Saturday, January 16, 2016

Lesson from My Students: Choose Happy

One privilege of being a teacher is you get to see all manner of student behavior, and how it affects performance.  Unsurprisingly, a general trend I've observed is the more positive, happy, and optimistic students seem to perform nearer to their potential.  Some students are remarkable in that despite their terrible parents and home life, they still manage to regularly be bright spots in the day of others.  Terrible background, odds stacked against them, and they still do well and improve the lives of others around them?  How do they do it?!

I'm sure a proper psychologist could dig into the precise reasons why some people turn out happier than others, but something I've learned from watching my students is that in the same unfortunate situation, a guy can choose to be happy and optimistic, or he can choose to be a negative Ned.  Negativity, the seemingly natural choice in tough situations, almost always makes the situation worse.  Choosing happy often makes the situation better.  Happiness makes friends who rally to the side of their optimistic colleague.  Habitual happiness, though not always the natural choice, often wills success into existence.  So often students with crappy backgrounds who choose happiness anyway end up with B's and C's while their peers from similar backgrounds fight to get D's and F's.

Most of us can appreciate the positive energy and raw strength demonstrated by our happy colleagues.  A happy, optimistic worker is a powerful force, and is an unsung hero of the workplace.  They turn the mood, make people believe that difficult situations can be won; or at least help us not overly dramatize the trivial emergencies!  Their energy extends into peoples lives outside of work as well... negating some of the pessimistic energy that tends to be rampant in the workplace.

After battling-away at breaking plateaus and attempting to tackle goals that seemed audacious to me (like running 50 miles!), I've begun to realize that performance begins to grind to a halt unless I am willing to learn to be habitually optimistic and believe that nagging injuries CAN heal, that weak fingers CAN get stronger, and that a fearful mind CAN become brave.  Optimism and happiness are not only a weapon for being a better colleague and teacher at work, but they are also key to reaching new levels of athletic performance, and inspiring myself with increasingly improbable feats.

Things will always go wrong.  There will always be factors that make my life at work and as an athlete difficult and not fun.  I can't change the challenges, but I CAN change how I respond to them.  As I've seen while observing students, choosing to be negative in the face of a challenge will almost certainly not help; but choosing to be positive very well may.

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."  

-Winston Churchill

Saturday, January 9, 2016

First Two Weeks of consistent Lifting Done. Here are the highlights.

Having read Becoming a Supple Leopard, I am very aware that strength training is about much more than developing huge muscles-- which are a bit of a liability in my sports of choice!  The larger theme is developing strength, mobility, and better biomechanics-- which are essential in climbing and running.

Regarding lifting and running:
So far I've discovered that my hips are not very mobile, as I have difficulty driving my knees out during squats.  I've also discovered, thanks to the mobilization exercises in Supple Leopard, that my posterior tibial tendon soreness and arch pain are associated with a giant knot that I didn't know existed in my lower leg.  After the last week of work on these problems, I can say that I've both become very sore in some unique and unmentionable places, and that my squat form (and strength!) as greatly increased.  It's still a bit early to tell if all of my racket-ball rolling on my lower legs is improving my running-- currently too many variables are changing.  What I do know is that beginning a lifting routine does make my running feel a bit more sluggish.  Currently, I'm taking this as a pleasant increase in load, which will hopefully force some adaptations that make me a better, more durable runner in following years.  I feel very encouraged by the effects of the strength and mobility work on my right leg, which has a bad habit of getting runner's knee after about 20 miles.

One other aspect of the lower body lifts is how core-intensive they are.  Too my surprise, it seems that about 70% of the effort in a deadlift or squat is devoted toward keeping a stable spine.  My core has been getting blasted in a way it has not yet experienced.  Given the back pain I generally experience at about 20 miles, I've grown curious if these lifts will improve my ability to resist fatigue.

