Close Up Image of Campus Board B&W, Photo by Mei Ratz

By Steve Bechtel

The email subject line read “Help!!” Opening it, I saw no fewer than 20 paragraphs describing how the sender wasn’t sending despite “religiously” following one of the plans I’d put together. There was no doubt, the climber was training. It was clear she was training hard and adding difficulty to her sessions. So why was she failing to see results? Like a strength athlete adding reps or a marathoner working on starting speed, she was progressing the wrong direction.

This is an “elite” problem. Unless you climb a lot and train regularly, you’re probably not going to run into performance plateaus involving specific facets of your physiology. But when you get to the top of your “bubble”, you’ve got to get really careful and really smart if you want to get any better. Outside the #1 intervention of improving your technique, getting better at redpoint endurance involves being able to do:

  • More climbing in a given day
  • More climbing in a given pitch
  • More intense climbing in a pitch

Additionally, there are more specialized kinds of endurance:

  • Session endurance for longer performance periods, such as a bouldering comp
  • Improving recovery endurance for routes with decent rests between cruxes
  • Extending power for longer boulder problems

The above points could (and probably should) fill a book. Knowing specifically what you’re trying to achieve is the first step to an effective training plan – there are lots of ways to get tired and sweaty, but not all of them will get you up hard routes. I’ll touch on effective conditioning for each of the above cases in this article.

Improving endurance falls into two broad categories – going longer or going harder. In climbing, going longer only takes you so far. Sure, you’ve got climbers doing massive link-ups on El Cap or mega days like 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, but most climbers are trying to perform well over the course of 2-4 hard pitches per day. For this reason, simply adding more pure endurance (going longer) doesn’t get you too far. Even trying to do massive mileage in hopes of creating an “aerobic base” has limited return; your fingers and arms will always be the weak link and will fail long before you seriously load their aerobic capacity.

 

Climbers depend more on local endurance than systemic aerobic endurance. This is why non-specific endurance has limited carryover to climbing. This is also why there is an extraordinary correlation between the amount you climb regularly and your level of endurance. If you grip the rock a lot, you gain the ability to grip the rock a lot. Let’s look at how training session parameters can be manipulated to achieve these different facets of endurance, and make sure what you’re doing is leading you the right way.

 

More Climbing in a Day

To get more quality climbing in a day, you need to look closely at both the volume and intensity of your training. On a basic level, it’s all about being able to exercise for the whole day. If you’re not capable of being out doing something all day long, you’re never going to do something challenging like climbing. The normal path to being able to climb longer days is to slowly progress the amount you climb in a day. If you are a gym-goer for most of your climbing, adding in a walk, some weight training, and even another sport can help build the capacity for longer efforts on your rare days at the crags.

 

Assuming you can get to the crag or a tall rock gym regularly, you’ll want to measure your climbing in distance rather than pitches. You can either use meters, feet, or a simple bolt count if you’re not sure of a route’s height. This way you can consistently look at the volume you climbed over time. When progressing endurance, you can actually make pretty big leaps in volume, but need to cycle back every 5th or 6th session. For example:

 

Session # # of feet climbed difficulty
1 650 5.8-5.10
2 750 5.8-5.10
3 900 5.9-5.10d
4 1150 5.8-5.10c
5 1350 5.9-5.11a
6 900 5.9-5.10b
7 1200 5.10a-5.11a

Ideally, you’d cycle back by about 40%, but I usually tell athletes just to back off to the volume of two sessions’ past. At some point, as I said above, adding more volume ceases to make sense. This is especially true if the volume is too easy; doing 20 pitches of 5.10 in a day has a questionable benefit when it comes to trying 5.13s for multiple goes. Once you are comfortably climbing over 1000 feet (300 meters) in a session, you’ll want to start leaning toward more difficult climbing. At this volume level, you will want to advance gradually, taking away 1-2 of your easiest pitches from the last session and adding a couple that are slightly harder than your hardest.

 

More Climbing (Endurance) in a Pitch

This form of endurance is the golden ticket – hard to come by, but amazing once you have it. The sessions we build for this goal are called “Extensive Endurance” sessions, and rather than trying to get a big, long day of climbing in, we try to intensify the training over the course of one long set of work. Although it is possible to gain route endurance via interval methods, we’ve found that even stepping off the wall for a moment causes a massive drop in heart rate and breathing, which simply doesn’t occur on routes. For this reason, we look for continuous climbing efforts – either route laps with downclimbing or linked boulder problems. We typically progress these by first adding time to the climbing set, then by adding technical challenge, usually by doing harder routes or problems. One can get very specific with this type of training, focusing on angle and hold types for a particular goal climb, but the long term training plan should involve varied terrain and lots of different holds.

