Monday, December 27, 2010

Ice, Range of Motion, Intervals

Photo to left is of a cool "Plice" (is it a plice if it has ice?) from my bud Tom Comet. And someone needs to tell me how to put photos where I want 'em...

The Christmas tree is already showing signs of pine needle exfoliation, the sun doesn't come up until 8:30, there are beer bottles in the streets every morning and my liquor cabinet is stripped almost bare. It must be the week between Christmas and New Year, which is often a great week for ice here in the Canadian Rockies if it isn't -30. Temps are actually great, lots of friends rattling around, Happy Ice Season to everyone!

Some things to think about relating to training:

Range of Motion: You get what you train.
A few weeks ago I was in Bozeman, Montana and hit a local gym because I had no ice tools, no clothes beyond what I was wearing (thanks United!), and it was too late to scrounge. I note why I was in a gym because going to the gym in Bozeman is silly in the middle of ice season, go climbing already! But in the gym was a guy doing "pullups" by jumping up onto the bar and flexing his shoulders back and forth for ten "reps" at a go. I counted. I couldn't help myself, I asked him if he wanted to do some pullups, next thing he knew I had his feet and he was busting out legit pullups with a bit of a push from his feet. I'm a complete freak for grabbing his feet, but damn, a pullup starts with the arms straight and finishes with your clavicle nearly hitting the bar, elbows behind your front ribs. And full range of motion is not just getting your chin above the bar or bouncing your chest off the bar like a spastic, it's getting your Adam's apple (or equivalent) above the horizontal plane of the bar and at least breaking the vertical plane of the bar with your entire chin, not the dimple on the front of it. If you're a climber I think it's important to lock that top position for a brief moment, especially if you're an ice climber.

One of the best things I've learned through Crossfit is how to scale pretty much any exercise to get full or as close to full range of motion as possible. Doing one full "ROM" rep of any exercise is far, far superior to ten "fakie" reps. A good strong set of full ROM reps done with assistance are 1,000 times more useful than one "fakie" rep done without help. Use bands, use a friend, use the fancy anti-gravity machine, but for God's sake do a real full ROM pullup! Being mentally lazy in the gym will lead to mental laziness in life. STFU and do the full ROM or you'll get no respect from me or yourself, and you know it.

A quick note on "kipping" pullups: Crossfit popularized these, and they kick ass in general. I've seen many people who couldn't do one pullup learn how to do tons of 'em using this technique. But many kipping pullupers fall far short of full ROM, and the full kipping motion may be less useful to climbers if there isn't a brief pause or at least control over the bar. I did a lot of kipping pullups last year and found my lockoff strength collapsed compared to doing "normal" pullups. I now use momentum as I fully buy that theory, but try to get and maintain control over the bar, and keep active, engaged shoulders at the bottom of the pullup. Edit--the main site WODs have had a fair amount of weighted and "chest to bar" pullups in the last while, I think that would address the weak lock off issue that can come with kipping pullups. I just noted that today's workout has L-sit pullups, you can't kip those, that's a nasty workout!


We tilted the plice back to between 30 and 45 degrees overhanging. This is stellar training for both mixed climbing, and radically overhanging ice climbing, which is the current obsession that I'm training for. I can handle day on, day off on the plice, it's more than enough! Here are a few "fun" workouts we've been playing with, useful for working in groups or just keeping the motivation high:

Do a plice lap every minute for as many minutes as you can keep it up. Mentally as well as physically painful. If your plice is vertical either tilt it back a bit or add a pack with 1/4 your bodyweight in it, that'll make it hard enough that a lap every minute will be an adventure.

If you're working out with more people add more exercises. We've been doing a plice lap, then ring dips, then air squats, then back into the plice. Or thrusters, or deadlifts, whatever. Resting is useful for pure power training, but I'm becoming more and more convinced that resting is a waste of time in general when training for sport... Lots in that idea, but rest for power, go the rest of the time. Except when doing the long slow distance sessions. One of the reasons I think specificity counts in training is that "training" is a massively broad idea. Like writing, or engineering, you need to know what you're trying to do, but somehow people think one form of "training" is going to do it for them. "I do TRX." "I do Crossfit." "I do XXXX" Cool, but the definition of what you do is not in the training but in the action, not in the gym but in the real world.

Tabata Training on ice tools:

Get one of those Tabata apps for your phone (one with sound so you don't have to look at it), hang your ice tool over a tree branch, whatever, hang one-handed for 20 seconds, rest ten, repeat on the same hand eight times. This is so much fun... If you can't hang on one hand use two. I ripped this idea off Crossfit too, tons of fun protocols on there for your own training. I don't follow the mainsite WODs at all this time of year, but my training is heavily influenced by the ideas there, plus info from many other sources. Use what works, leave the dogma in the sweat pool.

Right, time to go climbing!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bits and pieces

Bits and pieces

An interview I did with Gregor over at Some Good Adventure, ranting and raving. Which I seem to be specializing in lately after doing a half-dozen shows from Tofino to London, England in the last four weeks--I'm finally back home and de-spinning from the travel, no place like home! Unlimited good coffee, good food, as much as I love traveling, meeting new people and generally going for it on tour it's always a pleasure to get back home to the Canadian Rockies and my family.

And this is funny, not exactly correct but never absolute correctness get in the way of good writing! Overall I'd agree with the ideas.

Ice Tips for the week:

I taught a few clinics while down at the Bozeman Ice Festival. The Bozeman Festival is one of the longer running, well-attended and all-around fun ice festivals going. Joe Joesephson ran it, did a great job, I'll definitely head back there! But, as always, I learned a few things about teaching ice climbing by teaching it.

Swing your tools, swing your feet. I've always taught a kick done with your toes high so the frontpoints contact the ice, not the toe of your boot. We all learn to kick a ball with our toes low, and as that's the only point of reference that's how people tend to kick on ice. But you swing a tool, and in reality a kick should be done with momentum and is more of a "swing." Bring your foot back, bending at the knee and not at the hip, and swing it toward the ice with your toes high. Swing HARD, most people peck with both their tools and their feet. Ideally there is a ledge to put your foot on, but if there isn't then you need to basically make one for your points. That's not possible without some meaningful violence. Do not be shy.

Unweight the foot you want to move first. I see a lot of people "hopping" their feet on ice. In rock climbing this can sometimes work OK even if it's awkward, but it just won't work on ice as have to kick your crampon points or at least place them extremely precisely in order to get good security. So, move your hips over to unweight the foot, then move it, repeat. Same motion of feet over to the side and then up with the upper arm straight, not a big step up.

Pretty much all steepish climbing is basically versions of the same move: Have a hold in your hand or hands, position your feet to push/pull, and push/pull up with your feet using as little arm strength as required. If you watch someone good drytooling, rock climbing or ice climbing that's what they do... Check this out, and watch from 2:22 to 2:32. He might as well have been ice climbing: hold, feet up, push, grab, straight arm, repeat... Rock climbing has more limited holds and is a lot steep than ice climbing so the movements are different, but I think anyone can see the common ground in the movement pattern. Sharma is one strong mofo, but check out how much time he spends on a straight arm as he sets his feet. The holds in rock climbing don't always allow this obviously, but the trend is clear, cool to watch! The more I climb the more I realize it's all the same stuff under the hood.

Oh, and I almost forgot: Homage to the masters of the pose. In my show I talked about climbing being what I love, and the posing being the work. Blue Steel!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Short clip on squat, stand, swing

I recently wrote an article for Climbing about what I feel is the basic sequence for steep ice climbing: Squat, stand, swing. I'm on a roll today with the video, I just pulled a clip from the Ice Mines video that illustrates this pretty well. When this clip was shot I wasn't even thinking about how I was climbing, it's just how I climb. Kinda cool to see it. Anyhow, here it is:

Grip, swing

A few people emailed to say that my text explanation for how to grip and swing an ice tool wasn't super clear. Here's a fast video shot in my back yard about 30 minutes ago that might help explain the two different grips used to swing and then hang onto an ice tool.

