by Steve Bechtel
Of all the facets of training for climbing, I think training for endurance is the most controversial and misunderstood. Most of us agree that a hangboard is the best way to build finger strength and that bouldering on an indoor wall is a good way to build power, but what about endurance? A quick review of climbing blog recommendations will get you a variety of conflicting and confusing answers. Should you run? Do interval climbing? Toprope laps at the end of the climbing day?
If you’ve been after it for long, you’ve probably tried all of these things, and might not be impressed with your results. I’ve struggled with this myself and with my athletes, too. I’ve always felt like the training we’ve done for endurance on rock has been suboptimal. Over the last couple of years, I have focused most of my study on methods of increasing endurance, and I realized we’ve been making some very fundamental errors. In 2013, I reworked our entire endurance program. I’ll detail that below, but first, I want to tell you why.
The need for “more endurance” is apparent to almost every climber, and is burned into the psyche of everyone who’s blown a redpoint at the anchors of a project. Almost reactively, our first inclination is to see out that same awful and debilitating pump again and again, in hopes that somehow we’ll be better able to handle it next time. Although this is correct thinking to a point, building the perfect endurance machine starts a long way from melting off jugs high on a climb.
To build perfect endurance, you’re going to want to go through three very long steps before you spend too much time conditioning for the pump.
- Get good. This sounds like really basic advice, but even someone with absolute shit technique can thug up 5.12. Watch a video of yourself on a hard redpoint and compare it to how other climbers look on that route or similar ones. Some brutal honesty goes a long way here. Back up to a grade that you can climb with perfect fluidity and composure, and spend a few weeks there. I usually recommend redpointing about 10-15 routes of each grade as you work your way back up, never advancing until you are perfect on each redpoint.
- Get strong. Strength leads to endurance in almost every sport, but doubly so in a sprint-and-slow sport like rock climbing. The stronger you are, the less you’ll have to work to hang on. Most of our fatigue in climbing comes from local constriction of blood flow. The stronger you are, the less each move will require of the muscles. Several studies show that isometric contractions at 20% or less of MVC (Maximum Voluntary Contraction) can be held almost indefinitely. The stronger you are, the higher this 20% goes.
- Get power. Power, like strength, is a persistent factor in athleticism. By maximizing your foundational persistent factors, you can better develop a transient factor such as muscular endurance.
Sport scientists have identified many different types of endurance used in various sports. In climbing, we’re interested in power endurance, muscular endurance, and all-day stamina. I like to look at climbing endurance in terms of gears, like in a vehicle. My “first gear” is strength and power, second is power-endurance, third is what I call “intensive endurance”, fourth is “extensive endurance”, and fifth is day-long stamina. These are outlined in the chart below.
|TRAINING GOAL||DURATION||NUMBER OF MOVES||PRIMARY FOCUS||PRIMARY METHOD OF TRAINING|
|Strength and Power||1-8 seconds||1-5||single moves and boulder problems||hangboard, system wall, bouldering|
|9-120 seconds||6-30||short routes and long boulders||2-3 problem links, traverse into problems, rhythm intervals|
|Intensive Endurance||2 min to 10 min||30-150||routes 40-90 feet in length||4-6 problem links, links on time interval, longer gym routes|
|Extensive Endurance||2 min to 60 min||30+||full-pitch routes, trad climbing||extended traversing sessions, multiple laps on routes, treadwall|
|Stamina||many hours||hundreds||multi-pitch climbs, multiple attempts at endurance routes||multiple sessions at the gym, climbing+resistance sessions, outside mileage days|
The mistake most of us make when starting to “train endurance” is to assume that climbing is like running or cycling in its demands on the body. We train 4×4 intervals or do “junk miles” doing traverses back and forth in the gym and think that somehow, if we stick with it long enough, things are going to change. Like I said above, your fitness will improve, but only so much – fitness is dependent on your base strength and power. It’s best to look at your endurance as icing on a cake – there has to be a lot of cake (strength and power and technique) to put the thin layer of icing on.
John Jesse did a great job laying out the five factors contributing to muscular endurance:
- Strength: If a muscle is just strong enough to match a load that is to be lifted, all of its fibers must contract at once. A stronger muscle will need only a few. With fewer fibers in use, blood flow to the muscle is substantially higher.
- Capillarization: Proper muscular endurance training can result in a 400 to 600% increase in the number of capillaries.
- Biochemical Processes: At a cellular level, the muscles can be trained to better eliminate waste products and bring in new substrates.
- Circulo-Respiratory Efficiency: Improvements in the transfer of oxygen in the lungs and better carrying capacity in the blood improve local endurance.
- Psychological Factors: It is well established that the limits of an athlete’s strength and anaerobic endurance expression is largely dependent on the degree of inhibition which acts to limit an all-out effort. Behind this inhibition lay many causes, but one of the most important is the unwillingness of the individual to endure the discomfort of an all-out effort, particularly when he thinks or feels he is tired and must engage in an “oxygen debt” bout.
So what’s really wrong with 4x4s and ARCing? Nothing, metabolically. Motorically, there are problems. See, training is all about specificity – training “like” the sport. There are two important facets to specificity that most of us miss, though; metabolic specificity (using the proper energy systems) and motor specificity (using correct movement). It is my belief that the biggest error most coaches today make is thinking their training is specific when it’s really not. Metabolically, getting super pumped (4x4s) happens, as does climbing without getting super pumped (ARC). Motorically, we start to blow it by sacrificing good, skilled movement for just getting the conditioning in.
