After many months of trying to find a time that worked for both of our crazy schedules, Alex Johnson and I finally sat down and had a conversation about her climbing, training, eating, and other aspects of her life.
Alex Johnson is an athlete on The North Face team, and she travels the world as a professional climber. She has some V12 ascents under her belt, she’s a 2-time world cup winner and 5-time national champ. She’s currently living in Las Vegas, but before that she was living out of her RV, following the good weather to her favorite bouldering areas. She spent a lot of time this winter in Bishop trying The Swarm, a V13/V14, which we talk about in the interview.
I’ve always been a fan of Alex Johnson, and I remember watching her at The Spot competing when she was just a kid really. Her confidence and poise, as well as her incredible strength, have always impressed me.
What We Talked About
- Her biggest accomplishments and biggest failures as a climber
- Which training styles have worked for her and which have not
- What it was like for her to train with the Euros
- How she’s training for Vail this year (it’s a secret so don’t tell anyone)
- How her diet affects her climbing (if at all)
- Whether or not her hard ascents have been downgraded because she’s a female
- How she balances being friends and fierce competitors with Angie, Puccio and the other girls
- Alex’s website is www.aj-ontherocks.blogspot.com
- Alex on Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexjohnsonclimber
- An article in Rock & Ice about Alex’s negative experience training in Europe: “Unbroken: The Alex Johnson Profile”
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Intro and outro song: Yesterday by Build Buildings
Portrait of Alex Johnson by Forest Woodward
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta podcast where I talk to climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn. I’m a climber, a nutritionist, and a traveler, and I’m talking to you today from Mesquite, Nevada again, where we’ve been stranded for the past week and a half because our van has been in the shop having a ridiculous amount of work done on it. Hopefully we’ll be on our way to Colorado tomorrow, though.
If you ever wanted to know how 106° feels everyday you should come here right now. You know it’s hot when your doorknob burns your hand or when your lungs actually feel like they’re on fire because the air you’re breathing is so hot.
The good news, though, is that Seth nabbed the last good day of the season and sent Golden, that .14b at the Cathedral he’s been working on, which was actually one of the main reasons we were here. Before we got here he trained really hard on the fingerboard, the campus board, lifting weights, and bouldering and all his work paid off. It was super exciting for me to see him send what he calls ‘his first legitimate .14b.’ The other questionable one being Waka Flocka in Rifle.
Anyway, I’m very proud of my husband right now and I’m hoping I can mend my shoulder in Boulder and get to work soon on my own project, Tombraider, in Rifle this summer. As always, I really hope you’ve been getting outside yourself climbing, too.
Alright, so we’re on episode eight of the TrainingBeta podcast today and before we get into this great interview I want to let you know that if you like what we’re doing at TrainingBeta and you want to support the site and our work, please check out the training programs that you can purchase on www.trainingbeta.com under the ‘training programs’ tab. There are currently two downloadable training programs on there, a six-week power endurance program by Kris Peters that will get you up those powerful routes and boulders and an eight-week endurance program by Kris Hampton that will build your forearm stamina and teach you how to rest on routes better.
We’ve also got a campus board program, a fingerboard program, a high-low power program, two weekly overall climbing fitness plans, and my nutrition program coming very soon, too, so there’s a lot happening over here right now.
Okay, moving on, today’s guest doesn’t really need much of an introduction because she is Alex Johnson, one of bouldering’s strongest women. She has several V12 ascents on her resume and she’s won two World Cups. She’s a five-time national champion and she’s on The North Face team living as a professional climber. I’ve always enjoyed watching Alex compete because of her tenacity, her willingness to get the crowd involved in her climbing, and obviously because she’s crazy strong. I can’t really relate to her much because she’s so tall but I still look up to her for how incredibly strong she is.
We talked about how she trains to be so strong, what’s worked for her in the past, and what hasn’t, and we talked about how she eats and what her thoughts are on body weight. Her’s are actually different than what a lot of people have said before. I caught her at a good time because she’s about to compete in Vail this weekend so she was in hyper-training and nutrition mode when I talked to her.
We also talked about what it’s like having her ascents downgraded, potentially because she’s a female, her failed attempt doing the Swarm, a V13/14 in Bishop this year, and her relationships with her female competitors. There is some giggling involved in this interview but we did get into some serious details, too. Here’s Alex.
Neely Quinn: Alright, thank you so much, Alex, for joining me on the TrainingBeta podcast. It’s really awesome to have you here.
Alex Johnson: Of course. Sorry it took so long to nail down.
Neely Quinn: You’re a busy lady. It’s okay, it’s understandable. For anybody who doesn’t know you, for the people who have been living under rocks, can you tell us a little about yourself?
Alex Johnson: Yes. I’ve been climbing for about 16 years. I grew up in Wisconsin and moved out to Colorado in 2008 to, I guess, pursue climbing full time. I lived in Colorado off and on for a few years, competed in the World Cup circuit for a couple years, I’ve won two World Cup golds, climbed a couple V12s – I don’t know. Now I live in Las Vegas.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, so you just moved to Las Vegas, right?
Alex Johnson: I did about a month ago, maybe two months ago.
Neely Quinn: We were sort of there at the same time and discovering the gems of Vegas.
Alex Johnson: It seriously is the most underrated place to live. I love it. I love living here.
Neely Quinn: I totally agree. Do you see yourself staying there for awhile?
Alex Johnson: I do. I haven’t had to deal with the summers yet and everyone keeps telling me that the summer is going to suck but I won’t be here for most of the summer anyway. I have all these trips and I’m doing all these things. I’m not going to be here for the summer but the time that I am here, I love the climbing here. I love sandstone. Red Rock, I think, is super beautiful. I love sport climbing here which is weird because I don’t love sport climbing at all anywhere else except maybe the Red River Gorge.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Alex Johnson: There’s so much bouldering and so much potential for new stuff. I love it here. I think I’ll be here for at least a year.
