Alli Rainey: Improve Your Climbing – Endurance Continued (Part 9)
This part explains: d) how the cardio needed for sport climbing differs from what we typically think of as cardio training.
“…[E]xercising the lower limbs does not build endurance in the arms, and running does not build as much endurance in cycling as actual cycling does.” (Understanding Physical Conditioning: A Movement Based Approach, by Luis Preto)
Do you think sport climbing doesn’t “count” as a cardio activity? Do you think running (or biking or rowing or swimming or any other cyclical exercise – meaning an exercise that involves repetitive motions) is good training for climbing or necessary for weight maintenance and overall fitness?
I wouldn’t be so sure on either of these, actually. Sport-climbing endurance has very little in common with low-intensity exercise endurance (LIEE), the kind of aerobic fitness gained through cyclic activities like running or biking or swimming.
Let’s back up for a minute though, so I can briefly share my own background with climbing training, which does have some relevance here, as my beliefs have radically changed in this area over the past few years as I’ve educated myself about athletic training and what the science says.
I like running. I ran as a part of my “training for climbing” for years and years and years. I firmly believed it was a crucial component of my climbing training and general fitness upkeep, along with flexibility training (stretching) and regularly putting in 5 to 7-hour training sessions in the climbing gym or turning in 10-pitch days on the rocks. Yeah, as you might suspect, I’m a typical genetically-predisposed endurance athlete who likes to train endurance – because most of us tend to be drawn, when consciously or subconsciously or a little bit of both, toward what we’re best at in both training (if we love to train) and in choosing climbing terrain, I believe.
It’s fun – training what we’re good at and climbing on what we’re naturally best at – and it makes us feel good and strong and like we’re doing something worthwhile. I sure did feel that way for years and years of practicing the above – and part of that involved running 6 miles several times a week (and shorter distances other times), climbing lots of vertical or just off-vertical pitches, and “training” in the gym for five-hour or longer climbing sessions, during which I even supposedly worked my weaknesses at times with lengthy bouldering sessions as well.
Even after I proved to myself long ago (I’m talking a decade ago or more) that running hurt my climbing if I did it right before a climbing day, because my legs were tired – I couldn’t send a project route after a long run the day before, but when I rested the day before, I did the route – I still ran for years after that.
I only gradually and reluctantly stopped running and started walking or practicing yoga on rest days (with some REAL rest days of doing nothing thrown in there) as I started learning more about training, though. And through these past few years, I’ve come to believe strongly that running isn’t a necessary component of sport climbing training – and that it’s actually counterproductive for sport climbers to run hard or long distances if they’re interested in maximizing their performance in hard efforts on the rocks. (Don’t get me wrong, here – if you love running, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it; I’m just suggesting that those interested in training for sport-climbing or bouldering performance should be aware of the realities of the lack of a positive relationship between hard sport climbing/bouldering performances and cyclical LIEE sports like distance running).
Distance running, swimming, rowing, cycling and other such cyclical aerobic activities involve low-intensity exercise endurance (LIEE), so labeled and defined in Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training, by Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff (hereafter referred to as Periodization). According to this (awesome) textbook on athletic training:
“The contemporary literature indicates that LIEE training should not be used for athletes in sports that predominantly rely on anaerobic energy supply, require high levels of force production, require high rates of force development, call for fast velocities or movement, or require high levels of power output… The use of LIEE techniques will decrease performance capacity for athletes who participate in sports that require the ability to repetitively produce high power outputs.”
Since hard sport climbing requires all of the above, obviously it follows that incorporating LIEE methods of aerobic conditioning aren’t the most efficient or effective way to develop or improve your sport-climbing-relevant endurance – in fact, they’re more likely to sabotage your efforts. If you want to learn about this in more detail and really get convinced to ditch your cyclical aerobic distance training if what you’re interested in is hard sport climbing, I highly recommend this book – and in particular, Chapter 11: Endurance Training – for more on how and why LIEE training isn’t good for sport-climbing performance; I could pretty much quote this entire chapter, but you should just read it if you want to learn. Follow this with Understanding Physical Conditioning: A Movement Based Approach, by Luis Preto, to seal the deal; if you want straight-up, no-nonsense insights into how to develop a practical, efficient and effective training plan out of all the science and theory out there, this book is a great starting place to help guide you on that path.
