by Steve Bechtel
Well, the obvious answer is, “yes,” but that would make a short article. Let’s go deeper.
You love climbing and you desperately want to do it better. Your tendency is to go hard every session because somehow you think that you could give just a little more and something magical will happen down the road. You’ve seen the training montages of the pros, watched the last 45 minutes of most of the Rocky movies, and you know in your motivated little heart that you just don’t quite give enough effort. Even so, those elbows are a bit achy. Probably because you skipped your collagen today.
It couldn’t possibly be that you did something wrong in training.
So, yes, train today. But use your brain first.
The most important part of planning is planning on your plan not going according to plan. In thirty plus years of training for climbing, I haven’t had a single week turn out the way I had scheduled it. This alone is a good argument for not getting upset when things don’t go your way – things NEVER have gone your way, and yet here you are. Maybe you’re rich, maybe you’re happy, maybe you’re married with kids, and yet if you’d have had your way none of what you have now would be in your life.
Chew on that a second.
Whether we decide to train today or not is what we are here to consider today. Do I go to the gym and give it my all? Do I just go for a jog? Do I rest and wait to train tomorrow?
There is science to consider. First off, we really do know how long it takes to recover from training. For strength and power related training (we can assume that unless you are just doing easy alpine ridgelines, your climbing is strength and power related), we generally need 36 or more hours to recover to a point that more training or climbing will be effective. If we shortcut that time, we start into the next session slightly weaker and dig a deeper hole than the previous session.
The long-term result of training too often can be a high level of capacity for doing just that. 95% of the time, though, the long-term result is that you get injured or have to take a protracted rest because you’re bordering on overtraining. So stick with 36 hours to start.
I remember having a shoulder injury a few years back that I saw an orthopedic surgeon for. He told me the best course was to avoid loading the injured shoulder, get lots of general exercise that didn’t involve pulling with my arms, and to resume climbing in six weeks.
“OK,” I said.
“What’s today’s date?”
“Uhh…the 14th of July.”
“OK, so what is six weeks from today?”
“That’s right. August 25th. Circle that day on your calendar. That’s six weeks.” He went on to explain that for most motivated athletes, six weeks turns into about three, and for most of his more sedentary patients six weeks can turn into a year.
So, if you train until 6pm on Saturday, you don’t get to train again until 6am on Monday. That Monday session is a good hard session, too, we’ll assume. You wrap up by 9am, and then need to wait until…when? 9pm Tuesday. Got it?
You can see why every-other day, roughly training on a rolling 48-hour clock works so well. This way you can recover fully. And get better. And not just be the tired guy in the bouldering area rubbing his elbows and slamming supplements to try to help stop the hurting. The goal of any good training plan is to create more opportunities for high performance. It is not about getting in as many mediocre sessions as possible. So…recover.
The older you get the longer it takes.
The less sleep you get the longer it takes.
The worse your diet, the longer it takes.
The harder you are on your muscles the longer it takes.
So how do people who train six days a week keep going? How does a professional athlete handle professional volumes? The simple answer is to train differently on subsequent days, but there are a few tricks to make it work in your favor (if you need to do it at all).
- Switching Systems. The simplest way to compress more training into your schedule is to do your primary work, say bouldering and finger strength development, on day one. Day two would not be that good for doing even more bouldering, as you’ll have had under 24 hours to recover. Sure, you could do it, but you wouldn’t get the power and strength benefits we want. On a second day of training, we would switch focus from short, intense sets of work to longer sets of more fatiguing work, continuous aerobic activity, dedicated mobility work, or an active recovery session. This way we let the ATP-PC (alactic) system and nervous system recharge, and can develop more in another realm.
- Back Off On Volume. You can do less each training day, and train more frequently. If you leave the gym a sore mess each session, you can’t possibly survive daily training. But if you back off to short, focused training, you probably can. This is the way that the 40 Days to Strength workouts operate. You pick five exercises, do five sets of two on one day, do two sets of five at a lighter load the next, and alternate between them five days a week for a couple of months. The volume is reasonable, and we get very strong. This kind of work needs to be approached with caution in finger strength, as the structures are relatively weak, and the adaptations in connective tissue are notoriously slow. If you train fingers 5-6 days per week, it should be done for short sessions, on reasonable holds, with reasonable loads.
- Over Recover. If you are trying to add more work, it’s only sensible that you’d add more rest. If you really work for better recovery, you’ll see that it is so effective in making you feel and train better that it’s almost a hack. To “over recover,” you’ll go to sleep 30 minutes earlier than usual, aim to drink around a gallon of water (only water, no exceptions) each day, get 20-30g of high quality protein in 3 or 4 meals per day, and go for an easy 30 minute walk after each training session. You need to back off on all other physical activities (no after-work ski laps, or hauling firewood), and eat every vegetable you can put your hands on.
