As a coach I enjoy the four-minute work period followed by four minute rest period structure of the “on-sight” format competitions used in the ABS; it’s demanding, it favors climbers who are well trained, and the line of demarcation between the climbers who are prepared for this format and those who aren’t is well defined. I also like it because it provides a good program design exercise, how often do we get the chance to create training programs for such a specific, well-structured task in climbing?
Understanding the Structure of the Event
In order to perform well in this kind of event the athlete needs to be able to do a high volume of high intensity work, and be able to recover quickly between efforts. Obviously interval training is the primary way to develop these characteristics, but what interval structure to use? Essential to that question is an understanding of the work / rest structure of the competition, as I see it there are two “layers” to consider, there is the four minutes on, four minutes off, pattern already mentioned, but there is also the work / rest structure the athlete creates within the four minute on period. Within the work period how long does each attempt take and how long does the athlete choose to rest between efforts? Are there observable patterns or is the work and rest pattern random? I’m interested in these questions because even though there are two layers to the temporal structure of the event it’s the structure within the four-minute work period that I think is most important and that I want to use as the basis for developing interval training.
Last season, with the help of a friend, I recorded the work and rest periods for a few climbers at an on-sight format competition. Honestly, our recordings weren’t great and we need to do more of these observations this season, but I would say what we saw was suggestive. While it’s true that the style and length of each problem as well as the skill level of the climber lead to different temporal structures there are three basic observations that I want to mention.
1- Climbers used a good bit of their first minute simply reviewing the problem, and it’s likely that more experienced climbers take more review time than less experienced climbers, using up to a full minute to read the problem. I know one coach who encourages his climbers to use their first minute to read and understand the problem, which is good advise, it also defines the work period, limiting the time of actual climbing to three minutes.
2- Successful attempts, or attempts in which the climber got high on the problem but did not complete the problem, could last up to 1:30.
3- we saw a number of attempts lasting up to 45 seconds, and rests tended to be less than a minute, often in the 30 to 40 second range.
4- as mentioned above the type and difficulty of the problem matters a lot, long technical slabs can eat up most of a climber’s on the first try. While difficult steep climbs will have much shorter performance times but take a lot out of the climber.
Add to these three observations the fact that the intensity of work does not change in each four-minute period, and we are starting to get a picture of what climbers need to be prepared to face.
For short, intense work periods the body has three ways of providing ATP to muscle cells:
1- ATP stored in the muscles: there is a small amount of ATP stored in the muscles enough to sustain work for a few seconds.
2- ATP-PCr or Creatine Phosphate: This is a phosphate molecule in the muscle that is used to regenerate ATP. Authorities differ in their estimates of how long ATP-PCr can produce energy; I’ve seen numbers ranging from seven seconds to thirty seconds.2
3- Glycolytic System: This provides energy to the muscles by breaking down glucose and it can provide energy to the muscles for about 2 – 3 minutes.
Since the efforts in bouldering competitions tend to be short, and have high intensity energy production is predominantly from the Creatine Phosphate system, and the Glycolytic system. Research suggests that in performances of sixty seconds or less greater than 70% of energy production comes from these systems.1
The timings I attempted to do last year were at the end of the competition season; thus the interval structures I used up to that point were influenced by other factors, primarily timing climbers during their daily workouts during which times in the 30 – 45 second range to complete a problem were common, unless the climber was attempting a flash in which case time times were significantly longer. In other words last season my intervals were based on common performance times for bouldering, not on an assessment of competition performance and rest times. This distinction matters because in interval training we want to target the workouts to effectively train the proper energy production systems, and to be specific to the performance we are training for. We also want to apply the principle of progressive overload in which some aspect of the training is more demanding than that of the performance we are training for. We achieve this kind of specificity in interval training by manipulating four variables: the intensity of work, the duration of the work period, the duration of the rest period and the number of repetitions. Last season I used two different interval formats.
The first format could be called a 12 X 1, meaning 12 sets consisting of just 1 boulder problem in each set. The problems should all be about the same difficulty, and the rest period lasts 1 minute. Performance times are often about 35 seconds. While the goal was to maintain the same difficulty across each set, the problems varied as much as possible in style such as hold type and wall angle. The difficulty of the problems tended to be right around the climber’s flash level. In these sets the work to rest ratio tended to be about 1:2 meaning work periods lasted about half as long as the rest periods.
The second format could be called a 6 X 2 meaning 6 sets of 2 boulder problems. As in the first format there is an emphasis on having consistent intensity in the work period. To this end the climber may repeat the same boulder problem twice in a set rather than doing two different problems. In this case the difficulty is at or below the climber’s current flash level. Set durations in this format were from 1:14 – 1:44 and rests lasted 1 minute, so in this case the work to rest ratio was greater than 1:1, in that work periods were longer than the rest periods.
Using these two interval formats worked well, the intensities were very close to that found in the competitions and the overall durations of these workouts was longer than the performance periods, meaning the overall stress of the workout was greater than that of the competitions. So I recommend these structures, but based on what was suggested by my observations of competitor timings last season, I want to make some changes for this season.
The first is to try the 6 X 2 or 12 X 1 with rests of only 30 seconds rather than a minute, to bring the interval rest time closer to that found in the competitions. With shortening the rest, I may also end up reducing the number of sets per workout and having the climber do multiple workouts in a single session. The second change is to add another type of interval structure. I want to add intervals that do a better job of isolating the ATP-PCr system. To this end I will be experimenting with two slightly different structures.
One structure will have 8 – 15 sets with a work period of up to 15 seconds per set. The difficulty of each set will be very high, probably 3 grades harder than the climber’s flash grade. Rest between sets will be up to 2 minutes. 3
The other structure will be to have 5 sets with durations of under 10 seconds, rest between sets will be 45 seconds to 1 minute and the difficulty will be at the limit of the climber’s ability. In this format the initial 5 sets will be followed by a ten-minute rest, and then another 5 sets will be performed.4 In both of these formats the climber will not actually complete any problems, the short set durations only allow for 2- 6 moves, so these formats will utilize the cruxes of boulder problems only.
Is there much of a different between doing sets under 10 seconds, and sets of up to 15 seconds? I don’t know but I look forward to finding out.
So there you have it, four interval ideas that can be used for competition prep. What I am curious about is how other coaches and athletes assess the demands of the ABS on-sight format, and what interval structures they have found to be successful? Please comment!
1. Scott K, Powers and Edward T. Howley, Exercise Physiology, 6th ed. McGraw Hill, 2006. p.415
2. For example, Physiology of Sport and Exercise by Wilmore, Costill and Kenney suggest that after 14 seconds of all out sprinting ATP-PCr levels in the muscles are reduced to about 3 or 4% of their resting value (see figure 2.4 p. 52). On the other hand Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, the text used by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, suggests that ATP-PCr is “the predominate energy source . . . during maximal exertions lasting up to 30 seconds.” (p 288).
3. This format is suggested in Steve Bechtel’s Power Endurance: Fatigue Management for Rock Climbers, p. 16 2012 self-published.
4. This is a variation on the Alactacid Endurance Training method proposed for soccer players in Strength Training for Sport (p. 85) edited by William Kraemer, and Keijo Hakkinen 2002, Blackwell Science and the IOC Medical Commission Sub-Commission on Publications in Sports Science.