Saturday, May 01, 2010

Threshold Strength

A year or so ago I read an interesting book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers. Gladwell looks at why some people on the edges of human potential, or "outliers," succeed brilliantly while others don't. Extremely high I.Q. people who don't succeed at much of anything are contrasted with less bright but still smart people who dominate intellectually. Why does one person succeed and not the other?

A repeated theme in the book is that you don't necessarily have to be the smartest/strongest/whateverest but you do have to be smart enough, strong enough or whatever enough, and then you have to have the right environment in order to succeed. You don't have to be seven feet tall to play in the NBA, but you do have to likely be at least six-two. Six two is the threshold (I just made that number up, don't have the book anymore, but I imagine you get the idea). So, for different mountain sports, what are the thresholds that mean "good enough?"

To start with, I believe that performance is the acid test of any training program. We all choose to train three main performance components (our skill, muscles, and head); how we perform is the test. An athlete's performance will generally depend not on which one of these three are the strongest, but which one is the weakest. The absolute strongest athlete often doesn't win a climbing competition; the guy or girl with adequate strength and excellent skill combined with a strong competition head usually wins. We all know climbing gym monsters who can't lead 5.10 on real rock. They don't have the skill or head part. But, and this is the almost funny part, the easiest things to train are muscles, so that's where most people focus most of their time while trying to get "better" at a mountain sport. I really believe this physical-centered approach is wrong for most athletes in the mountain sports I know.

In my experience the fastest performance gains for athletes are usually made when they train their sport-specific weaknesses, specifically skills. I try to get the athletes I work with to attack what they are worst at first; many times that means reading sports psych books, or changing their training to reflect competition stress, or some other aspect beyond just moving things around physically. But, and it's a big butt, if they don't have Gladwell's "Threshold" strength then they will also need that. Any athlete can also use a fully functional body, and a general physical prep program is good for that. A GPP approach is also great for athletes who switch sports around a lot, as I tend to do.

So what are threshold strength levels for a few different mountain sports?

With zero scientific methodology I'd offer the following threshold strength levels for what I would call a "solid" level in each sport:

-Hike up 3,000 feet in under one hour, 5,000 feet in under three (Messner could reportedly do 1,000M/3,200 feet in under 30 minutes or something...).
-Do 10 pullups (not because pullups are necessary, but because anyone who can do 10 real pullups is sorta trained up)
-Do "Angie" in under 20 minutes if you think you're "elite."
-Climb grade IV ice all day on minimal gear and be relaxed about it, lead 5.6 with a pack.

Technical rock climbing at a solid 5.13 level
-Do 10 pullups on a half-inch ledge.
-Hang a 1 inch ledge for 5-10 seconds one-handed.
-Campus up the smallest rungs in your climbing gym.
-Climb ten 30M pitches of modern mid-5.12 a in a day (all different pitches, no laps).

Trad Rock climbing 5.10:
-Do one pullup on a one-inch rung.
-Do three pullups on a bar.
-Hike 1,000 feet vertical in 30 minutes.
-Climb all day on 5.7 and still think it's fun.

Kayak class V and up with physical reserves:
-Mountain bike for an hour straight without having to stop and gasp.
-Row 2K in under 10 minutes.
-Bench their own weight.
-Play anywhere in a class IV run.

Mixed climbing M12 (without trickery):
-Ten pullups with tools staggered lower head to upper spike.
-Front lever for two seconds, 20 knees to elbows straight.
-One-handed hang 20 seconds, 20 seconds other hand, repeat for ten cycles.
-Onsight M10 sometimes, always do it second try.

Ski Touring
-Gain 3,000 feet in under one hour even after smoking up.

There are definitely people who will be able to meet the technical standard without having the threshold strength, but by and large these are the physical standards I think are required if an athlete is to be at a roughly equal personal level (strength, skill, head). Chances are that if you have these strengths then you can get the day's job done at that standard. If a kayaker can't bench his or her own weight then they are paddling without a physical reserve and are relying instead on reserves of skill and headspace. I see physically strong paddlers get bit off because they lack skill and headspace more than I see skilled but relatively weak paddlers get into trouble, but I see both regularly. Often the paddler doesn't know he or she is weak or has lost skill... A paddler who is strong in all ways is better than one who lacks in one area, and one day that raw strength is going to really, really count.

But I also put a sort of "skill and head check" in each list; many people claim to want to climb 5.13, but can't climb ten pitches of mid-5.12 in a day. They can likely siege a 5.13 into submission if they have the threshold strength, but they won't be doing a new 5.13b in a day with regularity (and that's what climbing at that grade means to me for the purposes of this discussion). I know a few "alpinists" who can hike up hill like mad, but can't lead basic water ice smoothly... They will not succeed on major winter alpine objectives without a basic skill set.