Neely Quinn: That’s awesome. I totally agree. It’s beautiful there and there’s tons and tons of climbing.
So, I was actually going to ask you about sport climbing later on but why don’t we just – why did you pick bouldering? Why don’t you like sport climbing and do you think that you will start doing it at all, ever?
Alex Johnson: I think – I don’t know. This decision was subconsciously made so long ago. I grew up actually sport climbing and competing in sport climbing comps. I grew up in the gym doing comps, you know? I’m from Wisconsin.
I think what turned me off from sport climbing was sport climbing comps. You only get one try and that’s really a turn off, I guess. Like, on one hand you have to really be in the zone and it’s like a test, the ultimate test of: can you do this in one try? You’ve never tried it before. That’s really cool but I wasn’t having fun doing it. I thought it was really stressful and started doing bouldering competitions where you get multiple tries in your little five-minute time slot. I felt that I could try harder and go bigger, I guess because I knew that if I did slip or blow it I could just get on and try again.
That sort of drew me to bouldering outside as well. I don’t know – I guess the social aspect of it. It’s fun to go bouldering and hang out with people and sport climbing hurts. It’s hard and you get pumped and it sucks.
Neely Quinn: That’s interesting.
Alex Johnson: Bouldering is condensed. It’s four really hard moves, moves at your max, you know? But, I have been sport climbing a lot. The last month I’ve gone sport climbing much more than I’ve gone bouldering out here because here it’s just different. It’s sandstone and – I don’t know – I love it.
Neely Quinn: It is. It’s beautiful there. Not that I’m saying, “You should be a sport climber,” by any means. I mean, you’re obviously really good at bouldering so keep it up.
Alex Johnson: Secretly, I suck at sport climbing. Like, I’m really bad at it.
Neely Quinn: I doubt that.
Alex Johnson: No, seriously. I climb like .12b.
Neely Quinn: Ah, interesting. I’m sure if you worked at it you’d be climbing 5.14 in no time.
Alex Johnson: It’s fun.
Neely Quinn: Yeah.
Alex Johnson: I get scared, too.
Neely Quinn: You do?
Alex Johnson: It’s not height so much, like, I’m not afraid of falling and hitting the ground, I think I’m afraid of falling and swinging back in and hitting the wall.
Neely Quinn: What about when you’re bouldering? I mean, you’ve done some pretty highball stuff.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, but I know I’m going to hit the ground.
Neely Quinn: Okay.
Alex Johnson: I know: if I blow it, I’m going to hit the ground. With sport climbing you know if your foot slips you can get all twisted up in the rope and flip upside down. Yeah, that’s scary.
Neely Quinn: That’s true. That’s funny how we’re all scared of different things.
So, can you tell us about some of your proudest moments as a climber?
Alex Johnson: Proudest moments – my first proudest moment, I guess, was winning Youth Nationals when I was 12 in Portland. That was awesome and sort of unexpected. I didn’t really think that I could do it. I think that I was kind of the underdog and that was the first time I was like, ‘Oh hey – I don’t suck at this.’
In 2008, winning the World Cup in Vail. It was the first World Cup in the US in 20 years or something. That was really cool.
The Mandala was one of my proudest moments. We can talk about that later.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, we can talk about that later.
Alex Johnson: Honestly, lately it’s been more teaching focused. I’ve been doing a lot of clinics and a lot of coaching and when you sort of see a kid struggling with something – I don’t know. You break down your climbing even. My climbing has improved so much since I started teaching but when you see a kid struggling with something and you just give them one thing to tweak and it’s something that they maybe would have never thought of or never even knew was a thing and it just changes their whole world? That’s pretty awesome.
Neely Quinn: That’s awesome. I didn’t know you were doing that. Are you doing that with Kevin’s [unclear]?
Alex Johnson: Yeah, clinics through PCI and coaching just randomly on my own time. If I’m going to be in a town, like I know I’m going to LA to train at Sender One, I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in town and I would love to guest coach the kids once or twice a week,’ or something.
Neely Quinn: Cool. I just asked you about your proudest moments as a climber. What about your biggest failures?
Alex Johnson: Biggest failure for me right now would be the Swarm. I know the game isn’t over exactly but I worked on it a lot this season. I pretty much moved to Bishop just to work on it and was really public about it which I haven’t really ever been before, prior to doing something.
Usually you do something and then you spray about it. I was really public about the fact that I was going, why I was going, everyday I went up there I was super honest and public about it in my social media accounts, and then the season sort of ended and I didn’t do it. I hadn’t done it and I feel weirdly like I let people down, even though I was doing it for myself. Along the way I just gained so many followers that were like, ‘You can do it! We’re so psyched! We really want you to do it!’ and then I didn’t do it. [laughs]
That’s only a temporary failure. I’m going back this fall. I’m going to train for it and I know I can do it. I know that I can do it. I just felt kind of like an idiot when I was like, ‘I’m going to do it in the next week,’ and then I didn’t do it.
Neely Quinn: I noticed that because I follow you on Facebook and I thought it was really brave to be so public about it and humble, too, because yeah, of course there’s that possibility that you would fail or not do it that season. Everybody knew that. I think it was really cool to follow along with it, though I didn’t ever think that it should be embarrassing in any way for you. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way as I do.
Alex Johnson: Well, that’s good to hear. It’s almost like you talk a big game before a fight or something and then you get knocked out. That’s kind of how I felt. Bummer.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, and boxers get paid a lot of money to say those things.