Let’s return to the first question I asked now – do you think sport climbing (at an intense level for you, especially) doesn’t count as a cardio activity? I challenge you to wear a heart rate monitor at the crag or through a training day and then make that claim. The results might astonish you, actually. They astonished me, even though I already knew that climbing makes me breathe hard. Sport climbing hard makes your heart beat fast and makes you breathe hard; it makes your heart work to return a large amount of blood to your muscles.
You’re right that sport climbing isn’t the same type of cardio as LIEE activities (running, biking, swimming, rowing, etc.), but it’s still training your cardiorespiratory system. This type of exercise endurance is called high-intensity exercise endurance (HIEE) in Periodization; it’s the type of endurance training and cardio conditioning most relevant and applicable to sport climbing. Interestingly enough, while LIEE training isn’t recommended for athletes in sports requiring mainly HIEE (like sport climbing), the opposite is not true – using HIEE to train for improved LIEE has been shown to be effective.
Back to climbing, though – so what we want in hard sport climbing is to push our bodies’ abilities to perform shorter-term sequences of movements requiring variable but often relatively high percentages of our maximal power, and then to be able to rest and recover (on holds) for short periods of time and then continue on with more of the same. In other words, hard sport climbing requires HIEE – which is best trained through interval training that attempts to mimic the energy demands of the sport in question.
And again, we’re right back to SAID – specific adaptations to imposed demands – and the Overload Principle (OP); we need to stress our body in the exact way that it will be taxed on sport climbs or as close to it as possible in order to stimulate the relevant endurance adaptations we’re after for hard sport climbing. In other words, we need to train climbing intervals at a high enough level of intensity to stimulate the adaptations we need to accomplish our goals. We need to perform a series of continuously challenging, high-intensity movements to a rest, shake out and attempt to recover, and repeat.
I believe one of the biggest mistakes climbers make when trying to train this way is making the intervals too easy (i.e. those huge-volume pumpy laps on easy-ish terrain workouts). To stimulate adaptations for harder sport climbing, the intervals need to be hard, so that you’re struggling to make it through each interval and working to train the rests as well, to be able to push on and continue with the next hard interval even when your brain says it can’t possibly do one more move. Part of this involves getting right back on when you fall off and trying to keep going to finish the interval, if possible (whether on different holds or on the same route). You’ll be tired and probably sore after such a workout – and then you’ll need to rest and recover before you push hard again. This is HIEE training specifically for sport climbing (and yes, if need be, you can break out specific and problematic components of this and train them on their own, too, primarily via a variety of climbing-specific resistance training methods outside of climbing).
“Once again – all the running (or biking, swimming, rowing) in the world won’t improve your HIEE for hard sport climbing and may actually hurt it: “LIEE or aerobic training does not allow for the maximal development of the lactic-acid buffering capacity. … In fact, it is likely that incorporating LIEE training methods in the training plans of anaerobic athletes will decrease HIEE.” (again, from Periodization).
The point of all these quotes is that it’s not just me individually saying, “No, you don’t need to run and you probably shouldn’t if all you care about is dedicating your training time to improving at sport climbing (or bouldering); it’s the literature based on scientific studies on the matter. And I even like running, as I’ve mentioned before, so this also isn’t a desperate personal attempt to talk my way out of it (I still want to run, btw, and when I hurt my arm last year and couldn’t climb, I did do a ton of trail running – small compensation for not climbing, but I needed to do something active for my sanity until I could climb again). I’ve leaned heavily on the Periodization text throughout this discussion to support my claims here as I know that many people will still stoutly argue that they need to run (or do some cardio) to stay fit or that running helps their climbing.
But I don’t believe either to be the case, unless we’re talking about a mental/psychological benefit of feeling like you’re fitter because you feel better about yourself when you run (I know I did before I learned more about it and that I was actually not helping myself and probably hindering my efforts). You don’t need to run or do long-distance rhythmic cardio to stay fit, actually. Read “Aerobic Exercise & Strength Training: Does It Help or Hurt?” for a great look at this misconception that still dominates in our athletic culture (along with the idea of stretching before exercise, which thankfully is starting to be understood by more and more people as a no-no), followed by “High Intensity Workouts and Endurance,” which explains how you can make more fitness gains by using short-term, low-volume, high-intensity endurance workouts (and reduce body fat) instead of slogging away for hours and hours of running (or cycling or swimming, etc.) every week.
