“Overtraining” is a phrase thrown around vaguely in the climbing world, just like “training.” It reminds me a bit of that scene in This is the End, where anything that’s bad falls under the umbrella of gluten. Can’t easily crank out a one-arm after two sessions of weighted pull-ups? Feeling overtrained. Didn’t send your proj this weekend? Probably overtrained.
Despite this vague bogeyman status, overtraining is a serious and debilitating scenario. Many climbers contend with it on occasion; some contend with it for large chunks of their career, myself included.
Overtraining is when your training is having a long-term negative impact on your performance and your health. While a good training load may have short-term negative effects, in the long term your overall ability should be improving.
Performance is a primary indicator of overtraining, but that’s unreliable in a skill-based sport like ours. If you remembered the beta wrong, or climbed a little slower than last week, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re overtrained. If you can always climb the V7s in the new set, but this week you can’t, that doesn’t mean you’re overtrained either. It might just mean the routesetters ate their Wheaties.
However, if you feel that your physical performance is consistently suffering for a few weeks, that might be a sign. Your performance in a more constrained exercise like an isometric grip test is useful, especially if you have regular testing numbers going back months. If you’re unable to hit the numbers you expect on a lift that you’re familiar with, several sessions in a row, that would be a sign to pay attention to.
The most concerning indicators of overtraining are outside of sport: emotional disturbance, inability to sleep, constant fatigue, digestive problems or low appetite, low motivation for climbing. As you can see, these are also vague. Many different health problems can cause these symptoms, and each symptom is inextricably connected to the others. Who doesn’t have emotional disturbances when they aren’t sleeping well? It’s important to recognize that life stress is intimately tied to climbing stress, and vice versa. Your climbing, training and recovery do not take place in a separate world outside of your normal life.
In the long term it’s likely that any serious climber will eventually flirt with overtraining. It’s useful to understand the concept in general, including the stages, signs, symptoms, how it affects climbers specifically, and what corrective measures should be taken.
How training works, and how overtraining derails it
The whole concept of training is to give the body stimulus, so that it can adapt. In practice, that process involves increasing the stimulus just past what the body is already adapted to. The body then responds with what’s called supercompensation. On a graph, that looks like this:
When the stimulus is appropriate, the body recovers. The compensation curve reaches a little higher each round of training, bringing the baseline up slowly. That looks like this:
When the stimulus is too high, the body cannot recover properly. The compensation curve barely reaches baseline, or may not even reach baseline. That looks like this:
A summary of overtraining and its stages
According to the NSCA, the stages of overtraining are as follows:
Acute fatigue – within days after training, the athlete is tired directly from the stimulus.
Functional overreach (FOR) – within days or weeks. Athlete is generally tired. Performance may be temporarily stalled or decreased. A quick bounce back is possible.
Non-functional overreach (NFOR) – within weeks to months. Athlete is very fatigued. Signs like resting heart rate and blood pressure become noticeable. Performance is consistently stagnant or decreasing.
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) – months to years. The under-recovery becomes chronic. Sleep and mood are disturbed. Performance consistently decreases.
On our above graphs, we can think of the stages as being how hard it is to get back to baseline. Functional overreach might just be a matter of taking a few extra rest days. Going on a weekend trip where you climb several days in a row might put you in a temporary state of FOR. Competition climbers are almost certainly going into FOR for competitions. You might casually think of FOR as “digging the hole.”
Functional overreach is a normal and justifiable thing to do in a sport like climbing, where performance seasons are unpredictable, reliant on external circumstances like weather or trips, and often drawn out by the athlete to attempt to achieve something difficult.
It becomes detrimental when the hole is dug too deep, too often, and/or not filled back in as soon as possible. This state is non-functional overreach, or NFOR. Competitors might be in this state near the end of a demanding competition season. Many climbers experience it at the end of long trips or performance seasons. I remember coming home from five weeks climbing in South Africa and feeling like I needed to sleep for a week. Climbing V3 was exhausting. It took a few weeks of rest to return to some form of normal.
Chronic overtraining syndrome is a serious and debilitating condition. Weakness, sickness or infection become commonplace. For climbers, who push themselves to the limit on a regular basis, this is a dangerous and untenable state. In some cases, whether through injury or demotivation, it could result in inability to perform sport at all. It goes without saying that OTS should be avoided at all costs.
