by Steve Bechtel
There is a certain profundity to aging that gnaws at us, and the bites seem to get bigger at the decade marks. Twenty meant moving forward, freedom, and driving my own life. Thirty felt like I should have already sorted out most of the stuff I was working hard to sort out, and the fear that my climbing was about to tank (it did, but not because of my age). Forty was tough. A toddler and another child on the way, tough months in the business, and all the aches and pains of getting a little slower and a little more tired.
In 2020, I turned fifty just days before the first big COVID-19 shutdown. Ellen and I were set to head to Greece for a 2-week trip, and I was in the best shape I’d been in since maybe 2004. In the run-up to the trip, I had put in a solid winter of training and had spent enough seasons ramping up for redpoints that I was in hitting distance of sending all of my goal routes on the trip and even more once we were back home.
I had watched a few friends hit these decade marks, then crash and burn. They told themselves stories of what it was going to be like and of how busy they were with other facets of their lives, and gave up. My longtime climbing partner and great friend, Mike Lilygren had other plans at fifty. He had a daughter graduating high school, was running a rapidly growing company, was involved in many community projects, and still wanted to climb his first 5.13. I knew this was the path I’d take.
Statistically, climbers don’t do all that well as they age. If you hear of a 27-year-old climbing 14a, you’re not surprised except maybe by the fact that somebody felt it was worth talking about at all. A sixty-year-old climbing at that level is news, because it’s so rare. In fact, it’s so terribly unlikely that the very few people who do pull it off still become household names in the climbing community. Why? Because to climb (or do any sport) at a high level through middle age is supremely challenging. We have to walk a thin line between avoiding easy-to-get injuries and pushing our less-willing bodies to once more gain fitness. We have to climb enough to get better, but not so much that we can’t recover. And we still have to manage all the lists that come with the age.
I saw this coming. I remember early on knowing that the training I was doing – maybe since about age 30-32 – was paying for the performance I hoped for at 50. I did things that seemed irrelevant to a high performer in climbing: addressing mobility issues, working to balance out strength between prime movers and their antagonists, honing my diet, and maintaining enough endurance to keep training year after year. In truth, I did much of this because it was my job to help people with these exact things. I learned the exercises most useful across broad ranges, then tested them out. So many times, my rock climber mind told me this had nothing to do with my sport. How could squatting a heavy weight help my climbing?
It wasn’t until much later that I understood that one of the primary goals of training was to make you a more functional human being, and that a climber could really benefit from basic strength, mobility, and work capacity.
Did I sacrifice short-term performance for long-term potential? You bet. Did I miss out on a couple of 5.13a redpoints each year because of the training? Yep. But guess what? I can still climb 5.13 today, and that was something I never would have dreamed back at age 25.
The Run Up
This is work I have done, and encouraged athletes to do, for many years before it’s really needed. The ideas I am putting forth later can be implemented into a climber’s training program as early as the late 20s for greatest effect…but that age group tends to be resistant to advice from people my age. What I looked at was four major facets of life and training, and put into each a plan for long-term improvement. The facets included physical preparation, nutrition, restoration and movement capability, and mental/emotional/tactical practices.
First and foremost, being strong and capable have to matter. There’s no earned rest because you’ve worked so hard all these years. There’s no going out and doing a bunch of easy pitches with the greybeards every weekend. There’s no opting to jump on the road bike instead of the hangboard. Your focus has to be on climbing and climbing hard. At the gym we go heavy. On the trails we move quickly. And when we get home, there is no deserving a relaxing meal and a bunch of booze. Fuel up, get to bed.
If you don’t have a destination, any road is fine. With this in mind, there has to be a constant attention to three things:
- Goals. Training goals (or process goals) lead us to good markers along the way. You should plan on getting a certain number of sessions in, aim to reach certain markers in each exercise, and so on. Outcome goals should also be part of the plan. These are performances – redpoints, number of pitches in a day, fastest time on a peak, etc. Goals need to be looked at frequently and updated as they pass. If you never try that peak, don’t send that project, or whatever, you’ve found a good area to improve and potentially build some run-up goals.
- Habits. A good habit tracker is a useful tool for getting things right, either an app or a nice notebook. An honest look at lifestyle habits is the starting point of any good training program – no amount of specific training can overcome certain bad behaviors. Useful habits include getting to be on time, eating enough vegetables, controlling intake of things like sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and drugs. These should be simple tickmarks and adjusted slowly over the year. Just going cold turkey on coffee, beer, and cookies won’t last for most of us.
- Skills. These are things that you hope will eventually become habits. Getting into a stretching routine should be seen as a skill. Early on, I messed this up a lot. I’d just decide that on the first of next month, I’d stop eating sugar or something. Then, I’d have something that upset the habit, such as a birthday party, and I’d be derailed, only to decide I’d start again next month. Training skills or eating skills, or lifestyle skills don’t have to happen every day. Look at big habit changes as skills first, just like learning a language, where frequent practice and a long-term dedication to the plan are key, not getting it right every day.
