet and leaving your partner stranded in an awkward position, desperately awaiting instruction. Give the person hard moves and sustained sections, interspersed with awkward resting positions, and aim to be as unpredictable and sadistic as possible. After all, your friend will soon be returning the favour! However, don’t overcook it to the point that your partner keeps falling. The longer you keep the climber on the wall, the more pain you will force him to endure. It’s no surprise that few climbers do this type of training, as it is arguably the hardest that exists for climbing. However, to prepare you for early-season rock, there is nothing to match it. Use the training guidelines given below.

3. Boulder on Rock: The Technique Element

Sharpen your skills in a bouldering environment first, rather than attempting to find your groove in the middle of a gnarly runout. If you don’t have access to real boulders, boulder at the base of the crag before jumping on routes. This practice will hone your technique for that rock type and give you a psychological advantage. The first thing you’ll notice when you touch rock is that the handholds are less positive and more complicated to grip than plastic, so it pays to look more carefully and check alternatives before pulling on. Next, of course, is that the footholds are smaller and more subtle, so try slowing your footwork down a little to maximize precision. A common mistake is to go for the bigger footholds rather than the best positioned ones, so only step high or wide as a last resort and generally try to make small steps. Additionally, the body positions may be subtly different than in the gym and require a refined degree of balance. Make a conscious effort to direct your hips all the way over the highest foot after stepping up. Concentrate on grassroots techniques such as smearing and feeling your way up features. Scan and consider using every part of the rock rather than climbing from hold to hold as you do at the gym. Even the most experienced climbers will find the need to revisit these techniques before they can expect their rock grade to align with their gym grade after a winter inside. And, of course, do an easy warm up route (or two) as well, in order to get that all-important warm-up pump. Beware the classic trap of warming up on something too easy through fear of over-cooking it.

4. The Mental Link

Ultimately, your inability to stay relaxed and focused is the main limiting factor for your early-season forays onto rock. Unfamiliarity breeds anxiety, so prepare to feel less confident about trusting your protection and making long runouts. Don’t fight the feeling. Build up gradually with a few easier ticks and perhaps a few practice falls either indoors or on a safe route at the crag. The flip side is that you shouldn’t hold yourself back for too long. Take a couple of weeks or even a month to build up through the grades and reach your previous level. And don’t forget the holistic element to your training. The crag is not a gym, so take a moment to breathe the air and scope the view before you head out. You’ll connect with the rock much better if you’re in tune with your surroundings.


This article was published in Rock and Ice 219 (July 2014)


Neil Gresham is one of Britain’s best-known all-rounders. He made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10, 7a) in the Peak District and the first ascent of Olympiad (8b) in Pembroke (Britain’s hardest deep water solo). Gresham has put up routes in Brazil, Mongolia, Cuba, Iceland, Norway, Greece, Vietnam, and has been a pioneer of training and coaching methods for 20 years.


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