Route climbers are naturally interested in improving their endurance—and because of this, many choose to run in order to better their performance. However, running—and other aerobic sports, for that matter—is actually an ineffective way to train for route climbing, unless the climber in question is either genuinely overweight or extremely unfit in the cardiorespiratory sense—a situation almost never seen in dedicated climbers. No matter what the case, you might be surprised to learn that weight training could be your best training tool for improving climbing-type endurance—that is muscular endurance—not aerobic endurance.
One of the biggest reasons that route climbers mistakenly select running as a means for endurance training is they fail to understand that, in human athletics, there are many different types of endurance. Because society has historically used the terms “endurance” and “aerobic” interchangeably, people naturally assume that “endurance” training must be trained aerobically. However, endurance has many forms.
Endurance can indeed be the long, slow-distance style typical of jogging. Or it can take the shape of the muscular endurance (or power endurance) typical of sport climbing routes and cruxes—or any strenuous exercise lasting from 30 seconds to several minutes.
Because of the intensity (high and sustained) and the nature (full body and strength related) of climbing, running is almost completely inappropriate as a training tool for climbing. However, weight training is a fabulous tool for climbers to address both the endurance aspect and the strength aspect of their sport.
In order to address muscular endurance—which is defined as the ability of athletes to tolerate and perform in spite of pain that results from intense and sustained exercise—directly, climbers can opt to perform high-rep weight training sets of climbing-related exercises: pull ups, tricep exercises, deadlifts and others.
However, high-rep weight training should not be the only tool for four reasons. Firstly, high-rep weight training can (and does) lead to hypertrophy—or muscular growth. Climbers afraid of hypertrophy should keep high-rep training to a minimum.
Secondly, high-rep sets intrinsically require the use of lighter weights than low-rep sets. Because of this, they will do little to improve a person’s absolute strength—an extremely vital quality of any athlete. According to Practical Programming for Strength Training, by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, “Athletes for whom power must be produced repeatedly for extended periods must still be trained to produce power in the first place, and high-rep sets do not accomplish this.” Hence, climbers interested in improving strength, as well as muscular endurance, should focus on absolute strength.
Thirdly, all athletes benefit from increased strength—even climbers primarily concerned with power-endurance, non-cruxy routes. This is true for the simple reason that improved strength increases an athlete’s endurance at any given exercise. This is because a stronger muscle’s reps-to-failure in any given exercise is greater than a weaker muscle’s for the simple reason that each contraction requires less relative effort of stronger muscles than it does of weaker muscles—no matter how well-conditioned they might be.
Finally, climbing is a sport which never presents an athlete with uniform difficulty. Even the most “endurancy” and sustained routes contain moves which are physically more difficult to execute than others. And more often than not, routes (and boulder problems) have definite cruxes—places in which a climber’s absolute strength and ability to generate power are critical, therefore underscoring the importance of low-rep, high-intensity weight training once again.
What practical applications does this have?
Those looking to improve endurance and strength should consider alternating these two weight training methods: high-rep workouts and low-rep, high-intensity workouts. By including these both in your weekly training plan, you’ll address both muscular endurance as well as maximal strength.
Climbers interested in metabolically relevant weight training can use back-to-back, high-intensity, low-rep sets by rotating through different exercises [such as dead lifts, pull ups, and bench presses] with no or little rest between sets. This trains both absolute strength in each muscle group and achieves metabolic conditioning at the same time.
So, what is the difference between aerobic fitness and cardiorespiratory fitness, anyway?
Aerobic fitness and cardiorespiratory fitness are commonly mistaken for one another—even though they are very different athletic qualities. Aerobic fitness is the ability of an athlete to produce ATP aerobically (i.e. break down fat in the presence of oxygen)—and, though this method of ATP production is in effect anytime a person is active, it is the principle metabolic process only for very low-intensity, long-duration activities. During high-intensity activities climbing, this aerobic metabolic process contributes only a small portion of total the ATP supplied to the working muscles.
Cardiorespiratory fitness is the ability of an athlete’s body to supply its working muscles with oxygenated blood. An athlete's capacity to do so is commonly measured using the VO2max method—a test which determines an individual’s maximal capacity to take up and transport oxygen within the body. A degree of cardiorespiratory fitness is undeniably required by climbers to perform during climbing, and to recover between pitches and/or at rest stances; every climber’s body requires their blood to deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles, and take away waste products generated by the muscles. However, the requirement of such fitness in climbers is suprisingly low. In fact, according to Rippetoe and Kilgore, the requirement of serious weight trainers, whose sport is metabolically very similar to climbing, is just 2-3 ml/kg/min above the average person’s. Serious climbers can comfortably assume that their VO2max is well above this mark.
Those concerned with increasing their VO2max needn’t jog. In fact, high-intensity weight training (especially of the large muscles) can be a highly effective tool for increasing VO2max—and some argue that it is much superior to low-intensity “cardio” work. Improved VO2max is achieved by work which desaturates the blood of O2, therefore causing positive adaptations in the body’s ability to take up and transport oxygen over time. As said in Practical Programming for Strength Training, “Anyone who has ever done a 20RM set of deadlifts knows that there is a cardiorespiratory component to the work. The depression in O2 saturation produced by this high level of glycolytic intensity is much more disruptive to the homeostasis of oxygen transport and utilization than traditional low-intensity types of aerobic (‘cardio’) training.”
But—hey!—if you enjoy running, by all means, feel free to partake! But just do so knowing that it is not a means to better your climbing endurance. Weight training offers not only the opportunity to improve endurance, but also the means to increase strength—an obviously desirable quality in climbers.
For more information on this material, see Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore.
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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.