 

A huge key to a successful endurance session is rest. At the crag, this works out well; our swapping turns with a climbing partner allows for good rest periods. In a gym, even one with long routes, the pace picks up and our desire to get a good pump takes over. We climb too fast, recover too little, and have to end the sessions too soon. Ideally your work to rest ratio would be about 1:2; if it takes you 10 minutes to climb a pitch or block of boulder problems, you’d rest 20 minutes between efforts. As the difficulty grows, and you become more dependent on accessing and renewing anaerobic stores, however, you’ll lean more toward 1:4 or 1:5 ratios. Be warned though: the need for protracted rest between endurance sets is an indicator that the intensity is leaning toward the anaerobic zone, and you’re probably going too hard in the sets.

 

The logical starting point is to get to where you can climb for about twenty minutes without rest. I know: ARC recommendations can range as high as an hour at a time. Understand, however, that this thinking is pulled directly from the mileage training of cyclic aerobic endurance activities and not from skill-oriented acyclic sports that depend on local muscular endurance. Unless you’ll be climbing pitches that take longer than 20 minutes, you’re better off adding more sets to your session than increasing the duration of the sets.

 

Looking at the numbers, you can see that an effective endurance session can get pretty long. That’s the name of the game. A logical progression might look like this:

 

Session # # of sets duration of sets total session time (based on 1:2 work:rest)
1 2 10 :40
2 3 10 1:10
3 2 15 1:00
4 2 20 1:20
5 3 20 2:00
6 4 20 2:40
7 5 20 3:20
8 6 20 4:00

Beyond about four hours’ training, and you’ve past the normal parameters of the average climbing day. Yeah, sure, you’re a badass and always climb more than that. Well, bear with me.

 

Once you get to a high enough volume (time), the adaptations really start to level off. Your “return on investment” for adding a couple of more hours will probably only result in a session that is 3-5% more effective, yet increases your injury potential dramatically. If you can climb on easy terrain for six 20 minute intervals, it’s time to ramp things up and wade into making these sessions harder.

 

As I’ve written before, I think most people fail when they are training low-intensity endurance, popularly called “ARC” training. When allowed to climb without rules, i.e. climbing open terrain in a climbing gym, they fall to the lowest common denominator and make small moves on big holds.

The best way to advance the above sessions is to create rules for yourself. For example, you could simply make a rule to use only footholds smaller than a one-dollar coin, or force high steps, or do the Hold On Loosely drill. You can also simply do taped routes in a gym or real routes outside – forcing yourself to work with more limited choices. You’ll get to a point that this becomes too easy, and is still unlike the feeling you get on a hard climb. That’s where the next level of training comes in.

 

More Intense Climbing in a Pitch

Better than grabbing more junk miles is to add intensity to your efforts. For years, athletes have known the values of interval-style efforts, but for muscular endurance we need to look at a special kind of intervals. Where traditional intervals allow for a complete (or near complete) rest in the active muscles, intervals with active recovery keep the muscles working the whole time, just like when we are climbing.

 

To address the physiological demands of the intensity “surges” in rock climbing, we do what we call Intensive Endurance Intervals. These sessions take the form of either linked-up routes in the gym, or linked boulder problems. We’ll do shorter sets than in the sessions above, usually 8-15 minutes, but we will assign certain parameters to each set, such as one V3/4 boulder problem every 90 seconds: You do a problem, then climb back down to the base of another and repeat for the duration of your set.

 

This type of effort can be tailored toward a particular goal, such as “slightly overhanging on good edges” or “compression movements”. These still need to be sub-threshold efforts. If you cross the red line too many times in a set or workout, your recovery is severely diminished.

 

A typical session for a 5.12/5.13 climber might look like this:

 

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V2 / V1 / V2 / V2

Rest 5-8 minutes

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V2 / V1 / V2 / V2

Rest 5-8 minutes

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V2 / V1 / V2 / V2

Rest 5-8 minutes

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V2 / V1 / V2 / V2

 

The session should be advanced by changing only one factor. You could conceivably increase the number of intervals, decrease the rest between sets, increase the length of the sets, or increase the difficulty of each set. Too many factor changes result in leaps in intensity that are too much for your body to overcome. To improve your conditioning for redpointing routes, your increases should almost always come in the form of intensification of effort each set. Thus, a second session after the one above might look like this:

 

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V3 / V1 / V2 / V3

Rest 5-8 minutes

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V3 / V1 / V2 / V3

Rest 5-8 minutes

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V3 / V1 / V2 / V3

Rest 5-8 minutes

9 minutes of climbing, one problem every 90 seconds: V1 / V2 / V3 / V1 / V2 / V3

 

By simply replacing an easier problem with a harder one, you up the load enough to push adaptation.

