Endurance training for rock climbers

FullSizeRenderThe number one training request I get is for Endurance. Everyone assumes the reason they are falling off of a route or find themselves “taking” is because they are pumped and reason that it must be because they don’t have enough endurance to keep climbing. It’s possible that this is the case, but it depends on the objective where this is happening (the route, boulder, move), the climber’s fitness and ability, and style of the objective (sustained, powerful, physical, etc). There are different types of endurance that would help suit the climbing goal and influence the successful completion of said goal. Doing 10 pitches of 5.9 in one route vs. 10 pitches  of 5.9 to 5.11 sport cragging, multi-pitch mixed ice and rock, or a weekend bouldering trip requires a different type of endurance fitness. Like track, cross country, and marathon training, you don’t want to train for a marathon when you’ll actually be performing the equivalent of a half mile all day. In this blog post, I hope to capture the value and applicability for Endurance training: what it is, how to think about it, when to train it and types of endurance training techniques that suit the expected application.

What is Endurance?

In its simplest definition, Endurance is the ability to sustain performance in your sport for a set period of time. The higher your endurance, the longer you can sustain your performance. The analogy of a marathon suits this discussion well. A marathon is an activity that is performed over the course of many hours. 24 hours of horseshoe hell or a literal marathon running race. There are marathon climbs like the linkups that Tommy Caldwell  and Alex Honnald have done in Yosemite. Sometimes Stamina and Endurance are interchanged, but for the purpose of this topic, I will consider stamina in terms of overall fitness–the ability to have the fitness and energy to take on the load and effort required for the objective; whereas, Endurance is the actual performance of the activity and the ability to sustain that level of performance for longer and longer periods of time. For example, you need stamina and general fitness to complete El Cap, but you also need endurance to sustain the actual climbing of each pitch. Consider the marathon runner, they can have high fitness and good stamina from previous marathons (say), but if they haven’t been logging the mileage the next marathon requires, then they aren’t going to do well in their race.

Think of the sprint equivalent as bouldering: short, bursty climbing and mid-distance running as single-pitch climbing. You can equate the ability to climb for a certain distance as your minimum endurance needed. Naturally, you don’t simply want to do 1 climb, you want to do a variety and with varied difficulty. You can take this analogy all the way up to marathon and ultra-marathons.  The first thing to understand for yourself is what do you need the endurance for? What is your objective?

If you want to climb 10-5.11’s in one session vs. 10-5.11’s in one route, then you better have the ability to sustain climbing for as long as it would take to climb 10 routes vs. that 1 very long route. In addition to endurance, you will need technique and power required to accomplish the climbs, but that’s a digression. Let’s stick strictly to volume for this post. Intensity only matters in terms of how much pump you can manage for any length of time. More on that, below.

The good news about endurance is it is easy to develop. Just like learning how to run that first mile of a 3 mile run. Once  you meet that milestone of running one mile, or can sustain climbing without getting ridiculously pumped or pumped at all, that’s when adding more mileage becomes easier. The hardest part is getting to that point. If your body has never done something like that, then it takes time for the body to develop how to handle the new stress.

Endurance applications in climbing

AudreyClimbingAs a boulderer, you might not think endurance is good for you, but it is. Working on endurance actually helps improve your overall stamina, which will help your ability to boulder for longer periods of time, or equate that to your ability to do more climbs in one session during a bouldering trip.

If you are new to climbing, endurance training is a helpful way to increase your abilities for climbing. Not only are you training yourself to use your body for climbing for longer periods, but you are learning climbing techniques at the same time. New climbers can benefit greatly from Endurance training.

If you are returning to climbing after injury or hiatus, endurance training can help bring you back to your previous level of fitness and ability by rebuilding your base. This should be the first place to start rebuilding your foundation to avoid injury by attempting too many challenging climbs too soon.

Finally, endurance training can be helpful when you want to increase your capacity from previous levels or when aspiring to a bigger, bolder objective than what you are currently used to.

The ability to perform repeated difficult moves, is not strictly endurance. There is a grey area here where it’s easy to think that training endurance will help with this. Endurance helps increase your overall stamina, helping you learn how to adapt to long periods of use–building up those capillaries in your forearms so more oxygen can make it into the climbing muscles and training your body to remove waste, both of which help prevent you from pumping out. Despite that this training will help prepare you to do sustained difficulty, the volume and low intensity does not lend itself to teaching you how to take that preparedness and apply it to sustained difficulty, such as stacked boulder problems on a route. There is another blog post where I will write about Power Endurance, which is the most useful form of training for this kind of climbing.

