Today, an increasing number of veteran climbers refuse to throw in their rock shoes and take up something more sensible. As climbing matures, so do its participants, and this brings about an urgent need to address safe and effective training practices for seniors. Should older climbers do specific strength training? What sort of methods should be prescribed and how much rest is necessary? Any other sport would have a coaching framework to guide participants, but climbing doesn’t and we are left to forge our own way and learn from frustrating mistakes. The purpose of this article is to make sense of the theory and speculation that surrounds the subject of training for older climbers.
PHYSIOLOGY OF OLDER ATHLETES
My father once opined that as a veteran athlete, if you are maintaining performance then you are improving because you are winning the battle against the aging process. The science of aging predicts a steady decline in athletic performance from the age of 30 (and no, I’m afraid that wasn’t a misprint that was supposed to say 40!) onward. This depressing statistic might suggest, even to me at the age of 36, that I am better off sitting here at the keyboard than out on the rock. Thankfully, a closer examination reveals a more optimistic picture.
Men are understood to reach maximum strength potential during their mid-20s and women by the age of 30. From this point onward, muscle mass and explosive strength decline at three percent per annum during your 30s and at one percent from then on. Joint stiffness increases with age (don’t we just know it!); however, muscle-fiber density and capillarity hardly change. Sports requiring high levels of power-endurance show similar decline curves, although aerobic endurance declines notably later and at a slower rate—peak V02 max can still be reached by men from 30 to 35 and by women at 35 to 40. Remember, we are talking about maximum capability here. It is still possible to gain strength and endurance during your later years; you just can’t reach peak level. The effects of age-related performance decline are greater for high-level performers than for lower-level performers. In other words, the bigger they are, the harder they fall: A 60-year-old Chris Sharma is going struggle to stay on form way more than the average mortal. Another notable factor is the need for increased recovery time with age, both within and between training sessions. Numerous studies provide evidence on this subject, and our own experiences speak for themselves.
Safe and correct training practices allow participants in more conventional sports to maintain performance, and in some cases—especially for late starters and especially in endurance events—to improve. Climbing, though, is not a conventional athletic sport. Nearly all research into age-related decline has been conducted in sports like running, rowing or cycling where there is a high emphasis on brute strength and endurance. Owing to the massive technique element in our activity, it is definitely possible to out-climb your former youthful and exuberant self by relying more on wisdom and superior movement skills than campusing strength.
THE ROLLER COASTER: MOTIVATION AND LIFESTYLE
If you invite the average veteran climber to grumble about why he is unable to climb 5.14, I can guarantee that physiological limitations won’t even be halfway up the list. A stressful job and hectic social life, or the constraints of running a family are far more powerful grade-crushers than a two-percent loss in tendon strength. It sometimes feels like a losing battle to fit training in around everything else, and the classic result is intensive spurts of climbing followed by long periods of forced inactivity. The frustration associated with performance loss leads to an excessive eagerness to play catch-up, and the result is usually injury. Over time, the injuries are harder to comeback from. The single most important advice for any veteran climber is to make every attempt to straighten the curve. An hour of climbing twice a week is infinitely better than doing nothing, even if you only have time to warm-up and do a few easy routes or problems. A run or multi-gym workout is also better than nothing.
TRAINING FOR VETS: AN AGE-SPECIFIC PLAN
In the model outlined below the age categories are loose and should be adapted to your requirements. Some climbers are simply more susceptible to injury than others—always consider factors such as weight, build and previous years of training. It may be necessary for a 50-year-old climber who is highly injury-prone to adopt the training practices of someone 10 years his senior. Equally, a 60-year-old who has never been injured in spite of years of training may wish to push for something a little racier than the guidelines given here. The lowest category is 40 to 50, but many 40 to 45 year olds may not need to train differently from the way they trained in their 30s, provided they are injury-free and adopt safe practice.
A good warm-up is one of the most important considerations for a veteran climber, but what exactly does this mean? Always start with a jog-on-the-spot or pulse raiser and some general mobility exercises to loosen up. The main thing is then to spend as long as possible (from 30 minutes to an hour) doing stints of easy climbing or traversing, interspersed with resting and stretching. Each climbing stint should be slightly harder than the previous. The biggest mistake of all is to leapfrog grades and not sequence your warm-up in a pyramid style. The first three traverses should be on juggy vertical walls and no pump whatsoever should accumulate. After that, for route climbing, aim to get roughly 25 percent pumped, then 50 percent, then 75 percent, before you try something close to your limit. For bouldering, build up the problems in grade sequence, switching styles and doing at least three or four of each grade with plenty of rest in between. Don’t build a pump at all. And don’t miss out on the never-ending opportunity to improve your technique by keeping your mind 100 percent in tune with your movements during your warm-up traverses. Don’t just carry on thinking about the day’s work. Try performing technique drills by focusing on various aspects of climbing style such as accurate footwork, fluid movements, controlled breathing, relaxed grip, keeping your arms straight and twisting in with your hips on overhangs.