As for me, these days I either walk or practice yoga when I feel like I need to move and it’s a rest day from climbing. I actively train endurance, power endurance and/or power/strength during my climbing-related training or climbing days (more often than not a mixture of all), and I have real rest days (meaning no activity whatsoever) in addition to more active “rest” days (which are of course not real rest days if they involve physical activity). Do I “like” this inactivity? Of course not. I’m a training-obsessed athlete who always feels guilty for resting, but I’m getting better and better at it. The more I see the results, the easier it gets, though I’ll probably always struggle with the idea that I’m “not doing enough,” given my lengthy history as a huge-volume endurance workout lover.
Next up (and final topic in this endurance series): e) Endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day or two+ days in a row.
On to the final topic of this endurance for sport climbing series: e) Endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day or two+ days in a row.
Let’s start with part one of this topic – endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day.
How many times can you attempt a hard project (or multiple difficult onsights) and realistically hope to have a chance of sending it per day? And how much time should you rest between full attempts or even partial attempts (i.e., you climb to a certain hard part and fall off there and then lower down instead of finishing the route in an effort to save your energy for the next attempt)? And how many times should you have partial attempts before you get into full attempts on the route in a day?
As usual and as you might suspect, there is no hard-‘n’-fast rule or simple answer to any of these questions. Instead, I’ll try to give some general guidelines and advice.
First of all, for number of attempts on a hard project per day, this depends on how hard the project actually is for you (i.e. how close it is to your real physical limit/potential at the moment), how close you are to sending it (i.e. how much fitness and technical efficiency you have built up for this route in particular or for similar routes in terms of movement, style, difficulty, length, angle, and so forth), your current state of recovery (i.e. are you totally rested or are you feeling somewhat depleted), and on the general style of the route (i.e. is the route heavily weighted on taxing your endurance? Does it involve mellow climbing up to a distinctively hard crux and then more mellow climbing? Or does it drain all of your reserves – power, power endurance, and endurance?), to name some variables.
Add to this that conditions can play a role in the amount of worthwhile attempts you can have. When it’s really hot, your skin, fingers, and hands are likely to fatigue faster than in better conditions – your sweatier skin gets more torn up (more flappers and tender fingertips), and you tend to hang on harder to compensate for the diminished friction, both between your fingers/hands and the holds, as well as your shoe rubber and the holds; it’s more common for feet to unexpectedly pop off in hot weather or for edges to roll. It’s harder to maintain mental focus as well – the discomfort of heat (or heat and humidity) can kill all desire to climb.
Similarly, very cold conditions can make it hard to warm up and to hold the warm up, difficult to keep fingers and toes from numbing out, and make (again) for poorer friction, leading to dry firing (when dry, cold, numbed fingers inadvertently slide out of position or right off a hold when you go to move). Muscles also move more slowly when they’re cold, which can decrease the climber’s efficiency of movement. Cold conditions can force a climber to have to repeatedly rewarm up to avoid numb appendages, possibly performing mini warm-ups by climbing with extra clothes on before every real attempt in order to rewarm the body, particularly the fingers and toes. Rests between routes might have to be shortened in order to maintain a warmed up body, despite the relative lack of recovery between attempts.
I mention conditions here because they really do play a huge factor into hard route attempts – but generally speaking, the easier the route is for you relative to your maximal physical ability level, the less conditions will affect your performance or chances of sending on any given day, though some of us may be more sensitive/susceptible to certain variances in temperature than others. It’s best to be aware of accepting of your own individual response to severe weather conditions, understanding that one man’s “perfect sending temps,” might be another lady’s “I can’t climb my warm-up” conditions. Instead of fighting this, just acknowledge your own body’s abilities to handle or not handle the given conditions, and adjust your mindset/expectations (best not to have any anyhow, right?) and climbing plans for the day accordingly.
In the next entry, I’ll get to the point – how to calculate an appropriate number of attempts on a hard climb per day, in conditions that suit you, and how much rest you might want to take between efforts.
Continuing with part one of the final topic of this endurance for sport climbing series – endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day.
So the conditions are perfect and you’re going to try to send or have a good, solid effort on your project. You’ve warmed up well, using your normal warm-up protocol, and you feel great. How long do you rest before trying the project the first time?
