Improve Your Sport Climbing (11): Endurance, Part 1 (HARD)

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“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 10-part series on sport-climbing concepts in training: sport-climbing endurance. Welcome to part 1.

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.

This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up. Remember that 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!

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