A Template for Long-Term Rock Climbing Training Programs
Updated: Aug 19, 2022
There is a reason that the winners of the 1950’s Olympics couldn’t qualify for Olympic trials in today’s day and age –science has improved, and coaches have a better idea of the training that the human body needs to perform at its best.
As a result, climbers and mountain athletes today have embraced the concept of training as professional athletes. Gone are the days when sponsored climbers simply “climbed,” with no long-term training plan in mind.
Today’s mountain athletes have carefully crafted training plans to maximize their fitness and perform at their best during the most critical times of the year. As a result, climbers are moving faster (think Alex Honnold and Tommy Cadwell climbing El Cap in 2 hours and 10 minutes), and across more difficult routes than ever before (think Adam Ondra climbing a route rated 5.15d).
If you’re interested in refining your approach to athletic training (whether it be in running, swimming, or the climbing gym) and practicing like a professional athlete, this article can give you a little insight into how to view your training.
Outlined here are the 5 phases necessary for any long-term training program, and a brief explanation of how periodizing your training plan can significantly improve your climbing fitness in the gym or the mountains.
Periodization involves systematically dividing the year into different training cycles that focus on different fitness or conditioning goals. This approach—sometimes referred to as “macrocycling”—was first made famous by legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard in the 1960’s, and still forms the basis of most professional training regimes today.
While we’re sure that not all professional athletes take this approach to their training plans, here we present a simple template that has stood the test of time.
Here is a basic overview of how many coaches/athletes break down a 6-month training program:
Phase 1: Pre-season
No defined length of time
Strength and conditioning exercises (improve base strength)
Example: Runners are jogging medium length distances to keep their fitness up, and occasionally running sprints
Example: Climbers are maintaining their technical skills and climbing—regular sessioning is framed by general fitness and strength training
Phase 2: Endurance Building
6 to 12 weeks long
The entire focus is to build a massive base of muscular and cardiovascular endurance
Focus on long workouts, performing mostly at 70-80% (and occasionally 90%) of max intensity
Example: Marathon runners are running 100 miles a week
Example: Gym climbers might be going to the gyms and climbing 15-30 pitches at 2 to 3 grades below their maximum ability
Phase 3: Introduce Interval Training
6 to 8 weeks long
Increased intensity, while still maintaining an aerobic base
Example: Runners are spending half the week performing high-intensity interval training, and completing long runs during the other half of the week
Example: Climbers are now performing more difficult climbs in the gym closer to their maximum difficulty, and are adding in more difficult bouldering problems/ workouts like 4x4s
Phase 4: Sprinting and Hard Climbs/Bouldering
4 to 6 weeks
Maximum intensity, with significantly less focus on endurance training
Example: Runners are running sprints and performing at “race pace” several days a week, while only going on a distance run once a week
Example: Climbers are now climbing at the hardest grade they can perform with an emphasis on power over strength
Phase 5: Competitions and Climbing Projects
4 to 10 weeks depending on competitive goals
Training days rotate between endurance and strength workouts
Example: Runners try to coincide this period with their competitive season, and are switching their daily exercises between sprint and distance days while running a race near weekly
Example: Outdoor climbers are planning expeditions and attempting their goal climbs and other projects, indoor climbers are entering competitions
The length of the different training phases can be adjusted based on your performance goals. For example, mountain athletes that are interested in climbing big walls will place a greater emphasis on the endurance training that takes place during “Phase 2.” Climbers that are more interested in v12 boulder problems (the “sprinters” of the climbing world) might only perform six weeks of endurance training.
However, it’s important to note that each phase of a periodized training plan is vital for your long-term success. Many climbers that enjoy bouldering skip endurance training altogether, and while these athletes still improve over time and are capable of becoming fantastic climbers, they are more likely to plateau before athletes that took the time to incorporate endurance training.
Now all you have to do is set your goals six months to a year from now, and start training for them. Remember not to get lost in worrying about short-term progress. Professional athletes train thinking about their long-term goals and fitness. So buckle down and get to work.
If you're serious about improving your climbing, it's important to remember that you cannot out-climb your diet. Check out Eat Your Way to Better Climbing.