Date: September 12th, 2016
About Sam Elias
One of my first memories of Sam Elias was this: He was climbing on The Crew (14c) in Rifle, and he’d skipped 3 clips in a row on the top half. He was climbing to the death, screaming with every move, and then he fell and came dangerously close to being impaled by a tree right below the route. That tree has since been removed, and Sam has since sent the route.
I think that scene personifies Sam Elias: He tries really fucking hard, he’s ballsy, he’s intense, and he sends hard rock climbs. When I came to know Sam a little better, I found that while he’s all of those things, he’s also sensitive, kind, introspective, and intelligent.
He recently did the Black Diamond training bootcamp with Dan Mirsky and Joe Kinder, being coached for several 3-week stints by Kris Peters and Justen Sjong. Since those training sessions, Sam has been climbing better than ever, sending routes quickly that he’d put years of work into prior to training.
He’s sent up to 5.14c sport climbs, he’s a competitive ice and mixed climber, and he summited Mount Everest, so he’s an all-around excellent athlete.
Sam Elias Interview Details
In this interview, we talk about what sets him apart as an athlete, how his emotions sometimes have gotten the best of him (as many of us can relate with), and what he’s done in the past couple years to calm his anger and anxiety so that he can be a happier person and a better climber.
We also talk about how he trained with Kris and Justen and what he’s been doing to train since then.
- Working with a sports psychologist
- “Flow state” climbing
- Work/climbing balance
- Success after BD Bootcamp
Sam Elias Links
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Thank you for the photo, Jonathan Siegrist!
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta podcast, where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and today we’re on episode 60 where I talked with Sam Elias.
Sam Elias is an all-around really great athlete and climber. He is a sport climber, having climbed up to .14c, he is an ice climber, a mixed climber, he did Everest – so he’s adventurous and well-rounded. He’s also known for his intensity when climbing. He is an emotional guy, in the best and worst ways sometimes, and I’m sure he would say the same thing about himself. He’s actually worked with that a lot, especially in the last year.
Last year he did the BD boot camp, the training boot camp, where he did that with Dan Mirsky and Joe Kinder. They trained and they saw a sports psychologist, a PT, and they actually saw me, too, as their nutritionist, and they worked really hard to get stronger, both physically and mentally. One of the things that Sam really focused on was his work with his sports psychologist. We talked a lot about that in this session, about what he learned, how he’s putting that into his climbing, and what he’s doing in the rest of his life to find more peace.
I thought this was a really cool intersection between climbing training, like physically, and training for climbing in a more mental and emotional way.
Before we get into the interview I want to let you know that our favorite sponsor, FrictionLabs, is giving you guys some really great discounts over at www.frictionlabs.com/trainingbeta. I just looked over there and they are still giving you guys a free bag of chalk. If you want to check it out you just have to pay for shipping and handling. That, again is www.frictionlabs.com/trainingbeta.
A little update on me: I told you last week that I was not psyched on climbing and I spent about two weeks telling everybody that I didn’t care about climbing anymore. Apparently, that is really good for my climbing, to just not care. Usually I care a lot and it can make me really anxious when I’m trying to send things and it can make me really mad at myself when I don’t send things or don’t do well. This weekend we went climbing and I was like, “Pfft. I don’t care. I just don’t care,” and I did well. I felt like I was having fun and I did well on my project. I’m pretty psyched on that and I’m going to try to adopt a more ambivalent attitude sometimes. Hopefully we can all learn something from that.
Alright, so here’s that interview with Sam Elias. I hope you enjoy it.
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the show, Sam. Thank you for being with me today.
Sam Elias: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. For anybody who doesn’t know who Sam Elias is, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Sam Elias: I’m an American climber, kind of like an all-around climber. I sport climb and ice climb and mixed climb. I’ve climbed Mount Everest. I’ve skied since I was two, and I love to backcountry ski and ski mountaineer. I’ve free climbed El Cap, so I kind of just like to do it all, I guess.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, I think that’s what you’re known for in the climbing world, is kind of being well-rounded. Let’s start with your – I would love to talk a little bit about your skiing and how that sort of shaped you as an athlete.
Sam Elias: Sure. Yeah, I guess I started skiing just shortly after I could walk, and ski racing when I was, like, 10 or 11 or 12. I grew up in Michigan, which isn’t the most mountainous state, but we do have our fair share of hills, especially in the north, and I loved to ski. Ski racing was a really big part of my childhood and early high school. I was pretty good at it so in order to give me an opportunity to pursue skiing to the fullest, as well as to pursue my education, my family started looking at ski racing academies around the country.