 

Remember that you should never push so hard in these sets that your good technique starts to go. You should also be willing to give yourself some leeway on rest; take eight minutes instead of 5 if you feel like it will improve your work set on the following round.

 

As strange as it sounds, I prefer the bouldering set-up for training endurance over routes at the gym. Routesetting at commercial gyms is hard to predict, and is often more motivated by entertainment value than by training value. By confining yourself to the bouldering areas, you tend to encounter a higher density of challenging body positions and moves than on routes.

 

Increased Session Endurance

Although most of us inadvertently train this way, increased session endurance is a fairly specialized training need. Who needs to be able to execute longer sessions? Competition boulderers and maybe a climber on a limited trip, such as a weekend in Font. Although our normal long bouldering sessions are usually supposed to be about power, they’re really about endurance; remember that fatigue does not help us increase strength or power…intensity does.

 

If you are aiming to increase session endurance, we want to do so by climbing more medium-intensity problems per unit time. This can be accomplished several ways, but the most surefire way to do so is to keep track and try to either climb more problems total or increase your “V-count” – climbing more/harder problems as the session progresses. Almost inevitably, the limiting factor in these sessions become skin.

 

If you are running thin, or are getting sloppy, you’re not doing yourself any favors by pushing the session. In these instances, we’ve found two methods work best for building that endurance. First, you can finish the session with resistance training – kettlebell circuits, dumbbell complexes, or the like. Second, you can simply add a half-duration session the next day. In such a case, you could climb Monday full, Tuesday half, and rest Wednesday. Repeat as necessary until you can get an effective full-length session in, whereafter you could switch to an every other day plan.

 

Improving Recovery Mid-Pitch

Yes, it’s better to have great endurance and just never get pumped. But let’s say you are the kind of guy that gets pumped anyway. You can address this limiter in two ways. In a bouldering gym situation, you could pick a series of maybe ten problems that you can pretty much do in one try. In your first session, do all ten, resting as needed. Take 20 minutes, go get your stretching done, then come back and do the same ten problems again. Session done, go home. The next session, do the same ten problems, but on each problem, rest and shake out for 20 seconds at the first hold and last hold of each problem. Over time, increase the length of your rests to about 45 seconds each.

 

In a route gym, you might run three consecutive laps on an onsight-level problem. With each lap, try to stop and rest every 10 moves, no matter the position. You can also run a timer that repeats every 2 minutes – hear the beep, rest for 20-30 seconds. The more awkward and weird your position, the more you’ll get out of it.

 

Another take on this idea comes from the legendary Jerry Moffat. Back in 1996, he visited Lander and we had the great opportunity to talk training with him for a few hours. One of his very best insights came in the form of his preparations for the World Cup. At the time, there weren’t too many indoor climbing opportunities in England, so much of his training was on boulders outside. His advice was this: “Pick a traverse you can do pretty well, maybe one you fall off once every five times. Climb it back and forth and rest on the most crap stance you can find. Just hang out there and shake out until you can’t stand it, then keep climbing. Do this maybe 10 times in a day, and in a few weeks you won’t fall off any rest stance you come across.”

 

Extending Power for Longer Problems or Short Routes

Extending power is a lot harder to do than you’d think. Power, as we know it, crosses the line between two energy systems, the Anaerobic Alactic and the Anaerobic Lactic. The Alactic energy system is only the primary fuel source for about 8 seconds before Lactic metabolism takes the brunt of the work. This is why at maximal loads we see a definite power decline after 3-5 reps…you just can’t fuel the movement anymore.

 

To successfully improve longer “power” efforts, you need to get both stronger, and more efficient at moving in the lactic system. You can do several different exercises for this, but all of them have to follow the same rule: maximum intensity before volume.

Traverse-to-problem, 2-problem links, and even a 4×4 style effort are all good exercises in this regard. My favorite sessions for extending power involve doing an explosive problem at near your limit for 4 to 6 moves, followed immediately by another problem two grades easier. Whether you’re wasted or not at the end (most high level climbers are not), rest 3-5 minutes before the next effort.

 

If you don’t rest enough, you won’t dip back into the Alactic system, and your intensity will drop out of necessity, just because the whole effort is now lactic. Somewhere between 8 and 10 sets is appropriate.

