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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Endurance race training vs. Mountaineering training

Preamble: Several friends asked me to comment on this topic so I decided to devote an entire blog post to it instead of including it as an aside to my weekly update. Here goes....

There are several important differences between endurance racing and mountaineering. To appreciate those differences, I provide an outline of these differences between the activities below.  These differences provide me with constant guide on how to train for climbing and how the preparation for a climb is similar but different in many ways from the preparation for an endurance race.  Note: The distinctions below are solely based upon my own experience in both activities.

Urgency.  Racing requires a certain level of urgency mostly absent in mountaineering.  There are times when a climber may get into trouble but a well-organized climb typically eliminates most of these urgent situations.  Racing, on the other hand, requires a person to press hard for maximal performance.  I found this difference to be the greatest of all listed here.  When I train for climbing, I almost never push myself as hard as I would in race training.  Training now is more relaxed and I rarely worry about pace - that comes with fitness - and won't matter much at sea level.  Pace and urgency matter when you least expect it under conditions that are almost impossible to simulate at home.  The best advice I ever read was BE HERE NOW.  Forward thinking helps with planning but thinking about where you are now and focusing on what you are doing RIGHT NOW works better for climbing than for racing.

Fatigue.  No doubt, both activities lead to fatigue but the fatigue I felt in climbing compares to no other activity I ever did in my life with one lone exception.  My family raced sailboats together for many years and most of the races were long overnights or multi-day races.  We sailed in shifts (4 hours "on" and 4 hours "off") and often the shift you were assigned to sleep (the "off" shift) required "all hands on deck."  Thus, I felt fatigue during those days racing - fatigue I only felt again while climbing.  The level of fatigue is so difficult to explain but let me give it a try.  Sailboat racing looks like this:
  1. Sailboat racing

Woolies or tell-tales on the jib
Every crew member sits in a prescribed location and your job is get the boat to move in the proper direction as fast as possible.  An overnight race just means that your attention to the boat lasts longer than most people can muster.  I often felt the pinch of fatigue - so great that I thought I was hallucinating.  The job on the boat that I found most similar to the conditions in mountaineering was helmsman.  When you are at the helm, you look at 6-8 inch pieces of yarn attached to the front of the sail at the front of the boat (aka the jib).  These yarn pieces are called "woolies" or tell-tales and they help the helmsman steer the boat for optimal sail trim and maximum boat speed.  Imagine staring at these woolies for 4 hours when you are dead tired at 4am in the freezing cold rain.  Eating is also a chore so we tend to skip meals and sleep simultaneously leading to an even greater sense of fatigue.  If you fall asleep, the boat slows down because it is no longer in proper trim and the entire team suffers.  Your job, therefore, becomes the most important job.  The fatigue comes from deprivation, stress, and boredom all wrapped up into a neat little 4-hour window.

Now I completed many marathons (probably over 20) and well over 100 triathlons - perhaps double those numbers - and I never experienced fatigue like I did sailing or climbing.  The fatigue in climbing is similar to the fatigue in sailing in that you need to attend to things under extreme conditions and your attention matters.  Climbing shifts tend to be longer but the fatigue levels remain pretty similar between sailing and climbing.  How does fatigue affect my climbing preparation?  I train up to and through fatigue.  Fatigue is my friend.  When I was training for endurance races, I always worried about over-training because over-training leads limits or reduces performance.  Now I know that fatigue is just the beginning of the real test.   I don't always push myself to fatigue but I no longer use it as a barometer for over-training.  In fact, I consider it an essential element to my preparation.  If I am not tired then I am not working enough.  Training my brain for long hauls that seem impossible are the core to my training.

Cognitive demand.  Few endurance activities demand the both physical and mental stamina like mountaineering.  There is another activity (solo long-distance sailboat racing like the Vendee Globe) that is close and, at times, probably even more demanding.  The Vendee Globe sailor must sail, navigate, forecast, cook, clean, repair, and endure ALL ALONE the most treacherous terrain known to man.  Rich Wilson's book Race France to France Leave Antarctica to Starboard is an excellent introduction to the race and the trials of enduring probably the toughest activity in the world.  You will probably start to see a slight favoritism toward sailing but that bias comes from my background and the many similarities shared with mountaineering.  I have never sailed solo other than racing my Laser, but that activity pales in comparison to any of these extreme events.  Now consider the demands on the mountaineer.  You finish a 10-hour approach (a hike up to the glacier through branches, felled trees, rocks, creeks, and rolling hills) and your day is not done.  Many decisions await your attention.  These decisions include camp location, food selection, equipment check, route check, and snow stability; there are other decisions but these are the big ones.  Typical endurance races require the athlete to make very few decisions - mostly because the route is laid out in advance and the only decisions are when to eat/drink and how hard to press.