How to train Endurance

Training Endurance using climbing is  one of the most tedious and boring of all of the training methodologies.  This is because to train endurance means performing at a steady state for a set period of time and increasing that time to achieve your desired fitness. There are ways to train your cardiovascular system without climbing, but for the maximum transfer to climbing, particularly when you are new to climbing or have been out of climbing for a long time, you will want to train on a climbing wall.

Arcing ( Aerobic Restoration & Capillarity training) is one of the most popular methods for endurance training where you traverse a wall or climb a route for 20 to 30 minutes. If you decide to do this, I recommend wearing fingerless gloves with little or no padding on the palms. This will save your skin and help prevent flappers (calluses ripping off from the continued friction) and skin rash (raw fingers and hands from the constant use). Some raw hands is normal as you build up to the load you expect to perform after training, but IMO, it’s not worth the discomfort while training. 🙂

Why is steady state training important? Steady state is a place where the difficulty is relatively normalized such that climbing challenges a pump (makes you tired) but does not pump you off the wall (not climbing to failure where your hands just give out, for example). This is important for teaching your body how to climb for a long time. Weighting your fingers, engaging your forearms, biceps, legs, core, mental state, all of these are important in climbing. The more you use them, the more tired they  become. Furthermore, you can train the body to overcome this tired feeling and get used to the new demands to the point that you can begin to recover while climbing, and therefore enable yourself to sustain climbing for longer periods of time. ARCing is a great way to learn how to recover without coming off of the wall.

Since ARCing is a steady state exercise, the climbing must be constant. There should be no stopper moves in the climb. The climb should be very approachable allowing you to climb consistently and rest easily. Avoid resting off the wall, or finding places to rest where your arms are not engaged any longer.  The grade for this type of training is not very difficult–well below your onsight level. Manage the difficulty by gauging how tired you become on the wall. Increase the difficulty if you aren’t fatigued at all, ease off the difficulty if you can’t make the prescribed times. Start conservative and build up based on your results.

If you push yourself to maximum failure, in other words, you got pumped/super fatigued and still pushed yourself to make the time and came off the wall because you couldn’t hold on anymore, then you are done with the exercise for the day. The goal is to avoid taking yourself to this place even though it can happen accidentally, especially for beginners. If you attempt to finish the endurance time by resting, you may find that you cannot. This is ok. You have learned your threshold. Next time, manage the time to failure better by stopping before you hit this point or easing off the terrain to make the climbing even easier. Find a rest or pause the time allowing for recovery before continuing. Log all times  to make tracking progress and adjusting the next session’s goals accordingly, see example below.

Tip:

Try to rest while on the wall, before you “take” on the rope or step off the wall. Resting will be covered extensively in another blog post, but for now, think of resting as allowing one arm to not hold your body weight, while the other one is still holding you onto the wall. Alternate arms allowing them to rest independently. Try to climb a few more moves and repeat the resting process until you are unable to hold on anymore. That is your maximum time achieved for the endurance exercise. Your goal will be to match and then beat this time until you can make the full 30 minutes, even if you have to rest on the wall to make the full time. A future goal will be to make the 30 minutes with minimal resting on the wall up to the point when the only rests are mini-shakes. Learn more about that in my resting blog, to come later.

Cardio

Cardio is a great way to build your endurance off of the wall, as a complement to climbing wall training. It saves your finger joints and skin and works different muscles but still enhances the bodies ability to consume more oxygen within the muscles and remove waste as a bi-product of muscle use. It also trains you to regulate your heart (e.g pacing your run), but that is a topic for another post. There are different philosophies surrounding the benefit of doing cardio for climbing. I’m a believer that before you can consider cutting it out, you must first have a cardio base built. Therefore, these programs and many of the tools I use involve some sort of cardio along with climbing specific training.

