Home / Climbing / Need for Speed: What exactly is competitive speed climbing, and why should I care?

Need for Speed: What exactly is competitive speed climbing, and why should I care?

News flash: climbing 5.6 isn’t that impressive — unless that’s the number of seconds it took you to get to the top, and the route was the official IFSC speed-climbing route, estimated to be rated around 5.10c! Whoa! *cue crazy 80s guitar solo* So climbing 5.6, the current world record time for the 15 meter tall International Federation of Sport Climbing speed route, is actually really awesome. And new speed records are still being set every year! Speed climbing is a new and ever-evolving aspect to our sport, that is building popularity in the competition circuits. It’s very fun and exciting to watch, but most climbers do not feel the need to try it. So while I definitely don’t think speed climbing is going to catch on like wildfire, with hoards of climbers bettering their fastest times at the gym, it’s become a very important part of international climbing competitions, and may play a very integral role in finally get the sport of climbing into the Olympics. So here are the very basics of competitive speed climbing, as well as a little perspective from Stan Borodyansky, a U.S. Team Coach and speed climbing specialist.

Speed climbing is like regular climbing with crippling ADHD — like someone took the basic movements from regular climbing, and then just floored it. There’s no time for chalking up, considering technique, or really any conscious thought. When it takes just seconds to make the climb, as soon as that buzzer goes off to begin your race, your body goes on autopilot, performing the moves you’ve rehearsed a million times until you either reach the top or somehow, fall. There’s definitely beta involved, sure — there are different ways of getting to the top — but your beta is already dialed before you get to the competition, instead of working it out on the wall during the comp.

For example, watch this. This is what the IFSC route looks like being climbed. It’s a crazy fast time, with a very frantic announcer.

Every one of those moves, these climbers has practiced exhaustedly. It’s dialed into their brains, so a “good run” on a speed route is a run that goes as smoothly as possible, where their body knows exactly what it knows it needs to, with no slips or millimeter misplacements of a hand or foot. There is much, much more precision in this discipline of climbing. It’s not whether or not you use a key foothold — a winning time vs. a losing time could even come down to where exactly you placed your foot on that foothold.

According to Stan, training for this sort of climbing actually borrows quite a bit from other disciplines of climbing. Bouldering gets you the power to throw from hold to hold, sport or top-rope can get you the endurance you need to sustain activity for a long time, projecting helps to get you in the mental mindset so you know how to prepare your brain for getting down to straight business, and even dynos help you dial in your explosive power so you can spring from the starting holds and keep cranking.

I asked Stan if a lean body type, reminiscent of a cross-country runner, is preferable to a bulkier body type, like a sprinter. “A little bit of both,” he said is better. “But mostly people just need to learn how to climb the thing.” Step one: learn how to rock climb! CHECK.

As a shorter climber, I am discouraged at the sight of the IFSC speed route. I mean, look at how far apart the holds are! And these holds aren’t mega-jugs, either. They have multiple gripping surfaces, which vary in positivity. The edges of the hold tend to be rounded, so as soon as your hand makes contact with its surface, you need to immediately grip down hard to keep from slipping off.

A close-up of the holds used on all IFSC speed climbing routes, courtesy of climbingbusinessjournal.com.
A close-up of the holds used on all IFSC speed climbing routes, courtesy of climbingbusinessjournal.com.

But Stan says there is really no advantage to being tall — the beauty of the specially-formulated IFSC speed route is that it allows for many, many different betas. The tall guys are able to skip holds, and do the route in way fewer moves, but they have more body weight and larger limbs to throw around. It takes a lot of time and energy to perform big moves, as compared to making a lot of quicker, shorter ones. If you’re short, you are able to stay closer to the wall, and keep better control of your center of gravity as you are moving it up, up, up. So in a match between a little guy and a giant, don’t discount the shorty — while the two will have vastly different betas for the route, there is really no telling as to who will come out on top. It just comes down to who does their particular beta, well, better. MO’ BETTER.

One of the better advantages to speed climbing right now is its marketability. To the non-climber, watching someone on a difficulty route may be hard to follow. They have no concept of how hard that angle is, how bad those holds are, or how awkward the clipping stances are. Most non-climbers have very limited interest in watching a guy climb a route for five-minutes. But the difficulty of the speed climb is more tangible. In Stan’s words, “Because you can actually see who wins, instead of some guy just climbing slowly and then he just … falls.  And they’re like, ‘What happened?'” They can see the results, and appreciate the absolute ridiculousness of climbing 15 meters in 5 friggin’ seconds. I mean, could they even climb 15 meters of stairs that fast, let alone a 5.10c? Although it has been denied entry in the 2020 Olympics, climbing will someday find itself represented under those five Olympic rings, I do not doubt that. Stan believes that speed climbing is one of the best entry points into climbing for the casual observer, and I absolutely agree — although from a totally unqualified standpoint. Through the excitement and flashiness of speed climbing, I believe we can gain more interest in more traditional aspects of climbing, and gain more notoriety for our sport as a whole.

All of this, just so that maybe someday, people will have enough understanding about climbing to portray it accurately in movies, and we will never again have to laugh through Sylvester Stallone slammin’ bolts into a wall with a bolt gun, or inexplicably free-soloing with a full rack of pro. Or maybe it’s just my own hope. Is it too much to ask?

About Caillin Murray

Caillin Murray is a recent college grad who has rekindled her abusive relationship with climbing after a four-year break.

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