A few additional notes on hanging on and swinging:

-My hand rotates from the "Swing" to the "Grip" position every single time I get a placement and then hang off the tool. Easier than it sounds.

-The tool rotates around my pinky finger pretty much, the middle and index fingers are relaxed.

-The same rules as ever still apply for an overall good swing--elbow at or above the shoulder,fingers, wrist, lower arm, humerus all aligned, look before you swing.

-I underestimated the amount of rotation around the ice tool that my fingers go through. It's not 20 degrees, it's closer to 45 degrees from the "grip" to the "swing" position and then back. I got that wrong in the video.

I shot this right after a training session involving the "splice," or steep plice plus ring dips and deadlifts, and I'm a bit hammered. Thanks to Keith for the help.

Edit a little later--and the reason for the leash on my left hand is that my left middle finger is broken, a leash makes it easier for me to hang on during the training sessions.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

How to hold an ice tool, "small stuff."

I've done a whack of ice climbing and coaching the same in the last two weeks, and it's made me think of a few "small things" that make a huge difference for climbing ice. Most of this stuff is in my book or other writing somewhere, but I have to relearn it myself every season.

The basic technique of steep ice climbing is pretty well diagrammed now (Put in a high tool, straight arm, walk feet over and then up keeping arm straight, stand, not pull, up, place high tool, repeat to top) but there are endless refinements. So here's a list of "small stuff" for ice climbing that makes a big difference.

-Look where you're going to swing next and swing there. Probably 90 percent of the people I see ice climbing don't do this. Same with your feet, LOOK before kicking.

-Most people don't swing leashless tools very well, mainly because they wrap their hands too far around the shafts of the tools and the human wrist just won't swing well in that position. This "wrapped" position feels solid and is how you hang onto leashless tools, but it sucks for swinging. If you're climbing leashless, and most people are, rotate your hand around the grip about 15 degrees to the outside or the side or away from your chest while swinging, and rotate it back again to "grip" while hanging on the tool. If you hold your hand in karate-chop or thumbs up thin hand crack position and keep all the fingers straight then move your thumb so it's making a sort of half-oval at the same horizontal level as your index finger your ice tool will fit exactly into that groove. The knuckle on your thumb will naturally be in the middle of your ice tool's shaft. Now close your pinkie and ring finger around the ice tool. The groove between your thumb and index finger guides the swing, the index and ring finger hang on... That's the "swing" position. After planting the tool (and I plant mine, not peck), close all your fingers and rotate your hand slightly so it's easy to hold the tool. That's the grip position. This system works whether you're on Cobras or any other tool I've seen out there. I'm sick of seeing bumbling swings with leashless tools even by otherwise decent ice climbers, no reason for it, we can do better.

-Fluffy pants. Like belaying in a sleeping bag, absolutely dreamy when it's cold out. Love 'em. I have these.

-I just figured out how to describe the last tip in this list, and I'm really stoked about my geeky discovery. Here it is: If your right rear deltoid is feels tight or feels "strung" while climbing I'll bet a dollar that your crampons (edit, ADD strikes) off to the left side of your tool. That "barn door" feeling usually happens when both feet are too far to the inside of the tool, and one foot is lower than the other. So, if you feel "tight" and slightly out of balance while your rear delt (and probably also most of your rotator cuff...) is freaking out move your feet under the tool. Cool, I've been trying to describe this for years but just figured it out. For some the "rear delt" visualization works well.

I could write pages on this stuff (and have!), I just love thinking about ice and working with people on how to climb better--it's an endless challenge to find the right way to explain something to somebody, whether they will be leading grade six this year or have just started ice climbing. And ice climbing changes as our gear and understanding evolves, cool.

In about a week I'm going to do a couple of "Review" and "Gear" issues of this blog. For some reason people I don't even know have been sending me stuff, ranging from foot warmers to little crampons for your street shoes. I have sponsors obviously, and any "review" of their gear would be compromised by that relationship in the justifiably scornful eye of the public, but I'm going to go through what I'm using for this season and why, hopefully that isn't too materialistic. I put links to my sponsors on this page, but there are no ads from them or anyone on here, I try to keep it as honest as I can on these pages.

Looking forward to a show tomorrow night in Seattle at the Mountaineers, and then off to Bozeman for the Arcteryx ice festival there, I imagine I'll see a bunch of you out there!


PS--If you are a telemarker reading this blog, welcome! I sure stirred some people up with the last couple of posts on skiing, it's all good fun, let's SKI!!! The funny thing to me is that I still likely ski better with my heels loose; I only got back into AT skiing a few years ago, and do most of it on my ice boots. 25 years of telewhacking doesn't just disappear overnight.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Still skiing.

This photo is from a ski tour I did with my dad in about 1977 in the Canadian Rockies (maybe Dolomite Pass?). I'm ten years old. The gear I'm on is far less supportive than modern BC NNN gear, the skis have minimal sidecut, and yet the fun level is for sure at least as high as it ever has been, was, or will be. Yesterday I was out with my daughter; I was on high-end XC classic gear, she was on plastic waxless rigs. We both had fun. Skiing rocks, it's not fundamentally about the gear but getting outside and skiing. I want to be clear on that, it seems some people are missing the point that gear is a means to an end, not an end.

That said, function and style are related. Personally, I like using functional gear, meaning gear that fits the use, no matter what the sport. If my goal is to do tricks in a kayak I'll paddle my play boat. Creeks, you want a fat creek boat. Paddling a play run in a creek boat is relatively boring. Skiing flats on AT gear with skins on sucks compared to the same terrain on well-waxed race XC gear. I can not find one place where telemark gear is, for me, more fun, more functional or better fits the "spirit" of what I want to do, at least today. That could change; I did a lot of tele skiing in resorts for a while because it was more fun than alpine skiing there for me and a real challenge, but I burned out on that eventually. That was still a good period in my ski life, no regrets, but not where I'm at now. Function and style are not all exterior, a lot of what forms the definition of "fun and functional" is in the skier's head. Some people want to run sick creeks in low-volume play boats. Cool, I'll watch. I'll skate up skis resorts in the early morning and fly on the velvet on the way down, that's fun too...

Just to clear up where I'm coming from, if I could only have one set of skis/boots I'd run a set of NNN backcountry gear with metal edges. I can ski just about any resort run in North America on that setup (not rip it, but get down OK), ski set tracks, ski the back country, do just about anything. That's the most versatile gear for a solid all-around skier who wants to ski anywhere. Not the best for skiing into ice climbs obviously (have to change boots), but it would work. The learning curve for this gear is brutal compared to AT gear, the best prep is XC race skiing. A lot of people are more into the yo-yo style skiing, or hucking their meat, great! I've got skis for that too, let's play!

Some of the comments on the Teletalk site (ten pages and going strong) seem really defensive to me, like how the insecure and religious act when their God is questioned. Those secure in their faith are fun to talk with; those who scream, "Blasphemy" get old fast. Telemark skiing doesn't need "defending" if it's working for you and you're secure in your belief that dropping a knee gets you closer to god. I just think telemark skiing has gone off in a weird direction, and so far it's not coming back.

I did some telemark racing back in the day, but gave it up when an alpine-racing friend of mine (Jim Grossman, surely one of the more talented skiers I've ever seen) tried on some tele skis and proceeded to shred the course on his first run. He did a "pretend" tele turn, but really just rode the outside ski hard and relied on his years of alpine racing experience. His comment was, "Why not just parallel?" If you have to pose to compete then it's getting closer to figure skating, and that's weak sauce. On hard, consistent snow with big gear tele turns make little sense other than to pose. Trim yer goatee.

