Training Efficiently

Forunately there's no money in climbing training research, or else this might be me :)

Forunately there’s no money in climbing training research, or else this might be me 🙂

by Mark Anderson

I think if people realized how little I train (and climb) they would be shocked.  I often joke with my wife that I should be quarranteened in a plastic bubble and studied by teams of cruel government scientists (ala E.T.). There is certainly a trend among top climbers to perform massive quantities of training (like, 6+ hours per day, 5 or 6 days per week).  That’s not me.  First of all, I don’t have that much time, between work and my family. Second (and foremost), I truly believe “less is more” when it comes to climbing training. Even if I had more time to train, I would probably spend much of that time resting anyway. Considering those factors, my overarching strategy is to train as efficiently as possible.  That is, I strive to maximize my improvement relative to the training time (and energy) invested.  Doesn’t everybody do that you ask?  No, frankly.  Many people figure ‘the way to improve is to pile on more and more training.  Anyway, it couldn’t hurt, could it?’ This philosophy is popular among runners, cyclists, swimmers and other ultra-endura athletes. The problem is, it actually can, and does hurt.  Low efficiency activities sap energy, thus undermining high efficiency activities.  In the best case scenario, the added volume forces longer recovery periods between workouts, but far more often, the needed additional rest is omitted, and the athlete simply goes into the next workout under-recovered, thus further limiting the intensity of the next workout.  As a result, every workout starts to become an endurance workout, and pretty soon the athlete is no longer progressing, but rather struggling to maintain the fitness he had when he started. My strategy for maximizing training efficiency dovetails nicely wtih a complimentary training objective — favoring strength and power training over endurance.  This allows me to emphasize high intensity training, which is short in duration, almost by definition (there are brief periods during each season that I focus on endurance training, but even then I favor higher intensity endurance training followed by plenty of rest).  Furthermore, I only perform activities that I strongly believe provide a direct benifit to my performance; I don’t do any filler or “crosstraining”. [More on Training Intensity here]

My actual training/climbing schedule from the Fall 2013 Season.  The Strength & Power Training Phases  are very typical of a normal season.  However, the Performance Phase (outdoor climbing) is atypical; I'm rarely able to squeeze in more than 10 days of actual climbing.  I was able to wranlge about five extra days out of Kate's Maternity Leave and the Government Shutdown.

My actual training/climbing schedule from the Fall 2013 Season. The Strength & Power Training Phases are very typical of a normal season. However, the Performance Phase (outdoor climbing) is rather unusual; I’m rarely able to squeeze in more than 10 days of outdoor climbing in a season. I was able to wranlge about five extra days out of Kate’s Maternity Leave and the Government Shutdown.

This is perhaps easier to visualize on a macro-scale, but it also applies on a micro-scale.  For example, Strength Training revolves around my fingers, because they are the single most important factor in climbing performance.  I work my fingers first, but not for long.  When the intensity is right (really high), my fingers can only handle about an hour of work (or, about 18 ~60 second sets of deadhang repetitions, with 3 minutes rest between sets).  Once my fingers are worked, I perform a modest amount of pull muscle, upper arm, and shoulder exercises.  During my Limit Bouldering routine, I don’t do “fun” boulder problems.  I only do boulder problems that will make me a better rock climber (as opposed to a better plastic climber).  In other words, the Lazy H has very few pinches or slopers, and the walls aren’t super steep.  It has a lot of sharp crimps, tweaky pockets, and small, greasy footholds.  Very few of these holds are oriented horizontally–my problems require core tension and attention to footwork.  It’s often hard to breath while climbing these problems, and my skin takes a fair bit of abuse, but the skill and strength developed translates directly to the rock.

Warming up in the Lazy H isn't

Warming up in the Lazy H isn’t “fun”, but its good for my footwork.

That said, it’s only fair to note that I have pretty good technique, and that took many years to cultivate.  Now that I have it, it doesn’t take much to maintain.  However, my training terrain is deliberately designed to maintain my technique (in other words, it isn’t “fun” terrain).  My warmup time is split between a dead vertical wall, and one that overhangs a modest 8 degrees.  The holds on these walls are tiny, and precise movement is required to stay on the wall. Those with performance-limiting technique can apply these same concepts to skill develipment by training on realistic terrain, and emphasizing focused, quality skill practice over zombie-like monotonous quantity.

