Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My training regimen for alpine climbing - Part 1

I have always been an active outdoor person since I was a child. Besides active sports, I have been an avid hiker and have logged many miles with relatively heavy backpacks (30+ pounds) through all these years, irrespective of my body weights.

Please understand that carrying inordinate amount of weight on your backpack (more than 20% of your body weight) over an extended period of time isn't always the best thing to do. I realized it the hard way with a bothersome knee in my twenties, however, all was not lost and I could recover and repair the damage done by taking necessary corrective measures.

Anyway, so the purpose of this background information is to establish the fact that I have always had a solid aerobic base for long hours of moderate intensity hikes. However, those ascents were not fast by any means. But, those hours definitely helped me have a solid foundation for what it takes to do bigger peaks in light and fast manner, or at least pave the way for it.

I have never been someone who believed in systematic training and always lived by train by climbing and hiking, rather than spending those long hours in the gym or on a treadmill. However, in 2014 I came across this book, Training for the new Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston and it completely changed my perspective towards systematic and meticulous training. The fact that I was going to be a part of a ~6000m peak on a Himalayan expedition also helped me to stay motivated and train in a disciplined manner.

I also did my basic mountaineering course in Manali, which involved spending 4-weeks in the mountains at altitudes of between 7,000 to 15,000 feet, including daily drills of rigorous physical training, exercises and basic rock and snow climbing. While not on the cutting edge of the technical spectrum, the simple act of performing physical activity day in and day out for 6+ hours every day on an average for four weeks straight really upped my mountain fitness.

This was on the back of nearly 6 months of strict adherence of the plan that Steve and Scott have recommended in their book. The combined effect of these two was nothing unexpected. I was in the best shape and more than able to easily summit the 5980m peak (19,600 feet approximately) with a lot of gas still left in the tank. I was well acclimatized and in good shape.

Now, back to the flat lands, I do not have the luxury of spending any amount of time in the mountains. But, I can still follow the training regimen in the book and over the last 3 years of trial and error I have now constructed a plan for me and my partner, who also happens to be my wife.

This plan is not purely for mountaineering training, but rather a mix of alpine training + rock climbing training and also includes some time on fingerboard. At the time of writing this, I can onsight up to 5.10d/.11a sport routes on rock (redpoint up to .12a) and 5.9 on traditional climbs. My wife has an onsight sport climbing grade of around 5.10a/b (redpoint up to .11b). Bouldering wise, I am at V4/5 onsight grade (sends up to V7) and she is at V3/4 (send up to V6). This is to establish that we are decent climbers (read intermediate with relatively decent aerobic base). We also have completed a few Grade III and IV routes in the High Sierras without much difficulties.

Now, three years after my Himalayan expedition, it's been a long gap and months of systematic training has been few and far, due to family, work and other issues that an immigrant faces in the United States. Given this situation now, I was not sure about my aerobic base. However, do note that we get to do a lot of gym climbing, but being in the flat lands of Florida, not much leg work.

Hence, I tried a few of the Alpine combine tests prescribed in the book, especially focusing on the elevation gain part. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could do 3038 feet (926 m) of elevation gain within 1 hour at body weight and 1000 feet elevation gain with 25 lbs backpack in 21 minutes. I did both these test not in my mountaineering both though, both these cases were done in my regular running shoes. However, the timings on both these test underscored the fact that aerobic base definitely has a solid foundation and the legs definitely are in decent shape - not great factoring in that I used my running shoes, and did not factor in altitude, uneven terrain, cold and wind resistance - to support my aerobic fitness. However, even as I trudged along, I felt that it is my legs that are probably the weak link as compared to my cardio base. For my wife, who managed 2800 feet in 1 hour at body weight, it was the other way round.

For the weighted 1000 feet test, I used the box step method, while for the 3038 feet ascent at body weight, I used a grade 15 incline on treadmill and cover 3.9 miles in an hour. I do understand that training at sea-levels in Florida is nothing like the real-world mountain terrain and conditions out there, but having experienced that as well, I feel that we are doing above average for a pair of Floridian with full-time jobs and limited access to mountains. I believe, this understanding and realistic evaluation of our abilities is important to understand the kind of training loads that one should impose on their bodies. Overtraining or undertraining will simply yield no benefits.

Given this base, we will be ramping up our training regimen with a more systematic approach to be better climber - fast technically proficient and with enough mental and physical reserves - to complete our alpine endeavors. I have taken a few liberties to modify and adapt our training schedules to train multiple parameters such as endurance, upper and lower body strength as well as muscular endurance in addition to finger strength workouts. The result is 18 hours per week of training schedule, with ~10 hours over the weekends and 8 over the weekdays after work.

It's not going to be easy and we will definitely miss some sessions due to fatigue, lack of recovery or other commitments, but overall the goal will be to stick to the plan and do no less than 15 hours of training every week. I guess, sticking to this volume will definitely yield the desired results and provide with adequate safety cushion to perform out there in the mountains.

In the next part, I will detail the activities that I use as a part of my training regimen, how much rest I prefer and can manage after each activity and the sequence in which I do these. Again, the next part detailing the individual activities of my regimen are built on the base information given in this post and cannot be viewed in isolation.