Strength training is by far the most difficult component to incorporate into a veteran’s program. Nobody wants to lose the hard-earned strength gained in his earlier climbing years, but if you have a catalog of injuries from a long climbing career, then it makes much more sense to aim for a lower level of strength, while keeping climbing. This principle is surely the cornerstone of training for the majority of veteran athletes. We must also consider the scenario for those who get into climbing late. For most climbers in this category a lack of specific strength for hard moves is the major weakness. Yet it takes years of progression, even for young climbers, to build up finger strength without getting injured, and the threat of injury is amplified for those over 40. Again, it is a tough fact to accept, but it is probably better for climbers over 40 to minimize their specific strength training and to focus on endurance. The only group of veteran climbers who should feel tempted to up the level of strength training are those in their 40s who can boast an injury-free record from a climbing career mainly geared towards routes and endurance. In this case, you will have a solid foundation of tendon strength and it may well be possible to introduce a higher workload of strength training than that which is prescribed here. In general, though, the secret for aging climbers is to change the way you think about training and to place less emphasis on power and more on technique (which,of course, is also a more effective strategy for younger climbers). There should be strictly no campusing or system training in a veteran’s program and the emphasis for strength work should always be on bouldering. Read every problem before you attempt it and review your sequences afterwards to see where you could have saved energy. There is endless potential for improvement and this is also one of the few golden nuggets that will make you improve while simultaneously reducing your chances of getting injured. Hard bouldering should also be given less and less emphasis in your overall training plan, until you reach 60, then you should probably cut it out altogether.
You can expect reasonable improvements in endurance as a veteran climber if you are fairly new to the sport, but if you have been climbing at a reasonably high level for many years, it may only be possible to maintain endurance in pure physiological terms. If you consider the intrinsic links between endurance and technique in climbing, however, there is room to break new barriers as a veteran. Route-reading, spotting rests and making better use of them, learning to relax in strenuous positions and climbing more quickly are all skills that will help you keep climbing far longer on sustained ground than merely focusing on improving your lactic tolerance. Aside from the technique element, the key to endurance training as a vet is to not make too many changes to what you do on any day but to lengthen the recoveries between sessions. Train middle-distance endurance (power-endurance) and long-distance endurance (stamina) on separate days. Don’t make the mistake of going for too much volume at the expense of intensity (unless you are commencing a training program). In other words, instead of doing loads of laps on easy routes, try to keep the difficulty of the routes up and lengthen the rest times accordingly or aim for slightly less repetitions. Quality over quantity should be the guiding motto.
OPPOSITION AND CROSS TRAINING
A crucial component to reduce the chance of injury for veteran climbers is always to maintain a focus on antagonist training (antagonists are the “opposition muscles” to the muscles commonly used in climbing). A general strengthening routine in the gym (or a few sets of push-ups) twice a week provides the means. This does not have to be too scientific—you just have to do it! Cross training and aerobic conditioning are also important, both for fitness and for weight control, but do not overdo it, as this will impede your recovery between climbing sessions.
NUTRITION AND HYDRATION
The older you get, the more your body needs good nutrition. Weight control is particularly important for veteran climbers as it provides a safer alternative to strength training—get lighter and you’ll get stronger automatically! However, beware of extremes and be sure to strike a balance that enables you to recover sufficiently from your training. Protein shakes and protein/carbohydrate recovery drinks provide essential support. For endurance sessions lasting over an hour, take an electrolytic replacement drink. Nutritional timing is also a crucial issue for those with a busy schedule. Don’t eat a big meal before training, instead eat at lunchtime, then have an energy bar or piece of fruit before you climb. Avoid eating big meals late as this will cause you to gain weight.
Age in climbing is a case of mind over matter—if you don’t mind then it doesn’t matter, provided you are armed with all the tricks regarding safe and effective training practices. Today we have seen 60-year-olds climbing 5.14b. Male and female climbers all over the world are achieving personal bests despite having only a few hours to train, two or three times a week. Quality over quantity is the guiding motto, so make those sessions count and make the rests count even more. Focus on technique and endurance, and go easy on the strength work.
