While it might go against common sense, it‘s actually easy — and way more time-effective — to build power-endurance and endurance on a bouldering or spray wall. Top climbing coach Steve Bechtel gets into the nitty gritty of why this works — and how.
What Do You Need?
First of all, let’s look at why a home wall — like the one in Frank Dusl’s garage — will be better. One of the issues with doing bouldering intervals or circuits in a commercial setting is the inability to control for intensity and duration. If I go into my local gym, pick four V5s, and crush a big 4 × 4 session, there is no chance that a month later — after the wall is reset — I’ll be able to replicate that same session nor increase its difficulty by “just enough.” The load ends up being too variable, based on the nature of the set and the whims of the setters. The continuity of the training process, from session one to, say, session eight is not progressive. Chances are that any progress I make will be a result of dumb luck. This works OK for a climber in the first years of training, but cannot help us progress once we’re closer to our genetic limits.
Thank goodness for your home wall, where you can leave the holds and problems fixed indefinitely, thus giving you an easily benchmarked and customizable training tool. It turns out your spray wall is way more useful than you’d ever hoped.
Endurance is a big target. For most of us, deciding what, precisely, we need to improve will help a lot. There are three main ways in which training can help improve our fatigue management:
- We can get better at managing several hard moves in a row, being able to do the same duration at a higher power output.
- We can get better at going slightly longer, doing greater durations at the same power output.
- We can improve our ability to recover between effortswhether at a sketchy kneebar rest or while sitting on a crashpad between burns on a problem.
When you’re first starting out, all of these things can be addressed at the same time, often unconsciously: The simple act of climbing stimulates your ability to do the sport, without any plan or instruction. Consider that all of us learn the most complex motor tasks of our lives in the first couple of years of breathing, with no coaching and no verbal instruction. We simply try to roll over, crawl, stand up, and walk until we can do these things. Climbing is the same way. Once you get pretty good, though, improvement starts to require focus.
If you’re training on a home board and reading about getting even more endurance, you’re likely well past the glory days of novice-level adaptations. Like me, you might go through a full month of training and not be all that sure that you got fitter. Diminishing returns are tough.
In part three of this article I will outline three different session types. Each is designed to address one of the main training goals above. Step one is to pick what you think you most need from your training. Step two is to focus on one and only one of the session types for an entire training cycle, which is normally 8 to 12 sessions over 4 to 6 weeks. Sorry for the broad range there, but there are a broad range of climbers reading this!
These sessions aren’t meant to dazzle. They are not built to torch, trash, or burn your muscles. They are meant to cultivate a slow, steady increase in managing fatigue while climbing. If you’ve never done 12 progressive endurance sessions, you’re in for some boring training whose effectiveness you’ll often question. Remember that although getting endurance is boring, having it is not.
12 Sessions ?!
Wait… 12 sessions ?! One of the things that a lot of people don’t get about endurance training is that it takes time. In general, people go too hard in the initial session or two, end up wiped out, and then drift away from the training. Many of us see a short term “boost” in endurance from a couple weeks of getting pumped and think that’s all there is to it. Most of the climbers I work with who have “bad endurance” simply haven’t trained that system completely — they gave up too soon.
If you’ve ever started a running program, you will understand that it isn’t until the sixth or eighth or tenth run that you start to have the legs and lungs for faster or longer runs. Climbing is the same in many respects, and taking the time to develop good fitness may very well change your entire rock-climbing experience from here on out.
The Bigger Picture: A Quick Note Before You Start
When it comes down to it, most of us think we need to improve all of the facets of climbing fitness, all the time. How, then, does your need to build your endurance balance with your finger-strength sessions, your limit bouldering, your yoga, your alpine training, and your actual days outside climbing?
The truth is that training for a sport as complex as climbing is not about balance, but compromise. When I suggest that a climber simply not do a finger-strength workout for two months, or avoid limit bouldering for a few weeks, it’s usually summarily dismissed as bad advice. The thing that I keep coming back to is the limited adaptability of the human system, and the infinite value of specialization we can achieve with enough focus.
We’ve all been sick or injured or traveling and didn’t do our hangboard program for days or weeks or months. Somehow, though, we were able to come back from that layoff and perform once again. Doing a full endurance phase is no different, except that you’ll actually still be climbing and will probably regain your finger strength or bouldering power or whatever all the more quickly. Home-board endurance is no walk in the park, and I’ll be surprised if you lose that much finger strength anyway, given the fingery nature of bouldering boards / spray walls.
Take a chance on focusing. Spend two or three sessions a week hammering away at one ability. I think you’ll like what happens.
Steve Bechtel is a lifelong climber, and has been coaching climbers for most of his adult life. He is the cofounder of the coaching company Climb Strong and the education director for the Performance Climbing Coach seminars. He lives with his wife, Ellen, and their children, Anabel and Sam, in Lander, Wyoming.
• Part One: Endurance Is Fatigue Management
• Part Three: The Workouts