Katherine @lovetoclimb facebook page

Training: Endurance

If you have climbing endurance you will

  • Have a good aerobic capacity 
  • Be able to climb for a long time – particularly useful on long pitches that may take half an hour or more
  • Recover from a pump.  Recovery from the anaerobic system occurs through aerobic metabolism
  • Be able to delay the point that you get ‘pumped’ by being able to depend more on the aerobic system.
  • Be able to spend more time stopping to plan moves, recover mentally or psyche up for the next bold or difficult section.
  • Be able to climb lots of boulder problems in a day/session.
  • Have a better platform from which to handle more training of all different types.

Training your endurance or aerobic capacity is not only good from a physical training perspective but it also teaches you not to overgrip and improves your general climbing movement. 

Katherine St Leger

Endurance training: it's worth it. PHOTO charlie woodburn.  Me at St Leger, France

Local endurance

Before I talk about specific climbing endurance I want to mention the link between climbing aerobically and being aerobically fit.  One is to do with being able to hold onto a climb for ages, the other is associated with running, swimming, walking etc.  Both rely on the need for oxygen, tapping into the same aerobic energy system but there is a crucial difference and that is where it’s happening in the body.

Where climbers need this kind of energy is in the forearms.  That’s the bit that gives out when we fall off and so, this is a tiny amount of muscle mass that requires oxygen to get there efficiently and optimally.  More than enough oxygen circulates in our bodies for our forearms to use, so we know that cardiovascular fitness is not a limiting factor in climbing.

So what I will refer to is ‘local’ aerobic endurance; local being the forearms.  So when we train our local aerobic endurance (aerobic capacity) we are trying to improve the forearm’s ability to use oxygen.

Aerobic capacity adaptation time:  at least 8 weeks. 

What happens to the body when you train your local aerobic endurance?

  • The blood capilliary network increases.  More capilliaries = more opportunity to get the blood to the forearms.  Blood transports oxygen.
  • The density of mitochondria in certain cells increases.  Mitochondria are protein structures in the muscle cell, which produce aerobic energy.
  • To give an analogy, in a car we would be trying to increase the size of the engine.  In the human body, the bigger the engine, the more oxygen we can consume and the more aerobic fuel we can burn.

Lucy Creamer

Lucy Creamer, here on the Facist in Me (E4, Pembroke), known to have endurance in abundance.  She has also put many many hours in training - there are no short cuts to getting endurance.  PHOTO Tim Glasby

How easy is it to train?

This is easy for everyone to train and is a must for any climber in the beginning of the base training period (in order to be able to prepare your body for greater training loads).  And a double must for all trad climbers and sport climbing onsighters.  It is quite time consuming training wise (and takes years to build up a high level - there are no short cuts with this kind of training) but is low intensity, so means climbers should be able to cope with the volume.

People often say that ‘it comes quickly’ however that’s probably only because people have gone on a 2 week holiday to the south of France, having done no similar climbing for the last year and make quick gains.  That doesn’t mean their endurance is anywhere approaching what it could be.  Perhaps this explains why everyone on the continent is a lot fitter than the vast majority of Brits!

Adaption time: at least 8 weeks

General rules

  1. To increase your endurance you need to train high volume and low intensity.  If you do anything else (high intensity, high volume or low volume and low intensity) you will probably be working a different energy system or in fact nothing at all!
  2. You can find out if you are working in the appropriate energy system by paying attention to how pumped you feel – see the table below.

Level 1: no pump
Level 2: slight pump
Level 3: moderate pump
Level 4: very pumped
Level 5: out of control pump

The minute we move off level 3 into 4 or 5, we’re entering into a different energy system.  So you need to train within the pump levels 2-3.  If you train in level 1 you won’t get any gains – it will be too easy.

What you need to do is climb for longer, in effect replicating the outdoors much more.  Imagine a trad route or a 30 metre sport route abroad.  You will be spending up to half an hour (or longer even) on these routes and this comes closer to how you need to be training.

Endurance training session ideas

Finding the right grade and route will take time.  As a general rule of thumb this will be done on climbing that is 4-6 grades less than your regular onsight (you will need to experiment).  So for 7a onsighters you will do this on a 6b.  The routes must be at least vertical and as you build up you will be able to steepen the angle.

  1. Continuous climbing.  Pick a climb and climb continuously for 10 minutes.  You can do this at the bouldering wall, on autobelays, or with a patient friend on routes!  As time goes on you may be able to increase your time on the wall.  10 minutes is a good starting point.  Climb for 10 minute, have 10 minutes off and repeat 3 more times (40 minutes of continuous climbing).
  2. 4x4s.  Pick a climb at the climbing wall, climb it, lower, pull the rope and repeat a further 3 times.  Have a reasonable rest (15 mins) and repeat 3 more times (16 routes in total).
  3. Bouldering: high volume.  Go to the climbing wall and complete a high number of boulder problems say at least 40.  Try and really minimise the rest between climbs.  By the end of it you should feel something in your forearms, but not so much that you are beginning lose strength or get pumped.
  4. If you are climbing outside, particularly sport climbing, at the end of your climbing session throw a top rope on an easier climb.  Either do one of the above or simply top rope it a couple of times, it will act both as a warm down and help improve your aerobic capacity.  If you are trad climbing, again try and do one last climb, even if it easy for you.
  5. When you climb outside, don't make the aim of the day climbing at your max.  Have a day where you climb a high volume of routes, aiming simply for 'time on the rock'.

You can get more creative but sticking to the low intensity/high volume and pump levels rules you should be able to increase your endurance.  

Aerobic capacity training is great following a short hard bouldering session or a few hard roped climbings (and actually responds better if you do something intense first).

If you aren't already convinced this kind of training is completely necessary read this.  It's not to do with climbing (it's about low intensity cardio), however the principles are exactly the same and talks about some of the many benefits.  It's really important to look outside of our own sport - because sport science is science, whatever sport you're doing.

Here is a video from Alex Barrows talking about endurance.  The first part is base level endurance training. The second part is all about power endurance training (which may seem confusing - the main message is it's a lot more intense), which I will talking about in my next article.