It’s difficult to understand exactly where the transitions from FOR to NFOR and NFOR to OTS are, which makes paying attention to the signs crucial. One of the big markers for the progression of these states is the trend of athletic performance. However, we should be careful to understand that because climbing performance is wildly complicated, it’s not necessarily a reliable indicator.
Signs of overtraining
The NSCA makes a distinction between anaerobic and aerobic overtraining. Climbers aren’t necessarily so lucky as to have that distinction, since most forms of the sport involve all the energy systems in some way. Some of the general signs of overtraining in athletes that may be relevant to climbers are:
- Increased RPE (rate of perceived exertion)
- Trouble sleeping & eating
- Altered resting heart rate or HRV
- Increased muscle soreness
- Inability to relax (reduced sympathetic tone)
- High stress (increased sympathetic stress response)
- Change in mood
- Many more which are unlikely to be measurable in a non-lab environment (muscle glycogen, cortisol and testosterone levels, lactate and creatine kinase levels, etc.)
In addition to these general signs, here are some specific indicators to be on the lookout for overtraining symptoms in climbers:
- Recent new training plan or new forms of training
- Recent 5-10% or more increase in total climbing volume (time under tension or number of moves)
- Significant recent change in type of climbing – angle, discipline, or level of consequence
- Disinterest in forms of sport that would usually be motivating
- Disinterest in long-term sport goals; or, conversely, obsession with long-term goals, with no ability to focus on immediate climbing
- Unusually high number of “wobblers”
- Inability to focus on sport tasks like visualization, remembering beta during execution, logistical and planning tasks, etc
Understanding the markers
If you are a climber, and you know other climbers, you probably raised an eyebrow reading those lists. I can think of many climbers I know who tick several of those boxes. Having a new training plan, having spent more time on the steep wall on a given week, focusing on long-term goals, pitching a fit when they fall – these describe half of the people in an average climbing gym on a busy weeknight. So it’s very important to consider these markers in relation to historical average.
Getting stress out of your system by yelling briefly when you fall, for instance, is normal. But if you’ve never done that before, and you notice yourself doing it several sessions in a row, that would be an indicator of disturbed mood.
Similarly, changes in climbing type and volume are very hard to track. Overtraining is one of the main reasons that recording your climbing and training is important. Some climbers use apps like MyClimb or Kaya to log all of their climbs. (Personally I find this tedious and distracting from my climbing session – climbing is one of my few refuges from screen-staring.) However, that is not an excuse. I still take notes on my sessions at least daily. I include the rough number of climbs I did, and their angle and difficulty. I also write down any training activities, my general mood/feeling, and anything different about my sleep and nutrition. If you start noticing markers of overtraining, having logs of your activity gives you data to help support a conclusion one way or the other.
Incidentally, this is all made easier by having a training plan that advocates how many climbs to do at what difficulty in your sessions, even if just generally. There’s nothing wrong with just going to the gym and climbing whatever’s new this week – you just have less control over the variables.
Why do climbers seem to be more prone to overtraining?
Overtraining seems unusually common in the climbing population. I don’t have a citation for that – just many years hearing the complaints of friends, trolling forums like climbharder, and my own anecdotal experience.
In retrospect I spent most of my late 20s drifting around functional overreach. I’d slog from weekend trip to weekend trip, going hard at the gym many nights in between, and packing in what I called “training” on top of it all. I don’t regret all of this – some of it certainly made me the climber I am today. However, I have no doubt that many of my great performances in my 20s and early 30s were actually achieved despite training, rather than because of training. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, my training actually feeds into my climbing and success – mostly because I rest more and pay better attention.