There are four major facets of training that I have in mind at all times. Some of these are easier for certain people, some are still very difficult. If you’ve come this far and still feel like an athlete, chances are you’ve mastered some of what I’ll talk about below. If you’re feeling “all good” on some of the stuff, but not so much on other parts, look closely at the other parts. We really want to focus on the efforts that will still produce big results, even as we age.
Naturally, physical preparation is one of the major categories. We also have to pay better and better attention to nutrition. I’m not saying you can’t have your share of treats and desserts, I’m just saying you probably already ate your share when you were younger, and now you have to move on. Getting back to zero, recovering after training, is a major task. That is the third major facet of your program. Finally, your mental game will make or break you. This is critical on so many levels as you age, and is where we’ll start.
The Mental Game
Forget about yesterday. Forget about how easy it used to be or how much time you used to have. Forget, also, about comparing your performance to other climbers – that is a young person’s game. Finally, don’t fall into the trap of congratulating yourself for being one of the best climbers you know in your age group.
Look where you are. Think of the routes you still want to climb. Bridge the gap between those places.
Belief in Capability
What makes you so special? What makes it so much harder for you? What lies are we telling ourselves to avoid having to try hard?
Look, we all have injuries at this point. We all have schedules or families or limitations that constrain what we get to do in the gym or on the rock. There is only one thing here that matters. It is believing in your capability to improve, even twenty or thirty or fifty years after you started the sport.
Physically, we all know that we are slower and less powerful than we were. Luckily, the physical component of climbing hard is just that – a component. There is so much to performance in the sport, that even as physical ability drops, we can stay performing at a high level.
You’re smarter than you were when you were twenty. Less impulsive. More capable of sticking with a plan. Craftier. More focused.
You also have what is nebulously referred to as “training age,” which is the combination of years of doing a particular activity and the body’s ability to return to fitness quickly for that activity.
You can train around injuries, you can make time in your schedule to train, and you can dedicate a fair amount of time and resources to about anything you want.
For me, this is a continual battle. I have to keep after strength and mobility just to keep from falling behind…but it keeps working. I find that writing about it in my training log, almost like a coach’s halftime speech each training session really helps.
“Too legit to quit.”
“Once more to the breach.”
“Not dead yet.”
Breaking Down Self-Limiting Conceptions
Part of making belief in your capability is to look at self-limiting beliefs and take them apart. “What is making me think this way?” Bring these beliefs out in the open, journal about them, do a training vlog about them, list them, or whatever.
For example, my whole life, I have struggled with keeping endurance up. I was slow as a kid, hated the feeling of fatigue that came with long bike rides or hunting days with my dad, and had asthma; which my mom continually talked about. In short, she let me know that physical activity was not what I was built for and that I should pursue more intellectual activities.
My less active youth, my need for an inhaler, and fear kept me from ever even trying running or x-c skiing or mountain biking until college. When I started dating a girl that really loved to do all those things, my excuses unraveled, and I started to really enjoy trail runs and bike rides – even if I was a bit slower than I’d hoped.
Here I am, 30 years later, and still creating similar patterns of thought.
“I suck at technical face climbing.”
“My monos are weak. They have never been any good.”
“My fingers are too long for me to be good at crimping.”
“I am flexible enough. I have climbed 5.14 without being more flexible than this.”
Each one of these beliefs is just that, a belief. Each of them is a story I tell myself so that I can avoid hard work. Yes, I probably can have a very successful and fun late career just cruising jugs in Maple Canyon or at Kalymnos, but what if I want more than that?
Where I live, near Lander, Wyoming, there are a lot of mono pockets. It is a really rare hard route that doesn’t have at least one small pocket to fight past, and it often limits selection of routes for me. I don’t have particularly weak middle fingers, it’s just that they aren’t outstandingly strong. It is a problem.
Over the years, I have tried some of these routes briefly, not been able to hold the single finger pockets and dismissed the possibility of ever climbing them. Why? Because I didn’t feel I could pull on those pockets. Sure, monos are hard, but long before the climbing happened, I decided not to be able to use them. Fear of injury. The ridiculousness of what pulling that hard on a tiny pocket actually is. Fear of working that hard to get my fingers stronger.
This is where the practice of reframing really helps the mindset. Instead of looking at my middle fingers as a problem, I first have to recognize that this is a great challenge. It is a difficulty for me and I should be grateful. In fact, having such a clear limiter is a great opportunity, since it directs my training and gives me something clear to focus on.
Problems become challenges become opportunities.
