by Steve Bechtel
I couldn’t even close my hands. I clawed at the huge holds, hoping the skin on my palms would tear a bit and give me a few seconds of purchase before I flew off into the sky below. My hips were slack. My footwork sloppy. Once again I flailed at the moves that were so, so easy when I was fresh. I was 13 bolts up and five feet from the chains. Airborne again.
What is Endurance?
We all know what not having enough endurance feels like, but what is endurance, really, and how does it show up in climbing? By definition, endurance is being able to display strength or power over a fixed period of time. Thankfully, ropes are only so long. Thankfully cliffs have ledges and handjams and kneebars where we can rest, if only a little. Thankfully, the sun goes down and we don’t just have to keep climbing. Endurance, in sport, has a time limit.
We all have a force-generating capacity. We can hang on a tiny crimp for a few seconds, the next bigger one for more, and maybe a jug or pull-up bar for a few minutes. At any level of the game, we can train and chase these numbers higher, and thankfully, have a finishing line (the anchors) where we can stop.
If we set a fixed mark, such as a favorite steep jug haul at our local crag, we can slowly build the ability to link together those moves more easily. Part of how this passage gets easier is improved physiological function—the thing we are trying to improve when we train. Not to be overlooked, though, are the other factors that affect our ability to do this route. Through trying it over and over, we will gain knowledge of what’s coming next, and can relax a little. We’ll gain confidence in our reduced feeling of fatigue. Our bodies will learn the pattern of moves, and become ever so slightly more efficient over time.
More important than building the muscles’ endurance capacity for a given route, though, might be increasing our muscle economy long ahead of project time. This factor, above all others, will determine our endurance capability over the long term. In simpler terms we can recite Yaniro’s now immortal words: “If you can’t hold the holds, there’s nothing to endure.” To go one step further, if it’s easy climbing for you, nothing is going to tire you out.
How We Missed the Mark
It’s not like we’re idiots. We just didn’t think far enough into the nature of fatigue management to get it totally right. At first, we trained endurance by trying to quickly simulate the searing pump and overall body fatigue we felt last time we went really deep on a pumpy route. We thought that just doing more of the tiring stuff would get us where we needed to be. Although useful, this kind of training is best as a last step, a honing of the blade.
It turns out the real work comes earlier in the training process, where we forge the capacity to endure. It’s where we make all climbing movement easier in order to not try so hard move-for-move. It’s where we develop more efficient systems within our bodies. It’s where we build a base of strength and power from which to launch our endurance journey.
One of the most fundamental concepts to embrace is that training is not performance. The problem is that performance – sending a route – is such a clear mark of achievement. It’s black and white and it’s hard to approach gaining fitness by degrees in this landscape. When we go to the cliff, we end up wanting to perform on every single route. It’s a rare climber that can have the patience and foresight to see incremental gains as success, who can link small sections of routes over and over and see them as building blocks.
Yes, instead of constantly measuring ourselves against lifetime bests and desperately seeking out fatigue in training, we truly need to take a long view. What do I really want a year from now? What do my lifetime goal climbs ask of the body?
Instead of seeking out the ability to handle being pumped, we instead need to seek the ability to avoid getting pumped in the first place.
Factors Affecting Endurance
You can climb continuously at an intensity that is very low compared to your maximum ability. In the world of running, you’ll see that top-end mararthoners are running steadily for entire 26.2 mile races at a sub five minute pace. This is ridiculously fast for many of us, and there is no way I can endure this kind of output if it is close to my limit. More relevant to climbing is the work capacity we might see from sprinters. Yes, the best in the world are unbelievably fast, but they also can be fast over and over again at just sub-maximum speed.
In climbing things are a bit of a combo of the two: We need the ability to perform repeatedly at high levels of power, but at times we need to just be able to keep climbing up stone. The take-home from the idea of muscle economy, and from the endless stories of boulderer-turned-endurance-monster, is that the easier the moves are for you, the greater your ability to endure them.
The primary factor affecting endurance is pure strength. A long-term attention to developing strength in the fingers, upper body, and core, will lead to an ability to exert less force move for move than before, and thus your ability to output power at any level increases.
The best way to get strong? Do things that require you to be strong. Try hard boulders and routes. Do a few heavy pulls a few times a week. Don’t worry about being too organized at first – just work hard. And don’t get injured on the hangboard.
