How to Improve your Route Reading
By Emily Pitts // Route reading is like solving a puzzle. It involves time, skills and attention. These are some exercises you can use and practical things you can do to help you get better at finding solutions to your climbing puzzles, focusing mainly on indoor top rope climbing, as a mechanism for improving and moving on to lead climbing indoors and climbing outdoors. There’s hopefully something in here for beginners, but also people who are more experienced climbers.
1. Work out how tall you are
This isn’t a trick. In relation to the boards on a climbing wall it’s fairly straightforward to work out how to tall you are and how far you can reach. Working this out can help you to visualise which holds you can reach based on where your feet might be at any point on the wall.
2. Visualise – the basics
Find a route you want to climb.
Stand at the bottom of the route.
- What holds can you see in the first 2 metres?
- Where will you feet be?
- Where will your hands be?
In a similar way to dancers ‘marking out’ their moves you can use your arms and feet to help you visualise or mimic the position your body might be in during a move on the route.
Climb the first two meters, then stop and look at the next two metres. Continue in the same way to the top of the wall and lower off as normal.
3. Repeat your route
Choose an easy route on a slab (start easy and then progress to harder routes).
Climb the route without looking at it at all.
Once you get back to the bottom, take a step back and look at the route.
Think about the sequence of your first six or seven moves.
Get back on the route.
Notice the difference – what have you learnt?
4. One speed, slow exercise
The aim of this exercise is to choose and climb an easy route at an even speed in a steady manner – no jolts, lurches or dynamic moves. The key word is control – hands, arms, feet, legs, torso and head.
- What needs to happen for you to do that?
- What speed do you need to climb at to be in control?
- What do you need to do to prepare?
After the exercise reflect on how it went and what you could do to climb the route in a smoother way. Discuss with your climbing partner and share, if that helps.
5. Up and down, up and down, up and down
Down climbing is underrated, but it can be really useful as a route-reading aid. This exercise can be good as part of a graduated warm-up too, if you choose very easy routes. Give yourself time – it’s not a race and this exercise is about learning and improving.
Choose a top-rope route that is within your capability. Climb the route without looking at it beforehand. When you get to the top, instead of sitting back and holding your knot, down climb instead. Take your time and remember to use only the holds you used to climb up. Just make sure your belayer is confident to belay you down in this way, as s/he may not have done it before. Repeat three times, allowing yourself to change the way you climb if you find a better way of using a hold or a better way of placing your foot. This is about learning, testing and trialling new things.
As well as being something you can incorporate into the warm up, this exercise can also help with endurance and climbing stamina by building up the length of time you are climbing.
Route setters all have their own style, so if you check out route information you may be able to get a head start on what style of climb you’re about to embark on. Route information is usually on a sheet of paper or board at the bottom of a climbing line at most indoor walls.
7. Lower off & check out routes
If you’re top roping, you can eye up more difficult routes on the same line as you lower off if you’re really keen. If you’re aiming for endurance on lead lines, you could lead up a route, check out a different route on the same line as you lower off and top rope that route immediately – two climb in close succession to build up your stamina.
8. Watch someone who’s not as good as you
It might seem counter-intuitive, but watching someone who is not as good as you can help you to identify they types of things that you do wrong as a climber. The beauty of this is that you can do it at any level of climbing, especially when you progress. In relation to route reading, watch someone climbing, preferably a beginner, from a distance. Try to identify where they have or haven’t read the route and what they could have done differently. See if you can apply this to your climbing.
Longer top rope and lead climbing routes can usually be broken down into a series of boulder problems, so working out a boulder problem is the first step to route reading on much longer routes. Use our guide to bouldering to help you improve at bouldering.
10. Compare with a pro
Find someone who is a better climber than you. Or even better find a group of people at different levels. Video each person climbing, including yourself. Treat it as a personal coaching session – identify where you went wrong and see if you can read the route better on a video. You can go back to the route, re-read it and give it another go. Use an app such as Coach’s Eye to record you, and others, climbing. You can compare each other’s climbs alongside one another.
11. Learn about Holds
Climbing walls use the same types of holds, so if you learn how to use individual holds you will start to understand the way a route has been set and how you might expect to climb it. Get advice from climbing instructors, at climbing clubs, through friends or by asking boulderers in the bouldering area.
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