Seasonal Transitioning for Sport Climbers – Building Fitness, Planning Peaks and Preventing Plateaus

Did you boulder all winter to train your power? Don't expect to come out with awesome route-climbing fitness!

Did you boulder all winter to train your power? Don’t expect to come out with awesome route-climbing fitness!

You trained your weaknesses with dedication during your off-season, focusing on strength development in the areas you struggle with the most. And yet, during your first forays onto the rock this season, you feel worse than you did before.

What did you do wrong?

The answer, in all likelihood, is nothing.

Nothing, except for setting an unrealistic expectation that you would reap immediate and profoundly overwhelming results from your training in your rock climbing performance.

Those types of results are the exception rather than the rule.

For most of us most of the time, the results from training come much more gradually than we’d like them to, and it takes time to mold and adapt raw, gym-begotten strength and power gains into noticeable, usable gains in route-climbing performance. This tends to be true, too, for bouldering power gains, if you spent your winter season bouldering as your main training modality for working toward route-climbing power gains.

It will take time to build fitness into your strength gains, and it will also take time for your mind to fully understand how to utilize those gains to your advantage while you climb – in other words, old habits die hard, and you will probably have to work to make your body understand that it is stronger and indeed capable of doing moves that it may not have been able to do previously.

This need to build fitness into strength gains is also why I don’t recommend dropping all route-climbing training out of a program entirely during the off season, if climbing hard sport climbs is your top interest. Use it or lose it is always in play in athletics, so multiple months of not doing any type of power endurance or endurance training for climbing will leave you with a much bigger hole to climb out of than keeping those skills in play to a certain extent, even while you are primarily focused on strength training.

Having done this in the past – only trained strength – I can certainly affirm from my personal experience that it took more months to work my way back into route-climbing fitness after doing this. Keeping a little bit of fitness work in there while I focus on strength training helps make the transition easier and smoother.

For the same reason, once you start route climbing again as your main focus, you should try to avoid giving up on all strength training throughout your main climbing season. A shorter, more targeted maintenance program done less frequently can help you maintain the gains you have made in your off-season, rather than gradually detraining from your peak strength levels over the course of months and months of route climbing.

The maintenance strength-training program may also help prevent injuries, because of course, you will include opposition muscle work in the program to keep your body balanced. Keeping strength-training in play every two to three weeks can actually boost your performance over the season, as you may find yourself STILL gaining strength, even while it’s not the primary focus of your training.

This approach can also help you prevent plateaus by providing variety to your training – especially if you’re working on the same project or projects for much of the season. Remember, in training we want consistency, but not too much consistency. The body adapts to the demands placed on it, and if everything becomes too routine, that can be a perfect recipe for plateaus.

Also, keep in mind that the body can only hold a true performance peak for about a week, tops – something I will mention again and have mentioned before. It would be a wonderful thing if we could peak all of the time, or at least force the body into peaking exactly when we wanted it to whenever we wanted it to, but the reality is that it’s not an exact science. You’ll have to experiment to find the right balance between training, resting and peaking for yourself.

In general, if you are training hard and climbing hard but you start to feel your performance slip a little bit OR you are getting close to sending your project but just can’t seem to get there, you might be on the brink of having a performance breakthrough – if you can handle resting to stimulate a peak at this point.

This is counterintuitive for many of us, who want to push even harder to eke out the send. While this can happen, you might find that a few days off will lead you to emerge at a higher level of performance, allowing you to peak (send), and then moving into a new training cycle after that effort is complete.

Remember that it’s our minds that want and cling to weekly routines – but our bodies actually will respond better in most cases to a little less routine and a little more randomness. Undulating periodization, in which you stagger what you work on, how hard you work, how many days you climb and train, etc., can be perhaps even more effective in stimulating climbing-performance gains than a predictable exercise routine from week to week.

Summing it up:

  • It takes time for the body to adapt raw strength/power gains into route-climbing/fitness gains. Be patient. Enjoy the process of learning how to utilize new strength and power effectively.
  • Don’t drop your strength-training program during your route-climbing season. Lift at least every 2-3 weeks to maintain your strength gains and to stay balanced in your body.
  • Avoid plateaus by avoiding a completely regimented and predictable climbing/training schedule and routine.
  • Rest enough to stimulate peaks at appropriate times.
  • Understand that climbing at 100 percent of your potential 100 percent of the time is not possible.
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