The second major factor in climbing endurance is confidence. Strength helps make you confident, endurance helps, but the biggest factor here is experience. Simply put, the more climbing you do on fatiguing routes, the more you’ll believe in your ability to climb on more of them. There is no shortcutting this: just get out there and climb a lot. The quickest way to get to where you can do lots of pitches is to do lots of pitches.
So, the more you climb and the stronger you stay, the more confident you’ll be. Which helps with the final primary factor affecting endurance: fear.
My friend Chris Neve is the Canadian Youth National Climbing Team coach. A few years back, Chris hired a mental training expert to come teach the kids. The problem was that this coach, who specialized in teaching climbers, focused his whole program on dealing with the fear of falling. The entire lesson fell on deaf ears: In Chris’s words, “My kids aren’t afraid of falling. They fall off almost every time they go up the wall. These kids are afraid of failing.”
The truth is that there aren’t too many adults who can get into the zone of fearing failure because they truly are afraid of falling. Many are so afraid that it affects all of their decisions from where to climb, to who to climb with, to whether to lead or not. This crippling fear turns up their fight-or-flight sense, increases respiratory rate, causes tightness in the muscles, and prevents them from seeing the whole picture while climbing.
All this leads to a singular point: if you’re afraid, there is no amount of physical conditioning that is going to overcome what’s going on in your head. Thus, step one in endurance training is to get to the point that failure to do the climbing (not fear of moving above a bolt) is your greatest concern. Calm confidence is the foundation for endurance.
What is the Goal? Is it Really Endurance?
If we think about it, the needs for pure muscular endurance vary climber-to-climber. Getting to the top of a cliff doesn’t require a fixed level of power output. What we really need is a combination of muscular endurance AND efficiency. The genius of it comes when we realize that we can improve the end result by getting better at moving, and not just chasing the limited ability of our muscles to output force.
Yes, we need to spend time hanging from our fingertips. Yes, we need to move up overhanging terrain. Need to relax as best we can and hold on as loosely as possible. We can improve the most by simply coming back to the thought of how well we are climbing. Every time both feet swing away from the wall, every time we bear down on a hold with maximum force, every climb we do with tense shoulders and a slack midsection, it costs us efficiency.
We each have a somewhat fixed total output for a given climbing day. One of the sneaky ways to “get more endurance” is to keep pushing to do a bit more climbing each day, to build up the capacity to have more tries per climbing day. It is not at all uncommon for a climber to have just one golden try at his limit per day, but this severely limits his potential for doing hard routes over the long run!
So endurance becomes a huge amalgamation of several things: more practice to improve skills, more hours moving at the crag, a calmness that comes with being fatigued and understanding that we’re not imperiled by it, and, yes, improved muscular endurance.
This shows us that we don’t just need to (or necessarily want to) do burnout sloppy laps on some circuit. We want to work toward quality movement under a state of slight fatigue. We want to start all of our sets as fresh as possible—as we would at the crag. We want, more than anything, to come back to review each effort in the workout and assess whether we did it right or if we got sloppy and “powered through.” We need to save that for the end of the session or the last few bolts of a pitch, not for every set of a workout. Again, quality counts.
The final thing I’ll note is this: you don’t have to be chasing fatigue in order to build pretty great fatigue resistance. Spending big chunks of time doing things that are submaximal will help build fitness without killing you. Try this idea out for a few weeks: Do a “normal” day at the gym or at the crag, but finish off with two super-easy laps at the end of the session, beyond what you’d normally do. Let’s say I climb two warm-ups, a lead-in route, two hard burns, and a final easier pitch on my “normal” crag day. Maybe 10c, 10c, 11d, 12b, 12b, and 11c. I’d simply add a couple of laps of an 8 or 9 to the end.
Next session, if all went well, I could up that by just one grade, maybe to 10a. Over the course of a few weeks, I’d keep trying harder and harder climbing, but never to the point of tapping out. If it gets hard to do these laps, patience is the key. Holding on to EASY climbing helps us build out our capacity without getting trashed by the session. The true goal is to have more great days out there, not more days where you’re trashed from the last session.
The Target is Bigger Than You Thought
When planning endurance, so many of us get paralyzed by trying to figure out what to do. Do I climb easy laps for “endurance” and do 4x4s for “power endurance?” How much of each do I need, and where does Aerobic Power fit in? What about Anaerobic Capacity? Where does that fit in? What about cardio? Do I do cardio?
