No matter if you’re a veteran climber or are new to climbing, you’ve probably had those days when you just climb terribly and think, “Why do I suck at climbing?” It can seem like those days happen for no good reason! This article may help to explain why you have sucky climbing days, and what you can do to help avoid them.
The author of this article is Joshua Rucci, a collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach in the Southeastern Conference. You can see his full bio at the end of the article.
Why Do I Suck At Climbing Some Days?!?!?!
Some days no matter how hard we try or how badly we want it, we just seem to suck!!! Bad training sessions or a bad day at the crag happen to everyone at some point. Sometimes there is simply no explanation for a bad day, but more often than not, there are a myriad of factors that go into the dreaded sucky day.
In this article I will introduce three different types of fatigue that affect climbing performance. Then I will lay out what a typical “weekend warrior’s” training week may look like and analyze the factors contributing to fatigue and the inevitable “sucky day.” I will also provide symptoms associated with fatigue as well as ways to manage fatigue. The ability to manage fatigue will allow for more consistent training and sending!
Why Did I Just Have a “Sucky Day”
More often than not, a sucky day of climbing is due in large part to FATIGUE.
Let’s dive into fatigue a little bit. Fatigue in the athletic domain is a term that is used to describe a decrease in maximal performance as a result of stressors placed on the athlete. Much of the literature usually points to the amount of volume as the primary cause of fatigue rather than the intensity of the training.
In terms of climbing, think of volume as the total amount of climbing you have done in a day in regards to the amount of moves/pitches/problems you have completed. For example, a training day in which you try to see how many V-points you can accrue in a two hour session will most likely have a pretty high volume as opposed to a day that you try to send one single, hard boulder problem. Days in which you are trying to send 2-3 maximal boulder problems would be much higher in intensity and lower in volume.
High volume days are more likely to fatigue your muscles, metabolic system, and to a smaller extent, your central nervous system. High intensity days are more likely to stress your central nervous system primarily. Let’s begin to talk about these different fatigue mechanisms.
The three main types of fatigue include muscular fatigue, metabolic fatigue, and central nervous system fatigue.
Muscular fatigue is the result of microtrauma to the muscles sustained during training. During hard, high volume training your muscles accumulate small rips in the muscles and connective tissues that lead to muscles soreness. These small rips or tears are what lead to the sensation of tightness, inflammation, and overall soreness. The soreness is usually felt 24-48 hours after a training session and is known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). These rips in the short-term are not an issue and are part of getting stronger. However, these small rips do become an issue when you do not allow enough time for recovery.
Without proper recovery time you are essentially re-ripping the muscle leading to larger rips, which at some point will lead to a muscle strain or tear. Microtrauma is what leads to a decrease in force production as well as a decrease in range of motion.
Metabolic fatigue is a term typically used to describe the muscular burn felt after finishing a boulder problem or route and is caused by the build-up of acid in your muscles and blood. A majority of the energy supplied to the muscles during climbing happens anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen).
Anaerobic energy systems are great at rapidly delivering energy, but the by-product of these systems is lactic acid and hydrogen ions which drop the pH of the cells, leading to the muscular pain or burning sensation. Depending on the intensity of the problem or route, your muscle’s “pump clock” can be anywhere from 12 seconds to 2 minutes before failure occurs when relying solely on anaerobic energy production.
This short-term metabolic fatigue is not the only type of metabolic fatigue that we need to be concerned about however. The other types of metabolic fatigue include glycogen depletion and low blood glucose levels. These two types of fatigue attribute to the tiredness you feel towards the end of a long-day of climbing, especially a day in which you are putting in some serious mileage.
Glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate present in your muscles and liver is in great demand and unfortunately has a limited storage capacity in your muscles. Glycogen depletion is commonly referred to as “bonking” and is the sensation you feel at the end of the long day when you are completely out of gas. Associated with glycogen depletion is a drop in blood sugar. Throughout a long day of climbing your body, as a result of lower and lower glycogen levels, starts to rely more on blood glucose and as a result you become increasingly fatigued.
Central Nervous System (CNS) Fatigue
This type of fatigue originates in the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord. The main area of dysfunction lies at the neuromuscular junction however. The neuromuscular junction is the point at which the nervous system connects to the muscular system via synapses between nerve fibers and muscle fibers. This system has a threshold and working this system to its capacity via high-intensity training can lead to fatigue.