 

 

In short:

 

Increasing the duration or length of your sets/problems = increased long power-endurance / route endurance at higher intensities

 

Increasing intensity of your sets/problems = increased power endurance and ability to execute cruxes under fatigue

 

Decreasing rest periods between sets = increased route endurance / work capacity

 

Increasing the number of sets/problems = increased all-day endurance, session endurance and long route endurance

Max Sport Climbing, Looking for Next Move

by Steve Bechtel

You’ve tried ARC training and you’ve done your share of 4x4s, so why do you still come peeling off the wall just before you reach the anchors? What is it about your energy system development that isn’t working? It might be that you aren’t progressing your sessions, or it might be that you are increasing the difficulty in the wrong way.

I like to keep things simple. Some people think that I do it so that my programming is easier for my athletes to understand, but it’s really because it’s easier for me to understand. One quick look around the internet search for “endurance training for climbing” and you’ll run into a whole host of articles written by some very smart people, but many are so science-heavy you’d need a PhD to fully understand them. I am not such a person, in fact my GPA coming out of college was 2.43 – you can look it up.

In keeping things simple, I refer to all “endurance” training as energy system development. There really is no “endurance” in rock climbing anyway, unless you are doing the Fitz Traverse or something. Everything we do in single-pitch climbing has a finish line. There is only so much time you can spend on a given pitch, and therefore all of your training should be focused around performing for limited periods of progressively harder efforts.

The bulk of your energy system work will be in the form of interval training. Intervals simply allow you to amass more quality hard work than would, say, a long, steady-state effort. Since climbing itself is broken into separate periods of hard effort separated by longer rests, it makes even more sense to train in such a way. Most people, whether they are training boulder problems, 4x4s, ARC, or anything else, work within the realm of some kind of interval.

 

The problem for most of us is we don’t know what the session is actually doing for us, or how to keep getting better. The first time you do a set of 4x4s, you’re probably going to be sore and fatigued for a few days. Repeat the effort and your soreness and fatigue will be less. A few more sessions, and you’ve fully adapted: now your body is capable of that kind of work. You can imagine there are many ways to again make it hard for yourself, but the fitness you gain can be greatly diverse, depending on the method you choose.

There are four ways to advance intervals. As I said before, it doesn’t really matter what kind of intervals you’re doing…they all advance the same way. The progressions are as follows:

Increasing the difficulty of the climbing.

Over a series of sessions, if you are focused on increasing the difficulty of the climbing in each set, you will slowly increase your power output. This factor is most apparent at the ground-level: achieving harder boulder problems in a bouldering session than you could before means you are a better boulderer! Keeping this mindset as you move to longer problems or to links will continually allow you to develop the ability to do very hard moves under varying states of fatigue. Harder sets don’t directly lead to higher work capacities or to more low-end endurance, though. To improve these factors, you’ll want to manipulate other variables while holding your problem difficulty around the same level. An example progression for a linked problem (climbing one problem, downclimbing on open holds, then climbing a second problem) session would be as follows:

For long-term performance, this is the most important factor to manipulate. Strength and power trickle down eventually, and an interval program built around intensity creates more sustainable fitness.

Increasing distance or duration of intervals.

If you make the intervals longer you begin to develop more aerobic power. This is a good practice if your desired outcome is more steady, low-power endurance. You’ll get better at recovering on the fly, and will improve your ability to do multiple semi-hard moves in a row. Improving in this realm doesn’t translate well to doing hard cruxes while redlining, but is clearly the way to get better at sustained redpoints or traversing boulders.

Remember that short intervals tend to lean more toward power development, and long ones toward single-effort endurance. As the intervals get longer, the body switches primary energy systems, so you’ll see drops in power as you transition to the lower power aerobic system. The power drop is not linear: somewhere around the 90 seconds to 2 minute mark, you’ll feel a massive decline in your “snap.”

It’s not a great idea to increase interval durations more than about 10% per workout. We love to stick to the nice, round, easy-to-count numbers, such as going from 30 to 45 seconds, but this tends to play out in fatiguing too quickly. This can effectively shorten the whole training cycle because of too steep an improvement curve. In truth, we do very little increasing of interval durations in our programs, as I prefer spending whole cycles focused on one duration. If you were to move from a 60 second interval early in the cycle to a 90 second interval later, you might completely switch systems…which could mean undertraining both systems.

Even though I don’t favor progressing duration, this type of increase is appropriate for people new to endurance training or for boulderers looking to make the switch to route climbing. Total session load must be considered, so as you add time per set, you may have to drop some sets to avoid overreaching. A progression might look something like this:

Duration and type of rest period.

By decreasing rest or changing it to an “active” mode, you improve your ability to recover on-route. It’s pretty clear that when you’re on a route that even the rests aren’t all that “resty.” Short of a full-on sit down rest ledge, you’re working harder than most of the people you see at the average gym just to hang out on the jugs. This skill involves improving your threshold levels so that even an engaged position allows you to get something back. Effectively, you’ll be recruiting less muscle and have an increased anaerobic threshold.

