Widely accepted among advanced athletes and used and loved by many climbers, “periodization” is the structured approach to training that involves manipulating intensity, volume and rest over time, in organized cycles of different lengths. However, not only is periodization still attracting doubt from those who study it most, it’s often the case that its shaky and poorly supported methodologies cause more problems for climbers than they solve. Although there is little data, coaches like myself notice the rates of finger injuries growing and an increasing tendency for large imbalances in the levels of different component skills among climbers—perhaps as a result of novice and intermediate climbers taking on training regimes that are both advanced and unproven.
So the question is, should you be using periodization to train for climbing? And if so, where should you start?
First of all, periodization might not even be desirable; the research is still inconclusive. Sports scientists’ uncertainty over the training regimen lingers because some world-class athletes, such as African distance runners, apparently don’t use it. In our sport, many of the world’s strongest, highest-achieving climbers don’t follow any structured training regimes—instead they tune into what their bodies are telling them, and use those messages to focus their “training.” However, this doesn’t mean these climbers couldn’t improve by adopting a more periodic approach—perhaps they could. The point is, at least as of today, it’s still perfectly possible to reach a world-class level in any climbing discipline without an extensive and exact pre-planned training regime. You can climb hard without charts, plots and a rigid lifestyle.
The first part of this article will show you how to approach training intuitively, while in the second part, I’ll lay out periodization’s basics if you think a more rigid approach is right for you.
The Intuitive Approach of training periodization may be technically unstructured, but it is still deliberate and requires that you stick to certain principles to be effective.
The Intuitive Approach basically involves holding up every training decision you make to the fundamental laws of human adaptation in sport: progressive overload, specificity, reversibility, variety and individuality. Knowing these simple guidelines, and applying them logically and objectively, will help you take the right course in training and athletic development. Of course, humans are not always logical or objective, so it’s equally possible to go badly wrong and lose direction. Talking about all the ways in which climbers can err would be a different article; in fact, it could be an entire book … in fact, I’ve already written that book. (See: 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes.)
Following these fundamental laws of human adaption, you can take a more intuitive approach to your training.
Progressive overload: More than before. Whatever your body is used to, it will no longer respond to. The stimulus must get stronger, longer or more frequent to continue working.
Specificity: What you do, you become. Your abilities are explained by what you do day in, day out. If you pull on evenly spaced plastic blobs 90 percent of the time or just campus, you won’t be getting any better at anything but this activity. In fact, you’ll be getting worse at everything else. Which brings me to…
Reversibility: Use it or lose it. That goes for every last detail of your climbing game. If you lost it, remember that the stimulus needed to start gaining it again will be smaller. However, if you jump in with the same schedule you held at your peak, you get wasted in double-quick time.
Variety: Whatever you’ve been doing recently in your training is now wrong. What worked before won’t work again, at least for a while. Move on. Think of what you normally do in training and do the opposite. It will probably work.
Individuality: The thing that works for that other guy is unlikely to work for you. Your weaknesses are different.
You cannot break these laws. But you can break yourself against them.
The most important element in the Intuitive Approach’s success is your ability to listen to your body. Hearing its messages takes the keen ear of experience, but once you’re tuned in, the body helps guide everything, from whether to do one more set/route/boulder, to future goals. The success of the approach comes in avoiding many of the gross misjudgments of how much or what type of training to apply that come from pre-planned schedules.
Even experts (researchers and coaches) in formal periodization recognize that their discipline is fraught with failures to avoid over- or under-training, or to adapt quickly enough to the changing needs of athletes as they develop and gain both new abilities and injuries. So the most pertinent question for any athlete making any short- or long-term decision about training is, “What is my body telling me?”
Answering that question takes a great deal of attention and memory, which is why all the training books encourage a diary where you record how your body is responding to specific combinations of intensity, volume or mode, also giving details about fatigue, soreness, stiffness, appetite, mood, warm-up time, session endurance, or problems like injury or plateau. All of these channels must be recorded in great detail.
Once in the habit of listening to your body over increasing amounts of time (preferably years), you can start to use that keen sense as a tool to make effective assessments of your training capacity, both right now and over the long term.
Mainstream sports are slowly developing a good knowledge base about how athletes respond generally to a given program, with physiological and psychological tests that let coaches know if a training load is too low or dangerously high, but climbing is nowhere near that stage. For climbers, striking the correct training load and content still require a lot of guesswork and a heavy reliance on monitoring progress closely. Very few climbers have a coach watching continuously with an objective eye. We only have our own monitoring, about as biased as a witch trial, especially if you’re getting close to sending a prized route or taking a big trip.
