Tricks for the Time-Starved Climber

© John Kettle
In this article, father and owner of two businesses, John Kettle looks into how time-starved climbers can still get the most out of their climbing through using their time efficiently. 

So much to do, so little time?  © John Kettle
So much to do, so little time?
© John Kettle

So you have accepted that career, family, and other interests are going to limit your climbing development, but by how much? While elite performance isn’t attainable on a couple of climbing sessions each week, with shrewd planning you may be surprised what can be achieved in only a few hours a week of climbing time.
As a mountain biker with a pre-school family I decided to spend a year exploring the limits of climbing progress on a tight time budget. I’ll share some of my tactics and results in this article.

How much time?

Be totally honest about the climbing time you have available. I decided I couldn’t guarantee more than twice weekly evening or half-day sessions (including the weekend). Having accepted that either a full day or a third weekly session would be an unexpected bonus avoided the frustration I’d feel if I’d planned to do more than was realistic.

Over the year I climbed 109 times; 52 indoors and 57 outside, averaging 2.1 times (6 hours) per week. I had 5 full days out climbing (3 of these on a sport climbing trip).

‘Man who chases two rabbits catches neither one’

If you really want to progress then narrow the field of skills you’re trying to attain – specialise. I chose to focus exclusively on bouldering as it has the shortest walk-ins, fastest drying rock and isn’t partner-reliant. As I knew this was a one-year plan I was happy to set aside sport and trad for the future in order to get better results.

Super-organised indoor sessions are seriously time efficient.  © John Kettle
Super-organised indoor sessions are seriously time efficient.
© John Kettle

Goal Setting

Motivation is key to success and there’s no better way to dampen it than to drift goal-less from one summer to the next. The much loved SMART acronym is a good place to start:

Specific – a particular grade, problem or route? Outside or inside?
Measurable – ‘solid at the grade’ is not measurable - is that ten VS’s or thirty?
Ambitious - if it’s not, you won’t get motivated.
Realistic – do you have the venues/money/psyche in easy reach?
Time-bound – Knowing there’s a deadline will aid focus. I picked a 52 week block for my goal.

Swap Quantity for Quality

The bottom line is if you’re going to see continuous gains on less than 8 hours of weekly climbing, the session quality needs to be amazing. Split your climbing performance into the following categories and get feedback on your performance in them:

Technical: Movement quality, body awareness, breathing technique, balance.
Tactical: Move reading, sequence and route planning, visualisation skills, pacing, discipline-specific tactics.
Psychological: Anxiety management skills, fear of failure, performance anxiety, external/internal motivators.
Physical: Finger strength, flexibility, power, power endurance, endurance.

Having received the feedback with open arms, use it to shape your sessions. Constantly revisit these four elements to try and worm out the weakness which will give you the fastest gains. Try and make you training as much like your goal as possible, for me this meant spending my indoor sessions on walls of a similar angle, hold size and number of moves to my goals outside. Spending the winter climbing 20 move routes in 5 minutes won’t prepare you for 50 move trad pitches that take 40 minutes.

Swap Volume for Intensity

The bonus of not climbing more than 2-3 times a week is that you’re well rested for each session, and you can make every session a high intensity one. If you have a local wall, buying a block membership is a good way to ensure you leave when you’ve still got some energy left (instead of staying to ‘get your money’s worth’), and still turn up for a session even when you’ve only got an hour or so. Regular short, high quality and intensity sessions will always trump sporadic mega-sessions.

Father of two, husband, owner of two businesses, AMI Chairman and Time Lord Paul Platt on Tapestry, Pillar Rock  © John Kettle Colleague
Father of two, husband, owner of two businesses, AMI Chairman and Time Lord Paul Platt on Tapestry, Pillar Rock
© John Kettle Colleague

Injury Reduction and Management

If you want high performance or a long career (maybe both!) in any sport, you must play ‘the long game’. Injuries aren’t really avoidable; it’s more about reducing the rate of them, and managing them well. Talk to any veteran high performer in sport and you’ll see they’ve not dodged every injury, they’ve dealt really well with (and learnt from) the injuries sustained, however minor. Apply the same zeal and focus to fixing tweaks as you would to getting fitter. Ignoring problems or extended periods of total rest are rarely what the body needs.

The proactive approach: ‘before any long journey, check the oil level and tyre pressures’. Rather than wait for something to fail, ask a recommended physio to check your biomechanics and find out what you’re doing wrong. If you can’t sit, stand, balance and breathe with the right muscles, the foundations are too shaky to build on. You’ll leave with a servicing/maintenance schedule that if followed will keep you from the chronic injuries caused by long-term movement dysfunction such as lower back, shoulder, neck, elbow, hip and knee troubles.
Seeing a physio when I was uninjured was the best £35 I’ve ever spent on my climbing.

