Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Endurance (Part 8)
“A common misconception held by coaches is that aerobic exercise, resulting in what has been termed low-intensity exercise endurance (LIEE), is important for all sports. Although aerobic training is a great way to improve LIEE or aerobic fitness, it generally compromises an athlete’s ability to produce high forces or power outputs in a repetitive fashion, an ability required in most high-speed or strength and power-based sports.” (from Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training, by Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff)
“In today’s society aerobic endurance exercise has (unfortunately) become a fad, having had too much attention devoted to it.” (from Understanding Physical Conditioning: A Movement Based Approach, by Luis Preto)
Today’s entry kicks off another multi-part series on sport-climbing concepts in training: sport-climbing endurance. Welcome…
As I mentioned more than once throughout the series of entries on power endurance, drawing an exact line between power endurance and endurance in sport climbing borders on impossible. But let’s try anyhow, shall we?
We’ll start with another definition from Sport Fitness Advisor’s article “Muscular Endurance Training,” which defines “short-term muscular endurance” as consistent, muscularly taxing movements for 30 seconds to 2 minutes at 40 to 60 percent of an athlete’s 1-rep max (remember power endurance, according to this article, is 50 to 70 percent for 15 to 30 seconds). Training muscular endurance, according to this article, involves doing high-rep sets for a set number of reps or time period, with relatively short rests between sets (2 to 3 minutes).
This is followed by a definition of and how to train long-term muscular endurance for cyclical sports lasting longer than two minutes. Since hard sport climbing doesn’t require training for long-term, steady-state muscular endurance like this, this type of endurance isn’t relevant to our discussion – but I’ll circle back to it later in this endurance series to shed more light on why this isn’t particularly relevant (and may in fact, be counterproductive) for difficult sport-climbing efforts. You can reference the above quotes for starting insights into the why behind this fact. And yes, I realize that most of us spend way more time than two minutes per effort on a sport climb – but nonetheless, the type of exercise endurance we need to focus on the most for our hard efforts relies way more on the two-minute end of the spectrum rather than on the LIEE end of the spectrum.
For sport climbing, when we’re talking about numbers of moves and lengths of time in motion and percentages of power output to try to differentiate between power endurance and endurance, the line is blurry at best from a general training standpoint (though it can be much more specific if you have a known quantity to train for, like a long-term route project or a competition wall of a specific length and angle).
This is due largely to the fact that climbing terrain is so variable, meaning it’s unlikely that you’ll find many climbs out there that require a consistent 40 to 60 percent power output on every single move for 30 seconds to 2 minutes (or longer). Maybe one move will require 80 percent, the next 40, the next 60, the next 75, and so forth. Add to this the varying muscles and motions required for each move (acyclic movements), the fact that different climbers will be able to dish out higher and lower percentages of their relative power over the course of longer sequences, and that what makes each climber ultimately struggle or fall off depends on their individual strengths and weaknesses, and this can just seem utterly confusing to sort out.
The good news is that even within all this complexity, effective and efficient training for better endurance also comes back to SAID and overload. Thus, I don’t feel the need to devote a ton of time to rehashing these concepts, as I’ve discussed them in detail so much already. You will gain what you train, and bodies love sports specificity – meaning again, that if you only train on one angle, style, route, type of holds, or only do a specific number of moderately hard moves in every workout, that’s exactly what you’ll get good at (or eventually plateau at). To improve at climbing-specific endurance that you need for challenging sport routes, you should include all of the angles, moves, holds, and lengths of sequences into your regular mix of climbing – and at a high enough intensity to challenge your body to improve its endurance (and power endurance, while you’re at it – these are fairly easy to train together, do to their inherent overlap).
