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Risk, Fear, and Strain: A Rock Climber’s Story
The Cool Kids of Climbing
There’s an Ernest Hemingway quote that says “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” The truth of that statement is debatable, but the American novelist’s message is clear. True sports have an element of risk. In the case of “mountaineering,” or rock climbing to the modern man, it’s a matter of life or death.
Matt Lloyd has never known life outside of climbing. Born in South Africa, he moved to Colorado at an early age and started doing it for fun. Eventually, he went pro and began coaching at the age of 15. Back then, climbing was more of a “lifestyle” sport. Generally, people viewed it as a hobby–a thing you did if you wanted to escape society and live in your van. Even though Matt was a pro, he says the sport was largely unregulated and it wasn’t profitable as an athlete.
Today, the world of climbing has changed dramatically. In 2017, The New York Times even called it one of the fastest growing niche sports. Climbing heroes like Alex Honnold, Conrad Anker, and Jimmy Chin have caught mainstream attention through breathtaking documentaries and widespread social media followings. People are flocking to upscale state-of-the-art climbing gyms as a way to meet people and stay fit. What used to be purely a fringe lifestyle hobby has now become part of the culture of cool.
An Indoor Gym for the Outdoor Athlete
When Matt opened his gym Mountain Strong in 2013, he didn’t realize how serendipitous the timing would be. Both CrossFit and climbing were on the rise, and together with his friends they created a program for the outdoor athlete looking train smarter, build strength, and become more athletic. From kayakers to skiers to ultrarunners, Mountain Strong catered to the “outdoorsy” population of Denver in a way that no gym had before.
“I wanted to fill this space for people who didn’t really want to be in the gym,” says Lloyd. “The reality is that you can’t go out and climb eight hours a day, every day. You’ll get injured.” By combining high intensity training, Olympic lifting, and climbing technique, Matt provided a way to help people get stronger inside the gym so they could maximize their performance outside of it.
High Stress Situations Produce High Strain
About three years ago, Lloyd bought a chest strap to monitor his heart rate while he was climbing outside. When he got home to download the data to his computer, he was surprised to learn that his heart rate was elevated for hours on end, sometimes reaching 190 bpm. While climbing was definitely strenuous, he never would have guessed that his body was reaching anaerobic training zones like an endurance athlete.
As he started integrating technology into his training, Matt stumbled upon WHOOP after chatting with some NFL players at a sports rehab facility in Denver. WHOOP came into the conversation when players were discussing how veteran athletes with lots of experience still struggled with injury and recovery. Lloyd then purchased a WHOOP for himself and started wearing it on all his climbs to get an idea of what his body was actually going through and what his limit should be each day.
What he discovered fascinated him. While his chest strap did register elevated heart rate, it wasn’t correlated to anything actionable. With WHOOP, Lloyd started to see clear patterns of strain and recovery that became critical to mitigating risk on his climbing routes. He also began monitoring the differences in strain based on climbing difficulty, altitude, and outdoor vs. indoor routes using the WHOOP Live feature, which captures calories and strain in real-time.
Below is a typical climbing day for Matt, along with a video where he chronicles four different climbs, both inside and outside, and the differences in how it affected his heart rate.
Fear and Risk in Denver, CO
As all climbers know, there’s a dark side to the sport that you must accept if you want to be a part of the community. On average, North America sees about 30 climbing-related deaths per year, which is why it’s imperative to approach each day with warranted caution.
“There’s lots of suffering involved in it, and that’s part of what makes climbing different,” says Lloyd. “A couple of my peers die every year doing this sport. I’ve been stuck in storms at 20,000 feet. There’s a huge risk of getting hurt, and I can’t just quit in the middle of it. It’s a one shot try.”
Part of the cardiovascular strain of climbing is simply managing fear and anxiety while you’re dangling above a rock ledge. Experienced climbers like Lloyd learn to calm their nerves in order to maintain control, but there’s always an element of risk that keeps the body on high alert. Lloyd has even discovered that the night before a climb his strain will increase simply because he’s anxious.
Matt wears WHOOP because it gives him a little more peace of mind. “It’s a way to know when you’re on or off, a way to mitigate risk. We all take risks in sports, but it’s nice to have something that helps you make a better decision.”
One of those decisions has been taking actual rest days. Before WHOOP, his rest days consisted of spending a whole day doing carpentry and housework instead of climbing. Lloyd figured that because he wasn’t doing his normal activities, he was allowing his body to take time off. Instead, he was reaching an 18.5 strain spending eight hours a day doing things like raking and painting. “I learned that I have to chill out on some days, you know? It’s a different kind of stimulus,” says Lloyd, referring to the types of activities you do on rest days that your body might not be used to. Now, the otherwise “super high energy” Lloyd forces himself to take a break on rest days by reading and laying low.
Stronger Than Yesterday
At Mountain Strong, the motto is “training with purpose.” Its classes are designed “to produce supremely skilled climbers both physically and mentally,” which is a result of technical acuity and training confidence. Thanks to Matt, WHOOP has become a device regularly worn by athletes in his gym to help understand response to training stimuli and prepare for whatever adventures they have in the wilderness of Colorado.
“If you’re training by feel, you have the worst coach,” Lloyd states, matter of factly. “Everyone I know has had a day where you’re like ‘I feel like shit’. And then you PR.” And when it comes to scaling mountain sides or barreling down the Arkansas River in a kayak, being primed for peak performance makes it a little less scary.