Here’s my years’ injury summary. While it may look a lot, by careful management they remained minor injuries which I climbed through, except the big toe that cost me three weeks off the rock:

Nine minor finger tweaks
Minor tennis elbow in both arms
Minor golfers elbow in both arms
One muscle strain (Latissimus Dorsi)
One bruised heel
One dislocated big toe – 3 weeks off (don’t ask how!)

Supplementary Training

Climbing is fundamentally a skill based activity so fingerboards, campus boards, weights and core workouts only work as a supplement to a high volume of quality climbing movement, and mostly at an elite level. If more than 10% of your total climbing time is spent on these, it’s unlikely it will improve you more than extra climbing would, and it may make your technique worse. Compare the numbers in my training here to my injury reduction exercises:

Fingerboard sessions: 20 (5 during foot injury period)
Campus board sessions: 2 (whilst unable to climb due to foot injury)
Core workouts, flexibility training, other training: None
What non-climbing training time is really about for the time-starved climber is injury reduction exercises. Your chance to ensure your body is finely tuned and maintained ready for the next climb.
My years’ injury reduction exercises:
2,861 repetitions of physiotherapy exercises
Elbow eccentrics: 2,745 repetitions
30 Finger icing sessions
22 Foot icing sessions (following dislocation)

Dear Diary

Keeping a training diary or joining a forum of like-minded climbers is a great way to maintain focus and motivation. Remember to record your state of mind, injuries and external influencing factors as well as your climbing - it’ll help you recognise patterns and foresee future issues. I draw grade pyramids, pin them on the wall and colour them in as I go - anything to aid motivation. Finally don’t forget to celebrate you successes, I know it’s not British but it works! I have a pie from the local butchers every time I break a new grade.
So how did I do with my experiment? After a year on my 6 hours a week schedule I’d gone from a five month lay-off to eating three pies and bouldering V10/font 7c+.

My grade pyramid template - feel free to copy  © John Kettle
My grade pyramid template - feel free to copy
© John Kettle

Being short of time doesn’t mean never improving. What could you achieve in a few hours a week?

If you would like to book a coaching or instructing sessin with John, you can visit his website at

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12 Dec, 2013
Hi, thanks, this a very interesting article and I can relate to many of the things you said being in a very similar position clearly. You didn't tell us though what your goals were and whether you achieved them in this timeframe etc, would be interesting to know, otherwise it remains quite generic / theoretical. It's the concepts I teach my students, but there are always obstacles in implementing plans. Just curious about what you set out to achieve , i.e. your smart goals and whether you achieved them? Be very nice to know, Cheers Heike Ps your injury list puts mine to shame! You are probably trying a lot harder than me.....
12 Dec, 2013
I also found the article interesting (as a father to a newborn I'm finding free time thin on the ground). I have a couple of minor things to add, based on my experience with training in the past. The first is regarding injury. I've noticed that as I get older (and I still consider myself pretty young!) I am capable of injuring my fingers much more easily than I used to, especially indoors. So despite the fact that short, intensive session are appealing, the importance of warming up properly cannot be overstated. I personally would find 9 finger tweaks in one year to be 8 too many. The second is regarding diet and weight. Since becoming a father I have not really looked after myself as well as I should and I am a good three or four kilos over my fighting weight. Losing weight is something that doesn't require time, just discipline, but it can make a big difference to your climbing. So I'm planning to cut out the cakes (although maybe after christmas!)
12 Dec, 2013
After a year on my 6 hours a week schedule I’d gone from a five month lay-off to eating three pies and bouldering V10/font 7c+. A bit of context would be useful. If your previous best prior to the layoff was Font 8A+ then this isn't very impressive but if it was Font 7b+ then it is. Also: Climbing is fundamentally a skill based activity so fingerboards, campus boards, weights and core workouts only work as a supplement to a high volume of quality climbing movement, This observation is regularly trotted out but I don't think it applies to everyone. For the time poor stale lifer with good technique who is relatively weak for the grade then targeting fundamental strength gains via isolation training may be the only realistic place left to go
12 Dec, 2013
I also liked it. I'd be interested in tips / tricks on fitting work/life together. I work in a fairly flexible company, often from home and am beginning to think I might try and use my wall cafe as an office using their wifi. I can then get to the wall on a lunchtime, work there in the afternoon and then climb straight away. little tips/tricks for this would be interesting to see.
12 Dec, 2013
Assuming "3 pies" means he broke 3 grade boundaries during the year, he started the year (after a 5 month layoff) at font 7b. This doesn't imply a prior best, but it's "a bit of context"
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