Usually 20 to 45 minutes suffices, just to be sure that you’re not carrying residual fatigue from the warm-up (which shouldn’t leave you flash pumped, or with a super-painful and hard to dissipate pump, or feeling very fatigued – if you’re very fatigued after your warm-up, it wasn’t a true warm-up!).
What if you get on the route, and it has a hard, powerful crux right off the ground, and you fall off of the second move?
If this happens, try hanging for a few seconds, performing the second move properly (which can help you warm up for the specific movement in question), and then lowering down, popping your shoes off, and resting for 5 to 7 minutes. Walk around and stay warm, and then tie back in and try again. (Of course, if your partner’s not game, you’ll have to adjust to his/her schedule and what they’re okay with). The point of this is that falls low on a route due to an early power outage (often meaning your muscles aren’t quite warmed up) or inefficiency in delivering power (i.e. movement error) don’t usually require a huge recovery period before you try again, especially if you lower off instead of continuing to climb for the rest of the route (then your recovery period will depend on the demands the rest of the route places on you).
“Even if the powerful section is higher on the route or longer, if a route is not really draining your endurance (or power endurance) and is more about straight-up power delivery with some much easier climbing for you before and after, you can rest less and still recover enough to try again in a relatively short time – usually 20 or 30 minutes works well for me.
When you start to dig into your power endurance and endurance reserves – when you’re on the route, breathing hard and trying hard consistently or repetitively at or near your limit for 10 minutes or longer (including rests while en route, of course), most people will need longer periods of time to recover between efforts. This holds true for routes that place huge demands on your power along with power endurance and endurance as well. It can take 45 minutes or an hour or even an hour and 10 or 20 minutes to recover enough from monumentally sapping routes at the edge of a climber’s physical ability level.
Added to this complexity is that if the route has powerful moves near your limit AND requires a high output of power endurance and/or endurance as well, you might only have one solid, full attempt in you on the route per day, especially when you first start to project it. If you get on for a second effort after a lengthy rest and find that you’re too fatigued to perform the powerful opening moves or the powerful crux correctly anymore, be okay with calling it a day on that route – instead of getting frustrated about why you can’t do the moves again. You can’t because you’re powered out; all you will do by persisting in your efforts to force your body to continue trying is further exhaust the muscles involved while training and engraining incorrect, inefficient movements and techniques instead of the refined, perfected movements you want to teach your body, encouraging injury and prolonging your recovery time.
As you build up the fitness for this project, you may find that eventually, you will start to be able to put in two solid, real, valuable burns on the route per day, or even three – especially if you start lowering down when you fall instead of completing the route. Of course, the flipside of this approach is that if you lower down after every effort that results in a fall at the same place and you never complete the route after the fall, you could wind up losing the fitness required to complete the route should you make it through the troublesome spot (your crux).
So you’ll have to balance your desire for multiple attempts per day with the bigger-picture need to maintain/build enough fitness to complete the rest of the route once you’ve made it through the crux. The importance of climbing to the top of the route depends largely on how difficult the climbing is for you above the sticking point – i.e., on your 5.13a project, is it a bunch of 5.10 jug hauling that you’d never fall off in your life? Or is it spicy 5.11+ climbing with a couple 12a moves in there that exploit your weakest link in climbing? Obviously, repetitive practice on the latter is far more important to prevent post-crux falling than it is on the former.
If the route isn’t near your actual physical ability limit, however – if you’re still refining beta and making your movements more and more efficient with each subsequent attempt – you can get away with more solid efforts at real sending on any given day. It’s not uncommon to send a route on the third attempt of the day – or even fourth or fifth – when this is the case.
So it appears that the less absolute power (followed by higher-level power endurance) a route scrapes away with each effort, the more chances you have of doing it on a later attempt per day. And yet, it also seems that the longer the difficult route effort (in terms of time spent on the rock), too, the less chances a person has of doing it on later attempts (I’m talking here about go’s four and five, and sometimes even go three) in the day, as the accumulation of fatigue will be greater for longer periods of time spent on the rock than for shorter periods. You’ll need longer rest periods to recover from these longer efforts, and eventually you’ll start hitting a point of diminishing returns (usually indicated by getting pumped earlier on the route than before or failing on relatively easy sequences), meaning your endurance isn’t recovering enough for you to continue making gains on this route on this day.
1) The easier a project/route is for you in terms of your current maximal physical ability level, the greater the number of productive, realistic sending efforts you can have on it on the same day.
