Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cross Training as a Way of Life

Let's face it, it never hurts to be strong.  Years ago I was guiding on Rainier and one of my assigned clients was a moderately heavy, middle-aged dairy farmer.  Also along were folks that participated in things like triathlons, and marathons.  When we made it to the upper mountain I was amused to see the dairy farmer make light work of it while the uber fit were getting their teeth kicked in.  After the climb I spoke with the dairy farmer as I was curious as to how this guy who did not meet the standard criteria for fit would do so well on an endurance event like a Rainier climb.

He explained that his cows had to be milked every day, twice a day, and that is was often cold or hot or raining or snowing, and that he had spent his whole life working hard.  The work was rarely routine.  Some days he was pushing cows about, others fixing fences, others repairing machinery, but they all generally involved bending, lifting, pulling, pushing, and a lot of walking.  In a nut shell, this guy worked with his body, all the time.  He was not so much an athlete as a strong person.

The marathon crowd was plenty fit, but only in a very narrowly defined band.  They were very fit for running, with no pack, for a predictable length of time on a predictable running surface.  Alter the terrain, timing, or scenario and their fitness often is not calibrated for climbing.  What they do have is a great base for branching out into other activities if they can simply detune the daily running obsession, which by the way is a great formula for overuse injuries.  If your primary goal is to run, then by all means run.  If your primary goal is to climb, some running is good, but only running to train does not always work as well.

A few years back I signed up for a month of training at CrossFit Cashmere.  My initial goal was to build core strength.  I greatly enjoyed my month there and I can solidly say I was not good at many of the activities they had me doing.  They define world class fitness as, "Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar.  Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.  Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.  Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports."

