Climb Strong Newsletter 136 - October 2022
"Five years is a long time. It is much slower than most of us would like. If you accept the reality of slow progress, you have every reason to take action today. If you resist the reality of slow progress, five years from now you'll simply be five years older and still looking for a shortcut." - James Clear
Hello and welcome to October,
You know you’ve been doing this too long when you have a great idea for a newsletter, get into researching ideas on the subject, and Google an article you, yourself wrote eight years ago. I think this happens more often than I’d like. On one hand, you’d like some fresh ideas, but on the other hand, you don’t want to be one of those people who changes their philosophies more often than they change their underpants.
A part of seeing that you’re writing the same stuff year after year means one of two things:
You’re in a rut.
The thing is this: if it works, either one is OK. Here’s to successful ruts.
The cool thing about studying one field for a long time is that you start to identify the core principles of how that field works. You start to understand that it shares principles with other fields. And you start to see that everyone who advances in the sport must follow those principles.
October has represented a return to climbing and training for me the past few years. About 4 years ago, my friend BJ talked me into starting to hunt with a bow, a season that takes place earlier in the fall than the rifle season in most places, and is generally the entire month of September. This year, I hunted in Alaska the latter part of August, came home, and went right into walking around in the woods with my bow.
This didn’t lead to lots of time for climbing, and in many ways the two activities are at odds. It bothered me the first couple of years, but now I embrace the change in activity. In large part, it’s because it hasn’t taken me long to get back into climbing when I come back.
I don’t really take off into the woods for hunting camp. Luckily, I can make day excursions from home and get into good elk country right away, so I can still get climbing training in on days I’m at the gym or on the wall in my garage at home. I don’t get completely detrained in September, and am able to hold on to a good general level of capacity. By November, I will probably be back to within 10% of my best level of climbing fitness over the past few years. Simply knowing that it will come back takes a lot of stress off, and keeps me from feeling I need to pack my Flash Board around with me while hunting.
As a training consultant and coach, one of the biggest issues I hear about from athletes is the worry about detraining and returning to the sport after a period of not climbing or not training. We all have an intuition about what it takes to “get back in shape,” but what really happens, how quickly do we detrain, and how long does it take to get it back?
There are four main facets of fitness that research really has focused on when it comes to detraining. These are strength (and power), strength-endurance, hypertrophy, and aerobic endurance. I want to look at these individually here, since the rates of detraining, the need for maintenance, and the rebuilding windows all differ a little bit.
First, detraining is defined as any reversal of performance potential in a given facet of fitness. Depending on which of the above facets we’re dealing with, detraining can occur anywhere between a few days and nearly a month of complete cessation of training.
I’ll start with the good news. For about 4 weeks, maximal strength is pretty much unaffected by cessation of activity. This doesn’t mean you can take a month off and still go pull on the crimps of the Mandala with the same high force, but it does mean that you’re probably not far off. More to the point, your leg strength, pulling strength, and core tension will probably be able to stay close to their top values for that month before tapering off precipitously.
According to the 2013 landmark meta-analysis by Laurnet Bosquet and colleagues, however, older adults will see around a 2x loss in strength over younger athletes across any time period. Thus, after 4 weeks, a fifty year old will see a huge decline over what she would have 20 years ago.
Power losses are less profound than strength losses, but for all intents and purposes, we’d classify them the same. This difference might be due to the relatively smaller gains we see in power than in strength. Whatever the reason, a few weeks of cessation of explosive training won’t affect the top end much.
Strength Endurance (or power endurance or aerobic power or whatever you want to call it…) declines sooner and more profoundly than strength and power. This is likely due to the complex combination of factors that go into this kind of endurance. Although data vary by muscle group, age, and duration of training, it’s safe to say that a couple of weeks away from strength endurance training will result in feeling profoundly detrained. The good news here is that strength endurance can be rebuilt much faster than strength or power, so it’s OK to let it go during parts of the season when you’re focusing on other performance factors.
When it comes to hypertrophy, climbers aren’t all that concerned about maintaining muscle mass. This is partly due to the common belief that lighter is better, and partly due to the understanding that bigger muscles are probably not all that important to hard climbing. What is essential, though, is to mitigate the loss of the muscle mass we’ve got if we want to maintain or increase our performance in the future.
With this in mind, it’s nice to know that hypertrophy is more persistent than strength, power, or strength endurance, with mass staying relatively steady for 7 or more weeks following cessation of training.
Finally, aerobic endurance. Thank god we’re not runners. Aerobic endurance values tend to decline within about a week of training cessation. Being super fit aerobically is “expensive” for the body, and thus detrains at an accelerated rate when we stop. Runners and swimmers and triathletes know this: sure they like hitting the road, but their fitness forces them to do it almost daily to improve.
Like all other values, older adults' aerobic fitness declines sooner and more quickly than their younger counterparts.
So what do we do if we need some time off? What if we have to go to a goddamned wedding or something? It turns out that doing a little bit is profoundly better than doing nothing. It turns out that bringing your Cliff Board in your carry-on baggage is totally worth it, even if you use it just minutes a day a couple of times during your trip.
Maintenance / Mitigating Detraining
A little bit of training is way better than no training at all. In fact, doing about anything—even going for a walk a few times a week—will significantly reduce the effects of detraining. I will cover minimalist workouts in a bit, but the takehome is that even just “being active” is really important.
