Training Efficiently

Forunately there's no money in climbing training research, or else this might be me :)

Forunately there’s no money in climbing training research, or else this might be me 🙂

I think if people realized how little I train (and climb) they would be shocked.  I often joke with my wife that I should be quarranteened in a plastic bubble and studied by teams of cruel government scientists (ala E.T.). There is certainly a trend among top climbers to perform massive quantities of training (like, 6+ hours per day, 5 or 6 days per week).  That’s not me.  First of all, I don’t have that much time, between work and my family. Second (and foremost), I truly believe “less is more” when it comes to climbing training. Even if I had more time to train, I would probably spend much of that time resting anyway.

Considering those factors, my overarching strategy is to train as efficiently as possible.  That is, I strive to maximize my improvement relative to the training time (and energy) invested.  Doesn’t everybody do that you ask?  No, frankly.  Many people figure ‘the way to improve is to pile on more and more training.  Anyway, it couldn’t hurt, could it?’ This philosophy is popular among runners, cyclists, swimmers and other ultra-endura athletes.

The problem is, it actually can, and does hurt.  Low efficiency activities sap energy, thus undermining high efficiency activities.  In the best case scenario, the added volume forces longer recovery periods between workouts, but far more often, the needed additional rest is omitted, and the athlete simply goes into the next workout under-recovered, thus further limiting the intensity of the next workout.  As a result, every workout starts to become an endurance workout, and pretty soon the athlete is no longer progressing, but rather struggling to maintain the fitness he had when he started.

My strategy for maximizing training efficiency dovetails nicely wtih a complimentary training objective — favoring strength and power training over endurance.  This allows me to emphasize high intensity training, which is short in duration, almost by definition (there are brief periods during each season that I focus on endurance training, but even then I favor higher intensity endurance training followed by plenty of rest).  Furthermore, I only perform activities that I strongly believe provide a direct benifit to my performance; I don’t do any filler or “crosstraining”. [More on Training Intensity here]

My actual training/climbing schedule from the Fall 2013 Season.  The Strength & Power Training Phases  are very typical of a normal season.  However, the Performance Phase (outdoor climbing) is atypical; I'm rarely able to squeeze in more than 10 days of actual climbing.  I was able to wranlge about five extra days out of Kate's Maternity Leave and the Government Shutdown.

My actual training/climbing schedule from the Fall 2013 Season. The Strength & Power Training Phases are very typical of a normal season. However, the Performance Phase (outdoor climbing) is rather unusual; I’m rarely able to squeeze in more than 10 days of outdoor climbing in a season. I was able to wranlge about five extra days out of Kate’s Maternity Leave and the Government Shutdown.

This is perhaps easier to visualize on a macro-scale, but it also applies on a micro-scale.  For example, Strength Training revolves around my fingers, because they are the single most important factor in climbing performance.  I work my fingers first, but not for long.  When the intensity is right (really high), my fingers can only handle about an hour of work (or, about 18 ~60 second sets of deadhang repetitions, with 3 minutes rest between sets).  Once my fingers are worked, I perform a modest amount of pull muscle, upper arm, and shoulder exercises. 

During my Limit Bouldering routine, I don’t do “fun” boulder problems.  I only do boulder problems that will make me a better rock climber (as opposed to a better plastic climber).  In other words, the Lazy H has very few pinches or slopers, and the walls aren’t super steep.  It has a lot of sharp crimps, tweaky pockets, and small, greasy footholds.  Very few of these holds are oriented horizontally–my problems require core tension and attention to footwork.  It’s often hard to breath while climbing these problems, and my skin takes a fair bit of abuse, but the skill and strength developed translates directly to the rock.

Warming up in the Lazy H isn't "fun", but its good for my footwork.

Warming up in the Lazy H isn’t “fun”, but its good for my footwork.

That said, it’s only fair to note that I have pretty good technique, and that took many years to cultivate.  Now that I have it, it doesn’t take much to maintain.  However, my training terrain is deliberately designed to maintain my technique (in other words, it isn’t “fun” terrain).  My warmup time is split between a dead vertical wall, and one that overhangs a modest 8 degrees.  The holds on these walls are tiny, and precise movement is required to stay on the wall. Those with performance-limiting technique can apply these same concepts to skill develipment by training on realistic terrain, and emphasizing focused, quality skill practice over zombie-like monotonous quantity.