Sounds simple, right? 1. Eat well.  2. Get plenty of focused exercise  3. Try new sports.  Turns out their workouts are far more challenging than my usual programs of climbing and skiing.  This makes sense because in my narrowly defined world of guiding I have become pretty efficient at moving up rock and sliding down snow.  As you get better at something you tend to use less energy.  In the process the doing of the thing becomes easier and you slowly drift into a comfort zone where your workouts no longer push you the way they did when you are a beginner.
I have always told my Denali clients that the best possible training for Denali would be to get a job landscaping as the hardest part of a Denali trip is standing in the cold digging kitchens, leveling tent platforms, cutting and hauling snow blocks, lifting heavy packs, cramming frozen sleeping bags into stuff sacks, and of course walking.  Turns out that most of the training my clients do is for the walking part.  Their ypical routines involve putting in a long day at the office, then heading to the gym for 90 minutes on the stair master, done in repetition for a months on end.
These folks show up and during the moments when climbing Denali is like using a stair master they do well, at least for 90 minutes.  Throw in snow that is too soft or too hard and they struggle.  Finish the day by digging for 4 hours at 17,000 and they often completely give out.  Shoveling was not in their training, nor was routinely being uncomfortable.  The mental drain of struggling with everything else slowly eats away at people and most that throw in the towel do so simply because they want to return to the routine of home: a predictable schedule, a known workout, the opportunity to step out of the suffering when the clock hits the end of the workout.
Active duty military folks almost always do well, most likely because they have a good base of standard fitness.  A day in the life of a soldier rarely involves sprinting, but it always involves schlepping gear, climbing in and out of vehicles.  Then again, when they gotta sprint, they really need to sprint, so they train for that as well.
In the past few years I took up surfing and mountain biking.  In both cases I lacked proficiency and found all sorts of short comings in various muscle groups unrelated to climbing and skiing.  Just getting out to the break when surfing was exhausting and those first few really steep hill climbs on a bike were not pleasant.  
I do not live close enough to surf to do it routinely, but I do still enjoy the thrashing I get when I surf.  I do mountain bike much more than I used to.  I quickly found myself competing with my past times in an effort to do certain courses faster.  I started asking around about how to push higher gears on the uphill, which is about the fastest way to shave time off on a given course.  Turns out the solution is to build leg strength......on a road bike and in the gym.....cross training. 
Start spending time on your road bike and in the gym lifting and you notice great progression at first and then you get to a point where things start to plateau.  Solution? It seems to involve better nutrition, adequate rest, and putting more thought into how you are training.  Suddenly everything you put into your mouth matters, you have a reason to skip the evening beer, and you realize that if you can decrease your total body weight and increase your strength and you are going to be a lot stronger and have less to push uphill.
We now have a toddler and the days when I could ski for three days straight and then climb on the fourth are gone.  I simply don't have the time to train......which is a great excuse, but does not explain why my strongest friends all have busy work schedules, many have kids, and most never have a full-day (think 8 am - 8 pm) to do whatever they want.
I just registered for my first 100 mile mountain bike race.  I don't intend to race so much as to simply finish without getting cut for going too slow.  I started looking into training schedules and was a bit surprised to see that most only involved 12-15 hours a week when combined with proper diet.  I will need to do some long rides to prepare, but most workoout take 90 minutes to two hours, some even less.
My point being that fitness is all about lifestyle.  It does not mean you can't have a full-time job, a kid, and the million other responsibilities that define adult life, but it does mean you need to start to make decisions about how you are going to live your life.  Maybe start by cutting most alcohol from your diet.  7 micro beers a week at 280 calories per beer equals 1960 calories.  Drink your 14 cups of coffee black instead of with cream and you save another 560 calories.  Right there you shaved 2520 calories from your weekly diet, which is more than what the average male needs in a day.  
Now throw in one hour on a bike trainer and you just burned 500-900 calories.  Where things start to amplify is that after that hour, when I go to the fridge, I suddenly want to ingest something that is going to make me stronger......back to nutrition.
Of course all this needs to be somewhat fun to make yourself do it on a regular basis.  I am limiting rides on the trainer to days when it is simply too nasty outside to ski, or on those days when I find I have 1 hour to hammer when my kid just went down for a nap.
Cross training is the best way to prepare for your climbing trip if you don't have the time to completely simulate 12 hours of climbing.  It is not just about exercise.  It is also about eating well, keeping track of your calories, and making sure you rest between workouts and get a decent amount of sleep.  Turns out a lot of sleep issues are related to stress and diet.  
So you want to be strong?  Pick something you suck at and get started.  My current list includes swimming, stand up paddle boarding, carpentry, framing a concrete pour, trail running, weight lifting, laying paving stones, and long distance mountain biking. Throw down for some professional advice at the beginning to make sure that your slightly out of shape body does not get injured.  Starting to get a sore knee every time you run? Quit running for a awhile.  Cross training is all about avoiding overuse injuries.
Payoff?  I visited my dad in Ohio this past Thanksgiving and they have an awesome pool nearby.  I had never swam a mile, so just for the hell of it I swam 100 laps in a 25 yard pool. Turns out that is more than a mile and it was really not that hard and I don't feel like I was in particularly good shape but I had a good base level of fitness.
The world abounds with analogies of three legged stools.  You need all three for the stool to stand.  RIght?  So think about fitness as being comprised of strength, aerobic fitness, and nutrition and start chipping away at anything that will make those legs stronger.  Start with things you enjoy, but are not good at.  Go for a bike ride on a warm day and then eat a chicken breast, a plate of veggies, and a piece of fruit.  Skip the beer, and think about some sort of strength training....maybe finally move that pile of wood on a day when the weather is not ideal for biking.
Get in the habit of doing this and you will sleep better, be less stressed, shed some fat, and build some muscle.  Getting bored? Try something new and don't beat yourself up if you fall off the nutrition wagon, but do get back on and try to stay on. 
This article was intended to be extremely unscientific.  There is no shortage of information out there about training and nutrition.  Just as most financial advice books essentially hammer on the same themes (set a budget, payoff your credit cards, improve your skill set) most of the training books touch on the same ideas of eat well, balance intake with calories burned, realize that fitness is a broad category initially and then train specifically for certain activities.  
Above all set a goal!  Plan to climb a mountain, do a certain bike ride, etc. Eventually the simple desire to be stronger will kick in things will start to take care of themselves.  Have fun. If you need something like CrossFit to get you started, then go for it!
About the authors:  John and Olivia Race are IFMGA guides based in Leavenworth, WA.  Together they run the Northwest Mountain School, a guide service specializing in rock, alpine, and ski guiding.

1 comment:

wearingmyblackness said...

" if you can decrease your total body weight and increase your strength and you are going to be a lot stronger and have less to push uphill."

That's what I'm working on right now. I'm a strong person for whom long days of physical effort are not difficult. I'd just like to reduce what I have to pull/push up a mountain. :) Great post!