2) The opposite is also true, meaning the harder a project/route is for you in terms of your current maximal physical ability level, the fewer the number of productive, realistic sending efforts you can have on it on the same day. By maximal physical ability level, I’m not talking about routes you can send in 5 or even 15 or even 30 tries. Routes that are truly at or just slightly above your current maximal physical ability potential will take many more days and efforts than this, because even after you’ve refined the beta, you’ll still need time to build up your power endurance and endurance to the specific demands of the routes (possible also needing to mold your current raw strength into coordinated power for specific difficult movements as well).
3) As your fitness and efficiency of movement improve on a long-term, extremely difficult project, you’ll gradually increase the number of productive, realistic sending efforts you can have on it on the same day.
4) Lowering down instead of continuing on when you fall can increase your number of productive, realistic sending efforts per day, but this must be balanced with maintaining appropriate fitness for and knowledge of the terrain you’ll have to climb in order to complete the route once you make it through the sticking point.
5) The more a route detracts from your maximal power base, the fewer realistic sending attempts you’ll have on it each day.
6) Generally speaking, the longer the time you spend on the rock in each hard redpoint effort, the longer the rest period you’ll need to be recovered enough to make another solid attempt.
7) Time your rests and come up with a formula that works best for you and your body. Be willing to experiment with longer and shorter rest periods. What works best for your body to optimize sending may vary according to terrain and route style, and it definitely varies from individual to individual.
Second-to-last entry on the final topic of this endurance for sport climbing series: e) Endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day or two+ days in a row. Today I’ll start to tackle part two – trying hard projects more than one day in a row.
Do you want to climb the most difficult sport route or routes that you can possibly climb, picking a project or two that lie just at the edge or even slightly beyond the edge of your current ability level?
If the answer is yes, prepare to log a lot of couch time to optimize your chances of sending.
Many sport climbers never rest enough to really see or understand or climb to their full potential in terms of sending the most difficult project(s) they possibly could. And if that’s not important, and climbing more at a lower level (even if it’s relatively high compared to others – comparing, which for our own happiness and sanity, we really shouldn’t do but we all do anyway; such is the human condition) is more fun and important to you, this is a fine and admirable and totally acceptable choice, of course! Nobody should judge anybody else’s choices in climbing reasons or goals – we all have the freedom to prioritize and climbing decisions are totally personal, so if you hate training and love climbing as much as possible, that’s awesome.
The point of this part of the series is not to insist or even to suggest that you should change what you’re doing, but rather, to help you make an informed decision about your choices in terms of days on and days off – especially if you really do want to climb at your current physical limit or push that limit higher, faster (big-picture faster). And if you really want to climb at and tap into your full potential, you’ll likely need more rest days or at least, more light-to-moderate days interspersed with your high-intensity project days in order to achieve truly peak sends. In other words, if you can sustain three or more days on climbing at the same level pretty handily, you’re most likely not pushing your upper ability limits – because no matter what level of climber you are, you’re still a human being. And human beings cannot recover from truly maximal intensity athletic efforts that challenge their peak levels overnight, day in and day out.
Sure, you can find some “hard” routes that play to your particular strengths, and you can also refine the movements on routes that might feel hard at first and come back the next day and climb them more efficiently and send them while carrying a little fatigue – but you cannot dish out repeated maximal performance efforts over and over and over again all day, and then do the same the next day and the day after that. If you’re projecting powerful, draining routes that are truly at your limit, you simply cannot sustain a three-day on pace, or even a two-day on pace when you first start trying the route (and maybe not ever, depending on how much each effort takes out of you). You will need more rest to make the progress and gains you’re after.
Many climbers choose not to take this approach to climbing because it limits how much you can climb and makes it hard to schedule your climbing days regularly. Say you put in a huge intensity effort on a really powerful, long route for you. If you wake up the next day absolutely destroyed, you’re probably not going to be recovered fully even the next day after that, and sometimes even for the next day. Where’s the fun in that, right? If you get to climb one or two days on, and then need two or three days off in order to make progress, it can definitely be frustrating and feel like not enough climbing, and it can take a lot of willpower to have the discipline to stick with a project like this without sabotaging your efforts by doing too much. If this isn’t fun for you, definitely don’t do it!
