Improve Your Sport Climbing (11): Endurance, Part 10 (HARD)

E10

Final entry on the final topic of this endurance for sport climbing series: e) Endurance for multiple efforts on the same route on the same day or two+ days in a row. Today I’ll finish part two – trying hard projects more than one day in a row.

While I really enjoy climbing at or even beyond my limit, I also like climbing more than one day on, three days off (or more). What I’ve found that seems to work fairly well for getting more climbing in but still pushing that limit is changing the terrain and project level/style for two days on, but also, being willing and ready to call it on any given day should I find that I’m too exhausted to feel strong at all, even on my lowly second-day-on project. And of course, I could pick easier projects and it would be easier to recover and easier to sustain more climbing days and more attempts per day – but as I said, I like the impossible challenges, and I understand what it takes to even have a chance at them – it takes more rest and a flexible mind able to properly handle and interpret my body’s reactions to each new challenge without freaking out about “too much rest.” This never gets easy.

So if you want to climb two days on and your first-day project is a real reach, experiment with selecting second-day projects that aren’t quite as hard as the first-day project for whatever reason (and this doesn’t have to be a grade thing; it can be a style thing, too – so the routes could have the same grade but the second-day one plays more to your strengths). This helps keep boredom at bay and avoids conditioning your body to only one particular set of movements or angle or style of climbing, too. You don’t need only two projects either; having two major ones and one or two minor ones can really help keep it fresh and keep boredom and only conditioning your body to one route (i.e. repeatedly drilling only one set of holds, angle, or style of movement, encouraging the development of one-dimensional climbing skill sets) out of the picture, helping you to avoid repetitive overuse injuries as well.

The takeaway message here is that no matter what level you climb at, human bodies work the same, in that volume is inversely related to intensity (a basic training premise). If you’re consistently climbing at a high volume, you’re not really climbing at a high intensity for your body, even if the climbs feel hard to you from day to day. If you rested more or moderated the number of pitches you did each day (or both), you’d likely be able to climb at a higher intensity (harder climbs) than if you go for broke every day (which actually lands you in the middle ground of what you could potentially climb, because you’re never recovered enough to push hard near your real limits, and consequently, by not pushing hard, you don’t make the gains you potentially good with higher intensity efforts). Remember, volume = frequency + duration. If you climb for a long duration of time per climb/log numerous climbs per climbing day and you have five or six climbing days per week – especially if you try hard every day – you definitely aren’t climbing at peak intensity, meaning that you’re not climbing at or near your true physical limits.

It’s the same with single-move power – you can’t put out 100 percent maximal power repetitively. It follows that if you project a route that involves moves requiring you to truly dish out high percentages of your maximal power, you won’t be able to put a bunch of burns on it, nor will you be able to put in lots of days in a row on it. (This is a good measuring stick actually about how hard the moves really are for you on the routes you’re trying – if you can do them every day, day in and day out they’re not cutting into your power that much, and given enough time doing this, you may actually start to lose power/strength if you don’t address this issue).

So while you can build up on specific routes or in specific areas to be able to put in more attempts per day and more days per week by employing SAID/OP, you should also understand the value of resting and the consequences of truly high-intensity efforts in terms of recovery (i.e. not expecting to do better on the same extremely difficult, powerful, draining route two days in a row, especially when you first start to work on it and you’re still adapting your power, power endurance and endurance to the new challenge). Yes, you can climb two days in a row and yes, you can send projects on your fifth go or on your second day on (I certainly have), but these types of projects aren’t likely to be routes that are truly taxing the upper levels of your absolute physical capabilities when you send them. For those, you’ll need more rest for success/adaptation – or otherwise, just to be comfortable with choosing projects that are a little less maximal so that you can recover faster for more days of climbing.

Of course because of the complexity of sport climbing, it’s hard to come up with a hard-‘n’-fast rule that applies all places all the time, as in, “if you want to climb routes pushing your maximal ability level, try the route 2 times a day, resting one hour between go’s after warming up for x minutes on a route of y difficulty and then take two days off to recover completely.” It is not that simple and never will be.

Add to this that fitness will change as you get fit to a route or a style of climbing or both; strength gains may come as you work a route over time for long enough; neuromuscular adaptations will help you refine movements making you more efficient, and you’ll usually dish out less power as you become more efficient, as your body learns with pinpoint precision exactly how to regulate and deliver what’s needed for each move. As that happens, you’ll recover better/faster because the intensity of the route will lessen in terms of overall power/strength drain per move. Meanwhile you’ll be building up power endurance and endurance (including the ability to rest/recover on holds), so the route will gradually become less challenging overall. This will eventually lead you to being able to put more efforts into the route on the same day, and possibly to even getting in two worthwhile days on that route at some point.

Bodies are built to adapt; this is exactly why exercise programs that feel hard at first and might qualify as high-intensity when you start them can within months or years become easy, routine, boring and low-intensity, no longer pushing your body to adapt. Same with working routes – as you adapt, they become less intense as they once were, and this allows you to put in more volume, more frequency and duration, as you move toward your goal of sending. As the intensity diminishes, the volume can increase.

In the end, the decisions about how hard to project, how many times a day to try, how many days on, and how many rest days between efforts all need to be based on a general understanding of how bodies work along with a specific understanding of your own body’s response to the routes you’re trying. If you have a negative progress day on a route you’re working and you’ve been making progress – and especially if you FEEL poorly on the route and haven’t been resting a lot – that’s a good indication that more rest is needed (not that you need to train harder or climb more, which is a common place to go in one’s mind when this happens). If you feel trashed on your second burn of the day, experiment with taking a longer rest between burns next time (this was a surprising revelation to me a few years back; a friend told me I wasn’t resting enough between go’s on a route I was trying to project in a day – so I rested an hour instead of 30 minutes and promptly sent the route easily, fourth try of the day. Lesson learned!).

If you want to reach really far and try a route that is right at the edge of your ability or even slightly beyond it, prepare to feel totally thrashed and exhausted and ready to rest as much as needed to compensate for your troubles after your attempt, if you want to reap the fastest big-picture gains possible. By big-picture, I mean taking the longer view of understanding that muscles only adapt and grow stronger when we rest, not when we train, so if a route truly taps into your potential near or at or beyond your current physical limits, you will need to rest longer in order to recover and adapt to the movements you’re asking your body to learn and build up to. The small-lens view says, “I want to climb as much as possible right now,” and that’s really fun, but it won’t allow you to push your true limits in terms of absolute ability/potential in the present, because it won’t allow you to ever be fully recovered enough to realize or push your potential, especially not in terms of complex, multidisciplinary (routes demanding high levels of your power, power endurance and endurance), at-your-limit sport-climbing efforts.

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Next up in this series – Technique. Should be a short one.

Just kidding, of course. Stay tuned…

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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