We decided on one in Salt Lake City, Utah, and when I was 16 years old I left Michigan to go there to pursue ski racing. I guess, yeah – so, ski racing was always a 12-month-a-year sport to me, even though I wasn’t skiing year round. I was training in the off season really hard to be ready for the following year so from the time I was, like, 14 or 15, if I wasn’t in season for skiing I was training for it. It was just this 12-month-a-year pursuit so that I could continue progressing.
I went to school in Salt Lake City for two years of high school and then I went to college on a ski racing scholarship in Idaho. Again, the whole time treating it as a year round sport. Then after college I didn’t make the US ski team and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do and basically moved back to my parents’ home and was working. That’s really when I started climbing, and climbing more and more, and eventually moved to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky to live the season, 2005, there, working at Miguel’s Pizza. That’s really when climbing became this daily thought and became part of my existence on a daily level.
When the season ended there and winter came and Miguel’s shut down, I just kind of made my plan to go back to my parents’ house and train for climbing and that’s really – the whole thought pattern from skiing just rolled right into climbing. From my very first climbing season, I’ve always been thinking about ‘how can I train for climbing and get better at climbing and use what I’ve learned through my life as a skier and ski racer to try to get better, stronger at climbing?’
Neely Quinn: That’s interesting, and it’s also interesting to me that I didn’t know that you didn’t start climbing until your 20s. That’s right, right?
Sam Elias: Yeah. It’s kind of a convoluted story. I had climbing experiences before that but they were very, very far apart like a summer camp here when I was 12 years old and then, like, a climbing gym experience there when I was 15 years old, and then a few more climbing experiences when I moved out to Salt Lake City when I was 16, obviously because it was just so much more accessible and local kids were doing it and climbing gyms were more prevalent there. A little bit of climbing in college around Boise, Idaho.
It made it’s way through my life but it was just really, really infrequent. After college and once I went back to my folks’ house and I didn’t have that outlet that I had my whole life from skiing – that physical outlet, and mental, and emotional, and spiritual, too – climbing filled that void and I just latched onto it wholeheartedly. Yeah, I guess I was, like, 22 or 23 before I really thought about climbing as a thing I would do consistently.
Neely Quinn: And now how old are you?
Sam Elias: I’ll be 34 in August.
Neely Quinn: I mean, I think that probably is encouraging for a lot of people. We get so many emails from people like, “I didn’t start climbing until I was 25. Do you think I can ever be good?” Well, obviously you can.
So, tell me a little bit more about the beginning of your climbing career up to now. It sounds like you at least had really good experience with training and I’m sure that that helped with your pretty quick improvement as a climber, but can you tell me more about it?
Sam Elias: Sure. I think that, from skiing, I had developed a total body awareness that is – you know, in skiing you need to be aware of your body moving through space, from the tips of your toes to your hands and your fingers, right? And your mind needs to be engaged in that process as well, so I think from skiing my whole life I had a really good body awareness.
My body was a little bit lopsided for climbing. I had really big, strong legs and a smaller, weaker, upper body. Still, to this day, my feet and my legs and my trunk are a really big asset for me. I climb with a lot of strength from my legs and they benefit me a lot. I am, I feel like, pretty weak in my upper body but I just think that skiing helped me to kind of integrate my mind and my body and I think that was directly translatable to climbing.
Neely Quinn: Tell me about some of your early accomplishments as a climber.
Sam Elias: Well, in that first year, 2005, at Miguel’s, I went there and I had climbed two .12a’s and one .12b. By the end of the season I had climbed .13c, a handful of .13b’s, and a bunch of .13a’s. In that season I climbed my first .12c, my first .12d, my first .13a, my first .13b, and my first .13c. I left and went to Michigan to train for the winter and I came back and immediately climbed my first .13d in the springtime back in the Red. That was 2006, so I spent April and May of 2006 in the Red and then I made an exodus to Rifle, Colorado, for the summer.
So, I climbed my first .13d in April and then I went to Rifle and I climbed two more .13d’s and then on Thanksgiving Day, 2006, I climbed my first 5.14, Zulu. Within the next couple years, .14b and .14c.
Neely Quinn: That’s, like, the fastest progression I’ve ever heard of. You were climbing 5.14a within, basically, a year of climbing.
Sam Elias: Yeah, pretty close.
Neely Quinn: How in God’s name did you do that?
I think I’m really adaptable and so with the consistent time climbing at the Red, I got really good climbing at the Red. Then, with the whole season at Rifle, I got really good climbing at Rifle and I think Rifle – I don’t know. I think I’m really good figuring out things for myself and using my strengths and working around my weaknesses.