Our beliefs hold us back. They keep us safe, emotionally. But rarely are they the whole truth.
Focus on Specific Outcomes
General goals kill. Getting better or more fit, or richer, or whatever, is just too nebulous. Getting “better” at climbing can mean a thousand things. There are three parts of addressing specific improvements that are critical: focusing, specificity, and outcomes.
As you age, your ability to sharpen your mental game doesn’t diminish. In fact, with practice, you’re now in the era of mastery. Pick the thing you want, build your schedule, assets, nutrition, and time around it. The outcome you are looking for needs to be explicit. It can’t be “I want to be better at crimping.” It has to be, “I want to be able to hang a 15mm edge one-handed by the end of this strength season.”
One of my main issues has always been fizzling out at the crag after one or two good hard tries. I found that with my limited number of days to go to the crag, if I only got two tries per day…that wasn’t getting me anywhere. The last year of so, I really focused on building work capacity: Adding more total exercise time to each week, then slowly transitioning it to higher intensity work, then to more hard climbing time.
At first, it was forcing a hill hike with the dog for a couple of hours. Then I went to weight circuits and some easy traversing. Finally, I wrote out specific progressions at the crag: Go to the cliff, 2 warm-ups, 2 project tries, then 3x 5.11. I slowly advanced the closing pitches each day until I got to the point that I forced a third lap up a “try hard” route every day. I held this goal – the third hard pitch – at the same level as performing well on the route I was working. Total focus on more hard climbing per week rather than exclusively on performance.
Your desired outcomes should be very specific. You want to focus on sending or on achieving x-number in the gym. “I want to go from an 8-rep max pull-up to a 12-rep max pull-up.” This is the end-goal of the training cycle, and should be tested along the way occasionally to keep your training on track. If you train for four weeks and don’t move the needle on the goal, the plan needs to be altered.
The Driving Goal
Ideally, your outcome goals for each period of the year should “add up” to greater performance down the road. The driving goal is going to be something audacious that absolutely requires ticking off a series of steps along the way. Otherwise, you won’t care enough about reaching it for it to matter.
It has been essential to me to “show up,” to make it to the bigger goals. Showing up is essentially getting to the gym or doing the nutrition plan whether I feel like doing it or not. It is going in and having a mediocre session and not judging it. It is continuing to address less tangible things like sleep and mobility and hydration, even though the results are hard to measure and come slowly.
If my goal is to simply climb a tiny bit harder or to re-send a route I did last year, I won’t be compelled to become a better athlete. Even at 50 or 60 or whatever, we have to think about getting better. We have to kill the mentality of “Pretty good for x age.”
If I am going to be better 9 months from now, I have 9 training phases in which to address getting there. My goal can’t be something I can do in two months or I won’t care enough to push harder right now. It doesn’t have to be a 9-month focused hard training camp, either. It might just mean dropping some pounds, starting a long-term strength plan, and working on it for half a year before really turning toward climbing hard.
I feel sorry for nutritionists and dietitians. The world of nutrition is infinitely complicatable, and it seems like there is a dogma attached to every single food and vitamin and schedule of eating. For every diet, there is a huckster with a book and a podcast, and the science lags behind these people, so it gets really confusing when it comes to finding a trusted source of information. Yes, humans have lived successfully on all-plant, all-meat, all-grain, and all-fat diets. They’ve gone days without eating, they’ve lived over a hundred years eating the same foods almost every day, and have subsisted on gorging and purging.
As entertaining as this all is, none of the diets popular today, nor the ones tomorrow really answer our needs as athletes. When it comes to eating right, things aren’t all that exciting. I went through college at a time that diets high in complex carbohydrates were popular for athletes. Having enough readily available carbohydrate was, we thought, the key to athletic performance. My major focus of study was exercise science, but I minored in nutrition, and learned the ins and outs of why high carbs were king.
Science produced a ton of research on carbohydrate-rich dieting and everyone in America got fat. It’s an oversimplification of the problem, but what happened in the 1990s was that there was more food, more available, at lower prices than ever. It could be delivered. Cooked in the microwave. Added to your coffee. Slammed in a skinny blue can full of caffeine. (That’s right all you Red Bull athletes, I’m hating on your brand. Time to let me have it on IG.)
A few years later we went low carb, then high fat, then ate what we pretended cave men must have eaten, then no meat, then all meat, and still we didn’t have the ripped abs and high energy we desired. Through it all, I read textbooks, attended conferences, and learned all I could. My job for most of the past 20 years has been to help people lose fat. Knowing what to tell them to eat was pretty important.
I worked alongside coaches who followed every fad. One week, their plans included fasting, the next they were a Paleo coach, and so on. Naturally, none of it worked, because they weren’t looking at the source of the issue with eating.
