It’s expected on a long trip that certain performance aspects will change over time. Maximum strength will usually go down due to a lack of focused training. Coordination and speed may improve or plateau depending on the demands of the problems being climbed. Endurance on the wall is one physical factor that can be expected to improve if it’s being challenged consistently.
With a lot of long days out, fatigue will accumulate. The body may adapt to recovering from these days, resulting in better work capacity. But accessing a limit power state will be harder if the body isn’t well recovered during days out. The deeper the recovery hole, the more taxed your power system will be. Those who recover from this “beatdown” on a long trip wind up sending their projects. Those who go too hard too early stay in the hole for the rest of the trip.
There are lots of non-physical factors to consider too. Rock sense should improve during a long trip – your ability to intuit sequences while climbing, read routes from the ground, grab holds correctly, etc. Adjusting to a new climate can take up to a few weeks, which will affect skin, hydration and overall recovery. Motivation can also spike as a trip nears its end, bringing inspired energy to a tired body.
Everyone wants to send at their limit. On a trip, this is a tall order. It’s not just a question of picking a big number. Timing what you try with where you’re at in your trip can really help to achieve goals.
The goal of this article is not to lay out the physiology of each energy system and muscular adaptation – there are plenty of other places to read about those. I am mainly concerned with the intersection of those attributes with climbing performance. Climbing performance is wildly multifaceted, and we should always be careful to make assumptions about physical attributes having direct impacts on that performance. There are always extra variables to consider. However, I feel that the main elements that shift and change during a trip can be generalized as follows: maximum strength; power and coordination; overall work capacity; endurance; rock sense; and motivation.
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever go on a trip where each and every one of these things is at its all-time maximum for the duration. Each one comes and goes at its own rate. Therefore, succeeding on a long trip is not simply a question of training them all to death. It’s a question of understanding and being able to intuit the status of each adaptation. This is similar to the thrust behind the original Rock Prodigy linear periodization, later popularized in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual.
Where I break philosophically from that program is that I don’t believe it makes sense to undertake linear periodization for most climbers, on most long trips, most of the time. Part of my reasoning for that is that some attributes can be more effectively (and enjoyably) gained on a trip than by training them in the gym. Another criticism is the opportunity cost of training in a highly rigid fashion. If you’re taking a one week trip to a familiar area, and you don’t mind setting aside 4 months to train for that trip – then by all means, go with linear periodization. But you could probably be improving as a climber for those 4 months instead of robotically training one thing at a time.
The best strategy is to invest time in the trip logistics, learn how to manage your different factors as you go, train the things that are most essential given the trip style, destination and length, and set your goals well to maximize your adaptations and motivation. Never forget: strength and power and endurance are the weapons you use to fight each battle, but tactics and logistics win the war.
That said, I will largely set aside the smaller tactics for this article. This is a lowdown on how changes in your adaptation should affect your goal-setting. Those day-to-day decisions do affect your goal-setting, but aren’t the subject here.
Maximum strength is, for most athletes, the hardest attribute to make meaningful gains in. For this reason, it’s a variable that needs to be considered early when planning a trip. If your trip is longer than 5-6 weeks, or you live full-time on the road, then keeping your max strength up should be one of your priorities.
This maintenance is going to be contingent on the type of climbing you do, too. A sport climber might be able to get away with mixing in a bouldering day every other week, or a bouldering phase once a season. Boulderers, who generally have higher levels of base strength, might need to work harder to keep that strength.
Maximum strength detrains very slowly – up to 8-12 weeks, according to the NSCA. But it’s hard to pin down maximum strength in climbing, since all hard climbing involves some velocity and coordination. Technically, that kind of movement falls under power. Power can detrain much more quickly than strength.
Power, in the strength & conditioning world, is force times velocity – the expression of force in a given time scale. Because it’s multiplicative, the larger the force or velocity, the higher the power demand. Grabbing a small hold quickly, jumping through the legs during a big dyno, and doing a fast pull on a big hold in a roof are all examples of different kinds of power in climbing.
While we want to be as prepared for the power needs of our projects as we can before we go on a trip, we can also expect it to adjust somewhat during the trip. Especially on a trip to a new area, the speed of the climbing movements might be slightly different than what was trained. Power and coordination adaptations can be made in just a few weeks. That means on a long trip to a powerful climbing destination, we can expect some improvements to our power – as long as we don’t do too much total climbing.