With Rifle, of course there’s kneebars there, but it’s not every route has kneebars and it’s not like you’re always climbing with your knees, but a lot of the times you are. Like I said before, my legs are strong and I just could use my lower body really well and I just used my total body really well.
The other thing, too, is I’ve always been a naturally endurance-based athlete. I can definitely climb well in an endurance style and with a lot of consistent climbing, my endurance is super high so I can hold on for a really long period of time and recover really well.
Neely Quinn: Do you think that translated from skiing?
Sam Elias: I don’t know. You know, I ran quite a bit when I was really young and I was good at running. Skiing, I think, was actually – though I got pretty good at skiing, I think it’s a sport that’s really hard for me to be good at. I think that my body wants to be more of a marathoner athlete, like, slow-twitch muscle fibers, endurance-based. The fast-twitch and the explosiveness in any sport has always been hard for me, whether it’s sprinting or whether it’s explosive styles of skiing like slalom and giant slalom. I had to work really hard to change my body to get better at those things where I’ve just always been naturally good at endurance-based things.
Neely Quinn: That’s interesting. You think your body is just set-up that way, it’s not like you were a former runner or a former – it’s one thing to have run a lot as a kid but it’s not like you were doing this up through your teens.
Sam Elias: Yeah, it just seems to come naturally for me. I don’t have to train endurance. To be honest, too, I think my mind plays a part in that, just sort of being aware of my exertion and being able to calm myself down, and being able to regulate my levels of anxiety. I think that there’s a much greater part that I don’t necessarily understand about myself, a much greater strength that comes with my mind from dealing with it as a competitive athlete from a really young age in skiing, just having to deal with nerves and to deal with stress and to be able to integrate my mind and my body kind of on command. I think that that is a strength of mind as well.
Neely Quinn: Can you tell me more about that? I’d love to learn a little more about where – did your coaches, as a kid, have something to do with that? Is that something that was self-learned? How do we do that?
Sam Elias: I think I’m really analytical. I’m pretty ruthless with myself and the pressure I put on myself. I’m really observant of what’s going on inside my head but also what’s going on with my body. I don’t necessarily know if I’ve trained it. I’ve actually had to kind of train myself to let go more than I have to be in this hyper-aware and observant state. I definitely tend to overdo it, over train, be too hard on myself, put too much pressure on myself, but I think what that’s given me is an honesty in myself like, ‘Hey, I did my best,’ or ‘Hey, I could have done better,’ or ‘I can’t do this right now.’ I tend to run too hot and the last few years have been trying to train myself to relax a little bit more, to let go a little bit more, to be a little bit more light, to take things a little less seriously.
Everybody has their balance and though that tendency is probably responsible for how I progressed so quickly and is probably responsible for me climbing as well or as hard as I have, I’m not that physically strong in my upper body or in my fingers. I haven’t been climbing my whole life like a lot of other people. I think it’s probably helped me to overcome some of those types of things but at a certain point, there’s got to be balance and enjoyment and a tempering of that ambition so it’s not always about progression. The original foundation of why I got into the sport was just that it made me happy and gave me space to just be outside and be with people that I wanted to be around and be in places that I wanted to be in. It’s just that ebb and flow between trying to be better at something and wanting to do better but also not doing it for that sole reason.
Neely Quinn: You said that you’ve been doing work on taking things less seriously and all that for the last couple years. Are you/do you mean just in climbing or in your life in general?
Sam Elias: In my life in general. Climbing is so connected to my life in general that sometimes it’s hard to dissociate between the two, but more in my life in general and obviously, a direct result from that work is affecting my climbing.
Neely Quinn: Have you noticed changes in your climbing because of it?
Sam Elias: Yeah. I mean, I started working with a sports psychologist in the middle of last year and in November and December I had the most successful climbing trip of my life. I also felt the best that I’ve ever felt. I definitely credit it 100% to that and to working with this doctor.
Neely Quinn: With the doctor – the sports psychologist?
Sam Elias: Uh huh.
Neely Quinn: Was that at the same time you were doing the BD boot camp?
Sam Elias: Yeah. We brought her in – her name is Doctor Christina Heilman – to work with us in our third training cycle. I’ve always been really interested and fascinated with the mind’s role in life and in sport, and even from the time I was 14 and 15, when I was ski racing and reading books about sports psychology and flow and flow state.
As all things in my climbing training has been, it’s this grand experiment of trial and error and refinement. I just thought, ‘Well, maybe I should work with her a little bit and see what happens.’ We worked together a lot up to that trip and even while I was on that trip. I still work with her. I spoke with her just a couple of days ago.
Neely Quinn: Can you give me details about what you guys talk about and what she helps you with?
