rocks in peak district

Aerobic Training for climbing

Aerobic endurance training

Aerobic endurance is not something climbers deem to be important. Unless you spend all your time climbing massively long routes the reasons for training endurance will not seem obvious.

When climbing a average sport route you will be working all three energy systems. The PC system will be used for the crux, anaerobic system for the a section of linked harder moves and the aerobic system will be used to help recover from the harder sections and prepare your body for tricky moves later on. The aerobic system will remove all the waste products created by the anaerobic system.

Not only will be aerobic system allow your body to prepare for further hard climbing but it can also help produce energy during those hard sections. If your aerobic fitness is poor the anaerobic system will have to work harder and therefore you will burn out quickly due to a build up of waste products. A more detailed explaination of how the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are linked can be found here.

Research into how aerobic training helps anaerobic (power endurance)

There has been a huge amount of research from other sports that have shown that aerobic training will reduce the amount of lactate production and improve the speed at which it can be removed. (MacRae et al, 1992), improve anaerobic performance (Gaiga and Docherty, 1995) and it has even been established that aerobic training will improve recovery from strength exercises (Tomlin and Wenger, 2001). Although there is a lack of research relating to rock climbing a study in 2003 by Sheel et al showed that as the difficulty of climb increased the bodies demand on the aerobic system increased. Another study by Ballat et al (1995) showed that the amount of oxygen used is low compared to how much is used in running, but this is more than likely due to the fact the major muscles in the forearm are much smaller that the leg muscles an nothing to do with the aerobic demands of rock climbing.

An aerobically fit climber will produce less waste products and be able to recover en-route. This statement is backed up by a research project in 2004 that showed that climbers use both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems and recommends that climbers should train to achieve a high level of aerobic fitness (Watts, 2004). Watts also explains that climbers don't need an elite level of aerobic fitness, this means that aerobic training should make up a small component of our training program. There is more information about planning a training program on my blog

Training intensity

In other sports such as running it can be very easy to set the correct training intensity, as a general rule train must be above 70% of your aerobic maximum. A simple way to do this would be to work out your maximal heart rate (220 minus your age) and train at 70% of that. This means we should be training with a heart rate of around 140 beats per minute. Adjustments must be made when taking part in other exercises that involve upper body exercise (Franklin, 1989 and McArdle et al, 1978). When aerobic training using the upper body the maximum heart rate should be 207 minus your age (Vander et al, 1984). This means a 30 year old climber will have a maximum hear rate of 177 beats per minute. 70% of this can be calculated by 0.70x177 = 123 bpm.

If you are unable to use a heart rate monitor a moe simple method for setting your training intensity can be used. Training at the point where we start to get a small build of lactic acid (lactic threshold level) is also an effective aerobic training intensity. One of the advances of this is that it uses the physiological system that is being overloaded (in our case the arms) to set the correct training level (Minotti et al, 1990).

Will running help develop aerobic fitness

Although running will help with weight loss, which has been shown to be a powerful predictor of climbing performance (Watts et al, 1993), it will not help you develop aerobically fit arms. There is a training principle called 'specificity of V02max (V02max is the maximum amount of oxygen that can be used by the body). This principle explains that any training effect will only benefit the muscles that are being trained. (Megal et al, 1975). Although there will be increases in stoke volume (the amount of blood the heart can pump) and the ability to transfer oxygen in the lungs, these are not the limiting factors in V02max (Raybrouck et al, 1975) and will therefore not help us in rock climbing. If we want to become aerobically fit for climbing, we must take part in rock climbing.

Aerobic drills

Down Climbing

This is as simple as it sounds, lead a sport route and then down climb the route instead of lowering off.


Again a simple exercise, try bouldering continuously for around 15 to 20 min. at a time. Take a 10 minute break between each set. Aim for a minimum of 3 sets and increase this to 5 or 6 as your fitness improves.

