Climbers are notoriously bad at taking rest days, which, for many, is a point of pride. But according to recent research, it shouldn’t be. In fact, a lot of climbers are probably stunting their own progress by overdoing it.
Unless you’re working with a coach or have a strength and conditioning degree, you probably do what most climbers do: Pinball from one training plan to the next, charting a course through the hazy waters of sports science based on a rotating handful of hunches and superstitions. Along the way, you may have even picked up a few misconceptions about rest and recovery, the one aspect of training most crucial to building muscle and ensuring long-term progress.
Let’s look at five common myths about rest—and why leaving them behind could give you a serious performance boost.
Recovery Myth #1: If I take time off, I’ll lose strength.
Let’s start by addressing rest-phobia. According to a recent literature review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, you can take a lot of downtime before your body composition is reduced to that of tapioca pudding.
The review, which examined sports from powerlifting to cycling, found that athletes were able to maintain endurance for 15 weeks with as little as two sessions per week. It also found subjects could maintain strength for up to 32 weeks with as little as one session per week—and sometimes with just one set per exercise.
Another recent study, which followed 14,690 people for almost seven years, looked at the effects of a similarly bare-minimum routine. The researchers found that just 20 minutes of strength training per week was enough for participants to not only maintain strength but to keep making gains—albeit increasingly incremental ones—year after year. The study was conducted to create training recommendations for the military—if you are more fit than the general population you may need to train more than the recommendation, while if you are less fit you may need to train less.
So you know that feeling when you take a week off from climbing and get back on the wall and decide you’ve “gotten weak,” during the time off? Yeah, that’s probably not reality. Maybe your technique has suffered from lack of practice. Or maybe you’re feeling a little nervous after taking the time off and that’s affecting your focus. But the research is pretty clear: Provided that you’re relatively young—20 to 35) and healthy, you can go a fairly long time without losing muscle.
Recovery Myth #2: To progress, I need to apply maximum effort to all my training days.
Ignore all the sports-movie montages you’ve ever watched: You don’t need to go hard six days a week to reach your full potential.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite, says Steve Bechtel, the climbing coach and writer behind ClimbStrong.com.
To illustrate, Bechtel divides climbing workouts into three different intensities: restoration (recovery), retention (general fitness and skills practice), and development (really pushing your limits).
“Most of us get into this mindset that we always have to be at this developmental loading stage—we think we just have to be crushing it all the time,” he says. But if you do that, you’re just constantly breaking down muscle.
To rebuild it, you need rest. How much? At least 24 to 72 hours after any significant training load, says Jared Vagy, doctor of physical therapy and author of Climb Injury-Free. Skimp on that a few days in a row, and your muscle never has time to rebuild.
“We assume that if we’re tired and our muscles are sore the next day then the training is working, but it’s not,” Bechtel says. Feeling consistently beat-down is a sign of unsuccessful training, he adds, even though many athletes are conditioned to believe the opposite.
Bechtel adds that many climbers try to short-cut technique development by working out. Instead, he says most should spend 75 percent of their training time doing moderate-intensity (“retention” level) skills practice like working techy boulder problems or doing technique drills. Developmental-level exercises like campus boarding, lifting, or hangboarding should only make up 25 percent of the training week.
“The main take-home for athletes is to have intentional, varied intensity throughout the week,” Bechtel says. That way you have enough time to recover between developmental-loading days without missing out on other opportunities to improve. Besides, he says, unless you develop good technique, you’ll be hard-pressed to actually tap into your strength—no matter how much you have.
Training Myth #3: The pros go hard, so I should, too.
“We often look at elite climbers, people who can handle huge workloads and who have built that up over many years, and we assume that that’s the norm,” Bechtel says. But what we don’t see is the filtering effect that went on behind the scenes while those athletes were rising to the top. For every household-name pro, Bechtel says, there are hundreds of climbers who tried to train at the same level but got burnt out or got so injured that they had to stop.
The loads you can handle may vary drastically from what the pros can take, says Vagy. That’s due to both immutable factors like age, gender, and genetics, and to factors we have control over, like sleep, nutrition, external stress levels, and whether the body has adapted to higher weekly training loads—a process which can sometimes take years.
Beginners might not be able to split their climbing into “retention-level” and “developmental-level” loading because it will all feel hard. If you’re just starting out, you need that 24-hour rest period between every climbing day, says Vagy. “So for a novice, you might climb three times per week, allowing at least 24 hours between each session,” Vagy suggests.
Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that the pros don’t actually go hard all the time.
Even Jonathan Siegrist, one of the most prolific sport climbers of our generation, says he aims for two to three rest days per week—one every three days. And if he’s working on a big project, he’s known to rest every other day.
Other pros like Alex Honnold and Paige Claassen, who just notched her fourth 5.14d by nabbing the first female ascent of the iconic Dreamcatcher, follow a similar schedule.
“Rest is something that’s always a struggle. As I expect it is for any self-coached athlete,” Honnold says. “Should I be doing more? Should I be doing less? Am I weak because I’m training too much, or training too little?!” For big, all-day objectives (like soloing Freerider) there’s really no substitute for big training days spent covering lots of vertical terrain, he says. The crux is making sure you work up to those loads properly.
And if you’re not planning to solo a 3,000-foot wall any time soon, you can probably get away with a lot less volume, says Claassen, who spends around 12 focused hours per week in the gym, not including core or stretching at home.
“I think the biggest way we can climb harder is by learning to push ourselves and really try hard, which requires 100-percent effort. I can’t give 100-percent effort if I’m tired from yesterday’s session or from the three hours I bumbled around in the gym earlier,” she says.
Training Myth #4: If I don’t finish the workout, I’ve let myself down.
“I see a lot of injuries that may be attributed to overtraining,” says Vagy, who works with a number of elite climbers. And it makes sense: The goal of training is essentially to push yourself as close to your limit as you can without reaching the point of injury.
But that’s a fine line. On the one hand, many climbers have this ingrained sense that if we don’t finish a set, we’re quitters who can’t see hard work through to the end. On the other hand, if you’re going to blow a pulley or tweak a shoulder, it’s probably going to be on that last route or rep you have planned in your sesh.
“I have this battle all the time with myself,” Vagy says. “I do recognize that performance climbers sometimes just have to get those sessions in if they want to perform, and they know that that’s a risk. But I also know you can’t push that next-level performance if you’re hurt.”
It only takes one rep to put you out of business for a whole season if not longer. With that in mind, Bechtel says, “It’s better to undertrain by one percent than to overtrain by one percent.”
Training Myth #5: Active rest is better for recovery than sedentary rest.
Hard news for the exercise addicts among us: If you’re hiking hard or going for trail runs on your “rest days,” then those aren’t rest days. Keeping the blood moving has some benefits, but pros and experts are of one mind on the debate between active rest and full rest.
“Full rest, no question,” Siegrist says. “For what I do, it is without a doubt preferable to be as fresh as possible for every workout or performance day.”
Bechtel tends to agree. While you can get decent recovery while walking or cycling, he recommends two full rest days per week, which involve nothing more intense than a relaxed walk.
“Any exercise should be 90 minutes or less. It should be at a conversational intensity, and you should be able to breathe through your nose the whole time,” Bechtel says. “You shouldn’t need a rest-day after a recovery workout.”