Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Power Endurance Continued (Part 7)
The big-picture answer to regularly improving your power endurance, as I’ve mentioned before, is to train to improve your strength, especially in your areas of greatest weakness, during the off-season (pretty much any lengthy period time you’re not trying to send hard routes/compete, often meaning the winter season here in the U.S.).
Along with its cohorts, power and endurance, your power endurance potential relates to your maximal strength level. Every climber has a certain level of maximal power he or she can generate for any single given climbing move (or explosive lift in the weight room). It’s physiologically impossible for anyone to dish out that entire amount of power repeatedly – that would be a 100 percent conversion of power to power endurance, meaning that you are superhuman.
But once you’ve spent a season (or longer) focused on strength training, you’ll likely need a break. You’ll want to spend some time building up your other climbing-related skill sets than can and should improve after a soundly planned and well-executed season of strength work. You’ll want to discover the new potential you have after building more strength — it’s exciting!
To repeat what I’ve mentioned earlier in this series: what we’re after when we talk about building up our power endurance for sport climbing is improving our ability to dish out a substantial portion of our current maximal power base repeatedly throughout a series of climbing movements with no real stopping or recovery. Depending on who we are, this type of effort can rapidly push us to or past our anaerobic threshold as well (or we may experience power failure before we get pumped). Thus, your power endurance depends ultimately not only on how much absolute power you have but also on a few other factors – including the following two major ones that I’ll touch on (one today, one tomorrow).
One factor is genetic (training) potential, or the natural limit your particular body can reach in this department given your current strength level. Genetic potential is a sucky reality of athletic training – some people are just born with more of it than others, in terms of some or all areas of athletic abilities pertinent to climbing prowess.
In terms of power endurance, the reality of genetic potential can play out as follows (for example): one person with a much bigger power base than another person may not – even with the same amount or even more of high-quality, targeted training – ever be able to dish out nearly the same amount of that power with any consistency as a person with a much more diminutive power base.
So while both of these people can train to increase the overall size of their particular climbing-relevant power bases via strength training and conversion-to-power training, the latter person (who actually has less maximal power than the former) will likely see greater improvements in their power endurance with less training time put into power endurance. After a winter of strength training, these types also often will net a bigger bump in their power endurance output than the former, even if their strength/power gains/levels are less substantial overall.
This doesn’t mean the former (often more power-based/usually higher percentage of fast-twitch comprised) person can’t improve their power endurance. It just means that it will be harder and take longer and should likely be a greater focus in the yearly training plan than it is for the less-powerful but naturally better-at-dishing-out-big-portions-of-that-lesser-power person.
In my last entry, I mentioned that your power endurance depends ultimately not only on how much absolute power you have but also on a few other factors – including the following second major one discussed below.
The second factor ties into what I discussed in the previous entry (genetic potential), in that no matter who you are and where you lie on the continuum of power endurance, you have to put the appropriate amount of time and consistency into power endurance training (again, molding those strength gains into something usable in your climbing world) to fully take advantage of any strength or power gains you’ve made.
It always takes time to do this, even if you’re naturally good at power endurance. It also takes lots of specificity – meaning that if you train your power endurance up for only one style or angle or type of holds or number of moves or even a set of moves for only one repetition (as opposed to doing a set of power-sapping moves, resting, then repeating another similar set of power-sapping moves), you’ll be more likely than not to find that you won’t develop a high level of power endurance for whatever you don’t train.
Real-world translation: Your power endurance could be absolutely stellar on vertical crimpy faces but virtually nonexistent for steep thuggy roof climbing, and vice versa. Because these place very different demands on your body and require different sets of strengths and technical skill sets as well, developing great power endurance relative to your maximal power level on different types of terrain generally requires spending time training/climbing consistently on those types of terrain.
How much time does it take to train up to your power endurance potential? This depends on each person’s individual makeup – back to genetic potential again. I’d venture that it takes way longer than most of us want to believe or think it might take to truly hit that peak, and it depends where the training starts from, i.e. is it after months away from any power endurance training/focus at all? Or are you starting from a small base of strength training that followed a year of sport climbing? And so forth.
One way you’ll know you’re at the limit or close to it of your current power endurance potential (relative to your current power level) if you encounter a route(s)/series of moves that you simply cannot put together after months of effort. If you can link all of the sequences together, and then one-hang the route a bunch of times, and the route involves power-endurance efforts (8ish to 30ish moves of consistent power output for you, possibly multiple times), and you just can’t seem to put it together (or you high point then make negative progress), you may have pushed your power endurance close to its absolute potential – as close to your maximal power level as its going to get right now.
