Can Old Guys Get Stronger?

As an older climber with a long history of climbing and athletics, I find that age, lifestyle, work commitments and other responsibilities have been taking their toll on performance.

By Rock and Ice | December 4th, 2009

As an older climber with a long history of climbing and athletics, I find that age, lifestyle, work commitments and other responsibilities have been taking their toll on performance. While I still maintain a dedicated and refined training routine, progress seems to be stalling. Any advice from the coach that will help the baby-boomer crowd stay in the game?

— Richard M. Wright, Lakewood, CO

You can’t realistically expect to get stronger or fitter as a veteran if you have been climbing and training all your life. Only veterans who are new to climbing can hope for pure strength improvements. Remember, however, that climbing is not track and field. Tactics, skill and technique play a larger role in our sport than strength gains. Improvements in overall climbing performance are truly in the cards for older climbers, whether novice or experienced, if you use brain over brawn. I’m not saying don’t train; but over time, training should focus more on technique and you should incorporate more recovery into your schedule. Without seeing your program, I can’t say why you are stalling, but if you are still doing the same volume as you did when you were younger, then inadequate recovery is the most likely reason for the plateau. Less is more as a veteran, and if you rest more you will gain more.

In addition, completely avoid high-intensity exercises such as campusing or deadhanging. The extra five or 10 percent you may or may not gain by doing these high-impact exercises is not worth the six months out with injury. The older you get, the more the scales should tip towards endurance training, and I would suggest cutting powerful bouldering out altogether by the time you hit 60. Pay extra attention to nutrition and hydration and get sufficient sleep. I would also advise regular antagonist training sessions (including push-ups and reverse wrist curls) as these become exponentially important to stave off injuries.

Above all else, don’t stray from trying to climb with perfect technique. Give yourself continuous technique prompts—laser-precise foot placements, straight arms, twist in on steep terrain, regulate the breathing, and so on.

Pay close attention to your warm-up and listen to your body as if you were tuning a piano. Warm-up using a pyramid sequence of routes—not too many, nor too few, and in the perfect ascending grade order. [See Ask the Coach No. 172 for advice on warming up]. Get your rest just right between each burn, and above all else pick the right routes! The older you get the more demoralized you may become if you select routes that are all about raw power or withering endurance. Stick to climbs that require a bit of skill and subtlety and you can continue to meet the challenge long into the future. [See No. 167 for Coach Gresham’s comprehensive article on training for veterans.]

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