By Steve Bechtel
Climbing is a lifetime sport. Unlike, say, gymnastics or football, you can expect to climb and climb well for many many years. Due to the multifaceted nature of the sport and training considerations for older climbers, you can improve factors such as technique and endurance even with the natural decline in strength we are all facing. This is key – you will be getting weaker and will lose power as you age. With proper strength training, good nutrition, and smart recovery, though, you can maintain or even improve your current climbing level, even over age 30(!).
Climbing is a lifetime sport. Unlike, say, gymnastics or football, you can expect to climb and climb well for many many years. Due to the multifaceted nature of the sport, you can improve factors such as technique and endurance even with the natural decline in strength we are all facing. This is key – you will be getting weaker and will lose power as you age. With proper strength training, good nutrition, and smart recovery, though, you can maintain or even improve your current climbing level, even over age 30(!).
Strength and power decline considerably after 30. The curve steepens at 40 and continues to get worse right up until you cross the divide. In fact, many experts now attribute falls by the elderly to a loss of power rather than a loss of balance; their bodies know they are off balance but lack the speed and power to react. Why the decline in power and strength? Here are contributing causes:
decline in muscle mass: 25% decrease between ages 25 and 50
decline in muscle-building hormones (including HGH + Testosterone)
decline in fast twitch muscle fibers – these decline much faster than slow twitch, which can actually increase through one’s 50s
decline in ATP-CP stores – possibly the cause or the effect of the decline in FT fibers, as mentioned above.
decreased mobility and flexibility – results in fewer muscle fibers being needed due to shorter ranges of motion.
OK, so we should just stick to endurance routes and routes that require more technical prowess, right? Start just hitting the classic 5.7s at each crag we visit? Not quite yet.
Although more technical climbs are probably where you will see your hardest ascents (or at well-known “soft” sport crags), you want to actively engage in keeping strong. Regular strength overloads are critical to long-term performance…once you’re past the magic age of 35, there is no off season from strength training.
The action checklist includes:
Strength and Power Training
2-3 days per week total body strength training, year-round. You can back off on the duration of these workouts during hard climbing portions of the year, but should never do fewer than two. Intensity needs to be maintained year-round. A few push-ups at the end of a gym session won’t cut it, either. What you are looking for is the hormonal response to this kind of exercise, so you’re going to have to do big exercises and lift heavy. Regular and progressive overload is critical…stay away from the random bullshit.
Again, at least twice a week, you need to do this. It’s not too hard, either. Tag it onto the end of a strength session or put it in with a climbing gym session. Work the critical positions and stay strong on crimps and pockets – the two hold types that hurt us most frequently. A 15-20 minute session is more than enough.
You need to get in the gym or out to the boulders and try hard. Do the steep stuff. Do big moves. Keep the sessions intense and short. If you can keep the same intensity up for more than an hour, that intensity is too easy. At least one day a week, every week of the year, you need to do this. During power phases, you might get up to three sessions each week. You’ve got to keep trying problems that push you – forget about onsighting easy stuff or climbing things you have dialed.
Skills and Mobility
Work on movement skills. You can get better at these throughout your career. Think of 80% of your climbing time as practice rather than training. During warm-ups and cool downs and easy crag days, always work on skill development.
Keeping supple is critical. You should do a minimum of one 10-minute session of mobility each day for every decade of life. This means if you’re in your 40s, you do 4 days per week. In your 60s, you do six. Shoulders and hips are where you want to focus most of the work. This might be the game-changer for climbers in their 50s and beyond. Mobility issues are a leading cause of injury in “masters” athletes. Get injured, and the wheels come off the bus.
The final piece of the puzzle is keeping the fat under control. As we age, our metabolism naturally slows. This leads to a whole host of changes in older athletes, most notably fat gain. For climbers the normal 1-pound-per-year gain after age 40 is not acceptable. You’re going to have to get better and better with your nutrition as you age, and step on the scale at least once a week to check on your weight. Establish a “red line” that you will not cross. Any time your weight hits this level, all of your training and eating must become focused on getting back down. Extra weight not only makes climbing much harder, it increases chance of injury.
A final note: Plan some recovery weeks. Every three to four weeks, you’re going to want to back off the duration of the workouts about 50%. If you’re in your normal routine, this just buys you some free time each training day. You can also plan to take these recovery weeks during vacations or holidays, allowing you to get out of town and not feel like you’re off the plan.
There is no reason to think that getting a few years older means the end of your hard climbing. You just have to switch gears and be a little bit smarter…but that’s what getting older is all about anyway.