Eric Hörst: High Performance Climbing

Ray Wood | 17 February, 2023

Eric Hörst is an inspirational USA based climbing coach who practices what he preaches— regularly climbing 5.13a (7c+). Last season in Red River Gorge he attributed a couple of 5.13b (8a) sends to his climbing specific aerobic system training. Living proof, that as he says: “Sure, raw power typically peaks in ones third decade of life; however, you can still continue to improve at climbing for decades beyond that.

To give an idea of Eric’s mindset here’s a couple of quotes he shared on his recent birthday: “I attack each day as if I’m a 30-year-old… yet somehow, today, my chronological age is 59. I’m not in the best shape of my life… but I’m not far off that either.”

“I’m in a battle… and on the offensive each and every day through optimal nutrition, vigorous training, aggressive goal pursuit, and copious love and hope.”

As an internationally renowned author, his best-selling book Training For Climbing, now in its third edition (2016) and due to be updated again, has sold more than 180,000 copies worldwide. It blends sport science with his decades of climbing and coaching experience covering training protocols, accelerating recovery and injury prevention.

Eric has two sons in their early twenties who share his love of climbing and are high-performers in their own right. Cameron has climbed 5.15a (9a+) and Jonathan isn’t far behind, having several 5.14c (8c+) routes under his belt.

Eric began climbing in 1977 (aged 13). Reading Pat Ament’s biography of John Gill inspired Eric to join the school gymnastics team and specialise in the rings—what he cites as the beginning of his interest in training for climbing. Since 1988, Eric has coached countless climbers on how to climb and train more effectively.

Ray Wood spoke to Eric to find out what keeps him so motivated and to discover a few key take-aways we can apply to our own climbing.

Eric (putting his power endurance to the test on Calm like a Bomb (5.13a), Red River Gorge (left) And on the bouldery Molten (5.13d), Red River Gorge (right). Photos: Eric Hörst collection
Eric (putting his power endurance to the test on Calm like a Bomb (5.13a), Red River Gorge (left) And on the bouldery Molten (5.13d), Red River Gorge (right). Photos: Eric Hörst collection

You started rock climbing when you were 13-years-old. What do you think it is about rock climbing that makes it an activity for life for many climbers?

I believe climbing helps narrow our thoughts and organise our mind. Life in the flatlands is complex – career, relationships, ubiquitous electronics, financial stress etc. Climbing focuses the mind on a single, clear goal—the next move, topping the boulder, climbing the chains. That flow state of total engagement is addictive.

Give me a stand-out highlight from your climbing career so far and how does sport climbing in the USA compare to Europe?

Doing the first ascent of Diamond Life (the New River Gorge’s first 5.13) back in 1987 is a major highlight. Over the past 15 years the highlights have related more to climbing with my family, and seeing my sons, Cameron and Jonathan, turn into super-talented climbers.

American crags seem to be louder and more chaotic than the typical Euro crag. But I feel the same positive energy and stoke at sport crags like Ceuse and the Frankenjura (both of which I love) as you get from the crowd at American crags like the Red River Gorge or Rifle. The global climbing community is so unique and amazing.

Eric on the first ascent of "The Scarn" (5.12b), Ten Sleep Canyon, WY. Photo: Eric Hörst collection
Eric on the first ascent of "The Scarn" (5.12b), Ten Sleep Canyon, WY. Photo: Eric Hörst collection

Youve written several books on performance training for climbing. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the sources of information and advice on improving climbing performance. How does a climber decide what will actually be of benefit?

It's interesting that 40 years ago there was zero information on training for climbing and today you could drown in a flood of training-related information on social media and the internet. Of course, there’s a lot of bad advice and dangerous practices being promoted, so indeed it is difficult today for a climber to sift through it all and discern how to train most effectively. Working with a proven coach is the best thing to do, although a climber with discipline and high self-awareness can certainly learn to become an effective self-coach.

An increasing amount of climbing research has really helped advance things, especially in terms of knowledge of injuries and proper rehab. In an attempt to keep up with it all, I have written two updates to my Training For Climbing book; but it’s soon due for another update, if I’m to keep the science current.

As we age, sarcopenia (age related, involuntary loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength) is working against us. Can you describe what is happening and how to offset it?

Ageing effects our bodies in profound ways: not only loss of muscle mass/function (sarcopenia), but also stiffening of the joints and connective tissues, loss of mitochondria content and function, decreasing VO2, hormonal changes (decreasing testosterone and hypothyroid), among other things. Increased inactivity during middle-age, due to career and other passive activities, such as time spent engaged on electronic devices compounds these declines.

The antidote is daily physical activity and a clean, protein-rich diet. I believe it’s essential to daily either climb something hard, lift something heavy, or do something that makes you breathe heavily. These activities will help maintain muscle and connective tissue health, maintain mitochondria function, and support hormone levels. Diet is equally important – the way you ate and drank as a young man isn’t going to cut it as a masters athlete wanting to perform at a high level.

Talking of diet, I’m regularly hearing that we dont eat enough protein. The recommended daily amount is described as enough to survive but not thrive. What are your thoughts?

If there’s one thing every climber could do to improve their health, recovery, and performance, it’s probably to consume more protein. The United States RDAs are a joke—based on mouse models from more than 50 years ago. This scant RDA amount of protein should be viewed as a subsistence value.

A hard-training athlete needs roughly double this amount. There are a variety of modern studies showing the value of consuming somewhere between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which is the target range I recommend climbers aim for.