But the telemark turn is just as functional, useful and all-around fun to do as ever even if the gear named after it now has little real relation to the turn itself. I use the tele turn more on my lightweight "nordic" gear than I ever did in the last years of my "tele" career; on heavy tele gear I generally just do some version of the parallel turn . The telemark turn is great for dealing with softer conditions on lighter gear. In consistent conditions the parallel turn rules no matter what gear you're on. Telemark skiing to me now means doing tele turns on light BC NNN gear during a big tour; works great.

I was cleaning out my garage yesterday evening (I've got a serious Cultfitter infestation going on, had to make some more room!) and found an old pair of Voile Mountain Surf skis, with cable bindings on 'em. They are my wife's, and she won't get rid of them because, "Old skis are like horses, you can't just shoot 'em!" My old "tele" skis are gone, but I can see her point, even as the dust gathers on the old boards.

And, never forget, I'm a damned ice climber, not a skier, ha ha! The super-steep plice is destroying us!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Evolution of Skiing: Tele is a zombie.

I just realized that I've been skiing now for 40 years, a hell of a long time. I sorta even remember my first few sliding steps as a kid, it was fun, and even after 40 years I still just love going skiing. I've had some side trips into snowboarding (best sliding tool ever for crusty or weird conditions!), but overall it's always been about skiing of some kind for me. I started out in little leather boots with cable bindings, then mountain touring on three-pin bindings, then a few years of resort skiing on alpine gear, then some XC racing, bunch of telemark skiing (a couple of pretty serious decades in there), then AT gear with ice climbing boots to get to ice routes in Canada. Skiing is a tool, recreation and just fun. But I'm done with modern "tele" skiing.

About six or seven years ago I did a long ski into an ice route in the Adirondacks with my friend Will Mayo. He was on AT gear, I was using some decent tele gear that I'd borrowed. Mayo is a good athlete who truly knows how to ski (he raced XC at one point also), but I got incredibly pissed off that I was having a hard time keeping up with him on my tele gear. We were on wax as it was cold, not skins, and I just couldn't get a good kick because the damn "bill" on the tele gear prevented the boot from flexing properly. Will, on his AT gear with ice boots, could get a great kick and use far better technique as he could also ride the ski with his leg vertical over it instead of having his lower leg canted forward in the stance most tele boots induce . I about hucked a lung chasing him, and cursed the tele gear for what it had become: a great thing for riding chairlifts and skiing down, but useless for actually traveling in the mountains. This struck me as somewhat ridiculous; how did equipment that had, in my childhood, been a great way to travel in winter become so useless for anything but going down?

Then I had a day where I skied out from an ice climb in my ice boots. There was a nasty breakable crust, some heavy whipped snow, and other junk. With my heels locked down I could get through it reasonably well; it would have been a pain in the ass with any but the heaviest tele gear. The light went on, and I sold all my tele gear that year.

Modern light AT gear is now more efficient, lighter, and allows more confident and functional skiing in any situation I can think of when compared to tele gear. If a day involves more up and down than flat terrain I'll use my Scarpa F1 boots, light Dynafit bindings and Black Diamond Guru skis. Somebody is going to argue that modern tele gear is better, but the bindings and boots are still heavier for an equivalent amount of function. The BD O3 and other bindings at least have hinges to allow for a more efficient stride on the flat, but locking your heel down just results in more skiing control and function for less weight than any tele combination going. End of story, tele is dead unless you have a goatee and ride a "Fixed" gear bike (which, by the way, always reminds me of neutering a dog--what's up with that name?). Tele is now about style, not function. Snowboarding is a pain in the ass in the backcountry but at least has some useful function in junk snow, tele skis don't even have that benefit.

So what to use?

I've done a few of these "ski mountaineering" races, and they are a lot of fun. These races are mainly up and down, so light AT gear makes sense. Some AT courses could probably be won by a good Nordic racer on nordic gear, but there are gear limitations in the rules, and most of the courses have serious enough terrain that AT gear is for sure faster. If your object is to "yo yo" up and down then I'd say light AT gear is the way to go. If you want to huck your meat in the back country then heavier AT gear rules. Some people are into the "it's all about the down" idea, but I'm still enough of a geek to enjoy trying to ski on light AT gear.

At some point skiing becomes more about skill than supportive equipment. Little kids can't stand on their skates well until they learn to balance, and I see many skiers who can't ride a flat ski without a lot of support. Many of the best heli-ski guides I know don't even buckle their AT boots; they just ride the board well, and ski smoothly. That seems logical to me. I am not a great technical skier by any stretch, but years of XC skiing and skiing around in the mountains on ice boots have given me some decent survival skiing skills. I still remember a Swiss guy named Michele absolutely shredding steep gullies on ancient, narrow Fischer XC skis and some 3-pin bindings 30 years ago. I don't know many people who could ski terrain like that half as well today. At some point skill at actually skiing trumps the gear. My friend Pat Morrow is a die-hard tele monster, and although not a young pup anymore he can hang with pretty much anyone in any steepish terrain. The point is that anything will work, but what's the most functional for the weight?

The logical setup for big glacier tours without really difficult terrain is, in my opinion as always, the NNN gear. Every couple of years a few friends and I go down the full Wapta traverse in a day. We've tried several different setups, but the NNN gear is by far the best for this type of skiing. People often ask me, "But don't you need big boots and AT gear in the mountains?" I first skied the Wapta when I was 12 on light leather boots with little cable bindings that allowed for a decent kick; the whole setup probably provided far less support than modern NNN gear. Heavy AT gear is overkill in almost any situation I can think of except lift-served or heli skiing terrain.

What made me think of all of this is that I just got home from London, where the trees still had leaves, and found a foot of snow on the ground here in Canmore. It's time to SKI, and I'm still as stoked about that ideas as ever. Skiing is fun. Even if you're a bark-eating, meadow skipping face-planting tele skier. See you out there, let's get the turns ON! And it's ice season too, options again!

PS--Roger Strong is an exception to all of this.

Monday, November 15, 2010

More Plice

I'm really psyched to keep receiving photos of the Plywood Ice "Plice" that people are building around the world, really cool! I recently wrote an article for Climbing (out soon I think) about training for steep ice climbing; the gist of it the article is that climbing a lot of ice would be the best training, followed by some sort of wall (plice), followed by replicating the movements (which we can all do on the playground or with any brick wall out there) followed by weight room training. Periodization (focusing on when to peak, rest, refresh, build and so on), like any sport, is important to prevent burnout and injury, but most performance gains for ice climbing come from skill and muscle recruitment, not pure strength.

Anyhow, here are two more pictures, psyched for everyone getting it on! The season has started here in Alberta; I haven't been out 'cause I broke my finger, but I have been training on my own plice with a wrist loop, all good!

Photo Credits: Hagen and Taylor

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Plice, Core, Travel

First off, specific training rules for performance results as measured by time expended and real-world results. I received the photos of a Pennsylvania "plice" (plywood ice, like the one in my back yard) today, so cool! Nice one JW! Total cost: $82. No excuse not to have one.

Next, I don't think I did a very good job of differentiating between "core" strength, body tension and "abs" in my last post. So I'll try again to clear it up in my own head.

People wouldn't have to work their "core" if they just did exercises that build a strong core instead of isolating muscles with exercises that exclude the "core." Basically, almost every exercise done sitting down (even on a ball, maybe especially while balancing on a ball) is getting rid of the body's natural "core" function, and will therefore result in a weak "core."

Do squats, deadlifts, front levers, your core will be plenty strong. Do hamstring curls, exercise ball ab curls, exercise ball flys, etc and get a weak core and strong extremities, which leads to problems that may require "core sessions" to fix.

Put another way, if someone does leg presses, hamstring curls and leg extensions they are doing exercises without using the "core" and will have to work on that on a ball. Isolation breeds imbalanced weirdness in a body. Do squats, deadlifts, knees to elbows and your "core" will get strong at the same rate as the extremities. If your "core" is weak while doing any basic movement it will be the limiting factor in the exercise, and will get stronger. Cool.

