Running and Climbing Part 3: Running for Weight Loss

climber tying in

There are myriad angles from which to examine the debate on running and whether or not it benefits your climbing. One of the arguments for supplementing your climbing with running is the argument that it helps with weight loss. Before we get into it, let’s recall what was covered in parts 1 and 2 of this series on running and climbing.

Recap of Parts 1 and 2:

  • Based on the research, sport-specific endurance training is more effective for climbers than general endurance training
  • Climbers do require aerobic endurance in order to perform in both sport climbing and bouldering
  • If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, make sure you do before reading on.

Now, let’s address the topic at hand: weight loss.

Weight Management for Climbers

As you are aware, climbing is a sport that is impacted by your power to weight ratio (see Weight and Climbing). So it would make sense that climbers would be interested in ways to manage body composition. Let’s quickly review how weight loss happens, keeping in mind that your weight is perhaps a less important metric than your overall body composition. For example, I have gained 5 lbs of muscle over the past 3 years. Though my overall body weight is higher, my percent body fat is lower and I am climbing harder than I ever have. Click here if you want to read more about optimizing body composition as a climber.

What about resistance training?

If reducing body fat, becoming stronger, and increasing your aerobic endurance is the goal, I would encourage you to consider resistance training. Here is an interesting excerpt written by Doug McGuff M.D, expert in fitness medicine, taken from The Four Hour Body.

“If you are intent on improving your aerobic capacity, it’s important to understand that your aerobic system performs at its highest when recovering from lactic acidosis. After your high-intensity [resistance-based] workout, when your metabolism is attempting to reduce the level of pyruvate in the system, it does so through the aerobic subjugation of metabolism… since muscles is the basic mechanical system being served by the aerobic energy system, as muscle strength improves the necessary support systems (which includes the aerobic system) must follow suit.”

Doug McGuff M.D. pg. 218, The Four Hour Body

Translation:
Intense workouts like heavy weight lifting cause your body to utilize the aerobic energy system during recovery periods. Therefore heavy resistance training improves your aerobic energy system. This means that cardio is not the only way to improve your aerobic energy system.

Lauren Abernathy overhead press
Me taking part in some heavy-load antagonist training.

If you don’t already, you might consider adding some strength training to your climbing training program to both aid in body re-composition, also to help improve your aerobic capacity, and make you a stronger, more resilient athlete.

With that, let’s talk about a relative downside of all exercise.

Exercise Doesn’t Burn Many Calories

Have you ever heard the phrase “you can’t out-train a bad diet.” Well it’s true. You can’t. A pound of fat contains roughly 4,000 calories. Running a marathon burns around 2,600 calories (probably less if you’re a small female) – and that’s before we subtract out your basal metabolic rate. Running yourself lean would be an extremely time-consuming feat. A friend of mine was telling me about an old teammate on his collegiate rowing team. They were at a two week training camp, performing brutal two-a-day workouts, but his friend ate so much Dairy Queen that he gained weight over this two week period, despite the exceptional amount of physical activity. You cannot out-train a poor diet. If you want to lose weight, you need to change how you eat. Let’s look at another example.

Fred Eats Girl Scout Cookies

Fred is 30 years old, 5’10” and weighs about 170lbs. Fred treats himself to three thin mints after work since it is girl scout cookie season and girl scout cookies are objectively delicious. He cannot go climbing on Tuesdays, but he has time to run on the treadmill in his apartment after work. Fred runs four miles in about 35 minutes. Here’s the question – did Fred burn off the Girl Scout Cookies? Let’s take a look.

Three Thin Mints: 160 calories
4 Miles of Running: 400 calories
Fred’s Basal Metabolic Rate: 50 calories (AKA what Fred would have burned in the 40 minutes anyway if he were in a coma instead of running)
Caloric Deficit Achieved by Running: 190 calories

Yes. In 35 minutes Fred burned off just over three thin mints. I love cookies, but that’s a lot of work for three thin mints. Don’t forget that after running for 35 minutes, Fred is really hungry and overeats at dinner, which likely negates the meager caloric deficit he earned from his 35 minute run anyway.

