Rest: it seems like a no-brainer. To climb your best, you should rest enough between efforts, get plenty of sleep and take ample rest days to enhance recovery between workouts and climbing days. Yet the simple concept of resting proves to be a pitfall for nearly all enthusiastic sport climbers and boulderers at some point in their climbing lives. Not resting enough can sabotage your performance both short-term and long-term, undermine your potential progress, decrease or burn out your excitement for climbing and ultimately, lead to overtraining and overuse injuries.
Resting Between Attempts
Boulderers and sport climbers often try to cram as much climbing as they possibly can into every day they climb or train. Taking this approach makes it easy to sabotage your performance potential or training gains on any given day. Focusing instead on quality efforts with plenty of rest in between each try can yield more successful sends or valuable training sessions, even if you get less climbing in for the day. It’s all about priorities — are you more interested in sending a hard project or problem, or are you interested in climbing nonstop until you’re exhausted?
As a general rule, the longer, more taxing and more involved the climbing or bouldering effort is, the longer the rest period between attempts you will likely need in order to recover fully or fully enough for another solid attempt. This means that for a short, explosive boulder problem, resting 5 to 8 minutes may suffice before you’re ready to give it another full-power effort. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a 130-foot ultra-endurance sport climb that takes 45 minutes per redpoint effort might require an hour or more rest before your next attempt. As will all things athletic, the exact and perfect amount of resting time will vary from individual to individual. It’s your job to learn how much rest works best for you in each climbing situation, and then to be disciplined enough (only if you care about maximizing your sending efforts, of course) to put a timer on yourself so that you make sure you rest enough in between attempts to optimize your performance on any given day.
Use the time you rest between climbs or problems wisely. Belay if you have to belay, of course, but make sure you rehydrate and have a small refueling snack (optimally of that magical 3 or 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein) right when you get down from a lengthy redpointing effort, to give your body time to replenish your glycogen stores prior to your next attempt. Drink frequently and regularly throughout bouldering sessions. Consider using a sports drink to help your muscles stay well-fueled if eating while bouldering or climbing doesn’t work for you. While you rest, visualize the climb or problem from bottom to top, reviewing the pacing and the movements. Walk around and stay mildly active; you may experience better performance than if you spend your time off sitting or lying on the ground, as evidenced by an April 2000 study reported in the “International Journal of Sports Medicine.”
Sleeping for Recovery
Sleep is essential for optimal athletic performance and recovery. Create a sleeping schedule and routine and take these seriously as key components of both climbing performance and training sessions. Climbers should aim for a minimum of seven hours of sleep every night, but may see greater benefits from sleeping for 10 hours or longer.
Rest Days and Workout Intensities
Many climbers and and boulderers unwittingly sabotage their own potentials and performances routinely by training and climbing too many days on with too much volume and not enough intensity included in each day. While they’re often striving for high-intensity workouts on these days, they actually miss the mark at this as well, due to the fact that an already-fatigued body simply cannot put out peak performances or truly hard training efforts. What happens, then, is that these chronic overtrainers end up training and/or performing at a more middle level than they intend to, often not realizing or recognizing that with more rest days in between higher-intensity training/climbing efforts, they could potentially train at a higher intensity and climb at a higher level, both.
Remember that it can take muscles a long time — up to 10 days or even longer — to fully recover from intense efforts, and that muscles only grow stronger with rest. While you rest, your body can repair the muscular trauma caused by intense workouts, strengthening your muscles so that they will be better adapted (stronger!) to handle the loads you place on them the next time around. If you derail this process by placing a heavy load on muscles before they’re fully recovered, you’ll more likely than not sabotage this repair process, increasing your risk of overuse injuries as well.
Of course, for most climbers and boulderers, frequently taking 10 days off between workouts isn’t a realistic or recommended approach to training or climbing. However, it’s worth keeping this in mind if you start to feel guilty or bad about wanting to take a larger chunk of time off after a particularly strenuous training period or series of performance efforts. Chances are that you’ll emerge feeling stronger and better than you did prior to your time off. Plus, you won’t lose any significant strength during a 10-day rest; it takes far longer for your body to detrain (i.e. lose a significant amount of fitness) when you cease activities than most people think.
On a more regular basis, it makes sense to rest adequately between workouts and climbing days, taking enough time off so that you can reap the benefits of intense training and/or full-strength performances (depending on your priorities and season). For each person and each climb/boulder problem in question, the optimal amount of days off or ratio of light-intensity days to heavy-intensity days will likely be different. Every climber/boulderer interested in making gains or performing to his/her potential should therefore have a flexible mind that allows for schedule changes to accommodate the need for rest or a lighter intensity workout/climbing effort on any given day. It’s also a good idea to cycle intensities from week to week and month to month instead of constantly pushing your body to perform at the highest intensity possible in everything you do.
For a great (non-climbing) read about this, check out Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy, by Lyle McDonald.
Putting It All Together
Changing your mindset to view rest as a crucial part of your training and climbing performance strategy can help you both justify your choice to rest and to handle the difficulty many active people experience when taking multiple rest days. You can lessen the boredom and potential (mental/emotional) stress of rest days by engaging in light, non-climbing-specific activities on some of your designated rest days, such as walking, light cycling, swimming, stretching and yoga, to name a few. The keyword here is “light,” though — meaning you’re not working your muscles hard, but rather, allowing your body the time and space it needs for recovery. Additionally, taking at least one day off from all physical activity per week should be a standard element of every serious climber’s or boulderer’s training plan; this allows your body the chance to recuperate on a deeper level.
Befriending rest presents a challenge for most driven athletes, and sport climbers and boulderers are no exception to this rule. However, if you can learn to strategically use rest, guilt-free, as a key component of your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly climbing training and performance efforts, you might just surprise yourself at the gains you’re able to make.
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!