Regarding climbing:
Though lifting is often bashed by climbers as unnecessary, I've grown curious that this may not be true for all of us.  I don't naturally have the skinny legs that are present on most strong climbers, and controlling those babies seems to require more than planks, and a variety of leg-lift exercises.  After my 3-year plateau, I've become open to a full-body overhaul, and so far it feels that lifting is doing this.  As with my comments on running, the level of core required to properly control heavy deadlifts and squats is a bit shocking, and is not possible for me to achieve with my body-weight exercises for core strength.  I've definitely felt a boost in footwork precision as I've been lifting.  Of course, it is important to mention that I've been climbing at least lightly every day, which is helping transfer my new levels of muscle recruitment to climbing movement.  I'd be skeptical if just lifting alone would have as much effect.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Ego. Fear. Climbing Style.

I am very open with the students who are interested in climbing at Park High that climbing is quite possibly one of the most clickish sports in the world, and that it shouldn't stop them from enjoying it in a way that is the most fun to them.  The fact that climbing can involve real danger, and that it has a number of facets that can get technical make it a breeding ground for ego.  I've been around too many climbers who base their self-worth on how daring and dangerous they are, and how hard of a route they can climb.  Little do they know, but I really don't care how hard they can climb, or how many times they've put their hiney on the line to send a scary climb.  If they are nasty, irresponsible people, they are totally unimpressive and uninspiring to me.

Now having been in the sport for a little over 12 years, some of the B.S. that is present in the otherwise wonderful sport of climbing as begun to float to the top, and I've decided that I am quite fine with having as little to do with it as possible.  In celebration of this view, I resolve to climb according to my own style, and I would encourage others to follow suit in their own style!  Some arrogant purists will probably criticize us for "ruining" climbing and not being "real" climbers, but they are welcome to live in their strange and paranoid world as we horrify them with our own approaches.

My style is:

  • Realizing that I may flail and have to take on a safe 5.9 lead at the beginning of a climbing day, and that it doesn't make me a worse at climbing than I "should" be.  A mental warmup is just part of my day, and I'm okay with that.  I can still engage in a glorious battle with a 5.11 or 5.12 lead if my head gets into the game later.
  • I do fall practice...  a lot!  It sounds silly, and purists who still think the year is 1961 and we're climbing on gear made of 2x4's and old stove legs will tell me that I'm flirting with disaster, but it relaxes my mind and trains me on how to react in real falls so that I can climb harder and fall safer.
  • I'm fine with hang-dogging and stick-clipping up a route as I get to know the moves.  
  • I don't climb scary routes unless I have them extremely dialed.
  • I train a lot in my home gym, and I enjoy it.  
  • I respect and admire other people's styles... as long as they are courteous towards others, the crags, and realize that climbing is a sport, not a measuring stick for measuring ones quality as a human.
  • Some of my hardest routes are mere warmups to others, and that doesn't cheapen my own accomplishment when I finally manage the send.  
  • Crag developers are awesome.  Thanks for the routes!  I'll do what I can to protect and maintain the crag!

My Love-Hate Relationship with Altra Running Shoes

If you haven't heard of them before, Altra makes running shoes characterized by no heel-to-toe drop, and a wide toe box.  After reading feeling a bit wrecked after my 2012 Bighorn 50-miler and reading Chi Running, Altra's flat and wide shoes that allow for natural foot movement and body alignment made complete sense.  Nearly every pair of Altra shoes I've owned (up to 7 pairs now!) have felt extremely comfortable and allow for a nice, smooth, Chi Running stride.  There is a bit of an adjustment period, and after running in high-heel running shoes for years, your lower calves will be a bit sore for a while, but for me this adjustment was met with the rest of my body feeling better than ever.  Within just about 7 months of running in Altra shoes, I had a great, low pain (for a 50 miler!) 2013 Bighorn Mountain Run.  Unless you have insane levels of overpronation, I would highly recommend you switch to Altra shoes and give them a chance.  If you have some major structural problems, I would still argue that you should try a several-year progression that gets you into a flatter, zero-drop shoe.  Altra even has stability shoes and a wedge that can help bridge the gap.

Though Altra shoes are unique, innovative, and very comfortable, they also drive me crazy.  First, most of their shoes I try besides the Lone Peak have massive durability issues.  Most suspect is the current version of the Superior.  After about 50 trail miles and 30 road miles, the upper was so torn that my foot was about to stick out the side!  This problem was also characteristic of their first generation Superior.  Second, the durable Lone Peak was a great shoe in its first two generations.  Unfortunately, then Altra moved in a direction of uber-squishiness (why Altra?! Why?!).  I still run in the Lone Peaks since they are freakishly durable and have a smoother ride than traditional shoes, but my nagging arch injury seems aggravated by the unstable, squishy platform of the Lone Peak.  Fortunately, the Provision 2.0, which is primarily a stability road shoe, has helped alleviate some of the arch problems-- but unfortunately the Provision is a road shoe that is slick and would get shredded on the trails.

