Tag Archives: rock climbing

Climbing & Training Helpful Hints & Suggestions (1): Lactate Threshold Training (A)

Smart lactate threshold training starts with establishing a solid base of consistent and challenging climbing.

Smart lactate threshold training starts with establishing a solid base of consistent and challenging climbing efforts.

Continuing last week’s discussion about lactic acid and lactate, this week’s entry turns to practical advice based on the concept that lactate is an athlete’s friend, not foe. And it turns out that despite having the science behind lactic acid/lactate incorrect (i.e. it’s a help rather than a hindrance to working muscles), lactate threshold training – something that has long been employed as a sports training tactic – still holds great value for athletes, but for a different reason than used to be assumed.

“The aim is to teach your body to consume lactate more quickly, not to avoid ‘poisoning’ your muscles with too much lactate,” as Alex Hutchinson explains in “Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise.”

To put this very simplistically into climbing terms: If you train your body to use lactate faster, you can potentially resist fatigue for longer when you’re climbing, meaning you can do more moves at a higher percentage of your maximal ability level for a longer time, and you can recover and do this again with greater ease – a major goal for most sport climbers out there.

I don’t want to get into a nitpicky, overly analytical prescription here involving target heart rates and training zones and such. What I want to do instead is to give a few general, highly employable training tactics that you might find will help you increase your body’s ability to use lactate for fuel – or in other words, to avoid the pump for longer and longer periods of time/numbers of moves.

Lactate Threshold Improvement Preparatory Training: Lactate threshold training is quite uncomfortable and taxing (you’re working on getting pumped on purpose!), and it should not be pursued without a solid training base. Establish a solid base level of climbing/training volume that you can manage in every week, with a rest week thrown in once every four to six weeks. One of the biggest reasons that new training regimens fail is the “too much, too soon” paradigm, in which the excited climber (or other athlete) jumps full-on into a new, more difficult training regimen without taking the time to establish a solid base level of sport-specific fitness. Note that for climbing, this does not include cyclical endurance exercises like running, cycling or swimming; you want to build a fitness base for climbing – so CLIMB!

Developing a suitable base for more structured/intense lactate threshold training for climbing involves a regular amount of time spent climbing or training for climbing in each week (2 to 4 days, depending on intensity of sessions), and, please, not just climbing laps on routes that are easy for you. Your workouts should include challenging moves and challenging series of moves that take you out of your comfort zone. You may already have a base like this – but if you don’t, it’s a good place to start before taking on a more regimented plan to push beyond your comfort zone.

Up Next Week: Climbing & Training Helpful Hints and Suggestions (1): Lactate Threshold Training (B)

This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. This information and advice is based on my 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You 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!

Climbing & Training Myths & Misconceptions 1: The Lactic Acid Myth (IYC Series)

Mean-spirited lactic acid creeps into your muscles to burn them and render them useless...right?!  Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mean-spirited lactic acid creeps into your muscles to burn them and render them useless…right?!
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just the term “lactic acid” resonates with evil, conjuring up the image of acid pouring into working muscles and eventually burning them into submission. Lactic acid seems like such a perfect culprit to blame for pumped forearms or even for delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS – the topic for the second set of entries in this series, coming up a few weeks down the road).  This supposedly villainous substance can rise to such concentrated levels when we exercise that we can no longer use our hands and arms properly.

Right?

If you listen to plenty of climbers, announcers for other sports, athletes and coaches, and even (most surprisingly to me) to a college-level course that I recently took, this is dead-on. According to these sources, when we work out at a high level, after a certain period of time, lactic acid eventually just saturates our muscles, and then we’re done.

Only, this isn’t really the case.

“Lactic acid [actually, lactate] is in fact a crucial fuel for your muscles, not a painful waste product,” explains Alex Hutchinson in his excellent book, “Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise.” This book compiles numerous interesting discoveries and clarifications emerging from recent exercise science research. Grab a copy and read the third chapter for more details about how the lactic acid myth came into being (in 1907), and how long it has taken to get it out of currency (well, it’s still out there, providing a perfect example of how common knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean correct knowledge – something that is very important to keep in mind when evaluating all things related to training, exercise and trying to improve your climbing!).

Lactate is a friend for working muscles, not a foe. Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lactate is a friend for working muscles, not a foe. Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“In fact,” Hutchinson clarifies, “you’re constantly converting your carbohydrate stores into lactate, even when you’re at rest.” And right away, your body converts roughly half of this lactate into ATP. This conversion doesn’t require oxygen (it’s anaerobic). When you exercise, that number can rise to 80 percent of lactate generated being used to power working muscles. Fit athletes, while churning out about the same amount of lactate as unfit folks, can use that lactate more effectively for fuel.

High levels of blood lactate during intense exercise signify a body that’s not as efficient at using lactate for fuel – not muscles drowning in copious amounts of lactic acid that’s eating away at their ability to function.

So what does account for that burning pump that makes it so hard to hang on for one more move for so many climbers?