For the people that don’t know, the Swarm is V13/14, right?
Alex Johnson: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: You haven’t done a V13 as of yet, right?
Alex Johnson: I haven’t.
Neely Quinn: What would that mean to you?
Alex Johnson: I don’t know. I don’t know. I picked the Swarm more for its aesthetic values, I guess, than the actual number. Obviously, the number holds some weight but more because it’s challenging for me and not because I will, theoretically, blow up if I do it. It’s climbing. That doesn’t happen. It’s climbing. Our community is really small.
For me, it was more the aesthetics of the line. It’s gorgeous, it’s the only line on the boulder, the rock is really good, it’s big, it’s – yeah. It’s beautiful. Since the first time I saw it I’ve been wanting to climb it and – I don’t know what that will mean. I don’t think it will open these floodgates and all of a sudden I’ll start climbing a bunch of other V13 or V14s but it would be cool to at least do one before I die.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Well yeah, I think it’s definitely within the realm of possibility.
Alex Johnson: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: Kind of on this same topic, you have done a handful of V12s and not very many women do that. What is it like doing that in a world full of mostly male climbers? What sort of experience have you had with that, negative or positive?
Alex Johnson: I’ve had mostly positive experiences. Usually/especially the guys that I hang out with or associate with don’t care at all if I climb V3. They just like me, which is awesome, and are excited if I’m doing stuff and don’t bring you down for it because you’re a girl. That has definitely happened before, like the most obvious situation was at the Mandala. I did it and started it where everyone else starts it and it was instantly torn apart, ripped apart, downgraded, people started calling it the Mandala Light. Some people even called it V10. It was the hardest thing I had done. Single move wise, the second move, the opening move on it is still the hardest move I’ve ever done. It sucked to be torn apart for that and it really hurts that, just because you’re a girl you can’t climb as hard as they do. I think it’s just an ego thing.
Most of the guys that I climb with and know are fully supportive.
Neely Quinn: That’s good.
Alex Johnson: But it definitely happens.
Neely Quinn: I mean, you see a bunch of guys doing the same exact thing that you did and getting credit for it and then, all of a sudden, you do it and …
Alex Johnson: And it doesn’t count.
Neely Quinn: That’s not okay.
Alex Johnson: It’s like, ‘What?’ My reaction was like, ‘What? Okay.’
Neely Quinn: Well, moving on. I’m sure we could talk about that for awhile but you live pretty much solely as a sponsored climber. That’s your profession, right?
Alex Johnson: Yep.
Neely Quinn: Does the pressure to perform for your sponsors ever get to you?
Alex Johnson: Lately, not so much. I think when I was younger I thought that I needed to perform at a certain level. Like, especially when I moved to Colorado, I felt the pressure to climb hard outside, you know? It was like chasing grades and it was the race for V12 between me, Puccio, and Angie, and it was weirdly competitive but I was 18 or 19 and young and didn’t really know what I was doing or what I wanted to do.
My sponsors are pretty supportive no matter what I’m doing. I think it’s more about being a really positive person in the community as opposed to just climbing hard. I want to perform well for them because they support me no matter what, but it’s not like a strict, ‘You must do two V12s a year,’ thing. Then I would definitely feel pressured. [laughs]
Neely Quinn: Yeah, for sure.
Alex Johnson: I’d be like, ‘Oh god, I’ve got to find a soft V12!’
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Speaking of the competition between you and Puccio and Ang, can you talk a little bit about that? I really want to get to your training and everything but I’m also curious how you’ve balanced, over the years, your friendships with them while at the same time being friends with them.
Alex Johnson: That is a good question. When we’re competing, in my opinion, and I’m pretty sure they’ll say the same thing, it’s 100% friendly competition. At times it has been hard but Angie is one of my best friends. I don’t feel competitive with her inside or outside and that’s awesome. Puccio hasn’t really been around lately so I guess I don’t really know. I’m sure it would be fine.
Obviously, it’s a competitive sport and you want to win. You’re at Nationals and you want to win. We actually had this conversation with Puccio. She was like, ‘Don’t you guys want me to win?’ and we were like, ‘No, we want you to do well but we want to win, too.’ [laughs] The difference is, I think, that we’re not rooting for anyone to fail. We just want to do well personally. Does that make sense?
Neely Quinn: Yeah, of course.
Alex Johnson: It’s not like, ‘Oh, I hope she falls here.’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, that was sick. I hope I can do that or do better than that.’ I think it’s pretty friendly.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it seems like it.
Alex Johnson: It used to not be so friendly but it’s better.
Neely Quinn: Well, that’s good to know. It’s fun watching you guys. You seem psyched for each other when I’ve watched.
Alex Johnson: Battle it out.
Neely Quinn: It’s fun to watch.
Alex Johnson: Watching someone do something hard is cool. It’s like watching someone do something insane. Did you watch the Portland comp where Puccio did the one-arm and then chalked up on that hold that none of us could even get to? She stuck it and then did a one-arm and chalked up. It’s insane and I think in our sport, it’s really cool to see stuff like that. You want stuff like that to happen because it’s interesting and exciting.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, and it probably motivates you, too.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, or it’s heartbreaking, but…
Neely Quinn: But you did win in Vail in 2008. Is that which year it was?
Alex Johnson: Yes. I think Puccio got second that year.
Neely Quinn: What did you do to train for that? You were clearly really strong. What were you doing beforehand?
Alex Johnson: I don’t know. I think that was a fluke because I wasn’t training at all. I guess my training was just I was at the gym four or five hours a day? I wasn’t doing any opposition training, any injury prevention, no weighted anything except maybe some wrist curls once or twice. I don’t know. I was just at the gym all the time. Maybe I did some sit-ups?
