Learn five strategies for increasing your endurance on strenuous and “pumpy” climbs. Employing all five of these tips will make a massive difference in your climbing performance!
Training to get stronger is good, but improving your fuel economy when you climb is smart!
While both of these approaches will help increase performance, many climbers obsess over strength training and then fail to recognize the value of nuanced strength application and proactive recovery. Yes, elite climbers are all strong — but the very best are also hyper-efficient in their climbing.
Therefore, to really get better at climbing you must make improving your climbing economy a must do not a “want to”. Toward this end, here are five strategies I’ve been coaching for years.
1. Practice climbing with more economy…and on steep routes adopt a “climb fast, rest well” modus operandi.
This might seem obvious, but most climbers get poor fuel economy when climbing near their limit. Do you climb more like a Buick or a Honda? Learning to climb efficiently requires conscious effort, so get a partner and make a game out of it! Practice the following energy-conserving techniques on moderate routes or in a safe gym setting:
- Predetermine your rest positions on a route and only chalk-up and rest there. Climb briskly from one rest to the next.
- Limit your time on any given hold to five seconds or less, with the exception of rest positions. Climb past the smallest, pumpy holds as fast as possible. As coach Hörst likes to instruct…you will often perform best on a strenuous sport route with a bi-modal “climb fast, rest well” strategy. In other words, avoid the in-between mode of slow, tentative climbing and dwelling at shitty rests…pondering your pump. Get moving! VENGA. AUF GEHT’S. COME ON!
- Vary your grip position frequently. Alternate between the crimp grip, open hand grip, thumb lock, pinch, pocket grip, and such, as often as the rock allows. Don’t miss a chance to sink a hand jam or finger lock—these are great energy-saving grips that many face climbers miss.
2. “Micro-rest” by flexing your fingers and wrist between grips.
Many climbers do not proactively recover on a route; they just let it happen. Calculated intentional recovery, however, separates the best from the rest.
One proactive recovery strategy, called a “micro-rest”, involves opening and closing your fingers or flexing your wrist in between each grip. Do this in the second or two it takes to reach from one hold to the next – think about flicking water off your fingers or hand as you reach for the next hold. This simple movement helps generate blood flow (which stops during times of maximum gripping) through the forearm muscles. The aggregate effect of doing this between every grip will significantly reduce your pump.
3. Keep an eye out for a knee-bar or other “thank god” rests on long routes.
Finding a knee-bar, toe-heel cam, or bomber hand jam can be absolutely game-changing on long, sustained climbs and cave routes. At crags like Rifle, the Red River Gorge, and countless European sport climbing area there are routes that will feel a full letter grade (or two!) harder if you miss the “thank god” rest, most commonly a knee-bar. Adam Ondra’s ascent of Silence, the world’s first 5.15d, featured two vital knee-bar rests (watch video below). Learning to see and effectively use these tricky mid-climbs rests is somewhat of an art form…that will take time and practice to perfect. Get started!
4. Use the G-Tox to speed recovery at rests.
Most climbers shake out at on-climb rest positions by alternating a dangling arm by their side. A more effective method for accelerating forearm recovery, however, is a method I call “G-Tox.” It involves alternating the position of your resting arm, about every 5 seconds, between the common dangling-arm position and an overhead position (as if raising your hand at school). G-tox with one arm for 30 seconds or so, and then G-tox with the other arm for a similar length of time. Continue back and forth for as long as needed…or as long as the rest position allows.
The G-Tox technique makes gravity your ally by aiding venous return to the heart. During strenuous climbing, the discomfort and increasing “pump” in your forearms is largely the result of restricted blood flow and increasing intramuscular acidosis and hypoxia. While the dangling arm shakeout rest position does allow blood flow to resume, hanging your resting arm below the heart slows the flow of “stale” blood out of the forearm…and often times your pump (initially) gets worse in the dangling arm.
In using the G-Tox, however, you enhance the venous flow of de-oxygenated (and metabolite-filled) blood out of the forearm muscles—sometimes you can literally see your pump drain as you elevate your arm! By alternating, every few seconds, between the raised hand and dangling arm shakeout positions, you support both venous return (out of) and arterial flow (into) the forearm muscles. The result for many climbers is a substantial increase in the rate of recovery and a better chance they will complete the climb.
5. Consume a pre-climb supplement shown to support blood flow and enhance aerobic system function.
Beetroot and citrulline malate are two of nature’s most studied performance-enhancing substances. Beetroot has been shown to improve body flow via vasodilation, elevate muscle oxygenation, and improve endothelial function. One study of healthy trained adults showed a 7.1% increased muscle efficiency (Larsen 2007), while another study showed a 15% increase in time to failure in high-intensity running (Lansley 2011) after 6 days of supplementation.
Citrulline malate is a non-essential amino acid found in watermelon with potential benefits for power-endurance athletes (such as rock climbers) that may even exceed those of beetroot. Bendahan (2002) showed replenishment rate of ATP between bouts of high-intensity exercise was accelerated by 20%. A 2019 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed 12 peer-review, placebo-controlled studies of CM (n=198) and found a “significant benefit for citrulline compared to placebo treatments. Also noteworthy is an interesting study of female masters’ athletes that found a statistically significant increase in grip strength one hour after an acute dose of CM (Jordan 2016).
Leveraging this wealth of research, PhysiVāntage developed Endure X—the first supplement to combine beetroot extract, citrulline malate, and betaine (a molecule found in beetroot sugar that may boost power) to create a synergistic endurance-enhancing pre-workout/pre-climb drink. Consuming Endure X during warm-up climbing primes the working muscles for optimal blood flow and enhanced performance. Anecdotally, many climbers report a slower rise in the “pumped” feeling during near-maximal climbing and a faster rate of recovery at rest positions and between boulders and routes. Learn more at PhysiVāntage.com
- Podcast #26: Effective training of the climbing-specific aerobic energy system
- Podcast #40: Blood Flow Restriction Training for Climbers
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