In-Season Climbing Training: 5 tips to stay strong and crush your goals

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In-Season Climbing Training: 5 tips to stay strong and crush your goals

As the leaves change colors and the climbs of our dreams turn into routes we are working on, the way we train has to change too. Whether your goal is to send a project or to simply enjoy your climbing trips outdoors to the fullest, the way you are training should change with your priorities. In this post, I will break down some quick tips and important concepts to adapt your training to your in-season priorities.

Before we get into it, I invite you to take stock of a couple of things. Ask yourself these questions. Get out a pen and paper and write out your answers.

  1. What did your training/climbing sessions look like before? (if you weren’t training, or you did not take a lot of notes in your preparation for the climbing season, check this out.)
  2. What are your priorities this climbing season? Do you have a goal route/boulder that you are trying to send? Do you have a tick list of mid-tier routes you want to get done this season? Are you simply trying to be able to enjoy your time at the crag and stay out doing lots of pitches? Do you not really care how you do performance-wise? Do you simply want to have fun? All of these objectives are equally awesome, but be honest with yourself about what your priorities are. This will inform how you treat your in-season training and climbing activities.

With that, let’s get into some tips for in-season training. Note that most of this advice will come from the assumption that you do care about your performance and that you have some idea about what your preparation has been up to this point. Also note that writing guidelines and tips that work for every climber’s situation is nearly impossible. These suggestions are not absolutes, they are merely footnotes that you can use to inform your in-season training program. Now, let’s dig in.

#1 Understand the WHY behind your training

If you have written out your goals, you ought to have some understanding of what it is going to take to achieve those goals.

High volume days

If your main goal is to be able to do tons of moderate pitches with your friends when you go out on the weekends, then you will probably want to continue working on increasing your work capacity and maintaining your strength (e.g. when you are training you’ll want to work on being able to do a LOT of climbing and also continue to work strength you have gained from your training thus far). Additionally, you’ll want to make sure you don’t wear yourself out in the gym before you head out with your buddies. Rest up, completely for 1-2 days before you head outside. If you are well-recovered, you will be able to climb more which is your goal, right?

Limit level projects

However, if your objective is to redpoint a limit-level route or send a hard boulder, your priorities will be different. You will want to keep your systems “topped off”, working to maintain your strength, power, and endurance as you work on your project. You also might want to ensure that you are using any training time to specifically prepare. The harder the route or boulder and the greater your training age (the number of years you have been training consistently), the more detailed this must be.

For example, if you are trying to send a very hard boulder that has six hard moves on crimps, then for a few weeks you might work specifically on crimping really hard and work specifically on limit-level 6-move boulder problems. Or perhaps you notice that your fear of falling or of failure is getting in the way of your redpoint. You might adopt some simulative work in the gym to practice for this when you are away from your project. Try redpointing a hard route in the gym of a similar style or take practice falls to get out of your head.

These are all very generic examples, but I hope you get the idea. As you get closer to the season or you are in-season, this is the time to move your training from general to specific. The level of specificity is going to be dictated by your training age, your time to train, and what your goals require of you.

#2 Cut the volume, increase the intensity

Generally speaking, maintaining strength and power is typically what is tough for a sport climber while in-season. For boulderers, you might lose some endurance and work capacity in your season, though strength and power might be at risk for dipping depending on the nature of your outdoor bouldering.

When it comes to keeping your strength and power topped off while in season, you can keep your training modifications fairly simple. Basically take whatever sessions you were doing before in “training mode”, cut the volume and perhaps increase the intensity. The goal of these sessions is to maintain what you have already built so that 1. you don’t have to start from square one next season and 2. you can keep your hard-earned gains to be used on your projects and season objectives.

If you had a 60 minute hangboard and lifting session, go ahead and cut the total set/rep volume of your hangs by 1/3 or even in half. Same goes for power or endurance. If you were doing a limit bouldering session where you did 3-4 limit level problems in the session, cut that down to 1-2 problems instead. Make the limit boulders specific to what you are working on outdoors while you’re at it.

Doing this will help you maintain what you have built, but will not require as much recovery and therefore should not hinder your performance outdoors.