Approaching performance peak is a prime time in which bias can lead to problems. You’ve been training hard for a long time, or on a trip for several weeks and feel great. The routes are going down and you feel stronger on a long-term project every session. You’ve just had four days off due to work or rain and feel paranoid about losing ground. So you jump straight back in with three hard days in a row. On the first day you feel brilliant, everything feels easy. The next two days, performance is also excellent, despite some soreness in the morning and poor sleep at night. This is where the coach and amateur diverge in their interpretation of the situation. The amateur looks only at the last week and dismisses the soreness as a loss of form in the days off, feeling that more training is needed to catch up. The coach is totaling the number and intensity of the training sessions in the past six weeks and comparing those numbers carefully to the season before. The coach sees that a lot of training has been done. Some extended rest has brought about a jump in performance. Resumption of the training is causing some symptoms of overtraining. The coach suggests a week of one day on, two off, then a week of going for the big send, then a whole week off. The amateur can’t understand the logic because performance is still great and getting better. Keep training! But the coach explains that the body is on the point of exhaustion and the extended rest is lifting the burden of training stress. More rest is needed to peak and the climber should take a break.
By introducing pre-planned periodization into your short and long-term training, you are just as likely to introduce error as to improve the effectiveness of the training, unless you have a systematic and reliable method of measuring how your body is responding.
Part II: Periodization fundamentals
Again, be aware that by introducing pre-planned periodization into your short- and long-term training, you are just as likely to plateau or become injured as you are to improve. Monitoring your response to the training is crucial; the more objective you are, the better. That might mean hiring an experienced coach or mentor, or at the very least keeping a daily journal of all your observations and feelings about your training over time.
Two very different ways to organize long-term training load have emerged as effective: complex training and concentrated loading.
Complex training relies on the theory that it’s OK to mix up your training and work on “conflicting” components of fitness at the same time. To give an example, this could mean working on bouldering strength all winter, with one endurance session per week. But sport-climbing season is six weeks away, and you will need endurance, so you gradually replace bouldering time with more endurance work until eventually that is the focus of your training load. In general, in complex training, you are likely to be working simultaneously on aerobic and anaerobic endurance, strength, technique and flexibility all year long, but it will be your general focus that changes.
This wave-like oscillation between different components of fitness was one of the first periodization methods used. The theory is that the body never reaches an acute state of fatigue, and the gentle variation from one focus to another results in a gradual, steady increase in overall ability.
Concentrated loading, however, is more common in professional athletes these days, and despite some similarities to complex training, involves quite a different approach. Essentially, concentrated loading features a sustained block of focused heavy loading for about a month or two. It’s similar to complex training in that the specific focus oscillates in smooth waves rather than abrupt block changes, but concentrated loading’s intensity might not actually be that high, while volume is high.
With a high volume of work, the athlete generally feels quite tired and worked throughout the period; overall performance is likely to plummet and remain down even after the volume is reduced. What the first experimenters with this method (probably post-war Russian weightlifters) noticed was that over the following couple of months of light loading, the body recovered and demonstrated a large rise in ability, even though the current training was much lighter. There would be two periods of concentrated loading in the year, and two distinct peaks of performance.
So which should climbers use? The current thinking is that only elite, highly specialized/experienced athletes, under the close supervision of coaches, should use concentrated loading. Why? Because it’s dangerous. Even expert coaches tend to underestimate how light the post-concentrated loading phase needs to be, and to misjudge the quality of restoration activities. The result can be a bunch of overtrained, injured athletes.
Marius Morstad, a renowned Scandinavian climbing coach, says, “There are no climbers in the world who have to concern themselves with this discussion [of concentrated loading].” It’s really for athletes who have built up enough training time over enough years to handle it, and even with a lot of support, many athletes get injured or stagnate. Yet some climbers at an advanced level are arranging their training like this with consistent results. If you think you are ready to apply a concentrated loading regime on yourself, you’ll need to arm yourself with either a good elite coach or a large stack of books and a thorough understanding of what you’re getting yourself into.
I’m always nervous about looking too closely at case studies of other climbers when I discuss training. It’s just too tempting for people to try to copy the case study rather than absorb the principle of why it worked for that individual. Copying someone else’s training regime is one of the finest ways to blow it, and break yourself against one or more of the fundamental laws mentioned earlier. Why? Because you never hold complete information about why someone’s schedule worked for that person—especially if you heard it straight from the horse’s mouth (and hence with maximum bias and minimum objectivity). Climbers often attribute the success of training plans to entirely the wrong things.
