Why I’m Not Training Endurance in Quarantine
My local government doesn’t want me to go running and the climbing gym is closed. My hard-earned power endurance is bleeding from my forearms and into the couch as I watch Parks & Rec. COVID-19 is robbing humanity of a lot right now, but endurance is something I am not concerned about losing. (and I’m a sport climber with Red River Gorge projects). If losing your endurance is concerning you, whether climbing or in general, try saying this three times out loud to see if it makes you feel better.
I am going to lose localized endurance in my forearms.
I am going to lose aerobic fitness.
I am not worried about it.
If that didn’t work, here are some facts to back up your new favorite mantra. Now, let’s get into exactly why I am not worrying about endurance right now and why you might not need to either.
Do you need endurance right now?
When asked about endurance training in the Training Beta podcast on best practices for training at home, coach Kris Hampton replied to the question with another question.
“When is the next time you are going to need to access it? Endurance is a quality that is really easy to get back… If you’re not going to be able to get back to a route that you’re excited about until the fall, then maybe you don’t need to be concerned about endurance right now. “
Kris Hampton of Power Company Climbing
As for my next shot at climbing, I am hoping I’ll in Wyoming in the summer. Therefore, I am at least eight weeks out from getting on real rock. Most of my Wild Iris projects are under 60 feet anyway. All of this to say, I really do not see any reason, personally, to be training endurance right now.
In addition to my climbing timeline, there are some physiological reasons for waiting on training endurance: namely that endurance is not a persistent adaptation. Simply put, you can train up your endurance relatively quickly when the time comes.
“All you have to do is get pumped for a few weeks and your endurance will come back.”
–PT and Trainer, Natasha Barnes
As Natasha says, you can increase your endurance very quickly compared to other physical adaptations like maximal strength.
Strength is a Number One Dad Mug
I have heard a certain analogy from a couple of climbing performance experts (I’m looking at you Natasha Barnes and Charlie Manganiello) on various podcasts and presentations. To avoid being completely unoriginal, here is my adaptation.
Strength is a Number One Dad mug. The bigger the mug, the more coffee you can fit into it. (If it’s big enough, perhaps you can even fit some Baileys as well). So if strength is the mug, then endurance, work capacity, strength endurance, etc. are the coffee and Baileys.
By increasing your strength, you increase your capacity for endurance.
Still don’t believe me? Let’s think about this another way. How easy is it for you to do one pull-up? Think about it. What if you were so strong that doing one pull up was just as easy as taking a single step on a treadmill? You could do pull-ups for hours if that were the case. Imagine what that would do for your climbing? Your endurance would be insane.
This is the point. If you make yourself stronger, you will be able to endure more. This is good news for us, because many of us only have resources that lend themselves to strength training right now anyway.
Using a Hammer as a Wrench
There is nothing I hate more than trying to do a job without the right tools. When I think about trying to increase my localized forearm endurance with a cylindrical piece of wood dangling above my bathroom tiles, I feel deflated. Training endurance is much easier and more fun with an actual wall to train on. I do not want to use a hammer as a wrench so I’m not trying to use my flash board to train localized forearm endurance.
The rest of the implements in my apartment (a couple of kettlebells and some dumbells) also lend themselves to strength training. Even if you do not have any weights, body weight exercises have thousands of variants that can stimulate maximal strength gains without added resistance. You likely have excellent tools for gaining strength right now. For endurance, this is probably not the case.
“The tools you have are going to be sufficient. You don’t have to sit around going ‘Well I would workout if I had a campus board in my living room.’ It’s more important to say ‘Oh yeah, I have this thing. Here I go.” – Steve Bechtel Training Beta Episode 147
I know that some feel that maintaining fitness is very difficult and genetically some are certainly more advantaged than others when it comes to endurance. However, there is a substantial body of evidence showing that endurance can be trained up fairly quickly in comparison to strength.
Endurance is Fleeting
There is a reason that power endurance comes last in most popular climbing training plans. You do not need your endurance and power endurance to be maximized forever, you need it when you get on your route or long boulder problem.
