Interval training has countless applications to almost any form of preparation for any activity. Variations of intervals can be done anywhere, from running on trails to climbing gyms to weight gyms to athletic facilities and swimming pools. Decades of research and analysis show results.
Relevant to winter climbing are several versions, and the variants I put at the top of the pile are intervals focusing on stress. Stress in this context being where the usuals of strength, endurance and power are secondary, and ‘system anxiety’ is the focus. simply put: where the cause of failure is spread across as many aspects as possible, and ‘you’ fail as an organism rather than simply one aspect of your capacity.
System anxiety applies well to climbing because anxiety is a major component. Indeed I think anxiety is one of the few things that sets climbing apart from other pursuits. System anxiety is maybe best described as ‘when the organism faces multiple points of failure due to stress across multiple organic systems’. you know it when you feel it: when as the hypoxic tunnel fades, your breath comes back, and you realize you cant feel your hands, then that your lower back is tightened and your mouth is dry.
It differs from regular training in that it blows out 3 or more systems. Properly 4, because when done correctly the mind is the first to go.
A good example might be the following:
– 30seconds of heavy push rows (at around 60% of body weight)
– Followed by 90seconds of dead lifts (at about 75% of body weight)
– Followed by 2 minutes of rest
Repeated 3 times.
What happens here is the compromising of multiple organic systems, reducing the capacity for one system to make up the overlap of another.
The heavy push rows blow the torso and the dexterous shoulder/arm musculature, and stress the body symmetry which messes with balance as the smaller muscle groups tire. The stressful posture reduces diaphragm capacity for oxygen intake. Stress spikes across several elements and repeated complex movements prevents the mind from tuning out.
The 90secs of dead lifts shifts the body into a longer rhythm of basic movements that would be fine if those rhythms hadn’t just been disrupted. The weight is about fifth on the list of relevant factors, with compromised oxygen intake kicking in fast, boosted by so much blood being in the arms when its needed elsewhere. Confused by the lateral, asymmetrical demands of the push press, the torso/hip complex/lower back has to realign to provide decent form for the lifting.
And on top of all that and most importantly, the grip starts to slide, making for a very long 90secs where the mind, instead of going into auto-pilot with the big dumb movements, starts screeching about peripheral failure instead. The internal monologue becomes heated as the urge to go faster is defeated by the lack of blood/oxygen to do so – either way offers no way out.
Each set escalates as the 2 minutes recovery is barely enough to satisfy the demands for blood/oxygen flow back to the arms, back and large muscle masses.
failure here is a complex conglomeration of things:
– not enough juice to see thru the reps
– grip strength
– loss of form
– brain cant override the stress demands
– not enough strength in the large muscle groups
– inability to maintain balance and integrity
– loss of focus
– loss of dexterity
– incapacity to recover
– inefficiency of movement
– lack of strength across range of movement
This set can be changed to any exercises that have similar demands: A short powerful stressor on multiple focused systems, to maximize demands on power output, followed by a relatively longer stressor that antagonizes the demands of the previous set and gets the mind screaming about something rather than tuning out to robot country.
Its not hard to draw parallels to alpine climbing: you punch up a neve slope on all fours, transition onto dexterous vertical ice with a pack on, scramble over the mixed stuff at the top pumped and charged. Brief rest. Repeat to the top. The large muscle mass stressors, the demands on asymmetrical integrity, repetitive endurance, fine motor skills, grip strength and mental focus are all present. Only on a remote icefall ‘failure’ has different consequences.
Climbers don’t blow out because of isolated weaknesses – the reason lots of pull ups alone mean little.
15 pull ups after a 7min mile, 30 weighted sit ups and 30 body weight squats is more relevant.
Climbers blow out because the blood and oxygen they needed for those 5 hard moves was somewhere in their legs rather than where they needed it in their arms and lower back. And rather than making focused, pre-emptive decisions they were howling to themselves about their calves and forearms, flailing for anything instead of setting up the sequence.
