Let’s go for over 45’s. It was going to be over 50’s but I’m not there yet. 45 isn’t really that old at all (neither is 50), However, we can’t escape from science, and if you’ve reached this milestone or further, you’ve probably noticed that your body doesn’t quite do as it’s told (or certainly what it was told to do 20 years ago). The rules of training change a little as the years go by!

I’ve had quite a few people ask me about training for older climbers… like for some reason they think I would know….. Oh, OK, fair enough, I’m not young anymore, I’ll stick to my area of expertise, being an old Giffer. I’ve put this article together working with Hull Rockcity and their members. These notes were originally on FB and Insta but are expanded here and I’ve tried to answer relevant questions (questions edited to be compact). NOTE - for some reason the questions are labelled 'A' and answers 'B' but I'm too old to work out how to change it with these complicated computer things..

So training for the over 45s. Does that make you old? Unfortunately yes, ask a teenager and I’m afraid you fit into the old category. If you don’t like the answer, ask a 70 year old, or make yourself feel better by going to school reunions where old friends have been hit hard by life’s luxuries. To be fair, many 45+ climbers are not old at all.

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There is endless advice on how to get strong and fit online, but from my experience, the rules of training change a bit as you get older. Note – this is based on experience and observation, combined with a small amount of science! I’m lucky enough to have spent a lot of time coaching older climbers and also spending a lot of time with older climbers as well as observing myself. Younger coaches are unlikely to understand the issues that older climbers face, and the ‘science’ of training actually becomes less important. It’s key to use our old person wisdom to move forward, and take note of all those lessons we learnt along the way. The rules I follow are:

  1. Don’t get injured!
  2. Train your strengths.
  3. Don’t train your weaknesses.
  4. Train your weaknesses.
  5. Maintain intensity.
  6. Avoid the junk training.
  7. Have fun!

But perhaps the first question we have to answer is ‘Why am I training?’ Have you ever really thought about that? Is it for a specific goal or just because you like training, or because you can’t think of anything else to do, or simply because it’s just what you’ve always done? This is important, as it shapes motivation, and what we will do over the coming months. Many older climbers train because it’s part of their life, and there is no specific reason for them to do it (though of course the health benefit is huge). Personally I don’t really like training. I seek motivation from what I want to do in the future and the shape I’ll need to be in for those goals. Even for people who just love training, targets and goal setting are crucial, even if they appear small, like ‘I want to do a body-weight one-arm hang from an edge’, ’10 pull-ups in a row’ or ‘run round the block in 10 mins’. However, if training feels like a chore, then we can put a purpose on it by analysing what we will need our body to do. I’ve found over the years this starting point, ground zero, which is actually just a bit of proper thinking, is one of the most important parts of any training plan. It’s worth spending a few days over this, even weeks; what are your route plans, what were your weaknesses last year, what will you need to improve? A lot of us throw ourselves blindly into training with no specific target other than to ‘get better’ but often notice no gains as the gains are not appropriate to what we want to do! As we get older it’s important to be specific. We have limited time, energy and recovery to randomly batter our poor old selves!

Rule 1. Don’t get injured.

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X-ray of my finger getting a cortesone injection (3rd)

Unfortunately injury will be one of the biggest obstacles many of us face in attempting to achieve our goals. For over 45’s, injury becomes the biggest factor! Injuries appear faster and take far longer to go away. Where once a little niggle disappeared, it now quickly becomes a full blown problem taking years to heal, if not a permanent injury that has to be managed, alongside all the other permanent injuries! Much of our time is spent working with and around injuries.

Ironically, if I analyse myself, but also many other climbers, we don’t actually seem to be MORE injured now than when we were younger (though this doesn’t include the really young, like below 20, who seem to recover instantly). My first and worst injury was at 22; elbow tendonitis; golfers and tennis, in both elbows. It lasted 2 years and I barely climbed for that whole period. Since then I’ve had many, including a few that appeared to be ‘career ending’, but with determination, advice and some good luck I’ve pushed through without surgery (other than for a torn meniscus in my knee).

