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Training: Energy systems

In order to do any exercise we need to create energy for the muscles to work.  To dance all night, to run for the bus or walk up a hill muscles need energy.  It’s unlikely that you personally train any of these aspects, but there will be people who do (but that’s another topic altogether)!!

There are systems in the body, which create energy.  In climbing these energy systems can also commonly referred to as endurance and power endurance (there are other names such as resistance training, stamina, strength endurance etc etc).  These are giving broad terms to some scientific principles.  Our endurance and power endurance need training, but there is some science behind it and it's worth trying to understand it so we know a bit more about how we individually need to train for our goals.

The starting point for creating this energy is the food you eat.  This dictates our ability to create energy appropriate for the job.  So eating crisps and chocolate will be just right for sitting on the sofa (no energy required) but no good for climbing Mont Blanc.  This isn't an article about sports nutrition, but it is fundamental understanding that what we eat has a direct impact on the energy we are able to produce.

The energy that we create is called ATP (adenosine triphosphate).  You shouldn’t worry if you can’t remember any of this by the end of this article, just think ‘energy’.  We produced this energy, ATP in 3 different ways.  Which energy system we use depends on the exertion, the intensity.  Before we set off up a climb, our heart rate rises, our breathing becomes faster, our body gets ready and we pull on.  Depending on how hard we pull, the body goes into the appropriate system.  Clever!

Here are the 3 ways (very broadly speaking)

1st gear Anaerobic Short bursts up to 10 seconds Initial high intensity bursts Creatine phosphate system, no oxygen required Strength or power
2nd gear Anaerobic 10 secs to 3 mins Moderate to high intensity Short chemical reaction to make ATP, no oxygen required Power endurance
3rd or overdrive gear Aerobic Indefinite Low to moderate intensity Longer chemical reaction to make ATP, oxygen required Endurance

One thing that is worth pointing out is that these energy systems do not operate exclusively, you may well be working anaerobically and aerobically at the same time but in different proportions depending on the intensity of a climb.  Also two climbers of different fitness and strength levels may be using different energy systems on the same climb.  So a 7a route climber will be working aerobically on a 6b, while for someone where 6b is their limit, they will be working more anaerobically.

The aerobic system is the most efficient by far and as climbers, especially route climbers, the more we can rely on this the better.  The anaerobic system, when it runs out, results in a forearm pump and you may fall off.  However a well trained aerobic system will mean you are more able to combat the pump and you can continue to climb for long periods.

The above may seem very simplistic and you are still probably asking what this means for you.  Well it comes back your goal (I’ll keep harping on about this).  Not all climbs fit neatly into boxes like above as they vary in lengths and styles and there is in addition a strength issue (and technique, and mental etc), which again needs training (but I won’t go into this just now).

This is why training for our sport seems complicated as we have to train lots of things at the same time.  I call it spinning plates.

Crucially for these chemical reactions, that either include oxygen (aerobic) or don’t (anaerobic), to happen effectively, what food you eat makes a difference.  Carbs play an important role in the anaerobic system and carbs, protein and fats are needed for the aerobic system (particularly carbs and fats).  So what can we learn from this?  Don’t cut out carbs, bin the Atkins diet.  It may help with weight loss, but it will not help you make energy for climbing.

Back to topic, which energy system to train?

Think about your goal...

Craig Smith Burbage South 

Craig Smith busting a gut on some desperate HVS offwidth at Burbage South.  What energy system is he using?  I doubt he was thinking about that at the time.  But being able to turn it up a gear when necessary and changing energy systems is a key part of climbing

So a boulder problem would fit into the anaerobic system.  Simple, easy, great!  But if you are wanting to be able to do lots of boulder problems in a day (like on holiday) or do a competition, there is also an aerobic element.  Therefore if you just worked on some really hard moves, chances are you’ll be successful, but your climbing day might be over after an hour.  So back to the original point, what is your goal?

If you are a trad onsighter you will need to rely heavily on the aerobic system, slow climbing, standing around placing gear.  But when it comes to the crux, you’ll have to drop into the anaerobic system.

If you are a sport onsighter it will be similar to above but the combination and balance between the 2 systems may be slightly different, say a bit more anaerobic than aerobic.  But again it depends on the goal.  A 15m climb will need a different energy system to a 40m one.

If you are a sport redpointer, again it’s a bit of both, but when you know all the moves, you’ll be moving faster and probably climbing it quicker and therefore more in the anaerobic system.  But it depends on the length of the climb...

Finally, we can’t forget your strength.  Can you do the moves? Yes or no, you either have to maintain strength or get stronger.  More of this in another article.

So back to the original point.  What is your goal?

Ok, now it’s time to find out more about each energy system, what it is, how it relates to your climbing and how to train it.  These articles look into endurance and power endurance (as the more commonly referred to terms) and how the different energy systems are important in training these areas.