There are a many theories behind CNS fatigue that still need further research to be substantiated, but one of the main theories is the central governor model. The central governor model proposes that your brain is constantly monitoring the physical work done by your muscles and cardiovascular system and this work is regulated to ensure that catastrophic physiological failure does not occur. Essentially your brain has a safety margin to prevent you from hurting yourself and when you begin to reach the end range of that margin, your brain shuts down the neural drive to your muscles. This shut down is categorized by fatigue, tiredness, decrease in performance, and lack of motivation.
CNS fatigue typically happens as a result of continued high-intensity training without enough rest and recovery. Individuals prone to CNS fatigue are those who train hard inside and are trying to send hard outside and do not properly plan their training protocol to allow for proper recovery.
A Hypothetical Training Week of the Weekend Warrior
Saturday: You are out at the crag and just killed it! Maybe you got your hardest onsight or sent your hardest boulder to date. Maybe you sent 5 5.12’s or 5 V7’s in a day; you get the idea, you crushed and are feeling pretty good about yourself. You get home from the crag and eat like you have never seen food before and have a couple alcoholic beverages to celebrate an epic day.
Good: Eating plenty of calories to help restore glycogen levels.
Bad: Alcohol consumption decreases recovery by disrupting sleep, protein synthesis, glycogen synthesis, and cellular repair.
Sunday: You are feeling pretty sore, want to get to the gym because your psyche is high, but tell yourself you need a day to let your body and skin recover. You have errands to run, family responsibilities to attend to, and other things to do that you put by the wayside because you were too busy training last week! Needless to say, you didn’t really do anything physical or any active recovery work.
Good: Took some time to let your body recover.
Bad: Did nothing to help your body recover.
Monday: Ahhhhh yeah, time to hit the gym, hard!!! You are super motivated and know that you are getting stronger and really get after it. The training session is long, you warm-up, do some campus boarding, boulder hard, finish up with a little endurance work, etc. You forgot snacks and are dead-tired and then you look up at the clock and realize you are late getting out of the gym. You skip your cool-down and have to rush to eat a quick dinner so that you can get out and partake in some beverages with friends.
Good: You warmed up, that’s about it.
Bad: Too long of a session, no training nutritional supplementation, no cool-down, not enough post-training calories, alcohol consumption.
Tuesday: Well you wake up not feeling all that great after only 5-6 hours of sleep; a little groggy, physically tired, and dehydrated. You get through the day and start feeling a little bit better and head back to the gym still feeling motivated and psyched. Time to get strong!!! You tell yourself you are going to do the same workout you did yesterday, but send some of those unfinished problems/routes that you did not put together yesterday. High aspirations and high motivation; but upon warming up, you quickly realize that your workout plan for the day might be a bit lofty.
Realizing this you adjust and decide to just have a fun, lighter bouldering day. But then you see someone working a newly set problem and you indulge yourself and flail all over it for the duration of your session. Your fatigue begins to mount, and frustrated with the fact that you cannot pull as hard as normal, you throw your gear in your bag and head out of the gym with no cool-down once again.
Good: Nothing good of note today beside maybe the warm-up and the initial idea to take it easy.
Bad: Lack of sleep, lack of will-power to take it easy or even call the session and rest, no cool-down.
Wednesday: Yesterday’s session sucked, might want to take a day off. Realizing you have not done anything to help yourself recover the last couple of days, you decide to do some foam rolling, stretching, maybe some yoga or a light workout with weights. You make sure that you eat well, abstain from alcohol, relax, and get to bed earlier than normal. Pretty sweet little rest day if I do say so myself!
Good: Took some time off, helped your body recover, ate well and got plenty of sleep.
Bad: Nothing bad today! However this is the first actual recovery you have done all week.
Thursday: Redemption time! Tuesday’s workout was no good, but you took a rest day and actually did some recovery modalities, time to crush again. You need to regain some confidence because you are heading back outside on Saturday and fully intend to crush like you did last weekend. The session goes well, you are able to pull hard and leave with a little something in the tank. You even took a little bit of time to cool-down and made sure that you got a good dinner after the sesh. Oh and you even went to bed on time and got a good night’s sleep!
