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Gold fever! You set your goals, you trained, and you’ve arrived at your dream crag for three weeks of climbing. Exploding off the blocks, you start well, but by the end of the first week you’re hanging on the ropes, fingers uncurling from jugs, muscles wracked with fatigue and climbing grade going steadily backward. If, like most climbers, you go too hard on road trips, your ability to be disciplined and pace yourself will ultimately be the single greatest determinant of how well you climb.
To find the crucial balance between climbing and recovery, you must be strategic in your day sequencing. While this article focuses on tactics for sport-climbing trips, much of the theory applies to bouldering and trad. It is difficult to generalize about this subject— different climbers respond differently to the various strategies. However, ultimately it boils down to a simple decision: whether you want to maximize quantity or quality or strike a balance between the two—you can’t have it both ways! The sequence of climbing days to rest days will depend on how hard you push yourself, the length of your days, the steepness of the routes, style of climbing, whether you are onsighting or redpointing, and above all else, how fit you are and what you are used to doing. It is a lot to consider.
The classic default day structure for road trips is the “two-on, one- off” formula, which often seems to strike the balance between doing enough climbing and preventing burnout. We hear mind-blowing tales of the pros onsighting 5.14a’s on their 10th day on, but the average climber who has a job and trains at the gym three times a week may not feel fit enough to climb well on two consecutive days, let alone 10. Most climbers detest the sensation of climbing badly due to fatigue on the second day and this might tempt us to stay in our comfort zone and use the also familiar day-on-day-off strategy, even if it means we spend half the trip resting. Clearly this will prove frustrating, as you didn’t go to Rodellar to read books and work on your tan! The answer is to train your body beforehand by trying to snatch training sessions on two consecutive days. Alternatively, for longer trips be patient and build up steadily—start off by going day-on-day-off, then gradually introduce a second and third consecutive day of climbing.
The trick is to cycle things so that the workload ebbs and flows. For example, try making your first day higher quality, meaning that you do fewer and harder routes than you would normally: try a smaller number of hard routes (or attempts at a hard project) interspersed with long rests. Your second day can be volume-based, with more routes in the mid-grade zone and shorter rests between them. Alternatively, do a half- day on the second day or slightly shorten both days. If you persevere, you may even find that you end up climbing better on the second day even if the first day was relatively hard. While you may feel slightly more tired, you are likely to warm up more easily and feel that you are more in tune with the climbing and moving better, which frequently compensate for any accumulated fatigue.
Another strategy is to take active recovery days instead of full rest days, and elite climbers generally seem to feel this is the way to go. Simply do something like three or four easy routes, the equivalent of your usual warm-up, and then go for a stretch, a swim or a gentle run. The theory is that this level of activity speeds up recovery by promoting circulation and flushing toxins from muscles; however, no studies prove that it works. If active recovery merely has a placebo effect and serves to keep you moving well, then it is worthwhile. One of the biggest considerations will be your skin. If the rock is sharp and your skin has taken a battering, then active rest days seem less viable.
Day sequencing for onsighting
When onsighting, you can usually climb for more days in a row than for redpointing, since the moves are generally less powerful and you only try a route once, so you chew up less skin. A key consideration, at least for the first few days of an onsighting trip, is to avoid burning out and climbing to the point of complete failure.
Ideally, your goal for the first part of the trip is to gain as much experience of the rock type as you can, so it makes sense to hold yourself back and go for mileage at the start. By the time you reach the middle of the trip, you can try harder stuff. Build a base of two routes at the grade below your current limit rather than going straight for your limit grade or the grade above.
Overall, it is usually best to focus entirely on onsighting during the trip, if that is what you wish to improve, although on long trips, a quick two- or three-day redpoint project may provide a welcome change of tempo while also helping you to top off your power by climbing harder moves.
Day sequencing for redpointing
There are various day-sequencing options for redpointing, each with pros and cons, so pick the one that best suits your requirements.
Many climbers believe that two days on a route followed by a rest day is optimum, but the down sides to this approach are the risks of skin damage and that climbers who are less fit won’t perform well on the second day. However, if a route is “skin-friendly,” the second day can be a form of training on the route, when you get it really wired and grow used to climbing it in a fatigued state.
A more popular variation is to go onsighting the day after getting on your project to maintain your fitness and make sure you get in some other worthwhile climbing during the trip. Of course, the variety is good for motivation but the down side is that you spend less time on the route, and on a short trip you may find yourself under pressure to send right at the end.
By contrast, if you go day-on, day-off on the route you will maximize your time on it, while minimizing skin wear; however, it can be frustrating to spend half your trip resting and agonizing if in the end you don’t send and go home empty-handed. On long trips you will also lose a lot of fitness if you use the day- on-day-off approach.
Overall, a good approach is to go day-on- day-off on your project on short trips of, say, four to eight days; and for longer trips, to go two-on-one-off until the point when you feel yourself getting excessively fatigued or if you need to hone in on the send towards the end. In that case, switch to one-on-one-off.
Weekly plans for sport trips
To gain maximum returns from a short sport- climbing holiday, put a game plan together for the week. This pre-planning might seem to take away some of the fun or spontaneity, but it might also enable you to break a new onsight grade or send a dream project, and that is pretty fun, too. Make your plan but keep it flexible, seeing as you never know how well you’re going to recover or how quickly you may achieve certain goals. For longer trips, sketch out a rough timeline for three or four weeks, including a few target routes, while keeping your detailed plans to no longer than a week at a time.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice 254.