I love intense efforts like 4x4s, but you’ve got to keep the focus on climbing well, as best you possibly can, and keep the focus away from getting tired. The truth is, almost nobody can do this, so we start to degrade skill as a trade off for some power endurance. Less cake, more frosting…which equals a less stable set of fitness qualities.
Similarly, when 9 out of 10 climbers are “ARCing”, they’re doing the easiest possible moves between holds that are huge and exactly where they need them. Because the very nature of ARC climbing asks that you spend a great deal of time doing it, you start to reinforce these bad movement patterns through many hours of repetition. If you’re going to get the real value out of extended sessions, you’ve got to really climb when you’re doing them. They have to be motorically specific, or you degrade your skills.
Our new endurance program consists of three different types of sessions. As you can see in the chart above, they are power endurance (PE), intensive endurance (IntE), and extensive endurance (ExtE). I’ll detail these sessions and how we have implemented them with our athletes recently.
I sort of hate the term ARC, since you have to define it over and over for people who aren’t “in the know”. And when you do describe “aerobic restoration and capillarity,” you realize this might not be what we’re doing anyway. I don’t know about you, but when I’m done with 45 minutes of continuous climbing, I feel anything but restored… Climbing is so hard on the arms, the forearms in particular, that I think recovery climbing is not really possible except for the very elite.
I call the long endurance sessions “extensive endurance”. It’s easier for me to picture and easier to explain to my athletes. In these sessions we try to keep a climber a couple of clicks below anaerobic threshold, since this is where we ultimately want to spend time on “easy” parts of hard climbs.
We train Extensive Endurance anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour. This is done at warm-up intensity, and you should never come close to failure. I like to start athletes with simple intervals: climb for 5 minutes, rest for 5 minutes. Once you can do this for 6 rounds (30 minutes of climbing), you should be able to go to 10 minutes in a row, then 15 and on up. Most of our athletes top out around 30 minutes per set. This is a really useful zone when coaching skills, warming up, cooling down, etc. It shouldn’t be ignored.
To keep from dumbing it down, I like to have the climbers do routes at the crag or in the gym, link ups of easier boulder problems, specific marked traverses, or specified skill sets, such as “inside high steps and backstepping”. Keeping your head in the game on these is a real effort – setting a timer to beep every few minutes helps to keep you out of La-La Land.
The greatest area for many of us to improve is in the very specific realm of Intensive Endurance. This is the realm between power endurance and easy mileage…this is the realm where most of us find ourselves on long redpoints. To train this system in the gym, we do shorter intervals than in ExtE and link medium-level problems. A good example is to do 9 minutes of continuous climbing, doing a problem every 90 seconds. This way you’ll do 6 problems than are somewhat difficult with active, real-world recovery between. You can easily intensify these sessions by simply adding a harder problem or two.
These sessions should reach your threshold level – you’ll start to get tired, then recover, then get tired… Ultimately, you’d go back and forth across the line several times per set. The big challenge is knowing where that line is…I’d like to give you an easy answer, but it’s really a matter of feel. My best advice is to aim low for the first few sessions until you get a feel for it. You’ll want to avoid being thrashed by the end of any given set or you’ll never make it through the whole session.
We program 4 sets of these intervals, usually 3-9 minutes each with at least equal rest between them. When resting, I like to do joint mobility drills from Super Joints – that way you aren’t just wasting gym time. Once you’re up to 4 sets of 10 minutes, you’re probably going to need 15 minutes between efforts, which is fine – you want to make sure to start each set from as fresh a place as possible.
At the crag, you can do laps on a route or two that are continuous, fatiguing, and take you 5-10 minutes to climb. These should be around your onsight level, and you’ll want to do 4-6 repeats with twice as much rest as it took you to climb them. Don’t get thrashed! If you are starting to flail, up your rest periods.
Is power endurance training bad? Sure, it’s easy to overdo, but it’s also critical to success in a power-endurance sport! The “No P-E” fad is in full swing, but I think it’s wrong. I’ve been a big fan of Charlie Francis for several years now. One of the biggest insights I’ve pulled from his books is the idea that training in the middle ground between strength and endurance can do more harm than good in power athletes. I wrote an article on High/Low training a few years ago, and I still believe that the idea is sound. However, a strict High/Low plan is all cake, no frosting.
Just like muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance is a sub-quality of power. It should be trained as an extension of a power phase, and should be done so in a controlled and time-limited manner. This means bringing in a phase of PE development for 2-3 weeks a few times a year. Any less than this and you are limiting your potential. Any more and you’re probably wasting time you could better use developing power.
I like two methods of training PE these days, linked problems and density bouldering. Both of these methods are best used in a progressed plan, such as density on Tuesdays, links on Fridays for 3 weeks. You should use the exact same session format and same problems if possible, only manipulating the length of the work sets as you progress.
So…when and how much? In general, we train ExtE year-round, IntE 4-6 weeks leading up to and through performance phases, and PE for 2-3 weeks right before a performance phase. I know…all of this periodization and planning stuff is confusing. It’s mostly a conspiracy of people who love to work in Excel. You want the truth? Mostly it’s BS. Did you know that only about 20% of Olympians turn in their best times at the Olympics? Do you think they were peaking for something else? That 80% of them just go the jitters? Nope…their bodies just didn’t happen to do what the spreadsheet predicted.
Keep it simple. You want to send a long, continuous endurance route? For a couple of months before, boulder twice a week. Do Extensive Endurance twice a week. 6 weeks out, add a couple of IntE sessions. As your repoint approaches, tune your gym sessions to match the angle, duration, moves, and hold types of the goal route. Easy peasy.