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It was the early 1990s, and Frank Dusl was making the same transition that many American rock climbers were: He was rebuilding his style of climbing from vertical granite crack climber to overhanging limestone sport climber. There were so few steep routes at the time that the ones that did give a good pump were well-known and sought after. Climbers would flock to the few developed caves in the country, and desperately seek to “get endurance” by doing lap after lap on pumpy terrain.
For some, it worked, but for Frank, pure pump-fighting endurance ceased to be the problem. It was doing hardmoves on long and steep climbs—not just jug hauling—that was holding him back. It was in the garage behind his parents’ house in Lander, Wyoming, that Frank happened into learning big lessons in training applicable endurance.
Across the globe, climbers figured out the same things over and over: that they didn’t need multi-million-dollar gyms to get good (and in fact these might be a liability to getting good), that being able to do hard moves over and over again was what we really needed, and that it was discipline and drive that created success. Importantly, we learned that this could happen in a garage—no autobelay needed.
When it comes to “endurance,” what we’re really talking about is the ability to output power over and over again in a state of increasing fatigue. Because of this, I like to look at the practice not as endurance training, but fatigue management. The rock is not asking us to have a high VO2 max and massively oxygen-adapted muscle fibers throughout our bodies. We don’t need to be able to sprint, nor do cyclic exercise for hours at a time. It’s asking us to be able to be calm enough to relax when fatigued, to be able to move blood in and out of the working muscles efficiently, and to maintain the ability to do hard moves in less-than-ideal situations.
We need to address climbing better when fatigued, and we can do that in our training. Rather than seeking out a crippling pump—something any spring-break frat brother can figure out at the Chuckawalla Wall—we need to seek out climbing as hard as possible without getting pumped in the first place. If you want your arms to be “trashed,” do 10 supersets of bicep curls and wrist curls. If you want to make it to the lip of the cave and still be able to clip the anchors, read on.
More—and More Difficult
There are two main ways to address your stamina. You can do more “stuff” over a given time period, or you can do the same amount of “stuff” but with greater intensity.
These two values refer to your system’s “power” and its “capacity.” We tend to get confused and think of system power and muscular power as synonymous, but they aren’t. System power simply refers to your body’s ability to generate energy from a given system, which results in what we might call “power-endurance.” Muscular power is our ability to generate force quickly—the kind of power we get from training on a Campus board or by doing explosive weight training. Meanwhile, capacity increases would see you able to do more boulder problems or routes at a given difficulty in a day, whereas improvements in system power would see you be able to perform at a higher difficulty. We can address both of these abilities right at home.
In Frank’s garage, he had some weights and a couple of hangboards. He also had 10’ x 12’ climbing wall that we’d now call a spray wall. On this wall, he’d finish out a day’s climbing or catch a session on a snow day. Many winter days would find Frank and friends climbing at Sinks Canyon until the sun fell behind the mountains, driving back to town eating snacks, and then hitting the garage for a few more hours’ work. There was the normal selection of boulder problems, but it was the circuits that were magic.
Over many months of climbing, Frank built out a 50-move circuit on the board, mostly on bigger holds and with plenty of good feet. It was a pumpy journey with big moves and awkward positions, which made it all the more like true rock climbing. Rather than building additional circuits as he improved, though, he simply made the choice to remove the best hold from the existing circuit and replace it with a worse hold. In this way, what used to be a rest would become a crux, and he might need several weeks before he could send the circuit again.
For variety, he would work the circuit backward, from move 50 down to move one, and could eventually link the thing in either direction. Over several months, the holds got smaller, the circuits longer, and his ability to do pretty damn hard moves several minutes into climbing improved. A lot. In fact, near the end of a year of this kind of training, he offhandedly said, “I don’t get pumped anymore; I just lose a little contact strength.” It wasn’t a boast; it was just an observation.
Let’s look at what was happening here. Frank first built the capacity to climb on the wall for a full session, then he started building the ability to do longer and longer links until he reached “performance duration” at 50 or so moves. This is a critical aspect: You don’t need to be able to climb continuously for 20 or 30 minutes…ever. Although well-intentioned, ARC-style endurance efforts tend to see us climbing at more-than necessary durations and at less-than-quality skill levels and difficulties. Built on the idea of the long, slow distance training that endurance athletes do, this kind of training doesn’t really serve climbers well—our fatigue comes from muscular overload and not from a lack of cardiovascular fitness. Even an elite marathoner gets very little out of going slower and longer than race distance. I’m all for building capacity in climbing, but doing more efforts in pitch-length intervals is simpler and more specific to our needs. If we want more capacity, we need to do more of these intervals—like Frank.
Once at 50 moves, Frank began to develop system power, essentially going harder for roughly the same duration. He took his time. Often, climbers expect to advance every single session, but true endurance is built one long and boring session at a time, often over several years. The crazy thing about building the ability to climb 50 moves at a time is that throwing in a crimp here and there starts to be less and less of a problem. By doing these workouts many times, one finds that at any given point in the circuit, doing a hard boulder just isn’t that hard anymore, since you’ve improved your ability to not get pumped.
Steve Bechtel is a lifelong climber, and has been coaching climbers for most of his adult life. He is the cofounder of the coaching companyand the education director for the Performance Climbing Coach seminars. He lives with his wife, Ellen, and their children, Anabel and Sam, in Lander, Wyoming.