Creatine is a well-known supplement in the weight-lifting world but it is also now being shown to have wider benefits for health including your brain. Is it a useful supplement for climbers?

Creatine is an incredible supplement. Most people who ‘load’ creatine realize a profound effect – fuller, harder, stronger muscles and a few pounds gain in bodyweight. This can be quite helpful for strength/power athletes in many sports and for an older person wanting to combat age-related muscle loss.

However, climbers must be careful with creatine usage. While creatine can provide a bit more power and strength, the weight gain can be problematic, as can the effects of cell volumisation (water drawn into muscle cells with the creatine). For route climbers especially, the weight gain and cellular effects can result in getting pumped faster and so creatine load can actually decrease climbing performance. Therefore, I recommend that climbers only micro-dose creatine – two or three grams per day and no more than five grams per day (which I recommend for vegan climbers).

You’ve recently expanded your business with performance nutrition products for climbers. How did this come about and how much research went into it?

My company, PhysiVantage, came about because of my research for countermeasures to combat age-related injuries and decline in physical performance.

In 2017, I discovered the work of Keith Barr, a researcher from UC Davis in California. He was experimenting in the lab with engineered tendons and ligaments. His findings led me to develop Supercharged Collagen, a collagen powder that I uniquely formulated based on his research. My sons and I used prototype Supercharged Collagen for a season of training and climbing, and we felt the value, in terms of reduced finger pains and faster recovery. I then gave the product to a few American pro climbers, and this soon led me to then launch the product commercially here in the states in 2019.

This really opened my eyes to the potential of performance nutrition for climbers, so I set off on a mission to research other supplements and nutritional interventions that might accelerate recovery, enhance performance, and reduce injury risk.

So, over the last three years we’ve developed a growing line of PhysiVantage nutrition products. And in 2022, we launched three products into the European market via a distribution partnership with EPIC-TV and bananafingers.

You have two sons who are highly accomplished climbers. Cameron (22) has red pointed 5.15a (F9a+) and Jonathan (20) isnt far behind with several 5.14c/8c+ routes to his credit. Any advice for parents of young climbers or youth coaches?

I’m blessed to have a wife and two sons who love climbing as much as I do. To parents and youth coaches out there, I’d like to share that as youth climbers, I encouraged my sons to also participate in other sports rather than a single-sport specialisation in climbing.

While this might have slowed their development slightly (although they both climbed 5.14a/8b+ by age 11, this approach would ensure that they developed a wide range of motor skills and neurodevelopment, so not so likely to get burnt out climbing.

Both Cam and Jon played American football for ten years so this gave them an offseason from climbing, after which they returned hungry to climb again. I believe it served them well as they have developed a high physical IQ and a well-balanced body and mind that serves as a foundation for pushing to higher levels in the climbing world deep into their 20s.

More important than grades, however, is my hope that they will both become a ‘climber for life’ (like their dad). In my mind, that’s the ultimate goal – to be able to experience the joy of climbing for many decades to come.

The Hörst Family, L-R Lisa, Cam, Jonathan and Eric. Photo: Eric Hörst collection
The Hörst Family, L-R Lisa, Cam, Jonathan and Eric. Photo: Eric Hörst collection

Youre regularly redpointing 5.13s and itd appear youre still hungry to improve or maintain that level?

While I enjoy climbing of any grade, I still seek to push myself, which means climbing 5.13s. A grade I first climbed in 1987. So, it’s my intention to maintain this level for as long as possible; age 70 I hope. Ageing makes climbing a bit harder each year. Although I train like I’m a young man, the aches and pains of being 59-years-old constantly remind me that I’m not 28 anymore.

What amount of dedication and work has it taken to achieve this?

A lot of training. I also work a lot (running my company PhysiVantage Nutrition). But thankfully, I’m able to mostly work from home, where I have quick access to an extensive climbing training area in our basement. As you get older it is important to do something physical every day, even if it’s just going for a 30-minute walk or run. Four days per week I do climbing-specific training such as bouldering, interval training on our Treadwall, hangboarding and/or a small amount of campus board work.

I do supplemental exercises two days per week to target the antagonist muscles and try to keep the shoulders healthy (an Achilles Heel for aging climbers). I mostly use a DUP (daily undulating periodisation) scheme in which I train strength, power, and high-end power-endurance one day and then climbing-specific aerobic endurance (easier climbing for mileage) the next day.

Since I do a lot of training, I often split the day’s training into two parts: for example, a max strength/power session (90 minutes) in the late morning and then my high-end power endurance sessions (60 minutes) in the late afternoon or early evening (before a late dinner).

When I’m climbing on weekends, I limit at home climbing training to Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And when I go on a longer trip (a few weeks) I do no training at all, other than warm-up exercises.

What are your goals looking ahead?

Hopefully to finally send my 5.13c/8a+ project—Silky Smooth—at the Red River Gorge this spring or fall. But I’m not a big project climber. As an older climber I find the slow progress difficult. I much more enjoy sending 7b–7c+ in a try or two, than slave over a project for many days. But I'm trying to stay focused on a harder project or two… since my sons believe I can still climb an 8b+ if I put my mind to it. We’ll see.

Eric is supported by DMM  and La Sportiva. Youll find a wealth of insightful articles with strategies and tips to improve your climbing on his website—highly recommended. There you’ll also find links to his podcast and Training Café YouTube channel. In January 2019, Eric founded PhysiVantage —research-based performance nutrition for climbers—with the likes of Jonathan Siegrist, Natalia Grossman and Paige Claassen on his pro athlete team.