How Much Should You Really Train? A Pro Coach’s Advice.
Train too hard and too much without adequate rest and recovery can quickly get you into an overtraining cycle—almost as detrimental as not training at all.
When looking to push our performance, we climbers often become obsessed with finding the regimen that will help us get the strongest, the fastest. However, in our zeal, we can overdo it: Training too hard and too much without allowing adequate rest and recovery can quickly get us into an overtraining cycle, which ultimately stunts progress.
I remember the first training plan I followed before I became a coach. A friend wrote it for me, with six days per week of workouts, based on what he did himself. At the beginning, I saw a steady upward progression. But then I started regressing in both my training and climbing, and couldn’t get my energy back even after rest days. Because of the sheer volume and because I was new to training, I became exhausted within weeks—it turns out that what worked for my buddy resulted in overtraining for me. In fact, after the program ended, I had to take a full two weeks of rest before I felt like my normal self and could start working toward my climbing goals again.
Since then, I’ve learned that there is an important balance for how much you should train, including the intensity of that training, and how much you should rest.
How Training Works
Training works through a predictable process called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS; see graphic below). During training, a stressor (aka a training stimulus) is applied to the body. This stimulus may be a novel stress (e.g., a brand-new exercise) or a more intense version of a familiar stress (e.g., adding more weight to a lift). How your body adapts to the stimulus depends on the volume and intensity of the stressor. To get the desired performance outcome, you need to find the sweet spot of volume and intensity: There needs to be some degree of overload, because too little stimulus won’t elicit an adaptation or progress. However, too much overload results in overtraining.
What Is Overtraining?
Overtraining is the body’s response when the total stress it’s exposed to is too high for too long, preventing us from adapting or recovering. This can show up directly in your climbing. For example, say you can consistently boulder V5, but recently have only had the energy to climb V3. It can also show up as an inability to progress or maintain your typical intensity of training exercises. For example, you can normally hang on a 20-mm edge for 10 seconds with 25 pounds added, but for the past three weeks you’ve only been able to hang with five pounds added even though you’ve been consistently hangboarding.
It’s important to note that total stress includes not only physical stressors like training and manual labor but also mental stress—e.g., midterms or a deadline at work. Our body does not differentiate between the sources of stress, so it’s important to adjust training when other stressors are high.
Common Symptoms of Overtraining
• Extended performance loss
• Sustained fatigue (lasting weeks to months)
• Excessive soreness
• Chronic and frequent injuries/tweaks
• Decreased coordination, brain fog, lack of focus
• Potential sleep-pattern, mood, and hormonal disturbances
To reduce your risk of overtraining, it’s important to understand the difference between functional overreaching and overtraining. Functional overreaching is another way to describe how much harder you need to train to stimulate adaptation. This means going beyond those casual, social gym sessions and holistically challenging your body. If, for example, you can bench 100 pounds without any trouble and you up the number to 110, and have to work at that, you have functionally overreached.
However, there is a difference between the expected fatigue created by functional overreaching, and overtraining. As previously noted in the How Training Works section, it’s normal to see an initial decrease in performance during a training phase—the bulk of your energy is dedicated to getting stronger, and some fatigue is normal. In functional overreaching, the decrease in performance is planned in order to reach the supercompensation phase, in which the training load is tapered and your body reaches a new level of performance.
However, in overtraining, the decrease in performance is prolonged and your fatigue is extended, lasting weeks to months. Even if you started your program out of shape or new to training, with appropriate training loads you shouldn’t feel extended fatigue, lack of recovery, or other related symptoms. Essentially, with overtraining, you dig yourself into such a deep hole that there’s no supercompensation phase; rather, the decrease in performance is sustained, with no end in sight.
Keep a Training Journal
Tracking each training session is key for planning your next session. Ensure appropriate progressive overload by understanding how much stress you’ve applied to your body, as well as how much rest and recovery you need afterward. Factors to track include:
Overall time: Time spent warming up versus time spent on higher-intensity exercises like projecting, power-endurance, etc.
Volume: Number of tries on the project, route laps, etc.
Qualitative notes on energy levels at the beginning and end of each session.
Next-day energy levels/duration of recovery (another good way to gauge recovery is via your performance during each session).
Reducing Your Risk of Overtraining
The best thing you can do is avoid overtraining in the first place. And the number-one way to do this is to keep a simple training journal (see above). This journal lets you track both the actual training and your recovery; it will help you understand the stress you’re exposing your body to as well as how you’re adapting. If you notice that your training progress has halted, the quality of your sessions has declined, and your energy levels have diminished, it could be time for an extra rest day. Catch these signs early to stay on track.
Especially if you’re new to training, going low and slow is important at the start. It’s better to work up to the appropriate volume and intensity than to go too hard and have to dial it back. A good rule of thumb is to increase the volume and/or intensity of each session by no more than 10 percent. This can look like increasing your session time from 90 to 100 minutes, adding two pounds to your 20-pound max hangs, or giving 11 burns on your bouldering project after trying it 10 times your last session. Additionally, you should never go to complete failure; rather, always end your session with some gas in the tank. If you’re unsure of how to begin training or need help structuring, invest in a coach or a program.
Lastly, note that training volume and intensity are extremely individual. Everybody has various responses to stress. So, copying what your overstoker friend does may not yield the same results: Beware the comparison trap, and instead focus on what works for your body, energy levels, and recovery.
Phase 1: Alarm Phase
This is the body’s initial response to a new training stressor and is marked by soreness, fatigue (albeit manageable), and a short-term decrease in performance. This reaction is a natural response to functional overreaching, and symptoms should subside within one to two weeks.
Phase 2: Resistance Phase
With continued exposure to the training stressor, your body becomes stronger and more capable of handling the stress—you build resistance to the training stimulus.
Phase 3: Supercompensation Phase
Through properly progressing the training stress and appropriately managing recovery, you’ll adapt to exceed your previous level of performance. With increased strength, capacity, and other physiological adaptations, you reach a new performance baseline.
Phase 4: Overtraining
When training stress and recovery are not properly managed, you begin to see a prolonged decrease in performance, as well as other symptoms.
So You’ve Overtrained—Now What?
The number-one way to recover from overtraining is rest. Overtraining is caused by a mismanaged overload of stress, and so the treatment is to decrease stress to your body. It’s easy to think of all the training you’ve already done as a “sunk cost,” and it can be challenging to apply the brakes. But in the long run, you’ll be in a better place with performance if you begin recovery as soon as possible, instead of digging the hole even deeper.
Depending on the severity of the overtraining, rest can look like anything from dialing back volume and intensity (i.e., just doing some mellower climbing), to taking a few days or a week off all climbing and training, to, in more extreme cases, taking an extended break lasting a few weeks or more. Ways to support recovery include getting plenty of sleep, staying hydrated, and eating well. And remember, stress from other parts of your life has an impact, so manage that, too.
Returning to regular training is appropriate when the experienced overtraining symptoms have completely resolved. If you think you’re severely overtrained, consult your physician or relevant medical professional.
Overtraining happens, but it doesn’t have to define your climbing journey. After my experience, I was able to better understand what works for my body. With proper management of my training and recovery, I have since been able to have my best days climbing, including a send of a V11 and a V10 in one day. Training shouldn’t mean feeling completely exhausted session after session; it should mean feeling stronger and more confident over the long-term.
Juliet Hammer (julietamanda.com) is a remote climbing coach based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She helps climbers of all levels reach their goals through technique coaching and strength training.