A Rant About Footcontact Times and Specific Power Development

Time for a little rant. Speed climbing is a sprint. A highly complex and fullbody sprint, but a sprint nonetheless. It has all of the characteristics of a speed-power event and as such, training needs to follow the well-established guidelines for high intensity training.

I have seen multiple videos of professional speed climbers sprinting in excess of 20 meters in order to develop speed. Chances are you have seen other workouts that look, in some way, to mimic sprinting as well. Should you be doing them? Will sprinting make you a better speed climbing? Thinking about the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) is it specific enough to have direct carryover to the event?

From an energy system development standpoint: yes.

From a mechanics and specific adaptation standpoint: maybe.

For today's article we're going to dive in to whether sprinting is specific enough in regard to foot contact time and rate of force development to earn a permanent place in your training.

The Data

Finding data on speed climbing is remarkably tough. There are not many published studies on climbing, let alone speed climbing. I called John Muse at USA Climbing and they have some preliminary data, but nothing available to share. It's an Olympic year (potentially), so I understand not releasing that info to the public especially if it involves data collected from the team.
Please send me high res, high frame rate videos. Do it for the science.

Doing a rudimentary video analysis of the world record speed climbing run by Reza Alipour, the average foot contact times were between .2 and .32 seconds. This analysis was done with 25fps video so is not the most reliable. In an ideal world, I would be able to measure vertical velocity and create a speed profile. But I can't. I am also unable to analyze joint angle in relation to contact time, but the basic information will still work for what we are talking about today.

The Highly Studied Comparison

At under 6.4 seconds, the 60m dash is the shortest sprint contested in athletics and was also subject to the IAAF biomechanics project in 2018. It is the most similar to speed climbing in terms of energy system demands, power output, and more. So lets take a look at single leg contact times during acceleration for the finalists in the 2018 60m dash.

Source: https://www.worldathletics.org/about-iaaf/documents/research-centre
The 1st-3rd steps are the steps that occur after the block start. They are true single legged pushes, compared the the block start where both legs are used to push. The athlete is moving the slowest at this point in the race, which allows the longest ground contact time in order to apply power and rapidly accelerate. As the athlete speeds up, ground contact time (GCT) must shorten as the athlete is passing over the foot faster on contact. This can be seen as even the 3rd step of these athletes is up to 20% shorter ground contact time.

Even at the earliest stages of the race, ground contact times are less than the foothold contact times are for the world record speed climb. There are some notable differences however.

First, in speed climbing, the foot is often placed on a hold with the hip flexing greater than 90 degrees, which allows a longer impulse to accelerate. Compare this to sprinting, where GCT occurs with the hip at far less than 90 degrees of flexion and rapidly shrinks as the athlete increases speed. This means that even if vertical speed matched the sprinters horizontal speed, foothold contact time would be more than sprinting ground contact time.

Contact time is needed in speed climbing, however. As discussed in a previous article, humans lack jet packs. Once we lose all points of contact with the wall, we are decelerating due to gravity. However, even the quickest contact times for speed climbing are slower than anything experienced in sprinting.

Why Do I Care

Training design matters and we have a limited well to draw from for each workout before central nervous system fatigue sets in. Sprinting is also it's own highly complex skill that takes time and effort to develop. Figuring out which exercises will have the greatest carryover to what matters, while allowing enough time and energy to practice the event itself, is incredibly important. This is especially true if you aren't a world record holder.

Remember: the top athletes in the world are in their positions primarily because of genetics. Their high genetic ceiling gives them a larger margin for error in training. They can train less than optimally, and still have world class results. Chances are you don't have world class genetics, so your window is smaller.

So Is Sprinting Worth It?

As a former sprint coach, you probably expect me to say yes. But it is hard for me to. Sprinting is innate. We can all run from danger. But sprinting well is difficult.

With speed climbing being an upper and lower body high-intensity event, I have a very hard time recommending a second complex and high-intensity activity as a training method unless the athlete is already well trained in that event. There are other means that can match the ground contact time and rate of force development of speed climbing, while not necessitating the amount of time needed to teach someone to sprint well.

Basic plyometrics, medicine ball throws, powerlifting and olympics lift derivatives, and sled pushes are all viable methods to develop specific power away from the wall. They are less complex to learn than sprinting, and develop rate of force development just as well. They are high intensity and work the same energy systems, with similar central nervous system demands.

Unresisted sprinting is great for sprinters. Resisted sprinting/hill sprints would be a more valuable tool for speed climbers.

If you are going to add resisted sprinting or hill sprints in to your speed climbing workouts, remember that the upper range of sprinting for a workout session for highly trained sprinters is 400m. It was rare for me to go over 300m of short acceleration work when I was running pro after college. If you are adding sprinting in after your speed climbing, I would start with no more than 5 reps of 15m worth of hills or sled pushes with minimum 2 minutes rest between each sprint. It won't feel like a lot.

That's ok. Power doesn't develop in the presence of fatigue.

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