This is why doing huge volume days on really easy routes, while fun, tiring and good for general overall fitness (as a human being desiring a calorie-burning workout) and possibly good for technical skills work if you pay attention to movement, isn’t the most efficient or effective way to push your sport-climbing (endurance) level up for much harder efforts that require improved endurance. In other words, doing endless laps of 5.10 or 5.11 until you’re really pumped or exhausted isn’t the fastest path to take toward helping you crush your 5.13 or 5.14 project – unless you really ARE struggling to stay on the part of the climb (if it exists) that involves long sequences of pumpy 5.10 or 5.11 moves. And even if this is the case, you’ll need to add more specificity to your endurance training to reap the most efficient rewards. (If you’re planning to do huge multi-pitch days in the mountains on 5.10 or 5.11 terrain, this is much more applicable specificity training – but that’s not what I’m talking about here, of course).
In the ensuing entries, I’ll discuss the following five aspects of athletic endurance as they relate to sport climbing. These include: a) straight-up endurance for a single series of climbing moves, b) the endurance involved in shaking out, c) repetitive, same-route endurance efforts (which also can contain and depend on power and power endurance as well as endurance). I’ll also talk about d) how the cardio needed for sport climbing differs from what people tend to typically think of as cardio training and e) endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day or two+ days in a row.
Part 2 revolves around a) straight-up endurance for a single series of climbing moves.
So you just get pumped, right? No matter how “easy” the climbing is for you – you hit a certain point of no return, and you just can’t hang on anymore. The classic sport-climbing destination where this happens is Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, but it’s not the only place or style where I’ve heard this complaint voiced.
As I’ve already mentioned, endurance can be really hard to distinguish from power endurance because the two are so intertwined. Where do you draw the line, if it’s a 30-move sequence that takes you longer than 2 or 3 minutes to complete, but that involves little or no resting/shaking (nowhere comfortable, maybe just a brief shake here and there), several spaced moves (let’s say five) that feel close to maximal (80 to 90 percent), 10 moves that feel severely taxing (65 to 80 percent), and 15 that aren’t as taxing (40-65 percent).
Is this about 1) Strength and power? 2) Power endurance? 3) Endurance? 4) All of the above?
You probably know, especially if you’ve been reading this whole training series, that the answer is 4. It’s a combination of all of these – but ultimately, if you have the power (maximal strength level converted to performing specific climbing movements) to make those five near-maximal powerful moves feel less powerful, this leaves you with more potential power endurance, as every truly powerful move requires less of a percentage of your absolute maximal power.
If you have taken the time to build power endurance into your power, then, or as you build it, you’ll find it gradually easier to maintain a higher power output through the rest of the severely taxing movements, making them less taxing as well. And the less taxing movements (40 to 65 percent) will feel even less taxing, of course. So if you drop percentages off of all the moves – making the five hard moves require only 70 to 80 percent of your power, the 10 moves to require 55 to 70 percent, and the other 15 to require 30 to 55, that will theoretically be a much easier beast to manage, right?
This brings us back to the smart use of climbing-specific resistance training (most often weight training, which, btw, I do not consider cross training at all, but rather, an intelligent and proven method of sport-specific training) to improve your strength in relevant/appropriate areas and then to convert it into climbing power, power endurance and endurance via repetitive efforts within reason in real climbing situations that challenge you. Repeat as needed – it usually takes years of concerted effort, dedication, and patience to see the full potential results of this style of (often periodized) training. And every improvement in strength won’t automatically translate into wildly improved endurance or power endurance – you’ll have to build both of those up to the new strength level using repetition over time. (This almost always takes more time than you want or expect it to).
But what if your problem isn’t that the moves are hard – just more that you can’t hang on, no matter how easy the moves are, after a certain number of moves – and shaking out doesn’t help this situation? Or that you consistently fall when confronted with a whole bunch of easy moves followed by a harder move (even slightly harder), or even a really good shake and then a harder move?
