Dr Ashlee Hendy opens your mind to a holistic model of training
Imagine yourself bearing down on that last crux move of your project. Your feet pop off and your fingers start to slide. The rock feels coarse as it slowly grates under your fingertips. The wind blows and you hear your last draw clink just below your feet. The gentle burn in your forearms tempts you to drop off once again, but instead you crimp down and fight. You tighten your core and draw your toe accurately back onto your final foot hold. Thrusting your body towards the wall, you lurch for the final victory jug, wrapping your fingers around it. Exhaling with relief, you grasp your rope and ease it through the gates of the anchors. Success! Now, imagine it again. And again, in all its detail. Three more times. You just completed a really solid mental training session, all from the comfort of your couch (or desk*). Well done.
Not many climbers use mental training and this under-utilisation is seen in many other sports, particularly amongst recreational and sub-elite level participants. It’s a shame that in our conditioning and preparation we are so caught up with the body at the expense of the mind as there is a substantial scientific literature to support the benefits of mental training in sports performance.
In sports science, mental training (often referred to as motor imagery or visualisation) refers to situations where an athlete repetitively rehearses an activity without visible movement. It is most effective when done drawing on all of the senses to create an experience that is as close to the ‘real thing’ as your imagination allows. In this way mental training is not just seeing, but feeling the movement.
In climbing, mental practice can have several different uses:
1) Controlling motivation and arousal in preparation for a one-off effort (managing nerves when redpointing or pre-competition). This is probably the most common and effective way that mental training or visualisation is used by climbers, perhaps even without being fully conscious of it. A key factor for success is the ability to control the outcome of the imagined performance, that is, imagining yourself succeeding rather than recreating falls or failures.
2) Learning and remembering correct beta for particular sequences (creating accurate muscle memory) and executing moves. If you find yourself falling off due to ‘silly mistakes’, rather than being limited by your physical ability, mental training may assist with meaningful improvements in this area. It can also be exceptionally useful for minimising the number of attempts required to redpoint a hard project. Having a mind like a goldfish might be okay for onsighting but redpoints require information storage and retrieval.
3) Supplementing physical training to improve strength, power and fitness. Although it might seem surprising, numerous well-controlled scientific studies have now consistently demonstrated that mental training can increase functional strength and power output. A somewhat groundbreaking study performed in 1992 by Yue and Cole reported a 22% increase in maximal strength following a four week program of imagined contractions, compared to a 30% increase for physical training and a 2% increase in the control group. Forget think and grow rich, think and grow strong.
Arguably, a fourth use for mental training would be injury rehabilitation. A substantial body of scientific evidence reports that mental training is successful in improving recovery outcomes following musculoskeletal injury and immobilisation, as well as neuro-rehabilitation following stroke. To assist in creating the illusion of movement in an injured limb, the use of mirror-boxes and movement of the unaffected limb are also very effective. These methods of rehabilitation should be considered on a case-by-case basis in consultation with a rehab specialist – certainly something worth mentioning next time.
Although there is still much to be determined in understanding the mechanisms that underpin performance gains following mental training, several (somewhat overlapping) theories have been proposed. Most relevant to climbers is the functional equivalence theory, which dictates that the brain activity associated with imagined movements is almost identical to that of actual movements. Neuroscience techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) detect changes in blood flow and electrical activity, providing information about brain activation patterns. These techniques have revealed that the specific regions of the brain involved in movement behave in the same way, regardless of whether a movement is imagined or actually executed. Only the final stage of ‘execution’, where the electrical impulse exits the brain via the spinal cord, is lacking during imagined movements. The repeated activation of neural circuits associated with a specific movement, particularly complex and cognitively demanding tasks (such as climbing), can therefore induce lasting neuroplastic changes within the brain that will later aid in the execution of the actual movement.
There are a number of factors that influence the effectiveness of mental training. Most notably, athletes who are able to create a vivid life-like scenarios and become fully immersed in their mental training environment will benefit more than those who struggle to achieve this. People with experience in mindfulness or meditation are likely to find it easier to benefit from mental training. The ability to successfully perform mental training takes time and practice, and is certainly not an effective replacement for physical training. It should not be seen as an ‘easier’ version of physical training, justification for skipping a session, or a way to save time. In fact, if you complete the mental session in half the time that a physical session would have taken you, you’re probably not doing it right. In the past, people participating in regular fitness training for health and weight loss have asked me, ‘So, I can just think about going to the gym while I sit back with a beer?’ No. Just no.
