Monday, December 4, 2017

#Vanlife And Training: TFTNA, Transition Phase

#Vanlife, apparently trends well. Certainly, people seem to think our lifestyle - living in a caravan and wandering around the country engaged in an endless series of outdoor adventures - is pretty awesome. And, mostly, #vanlife is very good. In fact, I have got so used to the constant novelty that is #vanlife that I get twitchy if I am in one place for more than a week. But, just like every other lifestyle, #vanlife is not perfect. The big downside of #vanlife that has triggered Doug and I to start looking for a real home is the inevitable physical degradation that accompanies long term #vanlife.


Reality is, adventures are great, but, without regular systematic training, you lose strength, aerobic fitness and flexibility. Even the great Stevie Haston has commented on how weak he gets on long climbing trips. The side-bar, of course, is that Stevie Haston is one strong dude and his weak is most people's strong. But, I am not Stevie Haston, and, at 54, I have to protect all the strength, conditioning and mobility I have.

#vanlife and #training

In an effort to “be a better human” (my standard response when people ask me why I am training) I bought House and Johnston's book “Training For The New Alpinism (TFTNA),” carefully read the book through and developed my own training plan. Now this might seem a bit of a strange choice after my last blogpost, but, if I were Steve House fit, I would feel that I had met my goal for being a “better human.”

Bouldering in the shire

The training approach is classic linear periodization with a big emphasis on building a solid aerobic and strength base. Unlike typical endurance training programs, aerobic capacity and strength are trained concurrently. If you are fit and strong already, a non-linear approach, such as the one described by Steve Bechtel, is probably superior (at least in terms of year round climbing performance), but I am neither (fit nor strong).

Big pack, no track, thick bush

The first training block (the Transition Phase) lasts 6 to 8 weeks and is basically two endurance sessions a week, two general strength sessions a week, and one day climbing. Without going into too much boring detail, training volume and intensity gradually increase up to week 8 at which point volume is halved for one week (deload) prior to the next training block. Of course, training without attention to diet leaves at least 50% (possibly more) of your potential gains on the table, so there is also a recommended diet.

Bacon and eggs before a ski day in the Monashee Mountains

Without a recent history of this type of training, I had to estimate my training hours using the guidelines in TFTNA. That got me started at about 5 hours a week, increasing to around 6 hours by the end of the Transition Phase. Looking back over my logs, I actually did about twice that amount of training per week if you count all the additional Zone 1 exercise I did each week. My two biggest weeks came in at around 20 hours per week, but, as all but 30 to 60 minutes of that was at Zone 1, it was not overly stressful.

Guy Fawkes National Park

The two structured endurance sessions were surprisingly easy, if going slowly, so, so slowly is ever easy. For the first couple of weeks I had no heart rate monitor and had to guess at intensity. Once I got a heart rate monitor, I realised I had been way out of Zone 1 and had to slow right down. My jogging pace – no way I could call it running – at Zone 1 is so slow that were I more susceptible to shame it would be embarrassing.

In the Budawangs

As an aside, TFTNA recommends doing a maximum heart rate test (easily done with a steep hill and a heart rate monitor) rather than using standard formulas. But, I am a fan of Phil Maffetone and the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) approach so I used that formula. I suspect all the various formulas and tests come out fairly similar.

Training stairs, Blue Mountains National Park

Anyway, I went from never doing anything more than walking (albeit I do a lot of walking) to jogging for up to 1.5 hours at a time with no real issues. For a couple of sessions I did switch from my usual zero drop, zero padding shoes to a more regular running shoe as I had a slightly irritated shin, but this quickly resolved. Also, I had no problem doing these sessions fasted, although I was ready to eat afterwards.

Kanangra Tops National Park

Which is a perfect segue into the diet aspect of training. This was really easy for me as I have been following a real food diet for well over 8 years now, so I had already stopped eating sugar, grains and industrial seed oils. My standard diet would generally be considered ultra-low carbohydrate by conventional standards and I can easily go many, many hours without eating (Google “fat adapted”). I did find, however, that I performed better on the strength sessions with a bit more carbohydrate than normal so I actually ate at least one piece of fruit a day, and sometimes a little potato or white rice.

Sandstone climbing can be brutish

And that leads me back to the strength training sessions. In the Transition Phase, there are two strength sessions per week of alternating upper and lower body exercises preceded by a series of trunk/core exercises, starting with 1 round at week 1 and culminating in 4 rounds at week 7. These were tough and left me most fatigued which is not surprising as #vanlife is quite congruent with maintaining endurance but not at all conducive to maintaining strength.

Fooling around on Marshmallow Sea, Arapalies

Recovery from strength sessions takes a frustratingly long time as you get older and I found two strength sessions per week once I got up to three rounds hard to recover from. I recovered best with four days off between sessions but that means only three strength sessions in a fortnight not four. For a concrete sequentialist, who likes everything divided neatly into standard seven day weeks this requires difficult mental gymnastics and I continued to train twice weekly in the Transition Phase.

Focus, El Portero Chico, Mexico

In a similar struggle with mental gymnastics, I found it hard to NOT train to failure during my strength sessions and this may have contributed to my slower recovery in the later weeks of the Transition Phase. Overall, however, my numbers (reps and weights) did go up over the Transition Phase.

Cascade Mountains, BC, Canada

Instead of climbing one day per week, I went paddling instead. This was solely geographic. Right now we are near the ocean, but over two hours drive from any climbing. In less than a week we will be about five minutes from a well developed sport climbing crag but a long drive from the ocean, so climbing will be in and paddling out. I'll also have access to some legitimate hills to train on instead of having to plod up and down the single 40 metre hill near where we are staying.

Tollgate Islands, NSW

Finally, what I would do differently next time:
  • Go somewhere nice for the long endurance sessions even if it means getting in the car and driving. I avoid driving at all costs and so did most of my endurance training from the neighborhood where I am living. There are some good trails around here but about half my endurance training time was taken up getting to the trail through residential  neighborhoods. Around week 6, I decided to drive a short distance to the local forest to train and it was so worth the 22 km round trip that I wished I had done so much sooner.
  • Avoid the temptation to train to failure on the strength sessions. Training to failure is great for hypertrophy, and I plan on doing a hypertrophy phase next, but, it should not be a component of the Transition Phase.
  • Space strength sessions out for optimal recovery even if this does not nicely fit into a one week format.
  • Manage stress, however you do that. I walk a lot, hence my 22 hour training weeks.
Gorgeous forest for those long runs

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