Body tension is the ability to put your feet on the wall from a hanging position in a roof or steep terrain, and then to keep 'em there. Front levers and deadlifts are good for this. Even better is to climb steep terrain.

"Ab strength" is only part of the puzzle in body tension or "core" strength. Body tension must be trained as a whole; training abs to do crunches is worthless without also training the shoulders to hold the load. Doing L-sits is better than doing crunches because it also engages the leg flexors, but again misses the shoulder/lat component, and then again the hamstring lower back engagement (although it has more of that than twitching around on a ball with one side of the body supported).

I used to think isolating muscle groups was good. It is, for a body builder. For an athlete it's all about training muscles t0 work together to produce useful power.

I'm happier with those definitions and ideas.

Otter, Westjet

I flew to and back from an athlete meeting in Tofino on Westjet, with a leg on Harbor Air. It was pretty pleasant overall, especially the Harbor Air leg on a old Otter on floats. I was in the seat right behind the cockpit, and got to watch all the dials. Because I'm close to my private pilot license I was able to understand a lot of what was going on; flaps, fuel, prop, etc., all pretty much the same. I kept searching for the RPM dial, which is really important on a piston plane, and finally figured out the Otter was a turbine... No huge RPM dial, ha ha!

The Westjet legs were good. I've got no status on Westjet, but as usual there were flight issues etc., what would have cost me $lots on Air Canada only cost me $50 on Westjet. Thanks for that.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Exercise balls are stupid, "Core Strength"

My ideal training environment has the following in it:

Some sort of ice climbing simulator thing (Plice).
A place to run around outside.
Rings, both Rock Rings and gymnastic rings, place to hang 'em.
Some weight and a bar. A stylie set of Olympic bumper plate weights would be nice, but I've got a bunch of weights we got at garage sales for pennies. They work fine.

Anything after this is gravy. Really. Exercise balls, machines, etc. etc. are somewhere between comfortable accessories and shiny garbage. It's nice to have a squat rack and stands and so on, but it's not necessary. I go work out with my friends down at Athletic Evolution when I want the comfortable gear or a controlled environment (or for fun, good people), but you don't really need anything more than a jungle gym at a kid's playground and a rock. Or a tire.... There are a ton of wicked workouts here that don't require any gear at all.

I figure that about 90 percent of the machinery in the average health club is wasted space. Movements should be done as you do them in real life. A squat is not composed of a quad extension and a hamstring machine, it's a movement that involves just about every single muscle in your body working together. I generally reject Crossfit T-shirt slogans (you shouldn't wear T shirts with bad-ass statements on them unless you're a bad ass) in general, but "machines are the enemy" is a good one.

Anyhow, I had a long discussion with a guy on a flight the other day about all the junk in gyms (he was convinced a lat machine was better than a pullup), and it bothered me so you get to read about it. The most ubiqitous POS in the gyms I visit while traveling (and I do visit 'em even if I can barely see the micro free weight area over the sea of machines) is the exercise ball. Exercise balls should only be used for rolling target practice at 200 yards. Want to involve some more muscles in a situp? Do a front lever or a knees to elbows or a windshield wiper or whatever. If you can't do that then sit on the floor and try to balance on your own butt while picking your feet up. Anything can be scaled. Rolling around on a ball is only extremely useful for sports that require rolling around on a ball. Are you working out to get stronger in a useful way or working out to get better at rolling around on a ball?

But rolling around on a ball is better than rolling around on a couch for sure, so right on if you find it fun to get your ball on...

Now on to "core strength" as it relates to climbing and balls. I often get into discussions with people who think their "core" is weak for climbing. They usually can't get or keep their feet on an overhanging wall. Most "trainers" will prescribe rolling around on a ball like a spastic to increase "core strength." The ability to get your feet on a wall while climbing is NOT determined by your abs or anything having to do with that ball anymore than your ability to do a squat is determined by hamstring curls. To put your feet on the wall you need to be able to do just that motion--hang on two holds, swing up and place your feet and hold them there. You need more shoulder strength and front-lever style training than anything else. You could have the abs of a ball exerciser and not be able to do shit about getting your feet on the wall because, like the hamstring curler, the whole system has to work together. The shoulders, not the abs, are almost always the weak link. If I see one more "core" exercise for climbing that does nothing for actually climbing I'm going to burn the magazine I see it in on the spot. At least I'll be able to work out in my jail cell.

I had coffee with a good bud of mine, Greg from Crossfit Canmore, yesterday, and he made an interesting point that deadlifts improve his "body tension." I had to think about this for a minute, but he's right. If you've ever done a lot of steep-wall training for climbing or deadlifting you'll notice that your hamstrings and lower back muscles (not joints or ligaments, muscle) will be sore the next day. Front lever training gets your feet on the wall, but holding them there takes a combination of dead-lift hamstring/back contraction (and every other muscle involved in that motion) and shoulder tension. If you had bomber footholds you wouldn't even need any shoulder strength once your feet were on the wall, it's all back and legs. Many good rock climbers I've trained with are disproportionately strong on their deadlifts; I think this is because they have strong body tension and REAL "core" strength.

My measures of "strong" core strength would be this:

-Can do 15 knees to elbows in row (and not swinging spastic knees to elbows, controlled leg lifts), or hold a half-front lever for 10 seconds.

-Can deadlift 1.5 times bodyweight.

Anyone who can do that is not in general going to have any problem with "core strength" or body tension in life or while climbing. Very steep routes or tougher forms of life may require more than that.

So, if you're a climber that has a hard time holding your feet on the wall practice by hanging onto two good holds in a roof and swinging your feet up and "catching" holds with them, repeat with holds to the side, etc. The good news is that this strength does come relatively quickly compared to pullups or something. Some deadlifts may also help, as will knees to elbows etc.

Send your used exercise balls to me, I'll take good care of them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Travel, Social Media, Learning to Fly

I haven't been
writing lately because I've been traveling a ton, trying to finish my private pilot's license (maybe by December at this rate!), training a bit despite a really gimpy foot, etc. Plus writing about four articles for various publications, prepping for shows, climbing (went drytooling yesterday!), planning for 2011 and some other stuff like being a dad and finishing house projects. Life is great really, but sometimes there's a lot of it to wrestle all at once. I feel incredibly lucky every damn day to be alive.

Social Media:
I've been on Facebook for a year, and it's a fun combination of voyeurism, communication, posing and public heckling. I've also got this Twitter feed thing, Linkedin, and some other stuff I can't figure out what the hell to do with. But at some point I have to ask this: Is all of this communication making my or your life better? More fulfilling? I'm still working through that one, and while I do there's this cool vid on Facebook I've got to watch... Attention Deficit Disorder and the internet just had to be made for each other, it's brilliant. What were we talking about?


Over the years I've had a lot of people ask, "How do I learn to fly paragliders?" I wrote the following over the years to answer that question, here's what I generally send back.

What I tell everyone who wants to fly is this:

-Flying is "time expensive," especially when you're learning. It's going to eat about a minimum of 100 hours of your time to get going, plus dicking about driving to and from the hill etc. Once you've got basic skills it's about the same entry cost as skiing without the lift ticket prices.

-Flying is the only sport I've ever done where you absolutely must complete a good instruction course or you will die. You may die even with good instruction. The risk is comparable to riding a motorcycle, but as the air is invisible the dangers just aren't apparent without some good schooling. You'll likely survive learning how to climb, kayak, cave, even maybe ride a motorcycle, but good instruction is critical to staying on the right side of the odds bet in the air.

-It's very addictive. You may quit your other sports, spend money on tickets to warm places with thermals, and generally squander all kinds of time and money. In fact, you'll need to do this for a couple of years to get a solid base level of skill.