Sam Elias: Yeah, I mean, it just goes back to, basically, finding personal balance. Just trying to be a content, calm, person in every aspect of life. Obviously, if you’re that way/if you can sort of try to make yourself that way, the more often you can find that sense of calm and contentedness, the better and more likely you will be able to draw upon it when you’re in stressful situations, be it whatever – driving in a car when somebody cuts you off, or if you’re in an argument with your loved one, or if you’re trying to send a hard route. Those are all just stressful situations when it comes down to it, and it’s how each of us deal with those stressful times and how we focus ourself and direct our energy, and how we talk to ourselves inside of our head.
I’ve worked with her long enough now that she knows my strengths and my weaknesses and she’s able to provide perspective when, say, I’m spinning out of control, or just something’s gone wrong, or I’m trying a new route, or going through a new experience and things just aren’t going well. She’s just kind of like a sounding board and an objective perspective to help me kind of get back to center if I bounce too far away from that.
Neely Quinn: Does she give you tools to use on your own when she’s not there to be your sounding board?
Sam Elias: Yeah. I have a number of things that I use, from apps on my phone to journaling to work with a dry erase marker that I write all over my house or on the windshield of my car or on windows or on the bathroom mirror.
Neely Quinn: Just as reminders of things?
Sam Elias: Yeah, goals that I have or things that I’m trying to work on, or personality traits that I wish I had more of or was better at. Of course there’s books and podcasts and TED Talks. I’ve gone through quite a lot of different things and I really like it. It’s made me a better climber but it’s made me a better person, which is kind of the bigger point.
Neely Quinn: I’m going to take a break here real quick and let you guys know that FrictionLabs, my favorite chalk company by far, no questions asked, has some really awesome new products for you guys. They have a chalk ball now, so for anybody who climbs in a gym that doesn’t allow chalk to be loose, they have chalk balls, which is great. They also have liquid chalk, which I use a lot in the summer when my hands get really sweaty and hot, because laying down that base layer of chalk – liquid chalk – really does help keep the chalk on for longer. That one I tested out in the gym and it worked great. They also have a salve for your hands now, so if you want to check those things out you can go to www.frictionlabs.com and if you want great deals on their stuff you can go to www.frictionlabs.com/trainingbeta.
Alright, back to the interview.
Neely Quinn: So all of these things – I’m trying to imagine you on a route, stressed out, angry, whatever, frustrated. What do you do in that moment, when you’re actually in it and you can’t journal and you can’t do any of these other things? What’s your go-to, immediate fix? Well, not ‘fix’ but…
Sam Elias: You know, what’s interesting is – maybe that’s not going to make a lot of sense – I can’t, in the moment, I can be less reactive. I have become less reactive and more capable of finding center, faster, after something. It’s all the time that I’ve spent leading up to that moment that makes me more capable of not being the person that I would have been, if that makes any sense at all.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. So you try it on the ground and when you’re up there, you’re not as volatile.
Sam Elias: Yeah, and just not as volatile at the crag, or if I forgot something, or if I can’t do a move or if the conditions are bad or – I’ve, basically, in time before, just tried to become a little more objective or a little more positive. The point is not – those instances are always going to happen. I mean, the Dalai Lama experiences rage and sadness and all these things. That’s only human.
When we’re passionate about something, we’re going to have those times of stress, of anger, of sadness, but it’s what we’ve done in the weeks and months and years before to just prepare for when those things come up. When they have come up more recently, I feel more capable of dealing with them. It’s not to say that I don’t throw wobblers or, fucking – I’m a miserable person to be with at the crag sometimes or scream, “Fuck” on a route, or act immature and irrational. I definitely am vastly better off than – at least inside my head – then maybe to the outsider I’m still the same Sam, but I feel different.
Neely Quinn: That’s great. I’m assuming it’s a work in progress.
Sam Elias: For fucking sure.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Forever and ever and ever.
Sam Elias: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: Do you – this is going to sound trite, but I have a feeling a lot of people are going to wonder do you meditate? What do you do on a daily basis to – like, I know that you said you do journals and I guess my specific question is: do you meditate?
Sam Elias: Yeah, I do. It goes and comes. Sometimes I do it everyday for weeks and for months and sometimes I go weeks and months without doing it. Absolutely. That’s one of the – what Dr. Heilman – that’s one of the things that she thinks that fits me the most. It’s just finding time to do it or the patience or the willingness to do it. That time – it doesn’t even have to be formal meditation time. It just has to be ‘off’ time.
Neely Quinn: Off time? What do you mean?