If you can already run 20 to 30 minutes, your goal is to run a consistent pace and up-level the pace slightly each run. The goal is consistency. Another way to measure this would be to track your heart rate (HR) and keep your heart rate in the 60 to 70% of your max HR (find your Max HR, here). Note, it doesn’t have to be running, it can be any cardiovascular activity where you can control the output and manage your pace/hr to be steady state for up to 30 minutes. Note, we want to move this threshold into the 70 to 80% to increase your overall aerobic capacity, which will help with your endurance for climbing and enhance your ability to recover.

hs - exercise-cardio workout chart

Consider your goal to climb a 10k. If you have never run a 10k before you must build up to it. If you are not a runner, you might be starting at the beginning. If you have a strong 5k, your buildup would look similar but you might be skipping some of the initial build up because you already have a base running fitness with which to work. For the beginner, you must first be able to run a certain distance. You may not be able to run any distance out of the gate, so you run/walk a given distance (maybe it’s 1 mile) gradually decreasing the walking segments, while increasing the running distances. Once you achieve your initial milestone (say you’ve built up to running 5k, albeit slowly, in one push), then you work on increasing the mileage steadily to reach the 10k goal. Meanwhile, you continue to improve upon your 5k ability by working on pacing for segments of the 5k and eventually building fitness to work on speed and power at the lower distances that eventually transfer to your overall 10k fitness.

Hopefully you can start to see how this could apply to climbing. We’ll only be focusing on the endurance part of this scenario and leave the speed and power portion for another post. The key point here is to keep your HR in a steady state no matter if you are running/walking to make your cardio or climbing goal. However you need to do it, keeping that HR up will give you the best aerobic bang for your buck. Your endurance training for climbing is just like in the running example where eventually, you were able to eliminate walking, except in this case, you would be eliminating the time off of the wall until you can do the entire exercise in one push, while maintaining the desired steady state HR.

To help keep the HR up and encourage the aerobic capacity, I recommend any “rests” (time off the wall) be active. In the examples below, I use walking as a way to prevent the HR from dropping below 60%. You may find that in actuality, you have to jog a bit to keep the HR up between climbs. This will look odd in a gym, but remember what you are training. If you climb for 5 minutes and have to rest and sit in your harness or stand off the wall to wait until you feel good before attempting to climb again and you don’t train the aerobic part, then it will take you longer or not at all to improve your endurance. It is easy to train the mind and body to fail, if you train a pattern of failure.

Pick one of the routines below and you will quickly find where you sit on your endurance spectrum.  You may need to determine what “easy” is for you after you attempt the first session (consider this a week 0 exercise). If you climb 5.8 for 30 minutes and it’s easy, no pump, then it’s too easy. Try a 5.9. If you are climbing a mid 5.10 but pumping off after 10 minutes, then it is too hard (if you are pumping off after 20 minutes, it might be ok to continue at that grade and try to improve to reach 30 minutes over the course of the training). It doesn’t matter how much time it takes before you start to feel like you can’t climb anymore, but just before you feel this way, attempt to find a rest to avoid coming off the wall and note the time, then try to continue until 30 minutes is reached. Observe your failure time and try to beat that in the next attempt or session.

In the examples, below, I use a 3x a week cardio training format where 2 days are climbing related and 1 is something cardio other than climbing.  Plan for at least 2 days between sessions, except for the cardio that is not climbing. For that, you can have 1 day between. Also, you may find that you are too tired from this to do other climbing. Initially, that might be the case and over the course of the adaptation to this training, you might find that adding another free climb (non-training focused and fun) climbing session is doable.

Sample Endurance routines

Week 0: get on the wall and try to climb for 20 minutes. Note time of failure; angle, grade, and style of climb.

Example 1: New climber, not a runner

Goal: climb an easy route for 30 minutes or traverse an easy angle wall using jugs for 30 minutes. That may sound impossible at first, but let’s break it down into achievable segments to make it more approachable.

The first time you try this, note the sustained climbing time before “failure” (the point at which you needed to rest off of the wall, including if you found a way to not load both arms anymore).  For example, let’s say you couldn’t hold on anymore (failure) after 5 minutes. Then set your routine as follows:

Climb for 5 minutes, walk for 5 minutes, climb for 5 minutes, walk for 5 minutes, repeat until the time equals 30 minutes. In your next session, climb for 6 minutes, walk for 4 minutes, repeat until 30 minutes of time is achieved. This is similar to building up your cardiovascular system using cardio exercises, such as running described above. The key here is to keep the HR in a steady state, not allowing yourself to recover less than that for 30 minutes.