I think, honestly, that competition came down to the mental game. I hadn’t been up against any of those girls before. I had no idea what they were capable of. I went in blind and just basically tried my hardest and it paid off. Since then, getting to know them and watching them climb and knowing how good they are, that gets in your head.
Neely Quinn: That’s interesting, really interesting.
Alex Johnson: That’s what I think.
Neely Quinn: Well, now you know what wins comps. A few sit-ups and wrist curls.
Alex Johnson: It’s definitely different now. Now that I’ve seen what everyone else is capable of, I’ve significantly stepped my game up because that was – you can’t just climb in the gym and show up at a comp and win anymore, I don’t think. It’s different. The sport is changing. Everyone is getting stronger, everyone is getting better, and my approach to competitions has changed significantly on both ends of the spectrum. I showed up at Nationals not having climbed in the gym for six months and ended up making finals randomly because I was just having a good time and didn’t really put a lot of pressure on that event.
All I wanted to do was Vail. I was like, ‘I’ll show up at Nationals. Hopefully, fingers crossed, I can make the list for Vail and then train for Vail.’ That’s what happened, which was really cool, then Vail I’m taking really seriously because I didn’t compete last year. I took time off and was re-evaluating climbing and competitions and I’m not super excited about competitions anymore. I’d way rather be climbing outside and focusing on an outdoor project but if I’m going to commit to doing a competition, I’m going to see it through 100% and not waste the time of someone who wanted to be on the US team below me or something.
Neely Quinn: What are you doing now to train for that?
Alex Johnson: My training consists of – right now I’m actually in my third week, almost fourth week, and it’s technically a nine week program but I find that I end up peaking at around six weeks so I just started a little later. It’s like a six week program and I do fingerboard/hangboard training four days a week, usually Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and then weight stuff which I hadn’t done until about two years ago. I’d never cross trained or focused on specific weaknesses or anything and one of my weaknesses is lockoff strength, or power in general. I’ve been known to have strong fingers but I can’t do a one-arm. Cannot do a one-arm. Big powerful moves like that have been weaknesses of mine, and lockoffs.
I found a weight program from a friend of mine named Theo in Boulder and he sort of helped me design something that’s catered more toward my weaknesses. I’m doing that twice a week and it takes about two and a half hours. It’s weighted pull-ups based on your max, and shoulder presses, because I have weak shoulders. It’s the pull-down stuff that you need as a climber but also the opposition stuff so you don’t get injured. It worked for me. I saw great results. I did it last fall right before I went to the Southeast and I felt awesome in the Southeast. I felt like I was maybe almost the strongest I had ever been so I’m just repeating the same thing that I did then because it worked.
Neely Quinn: In the three and a half weeks that you’ve been doing it, have you noticed any changes?
Alex Johnson: Yes. It’s a little hard to tell right now because I haven’t been in the gym. Usually I would do this and incorporate 4x4s or at least some sort of gym bouldering and I haven’t been in the gym much at all in the last three weeks. I’ve been sport climbing outside and then I went to Boston and I actually got to climb a little in Boston, for about two or three days. The first day I felt really weird and really off on plastic and the third day I felt like it kicked in and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, okay. I can remember how to do this.’
That’s why I’m going to LA next week to train at the Sender Gym. It’s like I need to climb on plastic. I can’t just do a bunch of weighted pull-ups and call it good. I’ll go do 4x4s or projecting or 2x2s and stuff like that along with the weighted stuff.
Neely Quinn: So you don’t feel like the gym in Vegas is enough for you?
Alex Johnson: I’m not sure. I think I need big space and dynamic setting, interesting setting. I’m sure I could do it and use the gym in Vegas and it would be great. I’d actually like to go and use the campus board and check the gym out. I haven’t actually even been there since I’ve been living here because I’ve just been climbing outside so often.
I was just out at Sender for route Nationals and just hanging out there, and I was like, ‘Yeah, this would be a really cool gym to train at,’ so I guess it’s more like I want to go train at Sender, not that I don’t want to train in Vegas. Does that make sense?
Neely Quinn: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m trying to wrap my head around what you’ve been doing. You’ve been doing, basically, four days of strength training.
Alex Johnson: Four days of fingerboard. Two days of strength.
Neely Quinn: Say that again?
Alex Johnson: Four days of hangboard/fingerboard and then two days of weight strength training.
Neely Quinn: Okay, so two days a week you’ll do the strength training on top of the fingerboard.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, and theoretically on top of climbing, too, but that’s not happening yet. Hopefully I can pull some stuff out in the last three weeks.
Neely Quinn: But some days you have been going outside and climbing, right?
Alex Johnson: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: How many days a week do you climb?
Alex Johnson: Lately it hasn’t been so much because I’ve been traveling so much. It’s actually been really hard to sort of get in shape for this. I’ve been out of town, flying back and forth, east coast, west coast, north, south. I’ve been trying really hard to stay consistent but it’s been difficult. Starting now, basically, it’s four weeks of no distractions so – what was the question? [laughs]
Neely Quinn: How often have you been climbing outside?
Alex Johnson: While I’ve been in town it’s been like four or five days a week. I go outside all the time but the last two or three weeks I haven’t climbed outside at all, but I have gotten to climb in the gym a couple of times so that’s pretty good.
Neely Quinn: When you’re not training, like when you’re just living on the road climbing in Bishop or wherever, how often do you climb?
Alex Johnson: Everyday.
Neely Quinn: Really?
