The Saving Throw

The past month or so, some friends and I have dipped our toes into the Dungeons and Dragons world. What seemed like a simple thing has turned out to be wildly more complex than I thought possible, but I’m digging it. i’ve pored through rulebooks and blog posts trying to understand things, and I stumbled across a concept that seems to be an appropriate analog for a concept in training that I haven’t found a short, descriptive term for.

That term is..

The Saving Throw

In Dungeons and Dragons, the Saving Throw is a roll you have to make as a last chance effort to prevent something bad happening, or reducing the negative consequences of that bad thing happening. It’s reactive, and based on a negative event or failure of sort. A successful saving throw could mean the adventure continues, as opposed to coming to a grievous end.

How does this apply to training?

When we train for improvements in sports performance, or even something as fundamental as basic changes to our physiology, it’s important to set up guardrails to ensure that we’re actually encouraging the changes we want to make. Digging too deep into failure, getting sucked into the temptation of things feeling hard, or chasing the “burn” can all be sneaky ways to sabotage the effectiveness of the methods we’ve set up to improve.

I’ve seen a bunch of coaches and training systems wax poetic about the drawbacks of training to failure. I agree, for the most part. Aside from failure of an exercise or climb, other guardrails I’ve seen set in place include heart rate metrics (you have to get back down to an established bpm by the start of the next effort, indicating adequate recovery) the talk test (you should be able to talk in complete sentences before the next effort), and monitoring reps completed in a timed set.

I think these are all well and good, and can be quite effective in terms of ensuring the appropriate intensity of a training session. However, what happens when things don’t go as planned? With some of these guardrails, it can be easy to convince yourself that you should end your session early due to the fear of being too tired to appropriately train. I’ve been using the “Saving Throw” framework as a way to both appropriately manage training intensity.


First, set the appropriate guardrail for the session. This could be something as simple as falling on a pre-established boulder problem or making sure your heart rate gets below 100 bpm before the next effort. Without the saving throw in action, failure on one of these things could indicate it’s time to stop this part of the session.

As you work through the session, you’ll inevitably run into an instance where you fail that guardrail check. You don’t get the heart rate down fast enough, or you fall on the “test” boulder. Now, you’re onto your “Saving Throw”. You get once more chance. Continue with your training as planned and the goal is to pass the next guardrail check. If you pass, continue onwards with your training. If you do end up failing twice in a row, consider calling the session.


Kettlebell Training- 10:50 Snatch Sprints

I’ve been using this kettlebell snatch structure to train explosiveness as well as recovery. You’ll use a medium to light kettlebell, and do as many snatches (with GOOD FORM) in 10 seconds as possible. You’ll then rest 50 seconds.

Possible guardrails:

Heart Rate- Figure out what a good heart rate recovery bpm is for you. This will vary based on your fitness level and training history. The goal is to get your heart rate to drop to that level before the 50 second rest is up. If you can’t get it down that rate once, then your next set is your saving throw.

Reps per sprint- Your rep count for every 10 second sprint should be similar. If you can’t maintain the same number of reps as the previous set, your next set is your saving throw.

Bouldering- 7 Second Sequence

Use this during a limit or project bouldering session. At the start of the session once you’re warm, select a sequence of 3-5 hard flash level moves. Throughout the projecting block of my session, I’ll revisit this sequence and try it RESTED every 10-15 minutes. If I fall on this boulder, the next block of 10-15 minutes, with the test sequence at the end is my saving throw. If you send, keep on going, but if you fail two blocks in a row, move onto your recovery/cooldown work or call the session.

Ideally, this sequence shouldn’t be tweaky, should be skin friendly, and should require total body power in some form.

Training is Tricky

As simple as this strategy is, I think it helps combat the fact that training sessions are complex. Try as you might, subtle factors influence how things go as you train. You might have tried extra hard on your last set, leading to a slightly blunted drop in heart rate during your rest. You might have just fumbled some beta on the test boulder. Does that reflect that you’re too far gone physiologically to keep training effectively that day? I don’t think so. Utilize that saving throw and get the most out of your sessions.


Paul Corsaro is the owner and head coach of Crux Conditioning. He holds a Masters Degree in Applied Exercise Science and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. For training inquiries, Paul and the staff at Crux Conditioning can be reached at or through our website.