How long, how much, how often — everyone has an opinion. To a climber with a strict training background, to whom more than one rest day is nearly unthinkable, three rest days could seem counter productive. In my younger, slightly obsessive days, I would stress out, en route to a comp, because my travel schedule was forcing me to take three days off, and making me weaker as a result. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve realized that the forced rest was, in fact, probably saving me from injury. I was continually overtrained, and resting was what my body desperately needed, despite what my head was telling me.
Although often overlooked, rest is quite possibly the most important aspect of any training program. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t train hard. Rather, it’s absolutely beneficial to train as hard as you possibly can, but only if it’s countered by sufficient amounts of quality recovery time. Your body is temporarily weakened after a period of rigorous training. It reacts to this weakened state by rebuilding itself in order to better execute its designated task the next time. This adaptive reaction to training is called supercompensation. The trick, then, is learning how much rest your body needs to achieve supercompensation. If you climb again before reaching that point, you won’t be able to access all the benefits of your earlier training session. If you climb again at the exact point of recovery — your pre-training strength and performance level — your strength will plateau. You must rest long enough to let your muscles rebuild beyond their previous state — hence supercompensation.
So how much rest is enough? There’s no cut-and-dried answer — the solution largely depends on the type and amount of training you’re doing. Experts typically recommend resting anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. For example, if you take a friend climbing who is new to the sport, and you do a dozen pitches that are well below your ability level, then it will probably only take a day to recover. If you climb at a new area on several routes at your limit, however, and you try to redpoint them all in a day, it might take three or more days to fully recover.
In general there are three major recovery periods that the body goes through on its road to supercompensation. The first recovery period extends from 10 seconds to 30 minutes after a workout — roughly the amount of time that you typically spend resting between routes during a cragging day. Next is the fuel recovery period, which takes place 30 minutes to 24 hours after exercise, with the majority of your refueling taking place in the first 16 hours. That average 16-hour break between consecutive climbing days will allow your body to recover to only about 80 percent of its pretraining capacity.
It’s during the third recovery period that you attain strength gains. If you’ve ever been sorer on your second rest day than on your first, you know what I’m talking about. This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS. During strenuous exercise your muscle fibers are microscopically damaged. The amount of DOMS that you experience is equal to the amount of damage your muscles have experienced. If the DOMS is only minor, it can fade within 48 hours. If you have greater soreness, however, it’s possible that it will take four or more days for your muscle fibers to repair themselves. Should that be the case, be sure to give your body enough time to properly mend itself before training again. A retired professional cyclist friend of mine sums it up well: “You should always feel one step behind.” By this, he means that you should always be eager and energetic for your next workout. If you’re dragging your feet, feeling lackluster, and finding that your performance is suffering, your body is telling you it needs more rest. In addition to heeding your body’s noticeable rest requirements, take the occasional extended rest period. Break up your climbing routine with stretches of recovery training (e.g., running, skipping rope, swimming, biking), and don’t be afraid to take a week off. Remember, it’s actually during rest periods that strength improvements are realized, not during your training sessions. If you take care of yourself while resting — eating healthy, drinking plenty of water, sleeping, and relaxing — it will take less time to recover, enabling you to train better, and climb harder.