This article appeared in Rock and Ice 229 (October 2015).
One of the oldest axioms in the training book is that under-resting
is the athlete’s worst enemy, yet the best climbers in the world seem to burn the candle at both ends. Adam Ondra’s recent program, for example, was a two-month stint of two hard sessions a day for six days a week.
Be careful. It’s tempting when we hear about Ondra to think that we’re not training enough, and to jack up the volume. Fact is, few people can cope with his absurd workload, and resting can do more good than adding to your training—a tenet that can be particularly frustrating for climbers with limited spare time.
The million-dollar question that has remained on the lips of climbers for decades is: “How much should you train?” Here, I’ll approach training and resting from the perspective of the average climber whose training is guided by feel and instinct as opposed to a detailed plan.
1. How Hard/Often to Train Endurance
Endurance training is complicated, as there is justification for training hard on numerous consecutive days when working on long endurance,
also called stamina. However, with power endurance, a different sort of endurance requirement, you must preserve a reasonable degree of quality (and not get carried away). If you aspire to train hard on two or three consecutive days, always train power endurance first and long endurance the following session. Alternatively, if you wish to train power endurance two days in a row, change the angle and style of climbing.
Most climbers gain more and are less susceptible to burnout if they vary overall effort levels when training on consecutive days; for example, by following a hard session with a lighter recovery session the next day, then undertaking a medium-hard session next. In the real world this is the only way it is possible to train for multiple days at a time. A final factor is whether you go to failure in endurance sessions; if so, you will need far more rest between sessions. You can actually benefit from both approaches (going to failure and resting longer between sessions or stopping before failure and resting less between sessions). Experiment with both and select whichever combination suits your daily constraints.
2. How Hard/Often to Train Strength
Quality of effort is the hallmark of strength training. It may not matter if you turn up at an endurance session feeling subpar, but do this for a strength session and you’re setting your training back. Not that it’s impossible to train strength on numerous consecutive days; it is possible,
but make your sessions shorter and higher quality, with long rests, and always stop while you still feel fresh and strong. An alternative is to use split routines where you switch between different muscle groups; for example, training fingers one session and arms and core the next. Similarly, to get the most from a bouldering trip, switch problem styles if you want
to do hard stuff on consecutive days, or follow a project day with a volume day. It is impossible to generalize about whether it’s better to go for
this approach or to do a longer, harder comprehensive session, then take a rest day or two. Both approaches are important, if nothing else but to add
crucial variety to your training. In other words, try a period where you do lots of short sessions consecutively, then move onto a phase where you
do longer, more taxing sessions, followed by rest days.
3. Mixing Strength and Endurance
This approach has now become the most common for the modern climber, with sessions commencing with strength and moving on to endurance.
The same philosophy applies here. If in the same day you do a really long, hard strength session followed immediately by a long, hard endurance session, the only thing you can hope for during the following two or three days is rest or some lighter endurance training. So if you want to train more frequently, you need to do the minimum amount of both in the sessions. Avoid going to failure in endurance training.
4. Testing Recovery
Usually the only way you’ll know if you’ve recovered fully from a training session is when you’re in the middle of the next one. Grip
strength, however, works as a crude indicator of recovery, and you can use a dynamometer (grip-measuring device) for a pre-training assessment. Note your score when at peak recovery, and use it as a reference point. I advise warming up by squeezing several times and then taking two minutes rest before going for your maximum.
Gauging the ratio of recovery to training will always be an imprecise science, and most climbers find it a constant struggle to maintain the right formula. Don’t get frustrated if things don’t go your way. Understand the underlying principles, factor in the many different variables, and develop a nose for what works.
5. Recovery Strategy
The point when you wish to start really pushing the intensity and frequency of your training is also the time to be particularly careful
to warm up and cool down, perform antagonist training and supportive conditioning sessions, and eat and sleep well. And finally, regardless of the fine details, if you train hard for long periods, you will need at least one and preferably two rest phases during the year when you do not climb at all for a week or two. During that time, maintain your general fitness with some light cardio, stretching and gym work.
Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and last year established Freakshow (8c/5.14b) at Kilnsey, also in the U.K. On October 13, 2016 he made the first ascent of Sabotage—an 8c+ (5.14c) extension to Predator (8b/5.13d) at Malham Cave, North Yorkshire, England. Sabotage is Gresham’s first climb of the grade.