The Difficulty With Climber Training Part 1

The Difficulty With Climber Training

The difficulty with climber training – What do I mean by that headline? I am not talking about the physical activity required to train or the mental fortitude to train and keep on training, but that of covering the wide spectrum of training types required within climbing.

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The Background

Usain Bolt
Kenenisa Bekele

If we go away from climbing for a moment and consider other sports. World record holder, Usain Bolt, competes in the 100-metre sprint and trains exclusively for that sport. Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder at 5000 metres and 10000 metres competes and trains exclusively for those sports. However, if you were to ask Usain and Kenenisa to swap world-class races for one day they would no doubt come in last in each others activity. This is due to Usain training primarily his fast twitch musculature. The ones that produce strength and power bursts. And Kenenisa primarily training his slow twitch musculature. The ones that produce endurance and stamina over a long period. When asked to perform using their untrained musculature they find that they can’t perform as well. Although they would undoubtedly give it their best shot!

How Does This Effect The Climber?

So what about climber training, how does this affect us? Firstly let’s look at two extremes of climbing, those of bouldering and mountaineering. Not much of a problem here you might say as the world-class boulderer is unlikely to also be a world class 8000 metre mountaineer and vice versa. And you would be right. The boulderer would train and use the fast twitch musculature for strength and power bursts. The 8000-metre mountaineer the slow twitch musculature for endurance and stamina. However, things become a little more problematic when we consider trad climbing. Even more so when we consider sports climbing. In both of these sports, we need to utilise, strength, power, endurance, stamina and often a mix of them at the same time!

Adam Ondra On A Hard Sport Route

A dedicated world class boulderer will not also be good at sports routes and vice versa. If you need proof then go and search on the rankings and see how many climbers have sent 9a and V14 in the same year. Now it is likely that most of you will recognise the following scenario from your own climbing at some time. You have spent the winter in the gym, become very strong and powerful on 4-metre boulder problems. You get outside for the first time during spring and onto your first 25 meters route. Halfway up you stop dead! Basically, your system has run out of endurance as it has only been trained to climb to 4 metres for the past 3 months.

Success By Some!

However, there are some climbers who are very successful at both bouldering and sport/trad climbing. They have figured out how to stay very strong and powerful whilst simultaneously having kept their endurance level high. One of these climbers is Adam Ondra ( who excels at world class bouldering and sports climbing at the same time. Many examples of his ability are on video and recorded in the media. I have also seen Alexander Megos ( sending hard boulder problems at Cafe Kraft in Nuremberg. Then go out the next day and send hard sports routes.

Looking At The Problem

Training these physiological areas at the same time is very difficult as they require very different training protocols. I have been working with this problem for some time now. Looking at the training differences for those who can combine and those who cannot. Testing the protocols on myself, my students and analysing the results. The conclusion is that to excel at both bouldering and sport/trad you need to train with a mix of periodisation training and progressive training. Periodization training is simply planning to focus your training efforts more heavily on certain areas of fitness than others at certain times over a set period. While progressive training is covering all areas at once and training harder every session.

In my own case as a performance climbing coach. I have to be both good at bouldering and at sports/trad routes. This is because my clients invariably come to me for coaching with a preference for one type of climbing or as is becoming more frequent. The preference to be good in both bouldering and sport/trad routes. This caused me a dilemma. I had been training on periodisation protocols and had become good at sports/trad routes and ok at bouldering. Bouldering to the extent of a level required for my route grade (examples here are V3 bouldering for F7a sports routes and V6 bouldering for F8a sports routes). However, as my coaching expanded I was starting to see clients who had goals set to flash V6, V9 and V11. I, therefore, needed to become very good at bouldering as well as at my sports/trad routes.

Training Types

Periodisation Chart
Periodisation Chart

Now don’t get me wrong. Standard periodisation training is fantastic if you want to periodically improve and to hit high points for a particular route or competition or climbing vacation. But it does have its drawbacks. The untrained areas degrade whilst concentrating on just one area for its period. The motivation to continue and not deviate over a period of 12 plus weeks is mind-numbing. You cannot get ill or have a family crisis or have extra hours at work as this will negate the plan.

Then there is progressive training which keeps every aspect trained all of the time. But due to its complexity tends not to produce as fast an improvement as the periodisation protocol. But it does have many things in its favour. No aspect degrades as all are continually trained. Motivation is less aggressive as training is more varied. It doesn’t matter if you miss a session or two as the plan is not fixed and won’t be negated.


So how do we become good, even very good in more than one discipline? As I have already said, over the past two years I have tested various protocol configurations both on myself and my students and analysed the results. The best results were produced by using a base of progressive training protocols aimed at keeping all aspects trained and improving. Matched with a bolt on periodised type training protocol aimed at specific goals, such as a particular boulder problem or sports route.

This article and the next are aimed at those who want to be very good at everything and not just one aspect. In the next article on the difficulty with climber training, we will spend some time discussing these methods. How they were analysed and how to apply them to your own training.

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Climber on a sports rock climbing route
Climber toping out on a trad rock climbing route

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