Having said that, mental training can be a great alternative when things like work commitments, travel, injury or fatigue (i.e. overtraining) prevent you from performing physical training as much or as often as you may like. Another important benefit that I gain from my own mental training is the intense motivation that it brings to my physical training sessions, and the way it maintains the midweek psych for the weekend warrior. The more I climb in my mind, the more excited I get to do it in ‘real-life’. Despite this, I have by no means mastered my mental training, and like most people I still find myself at the crag and during training doing battle with the typical psychological hurdles, things such as fear, redpoint nerves, improperly executed beta, lack of self-efficacy and confidence, motivation and attitude.
Despite not having mastered mental training, without a doubt it played a key role for me when I sent Monkey Puzzle (28), my first at the grade, and a jump from being semi-consolidated at grade 26 at the time. I had two photos of the route saved on my phone that I would look at as I trained the route in my mind mid-week, in preparation for the weekend mission. The week before I sent the route, I would complete two to three laps in the form of mental training each night before going to bed. It allowed me to dial the beta and maximise my efficiency on the wall, so my body knew exactly what it had to do next. Before attempts, and even while using rest positions on the climb, I would visualise successful movements through crux sections to create the optimal psychological state and reduce redpoint nerves. It still took me a while to develop the physical strength and endurance, but eventually I ticked the route, and I am confident that my holistic approach to training body and mind played a crucial role.
Mental Training for Beginners
Theory is great but you need application to reap the benefits, so in the spirit of making you stronger here’s The Doc’s ‘how to mentally train’ guide for beginners.
If you don’t know where to begin with mental training, start with performing a basic task. For example, a set of chin-ups.
- Begin by performing a ‘real’ (physical) single set of the exercise to help engrain the movement in your mind. As you complete the movements, take particular care to notice the sensory information that your body is sending to your brain, as this is what you will be trying to recreate.
- Once you have completed the physical set, find a comfortable spot to rest. Close your eyes and try to recreate the experience in your mind, while the memory is still fresh. Do this in real-time (do not speed up or skip over repetitions – it should take just as long to complete your mental set as it did your physical set). It may help to count out loud, or to sync your breathing as you would if you were actually moving.
- Take a rest, then complete another physical set of chin-ups. Again, try to focus on sensory information such as what you can see visually, the sound of your breath, the muscular effort, and the feeling of movement in your joints.
- Complete an additional set mentally, again trying to imagine the experience using as many senses as possible. Try to determine what aspects of your imagined experience are most difficult for you to master, so you can work on them. You may also wish to experiment with shifting your imaginary vantage, this involves imagining watching yourself complete the set from a third person (or onlooker) perspective.
- Continue with a mixed physical/mental training session until you feel you have made some progress and can mentally recreate the movements with reasonable accuracy.
- Don’t wait too long before completing your next mental training session. For beginners, it would be useful to complete another set a few hours later, and once or twice the following day.
- Always take you time. Be patient with yourself and accept that creating the mental training environment is difficult and requires practice. When completing mental training, set aside just as much time as you would require to get through the session if you were doing it physically. Keep an eye on the clock to ensure you are not racing through your sets/reps.
- When you are ready to progress to more difficult training scenarios (boulder problems or routes, placing gear, or falling situations), consider getting someone to film your physical, ‘real life’ performance so that you can use the video to assist with your mental rehearsal. When using visual aids, remember to include feeling and auditory sensations to add depth to the mental training experience. The richer your mental training environment, the more effective your time spent there will be.
- Be aware that it’s awfully difficult to accurately ‘imagine’ producing a movement or sequence if you haven’t physically done it before. Likewise, mentally rehearsing incorrect beta or poor technique can be as counterproductive as poorly executed physical training, so always proceed with caution.
*the author takes no responsibility for lost productivity in the workplace that occurs as a result of your new training regime.
Dr Ashlee Hendy is a Lecturer and Researcher at Deakin University, with a background in Exercise Science and Neuroscience. She trains in various indoor facilities around Melbourne and makes occasional cameos in local competitions, while her heart and soul reside in the Wimmera.