Running to Improve Climbing Performance

The only thing more splendid than climbing is knowing climbing made you better at more than just climbing. – Free Range Danger

Using some Sense

There is a debate among top trainers and coaches in the climbing industry whether running is a necessary aspect of climbing training.  Some argue that running depletes an athlete thus diminishing their climbing performance.  Others claim that running fitness harms your body’s ability to adapt to the anaerobic demands of climbing.  A few will mention that running improves your psychological ability to handle the stress of climbing.

Really – There are a lot of articles on it  and they all say the same thing – absolutely nothing relevant to you and your fitness.

DPM – Can Running Make You a Better Climber?

Rock and Ice: Rock Climbing Training: Does Running or Biking Improve Your Climbing?

Crux Crush – Climbing and Running

And really, you should do whatever you want. But before you write off running as an aspect of training for climbing, consider this anecdote.

The Golden Age

Think back to when you were a kid.  When you ran because it felt amazing to run fast.  You were your own roller coaster, dragon, or plane.  It did not matter if you were tired or out of breath because all that mattered was feeling the air rip across your body.  And you were positive that if you found a steep enough hill – you would finally be able to fly.

I have no other way of describing the above scenario except with a single word – Joy.

That feeling is something Nike and motivational running videos have been trying to capture for well over three decades.


The Fall

Now, fast forward to now – when you run, if you run, and how it makes you feel.  Most of us, myself included, do not feel that Joy we once had when we were kids.  I often feel fat, slow, and uncoordinated. I will venture that many of us also feel the same way… so we avoid running- the very thing that humans were evolved to do.

Which is so odd because humans, like any animal, want to use as little energy as possible to stay alive.  This very tendency puts us in a pickle – we evolved into runners for survival because it was efficient but now, running is no longer necessary to live. We could never run again and it would not impact our ability to eat or have offspring.

This is the crucible of environment and our ability to find the joy in running has been undermined by our hardwired desire to remain comfortable, rested, and soft.  However, we can agree that the comforts of the couch cannot equate to the joy we feel when we run.

In the Vertical World

In the context of climbing, running has a relevance that is so subversive, climbing coaches and trainers have questioned if it is even necessary.  Which is odd when we examine the elements that running and climbing share.

  • Both involve your entire body – from your nervous system to your epidermis.
  • Pain
  • Likelihood of debilitating injury to either bone or soft tissue
  • Mentality

Today, many coaches will claim that climbing is the best way to get good at climbing.  To an extent I agree, if you are a V0 to V3 climber.  The introductory grades allow one to become familiar with the demands of climbing.  You learn about heel hooks, lock offs, opening and closing your hips to the wall, foot placement, etc.  These elements cannot be learned through cross training and therefore the only opportunity you will have to practice them is through climbing.

The next set of grades V4 to V7 can, on occasion, also be mastered through only climbing but without the benefit of cross training, you will quickly plateau or get injured.  At this point, you can add a core workout, like the one below and make consistent sends in the intermediate grades:

For some of us, this level of climbing is accessible without too much more than climbing a few days a week.  For others, improving your overall fitness is critical to reaching the upper end of the intermediate grades.  That is where running comes into the picture.

No other exercise can be modified as much as running in order to fit into a climbing fitness regime.  But you need to be your own guinea pig to find what works for you.

As climbing and running use your entire body, it is critical that you allow for enough rest between training segments in order to fully recover.  It should go without saying that you should not show up on project climbing day if you ran 5 miles the day before.  A long trail run is just as physically and emotionally demanding as red pointing a boulder project.

As you work your way through the intermediate grades, you will learn more about climbing and you will get stronger from climbing.  Fortunately, you will find that you do not have to work as hard to climb the easier grades because your technique will allow you to use less effort.

Yet, if you wish to continue to see improvements in your climbing and if you want to remain injury free, you must boost your overall fitness.

From personal experience I found that a core workout twice a week and running a grand total of 6 to 8 miles a week (on a trail) propelled my climbing up two V grades.  I also managed to stay injury free during that growth spurt.

Running as a Diagnostic Tool for Climbing

Running and climbing can cause serious injuries if your form is off.  Bad running form will likely cause injuries pretty quickly and the cause of these injuries is very obvious.  Bad climbing form on the other hand can take up to several months or years before a breaking event.  With this in mind, you can use running to determine where your body is static, unbalanced, or weak from exclusively climbing.

Neck, shoulder, arm, or foot pain during  a run can all indicate mobility and muscularity imbalances caused by climbing.  The key to using running as a diagnostic tool is to ensure that you use the best running form you can muster, and maintain it until fatigue causes your body to get sloppy.  For most non-running climbers, this is 3 to 5 miles at a 12 to 13 minute per mile pace.

Neck, shoulder and arm pain will typically indicate mobility issues and muscular imbalances of the upper body and arm.  Hip pain can indicate tight hamstrings or a weak lower back while foot pain is more closely aligned to lower leg weakness and inflexibility.

When you determine what hurts, be aggressive in tackling the issue.  This is particularly important if you are an intermediate climber, since prolonged injury recovery can have devastating consequences to your climbing.  (Take it from me.)

My own body was so badly unbalanced from climbing that I could not run more then three miles without serious neck and arm pain.  I immediately started doing push ups, wide grip pull ups, and dips – Now my shoulders feel more stable and I can run without pain, well, until my lungs start burning.

Mentality in the Vertical World

There are a few individuals who will be able to climb hard without cross training.  These folks are the exception and should by no means be considered the standard to which you hold yourself and your progress in climbing.  You may find that you need to improve your baseline fitness just to climb V2 and if that is the case, that is OK!  I recall having to hike around with 45 extra pounds every weekend for a month because my baseline fitness was so poor that the approach to the boulder field made me absolutely knackered.  A solid 20 minutes of mouth breathing is enough to sink my psych ship.

You will find in climbing that you may have to work harder than others, just to climb the ‘easy’ stuff.  More often than not, you will find that you are not as talented as your mother led you to believe.  When this becomes evident, you have to rely on the one thing which will always give you an advantage over those that crush – your mind.

Or more specifically, your perseverance which is key if you want to climb.

This is where running becomes so important in training for climbing. Running is a perfect means of traversing  to that sweaty, uncomfortable, and breathless happy place.  This happy place is the very same place that your mind goes to when you send a climb at your limit.  It’s what Lynn Hill so eloquently described as ‘the moving meditation’.  In this place, you can forget your pain, your discomfort, and focus solely on the task at hand.

If you find that you do not have the mental tenacity to run a single mile, you will likely find yourself in a life without climbing.  So – run!  Practice making  your attention shift from pain and discomfort to your task.

Try your best to not be that  individual who refuses themselves the Joy they could have simply because they fell out of the practice of shifting their attention.


Until next time – Happy Sending


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