Improve Your Sport Climbing (11): Endurance, Part 2 (HARD)


Today’s discussion revolves around a) straight-up endurance for a single series of climbing moves.

So you just get pumped, right? No matter how “easy” the climbing is for you – you hit a certain point of no return, and you just can’t hang on anymore. The classic sport-climbing destination where this happens is Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, but it’s not the only place or style where I’ve heard this complaint voiced.

As I’ve already mentioned, endurance can be really hard to distinguish from power endurance because the two are so intertwined. Where do you draw the line, if it’s a 30-move sequence that takes you longer than 2 or 3 minutes to complete, but that involves little or no resting/shaking (nowhere comfortable, maybe just a brief shake here and there), several spaced moves (let’s say five) that feel close to maximal (80 to 90 percent), 10 moves that feel severely taxing (65 to 80 percent), and 15 that aren’t as taxing (40-65 percent).

Is this about 1) Strength and power? 2) Power endurance? 3) Endurance? 4) All of the above?

You probably know, especially if you’ve been reading this whole training series, that the answer is 4. It’s a combination of all of these – but ultimately, if you have the power (maximal strength level converted to performing specific climbing movements) to make those five near-maximal powerful moves feel less powerful, this leaves you with more potential power endurance, as every truly powerful move requires less of a percentage of your absolute maximal power.

If you have taken the time to build power endurance into your power, then, or as you build it, you’ll find it gradually easier to maintain a higher power output through the rest of the severely taxing movements, making them less taxing as well. And the less taxing movements (40 to 65 percent) will feel even less taxing, of course. So if you drop percentages off of all the moves – making the five hard moves require only 70 to 80 percent of your power, the 10 moves to require 55 to 70 percent, and the other 15 to require 30 to 55, that will theoretically be a much easier beast to manage, right?

This brings us back to the smart use of climbing-specific resistance training (most often weight training, which, btw, I do not consider cross training at all, but rather, an intelligent and proven method of sport-specific training) to improve your strength in relevant/appropriate areas and then to convert it into climbing power, power endurance and endurance via repetitive efforts within reason in real climbing situations that challenge you. Repeat as needed – it usually takes years of concerted effort, dedication, and patience to see the full potential results of this style of (often periodized) training. And every improvement in strength won’t automatically translate into wildly improved endurance or power endurance – you’ll have to build both of those up to the new strength level using repetition over time. (This almost always takes more time than you want or expect it to).

But what if your problem isn’t that the moves are hard – just more that you can’t hang on, no matter how easy the moves are, after a certain number of moves – and shaking out doesn’t help this situation? Or that you consistently fall when confronted with a whole bunch of easy moves followed by a harder move (even slightly harder), or even a really good shake and then a harder move?

This represents a need to train these types of efforts specifically at a high enough level to induce adaptations – so again, not just aimless climbing of laps on easy terrain until you’re pumped, but rather, choosing routes or setting routes of the styles, angles, moves and hold types that stymie you and then working hard to push your body to adapt in these exact types of situations. Working on improving endurance tends to be a grueling and painful effort, much like working on improving power endurance is – often because both can involve that dreadful feeling of painfully pumped forearms (or other body parts). Your goal is to induce that feeling on terrain that’s difficult enough to prompt your body to make the adaptations you’re after – not by climbing lots of laps on really easy terrain until you feel somewhat or really pumped, but rather, to work on the types of moves, angles, hold styles and so forth that bring you to that point of no return much sooner than 100+ moves into climbing (unless your route(s) of choice do in fact involve 100+ moves of continuous climbing with little to no rest).

Improved endurance can come as a by-product or bonus from working on power endurance, especially if you work longer series of difficult moves (on the 30+ side) without rests for you – this can lead you to feel less pumped/powered out and way stronger through longer series of even easier moves, for sure. But you can also definitely work more on straight-up endurance, too – by replicating as closely as possible the situations that cause you trouble, and pushing your body to adapt. This takes time – you may improve by one or two moves a day – but it works, so long as you actually push yourself, most easily by getting right back on when you fall and trying to continue climbing, continuing (if possible, as in the gym) on easier terrain if you need to.

While you work on this, you’ll also work on pacing, breathing, technical proficiency (efficient movement – a key to maximizing your ability to harness peak levels of your strength, power endurance and endurance) and learning when and how to shake out. I’ll continue talking about this last factor in the next entry.

Pacing, by the way, is a topic that I’ll discuss in a separate entry in a different series entirely – it’s different for everyone, but it’s a vital tactical component of learning how to maximize your own body’s capabilities and manipulating those capabilities to your advantage. And obviously, technique is another (potentially endless) series, too.

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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