Alex Johnson: Unless my skin was totally wrecked or I was feeling rough. When I was projecting the Swarm I couldn’t do it everyday because my skin would get destroyed and I would just feel worked. One day on that and I would feel worked, but if I was just on a climbing trip, going for mileage and trying to climb everything cool that I could find, I would climb almost everyday.
Neely Quinn: So you feel like you can recover when you’re not climbing at your absolute max everyday?
Alex Johnson: Yeah. If I have two or three really easy climbing days or days where I kind of climb or I’m showing someone around and I maybe only climb a couple V3s, I count that as a rest day.
Neely Quinn: It’s just really interesting to me how people can recover so quickly. Like, I need days off. I need several days off a week in order to really perform at all and then there are people like you who are just like, ‘Yes, I’m going to climb everyday. It’s awesome.’
Alex Johnson: Well, that’s not at my max at all. That’s like if – we had this awesome day in Chattanooga where I went out and I don’t think we climbed anything harder than V6 or V7 but we climbed like 15 boulder problems. It was awesome.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, there’s a lot of those at that grade in Chattanooga.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, but when I was projecting the Swarm I would need to take at least two rest days, like one day on, two days off at least. I could not do two days on at all.
Neely Quinn: That’s something I can relate with. I really want to ask you about your time – you trained in Europe for awhile, right?
Alex Johnson: Yes.
Neely Quinn: Can you talk about that at all?
Alex Johnson: It was really disheartening, if I’m going to be really honest. Training with the best climbers in the world is really hard for your ego. I realized that what I need the most when I’m going to do World Cups is my ego. I need to show up thinking that I am the best and when you train with Anna and Katha, you watch how good they are everyday and you show up like, ‘Well, I’m going to get beat because I can’t keep up with either of them in the gym.’
It was good. Yeah – I don’t know.
Neely Quinn: Did they just beat you down everyday? Or what was the training like?
Alex Johnson: Not necessarily. It wasn’t like any sort of extra, like I didn’t do weighted stuff and sometimes we would do campus board stuff or sit-ups or something, but it was mostly just projecting in the gym making up climbs and climbing together. That was where I got shut down.
I think maybe size had something to do with it? Everything that they would make up felt scrunchy and everything I would make up and do well on was too reachy so maybe chalk it up to size but it wasn’t even training. It was always just projecting in the gym. It was disheartening. They were so good and they are all good. Everyone is good, even the little kids. Yeah…
Neely Quinn: That sounds really surprising that you didn’t do any other cross training stuff there. That’s Anna’s secret? Just projecting in the gym? Seriously?
Alex Johnson: I know. Maybe they were doing it and weren’t telling me about it. [laughs] I don’t know.
Neely Quinn: That’s good to know and really interesting. So then, how long were you there for?
Alex Johnson: Probably four or five months both years. It was 2010 and 2011 and it was the entire season, so four or five months both years.
Neely Quinn: Did your climbing improve at all?
Alex Johnson: No, I don’t think so. That sounds really harsh. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think I got weaker. We would have a World Cup every weekend and so it was hard to really go for it during the week. So, it would be like: fly Thursday, compete Friday-Saturday, fly Sunday, train Monday-Tuesday, rest Wednesday, fly Thursday, compete Friday-Saturday. It was weird. It was hard to stay consistent.
Neely Quinn: Oh yeah.
Alex Johnson: And hard to keep strength up.
Neely Quinn: So then you came home and then what?
Alex Johnson: I came home super depressed. [laughs] I don’t know if you read that Rock & Ice article titled ‘Unbroken’ that was about my coming home depressed.
Neely Quinn: I did.
Alex Johnson: I was like, ‘This sucks.’ I didn’t climb for a couple months and that’s actually when I started teaching and it completely brought me back to life.
Neely Quinn: Then did you start training in any way after that with other people?
Alex Johnson: What year was that? 2011? 2012 was when I started going for it with training. I came home in 2011 and was depressed. Couldn’t climb until September or October, maybe? I came home in August and didn’t climb until October, I think, and then started teaching, climbed all winter outside in the Valley and Bishop, going back and forth between the Valley and Bishop. I had one of the best and most fun seasons of outdoor climbing that I’ve ever had and then spring of 2012, I think it was April, I moved to Boulder and started training super seriously for that Vail World Cup in 2012.
I saw the difference that training could make. I was super naive before and was like, ‘Oh, I can off the couch just climb at the gym a couple days and show up to a comp,’ and that’s not the case anymore. People are training, other people are training, and I was getting left behind so moving to Boulder, for me, was like, ‘I’m going to move to Boulder and I’m going to live here for a year and I’m going to train really hard.’
That’s what I did and now that I’ve seen the results that training has produced for me, if I’m preparing for something, whether it’s an event or a project, I can’t not train. That’s totally half-assing it. I’m going to show up and try to do the Swarm not trained? I’m not going to do it.
Neely Quinn: So you found yourself in the gym a lot doing a lot of cross training stuff? Or climbing a ton? Or both at the same time?
Alex Johnson: Both. That spring leading up to Vail 2012, I was in the gym everyday. Sometimes four hours a day, sometimes six hours a day, and I was doing opposition stuff, cross training, weighted stuff, core, super specific climbing movements like lockoff stuff, really specific stuff on the systems board, and also 4x4s. I was in the gym all the time and at that time, that was exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be doing it. I got a little burnt out after that and didn’t train again for over a year. I just got super burnt out of being in the gym in general. I mean, I got super strong but I was like, ‘Oh my god I just want to climb outside. I’m so tired of being in the gym.’
Neely Quinn: Did you find that all of that training paid off?
Alex Johnson: Yeah, for sure. Like, I’ve seen monumental results, mostly in my strength. I mean, obviously if I’m doing strength stuff, mostly in strength but really obviously for me.