-Don't buy equipment until you have your basic ratings. Even then use the school's stuff for as long as possible, and then either buy used from the school if you've got Moroccan bargaining skills, or have an experienced friend help you buy stuff off the web. You can get a solid used setup that will get you through your first two years of flying for about $2-3,000, and which will actually be worth something when you sell it 'cause you will want to upgrade, maybe $1500. If you have a fat wallet then by all means drop the $6K on new gear, your school will love you as they often make more money on gear than on instruction, good to understand this.

-If it's sumer and the weather is reliable in your local area learn there. If the weather is not super reliable in your local area then go someplace where it is more reliable for two weeks and fly your brains out, get the basic ratings done, then continue your training locally. I like Point of the Mountain, Utah, and Santa Barbara, California in general. Lots of other good schools out there too and this is not meant to slight anyone, just that these two places have a selection of schools so you can find one that fits your personality, and the weather is generally reliable in both places. A good relationship with your local operator is important; even if you get your ratings somewhere else you'll still want to get onside with your local school/shop/guru. Paragliding likely has the most retarded politics of any sport I've ever been involved with at the school level, it's insane, but there it is, better to just recognize it and do your best to work with it.

-Your learning is really just starting when you get your basic ratings; if you can find a good local crew of pilots to fly with you will progress faster, have more fun, and be safer. I owe a huge debt to the all the "crows on the fence" at the two places I really learned to fly, everyone does. Do NOT be the guy who knows it all, you suck and will for some time. On the other hand some very good pilots are also idiots, you'll likely figure out who is helpful and who isn't pretty quick. Buy the guys who are helpful beer, they will become more helpful. If someone yells at you in the air figure out why, and remember that in the US a significant percentage of the pilots are armed. In Canada they're just fierce and don't need guns.

-I do not regret one hour of time I've ever spent in the air. It's great, have fun, stay open, learn, yeah!

Right, I'm back on the blogging train, yeah! I hope your fall is going well, it's finally Indian Summer here in Canmore, which is gorgeous after a truly horrendous August and September. If we hadn't had the last two weeks of good weather I'd be booking tickets to Vegas or something, it was truly a dire late summer here in the Canadian Rockies. But now it's perfect, stoke!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Pain, Comfort, Satisfaction

There are a lot of different kinds of pain, and any sane person tries to avoid most of them. It's human nature to want to be "comfortable." Some kinds of pain should be avoided: torn muscles, snapped tendons, relationship drama (all super damaging to training effectively and therefore to performance), but I make my best training gains when I push into areas of pain, especially mental pain, and all pain is mental.... I think embracing pain and becoming comfortable or even desiring it in training and in performance is essential to getting better as an athlete. The amount of pain someone will tolerate is directly related to the desire the person has for something on the other side of that pain. If an athlete really wants to get better then he or she will tolerate and even seek out pain.

If an athlete pushes hard in training then he or she will push hard when it's time to do so while performing. One of the biggest benefits of lifting weights is not in the actual strength training but learning that you CAN lift the weight one more time when your head says, "No." Yes. Twice more. I think this sort of experience teaches both mental toughness and deeper muscle recruitment, both essential to performance.

Years ago I watched one of the best rock climbers in the world climb one of his hardest routes ever at that time. He fought, bled, screamed, and left NOTHING in his attempt. He succeeded and clipped the anchor, then unclipped it and started down climbing for the training. I try to emulate his attitude when appropriate in my own training; to dig deeper, to suffer, to look through the mist at the goal, and upon getting there to shut up and keep going farther

I see some athletes (and I'll use climbers as an example) get a little beaten down and then just give up and say, "take" or stop running back up the field or whatever. They then wonder why they're not progressing, why they're "training" and yet the same old level of exertion still feels hard. The reason it feels hard is that they are letting it feel hard. I've watched numerous athletes say, "I'm too pumped to climb," but if their friends scream at them they'll keep climbing, often for dozens more moves. Watch a guy on the bench lift the weight to "failure," then see what happens when his friends start yelling at him. More reps, guaranteed. Soon the pain becomes irrelevant, it's only upward motion that counts. That is a state of grace.

This post-pain functional state must be entered into in training to be achieved in actual performance. The mind must be conditioned to dominate discomfort, and can be. But it's really uncomfortable in a way we don't often have to deal with as the monkeys on top of the economic ladder...

The corollary to this is satisfaction, of thinking, "Good enough." That's the same as saying, "I'm comfortable with that." If you're comfortable then you're not trying. The best athletes in any sport I've ever been involved with may win, but they're only satisfied for a short time. In training they judge their sessions not by the number of pounds lifted, but by how much attention, focus, grit and even meaning was extracted from the training session. If they are having a strong day they aren't happy with a "personal best," they're only happy when they dig deeper and give it their true best. On a rough day they don't cry and pout when way off their best, they do the best they can with no drama or theatrics. They reach the anchor or their goal, and then start climbing down or pushing another rep because they can, and don't let some arbitrary level of satisfaction dictate the result. The very best athletes don't need a crowd to perform, they could be in a dead-silent cavernous gym and they're still going to do their best.

Training like this is scary. In life we don't generally lay it all on the line, and rarely publicly. It's almost like making love in public or something, it's a bare naked, all-out, intimate, no reserves display of true character if done well. The thing about doing your best is that there aren't any excuses left to hide behind, the clothes are all gone. Many people never see what's there, much less show it to others. The neat thing is that when you do your best it's always fucking cool, no matter what it looks like. We're all gonna cheer for the fat bastard struggling across the finish line 'cause we all know he's leaving nothing behind him. Respect.

The more I train and work with other athletes the more I see a simple truth appear: It's not how many reps that count, but how many were done after the "goal" was reached. I think one of the reasons Crossfit is effective for many people is that most workouts are done for time. There is never a "good enough" in hard training, there is only the point where the weight won't move or you're in the air if you're a climber. That's your best.

Now, a problem with all of the above is that getting injured, over-trained, and generally destroyed too often is a sure path to athletic failure. Once an athlete figures out that trying really hard in training gets performance results they often over-train and end up regressing. "Gee, I'm stronger now after training three days a week. Imagine what I could do on five days a week!" Get over trained and injured is the imminent answer. Training must be periodized to some extent or the result will always be a burned out or injured athlete. I know, I've done that lots, and watched numerous other athletes do the same without even knowing what was happening. There are a lot of climbers from the 90s who had to battle chronic fatigue, adrenal problems, etc. etc., let's not repeat that experiment (I think there's likely a correlation to continuous "met con" or power endurance or whatever anyone wants to call it programming and adrenal issues here, but I don't know enough about how this works to figure it out, just see the results among too many people for it to be coincidence).

Failure is an easy marker to hit, but it's often not the most effective thing to do.... A cyclist may not need to redline repeatedly on a five-hour ride, in fact doing so would be counter-productive. Balancing all these variable is what keeps sports and training interesting for me.

One more rep, one more move, break the comfort shell into a thousand sweaty pieces, do your best with no excuses.

There are a million problems with the above, but I hope it makes sense to someone other than me. My own training is never perfect; scattered, incomplete, not as much, too much, what am I training for, but I do know when I've done my best. Give 'er.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Rolling, Fitness and Kayaking

I've had a ton of fun with a personal kayaking resurgence in the past three years, thanks to a good crew of people here in Canmore and elsewhere, it's been great, yeah! New boats, new rivers, new tactics, loving it, it sure is a great sport. But I'm seeing two issues: Paddlers with lousy rolls, and unfit paddlers. I'll deal with the rolling issue first as it's simpler.