Save Time, Skip the Peanut Butter

Can running help you achieve a caloric deficit? Sure. Can it help you lose weight? Certainly. But for the amount of time it takes to run, you might as well just skip out on a spoonful of peanut butter and get a half an hour of your life back.

If your objective is to lose weight, just adding a run or two to your weekly routine is not going to completely do the trick. You likely need to make some dietary changes as well. Now let’s look at another angle of the running for weight loss equation.

Excessive Exercise Prevents Weight Loss

If you want to lose weight and your inclination is to add a run on your rest days to help do that, you might want to think again. Neely Quinn lays this out in her article on weight loss for climbers:

Part of it is that when you’re running or cycling a ton, your body wants to eat, eat, eat. So you end up eating all your calorie deficit away anyway, and then you’re exhausted on top of it. …If you want to climb well, then climb. There’s no need for all that running if you’re trying to be a good climber. If you want to grow muscles, maintain your lean body mass, and improve as a climber, you need adequate rest.

Neely Quinn, Nutrition Therapist and founder of TrainingBeta.com

In Tim Ferriss’s Book, The Four-Hour Body he lists excessive exercise as a top reason that people cannot lose weight.

“Doing too much will not only not help, it will reverse your progress and it also leads to overeating, sports drinks, and other assorted self-sabotage… Less is more.”

Tim Ferriss, The Four Hour Body

I know as climbers we love to do more, but for the sake of improving as climbers, don’t just add more to your training to get better – especially if you’re adding it to lose weight. If you are climbing with 3-4 quality sessions per week, this is likely plenty of exercise.

Running and Weight Loss: What Works

Although running may not be the most optimal way to lose weight, it does work. I cannot argue that. Even esteemed climbing trainer, Eric Hörst, recommends it in his podcast episode on climbing and running. There is science to prove that running can help you lose weight. However, there are multiple different ways to run for weight loss, so if you’re going to do it, do it as well as you can.

Research on Running and Weight Loss: Sustained vs. Interval Training

In an analysis combining 41 studies and 1115 participants, the British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed the effects of three different modalities of running for weight loss: Moderate intensity (MOD), High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and Sprint Interval Training (SIT). MOD is defined as exercising at 55%-70% of your maximal heart rate. HIIT is performed by doing intervals greater than 80% of max heart rate. Sprint Interval training takes this one step further, prescribing intervals of “all out effort” or 100% of maximum heart rate. The table below summarizes heart rate and average duration for these protocols as examined in the meta-analysis.

The conclusion? Interval training is likely the best bang for your buck. You can scroll to the bottom of this study, if you want to read it word for word.

Here’s the bulleted version if you don’t:

  • MOD vs. HIIT vs. SIT had comparable results for reduction of overall body fat percentage.
  • HIIT and SIT were better protocols for fat mass reduction than MOD.
  • You can get similar results from all of these modalities.
  • With interval training, you can get the same results as MOD and spend less time doing it.

Running and Your Legs

For some running does almost nothing to their legs, for others running causes hypertrophy of the leg muscles. In any case, if you are running significant amounts, especially if you are running hills, etc. you may be putting on unnecessary weight in your legs. This is another variable to consider when examining the effect of running on your progress as a climber.

The Verdict on Running and Weight Loss

  • Maintaining your weight and optimizing your body composition are important to climbing your best.
  • Strength training is a good way to increase aerobic capacity while increasing one’s overall strength.
  • Excessive exercise can hinder weight loss and even cause you to overeat.
  • You cannot out-train a poor diet.
  • The caloric deficit from moderate running is smaller than you think.
  • Interval-based running workouts are a more time-efficient way to run for weight loss than running at a moderate pace for 40+ minutes.
  • Running may cause your legs to hypertrophy, which is not ideal for climbers; however this phenomenon varies from person to person and may not impact you at all.