Even if you ARE a person like me who enjoys flirting with that absolute-limit-or-just-beyond-it line in sport climbing (I love to take what feels impossible and gradually make it possible for my body more than anything else in climbing), so much resting also often involves a huge mental challenge, trying to deal with the voices that scream those not-so-helpful things like, “Losing fitness!” “Getting fat!” “You should train!” “Still too weak!” and so forth. I’ve made the mistake too many times to count of listening to those voices even with an exhausted and unrecovered body and forced the next session of climbing or training, only to pay the price with even greater declines in next-day performance, overtraining, overuse, burnout and even injuries.
However, if your project isn’t so close to your true upper limit – meaning it doesn’t dig so deeply into your current physical capabilities – and you still have beta refining to do, including technical work, pacing, resting en route, and so forth, you can often get in more burns than one or two per day, depending on the route’s style. I’ve sent projects on my fifth go of the day, but they weren’t maximal projects; for me, this tends to happen on routes that are more endurance-oriented by nature (not draining my power that much with each attempt) and that I’ve been still refining beta on with each subsequent go (movements and tactics getting more efficient every time). But I’d say that nearly every severely challenging project has gone down first or second (full) go of the day for me – after that, my power is usually drained too much to maintain a solid effort (not counting misfired starts on bouldery-start routes, which I discussed in an earlier entry in this series).
Remember (to repeat myself) that by maximal physical ability level/potential, I’m not talking about routes you can send in 5 or even 15 or even 30 tries. Routes that are truly at or just slightly above your current maximal physical ability level’s potential for performance will take many more days and efforts than this. Your relationship with a long-term project like this can last for months or even years, depending on how far you reach. You’ll have to slowly build up specific fitness (endurance/power endurance) and power (molded strength trained into coordination for specific climbing movements) for the sequences on routes that push your true limits. These are the types of routes for which training to get stronger in specific angles and motions away from the route can provide a more efficient strategy in the big picture, too. Such routes have the potential to be our greatest teachers and motivators, so long as we don’t get frustrated with the process and we intersperse our efforts with other, lesser beasts that don’t dig so deeply into our maximal physical performance capabilities in the present.
Final entry on the final topic of this endurance for sport climbing series: e) Endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day or two+ days in a row. Today I’ll finish part two – trying hard projects more than one day in a row.
While I really enjoy climbing at or even beyond my limit, I also like climbing more than one day on, three days off (or more). What I’ve found that seems to work fairly well for getting more climbing in but still pushing that limit is changing the terrain and project level/style for two days on, but also, being willing and ready to call it on any given day should I find that I’m too exhausted to feel strong at all, even on my lowly second-day-on project. And of course, I could pick easier projects and it would be easier to recover and easier to sustain more climbing days and more attempts per day – but as I said, I like the impossible challenges, and I understand what it takes to even have a chance at them – it takes more rest and a flexible mind able to properly handle and interpret my body’s reactions to each new challenge without freaking out about “too much rest.” This never gets easy.
So if you want to climb two days on and your first-day project is a real reach, experiment with selecting second-day projects that aren’t quite as hard as the first-day project for whatever reason (and this doesn’t have to be a grade thing; it can be a style thing, too – so the routes could have the same grade but the second-day one plays more to your strengths). This helps keep boredom at bay and avoids conditioning your body to only one particular set of movements or angle or style of climbing, too. You don’t need only two projects either; having two major ones and one or two minor ones can really help keep it fresh and keep boredom and only conditioning your body to one route (i.e. repeatedly drilling only one set of holds, angle, or style of movement, encouraging the development of one-dimensional climbing skill sets) out of the picture, helping you to avoid repetitive overuse injuries as well.
The takeaway message here is that no matter what level you climb at, human bodies work the same, in that volume is inversely related to intensity (a basic training premise). If you’re consistently climbing at a high volume, you’re not really climbing at a high intensity for your body, even if the climbs feel hard to you from day to day. If you rested more or moderated the number of pitches you did each day (or both), you’d likely be able to climb at a higher intensity (harder climbs) than if you go for broke every day (which actually lands you in the middle ground of what you could potentially climb, because you’re never recovered enough to push hard near your real limits, and consequently, by not pushing hard, you don’t make the gains you potentially good with higher intensity efforts). Remember, volume = frequency + duration. If you climb for a long duration of time per climb/log numerous climbs per climbing day and you have five or six climbing days per week – especially if you try hard every day – you definitely aren’t climbing at peak intensity, meaning that you’re not climbing at or near your true physical limits.