So if we are more prone to injury when older how come we are not totally broken now? Well, actually many of us are at least a bit broken, but have learned to cope with niggling injuries. This is perhaps the biggest key to maintaining performance, managing injuries, and will be a common theme as we go through this article.

There are other factors that help us. Older climbers tend to operate at a less intense level; less high impact bouldering and intense training like campusing and leaping around between volumes in competitions. The ‘sudden’ catastrophic injuries are less common. We tend to suffer tweaks that are relatively small (but grow into something bigger!) or those gradually acquired injuries.

The advice I’d give to start with, is not to climb through a ‘tweak’. Many times in younger days I’ve felt something ‘go’, stretched it out and kept on climbing, and generally got away with it. But not anymore. Now I wake up in the morning and that minor tweak has become a full blown injury putting me back weeks if not months. When in a warmed-up and psyched state a minor tweak may not feel too bad, but there is potential for disaster. Stop. Assess carefully. If you must continue, at least give it time, often even 30 minutes will tell you the score. Have a cup of tea and a lunch break, then see how you feel. I can count a bunch of times I’ve felt a tweak, thought about carrying on, but then rested for half an hour and then thought ‘thank god I didn’t push on!’ In many cases much of the damage is done after the tweak by carrying on hammering the injury. And on the positive, a relatively small tweak can remain small if not climbed on and rested straight away.

Warm up! Hardly new advice. But have you noticed how long it takes to warm up now? I’ve always been relatively slow to get to my max strength but these days it seems ridiculous. Often I start a session and after half an hour I’m thinking ‘today it’s just not happening, I’m off home’, only to find after another half hour I’m pulling my hardest ever! I’ve had to apply this to my outdoor climbing. The key is to be aware of this gradual preparation. So for example if I was going for an 8b onsight, previously I’d have climbed a 7a, a 7b and a 7c. Now I’ll go for a 6b, 7a, 7b, 7c, 8a. Basically I’ll not really expect my first hard effort to be my best go. I NEED a really hard effort to be part of the warm up. And I need a good rest in between too.

Lastly, stop strong. Again not new advice. But I’ve had to adapt to this. Like many, I come from that bunch who were only content when so exhausted they could barely crawl out of the gym. It seemed to work when I was 30…. I’m no expert but if I was to put imaginary figures on it, I’d say it was within the last 20% of effort where most of my injuries occur, and recovery time rises exponentially. I now still give it everything, but stop like I want to still pull tomorrow, even if I won’t be.

  1. I’ve got a pulley injury in my middle finger, which I’ve had for a few months. It’s not totally ruptured but there is lots of pain when I press between the 2nd and 3rd joint.
  2. This is probably the most common finger injury. The fastest way to recovery is with progressive loading. Note – this is not relevant to new injuries which need rest and time to settle for AT LEAST a few weeks. Stop normal climbing, other than on big jugs. Use a fingerboard and stick to TWO finger pockets (use 1st and middle, and middle and ring together). Grip should be TOTALLY open, which won’t load the injured pulley. Build up over a few weeks but you can add weight (two arm hang) such that 10-12 seconds is hard work (maybe 15 seconds would be failure – don’t go this far). Aim for 6 reps on each grip (12 in total). The exercise works the injured finger hard forcing recovery but doesn’t injure the finger further.
  1. Everyone seems to be doing hours of shoulder stability exercises. I’ve never had a shoulder issue but should I be doing lots of shoulder work?
  2. It seems shoulder injuries are very fashionable these days! Everyone has one. And every coach has a stability routine as part of a training plan. The answer is yes you should be doing some shoulder stability work, though it does not necessarily need to take up much time or be too intense. Search online, but a few sets of shoulder shrugs, low-rows, and TRX work will be enough. High rep, like 20 and not really to failure. Indoor climbing is becoming increasingly ‘shouldery’ and this seems to be the cause of many injuries. But watch the DIY, more common for older folk. I’ve had a few sore shoulders from painting and scraping.

 

Rule 2. Train your strengths.

The opposite of training your weaknesses, this isn’t the usual advice! However, over 45, I’m afraid lots of stuff is fairly downhill.  What physical strengths you lose over 45 are hard to get back. You’ll have heard of ‘maintaining strengths’, well this still requires training. And often hard training! If you’ve been training hard for years, you’ll know that even just maintaining is HARD!