Sam Elias: Where you’re not doing anything, or you’re just with yourself, feeling yourself, feeling your surroundings, where you’re not engaged with your phone or the radio or other people, or you’re driving, or your work, or whatever. You don’t have to be sitting just cross-legged and breathing. It’s basically the time between formal meditation and sleep. There’s all different sorts of space or time in that spectrum where you can just be relaxing. I think we’re not very good at relaxing or just kind of, like, bringing our energy down a little bit.
Meditation is this loaded word that all of us in the West think about or have our opinions on. Really, it’s just about trying to chill out and just bring the energy down for a couple of minutes and just relax. You don’t have to be Zenning out to do that.
Neely Quinn: It’s crazy how five minutes or three minutes can make a difference, of just sitting and thinking positive things or just nothing at all.
Sam Elias: Yeah, totally.
Neely Quinn: So, going back to climbing a little bit, you said that after having worked with her you had your best season ever, November/December of last year. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?
Sam Elias: My November and December accomplishments aren’t that bragging-worthy, but for me, it was a sign of kind of like a new level and also, not so much a new level but just that I had kind of gone beyond what was seeming like a pretty difficult time in my life. I had basically accelerated all the way to 5.14c and I climbed The Crew in Rifle in July of 2010.
Some things kind of happened in my life. I had a pretty hard expedition to Mount Everest. That trip kind of changed my life in a number of ways and some years had gone by and I hadn’t even climbed anything close to 5.14c. I’m getting older and I turned 30 and 31 and I just didn’t know if I was going to be able to climb that hard again. Even though I had been physically strong at points, my mind wasn’t right and I just had a lot of doubt and a lot of fear or insecurity. I did that training program with Dan Mirsky and Joe Kinder and Justen Sjong and Kris Peters, and then I obviously started working with Dr. Christina Heilman, too, and everything just kind of started to fall back into place a bit.
I went to Spain with my friend, Jonathan Siegrist, who’s just so motivated and a good person, a good climber to be around. I just wanted to climb on one route that I had tried a couple of different trips, and I hoped that I would be able to do it by the end of our two-month trip. It was a .14c, too, and no expectations. It kind of shut me down the previous trips I had been there to try it. Yeah – so, within two weeks I sent it and by the end of the trip I had sent two other .14c’s and I one-hung a .14d and I did a few other 5.14s really fast, for me.
I mean, before that trip, I had done one .14c and after that I did three others. I just – obviously, things were right and I don’t think I could have done that if everything kind of didn’t align.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. It sounds like you trained your mind as well as your body, but you said earlier that you attributed, 100%, your success in Spain to working with the sports psychologist.
Sam Elias: A lot. I mean, working with Justen and Kris, we got strong, but here’s the thing – we stopped working with those guys, basically, at the end of August. Any physical peak that I would have had from the training, it certainly would have been gone after outside climbing September and October, only. No training, no climbing gym, but without a doubt, the work I did with those guys was really important, too.
That’s kind of the beautiful, difficult thing about climbing. It does involve the mind, and how much, we don’t really know. Not only does it involve the mind, but everybody’s body is different. My strengths are different from other people’s and my weaknesses are the same. It’s so hard to try to have a training program that guarantees results and that anyone can go through and they’re going to be better. I mean, most of the training I’ve done, I’m not even sure if I did anything, you know? What works for me, some people definitely don’t need to do and vice versa. It’s beautiful and it’s infinite possibilities but it’s also, yeah, it’s sometimes challenging and I don’t think I’ve found a really good prescription and I guess it’s taken me 10 years of thinking about, ‘How should Sam Elias train for climbing?’ to kind of feel like I kind of know what I need to be doing now, you know?
Neely Quinn: Out of curiosity, what did happen the September and October after the boot camp? Did you feel stronger then? Did you send new stuff?
Sam Elias: Yeah. I sent all my fucking projects.
Neely Quinn: What did you send?
Sam Elias: I sent Lungfish – which was a multi-year project for me – really quickly, and Steve Hong’s new route, Homunculus. A few other new routes in Rifle, I sent Tweak in Logan Canyon, I sent…
Neely Quinn: Are these all .14b’s? C’s?
Sam Elias: No, they’re – Lungfish is .14b, Steve’s route is .14a, Tweak is .13d, Cannibals is .13d, but these are nails-hard, historic kind of routes. Tweak is in Logan Canyon and Cannibals is in American Fork. All the routes that I did were just in my anti-style, especially Lungfish. Tweak, in American Fork, is notorious power endurance route. Cannibals in the Hell Cave – actually, Tweak is in Logan Canyon and Cannibals and Lioness are in American Fork. Just brutal power routes, or brutal power endurance routes, and I’ve always struggled at that.
