Note: You can get the highlights by skimming for BOLD text, and skip to the end for practical workouts.
One way of approaching a climber’s pace is the amount of grabbing and timing of rests over the course of a route. In the research literature, the amount of grabbing can be broken up into exploring movement vs. performing movement. In other words, are they using the hold to create progress or are they attempting to figure out how to use the hold to make progress, such as positioning. I highly recommend reading Ludovic Seifert, Keith Davids, and Dominic Orth on the particulars of this concept. Important thought leaders on the intersection of pace, resting and grabbing are Eric Hörst – who’s work on Margo Hayes and Adam Ondra should be required reading, and Udo Neumann – who’s video entitled “Factors deciding climbing comps – lead climbing 2018” suggests a similar series of pacing indicators.
The following data is meant to articulate how World Cup competition climbers grab holds over the course of a hard onsight routes. The data are from a female World Cup Semi-Final in Haiyang, China, and a female World Cup Final in Kranj, Slovenia. For more on how we defined “grabbing” (in other words, a climber grabbing a hold) see the methods section at the bottom.
This work highlights three different kinds of pace across a route: overall pace across a route, called strategic grabbing pace, differences in pace between holds, called tactical grabbing pace, and the amount of resting which occurs, called resting pace. Some details of each include:
- Tactical grabbing pace includes time spent between holds (such as resting, positioning, and exploring), which appears to be greater as you go higher (although often in an inverted U-curve that drops off quickly), and down-climbing or taking one’s hand off to rest only to replace it to execute movement, which are not necessarily associated with worse climbing (or exploration for that matter).
- Strategic grabbing pace involves looking at the ratio of grabs to hold and includes sections of the route where upward momentum stalls or quickens. Using case studies, this trend appears to be both good and bad depending on the climber.
- Resting pace is highly variable between climbers. However, it can be similar across two different routes in terms of time and in terms of overall placement (e.g. beginning, middle, end). In other words, the character of resting on a route is balanced against the climber’s predilection toward a specific resting style.
- A successful pace may be different both throughout the route (strategic pace) and between holds (tactical pace). A case study of Mina Markovič and Jain Kim suggests that individual variations in pace are important.
- Differences in pace are (1) important and (2) likely based on climbing style (effective technique, climbing fluency, and mobility), training (bioenergetics, strength/power), base morphology, and of course: route specifics.
Does a climber’s Tactical Grabbing Pace matter?
- How fast does a climber grab holds?
- The average total pace of grabbing (when not including rests) was 4.07 seconds between grabs with a min of 3.20 and a max of 5.72 with about 68% (1 standard deviation from the mean = ~34%) of the values falling between 3.5 and 4.7 seconds. The average total pace (including resting) between holds was 7.84 seconds with a min of 4.79 and a max of 13.13 with 68% of the values falling between 5.9 and 9.8 seconds.
- There may be a small association of success with fewer “seconds per grab” of a handhold. This suggests that worse climbers either (a) execute the move physically slower, (b) hesitate more before the move but with both hands still on the wall, and/or (c) speed up or slow down based upon the character of the route.
- It is worth noting that more resting slows down some faster-moving climbers, and less resting speeds up some slower-moving climbers. – and that it’s challenging to see the extent to which resting helps, hurts, and under what circumstances.
- Methods Notes: (1) these are results from the semi-final, not the final, (2) I used a slightly different method for scoring holds than IFSC due to (a) my need to track every grab, and (b) not having a route map, and (3) a small number of climbers had to be removed from the data set due to problems with the archival video. These included Magdalena Röck, who would have scored in the top 5.
What happens when we use Threshold analysis?
- It’s possible that Threshold analysis may provide more clarity regarding when resting occurs. The graph above shows a “threshold” of hold 12 using a different measure: seconds to hold 12, in an attempt to determine whether climbing faster (even with resting) is associated with performance when you don’t allow the higher holds to influence the data. It is. Note, even though they’re both significant, the graphs above have measures which aren’t that great – meaning these factors are just a few among many factors which explain successful performance.
Case study using Divergence Analysis – Mina vs. Jain. Two different competitions. Two different outcomes.
- Jain was the winner in Haiyang, whereas Mina won in Kranj.
- Wall description: The wall starts out vertical, has one angle change after hold 13 toward a sustained light overhang, and another after hold 26 which moves into a 40-50 degree roof, followed by a return to a light overhang after hold 33, and a final change back to vertical after hold 36 (note: my hold numbers are different from IFSC’s)
- Divergence refers to points at which the climbers’ strategic grabbing pace differentiates markedly from one another. In other words, an event occurs which causes the pace to differ.
- The first Haiyang divergence happens quickly (roughly holds 6-8) whereas the pace remains steady until holds 12-14 in Kranj.
