Climbing Training Talk 7: Reading & Honoring Body Rhythms for Top Climbing Training Gains/Performances

I believe that the title of this blog is a crucial factor in implementing a successful climbing training and performance program. No matter how well-constructed or scientifically backed an athletic training program might be, if it doesn’t contain the flexibility for the trainee to modify workouts on any given day, it’s not a sound or solid training program in my book. In fact, it seems like practically every training book I’ve read mentions more than once how athletic training is just as much an art as a science — meaning that it’s about getting the right “feel” for things on an individual basis as much as using scientific studies as evidence that a training program ”should” work. Forcing a program that “should” work neglects the art part of the equation, failing to take into account the individual nature of bodies, which can be so damnably unpredictable, no matter how much we want to force them to perform or peak on command.

First of all, everyone’s body responds differently to training factors, meaning that one person may take overnight to recover from a workout, while another might take three days. To complicate matters even more, the same person might recover more quickly from doing the exact same workout from one week to the next, or alternately, may find that he or she needs more time off than he or she did after the previous (same) workout. How a body will respond to a workout or series of workouts is hard to forecast at best, especially on the small-scale (day-to-day) level.

Secondly, the extremely variable nature of rock climbing – it is far from a rhythmic and predictable sport – makes it hard to stringently quantify the energy drain and bodily impact of each effort, much less each day of climbing. This makes it hard to calculate what a person can possibly or potentially do to train constructively on any given day in addition to (or sometimes instead of) climbing. Add to this life stressors and scheduling conflicts/restrictions, and it can seem like a veritable jungle of confusion to even try to come up with a structured training program that makes sense and yields cumulative gains.

Oh, and did I mention that most sport climbers and boulderers aren’t training to compete, but rather, are training while still trying to maintain a peak level of athletic performance level for many months of the year? This is crazy, in terms of training cycles, really – it’s really kind of unheard of, to expect/want/think it’s possible to be continually increasing performance while simultaneously training, never cycling the training, not structuring the training beyond random climbing and bouldering in the gym, and never really taking a break or lightening the training/climbing load (in many cases).

Plus, most climbers I know tend to take one or two days’ worth of training and climbing measures as absolutes in terms of evidence of whether their training is “working” or not – never mind that you can pick up a general athletic training book and find graphs of how athletic adaptations work when a training program is considered solid and sound. These graphs show an undulating curve with a gradual upward trajectory, NOT a solid line of straight-up performance/training gains. You’ll have good days, and you’ll have bad days, even if your training program is ideal. It’s all about the general trend of a person’s cumulative climbing and training efforts, not about one or two days of piss-poor performance that mean, “I’m getting weaker; this training isn’t working; I probably need to train more/harder.” That’s only a logical conclusion (the training isn’t working part of it, anyhow) if over the course of months, a person’s trend is a constant downturn.

Still, in such cases, I would argue that more often and not, if that person has been diligently training, that this usually indicates one or both of two things: 1) chronic overtraining (since I’ve observed so many times that many climbers seem to embrace a culturally influenced mindset of “more is better,” and often train in excess with lower-quality workouts, never resting enough to allow their bodies to proper adapt and to fully assimilate potential training gains) and/or 2) improper training – aside from overtraining, improper training is commonly seen as either the climber training to his/her strengths and ignoring his/her weaknesses, the climber utilizing inefficient/ineffective means and methodologies to try to address his/her weaknesses, or the climber considering hours spent randomly bouldering/route climbing in the gym to be an effective way to train and see notable improvements in ability level.

Luckily for us, it’s our minds that cling to rigid structures and schedules more than our actual bodies, a lesson that I’ve struggled to internalize in my own training just as I watch the people I coach struggle with this issue similarly. Just because our training program says we should do “x” on a given day doesn’t mean that we should do “x” without first determining whether the body is in the proper state of being to engage with this training element on this particular day. The more I’ve trained and set up my own training program and ideas about what I “should be doing,” the more I’ve come to realize that whenever I force the issue (e.g., train when I’m not adequately energized or recovered from a previous workout, or train after climbing when I’ve already given my all in climbing for the day), I pay the price, either with needing more days off subsequently to recover from the ill-placed workout, or with overtraining/overuse injury issues, which completely go counter to the whole point of training.

I try to communicate this mindset to everyone I work with directly through coaching – that if you’re too tired/sore/worked, you must be okay with walking away from training elements on any given day. This is the best training decision a person can make, and it should be considered just that — a training decision. Each individual, however, has to learn from experience where this line is for their own individual body, and this line and comprehension develops over time. It’s best when you’re starting out on a new training program to err on the side of caution and always stop while you’re ahead (still have energy and don’t feel destroyed), and then wait a day or two to see how your body responds before you delve into another workout or hard day of climbing. As you get more into a training rhythm and program, if you listen to your body and pay close attention to how you feel, you’ll develop a greater and greater understanding of when it’s time to train again, what parts of your body are ready for training, and when it’s best to just walk away from the gym and try again another day.

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