Your physical strengths are likely to be well embedded and gained from what you enjoy doing, and crucially, what you WILL enjoy doing in the future. ‘Strengths’ are easier to maintain, and potentially more interesting to do if you like that style of exercise.

The positives of training your strengths are that you’ll enjoy doing it (and so do it), you won’t lose what you gained over years after a winter of indoors or other enforced period of training, and back out enjoying climbing to the level you were before. It’s often the case that strengths won’t need much maintenance once we are outdoor climbing again. For myself its climbing outside twice a week on hard onsights and redpoints; all the maintenance is there, and weak areas can be worked on away from the cliff.

The negatives are that improvements are very hard to come by. ‘If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. To be fair, at 45 and beyond, if you manage to maintain your standard (especially for a well-trained climber) then you are generally winning!  However, improvements feel great, especially for the old timers, and are certainly achievable. For real gains we probably need to work on our weaknesses…. (See rule 4)

  1. As a route motivated climber I struggle over the winter to keep in shape. All my training becomes indoor bouldering, as I’m not motivated by indoor routes, and don’t have a training pattern to match other belayers.
  2. This is very common indeed. Personally I rarely tie in during winter. Once a week of hard route climbing is enough to maintain (alongside other training) if possible. This keeps our head in the game, but also the continuous upwards movement, and the clipping (hold a position for a few seconds), and the tenacity. But even once a week may be tricky. In which case it has to be circuits and other PE work. I massively recommend foot-on-campusing: vary the rung size and movement pattern to manage around 120 seconds to failure (you should be really pumped). Three sets of this, 5-10 minutes rest in between. However, circuits are the closest we will get, and there are some excellent circuit boards around at various walls including Flashpoint (Bristol), The Works (Sheffield), Stronghold (London), Climbing Station (Loughborough), TCA (Glasgow). Circuits feel like routes, but don’t have enough upwards movement, so don’t rely on them entirely to be fully route-fit.
  1. I’ve always favoured crimpy routes and this feels like my strength, but recently I’ve had a few finger injuries.
  2. UK based climbers are often strong on crimps as the rock style here is quite crimpy (vertical with small holds!). I too used to crimp everything. But I worked on my open hand strength after injuries and now I’m far far stronger open handed in the ‘drag’ position and it’s my default grip. Its well worth working on the drag position, use a finger board for this. Also, I recommend the foot-on campus as described above, where you will end up dragging the holds anyway and get used to that grip position. The half-crimp is perhaps the most versatile grip, but also may still aggravate injuries. For loads of useful info check out Neil Gresham’s Instagram posts.

 

Rule 3. Don’t train your weaknesses.

WHAT? Don’t train your weaknesses? I don’t think I’ve heard that one before... Actually this is not a rule, but more of a warning! Many of our weaknesses are due to injury or niggles.

If you have an old injury that keeps coming back, try and get to the bottom of it – is there a muscular imbalance? Some tight areas? But don’t push it with training. It’s not worth it, and you can probably get by without that ‘strength’. If you spend your life with broken shoulders then work on stability rather than gaining strength, or if your fingers are constantly taped up like a mummy, ditch the tape and stick to bigger holds and powerful moves when training indoors.

In more usual times, if you are out climbing , this climbing will be enough to maintain any dodgy areas without making them worse. Other ‘non-injured’ areas are trained harder indoors. Be very truthful with yourself regarding old injuries and what you feel you need to do about them, and if it’s worth pushing them for potentially marginal gains, even if they do survive!

The absolute key is being able to get out climbing as much as we can. Injury over 45 takes forever to shift, and quality days out are becoming numbered (sorry – but that’s the truth, even if it’s still 1000’s). You will be far better off climbing very marginally below maximum because your biceps were a tad feeble, than blowing them to bits trying to reach your 18 year old personal best in curls.