So what is the purpose of writing this?  First, you should try Altra shoes, as your purchase is a vote in the running shoe industry to support wide, flat shoes that allow for a natural stride.  You're likely to find out just how weird and uncomfortable most of the shoes you've used your whole life are (assuming you also make an effort to learn more about good running form).  If you can weather the imperfections and help provide a barrage of feedback to Altra, maybe they'll begin to consistently make stable, durable shoes.

Finger Strength, Core, and Movement: The new cornerstones of my climbing training.

As a full-time math teacher plus graduate student, it's impossible to take the prescription of so many top climbers-- to get better at climbing, climb a lot!  Further complicating my ambitions of sending my goal V7's and 5.12's is the fact that climbing is not the only sport I do, as trail running is and equally important focus of mine.

Through reading the Rock Climbers Training Manual and articles such as this one by Sonnie Trotter, I've come to realize that given my limited training time for climbing, I need to focus on the highest priorities-- 1)Finger Strength, 2)Core Strength, and 3)Efficient and precise movement.  Connecting these priorities, it is important to decide on the climbing style I enjoy most, and keep training specific to that.  For me, this means terrain with small holds up to slightly overhanging.

Over the last year and a half, I've settled on a training routine for climbing that involves the following:

  • A new garage climbing wall with a 30-degree overhang and a slight overhang which is full of smaller holds, especially little feet that demand precise foot movement and core tension.
  • A hangboard with a pulley weight system to remove weight as I work holds which are too small for my full body weight.  Additionally, I also add weight to my harness as I exceed body weight.  I stick to smaller holds, and less weight, as those are characteristic of my goal routes.  
  • Variations of leg lifts (hanging and on floor), working towards a front lever to build core strength.  

The routine roughly goes like this:
  • A few weeks of light lapping on the wall for a bit every day, focusing on precise movement, good body positioning.  I tend to pepper in some harder moves these days, but don't get to power crazy.  
  • A 3-4 weeks of hangboarding.  I do 7 second hangs with 3 second rests. I rest 3 minutes between sets, and do a set of 7 reps and a set of 6 reps for each grip.  Then I take 2 days off between workouts.  Generally, I follow the prescription in the Rock Climbers Training Manual.  I really like how systematic it is and how easy it is to progressively push to new loads while controlling to prevent injury.  I do about a 30-minute warmup of light lapping and lifting before.  I stop hangboarding and shift onto the next phase when my weights plateau.
  • A few weeks of limit bouldering and some occasional campusing to build power.  Strength is only so useful in climbing, as quick recruitment of muscles (aka power) is key to actually sending hard moves.  I do these power workouts about 3 days per week.  
  • A few weeks of power-endurance-- which is basically just making my forearms burn as much as possible.  I try to pick holds similar (or smaller!) in size to the 5.12's I want to send, and climb until I fall off, take a short break, then get back on!  I vary time between sets to mix up the stimulus, and I also practice clipping as I do these workouts.  

Though I don't make specific mention, I tend to use a 4-5 mile run, some lifting, and some lapping to warmup for these workouts.  The "lifting" also includes regularly core work which I do a few times per week.  I try to position my longish runs so that they are not before a strength workouts, as more endurance-related activities diminish returns from strength training, and they take the edge off of the maximum strength I can recruit during the workout (unfortunately, I know my 5 mile "warmup" runs are hurting my strength gains... still working scheduling this into my training routine!).  Also, whenever possible, I take my climbing workouts outside, although with graduate school, getting out has been a bit more challenging.

As a final note, I'm very curious to see how my new Olympic and power-lifting routine will affect my climbing.  So far I've been surprised by the level of core recruitment in barbell lifts, and the quality opportunities to work on good movement position.  My plan will be to run a bit less, expand the workout slightly, and hopefully get a more durable and powerful physique.


One of the greatest climbers on the planet, Tommy Caldwell, frequently cites how important optimism is in accomplishing big, intimidating, and awesome goals.  He even talks about it as a theme in his Ted Talk.

It is so easy to fall into the rut of sympathetically complaining with other people.  My teaching job is full of opportunities for frustration and disappointment, and too frequently my coworkers and I get beat down and allow negativity to overtake us.  We complain, stress, dramatize, and just generally work ourselves up into a tizzy.  I don't see the problem with the occasional venting session to get stuff off my chest, but complaining daily (or even several times per week) can't be good.  Reading this great article The Science of Happiness: Why complaining is literally killing you, along with any Cognitive Behavioral Therapy book, it has become clear that we become our thoughts-- the more we think negatively, the more burly those thought synapses become, and the easier it is to fall into those thoughts.

So, back to optimism.  It seems that the world has challenges and disappointments, and I've noticed that when I get negative and pessimistic, I do nothing to change the problem.  In fact, when I step back and see myself whining about an unmotivated student or an injury or fear I have, it's as if I'm punching a rock-- it hurts me a lot and does nothing to the problem.  It's better to just look at the problem as an opportunity to become stronger, more experienced, and more crafty.

Life is like a boulder field, and some people choose to walk through it angry about all the rocks, punching them, yelling, and cussing.  By the time they get halfway through they are bloodied, sweaty, and looking of demonic possession.  Generally, outsiders look at them with fear, pity... or they just think they're crazy.  Other people walk through the boulder field climbing the boulders that make for a good challenge and an opportunity for growth, and side-stepping others when necessary, not allowing the boulder to get the best of them.  An outsider would look at these people and see someone with elf-like agility who is enjoying their time in the boulder field.

As the next year comes my way, I know that to accomplish my long-standing goals as an athlete, and to become a generally happier and better teacher, I need to look at the boulder field of life as an opportunity to gain experience, craftiness, and strength; and to generally become better at mastering my own emotions.

Tommy Caldwell began as a self-proclaimed dorky kid who was bad at sports and became possibly the most incredible all-around climber to walk the planet.  His dad so strongly believed that his son was capable of the impossible, and this spilled over into Tommy.  Something that separates him and makes him world-class is is ability to take a seemingly impossible task and believe that he can accomplish it, even when progress moves at a creep.  He takes on the most difficult boulders in the boulder field of life and uses them to better himself, always believing that he can overcome the improbable.

I want to make it a point to take on the challenges I face believing that I can overcome them, even when progress is slow and frustration is vying to overtake me.  I want to become better at avoiding negative talk, hard-wiring myself to be happier and un-phased by the challenges of my daily life.

Goals for the New Year!

A guy always becomes a bit reflective as the New Year pops up.  After missing the Rut 50k due to my freak fever and stomach ulcer, then fighting-off nagging arch and finger injuries, I've been left feeling like a bit of an invalid during the last year.  Proudly, I was able to achieve my 2015 goal of consistently (as I could with my finger problems!) training finger strength on my hangboard.  I was also able to improve my computer programming skillz, finish the Park High Bouldering wall, and I unexpectedly began my MS degree in Mathematics Education.  Oh, and I finally sent my first legit outdoor V6 boulder problem, the Pulaski on Cedar Mountain in Cody, WY.

For the new year, I have full intentions of finally breaking past a few of my lingering barriers, partly to prove to myself that I can break through extremely difficult, long-term plateaus, and partly because it's a lot of fun to inspire myself by accomplishing things that seem impossible (or at least are very hard!)

My top concrete goals on my list are:

  • Finally climb one of the V7 boulder problems I've been battling with for the past 4 years! 
  • Finally climb China Crisis (Bozeman Pass) or Winds of Deception (Natural Bridge).  Both 5.12a.  Although I'd also take climbing one of the technical 5.11's a Allenspur as well! 
  • Lead climb 30 pitches in a day to celebrate being 30
  • Run another Ultra-Marathon (I hope I can get into The Rut 50k and redeem myself!)

My process-oriented goals on my list are:

  • Continue consistent finger-strength training
  • Condition myself to become more optimistic and positive, both as a teacher and as an athlete.  I've grown weary of falling into the rut of the negative Neds at work and in my own mind.