Will Cardio Really Improve Your Climbing?

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  • Lynn Hill
    American rock climber (b1961)

Does cardiovascular cross-training (running, cycling, etc.) help climbing? I’ve heard Lynn Hill was a devoted runner, but others say that running has adverse side effects like building up too much leg mass. What’s the word? —Patrick Bagley | Boston, MA Specificity is the number-one training principle for climbing, and laps on routes will always produce more specific endurance gains for climbing than hitting the pavement. However, many climbers lack the underlying aerobic fitness base that is essential for longer routes, especially multi-pitch. Cross training provides a great base for climbing endurance, and enables you to arrive at the base of the crag in a fit state after a long walk-in. Those with a decent level of cardiovascular (CV) fitness can also recover more quickly between bursts of effort within a workout or between workouts, so even boulderers should take note. That said, it is impossible to reach your potential in climbing if you are training to excel as a triathlete. Moderation is the key, and you must consider the type, duration, intensity and timing of CV training. Running is the best choice, as cycling is more prone to building up leg muscles. Swimming can be excellent for rehabilitating climbing injuries, but it will drain your upper-body muscles unless you have extremely good technique and take it easy. Regarding the intensity and timing of CV training, remember that our energy reserves are finite. If you run flat-out for an hour on the same morning as you are intending to climb, you are poaching energy that might have fuelled your climbing session. Similarly, if you run full pelt after climbing, then you are stealing from your recovery. It is unlikely that climbers ever need to do maximum intensity or duration CV work, but if you insist, then do it during rest phases or perhaps during pre-training “build-up” phases. CV training sessions should consist of 70 to 80 percent effort for durations of, say, 25 to 35 minutes. Consider the exact nature of the climbing sessions that are clustered around the CV training. For example, bouldering or strength-training sessions are particularly prone to being sabotaged by CV work, since it is impossible to train power and endurance simultaneously. So if your goal is to get strong, then keep your run light and brief, or don’t run at all. The best approach is to jog with 30 to 40 percent effort for no more than 20 minutes to promote recovery by encouraging blood flow and flushing toxins out of the muscles. By contrast, if you are climbing endurance-based routes, then a medium-intensity run may provide the perfect complement. An additional consideration is how fit you are in the first place. Someone with no CV fitness may be destroyed by 15 minutes of running, whereas a hardened enduro-athlete won’t even be warmed up. This is not a green light for the aerobic junkies to ignore the previous advice, as it is you folks who are most prone to over-cooking it. Use a heart-rate monitor and a stopwatch if you don’t trust yourself. The principle behind using a heart-rate monitor is to enable you to adhere to training zones which determine the intensity of exercise. For example, recovery sessions are conducted at 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, and optimum aerobic training sessions are conducted at 80 percent. Anything above this is starting to tease the anaerobic threshold, and is too intense for the purpose. The percentages are calculated by taking the difference between your resting pulse and your maximum heart rate. Resting pulse should be taken first thing in the morning, using the heart-rate monitor, usually for a period of one minute. Maximum heart rate is calculated by going flat-out, usually for a period of four or five minutes, although there are numerous methods. See the instructions on the heart-rate monitor for further guidelines. Remember, aerobic training for climbing does not need to be a science—a little discipline and common sense should be all it takes to get the balance right.