Good: Another pretty good day. You left something in the tank and did not have an epically long session. You actually cooled-down, got some good sleep, and ate well.
Bad: Overall a good day. Maybe you could have taken it a bit easier in regards to the problems/routes you were working however.
Friday: Not really sure what to do today in regards to training. You want to climb because you have a half-day of work and there is nothing else you would rather do. So you head into the gym with no plan and just decide to wing it, but try to keep it a bit lighter because you are headed outside tomorrow. You end up spending a couple of hours chatting and randomly trying easier boulder problems you have not gotten on before. You leave the gym feeling pretty good and feel like you took it pretty easy. “Tomorrow will be another killer day!!!”
Good: Not a good day, you could have spent the day resting or doing something else fun outside.
Bad: No real plan for the day, may have climbed more than you should have. Did not engage in any recovery modalities to get your body feeling the best it could for tomorrow.
Saturday: Get to the crag feeling psyched and ready to crush everything in sight. You warm-up on a couple of easier pitches and feel pretty good, now it is time to get down to business! Upon jumping on your project you realize that you do not have the juice today and no matter how hard you try, you feel fatigued and uncoordinated.
You realize that you have entered into another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You have moved into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You have just crossed over into the “THE SUCKY DAY.” You are pissed, you came to send hard, but are relegated to either flailing all over your project or getting on some easier terrain.
There were many things that went wrong this week that led to the sucky day of climbing on Saturday. The major problem revolved around not having a solid training plan for the week. Without a training plan our “weekend warrior” overexerted himself on Monday which set him back for the rest of the week.
The human body is pretty resilient and can handle a large amount of volume on a given day, but just because you can do a lot on a given day, does not mean that you should. Overexerting yourself every once in a while is fine and is in fact good for you if it is properly planned and followed up with the appropriate rest.
There is a new line of thinking in strength and conditioning when it comes to training, called the minimal effective dosage (MED), first introduced by the author Tim Ferriss. The idea is that you should strive to perform the minimal amount of work to achieve the desired results and any extra work completed is unnecessarily fatiguing the body. This should be the goal of the majority of your training sessions. Get in, do the appropriate amount of training to yield the desired results and get out even if you have energy to spare.
Another major issue was nutrition and diet. Your body needs energy to perform the work you are asking it to do and more importantly your body needs energy to aid in recovery. There was not much consideration given to diet in our weekend warrior’s approach and that led to poor recovery and low energy levels. Proper nutrition is a priority when training hard and it, like your training, needs to be planned out in advance.
Your diet should consist of well-balanced meals leading up to you training session, an easily digestible snack high in carbohydrates 15-30 minutes prior to your session, a couple of snacks with quickly digestible simple sugars during your session, and a complete meal or protein shake with a 4:1 or 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio following your training. Also, an alcoholic drink or two to celebrate a great day at the crag is perfectly ok when done in moderation. Alcohol has many deleterious effects on recovery and a number of other factors affecting performance, so consume with caution.
The third glaring issue was the lack of recovery modalities used during the week. Our weekend warrior did integrate some recovery modalities, but that was because he had worked himself into a hole by training too much and was being reactive as opposed to proactive with his recovery. Recovery comes in many forms and when properly planned and executed can greatly impact the rate at which you recover.
Our body’s ability to recover is affected by many factors including proper warm-up and cool-downs, appropriate training volume and intensity, nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress, and the integration of recovery modalities. The old adage in strength and conditioning is that your body does not get stronger when you are training, but rather when you are resting and recovering from your training.
Your body will dictate to you when rest is needed with a variety of symptoms. Listen to your body and never be afraid to deviate from your training plan if need be. Remember, you love climbing and you want to be able to climb for years to come. The gym and the rocks will be always be there, but if you don’t take care of your body it doesn’t really matter.
Symptoms of Fatigue
- Loss of motivation and psyche for training or getting out to the crag.
- Onset of depression, abnormal negativity, lack of patience, increased anxiety.
- Sudden decrease in performance, cannot complete normally repeatable workouts.
- Decrease in training capacity, cannot pull as hard as normal, halted progress.
- General feeling of tiredness, lack of energy, feeling of laziness.
- Nagging injuries, abnormal pain in muscles and joints.
