The notion of speed climbing conjures logo-emblazoned NASCAR uniforms. Events that take place on Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! Stadiums filled with throngs fueled by equal parts testosterone and energy drink. A place where they “sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge.” Mix climbing into the speed cocktail and what do you have? A muscle car drag race without the cars.
So, what is Speed Climbing all about?
Like the quarter-mile track, every speed climbing course is the same. They all have the same holds—actually the same two holds, 20 identically juggy hand-holds and 10 identically fantastic foot jibs—in exactly the same configuration on a wall that is always exactly 5 degrees overhanging for exactly 15 meters. (There is a 10-meter version, but the Olympics and international competition use the 15-meter route.) The route is standardized by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) to ensure consistency.
The world record is just under five and a half seconds, which is closing in on seven miles an hour, a rate that would see Everest summited from sea level in less than an hour. Of course, it’s not the same thing, but it puts it in perspective.
What do people speed climb?
Head-to-head competition to most climbers is the antithesis of climbing’s appeal. Likewise, the idea of not just doing the same 5.10 every time you come to the gym, but also for every climb in your session, makes most of us want to quit climbing immediately. Thus, speed is the oddball discipline in an already outlier sport—less than 2% of the population participates in any form of climbing, and most of those climbers have never touched a speed wall. But for those who love the dynamic sprint-style of climbing inherent in racing up the 15-meter route, speed climbing is anything but boring.
It’s also worth considering that in the last 30 years most of climbing’s formerly fringe variants have become very much the norm, think: light and fast alpinism, sport climbing, bouldering, gym climbing and parkour-style competition climbing. When climbing evolved in these directions, the United States initially scoffed, and the rest of the world got on board and excelled. Eventually, the US embraced these categories wholesale with an eye toward dominance. The new crop of youth gym climbers has mostly embraced speed climbing, so it likely won’t be long till it’s just as popular as bouldering–with waits for burns on indoor speed routes similar to those seen around the newest bouldering set. For better or worse, speed climbing is one of the three disciplines included in climbing at the 2020 Olympics. It might be time to dispense with the skepticism.
Why you should try speed climbing:
Even if you don’t compete, there are solid benefits to including speed work in your sessions. Climbing faster means being more efficient, which saves strength for crux moves and gets you to rest holds sooner. It’s also a great way to train powerful, dynamic movement, which, again, will allow you to use less energy on bigger, harder moves. So during your next session, try timing yourself on route a bit below your limit to see how fast and efficient you can be. Or give the real speed wall a try. Give it several goes and track your progress. Just picture yourself as a hopped-up muscle car…just without the car.