During training fitness is always hiding behind accumulating fatigue. Rarely does the climber get to put the fitness on display; local cragging is just part of a training week, never really attacked fresh. Smart climbers incorporate rest periods, but just as fitness increases, training resumes. Climbing trips to faraway destinations provide long-term goals for most, motivating training for months. The climber can ensure preparedness by maximizing fitness while minimizing fatigue. Training also becomes more specific to address the particular goals of the trip. This process is called tapering and results in a period of peaked performance. It is truly the only time when the true effects of all the hard work can be realized.
The relative rest that is part of tapering allows the myriad of damage and depletion that training causes to reverse themselves and includes aspects that aren’t obvious: neuromuscular replenishment, hormonal responses, connective tissue regeneration and facilitation of muscle cell growth. It also aids motivationally and can reduce pre-trip stress by freeing up of time to take care of other pressing issues.
Training volume contributes the most to fatigue, not intensity. Most studies aimed at pure strength athletes show that a 30-70% reduction in volume up to four weeks prior to competition is ideal, while maintaining or increasing intensity. Intensity is reduced as late in the game as possible while still allowing ample total recovery. The length of the taper is proportional to the total body stress the training produces. Because the total muscle mass that is stressed to the limit in climbing is relatively low, tapers can be shorter than those used for endurance sports or power lifting. Two weeks to ten days out is my recommendation for most sport climbing goals, with the volume reductions becoming larger as the taper period progresses.
Specificity of training follows the reverse pattern of training volume. General rock climbing training becomes more specific to the goal as the tapering period progresses, and can start much further out. This means eliminating things and adding aspects that more closely mimic your planned endeavors. General cardiovascular exercise is reduced, general strength training is reduced and training looks more and more like the climbing goals of the trip. Specificity can be applied to everything including eating like you will on the actual trip, down to using the same shoes.
Tapering plans must be investigated through experimentation. A typical 10-day sport climbing taper for someone that climbs and trains in the gym twice a week and climbs one day each weekend outdoors might look something like this:
Thursday: Cut number of bouldering sets by a third. Cut number of sets for strength training by a third. Still work the same difficulty of moves, possibly slightly increase them. Use the same strength training loads, possibly slightly increase them. Total time in gym should be roughly one third less than normal.
Weekend climbing day: Cut normal number of routes from red point level to two letter grades down by half but still work current projects. Total time at cliff should be roughly half of normal.
Tuesday: Cut number of limit bouldering sets by half. Maintain intensity of moves or even go up a bit. Gym session time should be half of normal.
Thursday: Only do a third of your usual total number of sets, both in climbing and in strength exercises but maintain intensity or even go up a bit. Total time in gym should be roughly only a third of normal.
Saturday: First day of climbing trip.
Starting before the taper, up to 6 weeks prior to the trip, training should trend towards corresponding exactly to the demands of the climbing trip’s goals: the angles, hold types, hold sizes etc. should gradually become more closely matched to those that will be encountered on the goal routes. General conditioning gradually gets cut, supplemental strength exercises start to get cut, while actual climbing movement increases. The same shoes that will be used on the trip should be broken in, and if it’s warmer at the destination, heat acclimatization should also be done. During the last week, supplemental exercises outside of actual climbing should be minimal. The training during the last 10 days should look like a carbon copy of the climbing that will be done at the cruxes to be encountered during the trip.
It is very important during this tapering period to eat the same quantity and quality of food as normal and sleep the normal amount even though training loads are decreased. The body is using the extra available energy to make physical changes that increase fitness. This requires the same amount of fuel and recovery as normal training, if not more. Even in professional athletes, the most likely period of error is during tapers or rest weeks. The extra energy is diverted from changing the body to doing other things due to boredom, or the athlete eats and sleeps a lot less as a reaction to reduced training, shortchanging the mechanisms that are desperately trying to adapt the body to past stresses.
Everyone has to experiment to find their personal tapering formula and once it’s established and done correctly, the results feel like magic. The taper allows the body and mind to absorb all the training stresses and express them due to the relative rest. The maintenance of intensity keeps fitness intact while the reduction in volume frees up energy to eliminate fatigue and allow fitness to flourish. Increasing the specificity of training hones the finer elements of fitness, neuromuscular and mental components. All this raises the climber to a peak in performance and route crushing ensues!