Neil Gresham's Guide to SACC Training

Article by Neil Gresham
Tuesday 13th July 2004

Introduction to SACC training

One of the most misleading sayings that is frequently re-applied to training for climbing is 'no pain no gain'. Whilst I'm not about to put forward a case for training from an armchair, when it comes to developing endurance, there is a great deal to be said for the occasional and strategic use of light, low intensity, high duration climbing activity which does little more than cause you to break into a moderate sweat. So many of us have been conditioned to believe that the only way to develop endurance is to go for the burn on routes that are as close to our limit as possible and that the session is wasted unless you leave the wall or crag so pumped that you're almost sick.

Ton Sai Bay, Thailand- a great place to develop capilliarity.
Photo: Berry Collection

But 'SACC' (Specific Aerobic Capacity & Capilliarity) training is about doing the exact opposite: staying in control and well within your maximum but for anything between 25 and 45 minutes at a time and without getting pumped. So how can it possibly the case that this type of 'so called' training can make massive improvements to your overall climbing stamina?

Physiological research into other relevant sports would suggest that SACC work can offer several benefits to the hardened boulderer as well as the stamina lout. When we train on hard routes which require near maximum effort, the local muscles are forced to contract so hard that the surrounding capillary network is literally squeezed shut and, hence, blood flow is temporarily restricted. The result is that the process of lactic acid uptake and transfer is hindered and hence we experience momentary contractile failure and fall-off.  Whilst this may well be taxing our anaerobic energy systems in a way which is specific to shorter or middle distance routes with relatively hard moves, it does next to nothing to improve our long term (aerobic) climbing stamina and in particular our ability to recover on easier ground. But, if we train at a reduced intensity for an increased duration we can actually increase the density of the capillary network which supplies the local climbing muscles, the result being more efficient use of oxygen and dispersal lactic acid. This process is known as capilliarity improvement.

Benefits of SACC

SACC training has been proven to induce the following adaptations in athletes: improved long term stamina and resultant improvements in anaerobic endurance, improved recovery rates whether during exercise (ie: on a 'shake out') or between bouts of exercise (ie: between routes or boulder problems). SACC work can even improve your recovery between training sessions if used as a warm down or as an 'active rest' day. On top of these direct benefits, SACC training sessions will almost certainly improve your fluidity of movement and increase your confidence for longer pitches, as well as providing a perfect opportunity to work on mental training techniques. An additional benefit of SACC is linked with it's low intensity and associated properties of increased blood flow local muscles: it can be used very successfully as an aid to rehabilitating troublesome climbing injuries. However, always consult a doctor or physiotherapist  if you are unsure as to how and when to embark on a rehab' program.

How to train SACC

With SACC training you should aim to climb for between 25 and 45 minutes at a time, on terrain which feels 'comfortable'. To make this possible the climbing must be no harder than between approximately 20-30% of your limit. For gauging intensity, a good rule of thumb is that you should be able to stop, chalk up and shake comfortably and hold a conversation at almost any point. It is also important for the level of difficulty to be fairly constant with no particular crux sections or complete rests. Try to keep moving as steadily as possible (though not too fast), and without attempting to recover excessively at any particular point. When you finish each stint you should feel an extremely low level of fatigue, almost as if you could have kept going for an hour or two if boredom thresholds had allowed. You can repeat this up to 3 times if you feel it will benefit you more, but do allow a good 30 minutes recovery between goes. Obviously you must use your discretion about the number of times you climb per session; if it is only for a warm-down or a light active rest day then once or twice will probably suffice.

Where to train SACC

One of the main plus-points about SACC is that it doesn't have to be regarded as 'hardcore training'. A day's traditional climbing on easy multi-pitch terrain will have exactly the same effect on the muscles and capillaries as a mind-numbingly dull circuit of an indoor wall. You may as well tick routes and enjoy yourself in the process unless it's the middle of Winter.

If you are forced to train indoors then it's usually easiest to do long sweeping circuits of with plenty of up and down climbing as well as traversing. As with most training for climbing, the main skill involved in SACC work is learning to gauge the required level of difficulty of the climbing. Rather than sticking to the same rigidly planned sequences it is usually most convenient to climb at random, linking easy moves together with several common descent routes. By trying new moves and positions you can concentrate on your onsight technique at the same time. A walkman may help relieve the boredom and remember your climbing wall etiquette by staying out of the way of boulderers! Alternatively, find a belayer who's devoted to the same cause and you can exchange goes of up & downing on easy routes on a leading wall. Note that controlled down-climbing is probably a preferred option to lowering-off as it is important not to allow yourself a complete rest, even for the shortest of periods.

When to train SACC and how much to do

1. SACC lends itself to incorporation with a warm-up or a warm-down for a more intensive stamina or anaerobic endurance session. In this situation only do one stint of between 20 and 30 minutes.

2. SACC often provides a perfect active rest day activity and for this purpose you could do one or two stints of 25 to 45 minutes with at least 30 minutes rest in between.

3. A light or medium intensity training day may be used effectively for SACC training. On such a day you would do three to four stints of 25 to 45 minutes, again with 30 minutes rest between them .

So how can we be sure that the application of SACC training theories to climbing is valid without the existence of any direct research studies to prove otherwise? The answer is simply to look at climbers like Simon Nadin and Ian Vickers, two of Britain's best competition climbers who have gained a phenomenal ability to recover from going out and doing stacks of easier traditional routes as well as training on harder sports routes. If you're convinced and determined to have a go then remember, it must be stressed that improvements in capilliarity are slow - like all other forms of training you will need to persevere. Yet if the result of  your effort is gaining the ability to recover almost anywhere, no matter how pumped, then all will be worthwhile. Did I say effort? - In the case of SACC training, Wolfgang Gullich's quote would perhaps be more appropriate: "One of the hardest things about training is making the decision to train in the first place".

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