How to Train Climbing Endurance

Frozen Tundra/ Boulder, Colorado February 15′

Inevitably, if you are a rock climber and live in the state of Colorado, at one point or another you are going to be forced to climb indoors when the weather get’s bad. Truth be told, I use to not climb outside during the winter months at all, it was just too cold for me. But as I have progressed through the ranks and am consistently climbing harder grades, the cold weather has become my ally. In fact, these days I would much prefer climbing in the freezing cold months of winter than in the sweltering heat of summer. Winter has become one of my main climbing seasons and a great time to get really good friction on routes and to push the envelope of my abilities. But, when the coldness of winter sets in and along with it comes the snow, most of us outdoor enthusiasts are forced to seek out plastic. Here in the beautiful state of Colorado, most of February has been a frozen tundra with back to back significant snowfalls and freezing cold temps. When your are a climber and “need” to climb, heading indoors to pull on plastic is virtually the only way to maintain fitness and stoke. This is where climbing gyms come in…

Austrian Jakob Shubert attempting one of the hardest routes at the Boulder World Cup at Movement here in Boulder. This event was of the first sport climbing competitions to be held in the United State since Snowbird, Utah in 1988.

I feel truly blessed to live an area with so many climbing gyms at my fingertips. For starters, we have 4 world class climbing gyms within the city limits of Boulder, all within a 5 mile radius from one another. The Boulder Rock Club, Movement Climbing and Fitness, The Spot, and the ABC Climbing Facility are truly world plastic pulling venues. If that’s not enough, new gyms keep popping up in surrounding cities. In the past year alone, Colorado front range climbers have been welcomed with yet two more world class facilities, Earth Treks in Golden and the new Movement facility in Denver. All in all, I have 6 different gyms to train at within 45 minutes of my house. So whether your looking to top out on a highball boulder problem at the Spot Bouldering Gym or your looking to test your endurance on the steeps of the new  60′ lead walls at Movement Denver, there is literally something for everyone. If you can’t find a climbing style that suits you in this area, you may as well quit climbing because it doesn’t exist!

As I prep for my upcoming trip to the Red River Gorge, I can only think of the value that gyms have provided me over the years. I spent literally thousands of hours over the last decade, training tirelessly to help push me into the unknown. As in climbing, and most sports for that matter, if you take it seriously, you are always looking for ways to increase your performance or to get that extra edge. Many years ago on my first trip to the Red River Gorge(RRG) in Kentucky, I had a less than stellar performance. Like most climbers I trained hard in the gym before going  only to find myself pumping out and falling off not most, but every single route I got on. As usual with trips, I had a “Tick List” on paper of the routes I wanted to try to climb while I was there. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for the fitness that the RRG demanded and was I was not properly prepared. I can still remember the feeling of driving home having “Sent” not a single route on my tick list. I must have tried over a dozen five-star classics during that trip and I fell on every single one, many nearly within arms length of the chains. It was very humbling to say the least. Here I was going down there with a bunch of lofty goals and a dream list of routes to climb and send and I came up far short. Needless to say, I learned my lesson.

Amazing photo taken by RRG local pro photographer Elodie Saraccaco of my friend Becky Johnson fighting the Red River Gorge Pump....
Amazing photo taken by RRG local pro photographer Elodie Saraccaco of my friend Becky Johnson fighting the Red River Gorge Pump….

After my first trip to the Red, I consulted some local pro’s in hopes of fine tuning my training so I could go back and have a better performance. I had trained so hard for that trip and failed in so many ways. I must have tried one individual route(Tuna Town) over a dozen times. On the very last burn of my very last day, I literally fell at the top of the climb. When I say the top of the climb, I mean I could have kissed the chains. Problem was, I couldn’t let go for even a second to clip the anchors because my forearms were burning so bad. I took my one arm off the wall for a second to attempt to clip one of the anchors and was bucked like a cowboy in a rodeo. The notorious whip at the chains of Tuna Town ensued and I went home empty-handed. Getting through all the difficult sections of a climb and falling at the very last move is like getting kicked or taking a golf ball swing to the balls. It just plain sucks.

