“You talk a lot about how easy it is to ramp up your endurance,” he said. “For me it’s not that easy. It seems like it takes months to build a decent base and then all my power is gone. What am I doing wrong?”

I had almost the exact same conversation twice in a week, with two very good climbers. These were experienced redpoint climbers with diverse resumes. These were, as often as not, the best climbers at the crag. How can someone be so good, but feel like one facet of their fitness is so lacking? How can someone struggle so hard with endurance when endurance is supposed to be easy to get?

We tend to be a little too simplistic when we categorize the training demands of climbing. Most of us think of routes as being “endurancey” or “cruxy,” or sometimes “power endurancey.” We look only at the demands of a route on that given day and in relation to our fitness. Got pumped on the route? Must be an endurance pitch. Couldn’t figure out a move? Must be a cruxy climb. To really understand why your endurance isn’t up to par, though, you’ve got to look deeper. You’ve got to figure out what kind of endurance base, or capacity, you’ve got.

 

Capacity Before Power

One of the things we trend toward doing when we think of building endurance is to try and replicate the feeling of not having enough endurance. What I mean is that we try to create a situation in training where we get pumped and fall (or nearly fall) off due to fatigue. Although this type of training can increase our acute endurance, or what we might call anaerobic power, its ability to create improvement stays within the strict limits of our capacity. Bear with me, this is a little bit complicated.

Let’s say you have built, through climbing over the years, a capacity of “80,” an arbitrary number. This capacity of 80 allows you to get up some pumpy 12a routes after a few tries, but you never seem to go beyond that ability. With a few weeks of training you do a little better, but can never make the leap to the bigger grades. Based on your capacity of 80, super pumpy efforts like failing on a route or training very hard 4x4s might ramp your anaerobic power up to 85 or 86. Conversely, a month off climbing might only drop you to a 75 – you can always get back to your “level” after a few days, it seems.

If you want these endurance numbers to improve, to actually see your “off the couch” endurance grade improve, you have to step back from pushing your limits and work on solidly building that fitness base. This will, over time, effectively move your base number from 80 up to 85, then 90, and beyond.2-4

 

System Power is Built “On Top” of Capacity

First, you’ve got to be able to go the distance. You’ve got to have the ability to climb a 100 foot pitch at all before you can do one with difficult moves. We can train into the pump zone over and over, but without a big base of sub-anaerobic movement, you simply don’t progress.

We have to build this system “from the ground up,” climbing a lot of terrain that doesn’t cause us to get too fatigued. If you climb into the labored breathing or pumped zone, you’ve gone too hard. Simply “ARCing” around on huge jugs using poor technique can diminish the value here, too. You absolutely have to use good movement if you’re going to get better.

In addition to the single-effort benefit of being able to perform better on one route, capacity training allows us to build better stamina for multiple efforts in a single day or even multiple days in a row. In order to get to this point, though, you have to do your time.

Because of the low-difficulty nature of this training, climbers often feel like they are not going hard enough to get better. What you want to look for in these sessions is to progress total moves or total time climbing rather than looking at grades. Once you are reaching new levels in total volume (hours climbing per week), you can once again aim toward more difficult efforts.

 

Acceptable Zones for Aerobic Capacity Work

EFFORT LEVEL FEELING WHILE TRAINING BENEFIT TYPES OF SESSIONS
Low Very easy efforts, some increase in body temperature, no pump Minimal. Best as a skill building intensity, and can be used to increase total volume Easy mileage, alpine climbing, open ARC climbing.
Medium-Low Light efforts with a medium sustained pump. Still able to hold conversations, and breathing is elevated but not labored High. This is the zone where much of our climbing takes place in warm-ups and on easier sections of limit routes Extensive Endurance sessions, 10+ minutes effort (usually) with equal rest periods. Foot-On Campus Ladders 10+ minute intensity
Medium Medium efforts on smaller holds or steeper terrain, some degree of pump, but still manageable. Elevated breathing. Should still be possible to climb for 5-8 minutes without rest. High. This zone is where you are touching up against the bottom of the anaerobic threshold, and are having to work hard on relaxing and climbing well. Toprope laps with 10+ minute work durations and equal rest. Route intervals: 3-4 pitches back-to-back with rest time about 2x work for 2-3 repeats.

 

This is taxing training, mostly because few of us spend a lot of time doing this volume of any kind of training. This six week build is really two three-week builds, with a bit of a breather coming in week 4.

 

The schedule ends up looking like this:

 

Day 1: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 10 min work, 10 min recovery. The EE Interval should be done by climbing continuously and without stopping at rests, either on a series of very easy boulder problems or by climbing up and down an easy route. If climbing with a partner, simply set a repeating timer for 12 minutes and switch off (the additional two minutes gives you time to transition).

 

Day 2: Rest

 

Day 3: Strength Training 30-45 minutes, then: Toprope Intervals. Do a route that you can climb well without a pump coming on. TR this route quickly, without taking rest stances 3-4x in a row. Stop and rest for a duration equal to the TOTAL time it took you to climb all laps. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 9-12 laps.

 

Day 4: Easy bouldering or route climbing, 90-120 minutes. Nothing harder than onsight level, resting as needed.

 

Day 5: Rest

 

Day 6: Easy Mileage (pitches in gym or at the crag) for 300 total feet. Then: Extensive Endurance Intervals 5 x 8 min with equal rest. This is a shorter interval duration than Day 1, but more total climbing time.