You might sneak away with the climb, still — but you might also do better (and have more fun) by leaving it for now, aiming to get stronger in relevant areas and then come back at it for another go in a subsequent season, with the idea that you’ll gain enough strength/power to have this particular route not dig so deeply into your power base, as your power base will (with the right training plan addressing the correct weaknesses) be higher the next time around. If the route’s at your limit now, it will probably still take some effort to build that power endurance back up — your goal is to have it take LESS effort than before.
Is it truly power endurance if you do a bunch of easy climbing and then have a shake and then have to do one or two or three (or even six) really powerful moves? Not really…not technically by the definition I gave in the first entry of this series, I suppose. This would be sort of like doing some weight-off pull-ups that feel really moderate for 2 to 5 minutes, then just hanging there on the bar with the weight off for a few more minutes, shaking out each hand until your breathing and heart rate go back to normal or close to it, and then removing the weight off and maybe adding a weight vest and doing two to six explosive pull-ups. The question is – how well did you recover after the weight-off pull-ups and hangout, and did the former impact your ability to do explosive pull-ups at all, and if so, how much?
Nor is it truly power endurance if you do a few hard moves, then have a really great shake, then do a few more hard moves, then another great shake – not by the definition I’ve used throughout this discussion. That’s more about your ability to put out a few strength-sapping moves, combined with your ability to recover well on a shake afterwards, and to perform reps that way – kind of like doing a set of four really strength-sapping dumbbell curls, say, and then standing there with the weights in your hands (or better yet, setting one down every five seconds, then the other) until you feel strong enough to do four more reps. You’re getting a rest while you hold the dumbbells, but it’s not a real rest – the question is, how restful can you make it? Restful enough to do a few more strength-sapping moves?
I’d label the two examples above to be more about power PLUS endurance rather than true power endurance – maybe splitting hairs, but when you’re looking to identify and train weaknesses, understanding these types of differences can become really important.
If you can’t recover on shakeouts and/or really easy sequences of moves get you so powered down you can’t pull even a slightly harder move for you, even after a shake (much less a truly powerful move), or you just pump out and fall randomly on super-easy terrain, you have an endurance issue in my book. If powerful moves/short sequences kick your butt pretty much whenever/wherever they occur, you have a power issue. If you can’t consistently deliver decent portions of your power base throughout a longer series of moves, it is indeed power endurance, for real. If all of these issues crop up routinely, then you can and should work on all of them – or be more specific and choose to work on the ones in play on the routes you’re trying to send right now.
Obviously climbing, being acyclical, isn’t exactly like either of the examples I gave above, but I’m just giving these loose correlations of what it might feel like to help illustrate the point. Nonetheless, both of those (common) scenarios occur frequently in sport climbing, too…as do a bewildering combination of all of these skills/energy usages (power, true power endurance, short-term muscle endurance that we often label/think of as power endurance or that often occurs in tandem with power endurance/power, as well as other facets of climbing-related endurance).
Confusing, right? How do you train for all of them when you want to be good at all of them? As I mentioned I’ll discuss the more endurance-y components of climbing training in the next series of entries after these ones on power endurance…but the idea behind training for them (as you might suspect) is much the same, regardless of which one(s) are stopping you in your tracks. It’s SAID and overload (to repeat them again); you will gain what you train, so long as you rest enough for your body to adapt. These principles make it relatively simple to work on pushing your power endurance/other skill related/intertwined skillsets, so long as you select routes that challenge you to push hard in appropriate areas.
Let’s say you’re working a hard redpoint project that requires power endurance for you – that it has at least one segment that requires that continuously high-output power delivery and nearly constant movement for 8 to 30 moves (give or take). You’ve taken the time to refine the beta to perfection and all the moves appear to be sorted out to their technical best for you at this point (though I’m a big believer in the wonders of technical refinement, and I will take the time to hang/reexamine moves late in the game if I still “don’t like” them – this sometimes really does pan out in me finding a new way to do something or a subtle shift that helps). You’re even now hitting the moves that perhaps at first seemed really powerful on their own regularly. You move your high point up for a few days, and then you start falling regularly and consistently at the same place.