I came straight out of the training with BD boot camp and did all of those routes pretty quickly, like, with just a day or two of work, and I had tried them all before and struggled a lot with them. There were very obvious physical benefits from the training over the summer.
Neely Quinn: So how long do you think that would have taken you before to do those?
Sam Elias: Well, I tried Lungfish for years and I was really close on Lioness one season a couple years ago or two, but I couldn’t do it before the winter came. Yeah – who knows? There’s no doubt that I would have done those routes but there’s no way I would have done them as quickly and as easily as I did straightaway, especially knowing the difficulty of the style and the historic nature of them and of their semi-sandbagged grades.
Neely Quinn: I mean, 5.14 in a day or two is super elite. Nice work.
So, where are you now? You finished the boot camp last August and it’s been nine/nine or ten months, what’s going on now?
Sam Elias: So, I just climbed outside September, October, November, December, and I climbed really well. I spent two months in Spain with Jonathan just talking about training every fucking day, as we were accomplishing our goals and sending routes, and obviously feeling the training wearing off and getting a little weaker.
As a long trip goes, you kind of get excited to go home and to get strong again so I started training basically/literally on January first. I got home from Spain on December 30 and I started training on January first and I’ve been going on cycles of training mixed in with some outside climbing, and now more recently working more formally since then.
Neely Quinn: Working – you mean working more formally at your job?
Sam Elias: Yeah, so this summer I decided to work Monday through Friday at The North Face in California. It’s kind of like a product management or product design and development internship. I’ve been on The North Face team since 2010 and I’ve always really loved working with the designers and thinking about products and how to make things better. It’s not just clothing. I love to tinker with hard goods and talk to the people at Black Diamond, and I love to think about shoes and work with Heinz Mariacher and Scarpa. I love that part of the industry.
Even when I was a ski racer, I loved to tune my skis and make them perfect and wax them, just so that – I like that manual connection to the things that I use in my passion. I just had this idea and I worked with several people in the product department at The North Face and we figured out this way that I could come into the office and work full time with them to just try to make better products and try to have a connection to the core of the sport. To try to connect the product department to the rest of the athlete team. The North Face has a really impressive roster of athletes and there’s this really multi-faceted set of reasons for me to be there. I’ve been working there for a month and I have a month and a half left to go.
Neely Quinn: So how’s that going with your climbing and training?
Sam Elias: It’s been challenging. I’ve worked real jobs before so I kind of knew that the majority of my work week, or my days, would be inside, in an office, at a desk, but it’s been hard. I’ve been having to cut my training sessions shorter or just rearrange my training schedule to accommodate for my level of exhaustion or just the amount of time that I have. It’s just been a challenge. I, of course, tried to prepare myself as best as I could and have low expectations but it’s been hard.
Neely Quinn: Do you see your performance suffering from it?
Sam Elias: Thankfully – so, I did a full training cycle…
Neely Quinn: Which was six weeks? Five weeks?
Sam Elias: It was just four weeks. It was the first four weeks that I was there, so I did – I knew – right now I’m in Lander, Wyoming, for the International Climbers’ Festival and I always knew I would be coming here and that would be breaking up my time in California. I basically set a cycle before this and I’d have this sort of rest/outside climbing time and then I’d go back and do another full cycle.
The cycle was really hard. I couldn’t/I tried to be honest with myself everyday that I went into the gym and try not to push too hard, but try to push through my level of exhaustion and lack of recovery from the previous training session and I really had no expectations. I didn’t know what I was going to be able to do, but at the end of my cycle I had some PR’s and through the training cycle I actually climbed decently at times. That was really encouraging.
I’m glad that I was patient enough and sort of gentle enough with myself to kind of have the honesty and back off when I needed or to take an extra rest day when I needed it. Also, to have all the experience that I have under my belt from training through the years to know, ‘Now’s a day I can push,’ and ‘Now’s a day I should just pack my bag up and leave the gym.’ There were days like that. I would warm-up, go to the hangboard and do a couple hangs and feel like absolute trash, and I literally would just quit. It’s just not worth it to me. It’s not worth it to get hurt, it’s not worth it to overtrain. I was proud of myself not only for doing that, but in the end I had some PR’s on the hangboard so it all went fine.
Neely Quinn: So, what are your goals coming up? What are you training for?
Sam Elias: Well, I mean I want to climb .14d. I’ve wanted to climb .14d since the day I sent The Crew in July of 2010, which is a long fucking time ago. At this point, with the trip that I just had in Spain, I feel like I’ve been in .14d shape before and I should be able to climb .14d, so obviously the next grade is .15a and that’s a huge fucking leap. I don’t know, I mean, if I will ever climb .14d or .15a but that’s what I’m trying to do and there’s a bunch of…
Neely Quinn: Do you have another trip coming up? Sorry.
