In my last post I discussed a few important training concepts; the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle and progressive overload. I also defined accumulated fatigue and overtraining and how they affect climbing if training stress is not managed appropriately. If you haven’t read it yet it’s a good place to start before reading this post as it lays down some foundational concepts.
Read it HERE.
As I mentioned in my previous post, when it comes to maximizing training, optimizing performance, recovering from and preventing injuries, climbers and coaches need to learn more about appropriately managing training stress for the individual athlete.
I am going to attempt to explain some important concepts so that climbers and coaches can better understand how to appropriately manage training stress for athletes of different levels. These ideas are helpful to understand if climbers want to improve faster and prevent some climbing/training related overuse injuries.
Eventually You Need a Training Program
Novice climbers can get away with going to the gym and just climbing a lot without a specialized structure and they will improve over time. It’s probably not the most effective or efficient way to get better at climbing but that is traditionally what most climbers end up doing and it works well enough.
Eventually, climbers reach a natural plateau where just climbing without a plan doesn’t seem to work any more. In some cases the stress of the climbing sessions is not enough to drive progress. In other cases the climber is very motivated and climbing too much. Too much volume, frequency and intensity will stall progress because the climber is not accounting for the time needed for recovery between sessions. This plateau that climbers tend to end up in usually signifies that they have now reached the intermediate phase.
Intermediate and advanced climbers require individually specialized programs in order to drive progress. The right amount of stress and the right amount of recovery is essential.
The Difference Between Novice, Intermediate and Advanced Athletes
The idea of an athlete being a novice, intermediate or advanced has nothing to do with climbing experience or strength levels but everything to do with their ability to recover from stress. The ability to produce stress and recover from stress changes as an athletes training progresses. This is a concept adopted from the book “Practical Programming for Strength Training” by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker.
A Novice athlete will recover from hard training in no more than 48-72 hours and will be able to handle another hard training stress every 2-3 days. After a period of regular training this 2-3 day recovery window begins to grow and an athlete becomes an intermediate athlete. The timeline for this varies depending on the athlete.
An Intermediate athlete will need around a week to sufficiently recover from a hard training session. Because an intermediate athlete is generally stronger and more technically advanced they are able to apply a more significant stress during training than a novice. Intermediate athletes also need more stress in order to drive adaptation and therefore need more time to recover.
This does not mean an intermediate athlete can only train once a week, just that the training needs to be manipulated in a way that allows for sufficient recovery. For climbers to continue driving adaptation past the first significant plateau (which usually signifies the beginning of the intermediate phase) there is a simple solution: Intermediate climbers need to manage workloads on a weekly basis.
An Advanced athlete takes around a month to recover from a hard stress. Only very dedicated climbers reach this level in their training. They require a lot more stress to elicit an adaptation than an intermediate athlete. Advanced climbers will need to manage workloads on a monthly basis.
Important Training Distinction for Climbers
There is an important distinction we need to understand between repeating motor pathway sports and non-repeating motor pathway sports if we want to plan our training effectively.
Repeating motor pathway sports: repeat the same movement patterns over and over. Sports like weightlifting, swimming, cycling, running etc.
Non-repeating motor pathway sports: are unpredictable and the movement patterns change all the time. Sports like climbing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, fencing would qualify.
While all sports require some skill, non-repeating motor pathway sports are usually more technical than repeating motor pathway sports and even more skill dependent.
Novice climbers are almost never limited by their strength or endurance, they are limited by their climbing skill. Novice gains in climbing don’t happen necessarily because someone is getting stronger (although that is probably happening to some degree), they happen because the climber is rapidly developing better climbing skills. Better footwork, better timing and coordination, better body positioning, learning to heal hook, back step, drop knee etc.
I would venture to say that most novices have the general strength to climb V4-V5, they just don’t have the technical skills necessary to climb those grades. Because climbing is so dependent on skill and technique that is what needs to be prioritized and developed in all levels of climbers.
Skill Development Does Not Benefit From Submaximal Work*
Because of the nature of non-repeating pathway sports as skill sports there isn't much benefit to submaximal work. Submaximal work is not appropriate because it’s not effective training in regards to improving skill. If the goal is to become a better climber and climb harder grades then athletes need to be training at their limit most of the time. At the edge of their ability is where they will develop most of their skill. Submaximal efforts do not necessarily demand that a high level of skill be used and therefore do not benefit the climber towards their goal of improving.
Imagine if a wrestler who is training for a match trained with a partner who she could always submit with ease. She would not get an appropriate level of training stress during those matches and would not be able to work on progressing her skill level during these submaximal matches. A more appropriate match would be with someone who was at her skill level or slightly above. Climbing is similar.
Submaximal work is great for warm ups or the early stages of rehab but if done as part of training only serves to add unnecessary volume aka “junk mileage” to the climber’s training. Climbers will benefit the most from training at a high intensity at the edge of their ability. This is where there is gold to be mined in terms of developing the skill and experience that will allow them to climb higher grades.
*This topic could be a whole post in itself and I may write a more detailed post about it after I am done outlining general concepts and ideas.
Traditional Periodized Programs Do Not Work Well for Sports Like Climbing
With so little information out there for climbers that is based on sound training principles, it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of confusion and a lack of repeatable productivity surrounding the subject of training. Borrowing weightlifting methodologies is a popular template for designing a training program, but the significance of climbing as a non-repeating motor pathway sport completely changes the approach one would use from that of a weightlifter. The weightlifter (… or runner, or swimmer…) can only workout within the limitations of their current abilities. The vernacular is to ‘build a base’ within their ability, and then their absolute ability is tested during competition with maximal efforts.
-Rob Miller, Climbing Coach
The build and taper model in traditional periodized programing--also known as conjugate training-- goes something like: 4 weeks of endurance, 3 weeks of power endurance, 2 weeks of strength, followed by 1 week of rest. Submaximal work is inherent in these programs and we know that submaximal work is ineffective training for the reasons described above.
It’s also potentially the road to injury for a lot of climbers. This type of training (especially the typical volume/endurance phase where low intensities are used) sets climbers up to experience cyclic tendon loading, which we now know from the literature is the recipe for overuse syndromes like tendinopathy.
What Type of Program Does Work Then?
“The assumption that periodization models that are used successfully in other sports will be analogous to climbing is wrong. However, with the correct modifications made to those models to fulfill the needs of the sport, they work just fine. The build and taper model is an excellent method for climbers to use with this one modification: that all the scheduled work performed is done at 100% of one’s ability.”
-Rob Miller, Climbing Coach
We know that intensity must remain high throughout training in order to progress in sports like climbing. How, then, do we manipulate training to account for all this high intensity climbing?
The variable to manipulate is volume instead of intensity.
Since intermediate climbers need to manage training stress on a weekly basis, the best way to do it would be to organize training into microcycles where volume changes on a daily basis and intensity remains high. Advanced climbers can organize their training into monthly mesocycles consisting of several microcycles with the same intention of keeping intensity high.
Rippetoe, M. (2017). Starting strength: basic barbell training(3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Company.
Rippetoe, M., & Baker, A. (2013). Practical programming for strength training(3rd ed.). Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company.
Miller, R. (n.d.). - Rob Millers Granite Page. Retrieved January 6, 2018, from www.granitepage.com
Cook, J. L., Rio, E., Purdam, C. R., & Docking, S. I. (2016). Revisiting the continuum model of tendon pathology: what is its merit in clinical practice and research? British Journal of Sports Medicine,50(19), 1187-1191. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095422