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Rest or Climb? How to Make Smart Training Decisions

How do you know when to rest when training for climbing?

There is a famous quote from Warren Buffett that says, “Cash is a position. It’s better to be out wishing you were in than in wishing you were out.” 

As a finance major and active manager of my own personal investment portfolio, this quote struck a chord with me while I was in college and helped save me a lot of headaches and money. It’s too bad that I was naïve to its application to climbing at the time, or it would have saved me even more frustration and energy. The climbing equivalent to this quote is “Energy is a position. It’s better to be healthy and resting, wishing you were climbing, than climbing and wrecked or injured, and wishing you would have rested.”

and one of the ultimate determinants (arguably the most important) in the rate of progression.

What happens if you don't rest enough when training for climbing?

coach charlie schreiber bouldering outdoors

When we train or climb too much, or when our body says 'I’m tired/hurting,' we run the risk of overreaching, overtraining, or getting injured. Our bodies have a proper level of energy and health that they must be in order to adapt to training or climbing and make improvements or gains. If we are not in a state that allows for improvement, then our time and energy spent pursuing them in nearly all ways will be wasted. Training/climbing when you are not in this proper state further fatigues the body/mind and increases the time until which you will be able to benefit from the training/climbing again. This rule applies to your entire central nervous system all the way down to the smallest soft tissue fiber in your body. When something is tired or hurting, your body is sending a clear sign to back off.

Of course, there are rare exceptions, especially in a rehabilitative setting, but I believe that the vast majority of climbers would be far better off playing it safe. Historically, many climbers have used the rare exception to convince themselves of training or climbing, even when they shouldn’t and have found themselves regretting it later. I know I have fallen victim to this false justification and thus, my objective in writing this article is to dissuade other climbers from developing or reinforcing this bad habit.

Small setbacks in your climbing? You got off easy!

The best-case scenario in training when you should have rested is a small step back in strength and energy. You did too much volume and accumulated too much fatigue, and now your body needs to recover for longer than is ideal for optimal progression. This most commonly occurs when climbers have been feeling their best, are extremely excited about their recent progress, and feel invincible. These climbers have been doing the right thing for a long enough period of time that they forgot what doing the wrong thing is like and why they shouldn’t do it. They stick around at the crag/gym and give a couple more tries, even when they know they’re tired. The more attempts they give after this point beyond peak strength and energy, the further back they will find themselves the next session, and the more time they will need before they are back to this level of preparedness.

Our muscles get stronger because we stress them during training/climbing. We create growth responses and we even create small tears in the fibers themselves. The small microscopic tear will heal and actually come back stronger/bigger, resulting in increased strength of the muscle. But this healing takes time, even for the smallest of tears. But these tears have a maximal size that they can be before they become an 'injury' and will not result in increased strength. Now, many people think of injuries as something that hurts and requires lots of time off and a full rehabilitative program. This is true for more severe injuries. However, if you have ever had a training/climbing or even a stretching session in which you know you went too hard and experience a single or multiple preceding sessions in which you felt full of energy (or didn’t), but your muscles could not produce as much force or stretch as far, it is likely that you contracted a small ‘injury’.

I remember two years ago when I had finally trained my way up to being able to hang from the Beast Maker middle edge (22mm) with one arm for five seconds with 20 pounds added. It had taken me eight weeks of dedicated training to go from bodyweight to this new PR weight. I was so excited about my progress that the next session, I tried setting another PR by attempting to hang for 10 seconds. I added three extra sets of going to failure in my quest to achieve my new goal (which I hadn’t done previously) and then did my normal climbing training afterwards, even though I felt tired in my fingers. Nothing hurt; I just felt a bit more fatigued than normal, which I expected and thought was fine. However, after two days of rest (my typical rest period after this style of session), I returned to the gym and was devastated to find that I could not even hang my bodyweight for five seconds. I continued to rest and deload my volume and intensity for two more weeks. After two weeks, I was back up to 10 pounds added, and it took me another four weeks to get back to 20 pounds for five seconds — a six-week setback from one poorly executed session! It was clear to me that I had injured my finger flexors by doing too much.

Oh, how I wish I had stayed patient and not let emotions guide my decision-making…

It’s amazing how many analogies I can draw from investing/trading to climbing. Do the research, invest your money/energy wisely, timing is everything, and know when to get out. Have a plan, have an exit strategy, and stick to it unless new highly influential information arises. Never let emotions guide your decision making; only evidence and facts. 

I highly recommend that anyone who has a history of pushing themselves too far makes a list of all of the mistakes they have made and immediately below that list, add another list of all of the right things you will do in the future. We both know that you are once again going to encounter the situations that you have fumbled in the past, so if you don’t take the time to reflect and set up guard rails around yourself, you will surely have a much harder time avoiding them again. Refer back to this list every session; I keep mine as the first page in my training journal. And never, ever make those mistakes again! You’ll be shocked at how much brighter your future can be.

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