Ask Beth Rodden: How To Bust Out Of A Plateau

Beth Rodden has inspired a generation of climbers—and now she’s opening up to share in a monthly Q&A column on Verticulture. From her early days smashing climbing comps, her landmark free climbs on El Cap and groundbreaking first ascents like the unrepeated 5.14c Meltdown in Yosemite—to her openness about climbing as a mother, Beth’s life has been a journey in transcending possibility. Her boundary-breaking climbs and hard-won wisdom have made her an icon within the climbing community. Outdoor Research is proud to partner with Beth for a regular Q&A column! Each month we announce a topic on Facebook and Instagram, and choose a question from the responses for Beth to answer. Here's this month's winner, from @luzisu:

What are your recommendations for breaking out of a plateau (specifically bouldering)?

From Beth:

Thanks so much for the great question. A plateau is something any climber can experience, no matter what grade they’re climbing. I’ve always had ups and downs and plateaus throughout my career—including now. And there are a number of reasons people experience plateaus. So that’s where I’d recommend you start: Try to pinpoint why you’re going through a slump in the first place.

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For me, there have been a multitude of reasons I’ve had to sift through. For example:

  • Had I just finished a project and needed a break, but didn’t want to admit that to myself?
  • Had I not climbed in a while and couldn’t break the barrier of getting back into it?
  • Was I overtrained and needed a break?
  • Was my training effective to a certain point but needed a facelift?
  • Was I nursing an injury, or afraid of re-injury, and holding myself back?
  • I also realize that it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, as sometimes my slumps and plateaus were a mix of a few of these things.

Once I’m able to figure out what’s causing my plateau, I can get to work breaking through. There are so many resources out there to help pinpoint where people’s weaknesses are. Coaching in climbing has skyrocketed lately, whereas 20 years ago you had to fiddle with things on your own to try to figure out your weaknesses. If you suspect your plateau is coming from an inability to get stronger, I would try using an online coaching resource. I’ve heard great things about Lattice Training, and they do remote assessments to help figure out your deficiencies and prescribe specific exercises for improving those. For me, I always know that core, upper body and power are my weak points. So I try to train those more than, say, technique. But for others, I know finger strength and footwork are struggles, so they might train those instead. For bouldering, you might want to look at finger strength and power. Another great resource is Eva Lopez—she has her PhD in finger strength! And while I don’t think she does online training, her blog and website are great resources as are her clinics.

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If you suspect your plateau is due to a funk or burnout, that’s a whole different story. Training harder might just add to your plateau. I personally experience burnout or a funk regularly. But it isn’t as widely talked about in the climbing world, nor is it as easily fixed by saying, “Just train harder, add more weight, work your weaknesses, etc.” For me, these times usually come either at the end of a project, or at a time when I feel like I “should” be climbing, but when climbing simply doesn’t feel good or fun. You’d think I would have learned by now to just take a break, but I guess I have short-term memory and I usually just try to push through. Occasionally that works, but most of the time it just leads to a bigger plateau. I’ve found that when I’m excited about climbing, I can push harder. But when it feels like a chore, I just run through the motions and would be better served to just take a few weeks off and come back renewed.

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Once I can figure out why I’m stuck in the plateau, I can start to break it down. For the women’s clinics I run each summer, I always do a training course and a mental course. I think both are equally beneficial. And for each one there is some overlap: Try to keep it fun, mix it up and give yourself permission to be afraid and fail. The best part about climbing is that it’s so individual to each and every person. How you improve is specific to you. How you experience ups and downs is unique to you, too. Work with yourself to understand how to most effectively improve. Best of luck!