Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A foundation for ongoing improvement

The Rock Climber's Training Manual shipped in early April.  I had decided to pre-order it, based on the valuable insights that the Anderson brothers had already shared on their blog.  I find it to be the most important climbing training publication since "Performance Rock Climbing"  because it expands and extends principles of improvement and periodization of climbing training to maximize performance.

Most crucially, as a parent with a busy work schedule, I am glad for the patient and long term perspective that it advocates and the fact that the authors themselves are middle aged climbers who manage to balance careers, families and a dedicated training and climbing system.  Reading the chapters has also helped me identify my priorities in terms of climbing goals and ways to organize my training, practicing, and climbing time.  I wish I would have had access to this book when I was younger, but, I am am glad that at least I can benefit now.

If I were to oversimplify, here are several big picture principles I draw from this book:

  1. Articulate what you want to enjoy from climbing and how you want to improve in order to enjoy those dimensions more:  Personally I am most motivated to improve at my capacity to climb gymnastic, overhanging sport routes.  I want to be able to travel to crags and enjoy the best of the gymnastic sport routes that I can find, and especially, to be able to enjoy the world class gymnastic routes at local areas like the Red and New.  
  2. Identify concrete short term and long term goals:  I articulate my goals elsewhere, but the Anderson brothers are correct to emphasize that working towards specific goal routes is much more motivating and valuable than simply working to improve or to climb a certain grade.   Apollo Reed is a brilliant route, and if you are inspired to climb it, you can quickly deduce how you need to become stronger and wiser in your climbing.
  3. Tailor your training and practice towards achieving your goals, given your current capacities and weaknesses:   Currently, my limiting factors are endurance and power endurance.  Once I know that, I can work to elevate all of my performance areas, but concentrate extra attention on climbing medium intensity for long time periods (20 to 40 minutes) and high intensity for 20 to 30 hand movements with no rest.  
  4. Be patient:   You will need at least a minimal level of patience if you divide your year into three climbing seasons, and specify the last month of each season as your time to focus on performance on outdoor routes.  If you also recognize that slow steady improvement is the only type of sustainable progress then you will not be in a rush to "climb harder".  Instead you see that improving is one of the great joys of any athletic pursuit, then you need to savor and enjoy the moments of progress.  The joy is in the journey, not the end result.  
  5. Progress results from training when focused, consistent, and progressive.  Therefore, careful documentation of both objective dimensions, and subjective experience are key to making continual, incremental adaptations to the demands of training.  A good dose of bureaucratic record keeping and self monitoring go a long ways towards both motivating effort and achieving progress.  
  6. Take time to cultivate all four of the relevant dimensions of fitness for the forearms/fingers.  Ultimately, the limiting factor for most climbers and climbing is defined by capacities in endurance, strength, power, and power endurance of their fingers / forearms.  The body increases capacities in these dimensions by responding to particular combinations of effort, duration, and rest.  Reflecting carefully on how you currently climb / train, will help show you what is missing.   

In addition to finger strength, other areas of strength need to be developed, and technique needs to be refined and practiced, but these can be integrated into the larger program of developing those forearm capacities. A good fitness plan for climbing addresses 6 key areas:

General bodyweight fitness and flexibility:  climbing involves moving and supporting the body through three dimensional spaces.  Secondary and antagonistic (relative to primary climbing related) muscles of the body should be trained to some minimal level of fitness to support this and to add general athletic capacity.   These can be accomplished either through weights, or better yet, through body weight exercises, including progressions related to:  pushups, dips, L-sits, handstands, and some integrated lower body work like squats (in the lower body especially, strength without hypertrophy is advantageous for climbers).   Flexibility work with yoga, stretching, and foam rolling are key especially for older climbers.  All of these can be pursued on rest days from climbing / training.

Climbing specific bodyweight fitness:   climbing is mostly about pulling your core up and in.  Increasing strength at progressions related to pull ups, inverted rows, and core strength progressions like hanging leg lifts, front levers, and plank are key.  Depending on the climbing related trainings, these can be added to more climbing specific work.

Finger / Forearm ARC/MSS Endurance Or, in words, Aerobic Recovery and Capilarity / Maximum Steady State describe fitness related to the capacity to exert low to moderate levels of effort with the forearms for extended periods of time.  The maximum steady state is the highest level of exertion that a climber can perform without reaching a state of overexertion that requires temporary cessation of effort.  This type of endurance is trained climbing a level immediately at the MSS for long durations of time.  An ARC session might include two to four repetition of 20-35 min periods of constant climbing, where the climber works to maintain/ manage a mild forearm pump.  These long sessions can be integrated with skill work that focuses on small footholds, body tension, finding rest positions, pacing, etc.

Finger strength refers to the amount of weight each hand can support from a given type of hold, and is thus highly specific to hold type and angle of loading.   Performing dead hangs from a fingerboard is the safest and most predictable method for increasing finger strength.   Finger strength defines the upper bound of power that a climber can cultivate, and in general, finger strength should be cultivated earlier in a training cycle than power.  However, since muscle increases strength more rapidly than connective tissue, this strength should be cultivated slowly and should allow sufficient periods of rest where maximum strength is not cultivated.

Finger power is the immediate application of maximum finger strength.  Whatever strength has been cultivated can be tailored towards greater power by encouraging the body to stimulate growth and activation of more of the fast twitch muscle fibers.  Power is enhanced by training brief intense loadings, through either limit bouldering or campusing.  Limit bouldering involves problems of 1, 2 or 3 hand moves that are maximally difficult.  Campusing for power involves 1 to 5 hand movements at maximal difficulty.   Great care should be taken in power training to avoid injury and overtraining.

Finger power-endurance refers to the capacity of the body to sustain high levels of effort for medium numbers repetitions, for instance, the crux section of a route may be composed of 20 moves of near constant difficulty that does not allow resting or shaking out.  Power endurance is produced by short term adaptations of the body to increase the amount of recovery enabling enzymes in the trained muscles.  Thus power endurance should be the attribute that is trained in earnest immediately prior to the performance phase.  Power endurance is trained by performing 20 to 30 high intensity movement sets, with brief rest periods between repetitions.  For instance, develop a 25 move boulder problem where every move demands an effort of 80% or so, or is intense enough that resting / shaking out is not possible.  Repeat that problem 6 times with just 2 min of rest between each repetition.  

Periodization of training cycles.   You can't train all of these things at once.  But thankfully, they can be cultivated in turn, during different training periods.   Each of these time periods can include climbing for fun or training outdoors as well, but the available training time for climbing should be focused on the types of workouts that cultivate that dimension of climbing fitness.   Here is an example 16 week season.

Week 1    Rest.
Week 2    ARC/MSS     (2-3 bodyweight sessions can be integrated throughout each period)
Week 3    ARC/MSS
Week 4    ARC/MSS  + Finger strength
Week 5    Finger strength
Week 6    Finger strength
Week 7    Power
Week 8    Power
Week 9    Power
Week 10  Power endurance
Week 11  Power endurance
Week 12  PE / Performance
Week 13  Performance
Week 14  Performance
Week 15  Performance
Week 16  Performance

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