If progress degrades with each attempt, then you have your current base and know how to push yourself for the next session. For instance, if in the 5 minute failure example, you rested/walked for 5 minutes and got back on the wall for 5 minutes but only lasted 2 minutes, then your base is

day 1: climb 5 minutes, rest for 5 minutes (no walking), climb for 5 minutes

Your day 1 for each week would continue in this way, until you can complete both climbs. Once that is achieved, then you can add another rest and try another 5 minute climb to total 15 minutes of climbing, etc. until you reach 20 minutes. Once you have achieved that, instead of a complete rest, try walking to keep the heart rate up during the 5 minute break and repeat the set in this manner until successful. Once you have been able to keep the heart rate up, you can aim to keep it at 70% the entire time, maybe you can stay on the wall for 5 minutes, take a 1 minute rest (stopping on the wall and resting each arm independently), then try to climb for 5 minutes, etc. Ideally, you would eventually get to the point where you are doing 20 minutes of climbing without stopping.

Here’s what a breakdown would look like for an 8 week program, climbing endurance 2x per week and 1 cardio day. Completion or lack of completion of these sets will tell you where you are with your endurance and will guide the development of the training over time. This example is a framework to give you an idea for how it could develop.

Week 1

  • day 1:
    • Climb 5 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 3 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 5 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 3 times.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 2 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 2 times.
  • cardio day:
    • run 20 minutes  (run/walk until you make the time, note the time running vs time walking, this is your baseline)

Week 2

  • day 1:
    • Climb 6 minutes, walk 4 minutes, repeat 3 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 6 minutes, walk 4 minutes, repeat 3 times.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 10 minutes, walk 3 minutes, repeat 2 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, walk 3 minutes, repeat 2 times.
  • cardio day:
    • run 20 minutes (run/walk until you make the time, note the time running vs time resting, compare to baseline, did you run longer and walk less?)

Week 3

  • day 1:
    • Climb 7 minutes, walk 3 minutes, repeat 3 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 7 minutes, walk 3 minutes, repeat 3 times.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 15 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 1 time.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 15 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 1 time.
  • cardio day: run 25 minutes (run/walk until you make the time, note the time running vs time resting, compare to baseline and previous run, did you run longer and walk less?)

Week 4

  • day 1:
    • Climb 5 minutes, walk 5 minutes, climb 5 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 5 minutes, walk 5 minutes, climb 5 minutes
  • day 2:
    • Climb 10 minutes, walk 5 minutes, repeat 2 times
  • cardio day:
    • run 20 minutes (run/walk until you make the time, meet your baseline numbers)

Week 5

  • day 1:
    • Climb 6 minutes, rest on wall 1 minute, climb 6 minutes, walk 5 minutes, climb 6 minutes, rest on wall 1 minute.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 6 minutes, rest on wall 1 minute, climb 6 minutes, walk 5 minutes, climb 6 minutes, rest on wall 1 minute.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 15 minutes, walk 2 minutes, repeat 2 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 15 minutes, walk 2 minutes, repeat 2 times.
  • cardio day:
    • run 25 minutes (aim to beat your best run/walk time)

Week 6

  • day 1:
    • Climb 7 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 3 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 7 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 3 times.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 20 minutes.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 20 minutes.
  • cardio day:
    • run 25 minutes (aim to beat your best run/walk time)

Week 7

  • day 1:
    • Climb 8 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 3 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 8 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 3 times.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 25 minutes.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 25 minutes.
  • cardio day:
    • run 30 minutes (aim to beat your best run/walk time)

Week 8

  • day 1:
    • Climb 5 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 5 times.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 5 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 5 times.
  • day 2:
    • Climb 20 minutes.
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 20 minutes.
  • cardio day:
    • run 25 minutes (try to run the whole time, no stops or rests…if you need it, take it but push yourself to get running with minimum break)

How did you do?

Don’t discourage if you are starting out and this is challenging. Keep your notes, move on from endurance training after  you’ve given it your best attempt. Repeat weeks rather than move on to the next, if you are significantly unable to achieve the numbers. If you are pretty close to achieving the numbers, simply move on to the next week. Have fun with climbing and return to this at the beginning of your next training period–maybe 6 months or more later. Incorporate some version of this for a couple years for best long term results.

