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Unlearning "Endurance" Training

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I think I’ve been to a dozen different crags where I’ve seen some dude doing toprope laps on a route he’s got totally wired to “train endurance” at the end of the day. The thing is, this guy has been doing the same thing for years, and getting nowhere. It’s not that toproping is wrong (just weak), and it’s not that laps are all that bad, it’s that you’ve got to keep the key training principles in mind if you’re going to train.

In a nutshell, we have only a few fundamental principles that govern ALL athletic training. These are pretty much summed up by the following five words: specificity, overload, reversibility, individuality, and accumulation. We can take any training plan and put it to the test of these five principles and easily decide whether this is a good plan or not.

The problem is that climbers tend to make a simplistic assumption when it comes to endurance: They recall failing on a route because of a severe and debilitating pump, and believe that re-creating that same pump is the ticket to avoiding it again in the future. Sure, you might gain a little anaerobic endurance by getting wasted on a route a few times a week, but this is far from the best way to get endurance.

It’s clear that few sports are as complex as rock climbing when it comes to training. In fact, I think it is very rare for a climber to see any substantial improvements after five or so years of regular climbing. This is probably due partially to this complexity, and partially to our habits. It follows the basic rule of “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” I am always happy when someone breaks this rule.

Climbing is a performance sport. The only way to judge whether your training is working or not is to try and assess whether it has improved your climbing. Sure, you can do more pull-ups now or campus on the little rungs, but can you redpoint a higher grade consistently? Who cares if you can whip through a CrossFit workout in the gym if you’re toproping 5.10 at the crag?

OK, back to pump-man. Imagine a runner training for greater mid-range performance. We’re not talking marathon here, maybe 5k. How many runners do you see running full blast until they fall on their faces, then rinse and repeat? I’ll wager that none of the really fast ones do it. So how do you get fatigue-resistant?

Step 1: Get strong. This is a little simplistic, but let’s just say the less hard you have to try, the less strained you’ll be on the route. Let’s say you weigh 150 pounds and you could squat with an additional 150 pounds on your shoulders for 5 reps. Through training you kept getting stronger and can now squat 200 pounds for five reps. If you stripped it back to 150, you could probably now get ten to twelve reps, effectively doubling your endurance without ever training at that number of reps.

Since most climbers seem to need very specific examples, how about this one: Mr. V13 shows up at The Motherlode and easily flashes a handful of 5.13s after spending the winter at Hueco doing no more that 15 moves in a stretch. Believe it. And believe that it doesn’t happen the other way around. This is because the individual moves are far below his maximum ability, allowing him to climb in a relaxed state for many pitches. Like me on 5.4.

Many people try to apply aerobic training principles to climbing, but this is foolish. Rock climbing is not an endurance sport. “Yeah, but I breathe hard at the end of a long pitch,” you say. That’s just because recovery from anaerobic activity is aerobic. Climbing is a 100% stop and go sprint sport, and you’ve got to train for it that way. I’ll go so far as to say that aerobic training is a total waste of time for rock climbers. Please contact me if you can prove me wrong.

Climbers are sprinters, middle-distance athletes at best. The intensity is constantly changing, and you’ve got to be aware of this as you train. After you are good and strong, you’ve got to make your muscles able to resist the fatigue generated by holding those tiny holds all the way up a cliff.

Think about the way you climb, specifically the way you load your arms as you climb. A climber doing an onsight frequently holds between 20 and 40 static positions for 8-12 seconds as he sleuths his way up a route. This is WAY different than hitting another lap on Vitamin H. On a hard redpoint, the load timing is completely unlike onsighting. Frequently, the holds are used for no more than 3 seconds at a time, and movement is much faster. Plus, you know where to rest. Add in the pro placement involved in crack climbing, and you’ve got another beast entirely.

Train specifically for routes that are hard for you, and more generally for routes within your ability. Think.

Here are a few things to consider. When you are setting up your training plan, keep specificity in the back of your mind at all times; think duration, load, angle, and anything else you can. Like I said before, if you train the way you always have, you’ll continue to get the same kind of results.

Step 2: Hang on. You’re going to have to fatigue the muscles regularly, but not for marathon sessions. Try starting with 3 or 4x 40-60 minute sessions per week. At the crag this translates to 5-7 pitches, post-warm-up. If you get so tired that it takes you several days to recover, you blew it and have effectively wasted those days. Back off and try again. Work toward getting tired, and then recover from it. Variety of routes really matters here; laps should be a last resort.

Step 3: Get uncomfortable. Try routes that you do not have dialed, and be willing to fail. Performing while outside your comfort zone is absolutely imperative if you want to ever get better. This should occur about once per week.

It’s my personal belief that few climbers actually improve through training. This should not be the case, and it’s not training itself that is the error; it’s the program. Remember that being wiped out after a workout is not an indicator that you trained well. You might have actually moved away from your goal.