This represents a need to train these types of efforts specifically at a high enough level to induce adaptations – so again, not just aimless climbing of laps on easy terrain until you’re pumped, but rather, choosing routes or setting routes of the styles, angles, moves and hold types that stymie you and then working hard to push your body to adapt in these exact types of situations. Working on improving endurance tends to be a grueling and painful effort, much like working on improving power endurance is – often because both can involve that dreadful feeling of painfully pumped forearms (or other body parts). Your goal is to induce that feeling on terrain that’s difficult enough to prompt your body to make the adaptations you’re after – not by climbing lots of laps on really easy terrain until you feel somewhat or really pumped, but rather, to work on the types of moves, angles, hold styles and so forth that bring you to that point of no return much sooner than 100+ moves into climbing (unless your route(s) of choice do in fact involve 100+ moves of continuous climbing with little to no rest).
Improved endurance can come as a by-product or bonus from working on power endurance, especially if you work longer series of difficult moves (on the 30+ side) without rests for you – this can lead you to feel less pumped/powered out and way stronger through longer series of even easier moves, for sure. But you can also definitely work more on straight-up endurance, too – by replicating as closely as possible the situations that cause you trouble, and pushing your body to adapt. This takes time – you may improve by one or two moves a day – but it works, so long as you actually push yourself, most easily by getting right back on when you fall and trying to continue climbing, continuing (if possible, as in the gym) on easier terrain if you need to.
While you work on this, you’ll also work on pacing, breathing, technical proficiency (efficient movement – a key to maximizing your ability to harness peak levels of your strength, power endurance and endurance) and learning when and how to shake out. I’ll continue talking about this last factor in the next entry.
Pacing, by the way, is a topic that I’ll discuss in a separate entry in a different series entirely – it’s different for everyone, but it’s a vital tactical component of learning how to maximize your own body’s capabilities and manipulating those capabilities to your advantage. And obviously, technique is another (potentially endless) series, too.
I’ll continue the discussion about a) straight-up endurance for a single series of climbing moves, adding in now, b), the endurance involved in shaking out.
One aspect of the getting pumped and not recovering even on easy terrain involves the inability to adequately recognize, use and recover on rests. People can fall on both ends of the spectrum – resting/shaking out too often for their own good (when moving makes more sense; again, the topic of pacing comes up here) or for too long a time, or alternately, not shaking out ever or not taking enough time at rests to recover adequately to continue.
Resting on routes is a critical endurance-related sport climbing technique that shouldn’t be overlooked or undertrained. Being able to utilize rests effectively involves building up the endurance to make rests truly restful – restful enough that they contribute to your success. So, resting on routes represents another key aspect of training for sport climbing. You need to train to recognize, use and recover on the rests, just like you train your body to move.
When I teach climbing clinics at events, this – along with poorly fitted shoes (usually way too big and often not conforming to the person’s individual foot, leading to poor footwork) – often pops up as one of the biggest issues for people. Sport climbing isn’t a race, and learning how to manage fatigue by effectively finding and using rests en route is a huge part of succeeding on difficult climbs, both onsights and redpoints. Sometimes even the briefest of awkward hand shakeouts can be the difference between success and failure on a route – but for the purposes of these entries (to keep from going way off on a tangent here), I’ll stick to a more basic concept of how to train resting.
Resting on routes cuts into your endurance because (unless you have a no-hands sit-down rest), you will still be taxing your whole body at some level while you rest. In other words, resting on routes almost always involves energy expenditure and endurance, and this includes no-hands kneebars (which I won’t discuss in depth here – too advanced – but they tax your body even while they give your hands and arms a rest). Think about the difference between sprinting for 30 seconds, then jogging hard for a minute, then sprinting for 30, vs. sprinting for 30, then jogging lightly or walking for a minute, then sprinting for another 30. Not quite the same as climbing, of course, but you get the picture, I hope. You’re still using your legs while you jog lightly or walk, but hopefully, you’re trained enough that the light jogging or walking helps you recover somewhat between sprint efforts, more than harder jogging would. Ditto for climbing rests – you want to train enough so that the rests are in fact rests, not draining you so that you just get more and more pumped or fatigued as you shake out in an effort to recover and continue climbing.
