This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 192 (March 2011).
The gym season is here. Time to ask: Am I getting the best returns from my training? Now can be a crucial time to gain.
In particular, you can boost the productivity of power-endurance sessions by applying some basic principles of training structure.
Power endurance is the type of fitness required for most sport routes, with typically sustained sequences of 20 to 60 hand-moves. Although most climbers
use the term power endurance, coaches may also say “anaerobic endurance” or “high-intensity endurance.” The trademark of power-endurance terrain is
that there are no real rests—stopping and shaking will only result in more fatigue. Hence the best approach is just to keep moving.
With power-endurance training, it’s easy to fall into old habits: to climb routes at the gym, guided by whim, on whichever lines are free. But the biggest
mistake is to try to break into that elusive new grade every session. This causes you to take long rests between climbs and, as a result, fail to climb
a worthwhile amount. Another consequence is that you burn out during the first half of the session and are forced to lower the grade so much that the
second half of the session is not productive.
Interval Training Explained
How can we ensure that we climb the right number of routes, at the right grade to maximize the benefits of our sessions? The answer is to adopt the same
approach used to train for endurance sports such as rowing, running and cycling—interval training. This involves striking a balance between the
intensity (or difficulty) of the climbing and the volume (or number of routes/moves). The equation is simple—the higher the intensity, the less
volume can be achieved. With interval training the idea is to achieve an optimum balance, keeping both volume and intensity reasonably high.
Setting the Training Grade
Another key principle of interval training is that the intensity of each interval remains constant. Pick a fixed grade (typically one or two grades below
your maximum onsight capability) and stick to this for the duration of the session until you fail. For example, someone whose best current onsight
grade is 5.12c would (after warming up) maintain the grade of 5.12a throughout the session. The idea is that the first two or three intervals feel
comfortable, the next few are tough, and the last are desperate.
Number of Repeats
Repetitions will depend on how many moves you are completing during each work interval. For shorter work intervals (e.g. 20 to 30 moves), aim for a larger
number of repeats (e.g. 8 to 10), and for longer work intervals (e.g. 50 to 60 moves), shoot for a lower number (5 to 7). See the table for guidelines.
Your rest between each work interval has a direct effect on the amount of repetitions possible. If you take 30-minute rests between each climb, then you
would probably be able to roll out routes at your training grade all day, but if the rest drops to two minutes, then you would be on the ropes after
two or three climbs. The answer is to strike a balance. Rest times should be approximately “time-and-a-half” of the work interval, so the higher the
number of moves, the longer the corresponding rest. Again, see the table.
The Technique Element
Climbing differs from most endurance sports in the sense that the technique component is highly varied. You will achieve better results from switching
between different routes, rather than lapping the same route. Training on circuits is also beneficial. Last, it is also vital to train on different
types of holds and different wall angles, selected to prioritize your goals or weaknesses. In other words, if your project is a 40-move, gently overhanging
sport route on small crimps, then this is what you must simulate in your training.
A common oversight is to train the same number of moves (usually the length of the routes at your gym) every session. Make sure you train at different
intensities within the given spectrum for power endurance (20 to 60 moves). For longer work intervals, lower off and do double or triple laps. Make
sure you pull the rope down and start climbing again as quickly as possible, without any rest. Circuits on the bouldering wall provide a great option
if you don’t have a belay partner.
The key to success in any type of training is to have goals for every session, and interval training lends itself perfectly to this notion. Aim to reduce
the rest times very slightly every time you train. The table gives upper and lower values for rest times, so start training at the higher value and
reduce the rest by 15 to 30 seconds every session. If you are training on circuits, then an alternative to reducing the rest times is to add five moves
each time, or to make a few of the moves slightly harder. With this approach, if you train power endurance two or three times a week, it only takes
a month or two before you notice impressive results.
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.