Can we play to the strengths of our ages? Should we work more on power when we are young and endurance when old? How does our susceptibility to injury change over time and to what extent should we allow it to affect our climbing and training?
Age and Performance: The Stats
Men reach maximum strength potential during their mid 20s and women by the age of 30. From then, explosive strength declines at three percent per annum during our 30s and at one percent per annum after that. Power endurance displays a similar decline, although aerobic endurance declines notably later and at a slower rate. Peak V02 max is still attainable by men at 30 to 35 years old and women at 35 to 40. Joint stiffness increases with age, but muscle fiber density and capillarity hardly change. You will need increased recovery with age, both within and between training sessions.
Remember, these trends depict maximum capability. It is still possible to gain strength and endurance during the later years; you just can’t reach your potential lifetime peak. The effects of age-related performance decline are also greater for elites than for lower-level performers. That is to say, if you climbed 5.15a when you were 15, then it will be harder to improve in your 50s. Remember also that we are talking purely about the physical aspects of performance—strength and endurance—and the picture is much brighter when we consider the role of technique.
Juniors: Ages 7 – 12
Youngsters are much better at mastering complex movement sequences than adults, but they are also extremely vulnerable to the stresses of intensive training. Therefore the advice to those who commence climbing at a young age is clear: Focus on technique and avoid all forms of strength training. Campusing, hang boards, or dynamic, foot-less bouldering can cause long-term damage to the growth plates. Instead emphasize variety of movement, skills acquisition and light endurance training for the older juniors in this category. Furthermore, any climber (young or old) who gets strong too quickly may find it much harder to develop technique later in life.
Juniors: 13 – 17
This is a prime age bracket for huge improvements. However, standards today are so high that juniors may be tempted to use the same training methods as adults. Since a youth’s body is still not fully developed, it is vital to build training intensity gradually and only after an endurance base has been developed. For the first year of training, a youth should only perform campus and hang-board exercises using footholds and in slow control. Do short sessions once a week and build up gradually to two or three sessions. Focus predominantly on bouldering for strength development, with supportive exercises kept to a minimum. However, never do hard bouldering or hangboard sessions during growth spurts (keep records of height). The injury risk from overtraining is high for this age category so allow plenty of recovery. Never train more than two days consecutively and always reduce the intensity of training on the second day. It is also vital to train antagonist muscles to prevent muscular imbalances from developing (e.g.: 3 sets of 20 push-ups and reverse wrist-curls, 3 times a week).
Adults: 18 – 25
This is the peak age range for focusing on strength and power, but only for those who have built a fitness base through years of climbing. No novice should launch straight into intensive power training. For those who are ready, campus boards, hangboards, system boards and steep powerful bouldering will produce gains. Note that injuries in this age bracket are extremely common and it is vital to observe strict safety protocol (in terms of warming up, resting, training structure, etc.). Huge power-endurance gains are possible, too, so clearly this is the age where boulderers and sport climbers are advised to really go for it. However, maintain a sharp awareness for technique and tactics rather than simply trying to pull harder.
Adults: 25 – 40
Research says it is progressively harder to gain strength throughout this age range, but anecdotal experiences tell differently. While the need for extra recovery is greater, if you train smart, you can still continue to get very strong. Remember, climbing strength has more to do with the nervous system than pure muscular hypertrophy. Even if our muscle fibers aren’t growing thicker, by bouldering and campus training you can still program them to operate more efficiently. Additionally, climbers can make phenomenal improvements in endurance into their 40s and beyond. Once again this has more to do with technique than pure aerobic or anaerobic output. Long endurance pitches are all about relaxation, breathing, fluid movement and utilizing rests.
Adults: 40 – 60
Reality contradicts research when it comes to improving as a veteran. A climber in his 40s or 50s should be undeterred. If you are psyched to send a boulder project, go for it. However, the need for smart training is paramount—one mistake and you could be out of the game for a while. Many in this age category find that their susceptibility to injury is higher if they train strength, hence they migrate to longer routes and endurance training. At this age and beyond, concentrate on getting every last drop of potential out of your technique and tactical game. Be aware of the routes or problems that are likely to cause injury—let the young pretenders hurl body-length dynos. A final note is that weight control becomes increasingly challenging—eat carefully and keep up the cardio sessions.
There are inspiring examples of climbers 60 and up sending 5.14s and V12s, but the overall trend points toward easing back on intensive training to avoid injury. A satisfying level of endurance can be maintained, but the risks of training power outweigh the benefits. Routes should be your main focus and bouldering sessions should be mileage-based. If you are going to push yourself, select routes that are less steep and require skill and footwork rather than brute strength. Be meticulous about nutrition, sleep and warming up, and avoid climbing hard on two consecutive days.
Climbing is not a sport like running or cycling when it comes to age-related performance and there is every reason to aim high and push hard, almost regardless of your age. Perhaps the best thing to remember is that improvement is not always about training. If you get out on rock frequently, improvements will virtually take care of themselves.