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How to set climbing goals

Updated: Mar 10

The start of a new year is always a time of reflection for me, looking back on the successes and struggles of the year just gone and envisaging what the coming year might bring. I’m quite an analytical person and for me, setting clear goals is important because it helps give me focus, long term vision and short term motivation. In this blog I’m going to take a look at how I use goal setting tools to help me to measure and improve performance and progress in climbing.

Simple and Smart

Goal setting doesn’t need to be an arduous task, in fact I’d encourage you to keep it as simple as possible. I use the smart(er) acronym to give structure to my goals. I’ve given some examples below;

S- Specific - I’d like to lead physically harder trad climbs.

M - Measurable - I can look back at the end of 2021 and compare what I climbed in 2020.

A - Attainable - Are there small achievable tasks that will be the building blocks towards achieving my goal?

R - Realistic - Ie, I lead 5 HVS climbs in 2020 and would like to lead E1 in 2021 (saying you wanted to lead E7 would probably be unrealistic).

T - Time - It’s important to set a time frame for your goal so that you are able to reflect and see whether you have met your goal. This could be one month, three months, a year or longer, depending on the desired end result.

This is an example of one of my goals for the year of 2021;

S - I’d like to climb more routes in 2021 than in 2020.

M - I’d like to have climbed 300 routes.

A - I know this year I will have more opportunity to climb frequently due to changes in schedule.

R - I have climbed more than this many routes in a year previously and normally average about 230 routes a year.

T - One year (this makes it easy for me to compare to previous years).

It's worth pointing out that this particular goal has multiple purposes, one is that I get to spend lots of time climbing (purely for enjoyment) and the second is that I know from experience that the more time spent on rock, means better overall climbing performance. Two birds with one stone.

I’ve got my SMART goals, where do I go from here?

From our SMART goal outline we then look at how we are going to go about achieving our goals, to do this we need to break down and understand what areas of performance we need to work on (these become our attainability building blocks). A good model to use for this is TTPP or technical, tactical, physiological and psychological, some examples are below.

Technical - Movement technique, ropework, coordination, balance.

Tactical - Route reading, concentration/focus, conditions, preparation, find rests on routes.

Physical - Strength, agility, flexibility, power, cardiovascular fitness, recovery time.

Psychological - Confidence, motivation, emotional control, self talk, self belief, relaxation, fear management.

This can help us narrow down the areas we would like/need to improve and set attainable tasks from them. For example if our goal is that we would like to progress from climbing 5s indoors to climbing 6s but that you always run out of juice in our arms we might want to look at the technique being used to see if there is any room for improvement in our movement skills. After that we would consider if our strength might need improving.

It can be hard to judge our own weaknesses sometimes (this is called intrinsic feedback) so the help of a friend or a coach can be a great tool for analysing our performance and helps us build a better picture of where improvement is needed(this is called extrinsic feedback, it comes from outside). Based on our performance we can then break down the broader areas of technique and strength to small attainable tasks which might look like this;

  1. Movement drills to improve technique (for example hip twists and rockovers).

  2. Circuits focussing on building physical strength.

  3. Cardiovascular training (running, cycling, swimming) to improve recovery time whilst climbing.

These blocks can then be built into a weekly training plan. This could be as simple as adding in a circuit of pull ups, push ups and sit ups into your normal climbing session, or warming up with some movement drills.


Alpinist and coach Mark Twight writes in relation to physical endurance training that there is “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and I find that this also applies to

all goal setting. You can write the SMARTest goals in the world, but if you don’t do anything about them beyond writing them, you won’t see the results you hope for.

Moving forwards

So when we have finished goal setting we should have a go

al which meets the SMART criteria. From there we generate internal (intrinsic) and external (extrinsic) feedback on our performance so we know which areas we might need to work on. After that we can develop our attainable building block tasks which will hopefully help us achieve our goals.

Goal setting is a brilliant tool to help us reflect on where we are and where we would like to go, however things don’t always go to plan (2020 is a great example of this for 99% of us!) and so it's important to regularly review our goals and make sure they are still in line with what we want and also what it is possible to achieve.

So I’ll leave you with a challenge, take time to sit down, reflect and write 3-5 goals (not necessarily climbing) that meet the SMART criteria.

A man learning to mountaineer bouldering at the bottom of an overhanging coastal cliff

Pete focussed and trying hard on Hueco Crack at St Bees.

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