The truth of nutrition is about as exciting as the truth of strength training. It’s not a 30-minute shred. It’s sure as hell not detoxing or drinking all your calories from a shaker bottle. It’s showing up. It’s being consistent. It’s aiming to get certain amounts of foods into your body without constantly worrying about avoiding others. It’s got to be simple and clear.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a lifelong athlete. You’ll have developed willpower and awareness. These are great assets, but I want to spend mine on trying harder when there are hard things to do, not on avoiding junk food at night. My aging-without-bulging plan follows a lot of simple principles (most learned from John Berardi at Precision Nutrition) and doesn’t result in incredible transitions or fast weight loss. What it does deliver is the ability to slowly drop weight when needed and more importantly provides the fuel I need to recover from hard training.
I look to food as fuel. In this simple view, I can then take an objective view of everything I put in my mouth and ask, “Is this fuel, or am I eating it for some other reason?” Sometimes I am crashing at the end of the day because I didn’t eat enough early on and I will eat half a bag of chips. Sometimes we have 2-3 big meals during a training conference and I overeat at each one. Sometimes I’m just making cookies with my daughter. I don’t let it derail me and I sure as hell don’t attack myself because I broke the streak on avoiding sweets.
Lose the path. Find it again. A day of bad eating isn’t a judgement on my character, it’s just a day of bad eating. I hesitate to even call it bad, it’s just not optimal. Eating right is all about winning at the margins. Small wins many days in a row.
Approach Instead of Avoidance
This is a classic in the behavior change world, where we see people that do lots of things they don’t like trying to figure out how not to do them. We want to stop doing all this bad stuff: eating too much junk, drinking, spending time on social media, and such. The mistake all of us make is to try to win with willpower or by setting a resolution not to do the behavior. These are called avoidance goals. The difficulty with avoidance goals is that they require constant monitoring. If you’re avoiding processed sugar, for example, you are having to assess each meal, each snack, and each drink you consume. You have to exert tremendous willpower late at night when dessert is calling to you. In short, it’s a new full-time job.
Over the years, I have found that my athletes respond much better to “approach” behaviors. These are behaviors that can be acted upon, and then checked off for the day. When we first take on fat loss or general fitness athletes at the gym, this is where we start. One approach goal is all they focus on for 2-3 weeks. It doesn’t seem to match up with their resolve and motivation, but over time, those things fade and the behavior continues.
Let me give you an example:
Many people who have a problem controlling their calories tend to drink a lot of them. They might have coffee with cream in the morning, soft drinks during the day, and then drink beer in the evenings, all adding up to a few hundred extra calories each day. We naturally eat a little less when we have these calories coming in, so all those calories aren’t all getting stored, but many times we can end up slowly gaining weight. The hard thing there is that we are probably not eating enough foods that are nutrient dense in this situation, and so we lack energy, may compromise health, and might suppress our metabolism.
Instead of vowing not to drink, joining a support group, and throwing out the coffee, we can start to address this through approach behavior. How? By simply adding in water. You can only take on so much liquid in a day. If you fill two 1-liter bottles with water each morning with the goal of drinking them throughout the day, you naturally force out other beverages. With this one tactic, we’ve seen people lose weight at astonishing rates. With the weight loss, they see improved athletic performance (both from being lighter and from improved nutrition I’d bet), higher energy levels, and they save money.
Instead of avoiding staying out late, get up early.
Instead of vowing not to toprope everything, set a goal to lead one route per day.
Instead of trying not to hurt your shoulder (again) bouldering, set a time limit for your sessions.
In my nutrition plan the last few years, I’ve aimed at three daily targets.
- Eating 5 or more servings of vegetables each day. I used to go for fruits and vegetables, but I ended up just eating bananas and grapes. Fruits are slightly less nutrient dense than vegetables calorie-for-calorie. I still eat fruit, but maybe one serving a day. What’s interesting is that the athletic benefit of vegetables starts at consuming even one serving a day, yet the cardiovascular benefits seem to start around five servings. As far as serving sizes, I just follow the PN guidelines, and aim for 5 fist-sized portions.
- Eating protein at each meal. One of the only things I’ve ever seen that comes close to a “hack” in feeling full is eating enough protein. I follow the PN guides here, too. I used to try to measure calories or grams of protein, but found I was really inconsistent and it took too much time. Two palm-sized portions at each meal. I also try to vary the source. I don’t mind getting maybe one serving a day from nuts or other plant sources, but I find game meat and chicken the greatest protein load. There is good research behind getting enough protein for recovery between sessions, so a shake here and there can be a big help.
- Water. I love coffee and I drink beer, but the bulk of what I try to drink every day is water. I drink more if it is cold, so I try to fill an insulated bottle and drink from it when I am at work. I don’t dork out and carry it around with me during appointments – just try to drink when I am thirsty. I go for two liters per day minimum, but usually get 3 or more.
