7 Habits of Highly Effective Climbers

Pro-tip lessons in personal sendage

We’d all love to climb with the bone-crushing confidence of the Alex Honnolds, Sasha DiGiulians or Sonnie Trotters of the world. Imagine walking up to a crag and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you could successfully climb 99 percent of the routes within sight. That poise and ability is the result of training, mileage, and experience—qualities that compound through years of climbing at increasingly higher levels.

The bad news is that there are no short cuts to attaining that aptitude of sendage, even for the genetically blessed. The good news is that every time you pull on holds, you develop those traits further, too. But the great news? There are steps you can take off the wall to become a better climber—even while you sleep. Seriously. The following “habits,” compiled from interviews with a dozen pro climbers and training experts (and yes formatted after one of the best-selling self help books of all time), will make a difference in your climbing journey, if you commit to them.

1. Have Confidence in the Process 

Honnold didn’t wake up one day and free solo Freerider. Preparation took years.

Hands with chalk on them

Think about sitting below the hardest sport route you’ve ever tried. You’re tied in with shoes on, but feeling sweaty and nervous. You dread even starting the route because you just assume you’ll fall off, like you did the last 10 times you climbed it. How will you perform in this frame of mind? Now think about being below that same climb with a different attitude. You look up at the crux, excited to give it another try because you know you can do those moves. Each time you pull on gives you another chance to prove to yourself that you can do it. How will you perform in this scenario?

At a recent training discussion panel with experts like Steve Bechtel, Eric Hörst, and Kris Hampton, they all pointed out that confidence is the number one factor when it comes to climbing success. It’s the most common thread between all elite-level athletes, and it’s the same for in-the-moment performance and long-term success. Top climbers never question whether something is possible or not, they simply keep working toward a goal until it is completed. Honnold didn’t wake up one day and free-solo Freerider, just like DiGiulian didn’t climb Mora Mora after a few weeks of training. These are journeys that took months, years, and decades of great climbing days, horrible climbing days, and everything in between. So why did they do it? Why didn’t they say screw it and eat cheeseballs on the couch instead? They put in the work because they enjoyed it. And there’s the real secret: You have to find so much joy in the process itself that you don’t actually care about the end result.

2. Prioritize Sleep

Sleep is so incredibly important for health, recovery and happiness. —Jonathan Siegrist 

Photo Credit: Visualhunt

In June, DiGiulian went from Colorado to Indonesia, spent 12 days there, flew back to Colorado for a night, went to New York for two nights, and then flew to Madagascar to be on a big wall for a month. Despite a consistently hectic travel schedule, she still manages to get 8 hours of sleep a night. “I put a large emphasis on sleep,” she says. When dealing with jet lag, she will have one day of recovery where she sleeps as much as she can, then, she says, “I set my watch to local time and go with it.”

Jonathan Siegrist prioritizes sleep at all times, especially in training or project mode. That means 8 to 10 hours a night and a comfy bed in a dark, quiet room. “[If it’s not dark and quiet enough] I wear earplugs and sleep with a shirt over my face,” he says. “Sleep is so incredibly important for health, recovery and happiness.” Honnold says he’s not perfect with his sleep routine, but not consuming caffeine or any other uppers or downers helps his body sleep as much as it needs at any given time.

3. Do Something to Improve Yourself Every Day

Almost any training regimen will work, as long as you’re consistent.

Woman finding the right foot hold

At the previously mentioned training discussion panel, the first statement made by all the experts was a disclaimer. They said, “For any given training topic, all five of the panelists will likely have a different opinion.” The idea being that each have their unique methods and it’s up to the climber to figure out what works for her. However, the one thing they all agreed upon was consistency. The overall message was: “Almost any training regimen will work, as long as you’re consistent.” Your routine doesn’t have to be overly complicated, it just needs to be regular.

Sonnie Trotter does one to three things every day that bring him closer to his goals, everything from route visualization to research to physical training. Sasha DiGiulian has found success in a variety of training programs, but for her, the time of day is most important—her optimal training hours are midday. Honnold refers to a Ben Moon quote about how hangboarding should be like brushing your teeth—something you make a habit that helps long term. As evidenced by his post-Freerider free solo hangboard session, it seems like the habit has stuck.

4. Pick the Right Partner

Great partnerships throughout my climbing life that have made me a better climber, and just showed me what I can do. —Madaleine Sorkin

Climbing partners bouldering

“Having a motivated partner is hugely important,” Siegrist says. “It doesn’t matter if your partner is climbing 5.11 or 5.15, just someone that is stoked to be out, try hard, and put in the long hours if necessary.” If the best conditions are at night, Siegrist will go out to do a few pitches by headlamp. “Being around good and motivating energy can really help propel you through the low moments during the redpoint process as well,” he says.

Big wall free climber Madaleine Sorkin also picks her partners based on the support they can provide when the climbing gets hard or when she’s mentally struggling. “It’s important to feel like your partner really believes in you,” she says. “I feel really lucky for some great partnerships throughout my climbing life that have made me a better climber, and just showed me what I can do.” She also experienced the opposite, partially blaming a 50-foot groundfall on the fact that she didn’t know her partner at all. “He wasn’t a nice person, and I was attracting that sort of thing at the time,” she says. “I was way too open to climbing with people for an objective, rather than enjoying the time I got to spend with those people.”

