Why can’t I just climb to train?

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-by Scott Johnston

Steve House and I have repeatedly stated that climbers, and other non traditional sport athletes, would be wise to learn from the training methods used by more conventional, and thoroughly tested, sports. An important question we are often asked is:

Can’t I just climb to train?

The answer is no. Climbing to train, by definition, isn’t training. Training implies controlled progression based on established well-understood principles of human performance. One of those principles is the idea of Capacity Training. To understand what that means we also need to understand it’s opposite, Utilization Training.

US Swimming has had consistent and unparalleled international successes. This success has caused the athletic and coaching world to take notice. Bob Bowman, famous as Michael Phelps’ coach for 15 years, coined the terms Capacity Training and Utilization Training to describe two different approaches to training swimmers. Here is how Bowman defines these terms:

Capacity Training

Is training that improves the long-term performance potential of the athlete. In our book Training for the New Alpinism we chose to refer to Capacity Training as Base Training.

Utilization Training

Is training that improves the near term performance results of the athlete. In competitive sport, Utilization Training is comparable to what we termed Specific Training in our book.  In climbing, it’s known as trying hard all the time. Or, as training-by-climbing.

To clarify further. Capacity Training involves building up various physical (and mental) qualities that support your sport. For example: If you can’t do a single pull-up and you want to climb 5.14, you need to train the capacity (strength in the pull-up movement) before you can train the utilization (ability to climb hard moves).

Traditional competitive sports have experimented with the balance of Capacity and Utilization Training for many years. Running had this debate a couple of times over past 75 years. Most recently after the US dominance of the 70’s and 80’s gave way to an era of disappointing results in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The consensus among running coaches is that the drop in US performance largely coincided with a shift from a capacity oriented training system to one relying heavily on a utilization approach.

Rowing also had this debate back in the ‘80s after a dramatic change in the coaching philosophy in Germany, which abandoned the utilization approach in favor of one based on building capacity. This switch led to their domination of the sport.

Cross Country Skiing has had a similar discussion in the early 2000s when physiologist Dr. Jan Helgarud controversially proclaimed that much of the Capacity Training that had historically been the mainstay of Cross Country ski training was a waste of time. Around that same time swimming underwent a revolution lead by Jan Olbrecht’s book The Science of Winning. (Highly recommended for those who want to delve deeper into this material.)  Bob Bowman is a self-proclaimed disciple of Olbrecht, claiming to have had his eyes opened to the distinction between what Olbrecht terms Capacity and Power (Utilization) Training.   Bowman, having been largely responsible for Phelp’s 18 Olympic Gold medals, has had a profound impact on the direction of US swimming training philosophy.

The value, for us as (mostly non-competitive) mountain athletes, of looking at these debates is that each of them was settled by the ultimate test: international competition. The best athletes in the world, using competing training philosophies, have lined up at the starting lines of innumerable competitions. The stop-watch doesn’t lie and what we see is that, across a broad range of sports, athletes who prepare by focusing on building the various capacities needed in their sport before embarking on a high percentage of Utilization Training have better results in the long run. On the other hand, those who tend to skip over the Capacity Training and jump right to the Utilization work will often see rapid improvement leading to a plateau in performance.  These Utilizers will become confused as to why they progressed so rapidly early on only to have met an seemingly insurmountable barrier to progress. Just doing more and harder won’t get the results they seek.

Each different sport has developed slightly different terminology during these discussions but Bowman’s is perhaps the simplest to understand.  So, back to Bowman’s definitions:

Capacity Training:  Increases the ability to do work in all of the realms required for the sport.

In rock climbing these qualities would be broken down into:

1 Aerobic Capacity

Increases in mitochondrial mass, increase in capillary density, increase in aerobic enzymes.  You might not think that your forearm and shoulder muscles have aerobic capacity, but they do, and it’s the most important capacity they have.

2 Anaerobic Capacity

Increases the athlete’s ability to produce high levels of lactate via the increased metabolism of carbohydrates. This is the familiar pump.

3 Strength Capacity

Increases the maximum muscular force in sport specific movements. In grip-strength terms this is how hard you can pull on a hold of a given size. Smaller holds require greater strength capacity.

4 Technical Mastery

Increased balance, proper movement patterning. Climbing is a highly skill dependent sport. This technical mastery can only be gained with sport specific work, which is largely what leads many to the mistaken conclusion that they must climb hard all the time.

HK cruising in Rifle.

Capacity Training typically will result in a short-term sacrifice of immediate performance goals for long term potential gains. Building Capacity is like putting money-in-the-bank.  Having a big bank account in and of itself doesn’t do you much good until you need to start withdrawing. The withdrawal happens in the Utilization Training, when you’re trying hard on your climb.

Capacity Training takes a relatively long time to develop. It is typically less sport specific and more general in nature. It is like improving the body’s infrastructure. It’s analogous to building the Interstate Highway system: Tedious and dull during the construction process but once completed it allows much more work to be done more quickly. Bowman uses the analogy of a cup. Capacity training increases the size of the athlete’s cup. Increasing the capacity of each of the sport’s individual requirements, think hangboard (grip) or pull-up (pulling strength), ultimately allows the athletically mature person to do more effective Utilization Training. Core strength, forearm/finger strength, flexibility, shoulder strength, these are examples of different “cups”. If anyone of these cups is too small that Capacity limitation will inhibit your ultimate Utilization where you bring together all the needed qualities.