Instead of just getting back on where you fell and doing the move and continuing on for yet another one-hang, your job now is to try to break your body of this habitual pattern of failure, to try to push it to have the power endurance and the mental belief that you can eke this out. This isn’t likely to be an experience without some pain involved – but it can be very rewarding. After a single one-hang, if I don’t high point by my final go of the day the next time I’m out (i.e. I fall at the same place), I start this somewhat punishing portion of redpointing by getting right back on where I fell off with no rest, and attempting to continue and finish the route (after all, this is what it will feel like, most likely, when I do stick the move on the first try, right?).
I won’t do this on every attempt if I feel like I have more than one go in me for the day, though (and I usually do). If I fall on my first go(s), I’ll hang briefly, do the moves into and out of where I just fell, and then lower off and rest, saving my energy for another attempt.
After that, if I’m still at the same sticking point by the end of the day the next day out, if I have the energy/skin/muscles left, I usually will lower down several moves below the sticking point and attempt to climb through these moves, including making mock clips of already clipped draws so I mimic the energy output as exactly as possible. I’ll try to climb all the way up the rest of the route to the anchors – so I’m not training my body to fall off consistently at the exact same place every time – and I also leave with the “body memory” of having climbed through the sequence and to the top of the route. Another approach that can be effective to break “training the fall” is to deliberately take at some point before the section that causes difficulties and to take a rest on the rope for a minute or two (maybe where you can shake out, so it’s just a matter of degrees of resting), and then to get back on and attempt to climb all the way through the sequence and to the top of the climb.
The idea behind all these methods is to push your power endurance/everything else involved up to the level you’re asking your body to be at, and the beauty of sport climbing is that you can actually often do this on the very terrain where you want to excel and perform. Your project thus becomes your training tool to promote your peak performance. Note that this approach can and does work for less power-endurance specific routes as well – meaning you can use this to train more effective shaking out, endurance, power + endurance, and so forth – whatever you need to accomplish your goals on the rock. You simply want to train your body to feel what it feels like to succeed instead of training it to be strong just to the point of failure, and then leaving it at that without pushing it to go beyond that point.
Of course, you can easily overdo it with this, as with any training method – if things start to get messy and you can’t even do the moves again cleanly and your technique is falling apart, it’s time to call it a day on the proj, regardless of what you managed to do – you’re not going to help matters by training poor muscle movement or trying to push a body that’s exhausted to absorb more power endurance (or power) on the route. As with all training, you have to delicately walk the fine line of pushing hard without overdoing it and making room for enough rest and recovery before you go out and push it again – so you don’t fall into the pit of diminishing returns despite your solid efforts to push harder.
Remember, too, that tunnel vision on one hard route may not be the most effective and efficient way for you to push your power endurance (or any climbing skills, for that matter) to new levels. It may also rob you of the fun and joy of climbing. Having several varied projects in terms of level, skills needed (both technical and physical), angle and holds can be really helpful in keeping your interest up and your body adapting and molding your strength into climbing-valuable tools.
If you do have only one hard project (or no projects, for that matter), challenging onsighting days requiring various skills can also help you remain more balanced and less one-track-minded. I don’t suggest being super scattered if you’re projecting (like having 10 active projects that are truly hard for you); this makes it hard to reach your peak for any one of them as the focus is too dispersed and the movement-specific adaptations for peak performance at your real potential are unlikely to happen. But having 2 to 4 harder, project routes in play (maybe a couple in the gym and a couple outside) can help you stay diverse, challenging your body in different ways on different days. This can also help you avoid overuse/overtraining injuries, neuromuscular fatigue and sheer boredom.
Summing it up: Training power endurance requires a smart use of SAID and the overload principle, using care to not overdo it (overtrain) while still pushing the body hard enough to make the physiological adaptations required for you to increasingly be able to dish out the largest portions of your power base possible for 8 to 30 moves or thereabouts – followed potentially by being able to recover while climbing on easier terrain and/or via a shake-out spot on a decent (or even not-so-decent) hold, and then being able to dish out another powerful and/or continuous sequence of moves of the same difficulty or harder or easier difficulty, as is so often the case in sport climbing.
This leads us into my next series of training entries, covering climbing endurance… and I’m guessing you probably already have an idea of how to train for better sport-climbing endurance, given the way these entries covering the basic physical demands of climbing and training for them have played out so far.
~ Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
Alli Rainey (allirainey.com) discovered rock climbing more than 20 years ago, and it has been a driving passion in her life ever since. After incurring an injury that prompted her to explore training for climbing beyond just climbing itself, the results amazed her so much that she started studying the science of athletic training in earnest. This led her to become an ACTION Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and a climbing coach. Rainey is also a Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor (RYT-200) and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University.