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18 thoughts on “Training Efficiently

  1. That spreadsheet makes the nerd in me really excited!

    I noticed you rarely have two consecutive performance days. I can only see two occurrences in your schedule, and you only put 1 burn into the project instead of the regular 2. Can you comment on this? I’m wondering from the perspective of a weekend warrior where two consecutive days might be the only way to get in two outdoor days a week.

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    • Ken,

      That’s a great point. I try to avoid consecutive performance days whenever possible. Sometimes when I’m on a road trip I will climb two or even three days in a row, but when I do the grades I climb come way down. I prefer to have one great day than two mediocre days, but that’s a matter of preference. In both the instances you mentioned there was an extenuating cricumstance. The first one, my brother Mike was in town, and I was furloughed, so it made sense to climb (but you will notice I mostly climbed 5.12 the second day, and the first day was really short). The second time, I was desparately trying to send my season project before the weather turned (which didn’t work out 😦 but I knew it was the last weekend of my season so I had nothing to lose — I actually tried to climb the prior Friday, but was shut down by weather and had to climb Saturday instead).

      I am a weekend warrior, but I get every other Friday off (in addition to Saturday & Sunday), so half the time I can easily get a rest day between weekend climbing days, which is really nice. The other weekends I will either climb only one day, or I will use vaction time to get an extra day, depending on factors explained below. If these options are not viable for you, I would suggest experimenting with some different strategies to determine what works best for you.

      One option is to consider climbing only one day each weekend, and then resting the second day so you can train more frequently/effectively mid-week (i.e., Climb Saturday, train Monday & Wednesday). For those traveling to climb each weekend, that’s probably not a great use of your time. One approach for climbing two-days in a row is to focus primarily on the first day, and then take what you can get on the second day. To do this, get plenty of rest prior to your first performance day, then go all out on that day. Spend the next day climbing easier routes, or working easier sections of your project. Personally, I don’t like this approach, because you really only get one good day, and the second day might be better spent resting or training. But it can work ok on distant road trips where there are endless new, good routes to climb and I’m less focused on climbing the hardest grades.

      My preferred approach is to climb early on Saturday, and keep the session as short as possible. Rest Saturday afternoon/evening, then start late Sunday. With this strategy its often possible to get 24 hours or more of rest between climbing sessions. This works best when shade is plentiful (so you can get good conditions any time of day) and you aren’t in a hurry to get home Sunday night.

      Whenever I climb two days in a row I try to get two full rest days after (so a typical weekly schedule would be climb Sat/Sun, train Wednesday, repeat). With this schedule I get one less training day, and that is why I sometimes opt to skip Sunday altogether, depending on whether I feel I need more training, or more opportunities to send. Generally early in a season I favor training time, and late in the season I favor time on the rock. You may find it helpful to mix and match different strategies to fit different situations.

      Hope this helps,
      Mark

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      • Mark, thanks for the detailed reply. I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me, but you provided some good food for thought. Right now I’m leaning toward the Saturday performance day, with training on Monday and Wednesday. That still leaves one weekend day for the growing family during send season. I’d also never really considered mid-week vacation days–I’ll for sure be using that strategy as well.

        Thanks for the wealth of information. I also am looking forward to your book!

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  2. I’m definitely a weekend warrior myself. Lately I’ve been working on ‘mini projects’ that take effort, but not a gigantic amount (maybe something in the 3-10 tries range). Ideally if things work out as planned, as they rarely seem to, the project will be sent on Saturday when I’m fresh/rested Sunday can be spent sussing beta on the next project with whatever level of effort I feel like. This could range from giving a full on on-sight try, to simply bolt to bolt and spending more time on the rope than on the rock, depending on how I’m feeling. That will leave the week for either ‘tues+thurs’ or ‘wednesday only’ training day schedule. For me, I find having a game plan for the route, and having figured out how to do the crux moves helps quite a bit for giving best redpoint attempts next time I get back on the route, hopefully in a more rested state. This leaves me feeling like the time working the route in a less rested state on Sunday was time well spent.
    This sort of schedule may not be as good for someone putting in many weekends or whole seasons worth of effort on a single climb.