We also often have weaknesses because we have avoided certain styles, or avoided a type of training because we didn’t like the look of it. In this case…. DO train your weaknesses. But for the over 45’s, especially with lots of time on your hands to throw yourself into a new plan…. A lot of care is needed, which takes us to Part 4……

  1. There are lots of folk training their ‘lock off strength’. I used to be able to do a one-arm lock-off on a bar easily but now it hurts my inner elbow. Should I push through it because this seems like a really essential strength?
  2. Don’t push through it! Elbows are prone to getting much worse very quickly (believe me I know). This strength is useful, but then ask yourself when was the last time you actually failed on a route because you couldn’t hold that one-arm lock-off on a big jug? For training this kind of arm strength I’d avoid the most ‘bent’ position, which we adopt in a lock off (by really getting our fist right up against the shoulder). Do assisted one-arm pull-ups (with a hanging rope) but stop a little short of the lock-off position. You’ll feel the difference in your elbow, it’s the last few degrees that often cause issues! Also, work on ‘deep-locks’, where you use assistance (and both arms) to hold a body position where your shoulders are way above your hands. This is more appropriate to climbing; it’s not often we are on a route which is footless on big jugs not far apart, but very often we are on a route with footholds, and with not so good holds that are far apart!

 

Training for old Folk. Part 4. Train your weaknesses.

Ah – now this sounds more familiar! Of all the times, if you are reading this in lockdown, now is probably as good as ever to work on physical weaknesses. There is time to make a difference! STRUCTURE and ROUTINE are key, and for those with busy and awkward lifestyles, for once this may be possible. But for the over 45’s, take care. There are some important points.

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1/ Identify and prioritise. You may feel you know your weak areas. But what areas will make the difference to what you want to do? This is crucial.  As an example, I watch as the kids fly around between volumes indoors with amazing burl, and I’m so bad at that. But do I need that strength for what I want to do? Like for onsights of routes like Nightmayer? NO. But I watch climbers solid on 2 finger pockets and I think ‘do I need that’? The answer is YES. Maybe some ‘burl’ work is useful, but don’t be sucked in to what everyone else is doing with their hours of weights and rings work. Think about what you need for your climbing and what areas you are weak in for that type of climbing.

2/ Take care. Areas of weakness will unfortunately be weak! They can break or develop injuries over time. Perhaps only work these areas twice a week at first and bring in stress levels gradually. Think about stability and form. And be wise with age – research and understand recovery and inbalance.

3/ Know your age! Some strengths become hard to increase as we get older. You will struggle to beat your 20 year old max deadlift if you haven’t done that exercise for 30 years. Increasing muscle size is tough going. However, I’ve found that many older climbers can make decent gains in finger strength and strength endurance, which are often areas holding them back. Personally I’ve made big gains in half crimp strength which is something I neglected for years. At the moment I’m working on that and am already at my all-time PB.

The good news… is that weak areas, if worked on with routine and with care, can still make gains, and there is nothing better than a 50 year old making gains in any department, other than waist-line maybe.

  1. I’ve been steadily working through a training plan I bought online and feel like I have made gains in some of the exercises, but when I’m out on the crag I don’t notice any performance gains at all. I still just seem to get pumped and grab a quickdraw.
  2. Without actually watching a person climbing it is hard to draw conclusions. A training plan is a great move forward, but to make real gains it’s important to assess ALL strengths and weaknesses to pinpoint what is really an issue. I’ve found the biggest thing holding route climbers back is fear. No amount of physical training alone can solve this issue. It’s worth getting an expert coach in here. But have a good think about your climbing too. As an example, I used to think I had no head issues at all, and really went for it when onsighting. And relatively I did (relative to most climbers), but after extensive redpoint climbing I realised that previously I WASN’T actually 100% committed. I reckon I added at least 2 grades by actually going for it 100% than 90%.
  1. What weak areas do you notice most in rock climbers?
  2. Sticking with physical weaknesses, the most common one to crop up is a weakness in the leg raise area. This is the ability to lift a foot and place it accurately on a hold. The weakness may be due to low flexibility or low strength (ability to raise the leg) or both. I’ve seen shocking cases where climbers can’t lift and hold a foot at knee height (just try it now – stand straight up, then lift one foot, how high is it relative to the knee on the straight leg?). The importance of this ‘strength’ doesn’t need to be explained. Good turn-out flexibility and leg raise strength are very useful. And real gains in performance can be made with what may seem like minimal effort (compared to sets of weighted pull-ups)

 

Training for old Folk. Part 5. Maintain intensity.

