“How should I train?” everyone asks, whether to others or to themselves, and with good reason. Training works. Granted, some people prefer to simply go climbing and have fun, and not worry about training when they don’t have time to climb. That’s cool, too. It depends on your goals. For me, I want to be a decent all-around climber, and be prepared for big alpine routes, which is tough because hard alpine routes (versus snow slogs) require you to be good at multiple things at the same time. Fortunately, I’m not there yet, so I get to have the fun of seeing continual improvement. Part of that improvement, and fun, comes from training.
Also, quite simply, I like training – I’ve been super into training hard since I was a competitive boxer in college, and I worked my ass off. As with so many things, intensity and fitness go a long ways. I’ve never had an abundance of natural skill, but I know how to work hard and focus, and develop the requisite mental intensity when the time comes. Sometimes I lag, sure (as I’m sure some of my buddies would be quick to point out), but it’s always a process. As far as I’m concerned, one can never be good enough. Unless – until, perhaps – you reach a point in life where, for whatever reason, you’re simply not interested in improving. I hope I never get there.
I’ve enjoyed learning about training adaptations and how it works, too. I did my B.S. at Penn State, and my M.S. at the University of Montana, both in Exercise Physiology. I taught college at UM, as well as Santa Fe Community College, for a couple of years on visiting faculty appointments, before deciding against further academia pursuit in favor of being a climbing bum. Not terribly smart, I know, but it’s worked out, and now I make my living with writing and editorial work.
Anyway, I’ll post more training thoughts as time progresses (and as time allows). But, generally, my training can be loosely categorized into three parts. I’ll focus more or less on each of these depending on the time of year and my upcoming goals. This fall, for example, I’ve wanted to improve my technical rock climbing, and so I spent more time on that and less time on my high-end total-body fitness (i.e. alpine fitness). As we enter the winter season, which begins my busiest time of year with my editorial work, I’ll shift into more short-duration, higher-intensity training. Into spring, I’ll have to make time to start adding longer days in the mountains in order to get my sorry ass into all-day shape. That’ll be challenging, since I’m super busy with work through the spring. But I never want to show up out of shape. Just like I never went into the ring out of shape – if I lost, I had no excuses, the guy was better than me – and now, 20 years later as an old fart, that philosophy still holds. I never want to go into the mountains out of shape. As the saying goes, you want to make yourself Hard to Kill.
I try to mix it up between (1) developing (or at least maintaining) my skills, (2) building high-end fitness (both strength and aerobic), and (3) building long-route/all-day endurance.
This comes from climbing, and trying to climb things that are difficult for me. I mentioned some of this in an earlier post. Much of the year I do this outside, but sometimes in winter it happens in a climbing gym. I’m focusing more on this lately — in the past I have too often only done the things I’m already OK at (like soloing easy routes), and not pushed my high-end technical skills enough. Improving your upper-end, so long as you don’t neglect the long days and sketchy alpine-prep experiences, improves all of your climbing.
2. High-end Fitness.
Depending on the time of year, I’ll often do parts of this indoors with weight lifting and high-intensity circuit training (concepts similar to CrossFit and Mountain Athlete workouts, with the latter usually seeming better for alpine climbing). Part of the idea here is to build my total body strength – I need it — I’m not a very big guy, I weigh about 142 lbs, and carrying a heavy pack takes a lot out of me. For aerobic fitness and developing anaerobic capacity I usually head outdoors for intense hill running, hiking, or uphill skinning (ski touring) as fast as I can, often times through informal interval training formats (interval training has been proven to be tremendous for improving aerobic and anaerobic fitness). When possible, I’ll include this in my skill development work and/or my endurance work. For example, I very rarely just hike leisurely to the climbs. I usually try to go hard, especially when going up hills – the approach can be a serious hill-training session. On solo outings I will run uphill to the base of the climbs, going as fast as I can, and get climbing-specific fitness (climbing fast) by soloing (easy stuff) a lot of terrain. By the time I’m done with a high-intensity outing like this, I’ve also built up some good endurance work.
3. Long Route Endurance
I develop this mostly through climbing. I try to get full days in the mountains on a regular basis, at least if I have a trip coming up. I live very close to the mountains and to excellent rock climbing, so I have the opportunity to do this – it’s why I moved here, living in a $65/month shack for my first year, before upgrading to a 7×11 square-foot chicken coop. It’s what I wanted to do. But don’t think you have to live in the mountains to develop mountain fitness. People can gain all-day fitness by racking up big-pitch days at the local crag, or even in the climbing gym. Add more pitches as your fitness grows, and increase the proportion of harder pitches, too, as you get better.
I’ve found that a couple of days a week of extremely high intensity work does tons for high-end fitness (multiple studies support this). It is also very time efficient, which is great for when I’m busy and don’t have time for long days in the mountains. When I’m actively training for a trip (though I’m always kind of “training” b/c I love being active and getting out climbing), I’ll try to do at least 2x/week of very high intensity work, at least 2x/week of difficult (for me) technical climbing, and one full day/week (8-12 hours at first, increasing to more, sometimes much more, like 16-20 hours on occasion) in the mountains, and one half-day or more of continuous effort (like a good half-day of rock or ice climbing). In reality, I rarely manage these as six separate days. Some of these things overlap — like trying to climb hard on a big day in the mountains, perhaps in which we go hard on the uphill approach, for example. Four days a week of going hard, whether duration, intensity, or both, typically works me over pretty good. I also “listen to my body” and gauge things on how I’m feeling, so it’s not so much a formula but more of a general outline. I also like to have fun and climb things I like to climb, so if that means I miss a “training” type day to have fun climbing with friends, then that’s OK. It’s important to remember the overall picture.
Finally, I try to never let myself get too out of shape. I’m a bit neurotic about my fitness – I love feeling fit and love the mental side of it as well. It’s very important to me, so even when I think I’m in “bad” shape I’m actually probably doing OK.
How should you train? I can’t say – it depends on your goals and how serious you truly are – but avoiding too much couch time and working hard is a great start.