Sam Elias: Yeah, I’m going to try to go back to Spain in spring, but there’s so many variables that go into climbing a hard route and I’m just trying to control the ones that I can control and advise the ones that I can maybe advise and let go of the ones I think I can’t control. I’m trying to go to Spain in the spring but before that, you know – there’s a bunch of routes in the U.S. in places that I want to do and places that I haven’t spent much time, or I have spent time and I just want to spend more time.
Yeah, just trying to be flexible with those goals as well, and the locations, and the climbing partners, and trying to just be trained when the moment presents itself to try a hard route. Fuck – sometimes it doesn’t work like that either but I guess that’s just the best plan I can see for myself.
Neely Quinn: Just going with the flow.
Sam Elias: Yeah, trying.
Neely Quinn: So, we have a few minutes left and I would love to talk about a few of the specifics about what your training days look like right now, if you would indulge me.
Sam Elias: We’ve talked a lot about – or I’ve talked over the last hour about – my strengths and weaknesses. I think that my weaknesses are definitely just upper body, raw pulling strength and strength endurance, and integrated finger strength into that. Compression – I’m just not a really muscle-y climber. I’m very technical, like a roll-y climber. I think I get myself through a lot of hard sequences through technique and footwork and just body position.
I’m just trying to get my fingers stronger and get my pulling stronger, so a lot of bouldering, fingerboarding, a lot of offset pull-ups or assisted one arm pull-ups, a lot of ring work. Then, because I focus so hard on my pulling and my hanging, I do a huge set of circuits at the end that are just opposition and kind of just pushing, a lot of shoulder stability and tricep stuff to try to keep my body balanced and healthy and address any sort of imbalances that are arising from being a climber.
Neely Quinn: How many days a week are you training?
Sam Elias: Well, ideally four but it’s not been consistent. I just try to monitor my levels of exhaustion and I want to be fresh, or as fresh as I can, for my heavy days and if I’m not, then there’s not a whole lot of a point. With the work that I’m doing at The North Face, it’s three, maybe, but I’d like to be training four days a week but it’s kind of been more like three.
Neely Quinn: Yeah, and that’s a lot different than what you were doing at the boot camp where you guys were training how many hours a day and how many days a week?
Sam Elias: Well, I guess we were training 6-7 hours a day and mostly Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then we would try to outside climb on Saturday, but then there was one week or maybe even the whole third cycle where we were doing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, or something like that. Anytime we were training last summer, our sessions were 5-7 hours long.
Neely Quinn: But it was only three days a week for most of it. I didn’t realize that. I thought you guys were doing four or five.
Sam Elias: Yeah, no, it was only three days. We were trying to keep being super hard and heavy and then rest really well, and then definitely try to have two days of rest in the training week. If we would go outside climbing it would just be, like, to be outside on a real rock, moving around. Active recovery more than anything, more like a psychological day than anything. We weren’t even capable of climbing anything remotely hard after that week.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Yeah, those weeks were hard, but that’s actually cool that it was only three days a week. It sounds like if you did get three days a week in and were really efficient about it right now, you could get a lot of work done.
Sam Elias: Oh, absolutely. For me, especially as I age, it’s just about efficiency and just having a training day that’s just straight to the point. Especially now, with this job – I couldn’t imagine having children or other, normal, life responsibilities like a dog or having to work a real job throughout most of the year like most people do. You’d have to be super efficient with your training with no time to waste.
I do believe that a couple of hours, three days a week, you can definitely get work done.
Neely Quinn: Okay, this is great information and the last thing I want to ask you about is your diet, so really quickly, can you tell me anything that you’ve learned about food and how it affects your training and climbing?
Sam Elias: For me, I just try to eat really simply and I try to limit when I take in carbs and what kind of carbs those are. I like to eat, and if I’m eating perfectly and in control of my diet, it’s kind of like a high fat, high protein diet. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. I eat a lot of meat and that’s something that you helped me figure out last summer – that I probably spent a good part of the last decade or so being pretty protein-deficient.
I definitely need carbs and I use them around the times that I’m training or around the times that I need quick energy at the crag, and for recovery as well. Generally speaking, I try to have those carbs be pretty gluten-free but I’m not crazy about being gluten-free. I just try to eat as little refined food as possible and a lot of meat and fat and fruits and vegetables.
Neely Quinn: So what would be a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner for you?
Sam Elias: Typical breakfast is two eggs with a bunch of vegetables. Sometimes sweet potato, sometimes avocado, sometimes just a scramble or eggs over easy over vegetables.
