If you’ve thought of taking up sport climbing, you’re not alone.
Climbing—either outside on rock faces or inside climbing gyms—has grown from a niche sport to a popular activity for all ages, thanks in part to movies like “Free Solo” and jaw-dropping Instagram photos.
One sign that sport climbing has arrived: Its first-ever inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo (held in 2021 because of the pandemic).
Participants say it is a great physical and mental workout. “It’s always different,” says Kyra Condie of Salt Lake City, who placed 11th overall in the women’s competition at Tokyo.
Condie likes the individual aspect of the sport, saying, “It’s 100% on you whether you win or lose.”
How Sport Climbing Differs From Regular Climbing
Within the world of climbing, there are two main camps: traditional and sport.
In traditional climbing, climbers establish a route, generally outside on rock walls, and place protection gear (like nuts, chocks and cams) as they ascend.
In sport climbing, climbers clip into permanent, pre-placed safety anchors along a specific route. The focus is more on the physical challenge and solving difficult moves, either in a climbing gym or outdoors.
Three Climbing Disciplines
At the 2020 Olympics, sport climbing was a combined event composed of three distinct disciplines—lead, bouldering and speed—each requiring different skill sets.
“To win a medal, it’s like you have to train for the 100 meters, 400 meters and mile in track,” says North Carolina climber Kai Lightner.
Here’s what each discipline entails:
Lead climbing. Athletes are given six minutes and attempt to climb as high as they can on a wall that’s 12+ meters—nearly 40 feet—in height. Climbers clip into fixed bolts along the route and are given points based on each hold they reach. The athlete who climbs the highest earns the top score. The catch? You aren’t allowed to study the route before the event.
Bouldering. This competition takes place on a four-meter wall (about 13 feet). Athletes try to complete as many routes, or “bouldering problems,” in four minutes, all without ropes or harnesses. Each problem varies in difficulty, depending on how the placement of the hand and foot holds; some are so small that they only accommodate one or two fingertips. As in lead climbing, athletes are only given a few minutes to examine the routes before the competition starts.
Speed climbing.This is a different beast altogether: Two athletes climb head-to-head on identical routes on a 12-meter wall. It’s the equivalent a sprint; men dash up the wall in under six seconds and women clock runs under eight seconds. Athletes compete in a bracket-like tournament structure.
Training to Climb
Overall strength is crucial for sport climbing. You need a strong core, back, legs and upper body; even your feet and fingers need to be super-strong.
Condie says that since climbing wasn’t an Olympic sport when she was growing up, she never dreamed of competing in the Summer Games. But once the sport received the green light, she’s shifted her focus, training full-time since 2018.
When in active competition, Condie, a pro climber, typically trains up to four hours a day, five days a week—two days on, one day off—with the occasional two-a-days. She works on power, strength and endurance during her sessions on the wall.
To build muscular strength and endurance, Condie includes hangboard exercises to train her hands and fingers, and regularly incorporates training on a campus board—a suspended wooden board with ladder-like rungs. Climbers hang from the rungs by their fingertips and perform controlled pull-ups, climbing up and down the ladder. It’s a killer workout for your fingers and core, and also helps hone body control.
In addition, Condie incorporates bodyweight exercises like pullups (including one-arm pullups), pushups and front levers.
Since some competitions span two to three rounds in a day, Lightner says stamina is important. That means climbers can’t ignore their cardiovascular fitness.
Climbing can take a toll on an athlete’s muscles and joints, making recovery key. Lightner makes a point of focusing on mobility training and physical therapy to prevent injury.
Flexibility helps in competition, too. Lightner says it can allow you keep your hips closer to the wall, which can help you feel more stable and make certain moves easier.
The Mental Aspect of Climbing
It takes more than a comfort with heights and forearms of steel to excel at climbing: Good climbers are tenacious problem solvers.
“You have to be able to fail a lot to get good at climbing. You’re failing 99% of the time and it’s the only way to get better,” says Condie. “It takes a specific type of person to not get discouraged by that.”
Lightner says that top climbers almost have a sixth sense. “You’re able to see the holds on the wall and figure out the most efficient sequence for your body,” he says. “It’s what differentiates the best athletes.”
While moves like heel hooks, flagging (where you shift your body weight to better position yourself for a move) and kneebars (where you brace your foot and top of your knee or thigh between two rock surfaces) call for precise foot and hand positions, they also require a keen sense of body awareness, control and focus.
“Every part of your body impact the placement of the feet, hips and arms, and how close or far you are from different holds,” says Lightner.
But according the Condie, the best part of climbing is the community.
“Climbers are really friendly,” she says. While they may be fierce competitors during events, she’s met some good friends during competitions: “One of my biggest competitors is my best friends.”
Finding a Climbing Gym
With the increased interest in climbing in recent years, it’s no surprise that more climbing gyms are opening.
To find the gym that best suits your needs, check out a few in your area. Some resemble oversized, futuristic playgrounds with booming music. Others may be more bare-bones, focused on training and skills development. Still others specialize in bouldering only.
When you visit, ask about membership, classes and coaching (and youth and family programs if you’re making climbing a family affair). “If you don’t feel comfortable at one, try another,” suggests Condie.
Intimidated or afraid you’ll make a mistake? Don’t be. Everyone makes mistakes—that’s what climbing is all about.
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