Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Fitness, Formalized

Mark quietly watched the first cookie go down. But he intercepted the second.

Janelle stays fit, holds others to the same standard, and makes no apologies.

Mark and Janelle Smiley are some of my "favorites." Earning their companionship and respect has been an enjoyable journey. I never had any hope of keeping pace with Janelle. She goes hard. But I do smile just enough on foggy glaciers to earn my keep. And I only had a slightly greater chance of hanging with Mark. However, his interest in my diet gave me a glimmer of hope. If this guy, this guy who has beat Killian in the mountains, thought that skipping the cookie might make a difference, what else could I be doing?
Deep in the "pain cave". Near the end of a climb that demanded
68 out of 110 hours on the move Ian Photo

Until the Smileys lit a fire, I seemed to be advancing ever-so-slowly toward more regimented personal training.  No doubt, I've been no casual exerciser. For twenty years I've fooled around with intervals and cardio volume. I wore my first heart rate monitor as a teenager. I did fairly rigorous and disciplined physical therapy after a knee injury in 2002.  I lifted weights in a "standard" body-building style gym in middle school and again in college. I seem to run once a year, too far and painfully. I regularly charge hard enough in training to nearly vomit. I burn my upper respiratory with exertion. For a few years now I have had an on-again, off-again affair with Crossfit. Lynn Hill says she takes a month off from climbing each year. So I try and do that. My job blesses me with the opportunity for a great deal of exertion volume in the mountains. I have said that I hate running and lifting weights.

2013 was a big year. Ian M and I focused our preparations and executed the most physically demanding five days of my life. The Smileys dragged me on a big climb in Alaska's Coast Range in June. In August, with uber-client Jon, we on-sighted the Grand Traverse in Wyoming. All, except for the latter-most, have had their verbose treatment here. "Training" has long been a combination of "long-slow-distance" work hours, mellow rock climbing, big social days in the mountains, and occasional bouts of heavy breathing and heavy lifting at Crossfit. I've struggled to reconcile all these various efforts. With big goals always on the horizon, I felt ready this past fall to bring it all together and strive to be the fittest I can be. I resolved well before the turn of the year to make this the winter of mega fitness, and do so with focus and intention.

In order to know where to go, one must know where he is and where he's been. Check out the weekly-hourlies from most of 2013. The huge spike was the Winter Palisade Traverse. Spring is ski touring and rock climbing. Summer is long weeks of High Sierra guiding and climbing. I purposely ramped back the activity volume this fall. 

In terms of other milestones, I can consistently run a mile in just under six minutes, bust out 5000 feet of ski touring in under 4:30, climb most any 5.10, and survive those gnarly summer months under a big backpack. 20 hour days are regular occurrences, while back to back to back 12 hour sessions aren't unheard of.

Through it all, my entire athletic mountain "career", I've known there has to be a better way. There's no shortcut, but professional oversight was bound to make a difference. So I've now secured myself some coaching. Right here in Mammoth Lakes, California, the proprietor of Eastside Mountain Athletics is working as my coach this winter. Ian N (Not to be confused with Palisades Ian M) and I go way back. We've known one another socially since he was a teenage bouldering dirtbag lugging around rocks in the Buttermilks to "cross train". (I just learned that Ian's workout today was carrying rocks… "It'll make you man-strong!" He's a teenager no longer, but rock carrying apparently still has it's place).

Keeping the aerobic base, while winding down the volume through fall 2013.
Lifestyle friendly social time climbing and with family, with the occasional run and bike ride.
Ian has put himself through a thorough and disciplined coach's education. He's a motivated student of sports physiology, with a passion for mountain endeavors and mountain athletes. He is a strong skier and rock climber, with a solid understanding of the demands of alpine climbing. Ian has studied training -traditional, trendy, and everything in between- for his entire adult life. He's high-strung, articulate, and not afraid to tell it like it is. Ian is well-connected, and has been able to tap into the expertise of the best in the business. That street goes both ways. Andrew Castor, Mammoth area coach to elite internationally competitive runners, trusts the strength training of his runners to Ian.

As a coach, Ian has his strengths, and knows his limits. Yet he isn't afraid to step outside the box and expand his repertoire. He and I are learning together in this latter category. For one thing, we're working to reconcile the realities of focused training with the high activity volume inherent in both guiding and the Eastside social life. Ian is studying up to help me prepare for my preferred sort of climbing. And, as it turns out, there's no real well-developed training regimen for multi-day alpine climbing. Ian is combining his own knowledge with that of his peers, taking my input and needs, and advising me on improving my performance.

So, what are we doing and what can you take from it?

First of all, I took the fall off from alpine climbing. I guided my last alpine route on October 4. I didn't put boots, crampons, or an overnight pack on until mid-December. This crucial de-loading period serves to restock the stoke, allows joints to recover, and does some metabolic magic that I don't understand. That's a common theme: the intricacies of stimulus and response, especially in cardiovascular development, are thoroughly mystifying to me. I'm learning to trust in the process; trust in the principles and methodology. In any event, there is both a psychological and physiological benefit to intentionally winding things down for an extended period. Every mountain athlete can benefit from this sort of periodization. We're used to operating in seasons, but don't like to truly ramp it back. We tell ourselves that switching from summer alpine slogging to fall rock sending is enough of a down-shift. And it could be, if you're going from 30 hour weeks to 8 hour weeks. It doesn't count as de-loading if the volume stays high while the taxed muscle group changes.

