There's nothing better than walking uphill to get better at walking uphill! But, what if you don't have access to hills and mountains, and is that really true?
|The training for the new alpinism book|
Traditionally, hillwalkers, mountaineers, alpinists and rock climbers have always looked upon training as cheating or something weird. Competitive mountaineering only really existed in the Soviet Union and as indoor climbing walls began to open they were viewed with mixed feeling amongst the climbing community.
Mountain sports (or pastimes) have always been seen as a lifestyle rather than solely a sport or game to be played. Those who practice them are often more integrated into a broader lifestyle or community than those who play other, more traditional sports, such as tennis or football. They are seen as 'extreme' or 'unusual', and we therefore must be 'risk takers' and 'odd'! To some extent this is true, in that they can have a higher level of risk attached to them, however, often it is that decision making to be able to avoid, reduce and accept the risks that draws many of us into the sports. In our modern world, being able to take some control in an environment with real risks, is a rarity.
|Training or just enjoying a day out ski touring?|
As such, there are very few good books or articles written on the subject of training specifically for the mountains. Most of our mountain training comes from pure practice of the sport itself, or adapted from athletics and other mainstream sports. I have always had an interest in physiology and training, which hasn't always translated to being really fit and accomplishing my mountain goals; but it has resulted in years of reading and research. On some of my first mountaineering trips I can remember asking myself how I could get more hill fit and psychologically prepared for these.
The first book I came across, and one that is almost legend, is Extreme Alpinism, Climbing Light, Fast & High by Mark F. Twight and James Martin. I can recall reading it over and over, dreaming of all of the adventures their training secrets could take me on. And so it began, I would swim lengths of the pool for an hour or more at a time, because it was boring and so was walking on a trail or super long glacier, but at the same time it didn't impact my joints and I still had to retain enough focus to avoid breathing at the wrong moment. At the local gym I would be the weird one who got on the step machine with a rucksack on for ages, and one of the few women who used the free weights - so much so, that one of the instructors that still works there recognises me ten years later if I visit when I'm visiting family in London! I biked across London to work, went to the climbing wall for a few hours afterwards, and then biked home - barely able to hold onto the handlebars on occasion (the climbing wall was almost further away from home than work was!)
A few years later I moved to Snowdonia were I began to experiment with long days in the mountains, occasionally only eating before and after my exercise, my first foray into trying to understand what foods my body required, and how to become better at using fat stores.
And then, a few years ago, Training for the New Alpinism arrived. I had vaguely followed the Gym Jones youtube channel, and can remember preordering the book at work. At the time, I was probably the only person in the centre excited about it. Now, the majority of my colleagues have heard of Scott's Killer Core Workout, and quite a few of them own the book too. In 2019, a follow up book, Training for the Uphill Athlete, a manual for mountain runners and ski mountaineers by Steve House, Scott Johnson and Kilian Jornet arrived.
As with most training books, there is a lot of information, and it is nearly impossible to read and retain it in one sitting. Throughout the manuals there are stories from famous mountain athletes about times their training did or didn't go well and the results. This is a cool reminder of the fact that they are human too, and it's not always bad weather than forces you to abandon your plans.
The first year I began actively using the book, was also the first time I had actively engaged in training my core for several years. I was due to go on a ski mountaineering expedition to Mount Logan, and wanted to be as resilient as I could be. Completing Scott's Killer Core Workout twice a week was something I knew I would be able to fit in. Working in the mountains can make you pretty tired at times, and so adding too much training too soon could result in getting ill.
High intensity workouts will not create a hill fit individual! This is pretty much a myth. I say, pretty much, because the reality is, that once you have a really good aerobic base, some high intensity work is beneficial, but it is the absolute tiny minority, not majority. In his books, training at the upper end of your aerobic capacity and into your anaerobic, form only 5-10% of your training time, and none for the first few months, depending on your previous experience.
At work, I always find it interesting when I have clients who are into Crossfit, or Ironmans, but at the end of a week of walking, where we might only cover a maximum of 15km a day, they are knackered. Why is it that someone can move all day on the flat, or be stronger than I ever will be in the gym, but they struggle to complete walking the Welsh 3000s or run up Snowdon?
As the years have continued, lots of the information from his original and new book have inspired my training thoughts. I don't tend to really have a plan, more lots of adaptable ideas, and that works really well for me. Here are some things I love about the book, and ideas I have taken forwards:
- If you only have time to do a couple of strength training sessions a week, then make them core workouts - a strong core is worth almost double that of strong arms and legs and provides important groundwork for your body
- The beauty of the core workout is that a lot of it can be done using your bodyweight, and in the Uphill Athlete book there is a really cool progression of exercises suggested
- Getting better at walking up hills is all about improving your aerobic capacity, short high burst intensive exercise is all well and good, but should only be added as a small section of your training once you have spent a few months building an aerobic base
- The Aerobic base is critical, you need to get used to the idea of walking or moving at a speed where you can hold a conversation the entire time, even if walking uphill.
- Consistency is awesome. It's impossible for most people to stick to a plan, but if you can at least do a little bit each week, even if it's not what you planned or hoped for, it helps. This can feel sooooo slow, especially if you're used to that 'out of breath, I'm working really hard' feeling.
- Do what works for you, read the book and take the bits that are relevant for you, try things out, don't follow what your housemate, friend or idol does, ask them why it works for them
- Balance your stresses, life has lots of stress, work, family, relationships, length of day and quantity of sleep. Once you add training on top of this, it creates more stress on your body, so adapt each day and week to your daily stress too. If you feel tired, do less, change it, skip it, whatever works for you, so long as you recognise it and avoid getting ill from overdoing life, it doesn't matter!
- Keep a log, if it works for you. Especially at the start, try to figure out what time of day you prefer to do what training, when to eat, what to eat, how good you felt during the training. Unless you remember these details it can be difficult to build a pattern of knowing why you got tired / ill and when it was.
- Don't diet and train. If you need to change your nutrition, it is a lifestyle choice, this means, it is for the rest of your life, and should be to something akin to a normal balanced eating habit.
- Every fourth week, do a bit less. Give your body and mind some time off every few weeks. I try to time this week with a week I know it will be harder to train in, e.g. a big family occasion or different work location and it might happen after three weeks on one occasion, and after four on another.
|Keeping a log on my Garmin Fenix 3 watch of the training I've done|
Enjoy it. Training can be fun, and not even really training, but rather a good excuse to go walking, mountain biking and climbing. It can make your next mountain holiday more enjoyable because you won't be knackered at the end of each day. It could make your next expedition more successful, because you could ski more lines than you thought possible in a week. And, training the core could make your body feel more connected and enable you to perform better than you believed possible.
I might say I'm going training, but what I really mean is, I'm heading out my front door to have some fun time outside, I just might be focussing on not moving too fast so I keep my heart rate in a particular place. So whilst others are rushing to the summit only to be too exhausted to enjoy it and do the same tomorrow, I can have a great experience, not be aching the next day and get out again.