ATP and Metabolic Specificity

ATP and Metabolic Specificity: Why Running is not a Conditioning Tool for Climbing


Climbers who claim to know about training spew all kinds of verbal garbage around the climbing gym and weight room. How many times have you heard climbers say they’re running to get in shape for sport climbing? Or say that, since route climbing is an endurance activity, they don’t need to take rest days between their climbing days?

Yes—running can help you lose weight. It can make you approach hikes easier. And it can be really fun. But it will NOT help you send your sport climbing project. (In fact, weight training is the superior tool to train for this—more on this here.)

And yes—sport climbing requires muscular endurance. But, when you properly consider where your sport climbing crux lies along the spectrum of metabolic pathways—you’ll see that jogging is not the way to get in shape for your big send, bro'.

Understanding exactly how to train for climbing begins with learning about climbing in a physiological framework—by identifying what metabolic pathways it utilizes.


ATP Production?

Any self-driven movement of the human body requires muscle contraction, and every muscle contraction is fueled by ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Our bodies use food and stored fuels to produce ATP—which can be made using all of the macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat. No matter what types of fuel we eat, and in what proportions we consume them, the key thing to remember is: the body must convert food energy to ATP before it can be used by muscles to create motion.


ATP is created in three primary ways, namely through:

1)      the recycling of recently “spent” ATP by creatine phosphate—takes place without oxygen (anaerobic)

2)      glucose metabolism—called glycolysis—takes place without oxygen (anaerobic)

3)      aerobic metabolism of fatty acids (as well as the byproducts of glycolysis)—requires oxygen (aerobic)


Each method for ATP production is capable of generating ATP at its own rate. And though all methods for ATP production occur simultaneously, each method is dominant at different times (overshadowing the other methods), depending on the intensity of the activity (and how much ATP is required per unit time). Duration of the activity also plays a key role, as the first two mechanisms have finite capacities to produce ATP.

The body stores some ATP in the muscles. During activity, the muscles use this stored ATP as their first fuel source. However, as soon as this stored ATP is consumed by the muscles, the body begins creating new ATP to allow the effort to continue.


Method 1 can supply the body with ATP the most rapidly; however, it also has the shortest duration. As such, it is the primary method in use for very high-intensity, short-duration exercise (usually lasting 12 seconds or less).

This method uses creatine phosphate to regenerate “spent” ATP—and is therefore the reason weight lifters take creatine supplements; having a store of creatine in the muscles allows them to generate ATP more effectively for short, intense sets of training.

Exercises that utilize Method 1 as their primary ATP generation method include: low-rep, high-intensity weight training sets, one-move-wonder sport climbing cruxes, and very short boulder problems


Method 2 is the second-fastest method for the body to generate ATP. This is the dominant pathway used to create ATP during intense bursts of activity lasting roughly 12 seconds to a few minutes. This method uses glycogen (glucose stored in the muscles) to produce ATP; as the body carries a finite amount of glucose in its muscles, this method has a time limit.

Note: this method produces lactate and pyruvate as byproducts; these can be further used by aerobic metabolism (Method 3) to create ATP. However, very intense exercise that creates a lot of these end products can flood the body with lactate, which becomes lactic acid—something with which we are all “painfully” familiar.

Exercises that utilize Method 2 as their primary ATP generation method include: mid- and high-rep weight training sets, power-endurance sport climbing cruxes, and most boulder problems.


Method 3 is the slowest and longest lasting method for creating ATP. It utilizes oxygen to create ATP from glycolytic byproducts and fatty acids (fat!). Because it requires the cardiopulmonary delivery of oxygen to the muscles, Method 3 supplies ATP at a much slower rate than the other methods, and it allows only for lower-intensity activities—but it can create ATP nearly indefinitely.

Think of it this way: if a fairly lean adult body has 20 pounds of fat, and each pound of fat carries roughly 3500 calories of stored energy, that body is carrying 70000 calories of stored energy in the fat alone. If the body uses roughly100 calories to walk or run a mile, this adult body has enough energy stored in the fat to (theoretically) run 700 miles without refueling. Woah!

Exercises that utilize Method 3 as their primary ATP generation method include: walking, running, biking, hiking and very easy, long-duration climbing. VERY easy.


What does this mean?? People typically classify our sport incorrectly—especially sport climbing—and therefore train incorrectly for it.


Yes—when compared with boulder problems, sport climbs are long, and sport climbers usually fall because of muscular endurance issues—whether in the big muscles or the forearms. However, nearly all cruxes on sport routes take considerably less than a minute (or maybe two!) to climb. And, though climbers feel like these routes are “endurance” routes  because they’re falling due to getting flamed out—they’re not a true endurance (or aerobic) activity in the biological sense of the word. They can’t be! Simply because sport climbing cruxes carry too high of an intensity for the body to supply the muscles with enough ATP per minute to be able to complete them aerobically. So, by definition—both in terms of intensity and duration, sport climbs are not endurance events. (Unless you’re climbing at the Motherlode in the Red River Gorge.)

Granted—many sport climbs take much more than two or three minutes to climb. However, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the bulk of this time is eaten up by lower-intensity (easy aerobic) effort. However—don’t take this as a reason to start conditioning yourself aerobically. Nobody ever falls off a sport climbing project in the easy section for any reason but a technical error.


Metabolic Specificity?

Training for sport climbing by running ignores the very basic principle of metabolic specificity. As soon as you understand that sport climbing, like a 400-meter sprint, utilizes utterly different metabolic pathways to generate ATP than long-distance running does, you’ll understand that going for a slow (or even speedy), 40-minute jog is as ineffective a training method at getting you through your sport climbing crux as it is for improving your 400 meter pace.


Instead, two great training alternatives exist:

For climbers whose best asset is strength (but who usually struggle with endurance): observe how long it takes you to climb the crux of your climb (or the climb in its entirety, if it’s a power-endurance route). Weight train such that you are actively lifting for a similar amount of time it takes you to climb your route/ crux. Use different exercises, and rotate through sets of them to achieve the desired duration.

For example: if your crux takes you two minutes to climb, and you’re training deadlifts, pull ups, and shoulder raises (in sets of 3-6 reps), set a stopwatch and cycle through your deadlift, pull up and shoulder raise sets for two minutes.

Utilizing weight training in this way not only stimulates gains in strength (yay!), but also conditions your body for your sport in a metabolically appropriate way.


For climbers who struggle with strength:

If you struggle with strength—which is the case for nearly all women, no matter how good at climbing—your best bet is to put metabolic conditioning on the backburner and focus on improving your maximum strength. True—using the metabolic training method (as described above) once in a while will serve you well. However, if you build your maximum strength in all muscle groups, you’ll be much better off than if you focus on conditioning. Not only will you see benefits on individual difficult moves, but on any particular route, endurance will become less of a factor (as, for a stronger body, each move will tax the body less).


For more information on this material, see Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore and Forma kroppen och maximera din prestation by Nicklas Neuman and Jacob Gudiol.



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© 2013 Christine Balaz Sjöquist


The information presented in this article and on this website are in no way meant to replace the advice of medical experts. Please consult with a physician before embarking on any training program.