I know that people love to run and that for certain people, it has proven to be an effective way to lose weight. However, I challenge you to think critically and strategically about the time you have to train and how you are going about losing weight, if that is something you have decided you need to do.

There may be a better way than what you have been doing, so I urge you to open your mind, experiment, and figure out how to become a better climber.

What do you think? Have you had great success with running for weight loss? How did you do it? Have you lost weight without running at all? Tell me about it! Leave a comment or shoot me an email at senderellastory@gmail.com, I would love to hear from you.

With that, make sure to follow me on Instagram, or Facebook, or even subscribe to my monthly newsletter and stay up to date when the next installment of the Running and Climbing series comes out.

Next up on the docket for this series on running and climbing is a discussion on alpine environments and recommendations from the experts on how to implement running into your climbing training!

Resources

The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss

How to Lose Weight for Climbing by Neely Quinn

Is Interval Training the Magic Bullet for Fat Loss? from the British Journal of Sports Medicine

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

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Running and Climbing Part 1: Can Running Help your Climbing?

girl running

My friend Shannon stumbled into the apartment dripping in sweat and red in the face. She had just finished watching Brave Heart. But unlike most people who sweat while watching television, Shannon was perspiring from running her way through a three hour Mel Gibson classic. You see, Shannon likes to run. This emotion is a complete mystery to me, though I understand that many would find my enjoyment of hanging by my fingertips on small bits of plastic equally as mystifying.

Despite my displeasure with running, I know there are many of you who find it very enjoyable. So the question I want to dig into here is how running and climbing do or do not cooperate in the pursuit of making you a better climber. I have gathered a variety of research, opinions, and angles to answer the big question: can running really help your climbing?

There is a lot to cover, so this post will be broken up into at least two parts.
With that, let’s start with our first conundrum: the limitations of time.

24 Hours in a Day

The first consideration to make is that there are only so many hours in a day, days in a week, and weeks in a year. So if you are going to spend time running, but you only have a few hours per week to train, think carefully about how you spend your time. It is likely that spending more time climbing is going to make you better at climbing. (See the rule of 75/25). As Steve Bechtel so famously said:

“Running for climbing is as important as climbing is for running. You can see how ludicrous that sounds. If you want to get better at the Boston Marathon you should hit the rock gym? No.”

Steve Bechtel – Training Beta Episode 7

We’ll get into that a bit more later, but this is certainly a point of view worth considering.

You can’t be good at everything all the time

Do you ever notice that in your life, when you try to be good at your job, be a good friend, train really hard for climbing, eat healthy, manage your money responsibly, raise your kids, make regular dentist appointments, take showers – you end up with a mediocre performance in one of these areas? ( For reference, I’m super shitty at the dentist appointments and the showers – oh well). Apply the same concept to climbing. If you are trying to send your absolute hardest and do your first marathon in the same couple of months, both pursuits will end in sub-maximal performance.

We have a limited amount of adaptation potential and how hard you push in all of these different directions limits how much you can push in other directions.

Steve Bechtel – Power Company Climbing Podcast Episode 6

Bottom Line
If you want to be the best climber you can be, you can’t be the best runner you can be at the same time.

running and climbing meme
An actual quote from my buddy Shannon, turned into a meme, of course!

The Deal with Endurance

If you are an avid runner and you have not left this blog post yet, I have good news. There is a perspective among trainers that supports the claim that running can help improve your climbing. But before we get into that, let’s define a few terms:
aerobic energy system, Adenosine triphosphate, and VO2 Max.