All winter I see construction workers, ultra-runners and firemen consistently make better climbers than rock climbers. Not because they are stronger, but because they have better complex stress thresholds. Carrying buckets of render up scaffolding or covering stairs wearing a respirator simply counts for more when it matters than having the latest karabiners or lightest jacket.
winters looming so its been time to hone the sort of skills needed for trips in the pipeline. time spent on walls is always valuable, especially when its all about working stuff out, and usually thats easier done when its not -15c. this trip covered a lot of ground over almost 3 weeks, with time at Mizugaki yama, Yatsugatake, lower Kaikomagatake and then down to Tanzawa, each spot having its own stuff to work on.
theres nothing quite like a RURP, especially hanging from it when its in the underside of a lip
…tho stacked wires come pretty close
weird tools for weird placements: ball nuts fill a gap where nothing else besides nailing will
over the time we spent only 2 nights in hotels (the 2 nights when typhoons hit hardest), with the rest spent in portaledges, bivvys, tents and in-situ shelters. days were spent covering the logistics for foreign expeditions, playing about on dodgy aid placements, drilling systems, lugging huge loads, hauling water, reconning locations and refining the processes of extended periods being self-sustained – all the things that make the difference at the sharp end.
living on a wall makes you rethink everything: hanging the stove between portaledges
after long, steep approaches its a luxury to stay right at the base of a wall
getting onto the wall is only one part of a complex process, especially in a foreign country where you have to make all the decisions yourself. to succeed takes time spent not just on the sharp end, but getting a handle on the elements of a trip that dont get the romance and thrills that many overlook. by the time your clipped in above the ground youve already covered a lot of ground
WARNING: nothing new here
salmon sushi: ideal recovery food
Every year I take a selection of people out winter climbing and all year I see people blag out from lack of decent nutrition – tho they usually blame it on other things.
Its not magic – thousands of words have been written about eating right for climbing in the cold – but it is disconcerting to see someone whos payed a lot for their gear and trip to be let down by what they fuel themselves with. In part I can make up for a tiny degree of this by managing what they eat on the trip – in the end, the clients success is my success – but leading up to that…well, you gotta take responsibility sometime. This is not bowling were doing here.
Like twenty pull ups, a decent marathon time or a 2XBW deadlift, putting good things into your mouth is a fair indication of a climbers greater capacity.
Don’t just eat crap before heading out to climb. Your eating habits between trips is your platform for during trips, and no amount of analyzing your gear or watching Will Gadd videos will make up for ignoring a major factor to your performance.
Im not the only one whod gamble to say that crap eating is the biggest factor other than weather in undermining a trips success. One or two days out each week wont trip you into the red zone too far – particularly if you over-consume during the week anyway – but what will pull the rug away tho is a diet of garbage, deficient in the nutrients needed to get you thru the rollercoaster of a climbing trip; crappy sleep, dehydration, lack of fresh food, stress, irregular bowels, bizarre energy foods and enormous kcal expenditure – and that’s when things go well.
Like sharpening your tools, treating your gloves, drying your boots, studying the topos and airing your sleeping bag, good eating before and after trips is just a part of taking climbing seriously. Simply put; you can either do it, or not do it. So why not? You gotta eat, so why not make it properly? If it was a spectator sport in some nice stadium it wouldn’t matter – but its not. Its alpine climbing. The side effects of getting it wrong can include surgery for frost bite, hypothermia and death.
Whats here has all been said before. Id be a zillionaire one way or another if I could package it somehow new. But if youre not doing this already you are letting yourself down. If you wanted something where nutrition it made no difference you should have stuck with bowling.
Eat fresh stuff
Enzymes, fiber, vitamins and minerals are more present in fresh food. Also, lots of nutrients work in ratio, not just quantity, so by eating things as lived you get closest to that. Fresh food also means eating natural food, so even tho they can be stored for months things like nuts, seaweed and kim chee count as fresh. Some frozen stuff that’s snap frozen at picking is actually in better condition than produce that’s been on the shelf a week.
broccoli: a ‘heavy vegetable’ thats a good alternative to bread or pasta
The point is, dose your system good with lots of stuff that’s laced as little as possible with the sorts of things they preserve food with.
Your body takes a pounding when climbing, so providing it with the optimum amount of building material is necessary for recovery.
beef: winter climbers need solid amounts of protein too minimize loss of muscle mass
It need not always be from meat. Protein is everywhere. As always the quality is the important thing.
You need sugar for your brain to work. What you don’t need is so much it takes up kcal room from other things.
You absorb 300-400 kcals an hour – sugar is an easy way to suck up that. don’t waste it on crap simple sugars, consume the sorts of good complex sugars that come in dried fruit and gels. The odd nasty candy just to pick the brain up is smart use of sugar – thinking you will fuel a day at -10c on pop tarts and Fanta isn’t.