To improve you need to stay the same….. well that makes sense. Let’s just expand. The key to making gains in our outdoor performance is to maintain what we already have. And then make small gains where we can. This is an important one! As you age your muscles start to dwindle. I’m afraid it’s a battle to simply keep what we have!

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Our muscles are the size they are because they need to do the tasks we ask of them. This is really the key. For many of us our muscles become weaker not just because ‘age’ withers them, but because we don’t ‘ask’ them to do enough.

If at 35 years old you were doing sets of 2 pull-ups with 50kg attached, then slipped sets of 5 with 20kg at 40, then doing sets of 10 unweighted pull-ups at 45, then you are asking far less of your muscles and they will trend towards endurance and shrink to the demand. Maintaining intensity is far more likely to maintain overall muscle strength, even if the rest period between exercise is increased. In many cases we drop intensity NOT because we can’t do it, but mainly because we don’t like doing it so much…. It just feels hard!

There are many climbers, and examples in loads of sports, where older athletes have trended towards endurance away from power and strength. With sports like running and cycling the intensity can be gradually decreased and the endurance increased to suit. This is a natural progression we can’t stop. But we can slow it. With climbing, there are always some hard moves. Climbing may be the best sport in the world, but it will always have hard bits, even on ‘enduro routes’. Don’t be that old climber who can hang on forever below the crux, but can’t do the hard moves!

Maintain intensity particularly with the fingers and pull-strength. Do some very hard low rep work. Watch out for impact (high intensity campusing and dynos), and beware one-arm lock-offs on the elbows.

  1. When I’m fingerboarding should I go to total failure where my fingers open up and I fall off?
  2. This would depend on the grip type, although personally I try to avoid total failure. I tend to stop before max to avoid injury. I’ll divide up my fingerboard into grip types and intensity and time.

1/ Full crimp. Low intensity. Not to failure (I do sets of five pull-ups in crimp position).

2/ Half crimp. Medium intensity. I stop at 5-6 seconds when I feel I might have managed 8.

3/ Open handed 4 finger drag. High intensity. I go to failure, aiming for 6 seconds.

4/ 2 finger (or one!). Medium intensity. I use both hands, and added weight. I stop at 5-6 seconds when I feel I might have managed 8.

  1. Can you suggest any exercises at home to maintain strength/flexibility/skill without much equipment? I have limited weights, resistance bands and no pulls-up bar (tho my door frames seem sturdy). So far, been doing HIIT, yoga with a focus on arm balances, and weights.
  2. In terms of training, the physical gains, and how it translates into our ‘event’, it is down to mainly to three things; motivation, available time and facility. Motivation is top – if you are just totally psyched you’ll make it happen! Time is next, if you have a 60hr a week job, commute 2 hours a day, have 3 young kids, a house that needs a ton of DIY and a demanding social life, then kiss goodbye to being your best climbing self! However, motivation is top of the tree, and if you are REALLY motivated, something gives! But facility is really important. If your only weakness is finger endurance and yet you only have a set of 1000kg weights, and are stuck in lockdown for 4 months, then how can you hope to hit the ground running? Personally I’d massively suggest making the most appropriate ‘facility’ that you can. I’m lucky to be an engineer with a DIY slant, but most of us can put a shelf up. And a shelf is harder than a fingerboard!

Maintaining  rock climbing skill is very difficult as it’s so movement based. Flexibility and strength are easier. Focus on what is appropriate and design your exercises and equipment around them. What do you need? Weights can always be made, out of anything, bottles full of water, bags full of bricks, even lifting small children seems fairly fashionable. But the fingers need something small. If you are really struggling I’d recommend….. a stick! It’s amazing what you can do with a simple stick, just 2cm wide and maybe 30cm long. If you really have not got a stick, I’m sure you’ll find one in a skip somewhere. Now you just need to work out how to fit it above a door frame without breaking the frame……

 

Training for old Folk. Part 6. Avoid Junk Miles.