The problem with climbing, compared to a more predictable effort like weightlifting, is that one additional effort here or there adds a lot of fatigue. Let’s say a climber is completely exhausted at the end of the day, but they decide to give one more try on their limit 5.13 project anyway. Whether they send or not, they just dug the hole a bit deeper. It’s easy to imagine that same climber then going for another “one more try” after that. We are even often rewarded for these efforts. Sometimes everything just goes right, even when you’re totally depleted. It’s late in the day, so maybe conditions are better. You hit all the holds right. You’re adrenalized by pain from the get-go in a way that focuses you. This paints a picture of the glorious last go best go, which I think many climbers are quick to cling to. But just because we can occasionally find success that way doesn’t mean that it’s a good strategy.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a weightlifter similarly deciding to bang out a whole bunch of limit deadlifts, pushing their one rep max multiple times in a row, at the end of a long day for the hell of it – and then doing that, weekend after weekend. Climbers are achievement junkies, driven by dopamine all the way to the raggedy edge. This drive is probably the main reason we dig the hole too deep.
There are many team sports where digging deep night after night or week after week are common. However, even these sports have a defined off-season, where the training load and volume are adjusted. And the athletes at the peak of those sports have training professionals in their corner, managing these adjustments and watching for signs of overtraining. I’d wager a guess that most climbers out there don’t even have a defined performance season; there’s just outdoor season, and Moonboard season.
Unpredictable climbing volume as a primary indicator of overtraining
One weekend climbing trip might contain twice as much effort as another weekend just based on how many tries we give, who our partners are, and how bad we want it. Session to session, the same is true. This makes the supercompensation curve wonky at best. For a sport like weightlifting, splitting up the days week after week is a bit more predictable, because the total volume of work is predictable. An athlete can easily gain an appreciation for what they’re able to recover from.
As another thought exercise, take an athlete who climbs mostly on their home wall. Their garage is 10 feet tall. The problems are 5-7 moves long, taking 20-40 seconds to climb. They keep rigorous track of how many problems they do in a session. Imagine that athlete now goes to replicate that session in a gym with 16 foot walls. That’s at least 60% more work (distance) on every problem, not to mention the cumulative effects if they don’t add extra rest time in between problems.
How many climbers drift into functional overreach just because the section of the gym that just got reset is the steepest section? Does your training plan take into account how steep the newest set will be, in each training week? We need other tools to understand our volume. Incidentally, this is also part of the rise of popularity of training boards. Fixing variables in the equation helps make the output constant – in this case, knowing that the wall is 40 degrees overhanging.
Other reasons climbers wind up overtrained
Being driven to send despite the costs and the unpredictability of climbing volume are two of the chief reasons I think climbers wind up overtrained. Three other reasons are performing training activities without a plan at all; adding training activities on top of climbing; and not accounting for changes in climbing load in training.
Progression of the difficulty of training activities should be baked into a training block, whether by weight, set/rep volume, or RPE. The plan can be very simple. For example: do the same 4 exercises, with the same sets and reps, for several weeks or a month, at the end of every session or every other session. Progress the weight when it feels very easy. This is a simple plan. Doing 4 different exercises after every session, based on what they saw on Instagram that week, or what their friends are doing today, is not a plan.
Training activities should be performed in a way that does not interfere with climbing performance, during climbing season. However, these activities still need to be planned for in the total volume. During off-season, when training is the priority, climbing time will need to accommodate the extra training load. You cannot suddenly start training for a marathon on top of your climbing schedule – something would need to give. It is exactly the same for climbing training. If you’re going to start doing deadlifts, weighted pull-ups and ring exercises, that effort must be accounted for in your climbing time.
To reverse this, your training plan must also account for changes in climbing load. Some climbers go to the gym and do the workouts they planned, no matter how hard their weekend of climbing was. For instance, having hangboard or deadlift numbers that the climber expects to meet each week can be toxic to progression. If the climber pushes through and meets the numbers, they may wind up overtrained. If they don’t, then they may be frustrated with their perceived drop in performance. A good way to accommodate this in a plan is with autoregulation, in the form of RPE-based loads and progressions.
The factors affecting total training volume for a climber are numerous, but here are some key things to think about:
- Amount of climbing done, based on time under tension or number of moves
- Rough steepness of climbing
- Familiarity with the environment (usual gym vs new crag, ecosystem etc)
- Familiarity with the style of climbing (steepness, type of holds and movement)
- Size of approach and athlete readiness for that approach
It’s also worth noting that because climbing is a strength-weight ratio sport, disordered eating is a pernicious problem in our community. Without going into depth, the short version is that your body needs energy to recover appropriately. Having dealt with both insufficient energy to recover and some disordered eating habits myself, I know what a struggle this can be. While for some it may come with a temporary performance boost, in the long run it’s an unsustainable approach. If you train hard, you need to eat a lot, and eat well. For many people, if you eat more you’ll train harder. This isn’t my opinion; it’s the laws of thermodynamics.