If a person can't roll effectively on both sides of a kayak with or without a paddle he or she has no business being on a serious whitewater river with any sort of serious hazards. A poor roll is a hazard to the paddler, the people rescuing the paddler, and the Visa card when new paddles and boats have to be purchased. Go to the pool or a warm lake, put on a mask, and learn. It will only take a few sessions, and these may keep you from being beat up, losing your paddle, boat or life. When I learned to paddle 30 years ago rolling was still sort of optional; "good" paddlers could roll anywhere, the rest of us hoped to one day roll regularly. After a particularly bad swim in the glacial Athabasca river while wearing a rain jacket I went to a lake with a swim mask a few times and spent maybe eight hours learning to roll up from any possible position I could think of. It's been more than 20 years since I did this, and I've never swam in that period because I couldn't roll up. I'm not special, I just put a modest amount of work into learning a basic skill. There is just no excuse for not being able to roll well other than sheer laziness. My friend Doug Ammons wrote a great essay about rolling up in a class V drop with broken ribs and a bunch of other injuries. He felt that if he had swam he would have died because he couldn't swim with his injuries... I don't know if I could do that, but his point is that a roll should be instinctual and easy enough that the paddler can do it anytime, anywhere. There are likely some paddlers reading this who want to make excuses. Tell 'em to yourself while you're underwater. I've taught kayaking for decades, everybody can have an absolutely bomber roll, full stop.

Now that I've got my rant level up to speed I'll address kayakers and fitness:

Being unfit in a kayak on a difficult river is dangerous. If you're on a play run chilling out then it's no big thing, but here in the Rockies and west people tend to run difficult creeks a lot. Creeking automatically involves carrying your boat in rough terrain, getting beat down in the river occasionally, and having to fully redline your body when things go a little wrong . In the last 30 years I've seen multiple incidents on the river that were, in my opinion, primarily due to lack of strength and stamina, not lack of "skill." Although harder to get than a solid roll, fitness is also important.

High intensity training (going all-out for up to 20 minutes straight) relates directly to being able to put out a lot of physical energy on the river, and then recover quickly from that exertion. If you can blast out a classic "metabolic conditioning" workout then it's going to help when you have to rodeo out of a hole and then keep paddling a long rapid, or have to carry your boat alongside a river in rough terrain, or rescue me. All of these situations are also heavily skill dependent, but I'm seeing paddlers with good skills get worked for a few minutes and then have no energy left to continue dealing and swim or fall down because they're tired. Now, if you can't breathe then no amount of conditioning is going to help with that problem really, but that's actually kinda rare when kayaking--if you have a decent roll!

In climbing if you don't have the skill or fitness you usually can just stop and rest. Same with mountain biking and a lot of other sports. But in paddling it's possible to have the skill to flow with the river until all of a sudden you need the fitness backup and it's not there...

The first place I really noticed a direct improvement from doing Crossfit (which has a lot of HIT training in it) was on a real bitch of a river trip in BC. We were on the first descent of the upper Atnarko river, which would be an all-time classic run if weren't clogged with logs for most of its length. The banks were unstable, vegetated and steep. Due to video and camping gear and some other stuff my boat weighed at least 75 pounds. A 75-pound pack sucks, a boat is way worse. But, due to exercises like thrusters I felt reasonably strong doing battle; the connection was clear in a way it seldom is while climbing or just moving in the mountains. One of the other people on the trip was also reasonably fit, and strangely the two of us were generally having more fun than the other three... Not dissing them, we got down it as a team, but I think our relative fitness really helped the two of us.

Now, skill almost always trumps fitness in sports after a certain base level (Gladwell's "threshold" point where you're tall enough, smart enough, strong enough, whatever to be in the game). A highly skilled but unfit kayaker will be a lot safer than a highly fit but unskilled kayaker on a class V run. But skill and fitness aren't mutually exclusive; go kayaking a LOT for months, like four days a week for three months, and you'll likely develop the strength and skill necessary for that. But most of us don't paddle four or more days a week all year, or even if we do paddle regularly it's often not at a high enough intensity level enough of the time to develop the "flat-out gear" an emergency situation demands. Technical rock climbers routinely go as hard as they possibly can in their sports; redpointing or onsighting a hard route means going all-out. But kayakers don't, so when that output level is required while getting worked it's often not there.

Being aerobically fit isn't enough either; the ability to run slowly for an hour isn't effective when you're trying to muscle out of a situation on the river, totally different pathways and requirements. Done perfectly, kayaking demands mostly mental skill and good movement patterns, and not a lot of strength. But most of us aren't perfect; I need to be able to sort stuff out when I'm getting beat down, and then have the strength to continue dealing immediately. I think the ability to continue putting out power at a high level is more important than absolute power; for example, a small woman will do better than a strong man if she has the skill and fitness to rodeo out of a hole and then still keep functioning at 80 percent of her max for the next 30 seconds. The man could exert more one-move power maybe, but if he's finished after that and his heart-rate is at 90 percent of max and not coming down for a minute it's game over, he's swimming or slow as hell on the bank.

It's easy to fix this problem: do some form of strength and high-intensity training three days a week for an hour or so total (including the warmup). That'll make a huge improvement, plus it's fun. Many outdoor adventure types have an aversion to training; cool, but personally I have an aversion to getting beat down hard in the river. I'll train to help avoid that situation, plus high intensity training is just that: intense, like paddling can be, and I like it.

I generally like Crossfit and think it's a form of training that's appropriate for paddlers. It's also open-source, meaning that it's free (unless you want to join a Crossfit gym). The hype and posing among some Crossfitters is somewhere between comical and a complete turn-off to many individualistic outdoor types, but the workouts and ideas are unarguably effective, you don't have to buy the T-shirt to do the workouts.

Anyhow, time to go train, I've had a couple of days getting soft.... Might have to work on my roll a bit too.

PS--There's some stuff on the Crossfit site about Brad Ludden, a damn good paddler, but it's subscription only. This article is interesting.

PPS--I received a couple of emails on what roll is most effective. The short answer is the one that gets you back to the surface the most consistently in the least time. The longer answer is that I'm a firm believe in the full sweep, front tuck to coming up on the back deck roll. I've seen and taught many different rolls, but over the last 20 years the front sweep to almost lying on the back deck roll seems to be the most effective for the most people. It's basically a back-deck handroll when broken down into components, so add a paddle blade for leverage and it's the most powerful roll on the river. Some people will argue that it's dangerous because the paddler is laid out on the back deck, but the paddler is usually above the surface of the water by about 120 degrees from the initiation. The most dangerous roll is the one that doesn't work the first time.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mountain Heptahlon

The Heptathlon is an eight-sport track and field event. A friend and I were out for some heavy breathing (that sounds more exciting than it was) the other day and got into what sports would define a "mountain heptathlon." The scoring on a Heptathlon is interesting because it's based on an athlete's performance against a list of standard times (which look pretty tough to reach). This "scored against a standard" system is interesting because it allows comparison across a wide range of venues and athletes. That comparison would be harder to do with mountain sports, but it's interesting if you're interested in that sort of thing...

-Rock climbing. 5.13a onsight.
-Mountain running. No idea for longer courses, but check these times and courses out from the world championships.
-Mountain biking. Standard? Hard to define.
-Backcountry skiing/off-piste skiing with some serious down. Ski mountaineer races seem good?
-Whitewater kayaking (downriver race).
-Nordic skiing of some kind (going fast on little skis).
-Ice climbing/mountaineering/winter climbing stuff.
-Paragliding (includes hiking to launch).

Marginal "mountain" sports, or sports we couldn't agree on:
-Road biking
-Horseback riding
-"Freestyle" snowboarding, skiing, anything that is judged can't be a mountain sport.
-BASE jumping
-Swimming (lakes etc).
-River surfing.

It would be pretty much impossible to do all of these events in one place, but how about a season of events that would tie all of the above together into one event? Hmmm....