As an example Alex Megos, the German sport climber and boulderer posted this on his Facebook page on 11/28/15:

“BAAAM! Did “Demenicia Senil” (9a+/5.15a) on my 2nd try today! Once checked it out till the 3rd bolt two years ago but it felt too hard. Today I checked it out the whole way up and (then) did it on the go after! Huge fight!”

What he’s describing is that two years ago he didn’t have the capacity to make the moves. Wasn’t even close from the sounds of it. Then, two years later, he did have the capacity, and he utilized it to climb a 5.15a second try. As an aside I think it’s also instructive to note that when he checked out the route to the third bolt, he realized he didn’t have the capacity, and presumably he moved on to another route. He didn’t waste what capacity he had at the time on something he couldn’t do.

Smart athletes understand the bank-account analogy.  Working a route that is way above you physical ability is not only psychologically hard, you’re at risk of over-drawing your account: i.e. getting injured.

Utilization Training:  Used to increase performance outcomes in the short term. For rock climbers this would mean climbing at or near their technical limit, or in sport-climbing this means projecting a route.

Utilization Training will maximally utilize whatever capacities an athlete has at that time, making maximum use of the body’s infrastructure. Extending the Interstate Highway analogy: It dumps a lot of fast-moving traffic on the existing highway system. If the roads can handle the traffic then a lot of work can be done. But if there is a section of the road still under construction, that bottleneck is going to be the limiter. Utilization Training is short term and quick acting. It is very sport specific. It is usually of high intensity. This training is designed to fill up whatever size of Capacity cup the athlete has brought into the Utilization training. Here’s how it looks by system:

  • Aerobic: Utilization Training increases the fraction, as well as the duration, of the maximum aerobic power that the athlete can sustain. Often called aerobic power training.
  • Anaerobic: Utilization Training increases the fraction of the Anaerobic Capacity that can be used when you’re trying hard.  This is called anaerobic endurance. It is training with a burn or pump in the forearms.  The bigger the aerobic capacity of the forearms the more of this training you can do.
  • Power: Increases the rate at which the athlete can generate the maximal force or strength.
  • Technique: Increase the speed and economy which the climber can maintain high levels of the above qualities.
  • Gains are dynamic and volatile. Read: Short lived.
  • It may or may not be necessary to enable an athlete to achieve his or her personal best at any given time.  The amount of Utilization Training an athlete needs depends on the size of the capacity-cup he or she has developed up to that point. Coaches often refer to this concept as athletic maturity.
  • Cannot be expected to have a positive effect if the athlete’s capacity is small. If the cup is small there is not much room for this sort of training. The athlete can’t handle it. Imagine taking a couch-potato of a guy and flogging them on a 5.11 TR every day. They’ll never do it because they don’t have the capacity. Now imagine taking an Olympic gymnast and putting them on the same 5.11 top rope. They’ll probably climb it relatively quickly. The gymnast’s capacity is high even though it is non sport specific.
  •  Athletes with large capacity (a BIG cup) can, and must, do much more Utilization Training for the best effect. Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra, Alex Megos, need a lot of Utilization Training. They have huge capacity-cups in all areas related to sport climbing. Most of us don’t.

 

Utilization Training will reduce the athlete’s capacity and this effect must be offset with capacity training during some part of the training cycle. Ever wonder why after a long period of climbing, for example a long road-trip, your aerobic and strength capacity is diminished even though you may be climbing your best?  You’ve optimally Utilized your current Capacity. If you wish to progress long term though, after a prolonged period of Utilization you’ll need to return to a Base or Capacity building period in which you analyze your relative strengths and weaknesses. How long? Like most everything else…It depends. It depends upon how much Capacity you have built up. Very high-level athletes do much more Utilization Training. They do this because they already have incredibly high Capacities for all the various forms of work required of their sport. Without grasping the concepts we’re discussing here it is easy to confuse what is going when watching elites perform.

 

It’s clear that Capacity Training and Utilization Training both have a place, and are interdependent. But for all be the very best climbers in the world, Capacity Training takes both precedence and the majority of an athlete’s time. Only when the Capacity Training is done first, when the cup is made as big as it can be, do you pour on the Utilization Training. The result of the Utilization Training, which can be astonishingly quick (a few weeks) and seductively satisfying, are wholly dependent on the amount of Capacity Training that was done beforehand. It is for these reasons that a climber interested in increasing their ability to climb well is wise to

  1. Take the long view. Real capacity in climbing is built from year to year, not weekly or monthly.
  2.  Plan a year out. To be your best athletically, you have to engage both capacity and Utilization at the right time. Knowing how and when to do this is what makes coaching part science, part art. We go into great detail about how to do this in Training for the New Alpinism. For a rock climber or an alpinist (or a swimmer), the concepts are the same.

We can, and should, look to other sports for how to best train. Engaging in high-intensity, sport specific, short-duration Utilization Training is good; but only when done after a long, consistent, progressive, gradually-accumulated period of Capacity Training.


 

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