Those who train for climbing will tire, but overtraining leads beyond fatigue and to diminishing returns. Unfortunately, in a skill-based sport like rock climbing, it’s not easy to tell if you’re overtraining or just tired. Today we look at the research to better guide our training.
Overexertion versus overtraining
First, overtraining and overwork are two similar but different conditions that are worth keeping separate. According to Jeffrey Kreher of the Department of Orthopedics at Massachusetts General Hospital, “Overreaching is a condition of excessive exercise volume or intensity that results in decreased sport-specific athletic performance.” Kreher also states that overreaching is more common than overtraining, with an incidence rate of up to 60 % for overreaching in athletes.
In comparison, overtraining is less common. “OTS (Overtraining Syndrome) is a very specific and serious condition when overtraining without adequate rest and recovery results in performance impairments lasting >2–3 months associated with a mood disorder,” Kreher said. A syndrome is a description of a collection of symptoms. This length of the decrements and the significant mood disturbance separate these two syndromes.
To strengthen, climbers must push beyond their current limits to adapt to a higher load. Functional spillover, also called short-term spillover, occurs after intense exercise. The body is stressed for a short time, after which it strengthens itself and realizes an increase in performance. This is how we move forward.
Non-functional spread occurs over weeks or months and causes long-term damage, but the body heals after adequate rest. In these cases, the time window is so long that the training result is negative due to symptoms and loss of training time.
Overtraining syndrome stretches for months and is damaging enough to potentially end athletic careers. Diagnosing OTS is difficult because there is no convenient marker separating it from overstretching. Although a person may look at several biomarkers found here, in the end the self-diagnosing athlete may be more successful monitoring their condition through the lens of parasympathetic and sympathetic mood changes.
Parasympathetic changes in your condition look like this: fatigue, depression, bradycardia and motivation. These symptoms are most common in aerobic sports. Climbing is largely an anaerobic sport. At the sport climbing level, longer routes further border on a climber’s aerobic capacity, but even sport routes present themselves as short bursts of anaerobic exercise. However, these symptoms can be traced back to a sport climber or an athlete experiencing long-term training stress.
The sympathetic changes can be more obviously attributed to boulderers as these symptoms are more commonly found in anaerobic sports. Bouldering is predominantly anaerobic. Insomnia, irritability, agitation, tachycardia, hypertension, and restlessness are symptoms associated with anaerobically induced overtraining.
Other symptoms include eating disorders, poor concentration, heavy and stiff muscles, anxiety, and waking up unrefreshed.
In an article published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, “Aerobic endurance overtraining results primarily from excessive volume overload (parasympathetic dominant), while anaerobic or resistance overtraining (sympathetic dominant) results primarily from excessive high-intensity overload.”
Sometimes rock climbing can cross the line between these forms of overtraining by overly attempting a hard movement. In these moments we put our bodies under a lot of stress. Even with a variety of movements, as is often described in climbing. Volume at high intensity provides ample opportunity for overtraining and injury.
So how do we prevent overtraining? Some of this will come from personal experience. If you’re lucky enough to have your biomarkers checked regularly it might be a good way to tell if you’re recovering or not, but as with all things climbing it’s probably unnecessary to undergo tests to determine if whether you are recovering or not overworked.
Instead, consider whether you’re getting enough food and water. Consider if you’re getting enough sleep. Determine if you feel happy between sessions. If you feel exhausted and wake up exhausted, you could be heading for overtraining. If this feeling is short-lived and you bridge periods of exhaustion with deload weeks, you can recover and make progress.
If you feel that you are regressing or that your fingers are uncomfortable or swollen, you may need to improve your recovery. Overtraining leads to slower strength gains. Although avid climbers often push for better results, slowing down and focusing on efficient burns can lead to better performance and better recovery.