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fitness: A Unified Theory, and intervals

It's been a lot of fun working through ideas on fitness by experimenting, thinking, reading, talking and emailing with different folks in the last couple of years. I think I've finally figured something useful out: I care most about performance. That's the top of my priority list in terms of athletics. "Fitness" is one component of performance, yet it's often not even close to the most important component of athletic performance. But fitness is the easiest to measure, and the easiest to improve at (at a relative novice level). This idea was driven home to me recently when my wife quoted her old Norweigan XC ski coach (say this with a thick Norwegian accent): "You North Americans are all better than us on the treadmill and eat so well, how come the Norwegian skiers kick your ass then?" Performance first.

This philosophy is at the heart of how I look at sport, and how I coach myself and other athletes (only a few). What I coach for and care about is performance. Clients pay half up front, and half when they reach a specific performance goal. If they don't reach it they don't pay. It's all about performance, all about real-world results, full stop. "Fitness" is relevant to that goal, but the vast majority of the people I work with need nothing more than dedicated and semi-organized sorts-specific training to develop the fitness required to perform. If they need a base level of human function then I'll pull from other areas to get that, or send the individual to someone else first.

The real reason I train using non sports-specific protocols (Crossfit, Yoga, Gymnastics, old-time strength stuff, etc) is that I like being a functional human. Deadlifts help my back feel better. Squats help my knees not hurt. I like the way I feel if I hit the WOD regularly. I like to be able to sprint (although I would be mocked at any serious track in the world). It's good. And within that "human" training performance still counts. Better form. Better range of motion. More. Faster. But deadlifting will not help me redpoint my project as much as spending the same amount of time climbing will. So I'l cycle general training and skill training. One for sport performance, one for life performance, both important to me from a performance standpoint at different times in my year.

So there, it's resolved enough for me. Do sports-specific stuff to perform better at sports, especially the mountain sports I do and know well. But also enjoy having a functional body, and find a protocol that works for that. Have performance goals, and be honest about what they are. Be savage like a chain saw in examining the successes or failures of reaching those goals. Learn, think, evolve, try not to be a dogmatic ass, grow as an athlete and human. Train, perform, give 'er, but listen to that old Norwegian coach in the back of your head. There's honesty in saying, "I train 'cause I like the way I feel, yeah!" I can tell when my wife has done her 7:00 a.m. WOD 'cause she's happier. And that's worthwhile.

Give 'er!!!!


Intervals rock. I just want to say that. They hurt, they're annoying, but man do they get results. More on this later, just something I'm excited about right now. Intervals...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Odds and Ends

A month or so ago we did a Mountain Movement course here in Canmore, which was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. One of the participants wrote up a really funny report on the experience, love it! "Gravel Boarding," ha ha! Can't wait to build the "Playground" up again, I have some new ideas for torture...

I'm playing with some new ideas in climbing training. I've spent 25+ years climbing, so my movement patterns are half decent I think. Unfortunately, due to a few injuries, other sports, etc., my climbing fitness is pretty weak right now. Normally I start with a very high volume base cycle, but I have limited time right now as well as some decent base fitness from other sports, time for a plan B. I've been doing relatively short but higher intensity sessions in the climbing gym, trying to pack larger volumes of movement into shorter periods. The classic version of this type of exercise is the 4x4, but my goals involve longer days on terrain up to 5.12, I don't think I need more power endurance than I have right now, just more endurance and the ability to absolutely blast pitches. What I really is another gear, another way to put out more watts faster in a shorter time period.

My experiences with both Crossfit and training "long-interval" style for the dZi Foundation 24-hour climb have led me toward trying to do bigger sets of fast intervals and then adding a "big gear" load on the end of each total interval. I really felt this gave me one hell of a base for the 24-hour climb, and that's sort of (no more 24-hour stuff though!) where my head is at. So 4x4s with heavy kettlebell swings as the fifth station to totally fry my system, or a long traverse with thrusters at the end to mess me up. One thing I've noticed with doing intervals is that the ability to handle that kind of "Now we're going to gasp for three minutes!!!" load responds much better to training than I used to think, and unlike many forms of training the response isn't sports specific. Putting out at an anaerobic level is a skill, whether it's racing up a pitch or doing thrusters. Anyhow, it's an idea, we'll see how it goes...

I'm also not happy with my definition of fitness from the last post. I think I missed a few things, namely that there is a sort of "base" fitness level where the participant is fully functional, meaning not grossly overweight, can move up stairs quickly without gasping, etc. My definition is more based around athletic expression, which is a narrower definition. I'll keep working on my definition, but it's not as good as it should be yet.

Time to go get after it!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Fitness, Calves

If you could only pick one muscle or area on the human body that would tell you how fit someone is what would that area be? Pecs? Quads? You might say that it would matter what the definition of fitness is, and that would be fair, so I'll deal with that first. At length.

Lots of people put up arguments for what "fit" means on the comments part of my last fitness post. What I see in all those well thought-out comments is that fitness is highly situational, and very difficult to measure without skill at the fitness activity being tested playing a large role. There is no way to test for "fitness" without the testing method or apparatus playing a large role. The most empirical and non-apparatus "fitness" test would be blood tests; that might give a hint of how "well" someone is, but blood tests will tell the tester very little that's useful for predicting how an athlete will perform. "Gee, this blood work looks fantastic, I bet whoever gave the sample can run a 400M really fast!" That's obviously funny to me. Running a 400M fast is legitimately cool. Everything after a blood test involves skill, not just power or watts put out. And if the test is based even partially on skill then how "general" can any fitness truly be?

Even the most "general" fitness that I know of and practice, Crossfit, is still highly apparatus and skill-specific even as it develops a reasonably broad level of general fitness. For example, an athlete may have the base power to do overhead squats, but until the athlete has the shoulder flexibility and movement patterns an overhead squat will be very difficult (I use this example because I truly suck at overhead squats). An overhead squat may help with athletic performance in other sports, but by itself the skill will, until learned, likely trump the "fit" component of the movement. Every activity in the Crossfit games had a major skill component (even the wheelbarrow event, I could sure tell who had run a wheelbarrow before!); what the Games are testing is the ability to do a lot of different skills at a reasonable--not elite--level, cool.

Comparing athletes in different sports is fun and interesting, but comparing their performance or fitness levels is pretty hard to do unless the football player puts on skates, or the basketball player straps on a set of slalom skis. I think everybody would see that would be kind of ridiculous, and that's why claims of being "The fittest athlete in the world" are the same. Fitness without a specific expression of fitness doesn't exist. Put another way, fitness is inextricably based on the skills required to demonstrate that fitness. Fitness without performing a skill is impossible to define as fitness; inevitably the skill shapes the performance.

Most of the improvements in the opening weeks of any training program come not from increases in strength but in increases in skill. Even after years of sports-specific training skill will still often trump pure power in athletic events. Pick any sport out there; the ability to squat 800lbs is less important than the ability to read the action, see the game, and execute the movement, whether the sport is climbing, skiing or NHL football.

However, having a functional body that is strong is obviously a hell of an asset for any sport or life, and I do think Crossfit does a great job on functional movements. That's why I do it; not to be "fit," but to be functional. Big difference there. And before anyone involved with CF gets bent, I think Crossfit athletes are incredibly fit, even though I can only measure their performance at Crossfit.

My definition of "fitness" is this: An athlete's ability to successfully perform at whatever activity or task he has trained to engage in. For a person who wants to run the Grand Canyon rim to rim in a day then doing that successfully means they were fit enough. For an ice climber on a difficult first ascent that means doing it without injury. For a military group on a patrol in the mountains that means getting the job done and being able to patrol again without excessive recovery time. For a Crossfitter it might mean eventually doing Fran in under three minutes while also deadlifting over 500 pounds. For my friends in chairs it might mean being able to bust it out down a flight of stairs and remain solidly in control. All cool expressions of true fitness, but obviously impossible to compare meaningfully. The Crossfitter would die on the ice climb, the ice climber will suffer on the Grand Canyon run in the heat, and all of 'em could die on the patrol... Fitness is just impossible to separate from the situation it's performed in. A fit individual will be able to perform and successfully function in a given situation, or he isn't fit. Being able to do a select set of exercises (Crossfit Games) reasonably well means that someone has trained for just that, and may be the fittest in the world at that combination of those motions. Cool again, but I'm still not buying that the top Crossfit Games athlete is the fittest in the world at anything but Crossfit. Of course, it's fun to argue the question as I'm doing here.

