Friday, June 7, 2013

Running Based Training for the Alpine part 1 (some thoughts)

So let me start this by saying that although I am not very experienced or accomplished as a climber yet, I do move pretty fast in the mountains. I've spent plenty of time in the mountains, so that counts for something, but I think it mostly stems from 10+ years spent as a competitive distance runner. It's not that I'm in amazing shape, I'm actually not relative to five years ago, but I have lots of experience preparing my body to do something specific. I've read a lot on the subject of running training, I have an educational background in human biology and physiology, and I've experimented on myself for several years so I feel like I have some ideas worth sharing.

Despite the fact that all human powered alpine sports are primarily limited by how fast and far you can go, especially uphill, it seems like few participants take time to get fit for this. I hear a lot of climbers, mountaineers and backcountry skiers talking about running for this purpose, but I see few of them following through. It makes sense that if you want to ________(insert sport here) you spend all your free time doing that sport and not running, but unless you are a total dirtbag you can't get out in the mountains every day. In this post I'm not going to give you some generic 10 week program that you have to do everyday. Instead I'm going to try and give you a basic framework, rules of thumb if you will. This way, on those days when you are too busy to go somewhere cool, you can still do something that prepares you to do more on your next day (or week) out in the mountains.

 Some Myth Busters:
1. Your workout doesn't need to be painful or even hard (in fact, it probably shouldn't be) to have a big benefit. A good athletic performance is when the muscles you need work maximally, while the ones you don't stay totally relaxed... in other words, grimacing and straining just waste energy.
2. Your workout doesn't need to be long to help you (even a 30 minute run can be effective training stimulus). If you are spending a full day or two out in the mountains every week then you are getting plenty of endurance. Trying to do long runs (90+ min) too is just going to make you tired and train you to move slowly.

Celebrating after crushing the round trip time on the Mirador Las Torres in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. This was fairly easy for me after a 6 month season of collegiate cross-country training.
Some Key Concepts:
1. Recovery is the most important part of training. If you don't recover then everything you did only took away from your ability to perform. This doesn't just mean sleeping and eating, an easy aerobic workout followed by stretching is one of the most important things you can do to recover.
2. Everyone is different. Besides having different strengths and weaknesses, you will respond differently to different workouts and recover at different rates than other people. Listen to your body!
3. Everyone knows that they need to practice and train to get better. The hard part is figuring out what your weaknesses are and figuring out how to fix them.
4. Conversely, know your strengths and exploit them. This will help you optimize your performance, whether its deciding how to break up lead blocks or where to take rests.
Setting out to run to the Mirador Las Torres beneath the Torres del Paine in Patagonia.
Mirador Las Torres, 12+ miles round trip and 4,000+ ft net elevation gain in 1:38.
In our sport we don't always know when we are going and what we are going to do. It could dump powder tomorrow and you could be trying to ski as many lines as possible Saturday morning, or the weather could suddenly clear and you could be cragging all weekend. You need to be flexible: always fit but never too tired. This is a hard balance to strike and luckily the seasons provide a little predictability. If you know you aren't going to be doing a big trip or trying major objectives on the weekend then you can push a little harder on your non-mountain training days. Ideally you have a good fitness base so that when your season arrives or that big trip comes up you can back off on the day-to-day training and have a big energy reserve.

Facts and Figures:
1. It takes 10-14 days for your body to generate improvements from an intense workout, so don't hammer your workout 5 days before you try the hardest route of your life. As you approach a big trip don't be afraid to keep going down the list but keep the overall stress level low and leave plenty of easy days.
2. It takes 3-4 weeks for your body to adapt to a constant stress. If you have ran a lot previously you will notice it gets easier after week 1 as your brain rediscovers neurological pathways and you become more efficient. Avoid the temptation to step it up. By the end of week 2 you will feel tired, even if you were doing other training before starting a new program. If you listen to your body and keep running then by the end of week 4 you should feel good (if you don't you over trained). Now its time to kick it up a notch.
3. It takes 6 weeks to create actual muscle changes. If you are doing a strength program, or mixing strength and running, keep the strength stress consistent for 6 weeks before upping the ante or moving on to a different focus. I like to mix strength with running as part of my warm-up or cool-down but it is hard to do both at a high level. You need to pick a focus.

Eating cheese baguets while traversing a dry glacier during a 47km/8hr off trail hike outside of Chalten, Patagonia. I had 2 days in Chalten followed by 2 days on a bus so I pushed myself hard while I could.
Remember you are a unique organism, not a machine! Don't force your body to perform until you know how it will respond. Start an activity log and write a brief summary of what you did and how you felt each day. You will start to see patterns and this will help you to understand how your body responds to training. Personally, I can hammer myself 2-3 days in a row before needing at least 2 easy days, anymore and my body is too trashed to keep up consistent training. Other people will see different patterns.

I wanted to do one post on running and training but it turned into a freaking text book, so I'm breaking it up into two parts. In my next post I'll provide some more specifics on what you can focus on during each running based workout.

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