Find partners who you trust to keep you 100 percent safe. If you know the person on the other end of the rope has got your back, you’ll be encouraged to try hard and push yourself. Someone who offers the right kind of motivation for your climbing style is crucial, too, whether you need someone loudly cheering you on or someone who is quiet and calm with her encouragement.

5. Focus on Quality over Quantity

Make those hours at the crag or in the gym really count.

Woman smiling while climbing in the gym

Since the tasks of daily life often prevent us from having unlimited climbing time, particularly if you are not a pro climber, it’s important to make those hours at the crag or in the gym really count. Mayan Smith-Gobat has a theory that “less is more.” Instead of climbing till exhaustion, she pushes hard when she’s outside but then stops while she’s still feeling good. She limits her gym time as much as possible because she doesn’t enjoy it as much, so when she goes in, she stays focused for the few hours she’s in there instead of getting sidetracked and wasting time. She also takes regular rest days, only climbing a few days in a row before taking a full rest day. “Through doing less but making that climbing time effective, I have seen more gains and fewer injuries,” she says.

This also applies to the projects you pick. Instead of having half a dozen projects you sort of like, find routes that really get you excited, ones that you want to revisit again and again, perhaps even regardless of sending. It could be the style of climbing, the location, or the aesthetic, but if you truly enjoy something about the route, you’re much more likely to enjoy the process. “If I love the climb, the way it looks, the way it moves, the way it makes me feel, then I’m willing to work a lot harder to make it happen,” Trotter says. “It keeps me motivated day after day.”

6. Record Everything

I do long-term lists of goals and day-to-day lists. —Alex Honnold

Photo Credit: Visualhunt

This can be any combination of the following: writing down goals and tracking your progress, keeping a food journal and a training log and making lists. Even if you’re not checking off things like “100 pull-ups” or “45 minutes of cardio,” just being able to cross off small tasks can help you feel more productive and positive about overall progress. In turn, that can help keep you motivated when it comes time for actual training.

“I do long-term lists of goals and day-to-day lists,” says Honnold, who is famous for having dozens of notebooks where he’s recorded everything. “Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘stretch, get groceries, do emails,’ but lists always keep me on track.” Similarly, he has a climbing journal with an entry for everything he climbed, and a training log for workouts, diet, sleep and whatever else he feels like monitoring. Knowing how certain foods, rest and training affect your body is crucial to making sure you’re being efficient with your time and energy.

A good starting point is to record your sleep habits: what time you went to bed, woke up, how you felt in the morning and anything that might have disrupted your sleep. Do that for a few weeks and adjust patterns based on what you find. Then try writing down what you eat before and during a climbing or training session. The timing, amount and type of food will affect your performance, and when looked at with your sleep habits, could tell you a lot about what how your body best operates. Even just writing sleep and diet habits down will help keep them at the top of your mind so you can prioritize them every day. 

7. Do Your Research

Eliminate as many unknown variables as possible. —Madaleine Sorkin

Climbers gazing at the wall in the gym

When big wall free climbing, where a bad bout of weather or trouble with any single pitch can result in failure, Sorkin employs what she calls “Princess Tactics.” She says, “Princess isn’t the best word since it’s genderized, but these include anything that will minimize suffering and increase success. You want to eliminate as many unknown variables as possible.” In other words: Do everything you can to make the task easier.

Sorkin will rap in from the top for her harder big wall objectives, like El Corazon (5.13b) and Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), stash gear and water and work the moves with a Mini Traxion on toprope. Previewing the hard pitches is a useful strategy because, as she says, “you only have so much energy by the time you get up there, so you don’t want to be figuring out where the holds are.” She also writes down meticulous gear beta for what pieces go where. Last year on her ascent of The Honeymoon is Over, a 1,000-foot 5.13c on the Diamond in Colorado, Sorkin worked the route for several weeks and battled cold, wet weather. She wore the same layers, got the same amount of sleep every night, and ate the same foods over and over. If you’re sport climbing and still can’t hit the crux move during a session, go work the start and end of the climb as much as possible so they become effortless. If you’re aiming for a highball boulder, get on top and examine and mark the holds so you know what you’re getting into when you’re high off the deck. For long multi-pitch routes, download topos, research route descriptions, and ask people who have done the climb. Take every opportunity to gather and employ information for maximum success—nothing is off limits!

But, Wait! There’s More!

Do what works for you.

One person climbing, the other belaying

These habits work for the pros, but I’m going to go ahead and add an every-person’s 8th habit: Do what works for you. Because, here’s another reality of climbing—there isn’t one and only one way to do anything. Some climbers feel strongest when they’re climbing four days on; others would faint at the thought of climbing more than two days in a row. Some climbers carry gigantic turkey legs to the crag for lunch; others refuse to eat all day. The only person who can really give you the best advice is you, so trust your instincts and do what feels right.

And if any of it changes your life, share the wealth in the comments below.