In the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of attending a training talk with Jerry Moffat, who explained how he trained for hard route redpoints on boulders. He explained that he’d pick a traverse that he had fairly wired, then climb it using the natural rests. Once he could do it several times, he’d then move to resting on a “crap” hold, and once he’d mastered that one, he’d up the ante again. After a few weeks, he’d feel ready for anything.

Changing rest will have a positive effect on aerobic power, but can negatively affect top-end strength endurance and power. By topping out your ability to deal with the highly acidic game of resting on-route, you naturally detrain your top-end values. It is a tough compromise, but one that there is no way around.

Number of repetitions.

Increasing the number of reps of a given interval will increase the energy system capacity. This is valuable for improving the number of hard tries you’ll put forth per session or climbing day. To start, you should simply try to add one repetition per session. For example, if you decided to increase your 4×4 volume, you might go only to 3×4 and 1×5 rather than leaping to a full 4×5. This would represent a move from 16 to 17 problems (about a 6% increase) rather than a jump from 16 to 20 (a 25% increase). Over the course of a whole training phase, you might work up as follows:

4×4

3×4 + 1×5

2×4 + 2×5

1×4 + 3×5

4×5

 

I’ll often get some grief about the slow progress I recommend, but I remind you that we train climbers for next year, not next week. Charlie Francis noted: “It is better to undertrain than to overtrain. You will still supercompensate, but not to the same degree. Once you overtrain, the body will plummet and fight to retain balance. Smaller CNS demands over a longer period of time result in more acceptance and greater improvement, while the rush to get more done leads to uncertainty down the road.”

Although on the surface increasing work capacity seems like a huge win, this capacity, too comes at a cost. I’ve heard more than one top level climber admit that by adding more tries into each day seemed to slow their sending rate. The lesson is that if you get too interested in sustaining work for long days, you trade your desire to go hard on each and every try.

At the most basic level, any type of increase is going to increase your strength-endurance or muscular endurance. After a few seasons on the front lines, though, the gains come less easily and you have to start getting very smart in order to push to higher levels.

Angled View of Campus Board, Photo By Mei Ratz

by Steve Bechtel

When you look at intensifying training, there are really just a few ways to make it happen, each having a different result. You can increase the volume of training, such as doing more total pitches in a climbing day. You can increase the intensity of the training, such as trying to do more difficult pitches or problems in a day. Finally, advances in density training involve how you can manipulate the density of your training, where you hold the intensity constant, the training duration constant, and attempt to fit more work in with each session in a cycle.

Let me give you three real-world examples of how these factors play into training:

Volume Increases

If you were structuring a bouldering session, you could improve your endurance and capacity for training by holding the intensity constant (say at the V3 to V6 range) and work on increasing the total number of problems you do. Your sessions could work up to 90 minutes, then two hours, then three, and you would see notable gains in your ability to boulder for prolonged periods. But manipulating volume alone gets you little more than that – you probably won’t miraculously start sending harder grades by doing more easy stuff.

Intensity Increases

Intensity increase is how you get stronger or more powerful. This is a basic truth that many climbers miss out on: you’ve got to increase the force demand of your training in order to increase the force you can generate on the rock. If you consistently try to increase the Average-V (average difficulty of your sessions) over the course of a training cycle, you’ll see a necessary increase in force production. Over time, attention to generating more force (whether it be on the hangboard, boulders, or weights) will result in gains in strength.

Density Increases

You have 30 minutes to do as many V4-V6 boulder problems as possible. You rest as needed and at the end of the time, record the V-Sum of your session. By keeping the intensity fixed in a small grade range and keeping the time fixed at 30 minutes, the only factor you can manipulate is density. Over the course of 6-8 sessions (the recommended number in a 4 week cycle) you should see this number creep slowly up, and at the end you’ll see a huge increase in your anaerobic capacity.