“Anaerobic-endurance [training] places high levels of stress on the nervous system and muscles… About two weeks of this type of training seems to be the limit if you climb regularly.” – Eric Horst in How to Climb 5.12
Once the gym reopens you can certainly find two weeks to train up your power endurance before starting on your route-climbing season.
If you are satisfied with advice from seasoned coaches and you don’t care about the nerdy details, feel free to the section below the green.
If you have some time to geek out a little, read on.
NERD ALERT: Endurance Adaptation Science
I looked at a few research papers to distill the idea that endurance can be increased relatively quickly, here is what I found. In one study, a group of moderately trained young men performed sprint interval workouts (~30s bouts of all out effort) over the course of four weeks.
It was found that their mitochondria content and function increased by 25% over the course of this four week period.
But what the f* are mitochondria?
I will keep it simple with the adage that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. It is a critical organelle in the production of energy. Your redpoints are not powered by Pabst Blue Ribbon — not directly anyway. They are powered by mitochondria. (here’s a quick video).
But does increased mitochondrial function and volume actually increase endurance performance? In short, yes.
Mitochondria and Aerobic Endurance
In another study, the relationship between mitochondria and endurance ability was tested. Researchers gave individuals a fitness test on a stationary bike and did a biopsy on their thigh muscles. Yes, a small chunk was taken our of their legs, for science! They then examined properties like mitochondrial content and function. The results demonstrated that the individuals who showed greater athleticism on the stationary bike test had greater mitochondrial function than their less fit counterparts.
Putting it Together
Now I will put the argument together. By doing certain types of training we can increase mitochondria significantly over a four week period – as much as 25%. We also have evidence showing that mitochondria function is a key indicator of aerobic performance.
Comparing the endurance adaptation to finger strength
Now, I invite you to contrast these gains with four weeks of training maximal finger strength. The most dramatic result in Eva Lopez’s study of max hangs yielded a 28% increase in half crimp position over two months. It is hard to compare these two adaptations, but I think it is an interesting frame of reference.
The moral here is that endurance is quickly won and lost. Strength however, is much harder to gain, but it will stick around once you have earned it.
My Own Training: A Few Caveats
I am in the middle of a repeater hangboard protocol right now. Before hangboarding, I warm up with some “climbing” for about two minutes. This probably stimulates some maintenance of local forearm endurance. My main drive for doing this; however, is finger strength. I am not trying to replicate the climbing volume that I would get training endurance in the gym. My rationale for training repeaters is driven by needing to switch up my hangboard routine to prevent a plateau.
(See Four Hangboard Protocols for more details on hangboarding )
Additionally, I admit that endurance is one of my strengths (see previous post). If you are unsure if endurance is a weakness, take the Power Company home assessment. It will help determine where your endurance stands versus your climbing goals.
As far as general stamina, I am doing kettlebell workouts with efforts lasting 3-4 minutes without rest. This is my own substitute for running Here are some resources for general fitness.
If you’re going to train endurance anyway
If you still are not sold and you know from past experience that gaining endurance and keeping it is challenging for you, then get creative. Coach Tom Randall advises in the episode 147 of Training Beta that you can train endurance without a climbing wall.
Tom goes on to describe using a pulley set up to remove a considerable amount of weight and doing a repeater-type exercises. This seems to be more of a protocol simulate climbing for low-end forearm endurance as opposed to building finger strength, hence the low intensity.
Kris echos this sentiment.
You can do really small amounts of [endurance training] with this lower intensity arc-style hangboarding, taking a lot of weight off… You can do a session of that a week .. or every other week and have plenty of base for your endurance when you need to pick it back up.
So if you are hell bent on training endurance, doing something like the below could work as well. At the moment I am only doing this type to warm-up for hangboarding.
A Note on Running
Though I am not comfortable running right now, you likely can. Incorporating some general cardio into your training can be a beautiful thing. Separate your cardio from your strength sessions, if possible. Although I hate running, I would probably go for the occasional jog if I felt it was socially responsible. Please note that local government refers to my location specifically and you should refer to your local guidelines. Your activity based on government recommendations is at your discretion.
If you are concerned maintaining endurance in isolation, perhaps there are other areas you can focus on. Have questions? Leave a comment below-I would be thrilled to hear from you!
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.
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