On a long sport climbing trip, or for itinerant sport climbers, maintaining power can be difficult. Building in bouldering days or seasons can help. Occasionally picking short routes with punchy cruxes is another strategy.
When considering maintaining your power on a trip, it’s important to remember how fatigue interacts with power training. If you stack a bunch of extra climbing on to some powerful climbing, you’re telling your body to improve its ability to recover from the extra climbing. This is functionally endurance training, not power training, and it’s why sport climbers who neglect power often struggle with big dynamic movements.
Managing work capacity
Work capacity is just what it sounds like – how much effort you can tolerate. When we talk about work capacity what we probably care about is your ability to put in good attempts on your goals. If you want to climb a V10, but after the first hour of the day you’re too tired to climb harder than V5, then your work capacity is part of the issue.
Work capacity is one of the trickiest aspects to be prepared for on a trip. Often, when we go on a climbing trip, we suddenly go from climbing maybe 3 times a week in the gym for 2-3 hours to climbing 4 or 5 days a week – for 8 hour days, or even longer! That’s going from 6-9 hours a week to 30 or 40. Unfortunately, while hammering easier problems for long days is a good way to improve our ability to endure more sub-maximal climbing, it’s not a good way to get much maximal climbing done. At some point in the trip, we have to switch from developing capacity to trying to make some use of it, and/or acknowledging that we might have to end some days early.
Thankfully, the human body is capable of adapting to these demands pretty well – as long as the total load is within what we can recover from and we’re eating and sleeping enough. But make no mistake: this total load is one of the hardest things to recover from. Even just spending 8 hours outside in cold temps can put a big recovery load on an unadapted body.
If you’re going on a short trip of 1-3 weeks, it’s not a bad idea to build in some work capacity in your preparation. You likely won’t develop much capacity during the trip. This could be a bit of extra cardio in the gym on your rest days, or making sure that you have a big day outside a couple times a month. This is one place where having a cross-training sport like mountain biking or skiing can be indirectly valuable for a climber – they won’t make us a better climber, but when trip time rolls around, we might have a little bit more fitness to play with. (I don’t overtly recommend that as a strategy – I’m just saying it’s a nice side benefit if you enjoy those sports to begin with.)
One of my favorite strategies is to try to enjoy having projects that are harder to get to. The more you eschew hiking, the more it’s gonna suck when you have to do it. Making sure you have a project with a hard approach a few times a year is a good way to keep fit without thinking about it too much.
On a longer trip of 4-6 weeks, you can use some of the first few weeks to develop your capacity, as long as you’re smart about it. Spending too much of that time hammering your projects, while also trying to make the days long, is a good way to dig the hole so deep that the end of your trip is fruitless. Remember the old adage: you can go long, or you can go hard, but not both. (Maybe better put as, “beware of doing both for too long.”)
Endurance is a huge topic, so I’m lumping strength-endurance and power-endurance into one bucket. My reasoning is that endurance is incredibly specific, both to the area and to the problem. This is both a disadvantage and an advantage for climbing on a trip: it’s hard to show up with the exact endurance for a limit project – but one of the best ways to get that endurance is to climb on the project.
The angle of the climbing, the size of the holds, how long we hold on to the holds between moves, the size and speed of the moves, and many other variables all play into how long we can stay on the wall. This specificity is important for a short trip because it means that we want to show up with the right kind of endurance. The exact endurance demand of an area or climb is a valuable thing to research before a trip.
On a longer trip, we have the benefit of being able to adapt to our projects by climbing on them. This is the best and most useful way to develop endurance, because it means all of our climbing time is spent on the climbing that matters most to us.
This can sit contrary to my recommendation to focus on capacity and rock sense for the first few days of a short trip, or the first few weeks of a long trip. If your primary projects are mostly endurance-based, you’ll want to try to make at least some links on those projects in the beginning of the trip.
After a few weeks, endurance gains may start to fall off, especially if our recovery starts to wane from the total climbing volume. However, with most climbers I find that if they keep emphasizing recovery, they can keep making endurance gains even on a trip of 6-8 weeks.
