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How climber Deepu Mallesh trains for speed climbing

Sports climber Deepu Mallesh set a national record for speed climbing last month. This is how he trains for this difficult sport

Speed climber Deepu Mallesh.
Speed climber Deepu Mallesh.

At the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) Asian Qualifier in Jakarta last month, Deepu Mallesh wasn’t feeling his best. The toil of competition and training through the year had taken a toll on his knees, forcing him to adapt to a more conservative approach at the event.

As things panned out, he clocked 6.11 seconds during qualification—an underwhelming result—given that he had dipped below the six-second mark on a couple of occasions this year. He knew he had to bounce back in the final, where he lined up alongside local favourite and former world record holder, Kiromal Katibin. And though he eventually bowed out to the Indonesian climber, Mallesh signed off with a new national record of 5.88 seconds. 

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“Qualification didn’t go very well for me, so I just wanted to go all out against Kiromal and see what I could achieve. I was extremely motivated and rode on the crowd’s energy, who were quite loud as they cheered on the local climber. I hit the right flow and that’s what got me a better timing,” Mallesh, 25, says.

Smashing records has become a habit of sorts for the speed climber from Bengaluru. This year, he has rewritten the men’s national record on four occasions, and in April, became the first Indian to go below six seconds in his discipline. It’s the result of a resolute work ethic to master his craft, in spite of the lack of support over the years.

Speed climbing needs agility, precision and a burst of energy to scramble up a 15 metre wall while racing another climber. It requires precise modifications in movement and technique to effect marginal gains of just a few microseconds. For instance, in September last year, Mallesh had clocked 6.46 seconds at the IFSC World Cup in Jakarta. That mark was improved to 6.27 seconds in April this year, before recording 5.98 seconds the following month. His previous national record of 5.94 seconds was achieved in Chamonix in July. That’s just 60 milliseconds slower than his new record.  

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“The sequence of moves are stuck in my head, but I need to make minor changes to cut down on the time. For instance, your leg needs to be really stable when you place it on a hold. Or you may land up pulling too much on a particular move instead of pushing. Things like these need specific work to get faster at the overall sequence,” Mallesh says. 

Over the years, Mallesh has been consistently putting in the work under climbing coach Shiva Linga, and strength and conditioning instructor Benjo Cyril. The day starts with yoga and visualisation, as he zeroes in on the things that he needs to work on at the gym. He spends 2-2.5 hours each day on different sections of the route, fine-tuning the moves and analysing how his body is progressing up the wall. After multiple reps on each section, he puts it all together to make a few runs from the bottom to the top. 

“We have a set time target for each section, so all the work is towards attaining that number. Speed climbing demands almost 70% effort through the legs, while 30% is about keeping the core stable and the hands moving,” he says.

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After a quick breakfast, Mallesh dedicates 1-1.5 hours to strength and conditioning sessions at the gym, which, he says, has made all the difference to his climbing this year. Three days of the week are for leg workouts, that include drills such as front, back and Bulgarian squats, and plyometric exercises. Core workouts are thrice a week, while one session is for the upper body, a lot of weighted pull-ups, muscle ups and routines on the campus board. For agility, he spends time climbing a ladder while trying to utilise more of the legs than the hands. The multiple repetitions not only help his speed, but also go towards building endurance. 

“It’s more efficient to climb while pushing from your legs, rather than pulling with the hands. And then to keep the body stable and get into a flow. On the off day when I cannot find the speed, I just focus on maintaining this flow,” he says. Many of his evenings are reserved for stretching and activation exercises. He banks on a diet comprising a mix of protein and carbs, and adequate sleep or a massage for recovery. 

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Deepu works on his reaction time at the start of the climb through an app on the phone. When time permits, he puts in a few running sessions of 3-5km at an easy pace, or bouldering, as part of his cross training. He also spends time watching videos of other top climbers to understand their technique, before going back to his own runs to see where he can get faster.

“I think analysing your progress can get really difficult in speed climbing. You constantly need someone standing behind you and looking at every single run to pick out where you’re going wrong and how much you need to push. That’s what it takes to make small gains,” he says. 

After winning the south zonal competition earlier this month, Deepu is gearing up for the National Championship next week in Bengaluru. He has an eye on the 5.5 second mark, following which he wants to take time off to allow his body to recover, before embracing the grind for the next season. “The target is to go under 5 seconds and if I get the right support, I’m quite confident of achieving it,” he says.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer. 

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