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Training for Rock Climbing

Before explaining what to do and how to structure your climbing sessions, it is important to understand the principles of training so you comprehend why you are making changes.

The Body's Energy Systems

The body has lots of different ways it can make the energy needed to exercise. The biochemistry behind these energy delivery systems is very complex, this page shows a simplified version. Knowing how the body works will help us understand how to adjust our climbing to get better results.

The muscles need a chemical called Adenosine Tri Phosphate (ATP). This is made from the body's ability to use energy stored in the food we eat to make ATP. When we need energy the ATP is broken down into ADP, this chemical reaction gives of some extra energy. This energy is then used by our muscles whilst we are rock climbing.
The 3 main ways that our bodies can make ATP. These are outlined below.

Aerobic System

Energy in rock climbing

This is simply the production of ATP with the use of oxygen. There are three sections to this type of energy production. The first is called glycolysis. This is the breakdown of glucose (sugar) to produce a chemical called pryruvic acid, Glucose is a high energy compound, when it is broken down into a small amount of energy (in the form of ATP is made). Another chemical is also made during this produces. This is called Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide or NADs. This chemical bonds with Hydrogen (NADH) and transports the Hydrogen which is then used to make ATP in the third stage of the aerobic system.

The second stage of the aerobic system is called the Krebs cycle. This occurs in the mitochondria of our cells and produces further ATP and NADH. The NADH is also used in the final stage of the aerobic system. Another chemical is also created called Flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) which can accept two Hydrogen molecules to become FADH2. This is also used in the final stage to produce ATP.

The final stage (cellular oxidation) has two chemical processes involved. One is called the electron transport chain and the other is called oxidative phosphorylation.

The electron transport chain starts when NADH and FADH2donate electrons from their hydrogen atoms to carriers molecules (cytocromes). These electrons are passed between the cytocromes, this chain reaction produces a large amount of energy. This energy is used to pump protons (H+) in the mitochondria from an area of low H+ concentration to an area of high H+concentration (the intermembrane space). This difference in H+ concentration between the two areas is then used to create further ATP (biochemist call this chemosmotic coupling. This creates a huge amount of ATP. The final stage of this process is when the Hydrogen molecules and the electrons are added to oxygen (O) to create water (H20). If oxygen is not present there is a build up of Hydrogen which causes a back up in the whole metabolic process. Imagine a traffic jam on a motorway. The cars are the Hydrogen molecules, if they can only leave a motorway at a limited speed due to a police man only letting a small number of cars through at a time, it does not matter how many cars enter the motorway - the speed will be limited by the policeman (in the case the policeman represents oxygen). When this happens the body will have to relay on a process called anaerobic glycolysis.

Anaerobic Glycolisis

Both the krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation rely on the presence of oxygen to create ATP. If the body cannot deliver enough oxygen to meet the demands of climbing, another way of creating ATP must be found. This is called Anaerobic Glycolysis. The first stage of the aerobic system (glycolysis) can happen without oxygen being present. This process will create a small amount of ATP, meaning that we will be able to carry on climbing even when the demands are too great for the aerobic system. The final product of glycolysis is pryruvic acid plus some hydrogen molecules. Normally these Hydrogen molecules would be taken to the mitochondria by NAD and used to create more ATP. As there is not enough oxygen for this to happen, the hydrogen has to be dealt with by another process (hydrogen is very acidic and damaging to the cells and the metabolic processes). The hydrogen is added pryruvic acid to create Lactic acid. The lactic acid is far less damaging to the cells and can be taken out of the cells and dealt with by other muscles that are not working as hard or the liver

Although most people blame lactic acid for the pumped feeling we get in our arms, we should note the lactic acid is essential. It is more likely that the production of Hydrogen is responsible for the pumped feeling, not the lactic acid. This is why many conditioning programs now focus on training the body to produce lactic acid (anaerobic training) as well as training the body to be able to remove it too(aerobic training).

Lactic acid will still lower the pH of the cells so if it does build up too much the muscle will not be able to work at there full potential. This is why anaerobic glycolysis can only be used for short bursts of exercise lasting for around 2-3 minutes.

Phospho-Creatine System

At the start of climbing we need instant energy, when bouldering we also need instant energy - a lots of it). This is where the Phospho-Creatine (PC) system comes into play. The bond between the phosphate and the creatine is a high energy bond so when it is broken a large amount. The only drawback of this system is that PC is heavy and can't be stored in large quantities. Therefore the PC system can only produce ATP for around 10 seconds.

The PC system will be used for all-out maximal activity lasting around 10 seconds (bouldering).

Energy Systems and training for rock climbing

There are three distinct energy systems, when we train we are training our bodies to be able to deliver the energy using these 3 energy systems. If we train on routes that are around 2 to 3 minutes we will mainly be using anaerobic glycolysis to produce the energy required. This explains why training power endurance (anaerobic glycolysis) will not improve our maximum strength. If we train the aerobic system, we will be able to produce more energy without having the rely on the production on lactic acid and therefore be able to climb for longer and harder without getting pumped.

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