Until recently, scientists had yet to come up with solid evidence for the causes of this – but (very!) recent research has shed new light on some of the possible physiological mechanisms responsible the fatigue and pain that can force us to call it quits, whether we want to or not. Check out “What Causes Muscle Pain During Hard Exercise?,” a June 2014 article by Hutchinson published in “Runner’s World,” for details on one possible explanation – that it’s a specific mix of metabolites (products of metabolism) that, when they build up together, prompt this type of muscle fatigue and pain, as evidenced by a study published in the April 2014 issue of “Experimental Physiology.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this study is the fact that none of the metabolites on their own led to feelings of fatigue or pain; it was only the combination of metabolites together that did this. As the authors of the study concluded, “This is the first demonstration in humans that metabolites normally produced by exercise act in combination to activate sensory neurons that signal sensations of fatigue and muscle pain.”

The jury is still out, though, on whether it’s these feelings of pain and fatigue that cause you to stop being able to function continuously at the same level, or if there’s another (or several other!) mechanism(s) involved that actually slow down the muscles and makes them less responsive that’s independent of the pain and fatigue messages being sent to your brain via your metabolite-sensitive nerves.

Want to read more? Check out “Lactic acid restores skeletal muscle force in an in vitro fatigue model: are voltage-gated chloride channels involved?” and “The Myth of Lactic Acid Refuses to Go Away!” (the latter has numerous links to more articles about this sports myth as well).

Up Next Week: Climbing & Training Helpful Hints & Suggestions 1: Lactate Threshold Training, Part 1

This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. This information and advice is based on my 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You 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!

Move of the Month 4: The Open-Hand Grip (Improve Your Climbing Series)

Move of the Month is back, hopefully with more consistency this time around!

This month’s move is the open-handed grip position. Though I started out my climbing life attempting (somewhat successfully) to crimp every hold I grabbed for dear life, I’ve long since come to believe is the most desirable way to grasp and use the majority of handholds, “crimpers” included – unless you need the extra strength of the crimp to help you hang on and/or pull you through. If you’re confused about the difference between open-handing and crimping a hold, take a look at the photos below for clarification.

In this photo I'm open-handing with both hands.

In this photo I’m open-handing with both hands.

In this photo, my left hand is open-handing, while my right hand is crimping.

In this photo, my left hand is open-handing, while my right hand is crimping.

I don’t want to get into too many nerdy details here (or in any Move of the Month entries) about the whys of the open-handed position being preferable, so I’ll keep it short and to the point, sharing my top three reasons why I prefer open-handing holds as my default way of taking holds rather than crimping, and why I recommend training to a high level of comfort with open-handing holds.

First, open-handing holds tends to have less injury potential than crimping due to the less stressful  way an open-handed grip loads your fingers. As your fingers are already extended in an open-handed grip, this reduces the risk of a sudden and potentially damaging impact (e.g. the dreaded tendon or pulley “pop”) should your crimp-grip unintentionally open up (a major cause of climbing finger injuries).

That same less power-sapping, less stressful grip also helps you preserve that finger strength for if and when you need it for crimping, usually making for a slower drain of your strength, power, power endurance, and endurance than you would experience were you to crimp every single hold all the way up a route (and also reducing the risk of explosive, unintentional opening from crimp to open hand).

Finally, I find that keeping an open-handed grip gives me more potential directions of movement that I have off of any given hold than when I lock it down into a crimp grip. I feel more relaxed and able to almost swing off of my much more relaxed grip – the relative relaxation of my hand extends through my arm and shoulder, and I can usually more easily change my angle and trajectory of movement for my entire body than I can if and when I lock a hold down into a powerful crimp. To fully open hand any given handhold, I actually have to drop my relatively short pinky entirely off of the hold in question, but I still find the leverage better in many cases.

Here I am open-handing a small hold with my pinky off -- my most commonly used grip on small holds these days.

Here I am open-handing a small hold with my pinky off — my most commonly used grip on small holds these days.

I still crimp when I need to -- here crimping hard with the left hand while open-handing with the right.

I still crimp when I need to — here crimping with the left hand while open-handing with the right.

This is not to say that crimping doesn’t have its place. I believe that you should be able to crimp when needed, of course – when the strength generated by your bent fingers gives you the extra purchase and power needed to get you through the move. You should most definitely train your fingers to be strong in a crimped position as well as to be strong at open handing – and ideally, to be strong at changing in a controlled way from an open-hand to a crimped grip, and from a crimped grip to an open-handed one.

Crimping a hold instead of open-handing it can make the difference between doing and not doing a move for me sometimes, for sure. I just only pull out that weapon when necessary these days – and it only took about six tendon pulley injuries over the course of my first few years of climbing for me to stop crimping so much (slow learner, but I do learn eventually).

If you want more details about this week’s topic, check out Improve Your Sport Climbing (12): Technique, Part 8 (EASY-HARD): Primary Technical Issues: C) Grip.

This multipart series of articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. This information and advice is based on my 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You 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!