Improve Your Sport Climbing (11): Endurance, Part 6 (HARD)


This entry explains: d) how the cardio needed for sport climbing differs from what we typically think of as cardio training.

“…[E]xercising the lower limbs does not build endurance in the arms, and running does not build as much endurance in cycling as actual cycling does.” (Understanding Physical Conditioning: A Movement Based Approach, by Luis Preto)

Do you think sport climbing doesn’t “count” as a cardio activity? Do you think running (or biking or rowing or swimming or any other cyclical exercise – meaning an exercise that involves repetitive motions) is good training for climbing or necessary for weight maintenance and overall fitness?

I wouldn’t be so sure on either of these, actually. Sport-climbing endurance has very little in common with low-intensity exercise endurance (LIEE), the kind of aerobic fitness gained through cyclic activities like running or biking or swimming.

Let’s back up for a minute though, so I can briefly share my own background with climbing training, which does have some relevance here, as my beliefs have radically changed in this area over the past few years as I’ve educated myself about athletic training and what the science says.

I like running. I ran as a part of my “training for climbing” for years and years and years. I firmly believed it was a crucial component of my climbing training and general fitness upkeep, along with flexibility training (stretching) and regularly putting in 5 to 7-hour training sessions in the climbing gym or turning in 10-pitch days on the rocks. Yeah, as you might suspect, I’m a typical genetically-predisposed endurance athlete who likes to train endurance – because most of us tend to be drawn, when consciously or subconsciously or a little bit of both, toward what we’re best at in both training (if we love to train) and in choosing climbing terrain, I believe.

It’s fun – training what we’re good at and climbing on what we’re naturally best at – and it makes us feel good and strong and like we’re doing something worthwhile. I sure did feel that way for years and years of practicing the above – and part of that involved running 6 miles several times a week (and shorter distances other times), climbing lots of vertical or just off-vertical pitches, and “training” in the gym for five-hour or longer climbing sessions, during which I even supposedly worked my weaknesses at times with lengthy bouldering sessions as well.

Even after I proved to myself long ago (I’m talking a decade ago or more) that running hurt my climbing if I did it right before a climbing day, because my legs were tired – I couldn’t send a project route after a long run the day before, but when I rested the day before, I did the route – I still ran for years after that.

I only gradually and reluctantly stopped running and started walking or practicing yoga on rest days (with some REAL rest days of doing nothing thrown in there) as I started learning more about training, though. And through these past few years, I’ve come to believe strongly that running isn’t a necessary component of sport climbing training – and that it’s actually counterproductive for sport climbers to run hard or long distances if they’re interested in maximizing their performance in hard efforts on the rocks. (Don’t get me wrong, here – if you love running, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it; I’m just suggesting that those interested in training for sport-climbing or bouldering performance should be aware of the realities of the lack of a positive relationship between hard sport climbing/bouldering performances and cyclical LIEE sports like distance running).

Distance running, swimming, rowing, cycling and other such cyclical aerobic activities involve low-intensity exercise endurance (LIEE), so labeled and defined in Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training, by Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff (hereafter referred to as Periodization). According to this (awesome) textbook on athletic training:

“The contemporary literature indicates that LIEE training should not be used for athletes in sports that predominantly rely on anaerobic energy supply, require high levels of force production, require high rates of force development, call for fast velocities or movement, or require high levels of power output. … The use of LIEE techniques will decrease performance capacity for athletes who participate in sports that require the ability to repetitively produce high power outputs.”

Since hard sport climbing requires all of the above, obviously it follows that incorporating LIEE methods of aerobic conditioning aren’t the most efficient or effective way to develop or improve your sport-climbing-relevant endurance – in fact, they’re more likely to sabotage your efforts.  If you want to learn about this in more detail and really get convinced to ditch your cyclical aerobic distance training if what you’re interested in is hard sport climbing, I highly recommend this book – and in particular, Chapter 11: Endurance Training – for more on how and why LIEE training isn’t good for sport-climbing performance; I could pretty much quote this entire chapter, but you should just read it if you want to learn. Follow this with Understanding Physical Conditioning: A Movement Based Approach, by Luis Preto, to seal the deal; if you want straight-up, no-nonsense insights into how to develop a practical, efficient and effective training plan out of all the science and theory out there, this book is a great starting place to help guide you on that path.

Let’s return to the first question I asked now – do you think sport climbing (at an intense level for you, especially) doesn’t count as a cardio activity? I challenge you to wear a heart rate monitor at the crag or through a training day and then make that claim. The results might astonish you, actually. They astonished me, even though I already knew that climbing makes me breathe hard. Sport climbing hard makes your heart beat fast and makes you breathe hard; it makes your heart work to return a large amount of blood to your muscles.