An example from my past: When preparing for my hardest route, Echo Wall (5.14c R/X) I unwittingly applied a concentrated loading pattern. From February 2008 onward I trained like never before. I knew I would need to be careful in making a rapid increase in my training load and trying to sustain it for several months. So I cut down the volume of work I did and made sure I slept really well and took good general care of my health. By June I had made great progress. I was at my fighting weight and feeling fit and strong, if a little jaded. Then the weather in Scotland turned awful, with six weeks of rain. My efforts to stay on real rock only resulted in carrying heavy packs of gear up mountains in the rain and growing some nice heavy quadriceps. Then as I was losing hope, a work trip for a few weeks prompted yet more barriers to regular climbing. I snatched the odd route here and there. But I was doing a fraction of the volume I had been and I thought it was over. What I was missing on the work trip was a reference—a familiar climb to measure my fitness on. All I had to go on was feeling kind of flat and frustrated.
On returning to Echo Wall in mid August I couldn’t believe what had happened. I’d made a huge jump in my level and was suddenly ready to lead it. It didn’t make any sense: nearly seven weeks of training at half my previous volume, and yet I was feeling invincible. I took my opportunity and nailed the route a few days later. In hindsight I realized that my earlier training volume was unsustainable. The poor weather and the work, which I felt had gotten in the way, were in fact crucial ingredients. Even though I was really tuned into my training, I was still getting periodization wildly wrong. I was trying to increase my training load too significantly. My intention was to apply this in a complex loading protocol—maintaining the high load until close to the send window. But circumstances saved me from the error and all ended well, that time. Since then, despite the lesson, I’ve overcooked my training and gotten injured several times. Every time, I’ve worked too closely to my desired schedule, and not paid sufficient heed to the subtle signs from the body.
So given that the complex approach applies to most of us, here are some crucial details:
Everyone else’s schedule is wrong (for you). Make up your own, from scratch, from first principles and within your own constraints of time, resources, stage of development, and weaknesses.
Use smooth, undulating transitions of focus from one fitness component to the next. Sudden changes from heavy training in one area to another (e.g., doing long routes all summer and then suddenly switching to hard bouldering or campusing) are too stressful on the body, and quickly result in injury. Phases of five to eight weeks, focusing on a particular aspect, seem to work well for athletes with a set competition season in the year. Climbers might need to use slightly shorter phases to cover everything if they want to have several peaks in the year.
Overall volume and intensity should be inversely related to each other. A common method is to start a training season with high volume and low intensity, and progress over several months to high intensity/low volume just before you want to peak.
In the early stage of a season of training—let’s say it’s December and you want to peak in April—focus on the basic elements such as core strength and basic finger strength. Early on is the time to tame the hangboard and put in the long, high-volume bouldering sessions in the gym. As the training season goes on, shift your focus progressively toward technique, with less time in gyms, more time on rock or the exact medium you want to peak for, and more specific work. This might mean spending time working moves on the actual project you want to send.
Although your overall volume and intensity are changing in slow, smooth curves over weeks or months, constantly vary your individual sessions in both intensity and volume. Mix both variables up in different combinations and light, moderate or heavy sessions. For example, a long session of onsighting newly set problems at an unfamiliar wall might be heavy volume, light intensity. But going for it on your hardest problems on your home board is heavy intensity, light volume. Too many of one type of session in a row and injury is around the corner.
Big problems for climbers using periodization:
Climbers are awful at separating training from performing. They try to perform all the time: on the campus board, in the gym and at the crag. In short, the body never gets a good run at proper training. It’s always trying to recover.
Climbers want to peak all year long. We want and expect to be able to climb our grade at the crag with 100 percent consistency. When our bodies are tired and can’t manage it, we get annoyed and do exactly the wrong thing—try even harder. Adopting a periodization approach means thinking ahead about when you want to be in peak form and accepting that otherwise you’ll see some depressed or unpredictable performances.
Climbers who are “into” training enough to think about periodization tend to forget about training technique and tactics and get hung up on the basic stuff like campus/hangboard/circuit routines. Imagine if Roger Federer did nothing but an elaborate arrangement of periodized weights and running sessions all year and never went out and played a match. Would he be in winning form?
If you are up for the work, or have a coach who is, periodization could help you go places with your climbing. But be aware you are entering a minefield of chances to get yourself injured, be frustrated or just not be as good as you would if you’d only gone climbing and done what felt natural. Lots of athletes still think periodization is a skill of planning. It’s actually a skill of measuring. Get better at measuring what’s happening with your body and its performances. If you’re listening, your body will give you the best information on what to serve it up next.
Dave MacLeod is considered one of the best all-around climbers in the world, with difficult sport, trad, boulder and alpine routes under his belt. He is the author of 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, which can be found at www.davemacleod.com.