16 thoughts on “Training Efficiently

  1. That spreadsheet makes the nerd in me really excited!

    I noticed you rarely have two consecutive performance days. I can only see two occurrences in your schedule, and you only put 1 burn into the project instead of the regular 2. Can you comment on this? I’m wondering from the perspective of a weekend warrior where two consecutive days might be the only way to get in two outdoor days a week.

    • Ken,

      That’s a great point. I try to avoid consecutive performance days whenever possible. Sometimes when I’m on a road trip I will climb two or even three days in a row, but when I do the grades I climb come way down. I prefer to have one great day than two mediocre days, but that’s a matter of preference. In both the instances you mentioned there was an extenuating cricumstance. The first one, my brother Mike was in town, and I was furloughed, so it made sense to climb (but you will notice I mostly climbed 5.12 the second day, and the first day was really short). The second time, I was desparately trying to send my season project before the weather turned (which didn’t work out 😦 but I knew it was the last weekend of my season so I had nothing to lose — I actually tried to climb the prior Friday, but was shut down by weather and had to climb Saturday instead).

      I am a weekend warrior, but I get every other Friday off (in addition to Saturday & Sunday), so half the time I can easily get a rest day between weekend climbing days, which is really nice. The other weekends I will either climb only one day, or I will use vaction time to get an extra day, depending on factors explained below. If these options are not viable for you, I would suggest experimenting with some different strategies to determine what works best for you.

      One option is to consider climbing only one day each weekend, and then resting the second day so you can train more frequently/effectively mid-week (i.e., Climb Saturday, train Monday & Wednesday). For those traveling to climb each weekend, that’s probably not a great use of your time. One approach for climbing two-days in a row is to focus primarily on the first day, and then take what you can get on the second day. To do this, get plenty of rest prior to your first performance day, then go all out on that day. Spend the next day climbing easier routes, or working easier sections of your project. Personally, I don’t like this approach, because you really only get one good day, and the second day might be better spent resting or training. But it can work ok on distant road trips where there are endless new, good routes to climb and I’m less focused on climbing the hardest grades.

      My preferred approach is to climb early on Saturday, and keep the session as short as possible. Rest Saturday afternoon/evening, then start late Sunday. With this strategy its often possible to get 24 hours or more of rest between climbing sessions. This works best when shade is plentiful (so you can get good conditions any time of day) and you aren’t in a hurry to get home Sunday night.

      Whenever I climb two days in a row I try to get two full rest days after (so a typical weekly schedule would be climb Sat/Sun, train Wednesday, repeat). With this schedule I get one less training day, and that is why I sometimes opt to skip Sunday altogether, depending on whether I feel I need more training, or more opportunities to send. Generally early in a season I favor training time, and late in the season I favor time on the rock. You may find it helpful to mix and match different strategies to fit different situations.

      Hope this helps,

      • Mark, thanks for the detailed reply. I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me, but you provided some good food for thought. Right now I’m leaning toward the Saturday performance day, with training on Monday and Wednesday. That still leaves one weekend day for the growing family during send season. I’d also never really considered mid-week vacation days–I’ll for sure be using that strategy as well.

        Thanks for the wealth of information. I also am looking forward to your book!

  2. I’m definitely a weekend warrior myself. Lately I’ve been working on ‘mini projects’ that take effort, but not a gigantic amount (maybe something in the 3-10 tries range). Ideally if things work out as planned, as they rarely seem to, the project will be sent on Saturday when I’m fresh/rested Sunday can be spent sussing beta on the next project with whatever level of effort I feel like. This could range from giving a full on on-sight try, to simply bolt to bolt and spending more time on the rope than on the rock, depending on how I’m feeling. That will leave the week for either ‘tues+thurs’ or ‘wednesday only’ training day schedule. For me, I find having a game plan for the route, and having figured out how to do the crux moves helps quite a bit for giving best redpoint attempts next time I get back on the route, hopefully in a more rested state. This leaves me feeling like the time working the route in a less rested state on Sunday was time well spent.
    This sort of schedule may not be as good for someone putting in many weekends or whole seasons worth of effort on a single climb.

