mountaineering training: Peak training phase.

'Success means having the courage, the determination, and the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.'

~ George Sheehan

I've had many days in the mountains where the going was easy; blue skies, firm snow and a good route. There have been others where that last push felt like a fight that I was in danger of losing.

As a twenty-something paratrooper, I recall a day marching up a mountainside in Scotland with a backpack heavier than me, and a Physical Training Instructor in my face and asking how I was feeling? I replied, "Well sergeant, my back hurts, feet hurt, legs hurt, head hurts, everything hurts, but I'm good". Then he asked, "Can you hurt more?", I replied, "Yes". With a sly grin he quipped, "Good, cause there's more coming...." 

I want to train for those tough days and sometimes, I want to replicate these days in training. 

What often catches climbers off-guard during the last thousand, (or even few hundred) feet is the perfect combo of challenges that convene to make life difficult. The summit is colder, the air is thinner, I've been going all night, the wind is high, the snow is deep, dust is flying in my face. There's a thousand ways it can be hard and sometimes, mountaineering can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. 

The thing to ask is, "Do my peak training sessions replicate the actual way I'll feel during the last push before the summit?" During the peak training phase, we'll be going hard two or three times each week. (be sure to spread out the training to ensure proper recovery).

It's true that during most training -- long hikes and aerobic training -- we want to feel at ease

However, in interval and tempo training sessions, it should feel like the fun-meter might break at any second. This is the business end of the training plan. It's short, it's hard and massive gains can be made here, but not without determination and will power. 

  • During interval training; going hard for short bursts with breaks between. The last few seconds should feel like I can't take much more and I'm going on willpower alone. 
  • During tempo training; steady effort right on the anaerobic threshold 'red-line'. Here we will be looking for excuses to stop or slow down, and sometimes wondering if we've set the bar a bit too high. 

If there is sharp pain or dizziness I will stop, but otherwise, in peak training sessions, I must get outside of my comfort zone in order to get optimal results. 

It isn't easy, but it's not forever and it can be fun. Pay attention to quality nutrition and rest in this phase. We need to increase stretching, keep up daily calisthenics and consider other techniques such as massage, foam-rollers, hot tubs etc. During sessions, it's helpful to practice patience too, as well as to use breathing exercises to stay calm and relaxed.    

This phase is great for gaining mental strength and focus. As I train hard, I'll also visualize the last hour of climbing, right down to the way the wind feels, how the trail feels and how I feel. There is a sweet satisfaction from arriving at the center of the contours on the map and seeing the ground drop away in all directions. It's true that the main goal is getting back in one piece, but for most people, there is something magical about reaching a summit. Creating that feeling of accomplishment is an important part of peak training. 

A tip I once learned, to get more power when you think you are at your limit of endurance -- is to think of a person who loves you, and imagine how proud of you they feel right now. Many a hard challenge has been overcome as a tribute to someone else. Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all) works on mountains too! (but still do the interval training :))  

At this stage of training, what goes on in our head is much of what counts. Using positive emotions to our advantage - to feel that 'lift' in training - makes it much easier to replicate the same strength on the final push towards the peak.  

If you are in the last peak training phase before an adventure - enjoy the month and go hard! 

John Colver.