Climbing at places like the RRG is all about holding on forever. There is literally no place on earth like it. The easiest way to describe the climbing here is to do a little experiment. Try and hold one arm directly above your head and hold it there for as long as you can in the upwards position. How many minutes or seconds would it take before your shoulder starts burning? There will be pain. There will be discomfort. Most normal human beings could only hold this position for so long and they would eventually break. The pain and discomfort you would feel would be comparable to rubbing atomic bomb Bengay all over your shoulder after soaking in a hot bath. It would be burning and you probably wouldn’t be able to stand it. This simple exercise is a good demonstration of what the feeling is like in your forearms when you climb at the RRG. There is a burn, a discomfort, a pain that get’s unbearable. Truth be told, most routes at the Red have considerably easier moves than other routes of the same grade around the country. But again, it’s that “pump” that ends up bucking you off and for most like myself, it’s all the way at the top right before success…

Canadian Sean Mccoll's training pays off as he attempts to Onsight a 5.14 during the Men's Finals at the Boulder World Cup...
Canadian Sean McColl’s training pays off as he attempts to Onsight a 5.14 during the Men’s Finals at the Boulder World Cup…

Fast forward another year to the Fall of 2013. This time, I went prepared. Several months before heading to the Red that fall, I started a very strict training regime. Three times a week, I went to into the gym, and warmed up doing singular routes on lead. After about an hour and some decent volume, I would go into doing triples. What are triples you might ask? Well there are many ways to do them but some are better than others. For me, what worked best to train endurance, was to do the same route on lead three times in a row without even untying. The longer and steeper the route the better. When you finish the first lap, immediately lower and have the belayer take you off belay, pull the rope from the climbers end while remaining tied in. The entire length of the rope will fall to the floor from the anchors and hopefully into a decent pile. Flip the pile over, have the belayer put you back on, and immediately get back on the same route. I should say that there is definitely an art to this and it takes some practice both on the belayer and climbers part. When you get efficient, you should be able to get done climbing the first lap of your triple and within 30 seconds of touching your feet on the ground you should be back on the wall starting the next lap. When you and your partner get good at this transition, the climber will typically start climbing before the belayer technically even has you on. Half the time, as you start the route, your belayer is usually fiddling with the rope and getting their belay device set up so as soon as you clip bolt one they are ready for you. Again, practice makes perfect on the transition.

It is important to note here what level of difficulty you should be doing the “triples” at? Many climbers make the same mistake and step down to an easier level on their second and third lap of a triple set. This is a HUGE mistake! If you’re falling at the top of a route, it is probably the last section of the route that is the most difficult. For this reason, your grade should remain the same throughout because if anything, the climbing gets harder as you go up and not easier. Remember, most people fall in the last 20 feet of routes at the Red because they are pumped. You need to train in a way that preps you for climbing past the point where you feel like your going to fall. Typically, when starting an endurance training regime, you should pick a level of difficulty that you can just barely do twice back to back but usually fall on the third lap of a triple set. If you start this program and can do all three laps cleanly without a fall, you need to go harder. The whole idea is to work up to barely sending all three routes of a triple set, meaning the third lap should always be difficult and you should always feel like you can’t “do” lap number 3. There is a fine line between doing a set of triple’s at too easy of a level, too hard of a level, or just right. You need to experiment with this. I think the safest way to choose what difficulty to start doing endurance training at would be to pick a grade in the gym you can usually do first try(either as a onsight or a flash) but should be close to your first try limit. For instance, if you can consistently do a 5.11+ in the gym on your first try, you should maybe step down a notch to a 5.11 and try to do that route 3 times in row. Again, in the beginning, you should be falling on your third attempt on every single set of triples. You should build up, excluding your warmup and cool down, to doing 4 to 6 sets of triples at your limit. This will get you the fitness needed to succeed at places like the RRG.