Now, having defined fitness as successful specific task performance, here's a very general question: What one muscle or one area in the body immediately displays someone's fitness level, or at least the broadest prediction of reasonable fitness? If you had to line a bunch of people up and use a screen that would only allow a small glimpse of each person's body to predict their fitness level what part of the body would you focus the screen on?

In my world that one area is the calf and muscles on it. I was sitting with my wife in a cafe the other day that had a huge volume of people walking by and through it, mostly in shorts as it was a hot day. The busloads of tourists basically didn't have calves; it was like a surgeon had cut the muscle bodies out. The cyclists who rode their bikes in did. The climbers on their way to the crag did. One old guy and his wife sported calves cut into granite blocks from decades of walking in the mountains. A "display model only" body builder in a white wife-beater had no calves, and I'm pretty sure he could only define his fitness level with a bicep curl contest, which he would win (pro bodybuilders have rad calves).

Developed, cut calves tell me that the athlete spends a lot of time moving on his feet, whether it's playing basketball or running. Almost every good real-life athlete (as opposed to a gym poseur) from the military patrol in Afghanistan to a mountaineer, will have solid calves. If I had to predict an athlete's performance in the mountains without knowing anything at all about him or her I'd look at the calves for a rough answer; mountain athletes always have strong lower legs.

And that's just it. I'm a mountain athlete; that's where I do my sports in general. If I were looking for the "Fittest Athlete Alive" I'd have a radical kayak race, a deep water soloing competition, a distance paragliding competition, a mountain bike race, a hike and huck paragliding event, etc., and I'd call whoever won that the fittest athlete ever, ha ha! And I guarantee that the winner would have some solid lower legs. No Crossfitter could touch my definition of "fitness," just as I would be mincemeat in the CF Games, or on a pro basketball court. Now I'm going to do the WOD just 'cause I like it, which when I think about is a hell of a huge plus in any "fitness" regime. If you don't like doing it then eventually you won't, and that's the biggest problem with most "fitness" bikes etc., they are deadly boring long-term.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Canadian Paragliding Nationals, etc.

Eric Oddy Photo, a whole lot more at the same address.

I just finished competing in the Canadian Paragliding Nationals. Some of you who know my history with paragliding competitions might be laughing, as I've said repeatedly that I'm retired from that scene. But the Canadian Nationals are different; mellower, more fun, and less gaggle flying. I went to the meet with a relaxed attitude and a commitment to leave the comp and chase distance records if the day presented itself, but ended up doing the whole comp and learning a few things. Here a few observations from the week relating to both paragliding and life:

1. We often need less stuff than we think we do. I'm used to flying with a fairly high-end Flytec flight computer that does all kinds of stuff, but I launched on the first day and the vario and altitude functions totally failed. That means I had no "Beep beep" to tell me when I was in lift and when I wasn't. Initially I kinda freaked out and pounded on the instrument etc., but it still wouldn't beep, and I was sinking lower and lower as I worried about not having the reassuring "beep beep" to indicate lift. I sunk well below launch and almost to the ground before thinking, "OK, no electronics, what can you do without electronics?" I fly occasionally without a vario, but not in a national-level competition, in my mind that was like not having chalk or something in a climbing comp. But, as I sunk lower and lower in a sort of mental paralysis, I remember a story about my bud Chris Muller flying huge tasks in a paragliding world cup without a vario. That made me smile; Chris is always in my thoughts when I'm in Golden, and the image inspired me to focus not on what I was missing but what I still had: a decent glider, a lot of experience in the air, and a fun-looking day if I could figure out how to stay in the air and fly it!

I had to fight my way back into the air by listening to the glider, feeling the forces in the light lift, and tuning into what my body does naturally without listening for the beep beep. I would honestly never have thought it possible for me to fly an entire comp task without a vario, much less do OK. But, 110K later, I landed at the goal field in a good position. I'd rate that flight as one of the cooler experiences I've ever had, both for the silent 3 hours in the air, and because I was able to shut down the negative talk and just fly with what I had. I was ready to fly out and land at the start when I was sinking out, the transition to landing at goal three hours later was something I'm actually way more proud of than winning the title of Canadian Champion five days later (not dissing that, I'm always happy to do well, but that flight on day one was really cool for me).

I've sometimes forgotten "critical" gear on trips before, and yet we often still ended up succeeding somehow. Good gear is beautiful and I lust after it, but day one of the Canadian Paragliding Nationals was a good lesson for me in not letting what I don't have define my experience. What else in my life do I think is essential that really isn't? And I've ordered another Flytec vario, ha ha!

2. Trying to beat other people generally doesn't work out so well in any competition. This is hard to explain, but in every comp I've ever won I didn't think about the other people in the comp much if at all. I just did my thing as best I could, and the results showed some version of how we all did relative to each other. As soon as I start trying to beat other people in any comp I usually lose. In this comp there was a very good German (and hopefully soon Canadian!) pilot, Robert Hauser, on an Ozone R10.2 glider. This glider kicks ass, and because I wasn't really even planning to compete in the Nationals until just before going I was on an older glider that was a couple of generations behind the R10. Anyhow, the first few days I was able to hang with Robert, then I started pushing to beat him by flying low and fast. His skill and superior glider made that tactic just fail, as it always does, and I would repeatedly get stuck soaring some bump down low while Robert's glider flew over my head. He won the overall meet in the end and I was second, fair enough. I think, even with an inferior glider, I might have been able to pull a better result if I had of focused more on my own flying and less on getting in front of other pilots in the last two tasks. Focus on your own stuff first... And well done Robert, it was a pleasure!

3. Situational awareness is everything. I'm currently learning to fly airplanes while getting my private pilot license. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, and I'm lucky to have some time to get it done. Learning how to fly a plane has not been easy for me; a paraglider has three controls, you just fly it like you paddle a kayak. A plane as simple as the trainer 172s I'm learning to fly in have a huge quantity of dials and buttons, and eventually you have to know how to use them all. Each lesson a new control or maneuver is added, but only after you can show enough situational awareness to handle it. At first just pointing the plane in the right direction took everything I had, now I can use most of the controls and do most of the maneuvers required to fly (they let me go alone now, ha ha!). My situational awareness is growing every flight. In the Canadian Nationals I noticed my situational awareness shrink and expand depending on blood sugar, comfort level, emotional state, sleep level, etc. etc. As I think back over all the competitions and big efforts I've battled with the one common denominator in the "success" bracket is how aware I was in the situation I was battling in. If I had a high level of situational awareness I generally did well. Low level, poor result.

I often make an internal game of watching other people's level of situational awareness in different situations. A mother may be incredibly tuned into her kid, but totally unaware of what's happening around her as she drives. I do the same. In a paragliding competition I can watch pilots make the oddest decisions because they aren't thinking about the big picture around them. I do that too. If I had a switch that allowed me to get rid of extraneous thoughts and just work on my situational awareness I'd be a lot more successful in life I think. I haven't yet figured out to how to mentally train my mind to see the big picture or the appropriate picture in different situations, but I'm working on it in my usual ten steps forward 9.9 back. Mental training is way harder than physical training.

4. It's fun to do stuff with friends. I had a great time seeing many old friends at the Nationals, yeah!

I'll try to post some followup thoughts to all the excellent posts on Women and Fitness, thanks to everyone for those.

WG out.