What to do now, to make potential overtraining easier to deal with
If this seems overwhelming, fear not. Overtraining is serious, but it shouldn’t be scary. It is something that all serious athletes need to be aware of and learn to deal with.
Here are three steps to take, starting now, to make potential overtraining easier to deal with in the long term:
Step #1: Log your climbing, training, and overall feeling. Do it every day. No excuses. It takes 5 minutes, and it’s the best tool you have to encourage overall progress and fight off overtraining and injury.
Step #2: Have a plan for your climbing and training in the short-to-medium-term. You don’t need to read training books and make a bunch of spreadsheets. It can be as simple as one paragraph explaining what you will do for the next few weeks. Review it every few weeks and pick the next direction.
Step #3: Stick to the plan you made in #2. Easier said than done. Use #1 to keep you on track.
What to do if you show markers of overtraining
If you find yourself concerned that you are showing symptoms of overtraining, here are three immediate steps you can take.
- Slow down. Learn to evaluate the condition of your body and mind. You will not get out of serious overtraining by ignoring it.
- Check your logs. See how many of the markers listed are present. Especially consider changes in your climbing volume over the last few weeks or months.
- Double down on the basics: reduce your climbing volume some (not to zero!) and pay close attention to your sleep and nutrition. You may also reduce the intensity and velocity of your climbing some. Regardless of the results of #2, this is a good thing to do if you’re feeling overtired.
What to do if you think you’re overtrained
If your symptoms persist, then you need to consider a more thorough strategy for getting out of overtraining. This path will be different for everyone, based on their athletic history, personality, and how deep the hole is.
Here are my suggestions if you think you are overtrained:
- Review the original steps from “make potential overtraining easier to deal with” and start doing those things NOW, if you aren’t already. Don’t fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. It’s never too late to start doing it right. If you are already following a plan, you need to revisit the volume and intensity.
- If you have a coach, bring up your situation with them immediately! Your coach is your biggest fan and supporter, and they want to help you succeed. Do not hide markers of overtraining from your coach!
- If you don’t have a coach, consider working with one. Most climbing coaches are going to be acutely familiar with overtraining in climbers. I especially recommend the services of medical professionals who specialize in climbers, like Natasha Barnes and Tyler Nelson.
- Start tracking your acute-chronic workload ratio. This is a more rigorous way of calculating your training volume. You can learn more about it here.
- Implement a “breath break” rule with climbing. Before and after any climbing or training, commit to sitting down and taking 20-30 deep breaths. Do this when you get to the gym, when you get to the base of the crag, or before you start a hangboard workout at home. Do it again when your session is over. For some people who feel overly “busy” this may seem like a waste of time, but it is absolutely a worthwhile thing to do – much more important to your long-term outlook than the climb or two that it’s replacing. (NB: this is worth doing even if you’re not overtrained!)
- Identify sources of stress in your life. Sort these stresses into three buckets: 1, things you can change. 2, things you can ignore or defer. 3, things you cannot change. Make dealing with 1 and 2 your priority, and put climbing on the back burner until these are dealt with. This doesn’t mean you need to stop climbing completely. It means you need to acknowledge that you don’t have space in your life right now for climbing to be a primary source of stress, and that’s okay. You’ll get back to it. As far as items in #3, some good ways to deal with constant stressors are mindfulness meditation, and acceptance and commitment therapy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve improved my climbing performance by just taking a few days to deal with errands and life upkeep that was piling up.
- Reduce the volume, intensity and/or velocity of your climbing sessions temporarily. Volume is most important. Just shorten the session. Get out of the gym while you still feel good. Don’t go to the slab when you’re tired. Just leave. Reducing intensity slightly can be useful, but is not a good long-term solution. Reducing velocity (dynos, etc.) and climbing on a predictable, steep angle can improve some pathologies caused by too much training volume. You might want to consult a coach or rehab professional for more specific advice on this.
