By Scott Johnston
In our book, Training for the New Alpinism, Steve House and I make the distinction between non-specific and specific training. This distinction lies at the heart of our training philosophy. It also represents a significant paradigm shift for many climbers. Based on the number of questions we have received it is a concept that many folks are struggling to come to grips with.
Perhaps looking at these different types of training through the lens of slightly different terminology will help. In our book we talk about “Non-(climbing)-specific training” and “Climbing-specific training”. Below I substitute Capacity for where we have used “Non-Specific training”.
Capacity Training is used to increase your ability to do work in a particular realm. Examples of this would be:
a) Aerobic capacity- The ability to do more work faster and for longer durations such as running or hiking uphill. This would manifest itself as a increased pace that you could sustain for long periods
b) Muscular endurance (aka strength endurance) capacity- The ability to exert a larger percentage of a muscle group’s strength for longer periods such as climbing close to your maximum ability well into a good pump and not getting spit off.
c) Strength capacity- The ability to exert higher force such pulling a small crimp to mid chest level and locking off on it. Or it could be something as mundane stepping up 16” with a heavy pack.
d) Power capacity- The ability to make more powerful movements such as long dynamic lunges on overhanging routes.
e) Technical capacity- The acquisition of a broad base of climbing skills.
It should be the goal of any climber with high aspirations to increase his or her capacity in all the areas needed for success. Building capacity is like filling a cup. The more aerobic fitness/muscular endurance/strength/power/technical skill you have in the cup, the more you have at your disposal when it comes to utilizing it.
Climbers who are less athletically mature (both younger and less experienced) need to focus on building capacity in the realms that their climbing goal is comprised of. By improving their work capacity in the several areas critical to alpine climbing these climbers will be in a much better position to make the most of the Utilization training.
If your goal is to best Killian Jornet’s record on Mt McKinley then its not really going to be very important for you to build forearm muscular endurance capacity or the power capacity needed to dyno from one mono pocket to another. For this goal you’d better be focused on increasing your aerobic capacity to stratospheric levels.
Since all alpinists will benefit from an increased aerobic capacity we place a large emphasis on this in Training for the New Alpinism. We also realize that the strength and muscular endurance demands of hard technical climbing also need to be addressed in the capacity building phase of a techniallcy-oriented climber’s training.
Below I substitute Utilization where we have used Specific training previously.
Utilization Training is that which is meant to increase the amount and/or duration of any of the above mentioned capacities that you have built through your Capacity training.
Example: If your aerobic capacity is low (the cup is not very full) then you will need to utilize a high percentage of that capacity as you try to keep up with your very fit partner on the approach to a big climb. Using a high percentage of any of your capacities will entail such a high cost that it will ultimately limit your ability to sustain that sort of work.
Another example: If your muscular endurance capacity is too low then pulling that first 5.11 section wearing boots and a 30 pound pack may be just fine. BUT if that one hard effort has emptied your cup you won’t have the additional capacity to do it again (and again) in the way the fittest climbers can.
Climbers with very high work capacities in the various realms needed for their type of climbing typically benefit from more Utilization training or, as we spelled out in Training for the New Alpinism, more Specific Training to maximize their gains. To say it another way: High level climbers will need to do more Utilization training in order to make advances in ability. Less fit climbers (relative to their goals) need to build capacity first.
You can not expect to have a high level of utilization if you haven’t previously built a solid foundation of capacity. Many climbers unwittingly try to do their utilization training before doing their capacity training. Capacity (or general) fitness must precede utilization (or specific) athletic training. Misunderstanding this hierarchy is the number one reason climbers plateau and stop improving after a certain amount of time climbing.