You need carbohydrates to fuel yourself and kick start fat metabolization. This is not the time to strip base body fat – that was summer. Its not hard, just avoid refined grains and replace them with ‘heavy’ vegetables (good name for a band that…), starchy fruit and cereals like buckwheat. If its got to be bread or pasta, get the whole grain stuff.
garlic bread: good for post-trip calorie re-gain
As far as getting your carbohydrates from pumpkin, broccoli, beets, carrots, bananas, avacados and soba noodles theres plenty to live off. The odd bowl of spaghetti, rice or fries wont hurt.
This branch of your diet is the most invasive to manage – but the results are the most noticable for increases in energy and metabolic function.
Eat quality fats
Fat from plants is good. Fat from fish is good too. Fat from mammals (and birds, and probably reptiles for all I know) is only good in small amounts. Fat from industrial processes is shit.
Alpine climbing is fat-consuming territory. Don’t shy away from the stuff, just eat the good version of it. Limit fat from legged creatures to the minimum of what you cant drain out it when cooking. Fat runs out of meat when heated, so any cooking method that lets it drain or float away is fine.
For vegetable fats, go to town.
Eat nutrient-dense stuff
Pack your system with enough nutrients to last. Yes, yes a handful of lettuce has the RDI of calcium for a day – but when the next fresh food is a week away, think ahead. Many nutrients hit thresholds then pass the excess from the system, so at least head off at saturation.
avocados: rich in oils, vitamins, quality carbohydrates and enzymes
Thankfully ‘nutrient-dense’ is just a secret name for ‘wholesome’. Yes, a loaf of white bread will give you X amount of fiber – but 2 slices of the good stuff will do it better, and probably cheaper across the board. Things like seeds, seaweeds, beans, berries and fish have shown to be tightly packed with good things so dose up good on them. Unless you live in Zimbabwe or Mongolia, we have the wealth of the entire worlds cuisines at our disposal – no reason to not be well dosed up.
Don’t restrict yourself to some ascetic new age diet that stresses your body and throws out the ratios of what it needs. If any pursuit has lee way with calorie intake its winter climbing – the focus here is on quality of nutrition, not restriction of it. Wait till spring to worry about weight loss.
If you crave fries, make your own good ones. If its chocolate, buy the good dark stuff. Cakes? Less of the good stuff beats more of the crap. Life is for living and food is part of that – if youre suffering with your diet something bigger is wrong. Understand the demands of a climbers lifestyle and find a happy angle on it. the occasional tub of homer hudson or halva (or both) makes life worth living – just don’t let any of it make up more than about 20% of your total intake.
even better, leave it for the day after a hard trip when youve earned the leeway.
Why bother? Unless you cant eat properly due to time issues, its cheaper to just consume what you need from real food. High altitude is different, but for regular winter climbing unless youre preparing for a heavy trip on limited supplies, just eat well.
Get them into you. A climbing trip almost certainly includes dehydration.
Food goes down better with liquids so drink enough to piss properly. Lots of liquids carry nutrients too so get into soups etc. As a fast delivery format for salts, chemicals and sugars when you need them most (halting cramps, losing focus etc) take the liquid route. Coffee dehydrates but life without it is unimaginable if you need to get shit done. Make up the difference with other fluid.
Hows any of this differ from normal healthy eating?
The difference is this matters. Normal eating has leeway over a large cycle, eating for winter climbing is about focusing on a period of depletion, expecting to burn into the red, then replenish after. This means minimizing the effects of the deprivation period by having a margin of nutrients to pull from.
Day in day, out you do yourself a favour eating well – before and after a climbing trip the intent is on minimizing deficit. Consider it as if you have a period of deprivation coming up, so load on the good stuff and aim to replace it afterwards. If the trips longer than about 4 days, and if youre carrying all your supplies, you WILL go into deficit. How you minimize that has a lot to do with the nutrient platform you come in from. Normal eating assumes you have a pantry of stuff to get things right across a larger period of time. It also doesn’t assume you are spending 4000kcals a day, much of it under physical stress.
‘Healthy’ in regular terms means topping up – the Nutrient Platform means saturating.
In normal life theres a shop round the corner to restoke sugar levels. Climbing doesn’t have that.
The week before a climbing trip go into preparation mode. Lean up your fat intake away from animal fats to vegetable ones, pull the bread and replace with pumpkin and bananas, go hard on the green vegetables, double your intake of good liquid, try not to skip meals, get drunk or eat much crap.
Aim for about 3300kcals a day and make it all quality. Go for a ratio of about 55% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 15% fat. The longer the trip planned the more you can shift towards fat. After a hard trip shift towards protein. When not in the climbing cycle drop the fat back to about 5% and even out the protein/carbohydrates. Its not hard. If you can work out how many slings to take you can work out what to eat.
