Running excessively in terms of distance, duration, and frequency, that is. And replace it with High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT!
The difference is striking. Although both men have significant muscle definition and excel in their respective sports, Wolnowski weighs more than twice as much as Kip-sang, most of that weight coming from lean muscle mass. What gives? And why can Wolnowski never be as good as Kip-sang at running marathons, and vice versa? This brings me to the topic of this article: concurrent training.
What exactly is concurrent training? Concurrent training, the general term for combining strength and endurance programs, is one of the most hotly-debated topics in exercise science. Since the early 1980s, much research has been done on the so-called interference effect, which refers to the observed decrease in strength gains during concurrent training.
Let’s go back to the power-lifter and the marathoner. What is the primary difference between the two sports? In two words: energy systems.
Of course, the human body needs a way to produce energy from fuel. It does this by using glucose in the foods we consume to generate a functional energy unit called adenosine triposphate, or ATP for short. It does this either anaerobically (without oxygen) or aerobically (with oxygen). The duration of the exercise determines which system (anaerobic or aerobic) is used. As a rule of thumb, anything up to 2 minutes (be it a power-lift, a lap around the track, or five pull-ups) utilizes the anaerobic system while anything above 10 minutes (including running a marathon) relies primarily on the aerobic system:
Note that the “crossover” point is at around 2 minutes (Photo: UTPB)
So while the marathoner relies primarily on the “long-term” aerobic system, the power-lifter is constantly working his “short-term” anaerobic system.
Concurrent training is of particular interest for sports that involve a combination of these aerobic and anaerobic systems, including rock climbing. Sport-climbing routes in particular consist of intervals of low (active rest), moderate (easy sequence), and high (hard “crux” sequence) intensities. Though these intervals vary greatly in duration (anywhere from less than 30 second to several minutes), the primary energy system involved is anaerobic. However, since a climber can be on a route for upwards of an hour, the aerobic system becomes an important component. As such, the dilemma most sport climbers face at one point or another is how to effectively train both systems, without one superseding the gains made by the other—otherwise, the interference effect.
There are a number of factors to consider when attempting to sort through this.
#1: I’M TRAINING THE OPPOSITE SYSTEM…SO WHAT?
As I mentioned in the previous post, there are two main types of muscle cells or fibers: type I (“slow-twitch”), type IIx (“fast-twitch”), as well as an intermediate type IIb fiber. A critical distinction between aerobic and anaerobic training is the type of muscle fiber that is utilized. Aerobic training engages the slow-twitch fibers while anaerobic training relies on fast-twitch fibers. Although fibers cannot inter-convert, the intermediate fibers can develop the characteristics of either slow- or fast-twitch fibers, depending on the type of exercise in which you partake. From the difference in body size alone, you can tell that the power-lifter has a high ratio of fast-twitch fibers while the marathon runner is more slow-twitch. Of course, the power-lifter has also dedicated a lot more time to building muscle; however, even if we put the marathoner on the same lifting program that the power-lifter was on, he could never put on the same amount of mass, and would remain relatively slim.
Even in climbing, boulderers tend to be a bit bigger and more built than route-climbers. Take Jan Hojer, a World Cup boulderer, and Sachi Amma, a World Cup sport-climber:
If you are still asking yourself how all of this is really relevant, and why muscle fiber-type matters, take a look at the chart below. Slow-twitch fibers are…you guessed it, slow. Additionally, they cannot generate very much power and are only really useful in long-duration endurance situations. Fast-twitch fibers are both fast and powerful, even if they do fatigue quickly. Climbing, even sport-climbing, is all about power and contact strength–being able to throw and latch onto a hold. And even though we can’t change what we were born with, we can train the intermediate fibers to be more like the fast-twitch fibers–a configuration inherently beneficial to climbing. Or we can continue running and make them more like the slow-twitch fibers.
#2: IS CLIMBING EVEN AEROBIC?
If you are a boulderer: no. If you are a sport climber: a bit. If you are a multi-pitch climber: yes. Since boulder problems generally last less than a minute, you are relying entirely on the anaerobic system. In other words, running is essentially useless unless you are trying to lose weight (and even then, you are better off lowering your food intake rather than upping the cardio).
#3: SPECIFICITY, SPECIFICITY, SPECIFICITY!
Specificity is the key to excelling in any sport. The best way to get better at climbing is by climbing. The best way to get better at running is by running. The best way to get better at climbing is not by running. And if you are concerned about your ropes-season endurance, climbing routes, not running, is your solution.
Approaching “Lost in Space” in the South Platte of Colorado (Photo: Min Kim)
When I climbed minimally but ran almost every day last winter break, my climbing went down the drain. I could barely get to the top of a V7 (or a 5.12 for the matter, even though my aerobic endurance was impeccable). When I stopped running altogether and focused more on actually climbing, I quickly found myself back in the V9-V10 range. Coincidence? I think not.
#4: …BUT I ENJOY RUNNING!
If you enjoy running, by all means, keep running. All I am saying is it will not be of any real benefit to your climbing.
Personally, I like running, but I also care about climbing performance. So rather than doing what exercise physiologists have dubbed LSD (Long Slow Distance), I try to do a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout once or twice per week. Although there are a number of methods to go about it, HIIT involves alternating bouts of low and high intensity (my current workout is 60 s at 5.0 mph and 30 s at 10.0 mph, for 2.0 mi). Personally, I prefer to do this on a treadmill because you can easily switch between speeds, however, you can go outside, sprint up and down a hill, or do a different exercise altogether, even climbing! I will eventually get this down to a 1:4 (work:rest) ratio in order to focus even more on the anaerobic system, but only when I am comfortable enough running a bit faster or on a steeper incline.
If you’re still not sold, HIIT also burns more fat and more calories than LSD, due to an extended EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) period following training. It can also help your climbing as it works the anaerobic system, essentially simulating route climbing. And it’s more fun than zoning out at 6.0 mph.
Assessing my aerobic endurance in the lab…definitely not zoning out
So next time you are debating going out on a five mile run, maybe just take a rest day instead. As climbers, we don’t get enough of those anyways (-: