By Steve Bechtel

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

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

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

Additionally, there are more specialized kinds of endurance:

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

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

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

 

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

 

More Climbing in a Day

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

More Climbing (Endurance) in a Pitch

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

More Intense Climbing in a Pitch

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Rest 5-8 minutes

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

Rest 5-8 minutes

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

Rest 5-8 minutes

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

 

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

 

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

Rest 5-8 minutes

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

Rest 5-8 minutes

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

Rest 5-8 minutes

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Increased Session Endurance

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

 

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

 

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

 

Improving Recovery Mid-Pitch

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

 

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

 

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

 

Extending Power for Longer Problems or Short Routes

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

In short:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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