Other Nutrition Aims
Snacking is an Achilles heel for many of us. I try to keep from sugary snacks and desserts (I remind myself that they mess up my sleep), but instead aim for nuts and protein bars if I am hungry. If I am getting appropriate protein servings at the meals, I pretty much don’t need to snack.
As far as hunger goes, I have learned to accept it occasionally. I think being hungry is OK, and none of us is on the edge of death because we didn’t eat the last meal. Being hungry just reminds us we are alive and moving through the world. If I go through a climbing day a bit hungry, it’s OK. If I am trying to drop pounds at some point in the year, a slightly smaller dinner and going to bed a little under-full normally does the trick.
The evenings are the hardest time to manage good eating habits. We tend to be less active, and are in an energy lull from the day. In my house it’s dinner time, television, playing games, and catching up for the day. There is often something to snack on, even when dinner is done. While I fundamentally think that not eating late is better for me – I really can sleep poorly after a big meal – I sometimes can’t keep that from happening. In these cases, I aim for protein-rich snacks that aren’t too sugary, such as peanut butter on crackers or popcorn.
One of the easier methods of controlling snacking I’ve found is fasting. Over the years, I’ve been exposed to a lot of eating plans and diets. I make it a point to try a diet before making any recommendations about it. What does it require? How much time am I going to have to dedicate to it? How do I feel after a month of eating this way? The general answer to most diet changes is: It’s a pain, I have to think about it all day, and it didn’t do much.
Fasting, however, was different for me. It’s dead easy to manage, meal prep is a snap, and I felt the effects of it in ways I didn’t expect.
I tried a variety of intermittent fasting (IF) and time-restricted eating (TR) protocols. (A note: the scientists that study this stuff tend to refer to IF as big restrictions in calories several days a week, or even full days of no intake. TR is a daily restriction in the eating window, such as the popular 16:8 protocol.) I did a few days of full fasting, but found I was pretty unhappy by the end of the day. I tried the 16:8, which restricted eating to an 8-hour window each day, but I felt like it slowed my recovery after hard training.
A couple of years ago, I was introduced to 5 and 2 fasting, which has worked well for me – especially in what I am seeking from fasting. To me, fasting is a useful tool to tap into having feelings (hunger), noting them, and then getting back to my day. Until I really did a few days of fasting, I didn’t really understand that most hunger gets immediate attention in the form of way too many calories any time it shows up.
Even feeling slightly hungry could cause me to react without thought. During a fasting day, when I couldn’t eat until dinner time, I was forced to feel hungry and to accept it as ok. It was a revelation. On the 5 and 2 plan, I found a balance where I could eat normally most of the week (5 days of the week you do no fasting), and then hold a 20-ish hour fast two days (on those two days, you simply don’t eat anything until dinner.)
I plan the fasting days for busy days at work, and as a bonus almost always do it on Friday, so our family end-of-week meal isn’t one where I feel like I need to eat less. If I am trying to lose weight, this is a good protocol, and I just follow the three targets above for the 5 normal days per week, then eat a normal meal (admittedly, I often have an “anything goes” attitude after fasting all day sometimes) on the fasting days. I can usually eat about 700-1000 calories at this meal, which drops my caloric consumption by about 1500 calories from my average days.
This makes for an achievable weight loss of around a pound a week, which lets me keep my training at 100%. If we drop weight any faster, it tends to be non-fat weight loss, and I rebound/react to it after only a few weeks.
I’m not a huge fan of recommending supplements, because I don’t think most people do the fundamental work of eating right in the first place. I have always felt that you need to do the basic stuff well before you do the supplemental things. But here is the siren song of the pills and powders: They are quick and easy and they make big promises.
Over the years, I have tried hard to make them work for me. We did colloidal vitamins, loaded up on chromium, took inosine with us on long ice climbing days, forced BCAAs in every 4 hours, then every 8, ate bottle after bottle of those little naturopathic pills for joint health, drank l-arginine, beta alanine, pushed creatine, stacked ephedra, caffeine, and aspirin, yet nothing turned out as useful as eating a good dinner and getting some damn sleep.
Look, I get it. There HAS to be something out there that makes all this easier. There has to be something that all those other people have in their systems that helps them hike faster, stay leaner, and pull harder than I do. There might be, but it doesn’t come with a free shaker bottle. More on that later…
The one possible place I think a regular supplement helps is in the form of protein powder. It’s difficult to sort out which to use, because most of the information out there is put up by hucksters trying to get you to buy their specific brand. I am far from being in a position to recommend specific brands, so you’re on your own there. I think the biggest issue is whether you can stomach a brand/flavor. My go-to is unflavored whey, which I can mix with almost anything.