We wonder which workouts to do, how many sets to do of each circuit, how much rest, how tired to be between sets, and more. We are constantly bombarded by stories and suggestions and ideas to the point that it’s a miracle we start training at all.
The sad fact of the matter is that many climbers train endurance simply by seeking out climbs and circuits that make them feel super pumped, climb until super pumped, rest until somewhat a little bit recovered, and then do it again a couple of times. This type of training, although it feels right, tends to be too hard to build out our ability for repeated efforts, which we call capacity. It is by nature too long for doing difficult moves over and over, and is thus too easy to build out the max power of the aerobic or anaerobic energy systems.
I feel the simplest way to train overall endurance as a climber is to try to set up three intensities of sessions in order to place the body under three different types of stress in training.
- Intense short sets with long rests (work times under 10 seconds)
- Medium duration sets (work times in the 10-40 second range)
- Long duration sets at low intensity (up to maybe 10 minutes)
You can carefully plan and progress the specific climbing you do, or you can aim for the “spirit” of the session. Both methods seem to produce positive results.
In the short sets, your goal is to do hard stuff, like campus ladders, short hard problems, and even jumps or pull-ups in an interval-style workout. The end of the session should find you fatigued, but not pumped. You should be powered down but able to continue for another set if asked. If you get pumped, add time to your rest periods.
The medium sets would see you getting more and more pumped, really fighting for composure, and the true goal here is to not get sloppy and stupid in your climbing. This is the realm of linked problems, rest-to-problem, and short interval links like 4x4s. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, I think we should do this type of session the least often.
Finally, the long sets. These should be skilled climbing, not just mindless traversing hitting the most convenient holds at all times. Sets should go up to maybe 10 minutes, but not a lot longer, and rests between can be equal to climbing time. The goal here should be to never reach a pumped state. This is psychologically hard on hard climbers, as most of us need to drop off by 10 or more number grades below “our level.” Route laps, big circuits, or even repeating a couple of boulder problems and traversing around between them can work well.
It seems like a lot to keep track of. There are a few things to keep in mind, though. First, almost any climbing session where you are targeting being able to climb longer or to do hard moves under fatigue will stimulate overall better endurance. This way, even if you find yourself getting less frequent training than you had hoped, you are still stimulating overall endurance.
Second, it’s really hard to give hard and fast rules for how best to build a specific type of endurance. It’s harder still to figure out if you’re training in that zone. When a workout calls for 20-40 minutes of climbing (a wide range) climbing continuously (does this include rest stances and chalking up or do I just go?) with a “light pump” it’s hard to know if you’re doing it just right.
As I said above, the target is big and the tools varied. Get into that zone of fatigued hard climbing occasionally, and you’ll get better at it.
Most climbers I see just don’t do enough overall volume. They hone in on one project at a time (often for weeks per route) and necessarily climb very few total moves per day. If we climb more moves and more days and get used to it…capacity goes up. Simple.
Another issue is not staying with the pump. So often, we’ll start to get a bit tired, start feeling that tightness in the hands and forearms, and panic. We either hang on the rope, step off the bouldering wall, or desperately try to shake it off at a rest. Learning to climb deep into the pump and to keep composure is a skill in and of itself. After a few sessions of climbing into fatigue and pushing hard against it, we start to learn that there might be one more level we can go. That we might have a few more meters of climbing in us even when all our senses say no.
As long as you continue to work across all three major zones of endurance, and keep pushing each in the right direction, it’s hard to go too wrong. Look at it this way: every climber on earth has built their stamina a different way, and there are a lot of good endurance climbers out there!
So what, exactly am I doing in these sessions? Let’s look at each general category here.
In these sessions, we’re hoping to build your body’s ability to use the alactic (creatine phosphate) system more efficiently. These short and high powered intervals are aimed at this system, but if you’ve read any of the energy system literature, you’ll know you are using all of them all the time. Nonetheless, we’ve found that training in these short bouts not only improves your ability to generate power for subsequent sets sooner, it also gives you an opportunity to build strength and power.
The typical session calls for doing 5-10 seconds of work for 4-6 exercises in a short circuit-style session. We move between general fitness modes and specific climbing movements in order to prevent too much fatigue in one muscle group or pattern.