A few years ago, a friend suggested that we go to the crag and to 10 5.10s. Great, it was a good volume day, and a different kind of load. Toward the end of the day he suggested that next time we do 11 5.11s and then work up to 12 5.12s toward the end of the season. Simply looking one or two steps further up the line makes the error in such thinking apparent. The great error many of us make is to think that if we are increasing things in one facet, increasing in two or three would lead to even better results. Imagine setting up a weight workout where you start off with three sets of 3 reps at 200 pounds, resting as needed. The total load of this session is 1800 pounds, and is borne primarily by the anaerobic alactic energy system. No problem. You could add load, still work in the same energy system, and expect to get stronger. You could add volume and expect work capacity to go up. But what if you added a couple of sets, a rep, and some weight? 5 x 4 x 225 is now a load of 4500 pounds…more than twice what you looked at before, yet on paper it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

This is where carefully looking at which factors you’re increasing starts to really matter. Since most of us are fairly experienced with both intensity increases and with volume increases, I see most people note the biggest increases in how “fit” they feel from manipulating the density of sessions. There are appropriate times to do density training, such as after a long strength building phase, or right before a trip. Too much of it and you spoil the sauce, so to speak – there is only so much metabolic adaptation you can make in any given phase.

I look at density sessions in two different categories: high-load density and low-load density. The high-load density sessions tend to help increase your ability to handle lots of hard climbing or work (glycolytic capacity), where the low-load sessions tend to increase your ability to do harder climbing in endurance situations (aerobic power). These are not discrete adaptations, however, and should be looked at more like a venn diagram, as noted below:

A high-load session might look like this:

30 minutes of as many rounds as possible:

3x OS-level boulder problems

5x Pull-Ups

1x 15 move traverse or 2 problem link

rest 10-15 minutes, with mobility work

30 minutes of as many OS or OS+1 problems as possible

You’ll see each is difficult, and you need plenty of rest between. Over the course of a training phase, your density will only increase slightly.

A low load session might look like this:

15 minutes of as many OS-3 or OS-2

rest 10 minutes, with mobility work

15 minutes of as many rounds as possible:

1x OS-level boulder problem

5x Inverted Row

10x Kettlebell Swings

rest 10 minutes, with mobility work

15 minutes of as many OS-3 or OS-2

Over the course of a 4-week cycle, such a session would show significant increases in performance (due to the greater reliance on metabolic factors for progress). Both styles of sessions are appropriate, but you should stick to one style per phase of training so you can really see the results.

By Steve Bechtel

It’s hard to write a specific plan for any facet of training, especially if you’re trying to target more than one athlete. There are just too many variables. A few years back, I wrote a short article on endurance training (Endurance 3.0) that explained how we look at training endurance for climbers. After that, I was contacted by one of my friends who had read the article:

“Great article on endurance, Steve. It reinforced that I still need to get better at that part of my training and climbing plan. The problem for me is I’m not sure what to do exactly. I need someone to tell me just what to do each time in the gym, and I can do it.”

Sounds easy enough. There are a hundred workouts or more published every day that say “do this”, which makes them very attractive to us. The problem is that such workouts aren’t designed for any athlete in particular, nor for any specific adaptation. For the most part the desired result is to make you tired and sore…both of which are of dubious value when it comes to athletic progress.

The difficulty in endurance programming for climbing involves manipulating a host of factors, such as hold type, wall angle, set duration, session duration, set difficulty, rest periods, and pacing. Just laying all of these factors out is enough to make me want to just go back to running laps on a route until I fall off. But the important factors are easier to target – we need to look at duration (because this is how long you’re training your body to perform movement without rest) and intensity of sets (because this is the make or break factor).

Some background on the athlete: Chris is a really good climber. He boulders V10 or V11, has redpointed 5.14 power routes, and has done close to 100 5.13s. A look at the specific routes, however, shows a heavy tendency toward power-oriented or crux-oriented climbing. His climbing days tend to be short; a couple of warm-ups, a couple of project burns, and then he packs it in for the day. In short, Chris does everything just right for maxing out his power.

What we came up with was a series of sessions to maximize Chris’s ability to manage fatigue. We started with just basic volume training and then we progressed to skilled movement for time, which I like to call “Intensive Endurance Intervals”. These sets are comparable to what an endurance athlete might call “cruise intervals” or “tempo intervals”; sets where you don’t go quite to max, but you also don’t go quite to the basement to recover. There is a critical distinction between this type of interval and something like a 4×4, and the results will differ.

We laid out his plan to include either gym-oriented days, or crag days that followed the same loading patterns. The plan called for 3x per week on the endurance sessions, plus two short bouldering sessions and two short strength session each week. Occasionally, he only hit 2 endurance sessions, and once he hit 4 in a week…which was just fine. Also, we combined these with the bouldering sessions occasionally, but required 2 days off after due to the volume in the sessions.

 

Week 1:

  1. 5 x 8 min open climbing with 4+ min rest between sets. Mobility and core work during rests.
  2. 4 x 10 min open, with 5+ min rest between sets.
  3. 5 x 9 min open climbing with 4+ min rest between sets.