If you are getting more pumped or tired at a route’s clear rests, you need to train your body to learn the rest and to recover – and this can also take time. I have encountered rests too on routes too many times to count that have made me think, “Seriously? I’m going to rest here?” But with training and effort – meaning climbing up and shaking out in the rest and learning how to best position my body in the rest, my body has adapted these into rests as I worked the route. I’m sure most seasoned project climbers have felt the same adaptation occur. It takes an open mind, patience and repetition to make this happen.
Continuing to build on the concepts of a) straight-up endurance for a single series of climbing moves, plus b) the endurance involved in shaking out.
Okay, so how do you position your body in a rest? It’s also a common theme that I see people “rest” without actually taking the most restful position possible. In general, you want to look for rests that allow you the ability to hang straight-armed on similar, good handholds with both hands at roughly the same level, allowing you to easily let go and shake out first one hand, then the other. I shake out both above and below my head, first one arm, then the other, then back to the first arm, and so forth. I’ll also cycle my grips (change my finger/hand position on the hold with each shake out) or deliberately avoid whatever grip is coming up on the route. Achieving a straight-armed position often includes bending your legs so that you feel like you’re crouching. On vertical terrain especially, people often keep their legs straight and arms bent while they “rest,” but in doing so, they’re losing out on the full value of the rest by not bending their legs and lowering their body weight, thereby straightening their arms (though sometimes this isn’t possible, of course).
At some rests, you may find that to rest each hand/arm, you need to change your body position somewhat or entirely, shifting footholds or handholds or the way you’re turned in order to shake out each hand. Obviously, this is more stressful and less restful than more obvious rests, but it can be helpful nonetheless. You may also find a brief but crucial rest that involves only one hand/arm getting a quick shakeout, or a rest that happens mid move (a quick hand shake before grabbing the next hold), and so forth. Point being, rests are technical and should be part of the beta, particularly on hard projects.
You’ll also have to learn how to not overuse/abuse resting – in other words, resting more than you need to, or overresting. Just because you can shake out on a hold doesn’t mean you should or that it’s necessarily the right choice for you. If you’re not tired or pumped or powered out, sometimes it’s better to just keep climbing, to move more quickly through the moves rather than to stop and donate some energy to shaking out when you don’t really need to (yet). It can feel good mentally to take rests we don’t need sometimes, but it can also ultimately sabotage our performance. Having discipline and learning to discern when you really need to rest vs. when your brain wants to cling to the rest like a security blanket is a good thing to learn and master early.
In addition to learning how to find and use rests, you’ll also need to develop a sense of how long to stay at each rest to make it effective for you. This varies from individual to individual and ties in with your body’s genetic potential/muscle composition (i.e. natural predisposition) as well as your training.
A good starting guideline is to try to shake out until your breathing returns to normal and your forearms (or other fatigued body parts) don’t feel as worked as they did when you arrived at the rest (ideally, not worked at all, but this isn’t usually possible). For some people, longer rests can be really effective in certain situations, depending (among other aspects) on the upcoming moves, how drained the climber is when he/she arrives at a rest and that climber’s ability to recover on the rest without losing ground in crucial areas needed for the next series of moves – so it’s something to experiment with and learn about on an individual basis.
Every climber has to play with the rests and figure out what’s optimal, and not spend more time on each rest than he or she needs to recover enough to do the rest of the moves. One really powerful climber may need only 10 seconds or may only have 10 seconds to recover before he starts to feel more pumped than rested, while another not-so-powerful but endurance-gifted climber might need 5 minutes or more of shaking out to recoup enough power to perform the next sequence. And both of those climbers might be able to train to improve on these relative extremes, so that the powerful climber might be able to train his body to effectively rest without getting more pumped for 30 seconds, getting more back, and thus potentially be able to perform harder sequences of moves after rests on harder routes – and the endurance climber likewise might be able to train to become more powerful, showing up at these rests less powered out, needing less time to rest and being able to continue on – or to do more powerful moves, rest the same amount of time, and then again do more powerful moves.