Aerobic Energy System

Here’s a quick and dirty definition of the aerobic energy system if you are not familiar. Aerobic literally means “with oxygen”. The aerobic energy system is the body’s energy production pathway that uses oxygen. This system is characterized by long-term energy output at relatively low intensities e.g. efforts lasting longer than 5 minutes like rowing, cycling, running over long distances. (see TeachPE.Com)

Check out the video below if you want a 2 minute explanation of the aerobic energy system.

Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP)

For the purposes of this article, all you need to know is that Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is the fuel your muscles need to contract in order to produce movement.
ATP is to our muscles as diesel is to a semi truck. If you want to read more about this complex organic molecule, see here.

What is VO2 Max?

VO2 Max, or Maximal Volume of oxygen is a measure of the amount of oxygen and individual can use during intense exercise. It is measured in volume of oxygen that can be consumed per mass of body weight over time. It is a general measurement used to determine aerobic fitness – or the capacity of your aerobic energy system.

Average Range of VO2 Max: 30-40 mL of oxygen per kg per minute
Lance Armstrong’s VO2 Max: 85mL of oxygen per kg per minute
Advanced Climbers (5.12 and Beyond): 45-50mL of oxygen per kg per minute

The Research

Phil Watts, an original gangster of climbing research, did a study to investigate the oxygen consumption of climbers.

The method: Subjects were set to climb moderate terrain (80 degree slab and 102 degree slightly overhanging). A critique of the study, as pointed out by Eric Horst in his podcast, was that the climbers were not very experienced and the routes were not very challenging.

The result: Climbers showed a VO2 max consumption of 30 mL/kg per minute – the average VO2 Max for the American Couch Potato. Form this, Watts determined that climbing is not an exceptional cardiovascular challenge.
(See Training for Climbing Podcast Episode 20 )

But no so fast, Phil. We can’t toss out our running shoes yet. In a later 2003 paper, Watts provided an update. In his 2003 paper, the maximal oxygen consumption of climbers was studied again. This time, VO2 Max during difficult efforts was reported to be much higher, with climbers demonstrating maximal oxygen consumption at upwards of 43-50 ml/kg-min during efforts on difficult and steep terrain. This is a far cry from the results of the original study.

From this we can determine that during our hardest ascents, our aerobic energy system is certainly put to the test. In Eric Horst’s review of the subject, he posits that upwards of 50% of our energy production (ATP production) comes from the aerobic energy pathway. Heretofore, a well-trained aerobic energy system is critical to climbing hard. (See Phil’s 2003 research paper)

The Verdict
A well-trained aerobic energy system is critical to climbing hard.

Where Everyone Agrees on Aerobic Fitness

Although the methods of how best to train the aerobic energy system as a climber are somewhat controversial, most trainers generally agree on the benefits of being an aerobically fit athlete.

“More aerobically fit climbers via generalized aerobic training recovered faster at rests on routes and between boulder problems.”

Eric Horst Training for Climbing Podcast Episode 20

There is an accord that aerobic fitness is important to climbing and the research agrees too. Practically speaking, if the thirty minute hike to the crag with the rope on your back saps your energy for the day, you’ve got bigger problems to worry about than the sub-optimal rest hold on your project. The controversy comes in when we discuss how to obtain aerobic fitness: in a specific or generalized way.

Click here for Part 2 of the Running and Climbing Series:
General vs. Sport Specific Endurance

Do you enjoy running? Do you hate it? Are you thinking about incorporating it into your training? Leave a note or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com, I would love to hear from you and discuss.

Make sure to follow me on Instagram, or Facebook, or even subscribe to my newsletter to be notified when the next post comes out!

Resources

Teach PE: Aerobic Energy System

Study of VO2 Max in Various Populations

Performance Analysis of Adam Ondra on Silence (5.15d/8c)

Top End Sports: VO2 Max Norms

Sports Med: The Physiology of Sport Rock Climbing

Super, Sure, but not More than Human: NY Times on Lance Armstrong

VO2 Max Measurements from Virginia.edu

Physiology of Difficult Rock Climbing by Phil Watts