#3 Know when to prioritize sending

Training is great and if your season is 10-12 weeks long, you’ll likely want to keep up with some kind of maintenance routine throughout the season. That being said, if you are getting damn close to sending your project or you are about to leave on a week long trip, feel free to lay off the training if that is what you need to do.

Believe it or not a handful of rest days before you try to send is not going to kill you. If you can feel it in your gut that what you really need is some good rest so you can be fresh for some outdoor crushing, then it’s OK to skip your training if you think it is what you need. Shit, skipping some training days before you leave for a trip might leave you time to vacuum or something.

#4 Last minute training doesn’t work [almost]

Not to burst your bubble, but if you waited three weeks before the season to consider that some training might help you send, you missed out on a lot of potential improvement. 8-12 weeks of focused training is a pretty good place to start when it comes to seeing tangible improvement. Our bodies simply do not adapt very quickly to training stimuli in the grand scheme of things. To spell this out, the pinch training you are doing two weeks before you get on your project probably is not doing much to help you. That is simply not enough time to increase your pinch strength in any significant way.

Before I go any further, check out this quick summary slide on adaptation persistence.

In short, it takes time to gain strength, and muscle, but once you have it, it does not take much to maintain your strength. Conversely, endurance and power detrain more easily. You can train them up quickly, but they go away quickly as well.

Please oh please, do not send me emails that you started training something two weeks before your project and swear to me that this helped you send. There are so many variables that come with whether or not a climber sends something. Yes, maybe the last minute training helped you – but it was probably that you felt more confident because you had trained a certain way and your increase in confidence helped you send. Your two pinch training sessions likely did not change your pinch strength much, if at all.

The exception

All of that being said, there is one type of training that can theoretically be “crammed”. That is power endurance. In fact, in Eric Horst’s How to Climb 5.12 program, the last two weeks are dedicated to power endurance. Typically, it is smart to wait until “the last minute” to work on our power endurance. This type of training is very intense and should be used sparingly. I call it “the icing on the cake” when it comes to training. It can be used right before a performance period to really prep the forearms for the demands of hard cruxes, getting pumped, and having to do many hard moves over and over again.

Essentially, this type of training causes our bodies to increase the mitochondria in the muscles in our forearms. This increase in mitochondria gives our muscles more capacity for the demands of “the pump”. This adaptation does not last forever and eventually runs out (see adaptation persistence chart above regarding endurance). Hence, this is why you don’t typically see athletes trying to train power endurance like this all year, it’s a sure way to burn out quickly.

Related: Power Endurance Training for Climbing

Please keep in mind that going from not climbing, or doing little climbing, to trying a hard power endurance session is a recipe for disaster. Power endurance is the icing on the cake. Meaning, if you haven’t taken the time to build a strong, multi-layered cake, then what are you icing anyway?

#5 Example maintenance schedules for weekend warriors

If you are a route climber that climbs on weekends, you might do well with a schedule like this. I used this model for the past fall season and it worked really well for me – I even gained finger strength during the season despite the low-volume of the hanging I was doing (my project was pretty fingery, which likely helped).

The idea is that you will be working the three main energy systems – strength, power, an endurance. For a route climber, you are likely getting endurance work done outdoors on the weekends. For boulderers, you are likely working your power on your project. The training during the week therefore addresses what you are lacking on the weekends.

There are many ways to do this, but this model worked well for me when I was projecting sport routes on the weekends. To hear more about this, check out Episode #13 of the Training for Climbing Podcast, it goes into more detail on this model of in-season training.

Parting thoughts

Your training is one of many facets of a successful performance season, whatever that means for you. So be smart, don’t overcomplicate things, and above all, try hard. Happy sending!

Do you currently train during your climbing season? What does it look like? If not, what’s holding you back? Let me know in the comments!

If you found this post helpful and you are ready to get stronger fingers yourself, then you are going to love my strength & fingers program: Force Over Time.

Force Over Time is a 12 week program combining strength training and hangboarding. This program can be done in addition to your climbing. That way, you can get stronger, without giving up your time to climb.

Sources and Further Reading

Logical Progression 2nd Edition, Steve Bechtel

Practical Programming: 2nd Edition, Mark Rippetoe

How to Climb 5.12, Eric Horst

Training for Climbing Podcast: Episode #13 – Structuring Off-season and In-Season Training for Peak Performance

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