Example 2: Boulderers, seasoned climbers, runners

If the above routine was too easy for you, then you belong in this category. Note, you might be a new climber but have a high cardiovascular fitness. In that case, your routine probably lies somewhere between example 1 and 2. Your body already knows how to consume energy and move waste, now you need to teach it how to do it in climbing.

Note: if you are not a runner use the cardio from example 1 or start with 60 to 70% max HR and work up to 70 to 80%. Remember the goal with your HR is to keep it within this range.

Boulderers could benefit from this entire routine, but for the minimum commitment that would still support your climbing, focus on day 2 (or work on day 1 until you can achieve day 2 loads) and optionally add 1 day of cardio if you don’t already have a good cardio base.

Tip:

Make day 1 climbs harder in difficulty than the day 2 climbs.

Week 1

  • day 1:
    • Climb 5  minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 5 times
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 5  minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 5 times
  • day 2:
    • Climb 20 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 20 minutes
  • cardio day:
    • run 20 minutes (70 to 80% max HR, steady state pace)

Week 2

  • day 1:
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 3 times
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, repeat 3 times
  • day 2:
    • Climb 20 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 20 minutes
  • cardio day:
    • run 25 minutes (70 to 80% max HR, steady state pace)

Week 3

  • day 1:
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb something a littler harder for 5 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 5 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb something a little harder for 5 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 5 minutes
  • day 2:
    • Climb 25 minutes, rest on wall 1 minute
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 25 minutes, rest on wall 1 minute
  • cardio day:
    • run 30 minutes (70 to 80% max HR, steady state pace)

Week 4

  • day 1:
    •  Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes
  • day 2:
    • Climb 20 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 20 minutes
    • run 20 minutes (70 to 80% max HR, steady state pace)

Week 5

  • day 1:
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes
  • day 2:
    •  Climb 30 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 30 minutes
  • cardio day:
    • run 25 minutes (70 to 80% max HR, steady state pace)

Week 6

  • day 1:
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes, rest on the wall 1 minute, climb 10 minutes
  • day 2:
    • Climb 30 minutes
    • Take a 15 minute rest.
    • Climb 30 minutes
  • cardio day:
    • run 30 minutes (70 to 80% max HR, steady state pace)

It’s useful to take on pure endurance training from time to time, even if you already have a good base built up. The more seasoned you are and the more cardiovascularly fit you are for climbing, then the less this type of training will benefit you and the more a power endurance routine will suit you better. However, if your goals change and the objective exceeds your current fitness (e.g. big wall objectives), then it’s a prime opportunity to revisit endurance.

Example 3: A challenge beyond ARCing

For those that think the 30 minute routines above are not helping or are still too easy (adjusting the grade or wall angle isn’t working for you), then you could try this thing called an orange (I’m not sure where this name came from). Or, try it just to mix up your routine a little.

Climb up a route of some moderate to low difficutly, then down climb it (or an easier route sharing the same anchor) and re-climb it to one hold less than the top. Down climb and re-climb up to the second to last hold from the top. Down climb and re-climb up to the 3rd to the last hold from the top. Repeat the process until you are at the first hold for the first and last move of the set.

Rest 20 minutes or until your partner has completed their set, then attempt another one.

Sample training log

EnduranceTrainingLog

Endurance for specific type of holds

One thing I would like to add is that you could take on Endurance training to train your ability to climb a specific type of hold for longer and longer periods. For example, if you are terrible at pinches, you could get on a system wall and climb a series of pinches over and over again for 20 to 30 minutes.

Conclusion

There you have it, my approach to endurance training. Depending on your objective, you may need to play with the volume and difficulty to suit your ability and goals. Meanwhile, this is a good test of your current overall fitness. I’m always open to feedback on these things so don’t hesitate to reach out and ask a question or get clarification on something. I do my best to cover enough territory so the average person can make progress with some understanding for how to modify that progress for continued improvement. Now, plug yourself into your favorite tunes, set your watch and get climbing.

Disclaimer 1: Climbing is dangerous. Training can lead to injury. The responsibility for what you do with the content you find in this blog or other blog entries in this site, is entirely your own and I am not liable for any injury or catastrophe that may incur.

Disclaimer 2: WordPress may include ads, which I do not endorse, to various blogs following posts.

 

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About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climber, climbing coach, computer software/technology enthusiast and occasional baker/cook and wine connoisseur.
This entry was posted in Climbing, Fun, Training, Writings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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