Neely Quinn: In what ways? Can you give me an example?
Alex Johnson: Like, long powerful moves. I used to – I don’t know. I’m kind of lanky and lurpy and I use momentum to get up stuff and if a hold is not good I’ll just kind of fall off of it because I need to use momentum to get there and I stick it and I’m swinging around.
The specific strength stuff makes me be much more in control. It lets me be much more in control. I don’t have to throw for something, I can just pull up to it.
Neely Quinn: What can you attribute that to? What has helped that specifically?
Alex Johnson: This training round, I think weighted pull-ups have made me a lot stronger.
Neely Quinn: And how much weight are you putting on yourself?
Alex Johnson: I did my workout tonight from 5-7 and my first two sets I did five pull-ups with 35 pounds – it’s six sets, basically. Five pull-ups with 35 pounds, three pull-ups with 40 pounds, two pull-ups with 45 pounds. It’s six sets of that, so five pull-ups, 35 pounds, five pull-ups, 35 pounds, three pull-ups, 40 pounds, three pull-ups, 40 pounds, three pull-ups, 40 pounds, and then two pull-ups, 45 pounds.
Neely Quinn: Whoa.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, I’m getting swole down here in Vegas.
Neely Quinn: Real swole. I mean, I was doing the same thing at the Garage in Vegas but…
Alex Johnson: This is at the Gold’s Gym, too.
Neely Quinn: Oh yeah, you said you got a Gold’s Gym membership so you’re doing this at Gold’s Gym?
Alex Johnson: It’s exciting. Yeah, it’s awesome. I have a harness that I cut the leg loops off and I show up and all these guys are like huge. It’s the beefiest dudes I have ever seen in my life. I’m sure they’re all doing bodybuilding competitions. They’re massive. I do a bunch of pull-ups with 40 extra pounds and they’re like, ‘What?’ It’s amazing!
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Have they tried to sell you any steroids yet?
Alex Johnson: Not yet but I’m sure it’s going around.
Neely Quinn: Oh man, that’s brave going over there and doing that. Are you by yourself while you’re doing that?
Alex Johnson: Sometimes, yeah.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] That is awesome.
Alex Johnson: It’s so fun but sometimes I’m insecure, too, like, ‘Stop watching me! You’re huge!’
Neely Quinn: Well yeah. Okay, so weighted pull-ups are helpful. Somebody on Facebook – I asked for questions for you, and one of them was, “How does she train lockoff strength?” That’s good to know. Is there anything else you can attribute that to?
Alex Johnson: Specific lockoff strength? It’s more on the hangboard but I think the weighted pull-ups help me a lot. I do lockoff stuff on the hangboard like different hand positions and Frenchies. Have you done Frenchies?
Neely Quinn: No, I haven’t.
Alex Johnson: It’s using different finger grips and I hold three-quarters of the way up, at 90°, and at 100% fully up. Each one is seven seconds or something.
Neely Quinn: So you’re actually pulling up? When I’m on the hangboard I’m just hanging but you’re actually pulling up.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, I do both. I do dead hang hangboard stuff and also lockoff hangboard stuff because lockoffs are a huge weakness for me, I’ve noticed or been told or something.
Neely Quinn: Is that something that Theo is helping you with, too, the Frenchies?
Alex Johnson: Yeah, the hangboard stuff? Yeah.
Neely Quinn: Would he want you to tell people who he is so that other people can work with him? Or is he not into that?
Alex Johnson: I don’t think so. It’s kind of weird. When they were showing me all of this stuff they were like, ‘You can’t show anyone,’ and I was like, ‘Okay.’
Neely Quinn: Then we won’t talk about it anymore.
Alex Johnson: I don’t know. I have no idea.
Neely Quinn: So do you use the campus board at all?
Alex Johnson: Yes.
Neely Quinn: What do you do on the campus board?
Alex Johnson: Long moves and a pull-thru. I wish I could demonstrate.
Neely Quinn: I know what that is. We actually have videos on the website.
Alex Johnson: It’s super easy and everybody does this. I’ll start on 4 and I’ll throw as far as I can, usually it’s 7, and then pull through to 8. It’s kind of pathetic but yeah, that. I think that helps me a lot, too, because it’s that one-arm specific strength stuff that I am weaker at.
Neely Quinn: I started doing basically the same thing and I couldn’t believe how much it made a difference and how quickly you improve on the campus board. It’s amazing.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, and especially finger strength. If you’re doing this on a medium rung, not the big jug rungs, my fingers got way stronger and then I graduated to the medium rungs.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it’s pretty powerful stuff.
Alex Johnson: Yep.
Neely Quinn: We only have about 10 minutes left and I wanted to ask you about your diet.
Alex Johnson: Okay.
Neely Quinn: We’ve talked a little about this before and you haven’t said such great things about your diet but I’m really interested in how you eat and how you feel food affects your climbing.
Alex Johnson: So, this is – yeah, I’m excited to talk about this. I have not paid any attention to my diet whatsoever up until maybe six months ago. I ate Taco Bell three times a week, I drank two Cokes a day. I have all these vices and I would give in to all of them. I don’t know. My body felt fine and I was climbing fine and I wasn’t hurt or anything. None of that has really changed but I have changed the way I eat significantly.
I guess it was sort of turning 25. I don’t know. Not that I’ve seen changes in my body because I’m 25 but more like, ‘Oh, I’m 25. Maybe I should start doing this right.’ You know? I don’t want to waste it. I don’t know how many years I have left to climb at the level that I want to be climbing at and I don’t want to blow it now. Eye-opening, maybe? Nothing was going wrong, like I wasn’t not performing well, but it was basically like, ‘Oh, I’m 25. I’m almost 30. That’s almost 40. Maybe I should start actually giving my body what it needs because I want to climb hard for a long, long time.’
