By Steve Bechtel
Since the dawn of time, man has been obsessed with finding an easier way to get past hard work. Wonderful things like the wheel, the incline plane, and the internal combustion engine have helped us get past the drudgery and pain of too much tedium and work for too little reward. Much like the hard labor we’ve largely done away with these days, climbing hard routes takes a lot of focus, sweat, and preparation.
There are many upsides to hard training, but there are downsides, too. Perhaps the biggest of these is the lack of noticeable progress that come when you’ve reached the highest levels of an activity; training that sometimes shows little reward. A great challenge to athletes is to work against this tedium, but most end up switching gears and moving into an exercise mode that shows them more tangible gains.
Running is an obvious choice. No doubt it’s a good exercise. It’s easy to implement, relatively low skill, and it feels like work. Running is something we all have done, and might do as a normal part of our exercise routine, but is it helpful for climbing?
First, Let me say, that I really like running. I’ve run on and off since high school and have even found myself doing things like 50k races and trans-range mountain runs. I find it a great way to get out and do something in the mountains, and is a great way to maintain a healthy level of cardiovascular fitness. For people who can tolerate running, it’s even a decent tool to add to a fat loss plan.
The main reasons climbers add running to their training programs are as follows:
They want to improve cardiovascular capacity for mountaineering or alpine climbing.
They want to improve route climbing endurance and feel that running will transfer to rock climbing.
They want to drop a few pounds and think that running is a good way to do that.
They like running.
Let’s look at these one at a time:
Improving Alpine Performance
There is a big carryover in any form of cardiovascular training. Heart and muscle adaptations to endurance exercise are largely transferable; if you are an experienced and high-performing cyclist, chances are you’ll develop capacity as a runner fairly quickly. Running is a good form of base training for alpinism, but it’s still not the best form of training. A look at Scott Johnston and Steve House’s excellent book Training for the New Alpinism underlines this point. Although they do support running at certain times in the year, their prescriptions involve doing more climbing-like training such as hill intervals and (gasp!) walking uphill with a backpack. The authors pay special attention to suggesting ways to avoid injury, such as hiking uphill with a pack loaded with water and then pouring it out to descend unladen. Since statistics show that around 60% of people who start a running program end up injured by it, adding running to your alpine training should probably be done somewhat conservatively.
Improving Rock Climbing Endurance
I breathe hard when I climb difficult routes. I breathe hard when I run. Therefore, running must be good training for climbing. Right? Well, I breathe hard on the toilet sometimes, and I can’t imagine that would help me climb better…but maybe I’m wrong. Let’s look into why we breathe hard, and what it means.
Climbing is a sport that is punctuated by hard bursts of intense effort followed by periods of recovery. This can be a boulder problem that lasts 10 seconds, followed by a few minutes on the ground. It can be a route that features several sections of hard movement with stances where you can recover, or it can even be a long pitch with no real rests, where you might suck wind for ten or more minutes.
In all instances, single pitch rock climbing and bouldering require getting energy from both aerobic and anaerobic metabolism. Most movement we consider difficult is primarily fueled anaerobically, and almost all recovery (sitting around between problems, or hanging out at rests on a route) is fueled cardiovascularly. Logic tells ups that improving our overall cardiovascular fitness will improve our ability to actively recover on a pitch, which is absolutely true – to a point.
Even a very basic level of cardiovascular fitness (such as is necessary to walk to, say, Ceuse or even the Pipe Dream) is sufficient to “clean the blood” between bouts of anaerobic effort, assuming your muscles are capable of maintaining their ability to contract. By developing hyper-high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, you really don’t gain much in the recovery department. The real way to improve endurance in a power or muscular endurance sport, though, is to train it specifically most of the time you train it.
Is there harm in endurance training, though? Beyond the possibility over a little overtraining, most people see maintaining a cardiovascular sport along with climbing as no big deal. The real problem is what happens on a cellular level, however. A more efficient aerobic system does help improve recovery and aid in maintaining a good bodyweight, but there is every possibility you are costing yourself power.
Long term, high volume endurance training promotes changes in the muscle that help it produce power over a longer period without fatigue. Unfortunately, this endurance comes at the direct cost of a reduction in the muscle’s ability to produce force. The good news is that it takes a long time to make significant and long-lasting changes in the muscle. The bad news is that anything that decreases your muscles’ ability to generate force is a bad thing for doing hard moves.
In sports we look at specificity as one of the major pillars of training – the more your training simulates your sport, the better. Specificity is then divided into two different facets: systemic and motor specificity. Motor specificity means moving the way you do in a sport. Systemic specificity means using loads, durations, and rest periods similar to the demands of your sport. The great problem with running is it doesn’t address either of these too well.
I think the bottom line is that running probably won’t hurt most climbers’ ability too much, but it’s certainly not going to help.
The average person puts each foot on the ground about 1500 times per mile. Biomechanists estimate that a load somewhere between three and five time bodyweight crosses the knee joint with each stride. So if you’re 150 pounds, that means your knee suffers 220,000 pounds of impact per mile. You’ll probably burn around a hundred calories, so it works out to about a ton per calorie. Seems expensive to me…
Despite popular belief, running isn’t really the most effective fat loss exercise. Extensive science shows that interval-style training, weight circuits, and total body sports are substantially more effective training modes. The best exercise for fat loss, though, is the table push-away. Don’t eat so damned much. One less piece of toast will save you a mile of running. Get on a whole food diet high in lean protein and you can lose a pound or more a week, while training hard the whole time.
Many of the nutritional consultations I’ve had end up at a “dealbreaker” – “I can’t give up cheese”, “I like a beer at the end of the day”, etc. If you are serious about fat loss, you need to get rid of this type of thinking right away. You’ll never outrun a bad diet.
But I Like Running!
Running for running’s sake is great. It’s a nice way to see some country, and can be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s OK to be a multi-sport athlete. The reason I don’t like running for my top-level redpoint athletes is the same reason I don’t like kayaking, staying up late, taking drugs, or too much beer: there’s just too much at risk. I don’t want anything to take away from climbing performances. It all comes down to how much you like the running itself – do it if you love it, but if you’re thinking you’ll get better at rock climbing because of it, think again.
With all this being said, I will share the perspective of an orthopedic surgeon friend of mine, who is convinced a hard running schedule will actually help your climbing: “It’s pretty simple: run hard, at least 3 days a week. When your knees start to hurt, take 3-4 ibuprofen before each run. When the pain is unbearable, quit running for good and get yourself a good hangboard. 2-3 months later, you’ll be stronger than ever and ready to climb hard routes!”
By Steve Bechtel