Finding the Fun in Cross-Training! Part 1: Rock Climbing

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Note to Readers: Over the next few weeks, we will be adding some new writers to the Technically Running team. Along with the new faces, you can expect to see new topics cropping up, as well as fresh perspectives on subjects Steven and I have addressed before. This will allow us to continue to supply you with great new content during a very busy time in our lives. Enjoy!  -Meagan

Cross Training Fun Part 1: Rock Climbing

We’ve all seen them at races.  They pass you effortlessly with perfectly toned arms, a strong back, and six-pack abs.  For the majority of us, it would take long weekly runs, restricted diets, and years of hitting the pavement to achieve that physique strictly by running.   Luckily, those perfectly sculpted people have a secret: they cross-train, and more than likely, they enjoy it.

What is cross-training?

A basic definition of cross training is training in other sports or activities other than the main sport (in this case running).  The benefits for runners are numerous.  First, it improves overall fitness.  Many runners lack in upper body strength; cross training can fix this to create stronger arms (allowing for more momentum while running) and a stronger back to improve running posture and promote expanded lung capacity.  Second, many forms of cross-training work muscles antagonistic to those used in running, preventing over-use injuries and increasing flexibility.  Third, cross-training breaks up the daily routine and prevents burn out.  Constantly training for races, running every day, and doing it on your own to the same playlist, well, can get boring.  Instead substituting one to three days a week with cross-training will leave you rejuvenated, looking fabulous, and most importantly, off the injured list!

I will be presenting a series of posts on specific cross-training activities, and to start it off, I will be discussing rock climbing.

Rock climbing, both indoor and outdoor, develops unbelievable upper body strength, strengthens the core, and increases flexibility in the legs and hips.  Furthermore, climbing strengthens the foot muscles, a huge benefit for minimalist runners!  Indoor rock gyms exist in many medium to large sized cities; just give it a Google search to see if you have one nearby.  It is relatively inexpensive, typically 10-15 dollars a day including the rental of rock shoes and a harness (but often there are special packages to save some money).  You have two options at the rock gym:

1. Bouldering.  Bouldering is the upward movement of body using specific “holds”, and only requires rock shoes.  Typically, bouldering routes only have a handful of holds, and are only 10-15 feet in length.  Thus, bouldering is often more intensive (think of a sprint instead of an endurance run).  You can check it out below.  Beginners start with the difficulty V0, similar to climbing a ladder.  Grades go up by whole numbers.  V1 and V2 are slightly more difficult than V0.  They may not be straight up, but slightly overhanging (good ab work!), or may require a novel technique, such as a toe hook or heel hook (see video).  V3 and V4 routes require conditioned arm strength, strong feet, and many unique techniques.  It only gets harder from there.  Bouldering will QUICKLY build upper body and core strength.

2. Top Roping.  Your second option is to team up with a friend and climb on ropes (called top-roping).  For this you will need a harness, a belay device, and rock shoes (supplied by the gym).  At all gyms, you will get a free lesson on how to put on a harness, how to start a climb, and how to belay your partner.  Like bouldering, you climb upwards on specific holds, however unlike bouldering, roped routes are long (30-50 feet).  An example is below.  The benefits of roped climbing are upper body endurance, hip flexibility, and because you are climbing with someone else, a lot of fun and socialization.  Top-roping also has a rating system.  The easiest climbs are rated 5.6 or 5.7 (like climbing a long ladder).  5.8 and 5.9 are similar to bouldering V1-V2.  5.10 and up require developed hand strength and a mental knowledge of many different climbing techniques.

I began climbing about 2 years ago, around the same time I became a serious runner.  Within 2 to 3 months of climbing 2 days a week (both bouldering and top roping) I saw significant muscle definition in my arms, shoulders, and back.  More importantly, I felt strong and confident, which oozed its way into my running form.  Today, I know I am a faster, leaner, and stronger runner from climbing, and a better climber due to my runner’s leg strength and mental relaxation ability.  As I got better, I also began to climb outside and expand my climbing knowledge.

Climbing outdoors

Once you have become comfortable in the gym setting (and you’ve probably made quite a few climbing friends), you’ll be ready to give it a go on real rock.  There is nothing more exciting and adventurous than scaling a huge cliff at the local rock climbing area.   At this point you will need to borrow someone’s gear, or have manned up and purchased your own harness, belay device, and shoes.  Find a friend who is willing to take you out climbing or hire a guide to set up an anchor and ropes, depending on the style of climbing at the local crag.  Most gyms will also have outdoor climbing classes and trips.

Climbing outside is very different then in the gym!  True, you will be using the same muscles and techniques you have developed there, but there are no markings telling you what hold to use and which way to go.  Thus, climbing outside creates a mental challenge, called “route-reading”.  It will be up to you to decide where to place your hands and feet, and how to use them.

The author starting a climb named "K.S.B." rated 5.10d, Kentucky

A parting note

Beginners are often disheartened when they have a hard time climbing the easiest routes.  Stick with it!  Climbing has an exponential skill curve, meaning that as long as you keep climbing, you will quickly develop into a good climber.  Every person I have taught to climb has made extraordinary progress in only a few weeks; some people in only a few days!  My own boyfriend (who began climbing in January) is already working on bouldering routes that I only finished a few weeks ago!

So if you are a runner (or anyone!) looking to strengthen the upper body, develop foot strength, and increase flexibility, climbing is an excellent cross-training activity.  In addition, climbing is a very social sport; you will not feel like you are working out at all!  Just remember to stretch when you are done.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will focus on cycling!


Some of my favorite climber lingo:

Beta:  How to do a specific move or how to climb a specific route.  Dude, what’s the beta on that big move?

Pumped/Pumped Out:  The creation of too much lactic acid in the muscles, often forearms.  Very painful.  Resolved by shaking out or arms or pounding on them.  Man, I can’t climb anymore; I’m pumped.

Gnarly:  An all-around word for a tricky move, a nasty hold, or a route sure to kick your butt.  Whoa dude!  That climb was super gnarly!

Crimpfest:  A route where all the holds are tiny and can only be held by the tips of your fingers.  Whew, what a crimpfest of a route, my fingertips are bleeding!

Burly:  A move or route featuring moves requiring big reaches or dynamic motions of the body to get to the next hold.  It’s a super burly move, but with your reach and strength, should be no problem.

Flash:  Completing a route the first time without falling or resting.  I flashed 4 bouldering routes at the gym today!

Epic:  When climbing outdoors turns into a total mess in a funny or entertaining way, a story to tell everyone when you get home.  So we finished our climb, couldn’t find the trail back down, it got dark, and we only had one headlamp between the 5 of us.  So, we ended up scrambling down 4th class terrain, using the one headlamp to show where to put your feet so you didn’t fall and die.  We made it down only to find out the car was gone.  It was a total epic, and that’s why we’re late for dinner.