You’re right that sport climbing isn’t the same type of cardio as LIEE activities (running, biking, swimming, rowing, etc.), but it’s still training your cardiorespiratory system. This type of exercise endurance is called high-intensity exercise endurance (HIEE) in Periodization; it’s the type of endurance training and cardio conditioning most relevant and applicable to sport climbing. Interestingly enough, while LIEE training isn’t recommended for athletes in sports requiring mainly HIEE (like sport climbing), the opposite is not true – using HIEE to train for improved LIEE has been shown to be effective.

Back to climbing, though – so what we want in hard sport climbing is to push our bodies’ abilities to perform shorter-term sequences of movements requiring variable but often relatively high percentages of our maximal power, and then to be able to rest and recover (on holds) for short periods of time and then continue on with more of the same. In other words, hard sport climbing requires HIEE – which is best trained through interval training that attempts to mimic the energy demands of the sport in question.

And again, we’re right back to SAID – specific adaptations to imposed demands – and the Overload Principle (OP); we need to stress our body in the exact way that it will be taxed on sport climbs or as close to it as possible in order to stimulate the relevant endurance adaptations we’re after for hard sport climbing. In other words, we need to train climbing intervals at a high enough level of intensity to stimulate the adaptations we need to accomplish our goals. We need to perform a series of continuously challenging, high-intensity movements to a rest, shake out and attempt to recover, and repeat.

I believe one of the biggest mistakes climbers make when trying to train this way is making the intervals too easy (i.e. those huge-volume pumpy laps on easy-ish terrain workouts). To stimulate adaptations for harder sport climbing, the intervals need to be hard, so that you’re struggling to make it through each interval and working to train the rests as well, to be able to push on and continue with the next hard interval even when your brain says it can’t possibly do one more move. Part of this involves getting right back on when you fall off and trying to keep going to finish the interval, if possible (whether on different holds or on the same route). You’ll be tired and probably sore after such a workout – and then you’ll need to rest and recover before you push hard again. This is HIEE training specifically for sport climbing (and yes, if need be, you can break out specific and problematic components of this and train them on their own, too, primarily via a variety of climbing-specific resistance training methods outside of climbing).

Once again – all the running (or biking, swimming, rowing) in the world won’t improve your HIEE for hard sport climbing and may actually hurt it: “LIEE or aerobic training does not allow for the maximal development of the lactic-acid buffering capacity. … In fact, it is likely that incorporating LIEE training methods in the training plans of anaerobic athletes will decrease HIEE.” (again, from Periodization).

The point of all these quotes is that it’s not just me individually saying, “No, you don’t need to run and you probably shouldn’t if all you care about is dedicating your training time to improving at sport climbing (or bouldering);” it’s the literature based on scientific studies on the matter. And I even like running, as I’ve mentioned before, so this also isn’t a desperate personal attempt to talk my way out of it (I still want to run, btw, and when I hurt my arm last year and couldn’t climb, I did do a ton of trail running – small compensation for not climbing, but I needed to do something active for my sanity until I could climb again). I’ve leaned heavily on the Periodization text throughout this discussion to support my claims here as I know that many people will still stoutly argue that they need to run (or do some cardio) to stay fit or that running helps their climbing.

But I don’t believe either to be the case, unless we’re talking about a mental/psychological benefit of feeling like you’re fitter because you feel better about yourself when you run (I know I did before I learned more about it and that I was actually not helping myself and probably hindering my efforts). You don’t need to run or do long-distance rhythmic cardio to stay fit, actually. Read “Aerobic Exercise & Strength Training: Does It Help or Hurt?” for a great look at this misconception that still dominates in our athletic culture (along with the idea of stretching before exercise, which thankfully is starting to be understood by more and more people as a no-no), followed by “High Intensity Workouts and Endurance,” which explains how you can make more fitness gains by using  short-term, low-volume, high-intensity endurance workouts (and reduce body fat) instead of slogging away for hours and hours of running (or cycling or swimming, etc.) every week.

As for me, these days I either walk or practice yoga when I feel like I need to move and it’s a rest day from climbing. I actively train endurance, power endurance and/or power/strength during my climbing-related training or climbing days (more often than not a mixture of all), and I have real rest days (meaning no activity whatsoever) in addition to more active “rest” days (which are of course not real rest days if they involve physical activity). Do I “like” this inactivity? Of course not. I’m a training-obsessed athlete who always feels guilty for resting, but I’m getting better and better at it. The more I see the results, the easier it gets, though I’ll probably always struggle with the idea that I’m “not doing enough,” given my lengthy history as a huge-volume endurance workout lover.

Next up (and final topic in this endurance series): 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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