As you build the fitness and get accustomed to training in this manner, the grade you are climbing will gradually rise and that “third” lap of your triple will eventually be a send. As soon as it gets easy to send that third lap of the triple set, its time to step up to the next grade, objectively making the “third” lap more difficult. A third try attempt of a triple set should always be hard. To give you an idea, I started my endurance training program with being able to complete a 5.12- for a double and usually falling on my third burn of the set. By the end of the 6 week training cycle and right before I left for the Red, I built up to doing triple’s on 5.12+, which is the grade I was trying to climb consistently on that trip. Rather than project routes that were too difficult similar to my first trip, I picked a grade that I thought I could maybe do on my first try. If I fell but thought I could do it again on my second attempt, I would go for it just to get the “tick”. Funny thing was, for that particular trip and my first time ever training this way, I didn’t need a second chance.  I got on nearly two dozen routes that were challenging for me and sent all but two of them, ALL on my first try, either as a flash or a onsight. I remember the feeling of accomplishment I had on that trip compared to my first trip. It was night and day. My first trip, I sent nothing. I went home a total failure, or at least I failed with what I was trying to accomplish. My second trip, I climbed and sent first try nearly every single route I got on. That same twenty feet where I was falling before at the very top of all the routes didn’t really effect me. And I remember sending some routes, clipping chains and thinking to myself I could keep climbing if the anchors were twenty feet higher.

Getting accustomed to the Red on my second trip and reaping the benefits of my endurance training program...
Getting accustomed to the Red on my second trip and reaping the benefits of my endurance training program…

I am not a professional climber, nowhere even near it, but how I trained worked for me and I am pretty confident that it will work for everyone reading this. Training endurance is one of the easiest things to train. Building up strength and technique is much more difficult and usually takes some time. But, if climbing long and pumpy routes is your objective, training with some triples may be the difference in going home empty handed versus carrying home a bag full of victories.  Train your arms to be able to hang on forever and you WILL be able hang on forever! Good Luck…

4 thoughts on “How to Train Climbing Endurance

  1. grubbjasona

    Josh and I are doing this right now! Our first session, we focused on 11+’s and we sent every pitch of every set. Too easy. The second session, we bumped up the grade to 12-‘s and the difficulty was spot on – sending on the first lap, falling going for the anchors of the second lap, and falling half way to two-thirds up the wall on our third lap. This was the theme for each of our 4 sets. We’ll stay at 12- until we’re sending all three laps of each set and step it up from there. We’re psyched to keep at it. Thanks for the guidance!

    1. Curt MacNeill

      Sounds great Mr. Grubb. You should be crushing in no time. I am always amazed when I work endurance how fast it comes back and how quickly you can progress to “not” getting pumped on long routes. Keep me posted on your guys progress, especially when you step up to straight 12. When your doing Triples, every letter grade makes a big difference meaning things get much harder much quicker as you will see…

      1. Roey Perl

        I am about to go to rrg in 3 weeks. I work on endurance all the time but at a gym with a 23 ft wall. I want to send tuna town. Can you tell me some details about that climb other than what the guidebook says?

      2. Curt MacNeill

        The route is a hyper classic at the Red, that is if you can clip the chains. It has huge holds all the way up to the very last fixed chain draw. From that draw, there is a 20 foot run to the chains on smaller incut holds which fizzle out to crimps. It is the ultimate fitness test piece. There is a whole/ jug rest at that fixed draw, most cannot fully recover on this and hence why many people take the whip at the very top. The clipping holds are the smallest on the route, from a hang no prob, but after 100 foot pumpfest, good luck… I did one burn on this my second to last trip to the red, where I sent tons of hard routes on my first try and was extremely fit. I fell on the very last move! Got to laugh at that one…..

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