This leads us to the next area of discussion in these endurance entries: c) repetitive, same-route endurance efforts (which also often contain and depend on power and power endurance as well as endurance).
Part 5’s topic: c) repetitive, same-route endurance efforts (which also often bring in power and power endurance as well as endurance).
Routes that demand repeated high-level power and/or power endurance efforts separated by rests (especially somewhat draining rests) represent the greatest challenges for me. I’m better off if the route is more about endurance plus power or power endurance or even more endurance – meaning that I climb through a bunch of submaximal moves (40 percent of power moves or thereabouts) for a long time, then I get a good rest, then I have to do more endurance climbing or alternately, something somewhat powerful or power-endurancey, I’m okay or even better off than a lot of other folks – because I start into the crux fresher with a greater percent of my power recuperated than a climber with less endurance for recovering at rests. (Back to training your body to recover at rests and how important this skill is to cultivate).
But if I drain my power and power endurance down to almost 0 in an 8 to 30-move sequence, then hit an okay but still taxing rest, and then I have to do another sequence above this that involves another 8 to 30 moves at a fairly high power intensity for me with little or no rest – ugh (or two or three of those – double or triple ugh!). So hard and painful, so difficult to take, whether a climber’s battling forearm fatigue/pump or (as is more often the case for me), the inability to pull through the complete range of motion anymore, meaning I’ll get repeatedly kicked off whatever long, powerful, lock-off or dynamic move is involved – or if I complete that move, I’ll likely then get frozen in the “finished” position, meaning I’m handcuffed and can’t move any limb without falling – no strength left to pull or even pick up a foot. Lovely situation, that.
The difficulty builds rapidly in these situations when enough moves in the sequences at hand cut into a climber’s power enough times to start to put them into a depleted state, drawing too much on the anaerobic system for them to be able to recoup enough to continue climbing even at the rests – that dreaded “just can’t get it back enough” feeling that can stick with you even while you shake out (or that sticks with me), when I know that I’m not recovering. Of course – again – the only solution to this that I know of is to follow all of the same guidelines I’ve been outlining – to train for what you want to gain. Refine the beta to the most efficient and least wasteful movements possible, train the rests as hard and as much as the climbing, and push your body to build up the required specific power, power endurance and endurance combination needed with reasonable repetition at a high intensity level.
And once again – that same old big-picture, long-term solution emerges, that if you’re getting too much of a depletion going on the specific sequences of moves – so much that you can’t build up enough to recover and continue climbing at a rest on a particular route or on route after route after route of similar difficulty with similar movements or series of moves – it might be worthwhile to identify areas of weakness (always the reason for falling – we don’t fall because of what we’re good at!) and to strengthen those with targeted training in the off season so that you can return to these types of routes or a particular project with improved strength. That increased strength can be molded into climbing-specific power, power endurance and endurance – meaning you should be able to build up to making it to the rest in fewer attempts (because you’re using less power on every move); you should also be able to recover better on the rest with training as well – because you’ve taken less out of your power base in the previous sequence, meaning you don’t need to recover for as long a time before you’re ready to tackle the next hard sequence.
So if before the route required 8 hard moves before a rest that required the following percentages of your power: 50, 40, 85, 70, 60, 40, 40, 60 – if you can change that to 45, 35, 80, 65, 55, 35, 35, 55 – that 5 percent difference can make all the difference in the world on a rest, allowing you to recoup enough to do another series of hard-ish moves above. (Of course it’s never so linear or perfect – but you hopefully get the idea!). Remember, though, that this conversion isn’t immediate; after you strength train your body needs time to adapt new strengths into your climbing performance, meaning you’ll have to spend time specifically training your body to climb hard, rest and shake, climb hard, rest and shake, and so forth.
This is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), by the way – a cardio-intensive workout. More about this next time.
~ 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. Facebook: /alliraineyclimbing; Twitter/Instagram/LinkedIn: allirainey