- In Haiyang, divergence grows at a relatively even pace as Jain Kim continues her stylistic trend of down climbing to rest and Mina maintains a low grab-to-hold ratio. In other words, the majority of Jain Kim’s excess grabbing occurs because she rests so much: she will often take her hand off to rest and then either (1) place it back on the hold (counting as a grab) in order to (a) rest her other hand or (b) generate toward the next move, or (2) she will keep the hand off the wall before grabbing the higher hold, sometimes using the hand (while swinging in space) to generate momentum to the next hold. The former tactic increasing her number of grabs, while the latter does not. Drawing your attention back to the graph, the gap between the two climbers closes as Mina levels off at holds 23, 28, 30/31, and 33-36 and Jain pushes past her macro-plateau between holds 18-23, which represent a surprising 31% of her grabs.
- Haiyang is an example of a climber showing a strategic plateau that nonetheless comes back for a win.
- Contrary to Haiyang, Jain Kim’s strategic grabbing pace of holds in Kranj is more steady (up through the high 30s) with small variations, while Mina continues to show her characteristic low grab:hold ratio. Jain’s pace is semi-steady (and shows surprisingly long sections without her characteristic down-climbing or hold-plateauing) until hold 39 when moving increases significantly but upward progress stalls.
- Kranj is an example of a quick pace with a low hold:grab ratio making for a win.
- Individual variation matters. In spite of a (mostly) steady strategic grabbing pace, variation between successive data points as well as small clusters suggest Jain’s pace varies more than Mina’s irrespective of her win. Specifically, her movement style suggests that short down-climbs (to rest) and/or plateauing may not be overly problematic for her in onsight climbing and that small fluctuations in greater- or fewer-number of grabs may not be overly detrimental. Mina’s performance on the other hand appears to excel when plateaus are noticeably absent (see next graph – Mina vs. Mina!)
- Observations regarding this type of analysis and resting:
- Jain Kim has a resting style that differentiates significantly from Mina in terms of rest placement. In Haiyang, Jain had twice as many rests as Mina, and it was even higher in Kranj. This trend is exemplified by Jain stepping off the ground in Kranj to immediately rest, whereas she waits until a surprising (tongue-in-cheek) hold 5 to rest in Haiyang. This style is consistent with research into intermittent grabbing. You can think of it a little like a repeater workout for hangboarding.
- Jain had more long rests (over 4 seconds) in Haiyang: 3-4 times as many as Mina in both. However, the actual number of longer rests was higher in Haiyang for both of them where grabs were more numerous but the relative # of holds they achieved was lower. This is an example of a switch in the character of a route.
- While plateaus with rests may suggest a crux or a good resting area, plateaus without rests appear to represent crux positions. This observation appeared in subsequent visual confirmation.
Case study using Divergence Analysis — Do the same climbers keep a similar pace across different routes?
- Mina’s strategic pace is more-or-less consistent through a majority of both climbs in Haiyang and Kranj. In other words: (a) she kept her pace constant irrespective of these two route’s characteristics, but (b) only up through the first 28 holds, at which point two plateaus cause Mina to diverge from her successful grab:hold pace.
- Unlike Jain’s consistent “repeater” pace, Mina’s rests are separated for short periods by consistent grabbing with a higher grabbing-to-rest ratio than Jain.
- Mina’s indicator of divergence in the previous graph (Mina vs. Mina) is a plateau of upward hold momentum and concurrent rise of moving without progressing, which in her case leads to a drop-off of strategic pace, and is associated with a worse outcome at Kranj.
- Contrasting with Mina’s pace, Jain Kim’s slower strategic pace at Haiyang may have been due to the route characteristics and/or a pre-determined choice. An interesting hypothesis to consider is that her climbing style involves more successful adaptation (by varying her pace) to different route sections rather than Mina who may have a higher likelihood of falling if her pace is thrown off. This statement is striking to me, however, because Jain is known for her distinctive — often called “slow” but “poetic” — climbing style. More routes, and thus more data, as well as other more novel measures, would be needed.
- Jain’s indicator of divergence is adjustment in moving pace as she regularly alternates between more grabbing and less. This is primarily due to her unique resting style.
- Ironically, a drop off in upward momentum of a climber’s strategic pace is associated with loss in Mina’s case but not in Jain’s case, suggesting individual differences in strategic pace (and perhaps tactical pace) are important.
Case studies using Divergence Analysis — Comparing other climbers across the two different routes.
- Drop offs of strategic pace are associated with both (a) going further in terms of total holds with a roughly similar placement (see K. Posch), and (b) not going as far in terms of total holds and doing much worse (see A. Verhoeven).
- Consistent strategic pace is seen in only one example (see Y. Kobayashi) with slightly dissimilar heights (hold 27 vs. 35) and outcomes (8th vs. 11th).
- Strategic pace in the beginning of a climb may be relatively consistent due to the relative ease of the climb in relation to the climber’s ability. However, see Jain Kim at Haiyang for an example of a non-consistent pace early in the climb.
- Haiyang likely transitions difficulty-levels slower than Kranj.
Is any amount of resting associated with pace?
