Muscle Fiber Types and Energy Pathways

Free climbing involves a combination of both power and endurance. Some people are better suited to one type of climbing or the other. I like all types of climbing, but I do best on routes that require more endurance than power. This may be because I have a higher percentage of slow-to-fast twitch muscle fibers. Each person is born with a certain proportion of slow and fast twitch muscle fibers. Fast twitch muscle fibers provide short bursts of power and are fueled by an energy system called, glycolysis. Slow twitch muscle fibers are fueled by another energy system called the Krebs cycle. This is much more efficient for activities of long duration, but much slower to yield energy because it requires oxygen (the Krebs cycle is used for any activity that lasts between 30 seconds and a minute). Depending on the intensity and duration of the exercise, one or both of these energy systems may be used. This is why it’s beneficial to vary the intensity and duration when planning a training program.

Training Bell Curve
Training Bell Curve

Training Cycles

I learned about the importance of periodization training cycles when I competed in Track and Field. My coach, Anna, planned my daily training program throughout the Track season so I would “peak” at the State Championships. Our weekly training program consisted of weekly “micro” cycles during which period the training intensity would vary each day. Usually we did the most intense interval training on Mondays, then short intense workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The most intense intervals were performed on the track where Anna could monitor the speed, distance and quality of our efforts. On Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends, we alternated between distance runs, fartlet and race pace workouts (*see graph above).

Throughout the season, the intensity and duration of each micro cycle gradually increased until the end of the season (Seasonal Macro cycle: Foundation, Quantity (general endurance), Quality (power specificity), Peaking.

At the beginning of the season, we focused on building a general strength foundation. By mid-season, the intensity and duration of my workouts gradually increased to maximum intensity. Towards the end of this “overload” training phase, I couldn’t tell if the intensity was normal or if I was pushing too hard. It’s a fine line between optimal training and over-training. One time during a hard workout when I was feeling sore, I crossed this line and ended tearing the ligament of my hamstring muscle.

At the end of the overload period, I began the tapering phase. For a period of about two weeks, my workouts were relatively short and not very stressful. This allowed for my body a chance to recover from the previous weeks of intense training. The week before the State Championships, I hardly did any running. I felt anxious to get out and run. This is the optimum state for peak performance.

Intervals: Intervals consist of high intensity efforts over a short duration of time or distance (normally between 20 and 90 seconds). Intervals are usually performed on a track since it’s easier to keep track of the time and distance of each interval. I found that it’s particularly important to warm-up well before an intense interval workout. Once the interval training begins, I keep pushing until the end. Since this type of training requires a lot of discipline, it’s helpful to train with others. The climbing equivalent to interval training would be bouldering or working out the moves on a hard routes and linking sections together (5-15 moves).

Fartlet: Fartlet are a fairly moderate intensity form of interval training. I usually don’t perform them on a track. Since it’s not important to keep track of the precise time or distance of each interval, I prefer running in an attractive outdoor setting. I run at a moderately fast pace for a given time interval or over a given distance, then slow down to recover for a short interval. I focus on technique, lengthening my stride and driving my arms forward. By economizing the efficiency of my technique, I can move faster with a minimal expenditure of energy. The climbing equivalent to fartlet training would be climbing moderately hard routes on-sight or repeating routes at about 70-85{feeeffcdc244d320a1e430b95a12b4545bc77e84add2b187b33926666c70148b} of maximum intensity (50-60 moves).

Race Pace: Race pace is the fastest pace I can maintain throughout the entire run. Once I’ve warmed up and have reached a “steady state,” it’s much easier to maintain the discipline required to maintain this pace. A steady state is reached when respiration, heart rate, and stroke volume are integrated so that the output equals the stress imposed. Training at a relatively high level of intensity over a period of at least 30 minutes is one of the most effective means of maintaining fitness. Some studies have shown that it’s more important to train at an intensity of 85-90{feeeffcdc244d320a1e430b95a12b4545bc77e84add2b187b33926666c70148b} two or three times per week as opposed to training below 80{feeeffcdc244d320a1e430b95a12b4545bc77e84add2b187b33926666c70148b} four to six times per week. The climbing equivalent to race pace training would be on-sight climbing at maximum intensity or linking a hard route (30-60 moves).

Long Slow distance: Long distance running provides a great foundation of endurance without stressing the body too much. I like to run on dirt or sand trails in natural outdoor settings where I can enjoy the environment and relax into a meditative state. “Primitive cultures have long recognized the value of rhythmic, repetitive movements in effecting positive mood changes.” The climbing equivalent to distance runs would be moderately difficult multi-pitch routes.


Training Boards

Training boards or “campus” boards are the simplest, most economical, and space efficient piece of training equipment of all. With a relatively small investment of time, it’s possible to build tremendous amount of power in the fingers. The most difficult part is finding the discipline to do it! The best way to remain motivated and engaged in the process of training is to have a goal to work towards and a specific sequence of exercises to follow. This gives meaning to the effort and encourages a productive training session.

The one period of time when I was motivated enough to train on a finger-board, I noticed a significant improvement in my finger strength. Before hanging on any small finger holds, I make sure to warm-up well. I usually start by alternating between hanging from different sized handholds, stretching and doing a few sets of pull-ups. I focus on doing power exercises such as one arm hangs or pull-ups with the aid of an elastic surgical tube (stand in a loop at the bottom of the elastic surgical tube or bungy cord-be careful of the eyes when using the elastic band!). My favorite exercise is to shift in a symmetrical pattern from hold-to-hold until I’m too pumped to hang on any longer. Although my own workouts are never very systematic, it’s a good idea to follow a structured workout. On natural rock climbs, it is common to favor one side of the body or wear out one shoe differently than the other. This is one good reason to structure a training sequence that will work each finger and each side of the body in a balanced way. Depending on my current physical state and intuitive sense of what my body needs, I orient my training accordingly. The following are examples of different ways to vary a finger board workout designed by Wills Young:

1) Ascending pyramid: start with a 5 second hang, then 10 seconds, 20, 30, 20, 10 5, 2. (brief rest in between sets 30 seconds?). It’s possible to vary the angle of the holds from 40, 90,120 degree sloped holds.

2) Descending pyramid: 20, 12, 7, 12, 20.

3) Top ended pyramid: Like in swimming, the intensity of the interval increases each time with short rest intervals: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 second hangs with short rest intervals.

4) 3 pull-ups with 3 seconds hang, 2 minutes rest, 2 pull-ups with 3 seconds hang.

5) 20 seconds hang with 2 minutes rest in between at decreasing intensity.

6) Hang for 5 seconds then do a pull-up.

Toward the end of the workout, I stand in an elastic tube to aid me in moving from hold to another in a symmetrical pattern for 5 minutes. I conclude the workout with an easy warm down.

Wolfgang Güllich and his buddy Norbert Sandner invented this apparatus (known as the campus board) in order to gain strength in their fingers for the extremely difficult free climbs in their climbing area in the Frankenjura region of Germany. After training on this devise, they were able to raise the standard of difficulty of free climbing worldwide. The Campus board is ideal for building power and neuro-muscular coordination.