The question comes into my inbox often enough that I feel like there is one person out there trolling me from multiple addresses: “What if I can train hard two days in a row?” I don’t mean to hurt you, but then you’re really not training hard on those days. Remember, just because it makes us tired doesn’t make it hard. If you don’t believe me, go do the 100 V1 challenge. Not hard. Makes you tired. Won’t make you better at much of anything.
If you’re on a climbing trip or out in the mountains, yes, you climb multiple days in a row, but this is not training. This is performance! This is getting out there and seeing what the training has produced. Long days improve your conditioning, improve your overall capacity for work, and leave you pretty beat up. The primary result of going two days on is that you can climb pretty well two days on. It doesn’t let you climb at your absolute max, doesn’t let you display more power, and doesn’t reduce your chance of injury – which is what we are wanting out of our training days back home.
Going back to the 36 hour guideline, if something is super-intense like bouldering at your limit or chasing 1RMs in the weight room, you might need a bit more. If you’re training for endurance, you might legitimately be ready on the day after a good session.
Are You Ready?
Aside from your general feeling of soreness and fatigue, how can you tell if you’re going to have a good session? You can test your readiness.
This is not an exact science, but it can give you good feedback. The bottom line with testing readiness is to listen to what the test is telling you. This is how it works: Get to the gym on the day you planned to train. Do a good warm-up and movement prep, usually 10-20 minutes, and then do a quick test: try a max pull on the Tindeq or better, just a simple squeeze on a hand grip dynamometer. You’ll have set baseline numbers earlier.
If I can routinely grip, say 135 pounds with my right and 145 with my left, I should be hitting really close to those numbers. If I am down on both sides and hit more than 10% below on either one, it’s not that I magically got weaker – it’s probably due to nervous system fatigue. You can also add in a quick vertical jump test for the same purposes, though we haven’t seen as much use in this test. It is supposed to give similar information – tired.
So what do you do if your test tells you you’re fatigued and your friends are already warmed up and hammering on the campus board? This is when it’s time to be an athlete instead of an amateur. You need to either train a skill or system that is not as taxing on your body, or go home and come back tomorrow. The entire goal of training is to improve top-level performance. If you’re starting in tired, you’re not going to get very far.
If you decide to stay at the gym, switching to a mobility focused session, to simple cardiac output (low-intensity) aerobic session, or a low-intensity skill session will produce the best results. Afterward you go home, rest, and can come back to try the hard stuff again the next day.
The more athletes I talk to and the more I pay attention to my own training, the more I understand that our bodies are quite good at letting us know what’s going on. If I routinely wake up sore, am irritable, and am hungry all the time, I am probably close to my limit on what my body can take. More, harder, and longer training should take place, but only when balanced with aggressive recovery and rest.
The really cool thing about training correctly and recovering well is that we can train our bodies to even do that better! This circles back to the 40 Days of Strength, but it comes out in so many practical examples that it’s hard to ignore. We know anecdotal stories of climbers hitting the crag or the gym 5-6 days a week. Dean Potter famously “climbed pretty much every day,” for a couple of years early in his career.
A couple years ago, I had the great pleasure of hearing Peter Croft give a talk about his early years in Yosemite. He, too, climbed all the time. In 1986, John Bachar asked him if he’d like to do the El Cap – Half Dome link-up, which would be around 50 pitches of climbing and a ton of walking. Croft agreed and when they set the day, Bachar had just one direction for Croft: “You have to take a rest day the day before.”
Croft replied, “What’s a rest day?”
He did as directed. He didn’t go climbing…for the first time in a long, long time. He wandered around camp, he tried to nap, he tried to read. He was, in his own words, freaking out about not doing anything. He thought that he’d lose his feel for the rock by taking the day off. Finally, night came, and he slept. The next morning the pair charged up the Nose on El Cap. Croft said he “felt like a god,” and had never had so much energy. They topped out, jogged to the valley, and headed for Half Dome to race up another wall.
“Maybe there really was something to these rest days after all!”
School sports are similar. You come out of summer, start running, jumping, and exercising three hours a day, five days a week. There’s no 36-hour period between. No Tuesday off. Joining the armed forces, depending on what country you’re from, is much the same. You start and you go hard and you are tired as hell for a while and then eventually, you adapt.
I am not advocating this as your new practice. I am only reinforcing what we’ve seen: if you keep the volume at a reasonable level, keep the number of maximum efforts limited, and you do a good job of recovering after training each day, there is no problem with training or climbing multiple days in a row.
The enemy is the self. We will want to get our ten pitches in or go until our skin stops the session. We’ll want to see what our max number is. We’ll look for yet another personal record, even though we got one yesterday. If you really want to be out climbing, or in the gym training more often – it is, after all, really fun for most of us – you have to be conservative in what you ask your body to do.
We also have to pay attention. If I have dedicated myself to doing a session every weekday and I am thrashed, I need to rest a day. No judgements. No self flagellation. Take a day, eat right, sleep some more, do some breathing exercises, and start again tomorrow. There is every possibility I’ll come back to training feeling like a strong climber again…if not quite a god.