Ever feel tired in the afternoon? Fall asleep on the sofa at 6pm? Do you feel knackered after a climbing session and go home to bed when you used to go for a few pints? It’s coming to us all.

Successful training is all about appropriate exercises and sufficient rest. Think about that! Both of them. Many of us don’t rest enough, and appropriate exercise often needs a bit of thought. I used to do a 30 mile off-road bike ride then go straight to the wall and train for 3 hours. But then I found I just couldn’t be arsed to train after a ride so just did the ride and trained the next day… and then began to notice the day after the ride I was feeling a bit sluggish…. My climbing slipped. I re-calibrated, the rides were not so important, focused on the climbing, and soon was feeling bouncy and making gains.

Even if you still feel you can squeeze it all in, just take a look at your psyche and intensity. Are you really firing on all cylinders, or maybe feeling just a bit off-par? Personally I have found I make WAY bigger gains when rested and feeling fresh.

Also think about what you are trying to achieve. Most training is NOT rocket science. If you are a route climber who wants stronger fingers, and your routine is to always do 2 hours of route climbing which leaves you pumped to bits, then are you making gains to your weak fingers? A fingerboard session after loads of pumpy routes will not work. Prioritise, do the fingerboard work straight after your warm up. Then do your routes. Don’t just do what you’ve always done, or you’ll always get what you’ve always got. (that’s not a new quote).

  1. Can you train finger strength and forearm endurance on the same day?
  2. The answer is yes. However, science shows that the benefits will not be at their maximum if done in the same session as the body is getting confused as to what is being asked. Personally I have trained finger strength, power endurance and endurance in the same session and felt like it was all worthwhile. It’s best to split training, even with sessions in the morning and afternoon. But for many of us, time is the issue, and if we have 3 sessions per week maximum after work, then we need to use them wisely. Strength should be done first. That is the key. But it is certainly possible to make gains in multiple areas in the same session. Considering fingers/forearm, I’d work finger strength first, and then lower the intensity, and move to PE and endurance with foot-on campusing or steady routes. I’d not try and do things like intense circuits and 4x4’s after fingerboard work as the fingers will be too fatigued.
  1. Have you found a good way to maintain "day fitness"/"work capacity" while cutting back on training volume? I get better strength gains when I cut volume (to a certain extent), but I struggle to balance it with losing work capacity for lots of good quality tries in a day etc. Found any magic or just suck it up and try to strike a balance?
  2. Unfortunately it’s difficult to maintain work capacity. When we are ‘fit’ we may be looking for multiple quality attempts in a day, often two days in a row (or more). This requires a build-up, effectively training where we will be tired a lot of the time. I don’t find I can make strength gains when I’m tired. I need to be fresh, motivated and clear headed. However, personally I thrive on high work capacity – it makes me feel good. I usually do short blocks of strength work phased around my life and time of year accepting I’ll lose session fitness. However I often train strength alongside volume accepting gains will be slower. So for example I’ll just do one strength session per week, after a rest, and other climbing sessions. EG – Saturday Rest, Sunday Rest, Monday strength (hard day), Tuesday PE and aerocap (local routes), Wednesday rest, Thursday Hard routes (Malham), Friday Routes. One strength session is not ideal, but I’ve noticed at least maintenance and some small gains – while NOT getting injured, which is rule 1!

 

Training for old Folk. Part 7. Have fun

Sounds a bit corny. But sometimes the fun element can be lost in search of numbers, and the joy harder to find as performance starts to slip. There is no doubt that for many of us numbers do count, and we measure ourselves by them. But take the pressure off. For nearly every climber in the world, no one else measures you by numbers. They don’t really care. What they do care about is that you are happy and having fun. A joyful tick of a 7b is way better than a screaming fall off the last move of an 8a. It’s absolutely true we have to keep pushing hard; it’s satisfying to be the best we can be and to know we worked hard to get there. Know that, know you are your best, don’t allow numbers to judge. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. We don’t have as much time as we used to have. Fill those days on the crag with fun and good memories (but of course still cranking hard after all the training we did..)

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