Long before I strapped on a harness and ventured up my first climb, I ran. I ran for fitness, but also because it allowed me to be outside and explore. I abhor treadmills, and rarely run the same route twice. If I’m in a new place, my favorite way to get to know it is by running around lost…(which sometimes doesn’t turn out well, but hey, that’s half the adventure). It was these characteristics of running – fitness, nature, exploration, and adventure – that also made me fall in love with climbing. However, the more I’ve got into climbing, the less time I’ve spent running. A few months ago, after struggling with endurance on longer routes and seeing my “love handles” start to resemble “love jugs”, I realized I needed some running back in my life and signed up for a half marathon. (The threat of not being prepared to run 13.1 miles seemed the only thing that might motivate me to make running more of a priority). So I trained for running and I trained for climbing and did okay at both. But now that the race is over, it’s got me wondering – where does running fit into climbing?
For wisdom on this issue, we turned to climbing/fitness guru, Steve Bechtel of ClimbStrong.com, Pat Bagley and Neil Gresham of Rock and Ice, and climbing crusher, Sasha Digiulian, who each offer a different perspective on the role of running in climbing. The answer (at least according to these climber runners), lies in the goal:
“Adding high-intensity exercise…[like] running will only pull from an athlete’s training reserves, reserves that must be focused completely on hard climbing when hard climbing is the goal.” – Steve Bechtel
So if you’re climbing to get strong, turns out you need to climb, not run, to get strong. Sadly, going out and doing a marathon isn’t going to translate to sending your “proj”. For me, trying to meet a certain time for my half marathon while also trying send my project at Rumney, meant that I did neither. Steve confirms this: “By attempting to maximally train two diverging qualities at the same time you sacrifice your ability to do either.” He cites one study that showed that simply by adding 10 minutes of hard-paced running at the end of a strength training session resulted in a 20% loss in gains. The same concept applies to training any set of multiple qualities at the same time – it diminishes the quality of either.
Yet, even upon hearing this, I still have to question it. I’ve seen Ueli Steck’s training plan which involves MEGA running and Sasha DiGiulian’s training involves running 6-8 miles about 5 days a week to maintain stamina. Then I’m reminded that Ueli Steck is a beast – (did you see this guy running up the north side of Eiger in sub 4 hours?) And as for Sasha? Well, maybe she’s just a she-beast. What they both have in common by including running in their fitness regimen is training for stamina and endurance.
As far as cardiovascular fitness goes, Bagley and Gresham of Rock and Ice claim that running is as good as it gets, better all around than cycling or swimming. So other than being a beast, is there any time that a running/climbing balance makes sense? Let’s say it’s the middle of winter and your project is covered in snow and ice. In this scenario, your goal is most likely just to maintain some general level of fitness in climbing. It’s at this point that running is beneficial. However, as Bagley and Gresham remind us, echoing Steve Bechtel, “our energy reserves are finite. If you run flat-out for an hour on the same morning as you are intending to climb, you are poaching energy that might have fueled your climbing session. Similarly, if you run full pelt after climbing, then you are stealing from your recovery.” A perfect balance is jogging for less than 20 minutes at 30-40 percent effort. In this case, it can actually promote recovery by encouraging blood flow and flushing toxins out of the muscles. Gresham believes that running at medium intensity could actually help, if your goal is endurance climbing.
At the end of the day, unless you’re blessed with a trust fund, we’ve all got to work or go to school, and thereby training time is precious. So what’s going to give you the most bang for the buck to improve your climbing? (Hint: the answer isn’t running.) That being said, it also depends upon what level of performance you’re looking for. If you’re new to fitness, and just getting into climbing, of course anything would probably help. However, the better you get, the more specific your training has to become to see improvements, which again translates to climbing, not running, to get strong.
As Steve reminds us, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” So if your goal is to run a half marathon, you go girl and run that half marathon, but if your goal is to send 5.13, you best be training that climbing! The bottom line, Gresham explains, reiterating Steve Bechtel’s point, is that “it is impossible to train power and endurance simultaneously.” So if you’ve got a passion for running, but your goal is to get strong, run – but keep it light and brief.
Climb on! ~Cate