 

Day 7: Rest

 

Day 8: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 15 min work, 10 min recovery. If climbing with a partner, simply set a repeating timer for 17 minutes and switch off (the additional two minutes gives you time to transition).

 

Day 9: Rest

 

Day 10: Strength Training 30-45 minutes, then: Toprope Intervals. Do a route that you can climb well without a pump coming on. This should be at or above the grade you climbed last  week, but be sure it’s still not too difficult. Getting pumped diminishes the value of the training. TR this route quickly, without taking rest stances 3-4x in a row. Stop and rest for a duration equal to the TOTAL time it took you to climb all laps. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 9-12 laps.

 

Day 11: Easy bouldering or route climbing, 90-120 minutes. Nothing harder than onsight level, resting as needed.

 

Day 12: Rest

 

Day 13: Easy Mileage (pitches in gym or at the crag) for 400 total feet. Then: Extensive Endurance Intervals 6 x 8 min with equal rest. This is a shorter interval duration than Day 1, but more total climbing time.

 

Day 14: Rest

 

Day 15: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 15 min work, 10 min recovery. If climbing with a partner, simply set a repeating timer for 17 minutes and switch off (the additional two minutes gives you time to transition).

 

Day 16: Rest

 

Day 17: Strength Training 30-45 minutes, then: Toprope Intervals. Do a route that you can climb well without a pump coming on. This should be at or above the grade you climbed last week, but be sure it’s still not too difficult. Getting pumped diminishes the value of the training. TR this route quickly, without taking rest stances 4-5x in a row. Stop and rest for a duration equal to the TOTAL time it took you to climb all laps. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 12-15 laps.

 

Day 18: Easy bouldering or route climbing, 90-120 minutes. Nothing harder than onsight level, resting as needed.

 

Day 19: Rest

 

Day 20: Easy Mileage (pitches in gym or at the crag) for 500 total feet. Then: Extensive Endurance Intervals 6 x 9 min with equal rest.

 

Day 21: Climbing at or near RP level. Go out and try some hard climbing, but with no expectations of sending. This session is just to get a feel for hard and intense movement.

 

Week 4 represents a rollback in volume, with a slight change in exercises.

 

Day 22: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 5 min work, 5 min recovery. If climbing with a partner, simply set a repeating timer for 7 minutes and switch off (the additional two minutes gives you time to transition).

 

Day 23: Rest

 

Day 24: Strength Training 30-45 minutes, then: Toprope Intervals. Do a route that you can climb well without a pump coming on. This should be at or above the grade you climbed last week, but be sure it’s still not too difficult. Getting pumped diminishes the value of the training. TR this route quickly, without taking rest stances 3-4x in a row. Stop and rest for a duration equal to the TOTAL time it took you to climb all laps. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 9-12 laps.

 

Day 25: Route Intervals. Lead a route that is 1-2 grades below your onsight level, then repeat it on toprope immediately after lowering down. Rest about 2-3x as long as the interval took. Repeat this 4 or 5 times, for a total of 8-10 pitches.

 

Day 26: Rest

 

Day 27: Easy Mileage (pitches in gym or at the crag) for 300 total feet. Then: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 12 min with equal rest.

 

Day 28: Rest.

 

Day 29: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 10 min work, 5 min recovery. If climbing with a partner, simply set a repeating timer for 12 minutes and switch off (the additional two minutes gives you time to transition).

 

Day 30: Rest

 

Day 31: Strength Training 30-45 minutes, then: Toprope Intervals. Do a route that you can climb well without a pump coming on. This should be at or above the grade you climbed last week, but be sure it’s still not too difficult. Getting pumped diminishes the value of the training. TR this route quickly, without taking rest stances 4-5x in a row. Stop and rest for a duration equal to the TOTAL time it took you to climb all laps. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 12-15 laps.

 

Day 32: Route Intervals. Lead a route that is 1-2 grades below your onsight level, then repeat it on toprope immediately after lowering down. Rest about 2-3x as long as the interval took. Repeat this 5-6 times, for a total of 10-12 pitches. This will start to push you into the high end of capacity training.

 

Day 33: Rest

 

Day 34: Easy Mileage (pitches in gym or at the crag) for 500 total feet. Then: Extensive Endurance Intervals 4 x 10 min with equal rest.

 

Day 35: Rest.

 

Day 36: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 10 min work, 10 min recovery. If climbing with a partner, simply set a repeating timer for 12 minutes and switch off (the additional two minutes gives you time to transition).

 

Day 37: Rest

 

Day 38: Strength Training 30-45 minutes, then: Toprope Intervals. Do a route that you can climb well without a pump coming on. This should be at or above the grade you climbed last week, but be sure it’s still not too difficult. Getting pumped diminishes the value of the training. TR this route quickly, without taking rest stances 5x in a row. Stop and rest for a duration equal to the TOTAL time it took you to climb all laps. Repeat 3 more times for a total of 15 laps.

 

Day 39: Route Intervals. Lead a route that is 1-2 grades below your onsight level, then repeat it on toprope immediately after lowering down. Rest about 2-3x as long as the interval took. Repeat this 5 times, for a total of 10 pitches.

 

Day 40: Rest

 

Day 41: Easy Mileage (pitches in gym or at the crag) for 600 total feet. Then: Extensive Endurance Intervals 3 x 15 min with equal rest.

 

Day 42: Climbing at or near RP level. Go out and try some hard climbing, but with no expectations of sending. This session is just to get a feel for hard and intense movement.

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