Let’s say you’re forced to spend precious money and take a full week off of climbing just because you are supposed to attend a friend’s first or second wedding. You don’t need to obsess over finding a gym that has all the stuff you train with at home. You do need to plan on doing a short session of climbing every 3-4 days, hang by your fingers a bit, and probably do 20-25 minutes of strength training a couple of times. Oh, and go walk briskly for 30 minutes every day. Every day.
I hate training in hotel gyms, but now I find that a hotel-specific workout is kind of fun in a by-god-I'm-going-to-train-even-here kind of way. You can count on some ellipticals and a treadmill and usually a set of dumbbells up to 40-50 pounds. These days, I go into the hotel gym with a stopwatch (and a towel, since they are heated to Red-River-Gorge-In-Summer temperatures.
I start with a 5 minute “approach” hike on the treadmill at the steepest grade it allows, and try to make sure I am really warm and breathing hard by the end. Then, I set a 20 minute timer and start lifting.
I do as many rounds as I can of the following in those 20 minutes.
8 Front Squats
8 DB Rows each side
8 Step-Ups holding 2 DBs each side
15 second Hardstyle Plank
I rest as needed. I add load to the point that each set is hard, but do-able. If my tempo slows at the end of any exercise, I reduce the load. Usually, I can get through 5-6 rounds. Much faster, and I know the loads are too light.
This is not a purely strength workout, but it does a great job of maintaining my strength for a few days, and it gets me in and out of the hotel gym in less than 30 minutes.
On the hangboard, a 10-15 minute session of 10 second hangs at various arm angles and on varied grips does the trick.
And walk 30 minutes every day.
OK, so what if you can’t do anything for a few weeks? What if you have a major accident and are hospitalized, or have a newborn at home that literally takes all of your time? What do you do if you really lost a lot of fitness?
It’s true, even doing some random light exercise will keep you around the same muscle mass for months, and around the same strength and power levels for 4-5 weeks. But if you end up in bed rest with very little activity, you lose fitness fast. If you end up immobile for more than 2 weeks, your main goal is to rebuild capacity for activity first. It doesn’t mean just go do an easy session on the Grasshopper Wall… it means go for a few walks, and maybe do some light weight training for a week or two.
Once you can do 30-60 minutes of movement without soreness or fatigue, the general wisdom is to start back into your normal training routine, but at 50-60% of your previous intensity. A slow progression from here, normally 3-4 weeks, will see you back to your pre-immobility values.
The Problem With “Your Routine”
We’re creatures of habit. One of the biggest problems climbers run into with injury, layoff, or even aging, is a dedication to their “routine.” We get trapped into always training for three hours on Tuesday night, and get frustrated and demoralized if we can’t make time for it or climb / train as hard as we could last year.
A critical element to successful training is having the ability to build upper and lower bounds for our sessions. Yes, I want to hold time for training on Tuesday nights, but I should have a maximal and minimal duration for these sessions. If I’ve only got 60 minutes, I just do a shorter session, if I have a full three hours, I can do a long one.
Too often, we get caught up in what the app tells us to do, and stop paying attention to what the body is telling us. It’s OK to go hard, but we shouldn’t do so if we are beat up coming into the session, coming off illness, or just don’t have the time. We absolutely have to look at training over the timecourse of a month or six months or a year. We can’t measure anything of any use based on this session, now. Looking at your last forty sessions, though, I can learn a whole lot about you, what you’re capable of, what kind of injuries might be coming, and more.
For me, my upper bounds on a difficult bouldering session is around 25 attempts. If I don’t have time, I can get in there and still get good value out of 6-8 attempts. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than skipping the session. Likewise, many of my strength sessions are planned as 5 sets per exercise, but I am totally comfortable if I occasionally only get 1-2 sets in a session.
As long as I don’t trend toward always doing just one set of each exercise and 8 boulders, I can let the sessions be pretty flexible. This is especially key when we do end up detrained. 2-4 sessions at the lower bounds is not only OK, but probably much more effective than coming back to the gym and punishing yourself because you were sick last week.
Only on rare occasions should our sessions be fatiguing. The goal of an athlete’s training should be to do as much useful work as possible without fatigue. Imagine going to the crag and trying to get destroyed as quickly as possible. To consciously seek out the flash pump. No climber in his right mind would think that this practice would have positive long-term results, but we do it in the gym all the time.
Our coaching team continually remind their athletes that it is better to under-train by 5% than to overtrain by even 1%. If you aren’t destroyed by today’s session, you can get more done tomorrow.
As always, we get a ton of questions about books and resources for training information. Sure, YouTube videos and Instagram posts can give you some inspiration and ideas, but if you're truly going to embrace progress, you need to go deep into study. Honestly, investing 30 minutes a day into learning about training, and climbing training in general, is worth as much as putting in a few more minutes in the gym.
I feel that every climber should read each and every climbing training book, as the field is still relatively small, and you could probably read them all in a winter. This year, I re-read The Rock Climber's Training Manual, which is a landmark book, and yet is considered "old" by many of the younger climbers today. It's true...there are climbers that think of 2012 as BITD. My friend John Kettle's book (and associated work) should not be discounted. Even though it's not about going hard on 6mm crimps, it's probably the most useful climbing movement (and thus improvement) book ever created.
Probably the best "stuck" climber book there is would be 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, by Dave MacLeod. It's a quick read, and I try to re-read it once a year. MacLeod's YouTube channel is also one of the best around, and his passion and knowledge of what it takes to climb hard/scary routes is second-to-none.
The bottom line is if you're just copying training from someone who climbs better than you do, you're only on the first step in creating effective training for yourself. Knowing why you're doing something not only helps with staying focused, it keeps you hungry to do it better next time.
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