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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Never Quitting Climbing: People Might be Lame but You Don’t Have to Be

“You’ll quit climbing. You won’t have time with this job.” These words were spoken to me in the first week of my first job coming out of college.

After about a month there, chances were good that I might become depressed and that being an adult was going to be terrible. I was perplexed that I had worked so hard for the past four years earning my engineering degree to end up having no time to do any of the things I actually gave a shit about.

Fortunately, the original prophecy did not come true. I climbed all over the country in my first year out adulthood. I drove an hour to the climbing gym from work twice a week to train. I got up at 4:30 during the week to get on my hangboard before work.

Maybe the baseline for most adults and their hobbies is that they let them slip away as they get older and fatter and they decide that trying to keep pursuing what they love is too much work. But I can’t see myself doing that.

About a year after that, the company moved me to New York. The job had better hours and I picked the closest apartment to the climbing gym. These were well-designed life improvements.

But even after moving from the Midwest to the East Coast, the same sour attitude prevailed. One of my colleague said to me “Well you can’t just go climbing and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every weekend forever. You’ll have to grow up sometime.”

But why? Why is it childish to do what you love? Why is it childish to eat PB&J? Why is it immature to pursue what makes you happy? And why is it your business anyway?

The truth is that I don’t really know. Sometimes the way people let their lives go by without doing anything that makes them happy is really depressing. When I ask people on Monday what they did over the weekend, half the time they don’t even remember.

Climbing is a way to make sure that I’m stoked about something. That I’m going on adventures. That I’m outside laughing my ass off with my friends. That I’m lying in a tent terrified that I’m going to get eaten by a grizzly bear. That I’m hanging 60 feet up on a wall relying on my fingertips. That I don’t become boring, unhealthy, and submissive to a life that I don’t really like that much.

And yeah – life is never going to be perfect. I know that I am privileged to have my limbs intact and to have a job that pays me well and to have great friends and family who support me skipping holidays to screw around on exotic cliff faces. No matter what, I’m never going to squelch my sense of adventure because of the stupid things people say to me. If you’re out there doing something you think is awesome, then keep on doing it. Sometimes it seems like 98% of people don’t even know what they think is awesome anyway – and they certainly aren’t pursuing it.

If you find something that makes you so psyched you can’t stop thinking about it, then latch on to that and never let go. You don’t ever have to quit climbing if you don’t want to.

Three Mistakes You are Making in Your Pre-Climbing Warm-up

lauren abernathy gravity vault

The massage therapist clapped her hands together and smiled wide. Her client had just handed her a lovely bit of information: that she warms up her shoulders with theraband exercises before she begins any strenuous physical activity.

Well, that client is me. I have a religious pre-climbing ritual and I follow it wherever I plan to climb. In the interest of continuing to climb injury-free for an extensive career, you may want to do the same.

With that, here are three mistakes you are probably making in your pre-climbing warmup.

Mistake #1: You do not warm up before you get on the wall

This is one that I see all the time. Someone walks into the gym, climbs three V0s and decides that this is sufficient to start working on their V5 project. Then they wonder why they aren’t very flexible and why their shoulders and elbows and fingers are tweaked. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture.

According to a review of many studies published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, the following conclusion regarding warming up prior to exercise can be drawn.

 A warm-up and stretching protocol should be implemented prior to physical activity. The routine should allow the stretching protocol to occur within the 15 minutes immediately prior to the activity in order to receive the most benefit. 

Warm-Up and Stretching in the Prevention of Muscular Injury – K. Woods, P. Bishop, E. Jones

But you knew this already. You know you should warm up before you get on the wall. So don’t wait until you have your first real injury or first bad tweak.

You might think you don’t have time to warm-up.
The truth is you don’t have time NOT to.

lauren abernathy gravity vault
Me warming up to boulder using resistance bands Full cheese because I’m psyched on preventing shoulder injuries.
Photo by Teagan Maddux

Mistake #2: You’re not Stretching Dynamically

Does it feel great to lean down, touch your toes, and hang out there for a while? For some, maybe. But for all, this modality of static stretching is not ideal for warming up to climb. Static stretching is defined as holding a challenging position for 30 seconds or more.

Similarly, ballistic stretching (“bouncing” in and out of a stretching position beyond normal range of motion) is not ideal either.

Here’s is an excerpt from an article written by Dr. Jared Vagy (the climbing doctor) on the subject.

“Static stretching is a poor choice: The research shows that statically stretching a muscle before activity impairs muscle strength and leads to decreased performance. There is also evidence that shows that it can actually increase injury rate.

Ballistic stretching is a poor choice: It has been shown in numerous research studies that ballistic stretching is hazardous when used as a warm-up. The rapid nature of the movement activates a reflex in the muscle causing it to contract to protect itself from harm. This can cause micro-tearing of the muscle.”

Dynamic Climbing Warmup by Dr. Jared Vagy (aka The Climbing Doctor)

According to research, the stretching you want to be doing prior to physical activity is dynamic stretching. Vagy goes on to recommend the following:

Dynamic stretching is the best choice: Research supports that a sport specific dynamic warm-up is the best way to increase blood flow to the muscles and tendons in the body.

Dynamic stretching is defined as movements that take you “gently to the ends of your range of motion” in a controlled manor. They are usually performed in sets of 8-12 reps. ( source: mit.edu).

Summarily, dynamic stretching before you climb is the way to go.

Mistake #3: You do not take your warm-up outside

So you’ve figured out how to warm-up. You do it every time you hit the gym. Your sessions feel better and you have your routine down. Then the first time the weather breaks and you head outside, you throw the whole thing out the window. You pull onto one easy route then immediately start projecting.

flashboard rumney
Mike warming up his fingers with our flashboard before hopping on Flesh For Lulu in Rumney, NH.

Warming up is not only for your indoor training days, you need to take your off-the-wall warm-up outside as well (especially as a matter of fact). Here’s a word from Eric Horst in a section of How to Climb 5.12 regarding preparing for an onsight outdoors.

What’s the best way to warm up for a serious on-sight attempt? Some mild full-body stretching and sports massage of the fingers and forearms is a good start.

How to Climb 5.12 – Eric Horst pg. 102

This is a simple concept but it’s very easy to mess up. Personally, my off-the-wall warm-up involves resistance bands (and some stuff with my hands on the ground). I bring my theraband to the crag with me every time I go outside to climb and I use it to get warm before hopping on the wall.

Resources and Further Reading

If you’re looking to get yourself a pre-climbing warm-up here are a few resources I would highly recommend.

Dynamic Climbing Warm-Up with Dr. Jared Vagy

Logical Progression – the first book that convinced of the importance of a good warm-up and taught me how to do it.

Preventing Climbing Injury pt. 1 – Power Company Interview with Dr. Jared Vagy

Injury Free Bouldering with Neil Gresham – Rock and Ice Magazine (see point 1)

I’ll be posting my own article on how to warm up in the next month. Subscribe to my monthly newsletter to stay in the loop when it gets published!

So what about you? Do you warm-up before you get on the wall? What do you like to do to warm-up? Leave a comment or shoot me an email at lauren@senderellastory.com. As always, if you don’t already, give me a follow on Instagram or a like on Facebook to stay up to date when new posts come out.

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