2 March 2009

New series of climbing improvement articles

I have been working on a series of introductory articles for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s magazine and site. They deal with general concepts of improvement in climbing so hopefully they will be thought provoking for beginners and those who’ve been climbing for many years. I’ve just finished the second one, with more on the way soon. The articles are here.

Brendan raised an interesting point after reading the section ‘The truth about famous climbers’. In this I’m talking about the dynamics of the returns you get from effort put in. It turns out, it’s not as simple as you might think. This is his point:

Hi Dave,
cheers for writing those excellent MCoS training articles, I wish they'd be available a few years ago when I started climbing, would have saved me loads of wasted effort.
I have a query - you say in the last section about top climbers that they go the extra move/problem/route each time.
However, I've heard a lot of people at the wall recently say you should 'finish strong', I suppose so that you shouldn't keep going after you're too tired to give your all as it will take longer to recover for the next session.
How does this resolve with your advice in your article? I suppose it depends on how soon your next session is going to be?

It’s a good point! And it doesn’t have a totally simple answer.

What I’m trying to put across in my article is that a little extra effort can often yield a lot of extra return by taking you over the threshold between enough to maintain the same level and stimulating the body to improve. This is an issue of training volume. The objective is to achieve the highest possible training volume that is sustainable over time (i.e. You can recover mostly from, in time for the next session).

Most climbers shouldn’t concern themselves with ‘stopping strong’ because they weren’t trying hard enough in the first place, or they have days of rest in between sessions. 

Another smaller proportion of climbers might have problems with being fresh enough for the next session, but the problem is not with training too hard, it’s with not recovering hard enough! i.e. They are too stressed, don’t eat well, sleep enough or add more things to recover from like a night on the sauce.

An even smaller proportion of climbers will need to take care not to overdo it on each session because they are really going for it with both their effort level and volume and taking care over their recovery as well as training. What should they do?

It’s a fine balance to tread between injury and improvement. Stopping strong will mean different things to different climbers. In general you should train as hard as you can and feel worked after your sessions. There is a subtle but perfectly tangible line turning point in the session when quality attempts on climbs becomes a rapidly declining thrashing session. When the elbows come out on the first moves and your hands melt off jugs that were easy to hang an hour ago, time to go home, eat a nice meal and sleep well. Come back tomorrow with the pedal on the floor again.

side note: the physiology of this is about using up the 'fuel tank' of muscle glycogen. It happens that recovery of the glycogen store takes much longer if the store is completely exhausted. You know this has happened when you are slapping your way up F6a gasping, when you were fine on F7b an hour before. So overall training load is higher if you stop just before you drain the tank altogether.


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