A body loaded with optimal nutrient thresholds functions better. Its that simple. Throw out the orbit of one or more nutrition elements and the rest of the machine goes wonky. Starting out burning quality carbohydrates leads to more efficient fat metabolization. Having a system primed with electrolytes, minerals and vitamins keeps stress at bay longer. Why buy the best gloves if youre only wearing a crappy baselayer? Why dress like a serious climber if you don’t function as one? Why not make the whole lot work together?
Theres a lot of discussion about ‘climbing training’, but not all of its too well informed, ie put into perspective with actually climbing. Anything not done on a mountain, with real conditions, real timelines and real risks is ‘virtual’ preparation. Its not the real thing, however much it emulates it.
But that’s cool. If youre climbing seriously, you are risking your ass, and that’s not the place to develop your inherent capabilities – it’s the place to apply them.
I suppose its essentially periodization, but defining your climbing into times when you are developing your capacity and times you are applying your capacity is useful. It stops the common climbers scourge of all your climbing falling into the middle – lots off ok stuff buffering out only a few moments of really climbing in the zone. No doubt fun, but makes for slow progress if that’s your intention.
Anyway, even the development stuff, on a mountain, is not the place to develop quantifiable capacity. Its just too sketchy, and really, how much time does anyone spend on mountains in a truly developmental zone. Once all the access, return and messing about stuff is taken out, few people are in the time and place to chalk up enough hours to really work on it. Some of us have other things in life to do.
That’s where training environments work (I hesitate to say ‘gym’ due to all the preconceived ideas that arise). These are places where you can work on and test aspects of your capacity with the superfluous bits removed – then go back to work. Which means you can do it often enough to see the patterns and weaknesses.
But time is precious, more so the time when you are in the right zone for doing something that matters. So here are a bunch of exercises (or types of exercises) that optimize time spent on climbing-specific preparation done off the mountain
Time spent under load and stress, finding weaknesses and injury resistance. Strap on +20kg of gear and carry it 20kms. Simple. Sort of. it gradually becomes not about the weight, or about the distance, or the times, or the stress. bit by bit it becomes about what you dont have, until you push thru the looking glass when its not even about finishing. a meaningful session is when you wonder how you will recover. the most meaningful sessions are when you fail.
Body weight with actual weight
Pull ups, dips, air squats, push ups etc. all the old style stuff – done with an extra +10kg. unless you climb naked, un-weighted gymnastic movements have limited effectiveness.
Stressers & pumpers
Farmers carries, dead hangs, overhead holds, rack holds, weighted steps, planks & abdominal holds – held long and hard, buffered with sets of lactic-building, pump inducing movements.
If you don’t understand the use of these exercises youre not going hard enough.
Make it about sucking it up and putting it out. Long sets of powerful moves where it becomes a journey into every rep. any movement that stresses a large muscle group and extends to the peripherals. 50 deadlifts at 130% body weight, 50 backsquats at 100% bodyweight, 25 pullups loaded with 50% bodyweight. Partition into any way that works.
Link the extremities to the big muscle groups during movement. A million variations from farmers carries to weighted steps and TGUs. Stress the hell out of the big muscles then move onto something demanding precision once your system gets bombed.
Keep the body guessing and the focus to your movements. Its not basketball, but short, powerful and focused moves are the stuff that increases your survivability. Every route has a moment or two when things red line and demand a few of the right strikes to keep you out of trouble and its nice to have some muscle memory there. Plyometric pullups are good if you set up 2 bars.
Aside from the 20/20 and full capacity with the power strength endurance, this stuff works well throughout the climbing season, to keep the structure and systems tweaked in climbing mode. Its important to rest of course, but keeping these elements firing off during the week keeps you primed to make the most of the windows when they arrive. obsess over calories, heartrates and body fat if you like, but not at the expense of listening to your organic indicators – electronics only record data, they dont indicate it. fine if youre a robot, that doesnt cramp, dehydrate, burn sugar or feel altitude. tabulate it all to find the inconsistancies rather than reward yourself for aligning with someone elses system. find where it fails – this is not a charity fun run.
None of this need be done in a gym. Splitting wood for winter covers much of whats here. A big riverstone and some homemade roman rings will work.
Define the sessions too, don’t mix things up into a mish mash of below-useful attempts: when you lift, lift heavy. When you run, run hard. When you hang, make it matter. Otherwise it will all be for little, lacking in edge and without much transferal to the mountains where it matters.