Interval or Fartlek training

This is based on some research in 2007 by Helgerud et al. They showed that training for 4 minutes at a high intensity followed by a 3 minute active rest increased aerobic fitness more than just low level continuous training. To transfer this to climbing we should climb for 4 minutes at our onsight level or just below and then follow this with three minutes of light climbing. You should aim to have reduced the pumped feeling by the end of the three minutes. Getting the levels right for this could take some practice! After the 3 minutes of low level climbing you should then take part in the same cycle. The high intensity/low intensity cycle should be done four times which will total 28mins of climbing. This is one set. You should aim to complete at least two sets.

Capacity training
Rock climbing training

Climb a route at your onsight limit, lower off then repeat the route. Climb the route 4 times in total. Aim for 3 routes climbed in this style.

Cascade training
  • climb one route (25 moves) at onsight limit
  • climb the next route (50 moves) at 3 sport grades below your limit
  • Climb 100 moves at 5 sport grades below your onsight limit
  • climb 200 moves at 6 grades below your onsight limit
Extra capacity training
  • warm up with 25 moves (one sport route) at onsight limit
  • 50 moves at 4 grades below onsight limit
  • 50 moves at 4 grades below onsight limit
  • 50 moves 6 grades below onsight limit
  • Repeat this 2 more times (apart from warm up climb) with 20 min. rest between each repeat
Recovery control

Climb a circular bouldering problem with 10-20 moves. You should be able to do 2 laps. Now add a jug into the problem or a good rest point (not hands off). Now climb the route 4 to 5 times. Each time you train you should be able to reduce the size of the jug until it is not longer needed.


Billat, v et al. 1995.Energy spececificty of rock climbing and aerobic capacity in competitive sports rock climbers. J. Sports Med Phy. Fitness.35:20-4.

Franklin B. A. 1989. Aerobic exercise training programs for the upper body. Med. Sci. Sports Exercise. 21:S141.

Helgerud J, Kjetill Hkydal, Eivind W, T Karlsen, PA. LR Berg, Bjerkaas M, Simonsen T, Helgesen C, Hjorth N, Bach R, and Hoff J. 2007. Aerobic High-Intensity Intervals Improve VO2max More Than Moderate Training. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 665–671,

McGaiga C.M, Docherty D. (1995) The Effect of an Aerobic Interval Training Program on Intermittent Anaerobic Performance Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 20(4): 452-464, 10.1139/h95-036

McArdle M. D et al. 1978. Specificity of run training on VO2max and heart rate changes during running and swimming. Med. Sci. Sports. 10:16,

MacRae H.S, Dennis S.C, Bosch A.N, and T. D. NoakesEffects of training on lactate production and removal during progressive exercise in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology May 1, 1992 vol. 72 no. 5 1649-1656

Megal, J.R et al. 1975. Specificity of swim training on maximal oyygen uptake. J. Appl. Physiol. 45:75

Minotti J.R., et al 1993. Training induced skeletal muslce adaptation are independent of systemic adaptation. J. Appl. Physiol.,68:289.

Reybrouck, T. Heigenhauser, and J. A. Faulkner, 1975. Limitations to maximum oxygen uptake in arms, leg, and combined arm-leg ergometryJournal of Applied Physiologyvol. 38 no. 5 774-779

Sheel, A.W et al 2003. Physiological responces to indoor rock-climbing and thier relationship to maximal cycle ergometry. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 35: 1225-31

Tomlin D.L, Wenger H.A. (2001)The Relationship Between Aerobic Fitness and Recovery from High Intensity Intermittent Exercise. Sports Medicine Volume 31, Number 1, pp. 1-11(11)

Vender et al, 1984. Cardiorespiratory responces to arm and leg ergoemtry in women. Phys. Sportsmed., 12:101.

Watts P. B. et al 1993. Anthropometric profiles of elite of male and female competitive sports rocks climbers. J. Sports Sci. 11:113-7

Watts, P.B. (2004) Physiology of difficult rock climbing. European Journal of Applied Physiology. April 2004, Volume 91, Issue 4, pp 361-372


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