Motor control demands.  Ever try to thread a needle when your hands are shaking?  How about tie a climbing knot (e.g., figure eight follow-back) with mittens on in the dark?   Mountaineers need to do these tasks routinely - often when they are exhausted.  Perhaps threading a needle sounds extreme but I assure you that trying to fix your sleeping bag zipper at 17,000 feet after you just climbed 2,000 feet in a driving snow storm seems way harder than threading a needle.   Endurance athletes rarely need to do much with a few exceptions.  Triathletes need change shoes and swap clothes between legs (wetsuit to bike attire to running shoes).  These few instances in triathlons are replicated hundreds of times during a climbing expedition.  I try to mix in sailing with my training - particularly after a few hours of working out - because sailing requires me to do many fine and gross motor tasks.  Demanding more from myself after workouts helps me prepare better for climbs.  I also work on my knots, work on projects at home, and avoid relaxing after workouts.  After training for racing, I would eat and sleep - no luxuries like that anymore.

Weather.  Just when you thought it could not get any worse for the climber, consider the weather.  Climbers must face weather and plenty of it.  Most people think of high alpine climbing as a freezing cold climate but most climbers will tell you that we sweat more than we freeze.  There certainly are many instances of freezing cold temperatures but the well-conditioned climber will probably battle sweating.  I climbed and skiied in every weather condition imaginable including -100 degree temperatures with blinding winds to 80 degree temperatures that felt way hotter due to the sun reflecting off the snow.  These conditions change rapidly on the mountain and climbers get ready for anything - well, perhaps most conditions.  Many people ask me why I don't train in a freezer.  My training must be in all conditions.  I train when it is hot, cold, wet, dry, early, late, light, or dark.

Altitude.  Most of you know that I (and my wife Kathy) sleep in a hypoxic tent.  The reason for the tent sleeping is that as you climb up a mountain, the oxygen concentration decreases.  Oxygen concentration affects your physical performance, sleep, and cognitive ability.  Thus, my training now involves hypoxic sleeping and will soon include hypoxic training.  Hypoxic sleep improves performance at sea level so every endurance athlete ought to consider using it to gain the most benefit from training.  The benefits of hypoxic training on sea-level performance, however, appears negligible; the benefits at altitude are clear.  Unless the race you prepare for demands altitude training - and some do like the Leadville Race Series - I strongly encourage you to stick to sea-level training.

Workload.  I have never known any endurance activity more taxing than mountaineering.  The work never ends.  Well, it ends when you get home and sleep for a week but on the mountain and even the week leading to the trip and the travel home all require effort.  Consider our recent (2011) Denali climb.  My climbing team had to assemble our lists of climbing gear, sort equipment, buy food, repackage food, distribute loads among the four of us, break it down for the flight, repack it after our flight, resort equipment the day before the climb, shop for more food, repackage even more food, redistribute the loads again, repack, unpack, repack, unpack, and after 2 days of this then we climb.  Oh, I failed to mention we needed to check in at the Ranger station, eat, and sleep all before leaving.  Once we were on the glacier, we had to repack, rope up, climb, make camp for two and sometimes three tents, cook, clean, sleep, cook, pack up camp, redistribute loads, and repeat this for the next 10 days.  Yes, the work continues throughout the entire climb.  Even after the descent, we need to repack and make our way to the airport where we plead with the airlines to let us on a flight before we die of starvation or boredom. No endurance race ever required that level of work or commitment.  My training involves all sorts of activities that have nothing to do with climbing.  I ride my bike, run in the neighborhood, exercise on the elliptical, lift, stretch, grocery shop, cook, clean, pack, repack, repair my house, entertain my kid, drink beer, work (yeah, I do work), and other things that keep me occupied - just as occupied as I would be on the mountain.

Teamwork.  Finally, climbing requires teamwork.  Glacier travel is extremely dangerous and even more dangerous alone.  Larger teams distribute the risks by enabling your teammates to arrest a fall or rescue you from a crevasse fall.  The most damaging thing to teamwork is team conflict.  All the factors above affect the morale of the team and often are the cause of conflict.  Poor sleep, inadequate acclimatization, poor preparation, fatigue, and differences in team and individual goals often increase conflict and jeopardize the climbing expedition.  Only team endurance racing requires teamwork but often those team racing events are co-active whereby individuals race different legs of the race and the total team performance comes from the summation of the individual efforts.  Mountaineering requires cooperative efforts where each of us relies on the others for safety and support.  That reliance needs to be reciprocated and trusted by all members.  Training or preparing for this part of the climb is probably the hardest aspect of most large mountain climbs - a point I shall return to later in a subsequent post.

So this is my long-winded response to several questions about training for a mountain climbing expedition.  There are some similarities between endurance race training and mountaineering but the differences are what make the preparation so much different.  I train with others mostly and train under any conditions and all dispositions toward training.  Some days I am excited to train whereas others I prefer to roll over and sleep.  I never stop pushing forward because I think the most important part of mountaineering training is to train my brain.