De-loading. Cities, food, good company. No mountains in sight. Brooklyn pizza, Meagan photo.
Primarily, we're formalizing and quantifying the overall balance of work load, stress, and recovery. This is the big part, this is where professional oversight and intentional structure will help me the most. Ian has broken things down for me over the next few months. Based on prior training and activity volume, he's worked out a rough weekly schedule. Exercise each week is divided into specific workouts at defined intensity. The process of outlining any given week, not to mention the big-picture plan, is a complicated one.

In my head, to start, I divide my entire week into three major categories: Training, non-training stress, and recovery.  Every hour of every day can fit into one of these categories. Well known coach Mark Rippetoe offers up an effective definition of training, in the context of physical activity:
Exercise and training are two different things. Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. 
Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal. If a program of physical activity isn’t designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It’s just exercise.
Training time, as defined above, makes up 10-20 hours (volume dependent on the position in the training cycle) of focused and intentional movement each week. The classic 5-step zone system informs the overall structure of the cardio work I do. The overall chunk of time can be further divided into three major categories: Weight room time, zone 1 efforts, and work in the upper exertion zones. The vast majority of weekly training volume is to be fairly low intensity, with punctuated and crucial heavier sessions.

Weight-lifting time is fairly simple to describe. I'm in the EMA gym two days a week. Rarely more, rarely less.  Mainly, I move barbells around for joint durability and core stability. This is Ian's forte. Properly coached weight-lifting is life changing. And Ian is a proper coach. Everyone that uses his or her body for more than walking to a desk can benefit from well-coached weight lifting. Your joints, at the very least, will thank you. I promise.

There's nothing like lifting with professional "eyes on".  Ian N. Photo.

The remaining 8-18 hours of training each week can be conducted in a variety of settings. I run, ski, bike, hike, and climb. If I'm doing something like rock climbing, I work to count only the portion of the day that I am actually moving. Climbing and skiing time serve to tax the metabolic and musculoskeletal systems while also training sport-specific skill. The weekly volume is divided up into different chunks, depending on other goals of the week. Overall, I seem to do best with 2-3 days on, 1 day off.

I can get much of the aerobic base work while on the clock. Much of guiding work is in exertion zone 1. Occasionally zone 2. A large percentage is also below zone 1. I can also get a great deal of cardio work while skiing and alpine climbing for fun. "In season" I almost never need to contrive excuses for moving around.

If anything, I move too much. Much of my life (and yours, for that matter, regardless of your profession or lifestyle) can be considered "non-training stress". It has been shown that we could withstand much greater training volume if there were fewer external demands. Non-training stress has to include basically everything that isn't training or recovery. An overabundance of activity, on any one day or through the week, whether in the zones or at "recovery pace", is a non-training stressor. Psychological demands like work, social, and relationship drama, are definitely non-training stress. Drinking, illness, poor sleep, and driving all work against training and recovery goals. Ramp up the non-training stress, and recovery must improve while training volume must decrease. There's no secret recipe, no silver bullet. You are not exempt.
Non-training stress. What a lame and clinical way to characterize partying down with awesome people!
Finally, a good portion of each week is dedicated to recovery. In short, no one gets more fit while working out. It is the body rebuilding after and between workouts that increases capacity. Recovery includes sleeping, eating well, stretching, self-massage, office-time (as long as its not too psychologically taxing), and "active rest". Most are self-explanatory and simple: Love thyself.

Active rest, however, is a tricky one. How much is appropriate? What counts? Where is the threshold, the tipping point, between productive active rest, and a volume of recovery-paced effort that becomes non-training stress? The same can be said also for zone 1 work. Despite trendy deviation from this idea, it is well proven that "long, slow distance" is the key to endurance performance. At what point (in any given day or week) does the amount of zone 1 and active recovery work go from productive to counter productive? These are big questions for both Ian and me as we sort out the plan. Attention paid is bound to pay off, but we don't have an easy answer. There are certain realities in my lifestyle and profession around which I must build my fitness regimen. It is the same in yours. And we all do the best we can. We balance training with fun with social life with professional aspirations and demands. Even full-time professional athletes must make compromises in their training plans. In the end, that is the point. Compromise is key. Don't tell Mark, but I still eat lots of cookies.


  1. Just what the world needs, another east coast transplant.

    1. Why thank you Jamie, for your productive and insightful contribution to the discourse here.

  2. Jed, always enjoy your writing and insight. Thanks man.

    1. Jeez Adam, I woulda thought you'd be the one dropping some snarky line about where I moved here from…

  3. Jed, I appreciate you sharing your insights. Hope we can ski together soon!

    - chris