Neely Quinn: Yeah, sort of a reality check.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, and it wasn’t scary but it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, hmm. I want to take this seriously now.’
Neely Quinn: So what did you do differently?
Alex Johnson: A lot. I’m on my second day of the Clean Diet detox. I don’t really know how to explain this to you. Basically, there’s a no-no list and a ‘yes’ list and I’m following the things on the yes list. It’s like no cheese, which sucks because I love cheese, no eggs, no sugar. It’s lot of vegetables and chicken.
Neely Quinn: What about grains?
Alex Johnson: I’m not sure where grains are. I’m only in day two. I think I can do quinoa and wild rice.
Neely Quinn: So it’s like a gluten free sort of clean food sort of thing.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, yeah, exactly. The clean food thing.
Neely Quinn: You’re probably going to feel like shit for a while.
Alex Johnson: Yes, I think so. I think training this week is going to feel really hard. I’m only doing it for a week. You’re supposed to technically do it for a month but I’m doing it for a week, maybe a little bit over a week, and I hopefully gave myself enough of a buffer before Vail to detox and then sort of reincorporate cheese back into my diet, which is the biggest thing that I’m missing in day two. Just cheese.
Then, even before this I’ve been eating so much better. I’ll pick the bun off my burger, which breaks my heart because I love burgers, and just get chicken or salmon instead of a quesadilla or a burrito. It makes me sad but my body looks a lot better I guess.
Neely Quinn: Oh, really?
Alex Johnson: Yeah, I can kind of see that I’m getting abs, which I’ve never had before. It didn’t bum me out that much because I was still pretty good at what I did without abs but now I have them.
Neely Quinn: They’re overrated.
Alex Johnson: They’re showing up, kind of. I have like two on the top.
Neely Quinn: It sounds like you’re losing any extra fat that you may have had.
Alex Johnson: I think so.
Neely Quinn: Is that one of your goals with this?
Alex Johnson: I guess. I don’t know. Maybe being a little lighter would be better for climbing? It’s not like my goal is to be a certain weight. I’m training a lot and I don’t want to eat something that isn’t going to go straight to benefitting that training.
Neely Quinn: I saw on Facebook that you were doing chocolate milk or whey shakes after your workouts or something?
Alex Johnson: Yeah, the Gnarly whey is super clean. It’s grass-fed. I don’t know what any of this means, I’m just told that it’s important.
Neely Quinn: That’s funny. It’s a good first step, just listening to people.
Alex Johnson: It’s like that in a smoothie with two strawberries, a banana, and vanilla almond milk, and a scoop of the Gnarly whey protein. It’s perfect for me.
Neely Quinn: You find that it makes you feel pretty good?
Alex Johnson: Yeah, I think it really speeds up my recovery time.
Neely Quinn: That’s good. One of the questions I wanted to ask you was, I’ve never seen you go through a super duper skinny phase. I’m not saying that you are in any way overweight or anything like that, it’s just that some of the females do go through a phase like that and I was just wondering what your thoughts are on it, if you’ve ever struggled with that, or just where you stand with it.
Alex Johnson: The thing that I struggle with the most with food is overeating.
Neely Quinn: So the answer is no.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, the answer is definitely no. When it comes to food, if it tastes good I have no control. I will eat it all.
Neely Quinn: Do you think that that has affected your climbing?
Alex Johnson: No, I don’t think so. I just do so much that I burn it off. My metabolism is, I think, naturally pretty high. Even the Taco Bell – I was maybe a little chubby from eating at Taco Bell but I was still climbing fine.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, so you’ve never been like, ‘Okay, if I can lose 15 pounds,’ or some weird number you…
Alex Johnson: God, that would be so hard.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, it’s interesting. You’re actually one of the only climbers that I’ve ever talked to who hasn’t gone through that phase.
Alex Johnson: I think it’s really rare. I think it just gets to everyone. I don’t know. This round I’m like, ‘I guess it would be cool if I could lose three or four pounds,’ I guess. I don’t need those three or four pounds but it’s not like, ‘I need to lose this to be this weight.’ It’s like, yeah, I could maybe be a little lighter I guess.
Neely Quinn: How level-headed of you, Alex.
Alex Johnson: I could not eat Taco Bell for six weeks and be a little lighter.
Neely Quinn: Well, that’s cool. That kind of brings me to one of my last questions, about your overall mental attitude. When people watch you in comps you’re generally smiling and you seem to be having a good time. You’re one of the only girls I’ve seen ask the crowd for support, which I think is really cool. Even when you’re struggling on a certain boulder or whatever, you always seem to have a good attitude and I’m wondering what’s going on in your head in those moments? Outside or inside.
Alex Johnson: Inside, I’ve definitely been known to throw a shoe. Inside or outside. It’s pretty rare. Usually, it’s specifically to comps. If I’m not doing well, getting pissed about it isn’t going to make me do better. It’s like, ‘Okay, well this sucks but I guess I’ll try to have fun.’ Nationals this year I did not do that well in finals and it was a dyno, specifically, which I’ve never – yeah, it was embarrassing. Couldn’t do the dyno. I fell on it 30 times and then turned around and was like, ‘Please cheer for me! I need it.’ Then I turned back to the wall and was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Come on, Johnson. Get it together.’ I would fall and be like, ‘Okay, this sucks. [laughs] Hope you guys are entertained.’