- Replace one of your climbing/training days each week with a different hobby. Often the best way to remove negative stressors in your life is to replace them. Sitting at home is not going to make you feel better, and may result in winding up at the climbing gym again. If climbing is the only thing you know how to do, and it’s causing you stress, this creates a feedback loop. You could choose a tangential hobby, like photography, belaying, being a bad ass camp cook, or being a pad mule. These allow you to still be around your climbing community – just leave your shoes at home if climbing is not in the plan for the day.
- Stop climbing in the gym so much. Go climb outside. Climbing outside is hard, but the total volume tends to be much lower, the rest periods tend to be much higher, and there are a ton of non-specific benefits to spending more time outside. Climbing outside still needs to follow the basic rules of overtraining: not too much, not too hard.
- Get invested in your friends and their goals and projects. Find ways to support them. Investing in these relationships will pay major dividends in your own climbing, and distract you from training. Just ask your friends what their projects are, and tell them you want to help out!
Corrective measures: autoregulation
Our greatest tool against overtraining is one that many climbers employ already, whether they know it or not. It’s called autoregulation. Autoregulation is a process by which an athlete automatically adjusts their training to fit their fatigue level. Usually this has a discrete meaning when it comes to things like lifting weights, but we can also apply this globally to our climbing volume.
Here are some examples of what autoregulation in climbing might look like:
- An athlete has an extra try on their 5.13 at the end of Saturday on a weekend trip. They autoregulate by sticking to 5.11 the next day, or just belaying their friends, even though they originally planned to try hard again. As a result, they are able to recover during the week, and climb better on the 5.13 next weekend.
- An athlete used to climbing on a home wall goes to the gym. They should expect to get more tired, take more rest, and do fewer total problems. If they’re doing specific training sessions, they may also want to do those on a training board which is more similar to their home wall. As a result, the trip to the gym does not derail their regular training schedule.
- The newest set in the gym is on the steepest wall, making all the problems longer and more physical. The athlete compensates by resting more in between tries, trying fewer total problems, or leaving the gym earlier. They may also expect to take more rest days before the next session, or have the next session be at a reduced intensity. As a result, their training load is not spiked just because of which wall was recently stripped and re-set.
- Having training numbers that the athlete expects to meet. The athlete should manage this by using classical autoregulation to adjust their effort level. This can often be achieved using RPE (relative perceived exertion) or RIR (reps in reserve) strategies, rather than a strict numeric training schedule.
Overtraining is a reality that most serious climbers will contend with at some point. Many of its markers are confusing and overlap with many other conditions, including the stress of modern life. Fortunately, the tools for dealing with overtraining are tools that most athletes will need to develop as they age regardless. This makes it all the more important to get in touch with your body as an athlete and understand the signals it’s telling you.
This article is just a brief introduction to the topic of overtraining; it didn’t cover injury risk, prevention and rehabilitation, which are massive related concepts. And I only briefly touched on nutrition and sleep, which are the central demands of good recovery. Regardless, I hope you found it a helpful resource.
Finally, for those who are reading this, feeling overtrained, and nodding along: it took me years to understand the signals my body was sending me, even when I had people in my corner suggesting that I back off the gas pedal. We’re climbers, and we love climbing. It’s fun to push on the gas pedal. I don’t think I even knew there was a brake pedal until after my 30th birthday.
Healing is not a question of stopping, it’s just a question of finding contexts in which we can continue hunting for progression without digging the hole too deep. If this is a balance you’re struggling to find, I hope that you find the suggestions in this article useful. It did take me years to find tools that worked for me, but I’m doing a lot better these days. Focus on your recovery. Don’t try to use the physical stress of climbing as an escape from your already stressful life. Be patient with yourself, and you’ll get there too.
Information like this post, and the things I post on Instagram, are paid for by my own interest in providing resources to the climbing community. I’ve been coaching for a while now. I believe that everyone should have fair access to the resources they need to have a successful and fulfilling climbing journey. If you want to support me so I can create more resources like this, there are several ways you can work with me: you can take my assessment and get a training brief, book a one-time consult, or get on my wait list for one-on-one coaching.