The other thing I forgot to say is I drink decaf, but I try not to drink caffeine. I’m super sensitive to it and I think that you thought that I was maybe mildly allergic to it, and it also affects my anxiety levels and my perspiration. I try to monitor my alcohol intake and I’ve never been any sort of heavy drinker but sometimes I try not to drink at all.
Neely Quinn: When you’re in performance mode or training mode?
Sam Elias: Yeah – so lunch, it depends on if it’s a training day or a rest day. Generally, something simple. Salad with chicken on it or a hardboiled egg or bacon or something. Dinner is normally some sort of protein: fish, red meat, chicken, turkey, and then steamed vegetables, maybe a salad. It depends on the time of year it is. Pretty basic.
Neely Quinn: And then you said that you do rely on carbs when you’re training and right around that time. What do you eat?
Sam Elias: I try to eat fruit that has a high sugar content, like bananas. I like apples, but I also will use a lot of different Clif Bar products, from just standard Clif Bars to fruit and nut bars to trail mix bars. Just easy, quick sugar to try not to crash and trying to have energy for when I need it. I definitely, sometimes, in those workouts I’ll supplement with branched chain amino acids, and maybe sometimes, depending on how hard I’m going, maybe whey, like maybe a little whey shake at the end. Those supplements generally have a little bit of carbs in them for taste and to sort of have a ratio of carbs-to-protein for recovery.
Neely Quinn: And you feel like this diet and this way of eating sort of keeps you at a good weight?
Sam Elias: I – yeah – I mean, I don’t pay too much attention to my weight. I definitely monitor it and see changes. I think, for sure, since doing my diet to have more protein I’ve gained weight but I think that’s coming from upper body muscle, which is what I need.
When I was in Spain I definitely felt like – and after the training program last summer – I didn’t really monitor my weight that much. I just kind of ate what I wanted to eat and I was just climbing a lot and that said, when I eat what I want to eat, it’s relatively clean and healthy. If I wanted to have two beers at night or three beers, I would have that. I wasn’t trying to be light for Spain, or whatever. In Spain, if we wanted to drink red wine or have a beer or whatever, we weren’t thinking too hard about it.
If I’m climbing a lot and I’m just eating the way that I normally eat, I’m definitely/my body is good.
Neely Quinn: Cool. Sounds like you have a lot of balance in your life, it seems like, so I commend you for that. It sounds like you’ve been doing some hard work and I appreciate you telling me all about it.
Sam Elias: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. I hope that the listeners enjoy the perspective and just my little story.
Neely Quinn: Do you have any last words for everybody, about training, climbing, all that?
Sam Elias: I mean, I think it just all comes down to being honest with yourself and being patient with yourself and just doing what it is you want to do. If that’s drink a beer before a competition or eat whatever it is that makes you happy or climb in whatever style that you want, it’s important to mind those things, but it’s also important to have a little bit of perspective. Like you just said, my life has a lot of balance points to it. Some of them are intentional and some of them have just kind of come by chance, so I guess I just encourage people to find the balance for themselves.
Neely Quinn: Thank you very much and have fun in Lander.
Sam Elias: Alright. Thanks, Neely. Bye.
Neely Quinn: Alright, I hope you enjoyed that interview with Sam Elias. You can follow him on Instagram @bookofsamuel. He is Sam Elias on Facebook and he also has a blog, www.bookofsamuel.com. I don’t think he’s written very much on there but I know he’s pretty active on Instagram.
Coming up, I actually did a second interview with Jonathan Siegrist at my house. It was my second live interview, ever, the first one being the Jonathan Siegrist interview – the first interview. We talked a little bit about his progress since the last time we talked and how he trains now. It’s pretty different now so that’s interesting, and that will come out next week.
What else – if you need any help with your training we always have help here at www.trainingbeta.com. We have training programs for you. If you’re working on routes, you can go to our route program where you’ll get three unique workouts every week and those workouts consist of things like shoulder work, so you can avoid injuries, but also climbing drills on boulders and on routes, mostly on routes. We do other weights in the weight room and TRX and ab stuff – and if you don’t have TRX, that’s okay – and then we do fingerboard workouts if we think you’re up to that level and campus board workouts, again, if we think you’re up to that level.
It’s very scalable depending on what level of climber you are. All of the workouts are super easy to read through. The instructions are super clear. You basically just go to the gym for a couple of hours and we tell you what to do. It’s about $15 a month and you can find that at www.trainingbeta.com and under ‘Training Programs’ you’ll find our ‘Route Climbing’ training program. We have a lot of other stuff over there, too.
Thanks so much for listening to the end. I hope you guys have a really great week. I’ll talk to you soon.