Neely Quinn: Well, we were.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, usually it is fun. It’s just fun. I think I like performing so if whoever is watching is having a good time I guess that makes me have a good time but I’ve had really – like, there was one day on the Swarm, specifically, where I went up and almost did it one day and the next time I went up was not doing well on it at all. Some other people came up and I feel really bad about this, still, but this guy was like, ‘Hey, can I try this with you?’ I was like, ‘I guess.’ Oh damn, I’ve never been like that before to anyone but I was super bummed about not having – I was like, ‘I’m going to do it!’ then got up there and super shut down.
‘Can I try this with you?’ ‘I guess.’ Oh god.
Neely Quinn: He probably wrote a blog post about you.
Alex Johnson: [laughs] He was probably like, ‘Woah.’
Neely Quinn: Whatever. We all have days like that.
Alex Johnson: Hopefully he’s just like, ‘Oh, she’s just having a bad day,’ not that I was a bitch.
Neely Quinn: So it’s up and down, just like anybody else. You have good days and you have bad days, it’s not like…
Alex Johnson: Oh, for sure. I threw my shoes a lot on the Swarm, actually. There were probably four days that I went up there, got super shut down, and would just throw fits. Some of them are on film, too. I would be by myself, up there trying it alone, and I’d set the camera up on a tripod and just get my ass kicked and throw this little girl fit, by myself. It’s all on film. It’s pretty funny.
Neely Quinn: Do you think that guys do that as much as girls do that?
Alex Johnson: Yes? Yeah, I think so.
Neely Quinn: I guess they probably just don’t cry as much as we do.
Alex Johnson: Right, yeah.
Neely Quinn: They have more testosterone.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, they definitely yell when they can’t do something. I mean, I do the same thing. Like, there’s this video where the tripod is kind of far away and it just echoes through the mountains. I take my shoe off and whip it across the desert.
Neely Quinn: The biggest wobbler of all.
Alex Johnson: And I’m alone.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I’m familiar with that except for the alone part because I don’t boulder.
Alex Johnson: Someone was like, ‘Oh, someone just died.’
Neely Quinn: Well, I think that’s all my questions, really. I wanted to get into your training a little bit, which we did, and we talked about your eating and comps and stuff like that. Where’s next? You’ve got Vail coming up and then what?
Alex Johnson: My year – this is the busiest year of my life. My spring is basically bouncing all over the place doing events and stuff, and May is Alex time. I’m not doing anything in May. Sorry everyone, but it’s ‘me’ time. Training for Vail all of May and then Vail is June 7. On June 13, I think, me and Angie and Sam Elias are going to Brazil and we’re going to go climbing in Brazil and boulder and sport climb and maybe bolt some routes.
Then, I come back from Brazil and go straight to Atlanta for Youth Nationals and presenting the Young Gun Award at Youth Nationals. Then, three days after that I’m going to Alaska for the Alaska Rock Gym event, and then we’re into August. There’s OR and one of my best friend’s weddings and I, weirdly, signed up to do the Munich World Championships. It will be my valiant return to Europe, hopefully.
Neely Quinn: That’s exciting.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, so I’m going to train for that, too, but I’m just nonstop this year. Then, September I’m doing some other stuff like maybe a HERA event and a training camp up at the Midwest Climbing Academy in Minneapolis and that’s as far as I’ve gotten, September.
Neely Quinn: Do you think you’ll find yourself back in Vegas over the winter?
Alex Johnson: Yes, definitely. Every time I’m not off on one of those things I’ll be back in Vegas.
Neely Quinn: Cool. That’s an exciting year. What an exciting, adventurous life you lead.
Alex Johnson: Yes. That sounds so adventurous.
Neely Quinn: Is there anything else that you want people to know about you or – actually, do you have a blog that people can follow you on?
Alex Johnson: I do. I have a website and that leads to my blog. It’s www.alexjohnsonclimbing.com. It should be pretty easy. I try to keep my blog pretty updated. I have one post that’s pending right now that’s basically what I’ve been doing the last two months but stuff keeps happening so I keep writing it in the post. I just need to post it.
Neely Quinn: Well post it up. People need to know.
Alex Johnson: They do. Someone somewhere cares.
Neely Quinn: I’m sure that there are people who care. Any parting thoughts or any advice that you want to give to climbers?
Alex Johnson: I think that the mentality that I’ve lived by for so long, that’s basically that you don’t need to train for climbing, you can just climb, I think that that’s going away. I think that people need to accept it and embrace it and they will realize their full potential, because I am doing that.
Neely Quinn: That’s great. Training to climb harder instead of just climbing to climb harder. Yeah, I think that it is getting more – there are more and more people interested in it which is partly why TrainingBeta exists, so…
Alex Johnson: And the sport is growing exponentially, for sure, so it’s like jump on or get left behind and that was what I was faced with. Jump on or get left behind.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, well you’re doing a great job.
Alex Johnson: Thank you.
Neely Quinn: Good luck in Vail.
Alex Johnson: Thanks a lot. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Neely Quinn: Well, I’m sure I’ll be watching.
Alex Johnson: I hope all this training pays off.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, and thanks again for being on the show. I really, really appreciate it.
Alex Johnson: Yeah, of course. Again, sorry it took – I’m such a shit show.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] It’s totally fine. I’ll talk to you soon.
Alex Johnson: Cool, thanks.
Neely Quinn: Thank you so much for listening to the eighth episode of the TrainingBeta podcast with pro climber Alex Johnson. Thank you, Alex, for the time that you spent with this interview. I really appreciate that. This was a very fun interview for me and I’m super psyched that we get to be in Vail next weekend to watch her compete.
One thing – could you please do me a small favor and leave me an honest review on iTunes of the podcast? The more reviews it gets the more people the podcast will reach.
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I think that’s it this time. Until next time, happy climbing.