  3. I’m in the process of building my own backyard bouldering gym, which will mostly range from slightly slabby to slightly overhanging, so I’d be very interested to hear more about the nasty little holds you use. Things like any particular manufactured holds you really like or what kind of improvised or homemade holds have worked out well.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Just wanted to say thank you for this great post, I have to admit I’m really digging these frequent updates! It is a bit funny that your schedule looks like this as I had assumed Mike’s schedule presented in the Rockprodigy article was most like your own, little did I know it was so vastly different!


    • Keyan,

      I think Mike’s schedule has evolved quite a bit since then as well. The original Making of a Rock Prodigy article is getting to be fairly old and somewhat out-dated (hence the book!). Back in those days, improving our technique was still a major point of emphasis, so it made sense to spend more time on the rock or ARCing. These days we both focus more on power than we used to, but Mike still does more volume than me, since he currently lives on the East Coast and climbs many long enduro routes (at the Red and similar crags).

      Glad you’re digging the blog. I’m trying to post something new each week. We’ll see how long I can keep that up 🙂


  5. Looking at your ARC day, it’s nice that you posted the grades. Does that mean you basically climbed just one route of each grade, or were you up doing multiples of any of those? And they were all back to back right?

    So I’m trying to drastically bump up my sport climbing redpoint this year, I’ve been primarily bouldering for a long time and I feel like really working on my bottom line should help me out a lot. I haven’t sent any hard than 12a/b, but those were onsights or within 3 tries usually. I decided to bite off more than I can chew and go after a really great 13 near here. I occasionally climb V8, and am fairly confident on V7s. We have a treadwall at my gym (it’s bouldering only and crowded so that’s my best bet for ARC.) What kind of grades would you think I would be climbing on the treadwall?

    Each route is roughly 25-30 feet long, so let’s say there’s a 5.9, harder 5.10, 5.11easy, and 5.11 hard on there. I try to avoid long rests, and in 30 minutes I would usually climb around 400′ at a comfortable but slower pace. So that’s about 15 routes. Right now, I can’t do either of the 11s without getting too pumped. I’m not a setter, but I could probably convince them to hook me up with another route.


    I’m pretty sure there was a conversation about this on MP somewhere, but I don’t remember a definite answer.

    • Dylan,

      To answer your first question, each of the grades listed on the ARC day were a single ascent of the pitch, and they were not back to back. This was NOT a true ARC session. It was what we call “Outdoor Mileage”. I will often sprinkle Outdoor Mileage days in during an ARC phase–it’s a great way to work on technique, and climb routes you normally would not have time for.

      I think based on your bouldering level you have a good shot at achieving your goal. When using the treadwall, I would think you should be able to climb at the 5.10 level fairly continuously, but it depends on a lot of factors. Less steep routes are easier to ARC, because you can usually find less-physical rest stances. I would suggest you start with the easier routes, then climb into progressively harder routes until it begins to get too hard, then jump back down to the easier route. Assume the routes are right on top of each other, it should be easier to switch from one route to another mid-stream (without completing the route). So if you can climb continuously on the .10, but not the .11-, start on the 5.9, then do the 5.10, then start the 5.11-, do as many moves as you can in control, then switch back to the 5.10 (or even the 5.9) for a few moves while you “actively recover”, then switch back to the .11-, etc. As your endurance improves through the ARC phase, try to make longer and longer excursions into the 5.11-, with short rest periods on the easier routes.

      Good luck, and let us know how it goes,

      • Thanks Mark.

        Like everyone else, psyched on the blog and for the book.

        If you dont mind, what does your arc session look like in routes back to back?

        I’m in seattle, so you have a while to wait and find out if the send is going to happen.

      • Dylan,
        I grew up in western Oregon so I feel your pain! It is a beautiful place to live though, despite the weather.

        That’s hard for me to answer because I ARC by traversing somewhat randomly around my barn; I don’t have graded routes that I follow. That said, I have occasionally ARCed ingyms with AutoBelays, and based on that I would estimate the type of rotues I ARC on vary from 5.11- to mid 5.12. I would guess something like 5.11-, 5.11, 5.11+, 5.12, 5.12-, 5.11. Repeat as necessary 🙂

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