Your objective is to do a little, and often, rather than intensive spurts followed by long breaks. An additional aim as you get older should be to increase the amount of rest both within and between climbing sessions. You should also carefully monitor the overall intensity of each week and try to push your training forward in waves. For example, a light week is followed by a moderate week and then a hard week, and then repeat with a light week, and so on. Your training should also be split into phases, which show an overall theme or priority (for example, a bias towards either strength or endurance). Overall it is best to prioritize endurance and to keep strength-training phases as short as possible (three to four weeks) in order to minimize the chance of repetitive-strain injuries. A change is often as good as a rest. Incorporate phases of full rest into macrocycle plans (for example, two cycles of two weeks of full rest per year). The older the climber, the longer and more frequent these should be, but beware of taking excessively long, full rest phases due to the associated performance loss.
45 to 50 years old
Short sessions (two-hr. max, including 45-min. warm-up and 15-min. warm-down) two/three times/week.
Maintain focus on technique. The optimum steep-training angle is 25 to 35 degrees overhanging. Switch between steep and vertical problems. The half-crimp is the utility training grip, but also do a minimum amount of careful work on full crimps and pockets. For the first hour flash all problems; then during the peak hour, try slightly harder problems that might take two or three attempts. Only make powerful moves on problems within your grade. Avoid all-out dynos or campus-style moves. Cutting loose is OK, but emphasize control. Rest completely for 10 minutes for every 30 minutes of climbing and rest one minute for every move completed on harder problems. Do supplementary bar exercises at the end (pull-ups and leg raises—no more than four sets of eight to 10 reps). Warm down and stretch.
Power-endurance (20 to 30 moves): Do interval training on routes or circuits one or two grades below your onsight level, with rest times exactly double the work time. Aim for six to eight repeats. Be strict with the stopwatch and never reduce your rest times.
Stamina (50 to 80 moves): Do up-and-downs on easier routes (e.g., up a 5.10, down a 5.8, up a 5.9) or long stints of random climbing on an easy part of a vertical bouldering wall. Aim for four or five repeats with rests double the work time. Simulate the pace of trad climbing by climbing slowly.
Gym and cardio work: Focus on antagonist exercises (chest, shoulders, triceps). Four or five sets of push-ups twice a week is the minimum. Maintain cardio fitness with running or cycling (2-3 times per week for 20 to 35 minutes at a light to moderate intensity).
DURING EACH WEEK
Three to four sessions per week in hard weeks; only three in moderate weeks.
Strength priority phases: Two/three boulder sessions/week, with one day on routes.
Endurance priority phases: Two/three endurance sessions/week, and one day bouldering.
BASIC MACROCYCLE OUTLINE:
Overall 50/50 split between strength and endurance or slight endurance bias.
Phases to be no longer than four to five weeks in length.
Sequencing: One light week, one moderate week, two hard weeks.
50 to 60 years old
Same as 45 to 50 year olds, but shorter sessions (90 minutes max including one hour warm-up) two times/week max. Also, spend slightly less time on harder problems (30 to 40 minutes). Avoid dynamic moves and minimize cutting loose. Rest 10 minutes for every 20 mins of climbing and rest 90 seconds for every move completed on harder problems. Reduce intensity of bar exercises, or skip altogether.
As for 45 to 50 year olds.
DURING EACH WEEK
As for 45 to 50 year olds, except a maximum of three sessions/week, even in hard weeks.
BASIC MACROCYCLE OUTLINE:
Greater overall priority towards endurance, with longer endurance phases (six to seven weeks)
Shorter strength phases (two to four weeks) or consider cutting strength out altogether.
Sequencing: One light week, two moderate weeks, one hard week.
Over 60 years old
Avoid bouldering altogether, or go for mileage-based sessions on easier problems that you can flash comfortably. Stick to vertical with the very occasional overhanging problem.
As for 45 to 50 year olds, but reduce the training grade of interval routes for power-endurance (three grades below your onsight level). Maintain the same rest times, but go for slightly more repeats (nine or 10). Stamina training can remain the same.
Gym work and cardio: Same as for 45 to 50 year olds, only slightly shorter/easier gym sessions.
Two hard sessions per week or three moderate sessions in hard weeks.
Endurance work only: Two/three routes/endurance sessions/week (with occasional light bouldering).
No hard weeks
Sequencing: One light week, two moderate weeks.
Frequent contributor Neil Gresham is best known for his repeats of two of Britain’s scariest trad routes, Indian Face (5.13a X) in Wales and Equilibrium (5.13d X) on Peak District gritstone. He has been coaching and writing training articles for over 15 years, and offers personalized training programs on www.climbingmasterclass.com.