 

Week 2:

  1. 3 x 12 min w/ 6+ min btw
  2. 4 x 12 min w/ 6+ min btw
  3. 3 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw

Week 3:

  1. 2 x 20 min w/ 10+ min btw
  2. 4 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw
  3. 3 x 18 min w/ 9+ min btw

Week 4:

Here, we transitioned to skilled climbing. The problem with open traversing is it allows bad habits to form. Going forward, we had Chris link boulder problems as he traversed. The shortest effective interval seems to be around 90 seconds on a rolling clock: enough time to climb a problem, downclimb and traverse to the next before the timer chimes again.

  1. 4 x 12 min w/ 6+ min btw. One V1/V2 problem every 4 minutes.
  2. 3 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw. One v1/v2 problem every 3 minutes.
  3. 2 x 20 min w/ 10+ min btw. Open climbing.

Week 5:

  1. 4 x 12 min w/ 6+ min btw. One V1/V2 problem every 3 minutes.
  2. 3 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw. One v1/v2 problem every 90 seconds.
  3. 2 x 20 min w/ 10+ min btw. Open climbing.

Week 6:

Once he was comfortable with the 90 second interval, we started adding some intensity to the sessions.

  1. 4 x 9 min w/ 5+ min btw. On 90 sec rolling clock, V2 V2 V3 V3 V2 V1
  2. 3 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw. On 90 sec rolling clock, V1 V2 V3 V1 V2 V3 V1 V2 V3 V1
  3. 1 X 30 min. Open climbing.

Week 7:

  1. 4 x 9 min w/ 5+ min btw. On 90 sec rolling clock, V2 V3 V3 V3 V3 V2
  2. 3 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw. On 90 sec rolling clock, V2 V3 V4 V2 V3 V4 V2 V3 V4 V1
  3. 1 X 35 min. Open climbing.

Week 8:

  1. 4 x 9 min w/ 5+ min btw. On 90 sec rolling clock, V2 V4 V5 V4 V3 V2
  2. 3 x 15 min w/ 7+ min btw. On 90 sec rolling clock, V2 V3 V4 V5 V2 V3 V4 V5 V2 V3
  3. 1 X 35 min. Open climbing.

Interestingly, we really ramped things up in the last 2 weeks, but it seems like his endurance tipped past the threshold. Unless he did several steep (45 deg plus) problems in a row, there just wasn’t any sign of fatigue. We always leaned toward under-doing it rather than borderlining on the pump. Best of all, the plan paid off. He was able to redpoint several 5.13 and two 5.14 endurance routes the following spring / summer. This wasn’t a miracle program, just an intensive realignment of this climber’s strengths.

Rob Pizem, working for the first free ascent of the Frank Zappa Appreciation Society, 5.13+, Escalanta Canyon, CO

By Steve Bechtel

Since the dawn of time, man has been obsessed with finding an easier way to get past hard work. Wonderful things like the wheel, the incline plane, and the internal combustion engine have helped us get past the drudgery and pain of too much tedium and work for too little reward. Much like the hard labor we’ve largely done away with these days, climbing hard routes takes a lot of focus, sweat, and preparation.

There are many upsides to hard training, but there are downsides, too. Perhaps the biggest of these is the lack of noticeable progress that come when you’ve reached the highest levels of an activity; training that sometimes shows little reward. A great challenge to athletes is to work against this tedium, but most end up switching gears and moving into an exercise mode that shows them more tangible gains.

Running is an obvious choice. No doubt it’s a good exercise. It’s easy to implement, relatively low skill, and it feels like work. Running is something we all have done, and might do as a normal part of our exercise routine, but is it helpful for climbing?

First, Let me say, that I really like running. I’ve run on and off since high school and have even found myself doing things like 50k races and trans-range mountain runs. I find it a great way to get out and do something in the mountains, and is a great way to maintain a healthy level of cardiovascular fitness. For people who can tolerate running, it’s even a decent tool to add to a fat loss plan.

The main reasons climbers add running to their training programs are as follows:
They want to improve cardiovascular capacity for mountaineering or alpine climbing.
They want to improve route climbing endurance and feel that running will transfer to rock climbing.
They want to drop a few pounds and think that running is a good way to do that.
They like running.

Let’s look at these one at a time:

Improving Alpine Performance
There is a big carryover in any form of cardiovascular training. Heart and muscle adaptations to endurance exercise are largely transferable; if you are an experienced and high-performing cyclist, chances are you’ll develop capacity as a runner fairly quickly. Running is a good form of base training for alpinism, but it’s still not the best form of training. A look at Scott Johnston and Steve House’s excellent book Training for the New Alpinism underlines this point. Although they do support running at certain times in the year, their prescriptions involve doing more climbing-like training such as hill intervals and (gasp!) walking uphill with a backpack. The authors pay special attention to suggesting ways to avoid injury, such as hiking uphill with a pack loaded with water and then pouring it out to descend unladen. Since statistics show that around 60% of people who start a running program end up injured by it, adding running to your alpine training should probably be done somewhat conservatively.