- Insomnia and restlessness.
- Chronic headaches.
- Decrease in appetite.
- Decreased immunity.
How to Manage Fatigue
Managing fatigue is a full-time job and you need to be proactive, not reactive! If you have entered a state of fatigue that lasts a series of days or leads to a sucky day at the crag, you are not being proactive.
There are several ways to be proactive in fatigue management.
1. Plan your training sessions out for the week, month, or months.
Make a training plan or follow a training plan. Having a training plan will help you avoid a variety of factors that lead to fatigue including…
a. Not utilizing a proper warm-up and cool-down.
b. Training sessions that are too long and are hard to recover from.
c. Including too many hard training days in a given week or training cycle without any easier/recovery days between harder sessions.
d. Not including enough rest days or not including an unloading/easy week.
2. Adding variety to your training.
Even if you are on a bouldering/power, power-endurance, or route/endurance training plan, there should be variation present in your training to avoid staleness and fatigue. Common training mistakes that lead to injury include…
a. Constantly training on a specific type of hold for extended periods can lead to fatigue and injury.
b. Constantly training on a specific wall angle for extended periods can lead to fatigue and injury.
c. Repeating the same high-intensity workouts on similar holds and wall angles is a disaster waiting to happen.
3. Integrate recovery modalities into your training plan.
Recovery modalities are a must!!! Older athletes in any sport will tell you that the first thing they have noticed is the increased amount of time it takes for their bodies to recover from training and competition. There are many ways to help your body recover and stay healthy which include…
a. Sports massage.
b. Self-massage and self-myofascial release (foam rolling, massage sticks and balls).
c. Stretching, maintaining or improving range of motion (static stretching, dynamic stretching, yoga).
d. Epsom salt baths, contrast baths, cold tubs.
e. Compression apparel.
f. Acupuncture and acupressure.
g. Active recovery (walking, slack-line, frisbee golf, hiking, etc.)
h. Effective management of stress in your daily life.
Giving your body the fuel it needs for training as well as recovery is paramount. Remember you get stronger when you rest and recover, help your body out during that time! A proper training diet should include…
a. Eating a well balanced diet that has the proper proportions of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats).
b. Consuming a snack prior to your training session that is easily digestible and high in carbohydrates.
c. Consuming a snack during your training sessions every 30-45 minutes that is easy to digest and is high in carbohydrates, particularly simple sugars.
d. Consuming a meal or protein shake immediately after training to aid in refueling and rebuilding your muscles.
e. Check for any possible nutrient deficiencies and make the appropriate dietary adjustments.
f. Limit alcohol consumption.
g. Stay hydrated!!! If you are thirsty, it is too late.
Sleep has been argued to be the most important recovery modality. Not only is the quantity important, but the quality of sleep is also important. Deep sleep has been associated with growth and repair and REM sleep has been associated with neural functioning. Strategies to improve sleep include…
a. Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day.
b. Limit drugs that may disrupt normal sleep patterns (nicotine, marijuana, alcohol, caffeine, large meals prior to bedtime).
c. Dim lights and try to relax prior to bedtime (read, perform muscle relaxation techniques, listen to soft music, etc.)
About Joshua Rucci:
Joshua Rucci is a collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach in the Southeastern Conference. He has always
been passionate about helping athletes get better and reach their potential. Upon arriving to the southeast, Joshua quickly realized that his days of team sports were over and that he belonged in the woods mountain biking and climbing. Joshua entered the climbing game later in life at the ripe old age of 24 and for the past 9 years has been training to transform his body from a 200lb college lacrosse player to a 155lb rock climber.
Joshua’s progression has been slow and steady up to 5.13 sport and double digit boulders with limited interruption from injury or major setbacks. Amidst having to work long hours as a coach, Joshua has effectively been able to manage his time to accommodate training, getting to the crag, work, and a new addition to the family!
Joshua is passionate about strength and conditioning as well as climbing and through his blog entries he is hoping to bring the two worlds together to help climbers utilize the science and practical training that he employs with his athletes.
Joshua’s certifications include NSCA CSCS, NASM PES, SFG Level 2, FMS Level 1, and he completed his undergraduate degree at BGSU in exercise science and completed his graduate work at UGA in motor behavior.