An additional confounding variable for endurance is specificity and the “learning down” of goals. As we get more familiar with a given set of moves, we make a variety of gains that aren’t purely physiological. We climb faster, with less hesitation. We’re able to relax parts of the body that aren’t essential for each movement. This helps us breathe more deeply instead of holding tension. We climb more confidently as we get used to the falls, protection or landing. All of these “gains” are frequently conflated with endurance gains.
Managing rock sense
Rock sense is nebulous. A similar word for it might be climbing IQ. To me, it’s an umbrella term for all the processes that are manual when you first climb in an area (or even a specific line) but become automatic the more time you spend there. There’s a rock sense for climbing outside in general. There’s a rock sense for granite, for sandstone, and basalt. There’s a rock sense for Red Rock sandstone, and it’s different from the one for Rocklands sandstone, and that’s different from the one for Fontainebleau sandstone.
The more time you develop each one, the less you need to build it up in the future. This isn’t purely a result of better understanding the physical demands of a climbing area, and training them better next time. It’s all the little subconscious things that go into climbing fluidly outside: getting handholds and footholds correctly the first time, reading sequences from the ground without having to try them, intuiting movements on the fly while climbing, being able to make good use of convexities and concavities and changes in steepness to get more weight on the feet, etc. Being able to predict and manage your pacing on the wall, and plan your energy use accordingly, is a huge piece of rock sense in sport climbing. So is understanding when to clip.
The more you’ve visited an area, the better your rock sense will be for that area and rock type. If you’re visiting an area where you’ve invested a lot of time, you might be able to hit the ground running. This will start to erode after a few years. If you’re visiting an area for the first time in a while, expect it to feel kind of new again.
On a short trip of 1-3 weeks, getting your feet under you in a new area is incredibly essential for success. Jumping straight on your goals might work for a fairly straightforward climb, but in most cases you’ll want to put a bit of time in on some second tier climbs to make sure you have the basic rock sense down. This might just be doing 2-3 second-tier routes or problems, in the first few climbing days. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get on your projects at all during this time – just not to invest too much energy until you feel up to speed.
Same rule applies on a longer trip. On a trip of 4-6 weeks, I often build a full pyramid for the area. The main difference is that I can keep developing my top-end rock sense while I try those projects. Unlike with power, endurance and capacity, building your rock sense doesn’t fall off on a trip. If anything, it’s the one variable that keeps climbing the longer you spend in an area. Understanding the demands of the rock can even lead to getting some spectacular sends at the end of a long trip, even when power and fitness have started to wane.
An unpopular opinion I hold is that rock sense is more important than your physical preparation beyond a point. Certainly, one needs to be reasonably physically prepared for the challenge they’re looking to take on, and the more advanced that challenge is the more intense that preparation needs to be. But in the end, all the physical strength in the world doesn’t mean anything unless it’s correctly applied. So in some sense, if you can only worry about one thing during a trip or leading up to one – make it your rock sense.
Motivation is key to a successful climbing trip. Many climbers don’t struggle with it. Many other climbers think they don’t struggle with it, but a careful analysis might suggest that they actually do.
Limit climbing is emotionally challenging and physically painful. Long trips made up of these experiences can be hard. In order to make a long trip fruitful, it’s important to understand what you want to get out of it – something I’ve discussed on the blog recently.
Selecting the right goals for each phase of the trip is a good way to keep motivation high. Most climbers thrive on momentum – moving from goal to goal and feeling like they’re on a roll. Such is the power of the tiny chemicals that drive our brains. While chipping away at one project can also be a dopamine rush for a certain type of climber, it’s not for everyone. If you do take that strategy, remember to set small goals for your sessions, to avoid stagnation.
If you’re a climber who struggles with motivation, start by figuring out where your values are. Most of us are more easily motivated when we know what we want. A regular journal is a good way to keep track of your emotional state and can be reviewed later to see how you felt at different points in a trip.
Managing all the variables
The nature of your goal will affect which factors you want to maximize for. In project bouldering, the raw physical variables are going to be at the top of the pile. For redpoint sport climbing, the fitness and economy that come when you’re totally used to the project come first. In onsight or flash climbing, rock sense and intuition might be more important than raw physical power, because you can’t apply the best of that power if you don’t make good movement decisions.
