Accelerating Short-term Recovery (Part 2 in a series)

This article will delve into the important matter of accelerating short-term recovery—that is, how you acquire a greater degree of recovery during brief midclimb shakeouts and between boulder problems or redpoint attempts. The fact is, your capacity to perform difficult moves or exercises repeatedly, with only short rest breaks, is directly proportionate to your recovery ability in the short term. Here are four strategies for improving your short-term recovery and performance at the gym or crag.

Let’s start off with the most simple, yet powerful method to enhance short-term recovery.

Strategy #1: is to limit fatigue as you climb by striving optimal climbing technique and maximum economy of movement.
It’s in this area that the average climber can realize a windfall of unknown capability. The fact is, most climbers move too slowly, possess less-than-ideal technique, and hesitate (or stop) to place gear or think when they should really push on to the next rest. Clearly, experience and technical ability are the limiting factors, but your slow climbing and hesitation will lead you to believe that a lack of strength is the primary problem.

Dedicated technique-training practice will go a long way to elevating your game. By learning to move swiftly and accurately through hard moves, and by relaxing your grip and lowering tension in the antagonist muscles, you will use less ATP and CP on difficult sequences and produce less lactic acid. In this way, you immediately reduce the magnitude of the fatigue you must recover from at a midclimb rest position, and you will return to baseline strength more quickly between attempts or sends.

Strategy #2 is to Enhance Forearm Recovery with the G-Tox
The dangling-arm shakeout is the technique universally used to aid recovery in commonly fatigued forearm muscles. A few seconds or, hopefully, a few minutes of shaking out provides some recovery, but often not enough. The effects of a full-on pump can take frustratingly long to subside, and when hanging out at a marginal rest, it’s possible to expend as much energy in one arm as is being recouped in the other. Such a zero-net gain in recovery does nothing to enhance performance—in such a situation you would likely have fared better by blowing off the so-called rest and climbing onward.

Luckily there is the G-Tox, a recovery technique that I developed, to accelerate recovery of finger strength while hanging out at a mid-climb rest. For more over fifteen years, I have been promoting the benefits of alternating the position of your resting arm between the normal dangling position and an above-your-head raised-hand position. This simple practice provides a noticeable increase in recovery rate. I named this recovery technique the G-Tox, because it uses gravity (as an ally, for once) to help detoxify the fatigued muscle and speed recovery.

The discomfort and pump that develop in the forearms while climbing are largely the result of accumulating lactic acid and restricted blood flow. LA is a by-product of the anaerobic metabolism of glycogen, an energy pathway that comes into use during extended contractions of greater than about 50 percent of maximum intensity. Worse yet, contractions of as little as 20 percent of maximum intensity begin to hamper capillary blood flow, and at 50 percent contraction blood flow may be completely occluded. As a result, LA concentrations skyrocket until blood flow can resume during a period of low-intensity contraction or complete rest.

What’s more, when dangling your arm in the shakeout technique, it’s common to experience an initial increase in the sensation of being pumped. This is because, as the muscle relaxes, blood flow resumes into the muscle—but the venous return of the “old blood” out of the muscle is more sluggish. This traffic jam perpetuates the pump and slows recovery, yet many climbers continue to dangle their arms and complain about how sickening a pump they have.

The G-Tox technique puts gravity to work by aiding venous return of blood toward the heart. By helping get blood out of the arm more quickly, this practice enhances the removal of lactic acid and, therefore, returns you to a baseline level of blood lactate more quickly. The effects of this technique are unmistakable—you will literally see the pump drain from the elevated arm due to the interesting fact that arterial flow into the arm is less affected by gravity than is venous return flow.

So why not just use the raised-arm position for the full duration of the rest instead of using the alternating technique as described above? Since the raised-arm position requires some muscular contraction in the upper arm, shoulder, and chest, these muscles would fatigue and possibly hamper climbing performance if you held the raised-arm position for a long time. Consequently, the best protocol for recovery at a midclimb shakeout is to alternate between the two arm positions every five to ten seconds. Do so, and you will definitely feel the difference the G-Tox makes!

Strategy #3 to accelerate recovery is to Engage in Active Rest
Along with the G-Tox, active rest is another underused yet highly effective strategy for accelerating recovery. While the G-Tox shines in its effectiveness to enhance recovery at a midclimb rest, use of active rest between climbs is an equally effective strategy for increasing the rate of lactic acid removal from the working muscles and bloodstream.

Several recent studies, including one excellent study on climbers, by Dr. Phillip Watts at NMU, have shown that active rest significantly reduces blood lactate compared to the more common practice of passive rest. In the Watts study, fifteen expert climbers attempt to redpoint a 20-meter, 5.12b gym route, with eight of them engaging in active rest while the others sat down and rested passively between climbs. Periodic measurements of blood lactate revealed that the active-rest group, which peddled lightly on a stationary bike, returned to preclimb levels within twenty minutes, while the passive-recovery group took thirty minutes to return to baseline levels. Therefore, low-intensity active rest accelerated the clearing of lactic acid from the blood by almost 35 percent.

Applying this research finding at the crag is simple. Upon completing a pumpy route or redpoint attempt, instead of sitting down and resting passively (or worse yet, having a smoke), grab your water bottle and go for a casual twenty-minute hike. This will help clear lactic acid more quickly as well as provide a mental break from the action. Both these factors will enhance your performance on the next route!

Another study compared the recovery after maximum exercise in four groups: passive rest, active rest, massage, and combined massage and active rest. After fifteen minutes of rest, blood lactate removal was greatest in the group performing combined active rest and massage. Therefore, you may be able to further improve the Watts strategy of active rest by performing some self-massage on your forearms, biceps, shoulders and back.

A more recent study has shown that shorter periods of active recovery provide similarly positive effects on lowering blood lactate concentrations compared with equal period of passive rest. The study tested ten climbers engaging in five, two-minute climbing trials, followed by either two minutes of active or passive recovery. The active recovery group started the next trial with lower arterial lactate concentration than the passive recovery group and they indicted lower perceived exertion at the end of each climb. Serious boulderers should heed this finding: you will recover faster between sends—and likely climb better—by walking around for a couple minutes after each climb to maintain a slightly elevated heart, instead of immediately sitting down and resting passively.

Strategy #4 is to drink plenty of water before and during your climbing or workout session.
Muscle is comprised of more than 70 percent water, and it plays a vital role in cellular function and the transport of nutrients and metabolic waste. If you are dehydrated, it will hurt your performance and slow recovery. Studies have shown that as little as a 1.5 percent loss of water (as measured by lost body weight) results in a drop in maximum strength, reduced concentration, and enhanced fatigue. In a sport as stressful as climbing, dehydration also increases your chance of a joint or tendon injury. Therefore, it’s prudent to prehydrate by consuming a quart of water in the two hours preceding an extended workout or climbing session. Continue sipping water throughout the duration of activity at a minimum rate of an eight-ounce glass every hour (twice this, if it’s hot).

Copyright 2007 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.