When I was 16, it was all about pull-ups and crimp strength. We simply did hangs or pull-ups or a combo until our elbows hurt and that was training. Until you have shoulder issues, elbow surgeries, and 6-month layoffs, you don’t think too much about doing any supplemental training or asking why the hell you hurt all the time. You just try to simulate climbing movements as best you can.
After this, I went through phases where I obsessed over endurance, got psyched on gymnastic style bodyweight training, did Crossfit, followed Westside, copied Olympic-level sprinter programs, and more. There were lessons each time, but none of them exactly fit the bill of what I needed out of climbing training.
What I realized, and I’m sure you have, too, is that lots of things help. Many training modes are fun. But the training that you’ll keep doing is critical. One step better, the training that gives you a higher number of great days climbing is the ultimate prize.
Since my early days of trying many programs and sports modes, I started to understand a few things. I started to see that supplemental training was maybe not supplemental, and that as we age it becomes a critical component of what we need for progress. I really would love to spend multiple days per week at the crag, but the reality of being a businessman, a parent, and a homeowner have led me to fewer days out there.
The cool thing is this: if we look at climbing training as focused on delivering the most opportunities for high performance (including injury prevention, work capacity, and strength building), going to the crag all the time is probably not the best path to getting more days at the crag in the long term. As we age, we need to be sure our general fitness and movement quality stays high, and focusing just on climbing doesn’t pay off in that regard.
This is especially true for “lifers.” People who have just gone climbing for their fitness up to their 40s or 50s have probably not even scratched the surface in terms of developing their potential for strength and power, and are severely limited by spending their entire career over-specializing. Thomas Kurz writes in Science of Sports Training: “Coaches who want quick success, even with young athletes, develop mainly the physical abilities that are dominant in a given athletic event. Such an approach results initially in considerable improvement of sport specific performance but in stagnation in only a few years, after which permanent progress of the athlete is limited.”
So what do we do?
We stay strong.
We constantly chase work capacity.
We maintain muscle mass.
We work on becoming more mobile.
Capacity is a pretty easy concept to get: It’s how much work you can do in a given period. I generally look at capacity in terms of hours of training and sport performance per week, and then break it down by intensity levels. For most of us, these numbers will be relatively static. We train or climb only a certain number of days per week, and we do it at some fixed intensities. A typical week might look like this:
Low Intensity: 3.25 hours
Medium Intensity: 2.25 hours
High Intensity: .5 hours
Low intensity is stuff you can do with a heart rate less than 180 – your age. Conversational intensity. Walking, cycling, maybe easy running, and maybe VERY easy climbing. Medium intensity will capture most of your climbing days, weight training above 6 reps per exercise, hill work, and the like. Finally, hard training is limit bouldering, sprint intervals, and high-load resistance training.
If I look back at several weeks of training, I will normally see a pretty even distribution. The problem is when we look back over 3 or 5 years and see the numbers have dropped off. It’s not that we’ve just aged and become weaker and fatter, it’s probably that we do less moving and still eat the same.
Switching back to those high-volume weeks isn’t just a matter of getting back in the gym – if your numbers are way down, you need to train back up. First, aim for the total number of hours your schedule will allow for training and performance. If you want to get back up to 3 days per week training and 2 days at the crag, start with doing anything for five days a week. Just jumping in with both feet at 60 will break you, so fill the schedule with bike rides, easy weight circuits, or volume days at the crag.
If you want to get back to your ten pitch per day rule, start with working up to ten pitches of anything, then start adding a little more difficulty, and eventually get to where these days leave the low-intensity category and start being hard days. We build the hours first, then add gas.
Once you get to where you are up to a pretty high level of total activity, you can then think of intensifying your bouldering, weights, speed on the trails, and redpoint levels.
I am somewhat infamous for hating on running. This is largely because of the comment I made once on the Training Beta Podcast, “Running is as important for climbers as climbing is for runners.” Let me be clear: running to gain endurance for rock climbing is of so little specificity that it might as well be considered not to help at all. Additionally, logging high miles to lose fat (according to researchers, the number one reason for taking up running) directly competes for the energy your body uses to fuel other activity. It’s a finite resource and I’d rather use it in more helpful ways.
That being said, if you are fit enough to run at a level below aerobic threshold (conversational intensity / nasal-only breathing / heart rate less than 180-age) it is a fine mode for building cardiac output.
Although using cyclic endurance exercises (running, cycling) to build climbing endurance is not recommended, Cardiac Output training has its place in your conditioning program. The cardiac output modes can be just about anything that increases the heart rate slightly and is sustainable for 20-90 minutes, but a few guidelines should be followed. By holding the intensity fairly low, your adaptations differ from harder interval-style efforts.