- Resting longer than 4 seconds is associated (weak but positive) with climbers taking longer to grab (or move between) holds. This is self-evident since a longer rest will intuitively require a climber to stay in one place and not put their hand back on the wall. It’s worth mentioning however, because it suggests that for those who are resting longer, they are not necessarily evening out their pace by moving quicker between long rests.
- Longer rests (as opposed to more frequent rests, or shorter rests — a topic for another day) are not necessarily associated with performance. The jury is still out, but this data tracks with what I would refer to as conventional wisdom: noting that there is a balance to be emphasized between resting and moving.
- Of note is that moderate (1.6 to 4 second rests) and micro (less than 1.6 seconds) rests are at odds with one another, in that if you do one you are less likely to do the other. Climbers have their habits, and the amount of time they take their hand off the wall appears to be one of them. A longer exploration of micro-resting and performance is forthcoming.
- Moreover, the idea that resting always increases as you go higher does not appear to be born out (on the Final route).
- When looking at the # of rests, the # of resters, or the total amount of resting on a given hold (controlling for the # of climbers).
Practical Application: Pacing Workouts
So how do I train this? Two ways: first I push my climbers to embrace exploratory movement – specifically to learn about and mitigate the consequences. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s important to note and especially important for on-sight climbing. Second, I teach them tactics to be more efficient with their grabbing during the types of climbing (such as competition or the first time you get on a route) that requires significant learning. Here are a few examples of some of my workouts:
- Mitigate inefficiency by training for it: “Grab, Re-position, Grab again”: Try 2-3 grades under onsight ability – For every move, grab your next hold, then either:
- Explore 1 different way of grabbing each hold (best on climbs with large holds), and attempt to move your body off it, then retreat, OR;
- Reverse the move, re-position to new beta, and grab again.
- Become more efficient: “One grab per hold”: Try 2-3 grades under on-sight ability (or same climb as previous exercise). No resetting a hand on a hold once you clip or rest. No “milking” a hold. No down climbing. Keep moving. Repeat 3 times with sufficient rest if you are an elite climber, or up to 10 times if you are a novice climber.
- “Eye the hold”: pick a climb with a fair amount of holds that you’re unfamiliar with and/or are challenging to see. Emphasize attempting to actually see the good part of the hold, and/or around corners prior to executing the move. Should be just under or at on-sight ability. What are the unintended consequences of this type of climbing?
- “Forced Pacing”: try 1-3 grades below onsight level. Do all of the following on same climb with 5-10 minutes break inbetween.
- The Jain: even pace, rest every 1-3 holds for 3-5 seconds.
- Try variations where you (a) re-place and (b) don’t re-place your resting hand back on the hold in order to generate movement.
- Another variation involves a “two steps up, one step back” method which involves a ratio of two moves up for every one move down while climbing.
- The Mina: Climb quickly to the top, no rests or pauses allowed other than a quick “flick” of the hand.
- [Un]natural Pacing: experiment with other types of pacing you are not familiar with, and (a) what works for you, (b) what doesn’t work, and (c) what may work if you learn a new skill-set (such as additional local forearm aerobic training, or non-ideal resting positions).
- The Jain: even pace, rest every 1-3 holds for 3-5 seconds.
- “Natural Pacing”: Draw a rough map of a hard route you have redpointed on a sheet of paper, mark where it makes sense to (1) rest for a longer period of time, (2) have an even pace, and (3) climb quickly through a section or sequence of holds. Try to execute your plan, note where the plan did not work out, and why.
NOTES based on practical implementation:
- Kids generally tend to not like to have their pacing messed with. Do it anyways (what?! It’s funny!).
- Forcing a pace for an entire climb is training, not necessarily performance. I don’t recommend climbing with just one pace until it starts to make sense with your style, and ensure you consider modifying it based on the needs of the climb.
- Issues with a type of pacing may be indicative of something you can practice.
What I’m particularly interested in looking into further:
- Patterns of resting across the entire climb.
- Exploratory movement between holds may be more important as you get higher.
- Length of rests.
A little about the methods
Timing of rests is relatively easy to do, until you get to the mysterious micro-shakes. But what about grabbing and how did we define it? It might seem simple, but it is certainly open for debate. For example, if a climber has an open hand, and closes around a hold, a reasonable individual might consider it a grab. But what happens if the climber closes around the hold, but opens briefly and grabs again at the same place? Was that considered one grab or two? Did the climber actually use much energy or weight the hold enough to cause some type of fatigue? These (and others) are challenging questions. We opted to keep it simple: for a climber to grab a hold, the climber’s hand must first be distinctly away from the hold enough to visually identify space. To make both resting and grabbing definitions slightly more robust, we had two judges come to consensus with the occasional dispute settled by a third judge.
By Taylor Reed. Thanks go to Aleksandra Dagunts and Joe Johnson for helping me build the data sets for this analysis. And of course Jennie Jariel for the amazing visualization.