Interval training has countless applications to almost any form of preparation for any activity. Variations of intervals can be done anywhere, from running on trails to climbing gyms to weight gyms to athletic facilities and swimming pools. Decades of research and analysis show results.

Relevant to winter climbing are several versions, and the variants I put at the top of the pile are intervals focusing on stress. Stress in this context being where the usuals of strength, endurance and power are secondary, and ‘system anxiety’ is the focus. simply put: where the cause of failure is spread across as many aspects as possible, and ‘you’ fail as an organism rather than simply one aspect of your capacity.

System anxiety applies well to climbing because anxiety is a major component. Indeed I think anxiety is one of the few things that sets climbing apart from other pursuits. System anxiety is maybe best described as ‘when the organism faces multiple points of failure due to stress across multiple organic systems’. you know it when you feel it: when as the hypoxic tunnel fades, your breath comes back, and you realize you cant feel your hands, then that your lower back is tightened and your mouth is dry.

It differs from regular training in that it blows out 3 or more systems. Properly 4, because when done correctly the mind is the first to go.

A good example might be the following:

– 30seconds of heavy push rows (at around 60% of body weight)

– Followed by 90seconds of dead lifts (at about 75% of body weight)

– Followed by 2 minutes of rest

Repeated 3 times.

What happens here is the compromising of multiple organic systems, reducing the capacity for one system to make up the overlap of another.

The heavy push rows blow the torso and the dexterous shoulder/arm musculature, and stress the body symmetry which messes with balance as the smaller muscle groups tire. The stressful posture reduces diaphragm capacity for oxygen intake. Stress spikes across several elements and repeated complex movements prevents the mind from tuning out.

The 90secs of dead lifts shifts the body into a longer rhythm of basic movements that would be fine if those rhythms hadn’t just been disrupted. The weight is about fifth on the list of relevant factors, with compromised oxygen intake kicking in fast, boosted by so much blood being in the arms when its needed elsewhere. Confused by the lateral, asymmetrical demands of the push press, the torso/hip complex/lower back has to realign to provide decent form for the lifting.

And on top of all that and most importantly, the grip starts to slide, making for a very long 90secs where the mind, instead of going into auto-pilot with the big dumb movements, starts screeching about peripheral failure instead. The internal monologue becomes heated as the urge to go faster is defeated by the lack of blood/oxygen to do so – either way offers no way out.

Each set escalates as the 2 minutes recovery is barely enough to satisfy the demands for blood/oxygen flow back to the arms, back and large muscle masses.

failure here is a complex conglomeration of things:

– not enough juice to see thru the reps

– grip strength

– loss of form

– brain cant override the stress demands

– not enough strength in the large muscle groups

– inability to maintain balance and integrity

– loss of focus

– loss of dexterity

– incapacity to recover

– inefficiency of movement

– lack of strength across range of movement

This set can be changed to any exercises that have similar demands: A short powerful stressor on multiple focused systems, to maximize demands on power output, followed by a relatively longer stressor that antagonizes the demands of the previous set and gets the mind screaming about something rather than tuning out to robot country.

Its not hard to draw parallels to alpine climbing: you punch up a neve slope on all fours, transition onto dexterous vertical ice with a pack on, scramble over the mixed stuff at the top pumped and charged. Brief rest. Repeat to the top. The large muscle mass stressors, the demands on asymmetrical integrity, repetitive endurance, fine motor skills, grip strength and mental focus are all present. Only on a remote icefall ‘failure’ has different consequences.

Climbers don’t blow out because of isolated weaknesses – the reason lots of pull ups alone mean little.

15 pull ups after a 7min mile, 30 weighted sit ups and 30 body weight squats is more relevant.

Climbers blow out because the blood and oxygen they needed for those 5 hard moves was somewhere in their legs rather than where they needed it in their arms and lower back. And rather than making focused, pre-emptive decisions they were howling to themselves about their calves and forearms, flailing for anything instead of setting up the sequence.

All winter I see construction workers, ultra-runners and firemen consistently make better climbers than rock climbers. Not because they are stronger, but because they have better complex stress thresholds. Carrying buckets of render up scaffolding or covering stairs wearing a respirator simply counts for more when it matters than having the latest karabiners or lightest jacket.