Long, slow training increases the stroke volume of the heart, which results in eccentric cardiac hypertrophy. This, in turn, improves cardiac efficiency, decreases resting heart rate, and decreases working heart rates at any given level of work. Higher intensity exercise (tempo-paced efforts or exercising close to anaerobic threshold) result in concentric hypertrophy – and instead of increasing stroke volume will increase the heart’s ability to exert more pressure…essentially by increasing heart wall thickness and size. You don’t need this high-level of cardiac development for climbing.
If we plan interval-style efforts, we train the heart to contract quickly, often before the chambers fill completely with blood. This doesn’t allow for the eccentric overload we are looking for. What we need is lots of slow, steady activity, preferably using the whole body.
Depending on the time of year, I might vary between two hours per week and 15 hours per week of CO-style training. This work is great to combine with a strength or power focused week, where the sessions are short and very intense. It speeds recovery between those sessions and helps keep you outside and moving. The main key is that CO is never seen as “training.” You just go hike, or ride your bike, or ski. No intensity goal, no mileage goal. Just moving.
As a final note. You’re getting older. CO is an excellent tool to use in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. The more “gears” your CV system has and the more efficiently it moves blood, the healthier you can stay.
Aiming for an average of 30 minutes per day is a good start. You can divide this up in any way you like, as long as you get a minimum of 3 days per week of the activity. Less frequent than that and it seems like the effectiveness drops off.
Mobility is a challenge for most of us as we age, and training it is also a challenge. It seems like it barely works, we’re not sure of which exercises to do, and can’t really tell the difference between this and yoga and stretching. Here’s what you need to know.
Mobility is a quality of the joints. Simply, it is the ability of the joint to operate through its full range of motion and exhibit its full potential for strength throughout that range. Flexibility is a quality of the muscles and can be quite passive. It is a major assistant to mobility, so training the two together makes sense.
We are interested in mobility primarily in the shoulder joint and in the hip joint. These are the most multiplanar joints we use in sport, and tend to get the tightest when we sit or work at a desk. Secondarily, we look for mobility in the wrists and ankles as climbers and athletes, but this is quite easy to address if you’re doing other mobility exercises.
Strength coach Mike Boyle recommends doing at least ten minutes of mobility training per day for each decade of your life. 40? 4 days per week. 60? 6 days per week. I don’t even think it needs to be broken down by 10 minute sessions. Two big 30 minute sessions per week is probably more than most of us do now, and every time we address it we improve it (or at least stop the decline!).
I train mobility in two different environments. I do short sets of mobility work between strength exercises and boulder problems in the gym. As we do in the Integrated Strength programs, we aim to use a minute or so of mobility work as a rest between heavy efforts. This usually gets me about 10 minutes of mobility work three days per week.
I also do a less-focused set of stretching and mobility exercises 2-3 evenings a week. I do this when watching TV with Ellen, and I sit on the floor and stretch for maybe 30-40 minutes. This is mostly working on hips and legs, but I do work on my ankles and wrists then, too.
I haven’t always been dedicated to stretching. It was only a couple years back, when I noticed I couldn’t quite do a high-step I had done many times in the past on a standard warm-up at Sinks Canyon that the alarms went off. It’s been a slow process, but I am far more flexible than I was at 40, or 30…maybe more than since I was a child.
When it comes to mobility work, it’s key to be practical. Think of exercises that help you stretch into a range of motion, then strengthen your ability to use that end range of motion. For example, let’s say you want to be able to do better on inside high steps. You might use a firelog or pigeon stretch to create greater flexibility in the hip and glute muscles, but stopping there just creates the potential for mobility. You then have to actively try to build strength in your new range of motion. This might involve high step drills in the gym, “Pink Panther” drills, or banded high knee pulls. My favorite resource for all things mobility for climbers is Mercedes Pollmeier’s work.
In college, I did a few one-arm pull-ups. We trained in the weight room at the University of Wyoming not because we knew the true value of overall strength, but because we didn’t have anywhere to climb. We’d do pull-ups, dips, row, sit-ups, and everything else we could think of to simulate climbing. Once I had access to indoor bouldering, my weight training basically went away.
It wasn’t until I was maybe 30, starting to feel weak and deal with lots of nagging injuries, that I started to really look at what strength training was about. I have gone through big phases of focusing on moving weight in the gym, and have cycled down to very little of it at times, but it’s never gone away again. And it can’t. I write this at age 50, knowing that staying strong and pushing heavy metal is a new part of my job.
It’s not all about getting stronger, it’s mostly about not getting weaker. As we age, we reduce the amount of anabolic hormone activity in our bodies. With this reduction in growth hormone, free testosterone, etc., comes a reduction in muscle mass, slower recovery, mental function, and more. Our bones get weaker. Our tendons get thinner. Our postural muscles atrophy.