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  3. I’m in the process of building my own backyard bouldering gym, which will mostly range from slightly slabby to slightly overhanging, so I’d be very interested to hear more about the nasty little holds you use. Things like any particular manufactured holds you really like or what kind of improvised or homemade holds have worked out well.

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    • Aaron,

      Hold that thought! Next week (-ish) I will be discussing that exact topic, among other things. I’ll try to provide some general guidelines, as well as some links to specific hold sets that I really like.

      Mark

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  4. Hi Mark,

    Just wanted to say thank you for this great post, I have to admit I’m really digging these frequent updates! It is a bit funny that your schedule looks like this as I had assumed Mike’s schedule presented in the Rockprodigy article was most like your own, little did I know it was so vastly different!

    Keyan

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    • Keyan,

      I think Mike’s schedule has evolved quite a bit since then as well. The original Making of a Rock Prodigy article is getting to be fairly old and somewhat out-dated (hence the book!). Back in those days, improving our technique was still a major point of emphasis, so it made sense to spend more time on the rock or ARCing. These days we both focus more on power than we used to, but Mike still does more volume than me, since he currently lives on the East Coast and climbs many long enduro routes (at the Red and similar crags).

      Glad you’re digging the blog. I’m trying to post something new each week. We’ll see how long I can keep that up 🙂

      Mark

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  5. Hi Mark, can’t wait for the book!!!

    I am a father of a 1year old, an IT manager and a husband. I started climbing after at the age of 30. So, I have a few odds against me, but I keep trying 😉 Currently, I am stuck at around f 7b red point. I manage to squeeze in two boulder sessions of 60minutes per week and two gym sessions of 45min per week (I have a gym at work, otherwise I would skip that due to time limitations). All in all, my training takes 3.5h weekly + 2h commuting to the boulder gym in total = 5.5h weekly in total for training. Most kids spend that much in one boulder session. 🙂 I can not afford more, until I build a boulder in my house.

    Due to good geo location, I manage one day of real rock every week also. Good routes are available 30-45min from my house, so I take one morning in the weekend for this.

    I was looking at your August plan and it seems you only do fingerboard training? So, you do not touch rock or boulder plastic for an entire month++? That seems like a great time saver for me. But, I have doubts about loosing a whole month of other muscle activity. This does not hurt your overall performance on rock?

    Thanks for the blog man!

    Weekend warriors FTW

    RR

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    • RR,

      Good for you! It sounds like you have a good system in place.

      To your question, no, I do not hangboard exclusively for a month. I begin each hangboard workout with a 15-minute warmup on plastic (essentially a 15-minute ARC set). After I finish each hangboard workout, I perform 2-3 sets of 3-5 “Supplemental Exercises” as described here.

      I find that not only is this enough ‘other muscle activity’ to maintain strength in these muscles, my other muscles actually get quite a bit stronger during this period. Sometimes my technique is a bit rusty when I begin Limit Bouldering at the end of that month, but I’m usually back to normal by the end of the second Limit Bouldering session (this is another reason the Transition Phase is important–it provides an opportunity to get back into actual climbing after a long period of specialized finger training).

      Mark

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    • Dan,

      The Sports Gene is a great book! We’ve both read it and found it fascinating. However, I don’t think fatalistic attitudes are helpful in personal athletic pursuits. Our genes are what they are, we can’t change them, so what good is it knowing that you are at a disadvantage relative to some genetic outlier from the Czech Republic (for example)?

      I suppose a coach who values winning over all else could use those concepts to cut the kids who had poor genetic attributes. But I wouldn’t want that approach applied to myself, or my own child, no matter how long the odds. I climb because I love it, and if I’m at a disadvantage because of my height, weight, muscle fiber pre-disposition, etc, that just means I need to work a little smarter and a little harder than everyone else.

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    • I can;t say definitively since I’ve never tried to do a hanboard workout on rings, but my guess is that you would be unable to replicate the same level of intensity and repeatability on free-hanging rings. However, you could mount your Rock Rings to a rigid structure to solve that problem. You wouldn’t have the same variety of grips as something like the RPTC, but it would be better than nothing.

      Like

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