TRAINING FOR THE NEW ALPINISM: IN THE DEPTHS

THIS IS A REVIEW NOT OF THE BOOK (THERES DOZENS OF THOSE ABOUT), BUT OF THE PROCESS OF APPLYING IT (MUCH, MUCH LESS OUT THERE), FROM DEEP IN THE GUTS OF IT.

starting at the end of winter i decided what the hell, drank the kool aid, and dived head first into the House / Johnston method of alpine training. as said in the earlier post – lots of people buying it, reading it and reviewing it, but as yet not much being said about actually doing it – so i chose to be an experiment of one and report what i find. now in the depths of the main base phases enough has surfaced to get a look at what starts to take shape.

straight up: it gets hard.

when you hit the cycles that are close to the peak amount of time per week things really crunch. without serious recomposing of your lifestyle its hard to do much else beyond the sessions, recover and rest. good luck having a full time job, family and thoughts outside climbing. the sessions themselves are not the killer element; by the time you arrive here you are well adapted over the months of modulated adaption – thats the beauty of the method. but what catalyzes it all the secondary elements; the eating, the recovering, the driving and the preparation to pull it all off. yes, there may be nearly 20 hours of applied training going on, but unless you live next door to a gym, down the road from a crag and round the corner from a mountain range theres another big chunk of time going into it. Japan is over-supplied with all the elements: good food, crags, mountains, gyms and forested areas to train in – plus the futuristic transport to get to it all – and its still a planning effort to bring it together. not bad, just it doesnt happen without motivation.

eventually staying on top of the training becomes the big thing, and the divisions between rest, recovery, eating and training blur into a single, seamless process – with every element demanding to be done well.

following the recommended scheduling (and allowing for tweaking around weather, over training and the odd other factor), the gradual increase in metrics like weekly distance, time, altitude, weight and reps / sets gets intense – as its meant to. time and again the authors state its about intentional overloading at manageable levels, balanced with recovery, to stress multiple metabolic systems in various ways. but what becomes apparent is just how solid an overloading this can be and how adaptable you really are.

in hindsight – and what i will work better with next year when it all starts again – it matters hugely where you start at. like everyone i wanted to begin at a beefier level, thinking also like everyone that i was up to it. luckily i swallowed the kool aid with a good slice of humble pie…. now in the midst of the higher volume cycles its hard to imagine even an extra 2 or 3 hours (recall that national level athletes often train at 20hrs a week…), in part knowing that extra effort entails an added increment of recovery too. so whilst i started at a volume that felt embarrassingly easy, after the increases recommended and followed almost to the dot, the current volume is a-plenty.

ive fiddled the schedule minimally – neither cutting corners nor drawing quarter significantly. im yet to not do a session tho occasionally ive delayed it due to the realities of life. all up my consistency has been good, tho it doesnt take long before the kilter of the same workout on the same day blows out of orbit. i doubt many have lives so well ordered it wouldnt. and i dont know how this pans out to affect the result – does strict ‘X workout always on tuesday’ prepare the organism better than a mildly random ‘X workout whenever it fits in’ format? i can see an argument for both.

what is perhaps the most interesting element ive found is just how much you can embed each week when you get it right. topping about 15hrs a week of training is a fair bit, and the ‘tricks’ to making it happen are what sets this apart from methods too simple or random in their scheduling. basically put; understanding the physiology chapters pays off. a fault i felt with the book is lack of dedication to developing recovery. yes, recovery is dabbled in, but if you truly expect to stay on track it needs to be developed as smartly as the stressing factors itself, and thats where you need to absorb the physiology stuff and understand how to stress different systems independently – because if you dont you simply wont have the time to get all the sessions into a week in form good enough to optimize on.

a good thing with this method is the element of ranking your sessions to see traits in how you feel. its important to realize how a string of B’s, C’s and D’s comes about and how to avoid a downward spiral. the key comes in realizing how you can train individual systems at meaningful levels (ie levels that cause an adaptive response) day after day, playing off the different recovery processes of each metabolic system to avoid crashing the lot. its like hitting a wall when you get it wrong but its a beautiful thing when you get it right and and lets you train smoothly while it lasts. on paper the grading column becomes a stack of B’s that consistently spike to A’s and descend to C’s forseeably.

much of the intelligence in all this is the way climbing is reverse-engineered into its raw components to be trained at fundamental levels, then recombined (with some smart mixing) to make a whole where the parts can be seen for their weaknesses and strengths. you get a really good look at the assembly process along the way. always there has been resistance to this idea in climbing – the silly hippy concept of ‘holistic’, train-it-all-in-unison idea, has long held sway to a lazy audience that doesnt really have solid objectives to ever judge things by – but for serious climbers, who have always trained like athletes as far as i recall back to the 80’s and no doubt earlier, this reductionist (another dirty word) idea is nothing new. nor is it to anybody who trains for anything else.

all those bits broken down; the raw strength, the strength fostered into power and endurance output of climbing-specific elements, the big base of efficient endurance and the spikes of all-in action, when independently developed both work better alone and fit together better too. and the added efficiency in training is profound as theres simply no way you can get near those thresholds training them all at once, and more so (going back to the different recovery processes of each system) youd never recovery efficiently enough to optimally adapt.

so then, over halfway thru the timeline, where do i find myself?

the short answer is; the best strength to endurance ratio ive ever had. theres times ive covered many more kms per week at lower body weight, but at way less altitude gain and far less climbing ability and raw strength. likewise ive been stronger by 15% but climbing less well, a bit heavier and not covering the distance either vertical or horizontal. climbing-wise im down on my absolute best, but can role out hundreds of meters vertical gain in a session not too many grades lower – and most importantly see the grades catching up to it.

all this is just as House / Johnston predicted it.

in equal measure have been the changes less obvious; to keep up with the endurance part ive eaten a lot more carbohydrate (+25% maybe). it would be impossible without it. ive also upped my protein intake during the peak phases with those evil shake formulas – again, recovery wouldnt happen without it. indeed, during the peak weeks, eating everything becomes a priority simply just to be fuelled for the next session. theres no way you could run the gauntlet of this schedule even close to strictly on a diet compromised by more than about 10%. and partying? some days ive power-napped mid-afternoons to see it thru…..the effect of a late night even without added chemical lubrication would have a big impact.

so no, theres no magic to House and Johnstons methods. lots of unseen planning, smart scheduling and a few tricks of metabolics for sure, but no silver bullet. BUT the hard work and big hours does bring results in a proportion that can be surprising, and thats vital in keeping the motivation high to see it through. this stuff seriously turns you into a climbing machine if you let it, and thats a working family guy talking – it would be amazing what a motivated 20 year old could achieve.