Running and Climbing Part 2: Sport Specific vs. General Endurance Training

In Part 1 of this series of we determined that aerobic endurance is important to our climbing ability – especially for route climbers. Make sure to go back and read part 1 before moving on to this discussion on sport specific vs. general endurance training.

Comparing Sport – Specific and General Endurance Training

When you ask “can running help my climbing?” you are drawing on the broader question of which is more beneficial: sport specific or general endurance training? Should your endurance training be completely sport specific? Or can general endurance training help your climbing as well? Let’s draw on research to answer this question.

A Study on Cross Training: Running and Swimming

In a study on the effects of cross training for runners, 30 highly trained individuals (20 men, 10 women) were randomly selected to add 10% volume to their training regimen for endurance running for 8 weeks . Half the group added swimming workouts to their training, the other half, additional running.

This led to an interesting result. “The data suggest that muscularly non-similar [cross training] may contribute to improved running performance but not to the same degree as increased specific training. “ (Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance)

Summarily, those that ran more to get better at running, got better at running. Whereas those that swam and ran to get better at running, did not improve as much.

Let’s look at another similar study on running and cycling.

Cross Training for Running with Cycling

In another interesting study, eleven female distrance runners in a 5 week off-season period were given low-intensity training protocols. One group participated in a running-only training plan while the other group performed 50% of their training volume on a bike and the other 50% running. The objective was to determine the effects of the differing protocols on maintaining 3,000 meter run times as well as VO2 max.

The result? Upon returning to in-season practice, the running-only group was 14s faster in the 3,000M run than the running and cycling group. Though changes in cardiovascular indicators (VO2 max) were not significantly different between the two groups. However, the cycling group was substantially slower than the running group when returning to in-season training.

Now let’s examine a case study on the one and only, cardio God, Lance Armstrong.

Lance Armstrong is pretty OK at Running
(for being Lance Armstrong)

World class cyclist, Lance Armstrong, is not above going places on foot. Though frankly, he had better not quit his day job. Despite having a VO2 Max that most long-distance runners only dream of, Lance in his prime would not have been able to hop off the bike and onto a marathon circuit without some sport-specific training. Lance’s cycling was clearly world-class, but his marathon times put him only at the cusp of being a professional athlete in the distance running world.

Lance’s New York City Marathon Time was 2:46:43 in 2006. By comparison, the fastest time in the 2018 New York City Marathon was much faster at 2:05:59. Lance is a world class cyclist, certainly. But Lance’s cardiovascular system wasn’t sufficient for him to be a celebrated international phenomena in the running circuit as well.

Perhaps if Lance had trained specifically for running he would have been out there winning long distance running events in the Olympics. However, this example is given to show that just because Lance had impeccable general endurance, it was not enough to propel him into the highest echelons of long-distance cycling and running. General endurance is not the only factor contributing to success in endurance sports.

Thanks to the Kris Hampton at the Power Company and Steve Bechtel for pointing out Lance’s running career that I was wholly unaware until listening to their podcast episode.

Conclusions from the Research

The moral of the story is that sport specificity is very important. From these studies and our discussion of Mr. Armstrong, we can conclude that having exceptional general cardiovascular capability is not sufficient to excel at specific sports. General endurance training does not translate extremely well between running and cycling (and these sports are somewhat mechanically similar – more so than running and climbing). The idea that running endurance translates well to climbing doesn’t hold much weight when you look at the research. But don’t just take it from me, the authors of the Rock Climber’s Training Manual agree as well.

“The training must be climbing specific in order to develop muscular endurance that is relevant to climbing.”

The Anderson Brothers in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual

It’s All in The Forearms

Think about the last time you climbed something hard enough where your forearms were so pumped that you fell off the wall? Were you panting like you would be in an all out sprint? My guess is no. But your forearms gave out, did they not?

Although general endurance is important to climbing, certainly, the weakest link in you climbing endurance is going to be found in your forearms.

“All climbing activites will benefit from improved capacity for aerobic respiration within the muscle fibers. However, this characteristic must be specific to the muscles used (mostly the forearms) for it to be relevant to cllimbing. The whole body’s systematic capacity for aerobic respiration is largely irrelevant in rock climbing, while the aerobic capacity of the muscle cells within the forearm is of utmost importance.”

The Anderson Brothers in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual
lauren gravity vault climbing
Me participating in some endurance training – ARC style.

You Can Run if You Want To

But this is not to say that running can’t help, right? If you have a little bit of time to run, you enjoy it, and you simply can’t tax your fingers any more, then perhaps a little running can’t hurt.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series where I go into detail on how to effectively implement running in your training routine. I’ll also address some miscellaneous topics such as running for weight loss and cardio adaptations to Alpine environments.

Make sure to subscribe to my email list so you don’t miss out on Part 3 of this series on running. And give me a follow on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date on when new posts are out!

Leave me a comment or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com to let me know your thoughts on running and climbing. I would love to hear from you!

Resources

Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance

Effectiveness of Cycle Cross Training Between Competitive Seasons for Female Distance Runners

Training for Climbing Episode 20: An Inside Look at Hörst Family Winter Training, Autoregulation, Running, and More

Power Company Climbing Podcast Episode 6: Should you run with Steve Bechtel

Rock Climber’s Training Manual

Please note that this post contains affiliate links to the Rock Climber’s Training Manual – which I refer back to regularly. Commissions earned from purchases through my links keep this website in existence and keep it ad-free!

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