It’s the same with single-move power – you can’t put out 100 percent maximal power repetitively. It follows that if you project a route that involves moves requiring you to truly dish out high percentages of your maximal power, you won’t be able to put a bunch of burns on it, nor will you be able to put in lots of days in a row on it. (This is a good measuring stick actually about how hard the moves really are for you on the routes you’re trying – if you can do them every day, day in and day out they’re not cutting into your power that much, and given enough time doing this, you may actually start to lose power/strength if you don’t address this issue).
So while you can build up on specific routes or in specific areas to be able to put in more attempts per day and more days per week by employing SAID/OP, you should also understand the value of restingand the consequences of truly high-intensity efforts in terms of recovery (i.e. not expecting to do better on the same extremely difficult, powerful, draining route two days in a row, especially when you first start to work on it and you’re still adapting your power, power endurance and endurance to the new challenge). Yes, you can climb two days in a row and yes, you can send projects on your fifth go or on your second day on (I certainly have), but these types of projects aren’t likely to be routes that are truly taxing the upper levels of your absolute physical capabilities when you send them. For those, you’ll need more rest for success/adaptation – or otherwise, just to be comfortable with choosing projects that are a little less maximal so that you can recover faster for more days of climbing.
Of course because of the complexity of sport climbing, it’s hard to come up with a hard-‘n’-fast rule that applies all places all the time, as in, “if you want to climb routes pushing your maximal ability level, try the route 2 times a day, resting one hour between go’s after warming up for x minutes on a route of y difficulty and then take two days off to recover completely.” It is not that simple and never will be.
Add to this that fitness will change as you get fit to a route or a style of climbing or both; strength gains may come as you work a route over time for long enough; neuromuscular adaptations will help you refine movements making you more efficient, and you’ll usually dish out less power as you become more efficient, as your body learns with pinpoint precision exactly how to regulate and deliver what’s needed for each move. As that happens, you’ll recover better/faster because the intensity of the route will lessen in terms of overall power/strength drain per move. Meanwhile you’ll be building up power endurance and endurance (including the ability to rest/recover on holds), so the route will gradually become less challenging overall. This will eventually lead you to being able to put more efforts into the route on the same day, and possibly to even getting in two worthwhile days on that route at some point.
“Bodies are built to adapt; this is exactly why exercise programs that feel hard at first and might qualify as high-intensity when you start them can within months or years become easy, routine, boring and low-intensity, no longer pushing your body to adapt. Same with working routes – as you adapt, they become less intense as they once were, and this allows you to put in more volume, more frequency and duration, as you move toward your goal of sending. As the intensity diminishes, the volume can increase.
In the end, the decisions about how hard to project, how many times a day to try, how many days on, and how many rest days between efforts all need to be based on a general understanding of how bodies work along with a specific understanding of your own body’s response to the routes you’re trying. If you have a negative progress day on a route you’re working and you’ve been making progress – and especially if you FEEL poorly on the route and haven’t been resting a lot – that’s a good indication that more rest is needed (not that you need to train harder or climb more, which is a common place to go in one’s mind when this happens). If you feel trashed on your second burn of the day, experiment with taking a longer rest between burns next time (this was a surprising revelation to me a few years back; a friend told me I wasn’t resting enough between go’s on a route I was trying to project in a day – so I rested an hour instead of 30 minutes and promptly sent the route easily, fourth try of the day. Lesson learned!).
If you want to reach really far and try a route that is right at the edge of your ability or even slightly beyond it, prepare to feel totally thrashed and exhausted and ready to rest as much as needed to compensate for your troubles after your attempt, if you want to reap the fastest big-picture gains possible. By big-picture, I mean taking the longer view of understanding that muscles only adapt and grow stronger when we rest, not when we train, so if a route truly taps into your potential near or at or beyond your current physical limits, you will need to rest longer in order to recover and adapt to the movements you’re asking your body to learn and build up to. The small-lens view says, “I want to climb as much as possible right now,” and that’s really fun, but it won’t allow you to push your true limits in terms of absolute ability/potential in the present, because it won’t allow you to ever be fully recovered enough to realize or push your potential, especially not in terms of complex, multidisciplinary (routes demanding high levels of your power, power endurance and endurance), at-your-limit sport-climbing efforts.
~ 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