The bottom line is that we need to work very hard to keep moving high loads for the hormonal value, and also consider lifting lighter loads a couple of times each week to maintain muscle mass. I’ve talked to a couple of aging climbers who are delighted they have dropped weight inexplicably as they progressed through their 50s, without considering that they may actually be losing muscle mass instead of fat.
I understand one of the prime tenets of hard climbing is to feel light, but if we feel light but have lost muscle, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.
Hitting the weights will help you keep up your capacity, as well. Chances are your skin and joints aren’t keeping up as well as they used to. By allocating some training time to less climbing-focused activities, you can stay just as fit, but let your skin heal between hard sessions.
Two days a week, I try to do a Full Combination strength session. These are pretty short, and work through five major patterns. They feature different muscle actions from isometrics, to explosives, to standard tempo lifts, and can be combined with bouldering or hangboard sessions. Each session takes 45 minutes or less. I’ll usually do two different sessions in any given phase, just to keep it interesting.
Most recently, it’s been:
4 rounds of:
Trap Bar Deadlift x3
High Speed Bench Press x5
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat with jump x5+5
Pull-Ups with Iso Hold x3
Hanging Straight Leg Raise (slow tempo) x6-8
3 rounds of:
Single-Arm Power Push-Up x2+2
Box Jump x4
Inverted Row with Iso Hold x4
Ab Wheel (slow tempo) x6-8
Once a week, I’ll do a Spartacus Circuit or other session aimed at muscular endurance or hypertrophy. These are usually about 30 minutes, and I do them after climbing, or the next morning. These tend to take the most to recover from, so I like to put them a long way from climbing days.
Along with the strength training, I do a lot of medium-intensity hangboarding. I hit it once per week no matter what, and up to 4x per week when I am really working on strength. I have really long fingers and have struggled with small holds most of my career, so I put special emphasis on these. A couple of years ago, I decided I just wanted to maintain my finger strength where it was, stay OK at crimping, and focus more on big-hold endurance routes.
The pump game is a fun facet of our sport, but it’s not the only thing. I don’t want to be one of those climbers who can huck laps on 5.13 cave routes when I’m 60 but can’t climb 5.12 on any other style. I decided to get stronger.
Chasing finger strength is all about self control. Controlling your desire for progress. Controlling expectations. Doing the plan. I’ve advocated for less-intense, more frequent sessions for a long time. I have three volumes of hangboard sessions I plan:
- Low Volume: 3 grips, 3-5 sets each, 4-8 second hangs
- Medium Volume: 4 grips + wrist wrench, 4-7 sets each, 5-10 second hangs
- High Volume: 5 grips + wrist wrench + reverse wrist curl, 6-10 sets each, 8-12 second hangs.
In general I just cycle through these. I am very flexible with the programming. I like to train the evening after we get home from the crag when I didn’t get much done out there, so a lot of times I just pick the low-volume session. The main factor in gaining strength is frequency, especially in neurologically dependent modes like isometric finger strength.
There is really no need to fanatically push the loads further. Micro-adjusting loads is more an ego game than actually useful for strength gains. As long as I show up and go “pretty hard” (somewhere around 10 second hangs), I’ll continue to stay strong, and I can save my real tryhard for the crag.
If it seems like a lot, you’re right. For me, the biggest factor in staying strong and still aiming higher has been letting go of my favorite types of training and my non-negotiables. I really do love endurance training, am pretty good at it, and it’s honestly never the limiter on hard sends for me. I usually just can’t do the damn moves because I am too weak. I also really enjoy coffee and I really enjoy beer. Daily coffee, past about 9am, it seems, screws up my sleep. Same with beer. I still drink it occasionally, but am happy drinking sparkling water and eating a light dinner knowing I am going to sleep well.
The setbacks will come. When you’re over 40, injuries can take forever to pass. The lifelong error is to stop training through them. I have way too many friends who were climbing at 5.12 or 5.13 or 5.14, got some injury, and just stopped climbing for the season. Then a couple of months more. That much time off and you might never get back to a high performance level. It’s sad that we are so tied to our performance levels, but we are – it’s simply not quite as fun to go out and struggle on routes you remember feeling great on.
More than the climbing, it’s about the feeling that you’re still here, not fading. It’s about being able to rise to the occasion. In Steven Pressfield’s brilliant book Gates of Fire, he describes Leonidas fighting alongside his men at Thermopylae, “They could see their king, at nearly sixty, enduring every bit of misery they did. And they knew that when battle came, he would take his place not safely in the rear, but in the front rank, at the hottest and most perilous spot on the field.”
I’ll close with the reminder that you’re counting down the days. That every attempt on your project, every workout, and every day that passes is one less than you had before. Make them count. Don’t need to rest today. Don’t fall for the relaxation trap. You’re going to have to go at it every day, but it will pay you back many times over if you do.