Rock climbing tends to be a sport of plateaus and breakthroughs when it comes to level of ability. Currently, I'm stuck somewhere in the intermediate range, able to lead some sport routes at most climbing destinations around Colorado, but not any route worth bragging about. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with two great climbers – Paige Claassen and Sarah Janin – during a day spent on various routes at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. I asked each of them how I could make a jump to the next level of climbing and here's what they had to say.
Advice from Paige Claassen:
A professional Eddie Bauer-sponsored climber that's tackled more than 30 5.14-rated routes, with sights set on sending her first 5.15, Paige Claassen grew up climbing in the gym. While some climbers prioritize big mountain excursions or first ascents, Paige tends to focus on one very difficult route at a time, finding her success in reaching the top of a very technical climb.
According to Paige, those trying to make the jump to advanced-level climbing should be climbing as much as they can, while also allowing time for recovery to prevent injury. Paige recommends training for specific weaknesses. For example, if one isn't great at crimps, that's what they should be working on the most. Not good at toe hooks? Find a way to practice that.
One aspect of climbing that Paige stressed was that every climber isn't the same, meaning that different climbers have different abilities they should be working on. Because of this, Paige recommended customized advice from a climbing coach, if possible, acknowledging that this can be expensive, but also worth it. After all, coaches are able to spot weaknesses in a way that is difficult to do from the wall and they're able to form training plans specific to the individual climber.
According to Paige, another aspect of climbing that plays a bigger role at more advanced levels is sequence planning. Knowing where to save energy, where to flow quickly, and where to take breaks can be detrimental to the success of a climb. Paige recommends an observation period from the ground at the start of any new route.
One aspect of training that Paige was wary to recommend was strength training, including standard weight-training, but also exercises on climbing-specific tools, such as hangboards. While some people can add this aspect of training to their routine without issue, sudden changes in strength training can lead to injury. Proceed with caution and consider professional advice when it comes to adding exercises of this nature to a training routine.
Paige also noted that improved body movement can be a big deal when it comes to advancing in the sport of rock climbing. One at-home exercise she discovered while teaching during the 2020 pandemic involved stepping onto a sturdy chair or ledge in a way that mimics making a step on a rock wall. Place one foot on the elevated surface and step up. Practice this from different angles, near or far from the elevated surface, to mimic a varieties of step-ups that climbers may make.
Advice from Sarah Janin:
A guide for Colorado Mountain School, Sarah Janin's advice for intermediate climbers looking to make the jump to more difficult routes was a bit different from Paige's. In a way, this shows that every great climber is different and may find success via a different means, utilizing different strengths, but also different training methods.
According to Sarah, cross-training is important for climbers hoping to up their game. She finds that simply climbing more and trying to climb harder isn't quite enough. Training exercises like running and weight training can help expedite improvements when approached with care. Sarah also recommended utilizing physical therapy services to help prevent injury and expedite recovery.
One example of cross-training success that Sarah shared was of her experience spending more time in the swimming pool. She felt like this helped her build shoulder strength and mobility, something she attributes to helping her perform better on the rock wall.
While different climbers may utilize different strategies to improve their abilities, consistency was a common thread between the advice that both great climbers gave. Those seeking to make the jump from being an intermediate climber to becoming a more advanced climber probably won't be able to do so without additional commitment. Simply trying more difficult routes with the same gym schedule will likely keep progress relatively slow if other changes are not made.
So, there you have it – want to become a better climber? Work on your weaknesses with consistency and a high level of effort. Whether that means more time on the wall or more time in the gym, do what works for you and avoid overtraining, as this can lead to serious injury.