Improving Rock Climbing Endurance
I breathe hard when I climb difficult routes. I breathe hard when I run. Therefore, running must be good training for climbing. Right? Well, I breathe hard on the toilet sometimes, and I can’t imagine that would help me climb better…but maybe I’m wrong. Let’s look into why we breathe hard, and what it means.

Climbing is a sport that is punctuated by hard bursts of intense effort followed by periods of recovery. This can be a boulder problem that lasts 10 seconds, followed by a few minutes on the ground. It can be a route that features several sections of hard movement with stances where you can recover, or it can even be a long pitch with no real rests, where you might suck wind for ten or more minutes.

In all instances, single pitch rock climbing and bouldering require getting energy from both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Most movement we consider difficult is primarily fueled anaerobically, and almost all recovery (sitting around between problems, or hanging out at rests on a route) is fueled cardiovascularly. Logic tells ups that improving our overall cardiovascular fitness will improve our ability to actively recover on a pitch, which is absolutely true – to a point.

Even a very basic level of cardiovascular fitness (such as is necessary to walk to, say, Ceuse or even the Pipe Dream) is sufficient to “clean the blood” between bouts of anaerobic effort, assuming your muscles are capable of maintaining their ability to contract. By developing hyper-high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, you really don’t gain much in the recovery department. The real way to improve endurance in a power or muscular endurance sport, though, is to train it specifically most of the time you train it.

Is there harm in endurance training, though? Beyond the possibility over a little overtraining, most people see maintaining a cardiovascular sport along with climbing as no big deal. The real problem is what happens on a cellular level, however. A more efficient aerobic system does help improve recovery and aid in maintaining a good bodyweight, but there is every possibility you are costing yourself power.  

Long term, high volume endurance training promotes changes in the muscle that help it produce power over a longer period without fatigue. Unfortunately, this endurance comes at the direct cost of a reduction in the muscle’s ability to produce force. The good news is that it takes a long time to make significant and long-lasting changes in the muscle. The bad news is that anything that decreases your muscles’ ability to generate force is a bad thing for doing hard moves.

In sports we look at specificity as one of the major pillars of training – the more your training simulates your sport, the better. Specificity is then divided into two different facets: systemic and motor specificity. Motor specificity means moving the way you do in a sport. Systemic specificity means using loads, durations, and rest periods similar to the demands of your sport.  The great problem with running is it doesn’t address either of these too well.

I think the bottom line is that running probably won’t hurt most climbers’ ability too much, but it’s certainly not going to help.

Losing Weight
The average person puts each foot on the ground about 1500 times per mile. Biomechanists estimate that a load somewhere between three and five time bodyweight crosses the knee joint with each stride. So if you’re 150 pounds, that means your knee suffers 220,000 pounds of impact per mile. You’ll probably burn around a hundred calories, so it works out to about a ton per calorie. Seems expensive to me…

Despite popular belief, running isn’t really the most effective fat loss exercise. Extensive science shows that interval-style training, weight circuits, and total body sports are substantially more effective training modes. The best exercise for fat loss, though, is the table push-away. Don’t eat so damned much. One less piece of toast will save you a mile of running. Get on a whole food diet high in lean protein and you can lose a pound or more a week, while training hard the whole time.

Many of the nutritional consultations I’ve had end up at a “dealbreaker” – “I can’t give up cheese”, “I like a beer at the end of the day”, etc. If you are serious about fat loss, you need to get rid of this type of thinking right away. You’ll never outrun a bad diet.

But I Like Running!
Running for running’s sake is great. It’s a nice way to see some country, and can be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s OK to be a multi-sport athlete. The reason I don’t like running for my top-level redpoint athletes is the same reason I don’t like kayaking, staying up late, taking drugs, or too much beer: there’s just too much at risk. I don’t want anything to take away from climbing performances. It all comes down to how much you like the running itself – do it if you love it, but if you’re thinking you’ll get better at rock climbing because of it, think again.

With all this being said, I will share the perspective of an orthopedic surgeon friend of mine, who is convinced a hard running schedule will actually help your climbing: “It’s pretty simple: run hard, at least 3 days a week. When your knees start to hurt, take 3-4 ibuprofen before each run. When the pain is unbearable, quit running for good and get yourself a good hangboard. 2-3 months later, you’ll be stronger than ever and ready to climb hard routes!”