For example, I might do:
5x kettlebell swings
1 lap up the campus board
3x clapping push-ups
10s hang on the hangboard
If I do these on a rolling 30 second clock, i.e. I start the clock, do three pull-ups, then rest the remainder of 30 seconds, then do5 swings, rest the remainder…I can get through a circuit in 2.5 minutes. Perhaps I’ll rest 30 seconds at the end, then repeat. I can do six circuits in less than 20 minutes, then move on with my day. Loaded heavy, this is definitely a strength and power workout in addition to encouraging improvement in high-threshold endurance.
This kind of session is mentally simpler than trying to just go to exhaustion on some circuit, so can be placed in your schedule when you’re not quite feeling it.
I think the king of power endurance training sessions is the two problem link workout. In this session, we are looking to increase power endurance for a specific route or trip. With this in mind, the climber can be very specific with hold type, angle, and difficulty of the problems. In general, you’ll start with a good bouldering warm-up that ends with some longer problems or shortened rests – with the goal being getting a slight endurance pump on. Rest 4-6 minutes, then set up for the session.
The standard session is 4-8 sets of two linked problems. Select problems that are around your onsight grade or just slightly easier. You will climb problem 1 to its end, then downclimb on open holds, but avoid resting and taking too much time. Once back close to the bottom, traverse to the beginning of a second problem of roughly the same difficulty, then climb that problem to the top. I like this loading structure better than a jump down and walk to the next problem tactic.
Most athletes will complete one set in 60-90 seconds. Aim to start with at least a 1:5 work:rest ratio, so if your set takes 90 seconds, rest about 8 minutes before the next set. If you see solid performance across all sets, you can increase the difficulty in the next session. If your performance tapers off, add a couple of minutes rest between each set.
This session takes 35-75 minutes after warm-up.
As I noted above, these sessions “feel” right, but they play out fairly quickly. Doggedly pursuing pumpy session after pumpy session will leave you tired and sore, but won’t move the needle as much as you’d like.
Most climbers don’t climb enough. Many of us tend to try to make that up by getting really strong fingers or by clocking hours on the Moon Board, but in the end, “feel” for the rock and finding that simple rhythm of good climbing are essential to really enduring. We simply can’t build economy without getting up off the ground.
In general, I suggest that the average climber try to aim for 20 pitches per week before worrying about any other specific training. Beyond this basic level, we can then add more long and easy climbing to our week with an aim toward getting better rather than getting more fit.
There are a lot of ways to get the long stuff in: traverses, TR laps, a good, stacked wall of moderates…but the first rule is to be climbing at a level where you feel relaxed and can get a lot of moves in. For time, you should be able to climb at least 5 minutes nonstop, without getting shut down by fatigue.
With these workouts, we want to keep the skill as close to true climbing as possible, so try to avoid simply plodding back and forth on a jug laden wall.
Adaptations to Endurance Sessions
We notice the lack of endurance rather than the possession of it. Once in a while, you might still have some pitches in you while your friends are ready to pack it in for the day. Sometimes, you’ll be able to keep hiking when others need to rest. In these cases, we tend not to appreciate the situation—that we’re fit. The lack of fitness tends to manifest in the same ways that we looked at training it above. You can lack the capacity for day-long or multi-day efforts. You can lack the endurance to reach the anchors on a long pitch. Most clearly, you can feel the power drain away on a series of hard moves. Yes, some general endurance activity could possibly help, but it seems silly to go out and ski or ride or run instead of climbing in order to get better at climbing.
By climbing a lot and building our time up on the rock or on the walls, we tend to increase blood flow to the muscles of the arms, improve the muscles’ ability to use energy, and we increase their efficiency at using it. These are all important physiological adaptations, but more important still are the adaptations in our minds: we start believing in ourselves and the training we’ve done. We stop panicking at the first sign of pump. We start to get fatigued while climbing, and feel like we’re returning to a comfortable place rather than a place to be terrified.
Above, we described three general workouts that you can try in order to start building some fitness. Remember, though, that the zone of improvement is not as specific as one might think. Spend some time doing hard efforts over and over. Do some painful, energy-draining intervals. Put in the hours doing easier-than-you-think repeats. Aim for more total moves per week and per month, and the fitness will come.