Here’s a bit of a cheat sheet for the different factors. These are just generalizations. Obviously the climber, area, length of trip etc. will make a huge difference to these variables.
|May drop off
|Power (F x V)
|May drop off
|Likely to drop
|Unlikely to improve; be mindful of total volume
|May improve; pay close attention to recovery
|Unlikely to improve; be mindful of total volume
|May improve; pay close attention to recovery
|Can maintain; may improve on certain projects
|Will require deliberate effort to maintain or improve
|Should maintain; can improve
|Can improve; may plateau
Without a doubt, the most common error is doing too much at the beginning of the trip. Total volume is the hardest thing to recover from. Dig the hole too deep and you won’t get out of it. To that end, any tactic you can use to reduce your early volume is probably helpful: take more rest days, try easier problems, focus on star-chasing rather than grade-chasing, support your friends, set hard time limits for your project sessions, etc.
On shorter trips, we have the luxury of not worrying too much about when to try our projects – we just go all-in on the things that matter most to us. The decision of what to try is still an important one. But on a longer trip, simply trying the same climbs in a different order can make a huge difference. The momentum that comes with sending a few things early can determine whether we send all the projects – the difference between a trip that feels like a failure, and a trip that feels like it defines our career.
I like to start each day of a trip asking myself how I feel. I always begin the day with an off-the-wall warmup for my body and fingers. This is a good time to check in on my recovery and overall body sensation. I’m also mindful to check for obvious markers of overtraining like poor sleep, emotional disturbance, reduced sympathetic tone, elevated heart rate, etc. When I start climbing, I try to get a sense of how I feel: are my movements snappy and precise? Slow and bumbly? Do I feel light on the wall? Am I getting pumped faster than usual? Am I able to focus on the challenge at hand, or does my attention stray easily?
Similarly, when it comes to my projects, I pay careful attention to the things I think and say. If I’m outwardly nervous, I don’t always take this as a negative sign, but I do take note of it. Low motivation to try something hard can be an indicator that I’m under-recovered, and might need a break from limit climbing. I try to “follow my nose” if I get intuitively excited about climbing in a different area, or trying a different project. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that if you really want to do something spectacularly difficult, you may have to push through some unmotivated days on it in order to build the necessary fitness and familiarity.
These are complicated decisions to make on a trip, and you can only really improve at making them by doing it more. Very often, the retrospective success of a trip is not forged on the hangboard or the Moonboard in the months beforehand – it’s made, or broken, in the small decisions made every day. What project to try on what day. When to give another effort, and when to call it quits. When to take a second rest day even though the weather’s good. When to give it hell, even though your body feels tired, because you’re psyched as hell and you know deep down you can do it.
You will experience waves in your performance on a long trip – and, for that matter, in each season and throughout your whole career. You can resist it, or lean into it to maximize your satisfaction.
Takeaways for a 4-6 week trip
- Plan to hit your primary goals early, but don’t go hard on them until you’re settled in
- If your main goals are endurance-based, you may need to “force” some days early on to build the necessary fitness
- Build motivation and momentum with second-tier sends in the first 2-3 weeks
- Try to save some stoke in the later weeks. Don’t dig the hole so deep that your last few climbing days are a sufferfest of exhaustion
- Save pure fitness goals for later in the trip, when your top end might be faltering
- Have some goals on hand that aren’t purely difficulty driven. I like to save high quality mods and highballs for last, and end the trip on a high note
Takeaways for a 1-3 week trip
- You will get better at your goal routes, but your endurance will only adapt a little. Do your research and try to show up as prepared as you can.
- Try to put some second-tier routes in the bag in the first couple climbing days.
- If your trip is 7-10 days, always rest the second day. The only exception is if you know weather will prevent you from climbing on the 3rd/4th day.
- Short trips don’t leave a lot of time to adapt to new demands. After the first few climbing days, be ready to have a hard conversation with yourself about your goals. Knowing your climbing values will be helpful.
- As above, try to end on a high note. This might only be one climb on the last day. It’s still worth it to make that last climb a good one.
Information like this post, and the ideas I post on Instagram, are paid for out of pocket. I believe that everyone should have fair access to the resources they need to have a successful and fulfilling climbing journey. If you have questions, or you have an upcoming trip and you want help planning for it, I offer training consults for that.
While I do have to make a living, I don’t want economic privilege to be the only thing keeping a climber from working with me. Reach out and let’s talk.