So, are you strong enough, skilled enough, and mentally together enough to actually perform at the level you want to? And if not, why not? This is where it gets interesting, and self-examination becomes more important than another set of squats. Which may also help, but if you're at double or triple the threshold strength for what you want to do and still not getting it done then perhaps it's time to try something different. Immediately. And if you're not at threshold strength then you're very late for a training session.

This stuff is really fun to think about, especially as I work through my own goals, limitations and successes with my own sports and training.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The things that go on in my backyard...

Learning to do handstand pushups in my backyard...

This was taken months ago, Kim did 30 of 'em (in sets, but still 30!) last week for a workout.

Training has to be engaging, and at times downright fun, or it's not gonna happen. The women of Cultfit Coyote Way keep it fun...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Training, form follows function.

My own training is in a state of flux; I haven't set new concrete new physical goals for the rest of the year, but I need to maintain some sort of solid base (and I just like being active, it's not a burden at all). I know I'll be kayaking a fair amount this spring, then flying my glider, then rock climbing more and more (I've got an idea for a big rock traverse in early fall...). I think Crossfit does a fine job of physical prep for kayaking, and actually kayaking will take care of any issues. Being a lot stronger won't help for most actual kayaking, but it's important to be strong enough (threshold strength) and also strong enough to comfortably wrestle boats on portages (it happens), move around on junk terrain, etc. etc. CF takes care of all that, combined with the general mountain beating I do with my kid on my back or whatever.

For rock climbing I need some more specific finger strength, as well as skill reinforcement and development. For bigger days I need to also develop a deeper base; big days get easier with big-day training for sure.

With all of the above in mind my base plan is to follow the CF WOD, but add in a few sessions a week of either cragging or bouldering in the gym (dropping the CF intensity on those days or skipping it or rolling a couple of workouts together at a reduced level). I don't need to make this too specific yet; just moving and loading my forearms will be enough. Going climbing also involves walking to the crag here, so that will help with the long-day prep.

I also need to work my range of motion regularly; I have a yoga routine I often do before the CF WOD or climbing that really, really helps me move better. I've been doing that twice a week, it should be more like four times a week. I can tell when I'm not stretching and working my ROM enough, I get all creaky...

So that's what I'm doing for the next month or so... I'll start dropping CF workouts as the flying/paddling/climbing takes over the time slot.

Nutrition Thoughts: Form does follow function...

One "odd" thing about Crossfit is that, although the workouts burn a lot of energy per minute, they don't burn all that much energy in total. Even including an extensive warmup the total calories used during the exercise are relatively low, especially if you are used to the calories burned in aerobic sports (mountain biking, ski touring, etc). Many Crossfitters are relatively sedentary outside of the WOD. If you look at the physique of most Crossfitters it's more classically mesomorphic; some are very lean, but seldom in the same way that top aerobic athletes are lean. I don't think being super-lean is much if any of an advantage for Crossfit; being leaner will help with pull-ups and other gymnastic stuff to a certain extent, but the return on effort expended to get leaner below, say, 10 or maybe 15 percent BF for guys, is likely pretty darn minimal. Yet I hear a lot of, "I want to be ripped!" in the CF world. Getting really ripped without burning a ton of calories with exercise is pretty hard to do; hence all the nutrition freak-outs in the CF forums, the "I ate a piece of pizza, I'm doomed!" comments. No, you're not doomed, it likely doesn't make any difference at all. But if you're neurotic then you're by definition not thinking straight, and you'll think it is a problem... So CF athletes want to be super lean like high-aerobic burn athletes, but don't do the exercise loads that tend to naturally result in a very lean physique, and as a result are often in a mental conflict. I'd say let form follow function, spend less energy worrying about body fat levels and more on good form and intensity (which is really hard to get if you're not eating enough carbs...).

Something to think about anyhow. I always find it amazing how my body changes to fit the function I expect of it. If I just do CF I noticeably gain muscle (not saying much, ha ha!) and a little fat if I'm coming off a climbing season where I'm really lean, or lose a little fat if I'm coming out of kayaking where I tend to get a bit fatter. But form does follow function despite the massive efforts of people to fight this basic natural concept. Cheetahs aren't fat, antelope aren't fat, healthy seals are... People who sit on their asses and eat continually get fat. Go run 20K a day and you will get skinny... We are all animals.