Some background first: long-time recreative cyclist (mainly in the mud), sport climbing and mountaineering.
In early 2020 I suffered from a fall on a volcano in Chile and messed up my right knee quite bad. Recovering from surgery took a long time, and in the 2nd half of 2022 I was finally able to resume training. Initially mainly focused on regaining strength, supervised by a sports doctor, and later I started to include some cycling (mainly low-intensity). This is to say that my base aerobic fitness was non-existent.
In autumn last year I started with TR and I’ve got a few weeks left before I complete the base-build-specialty cycle (low volume, cross country Olympic plan: SS base 1-3 > short power build > cross-country Olympic) and managed to chew everything adaptive training threw at me (often just barely). Currently I’m at 3.7 W/kg. While I certainly enjoy cycling, my main goal right now is to get back into mountaineering-shape.
In addition to cycling I sport climb twice or three times a week, and I do some strength training once a week. Then you also have a thing called work, social activities, etc., so three times cycling a week is de facto the realistic number of days I can allocate for cycling. And honestly: with the intensity of the workouts adaptive training is serving me, the intensity has to go down if the volume goes up. I just finished a recovery week, but before it was throwing me 8.3 VO2max workouts, and for the coming week it’s suggesting VO2max 10 workouts (I will die a thousand deaths ).
Anyway: undoubtedly my fitness has improved since last year and I’m able to blast on the trails for durations <1h, but I am wondering to what extent this fitness will translate to useful fitness in an Alpine environment. VO2-max is nice for short power bursts but mountaineering is a whole different game: you’ll spend hours in the endurance/aerobic zones, and even if you wanted you will never be able to reach VO2-max intensities because there’s just less oxygen available. With a lack of substantial mountains nearby there are few alternatives to building fitness, and again: I enjoy cycling a lot.
Of course my aerobic base has also benefited from the previous high-intensity training, but I’m wondering if an alternative approach (more volume, less intensity?) might be better suited to my goals. Looking forward to hear your takes on it!
First of all, really sorry to hear about your fall. Getting hurt sucks. Getting hurt on a climb really sucks (not to make this about me but I got hurt on Denali on the Muldrow, so I feel you).
If climbing big mountains with heavy packs is your primary goal, I’d finish out this base-build-specialty cycle because you’re basically there, then start a combination of sweetspot and Z2 base. If you’re doing low volume, I’d alternative weeks of 1 sweetspot, 2 Z2 days and 2 sweetspot, 1 Z2 days. Focus on pushing out the duration of your sweetspot intervals.
Regarding your other training days: is sport climbing a mission critical skill for the types of mountains you want to climb? Obviously climbing can be tons of fun, but you might be better served doing an extra day of strength training with a focus on legs and subtracting a day on the wall. I’ve found that being strong as an ox really helps with long days in the mountains. Or if you’re at the gym, cut your wall time in half one day and lift with that remaining time. I truly think heavy squats are one of the best preparatory exercises for hauling a 70 lbs pack.
I think a lot of how you should approach this quandary (which I totally understand - I’ve spent time on mountaineering trips in Peru and Ecuador, now mostly just backcountry ski to make getting down off a mountain more fun) depends on what and where your next climbing objectives are, and you can periodize your training from there. I don’t know if you’ve ever read “Training for the Uphill Athlete” but there’s a lot of helpful advice in there, and there’s a part which I was disheartened to read that says (I’m doing this from recollection so that’s my excuse if I’m not quoting exactly right) cycling is great for a rest day activity and building aerobic endurance but you absolutely need to do a bulk of your training on your feet to get those weight bearing muscles firing right and used to the load. If you don’t have hills nearby that might means treadmills or stairsteppers for long amounts of time. Like the previous poster said too, raw strength from lifting will also absolutely help with your durability for long mountaineering efforts.
I think the more volume, less intensity approach will actually help you out, as you mentioned your aerobic fitness base was non-existent, but you have to spend some time on your feet. A huge base will definitely get you farther in the mountains than being able to blast out high intensity efforts. I once thought Crossfit was The Way - I wasn’t mountaineering at the time but was backcountry skiing on the weekends and it was not working out well - I’d be worked after 90 minutes of slogging uphill and it would just get worse as the air got thinner. I spent the next spring and summer trail running very slowly to see if I could build a better base for weight bearing uphill activities (went from no running to a trail 50k, mostly to see if I could, not because I like running) in addition to mountain biking and some road rides and the next ski season was substantially better.
Indeed, getting injured sucks and that also sounds like a pretty shitty spot to hurt yourself. I hope you have recovered well. Regarding the training: when I drop most of the high-intensity stuff (VO2max, threshold) I’ll be able to extent the duration of the other rides and I think that will benefit me more than tiring myself on VO2max-work. The climbing is not essential in any way (in that it will not be my limiting factor), but as you say is mainly tons of fun to do and you are right that it probably does not contribute that much to improve the mountaineering fitness where it is actually needed.
Absolute strength wise I think I’m in a pretty good shape. Officially I’m still under medical supervision and in that context I regularly have these isokinetic strength measurements. Earlier I was doing (leg) strength training three to four times a week but when I picked up cycling again I felt it was interfering too much with my bike training, so I went back to twice a week before going to once (from september). I’m quite happy that I managed to retain all my strength (actually improved a tiny bit). Then again: not sure how this translates to strength endurance/Alpine fitness, because as stated in the post below ‘you have to spend time on your feet’. Either way: lowering the cycling intensity will also allow me to incorporate some more strength training, which not necessarily has to come at the expense of climbing time ( ).
I have not read Training for the Uphill Athlete, but I am in possession of Training for the New Alpinism, which I have to admit I have not entirely read. Should I? From what I hear these two are fairly similar in content.
While I appreciate that there is no real substitute for spending time with on your feet weighted, I unfortunately live where it is (almost) as flat as a pancake. I am willing to spend some time doing box step-ups, or similar, but more than once a week will probably drive me utterly insane. To what degree will lower intensity but longer duration cycling, as a substitute for the running many people do, contribute to my goals?
I’m familiar with that source, but most of the info is very focused on running. Unfortunately due to my injury I cannot do any serious running anymore: I’m missing both menisci and a lot of cartilage in my right knee. (Not that I enjoyed running much, in the first place.)
Note that Scott Johnston, co-founder of uphill athlete, recently formed a new venture. Evoke Endurance is the new one. https://evokeendurance.com/ Uphill Athlete is now Steve House and new coaches that he’s hired. Neither side has said much about the split other than wanting to go different ways.
Podcasts with Scott Johnston are my favorite non bike training podcasts out there.
I’m not a mountaineer, but I do have experience back country skiing. I’m convinced single leg strength exercises are a boon for mountain sports. I have often gone through periods maxing out my barbell back squat, but the addition of split squats and related lower body exercises has elevated (haha) my ability to ski all day without my legs failing first.
My cycling used to be to keep aerobically fit when away from the mountains. But you absolutely need to get time on your feet in mountainous / rough terrain. If you don’t your legs will let you know as cycling simply doesn’t work all those small ligaments and stabilising muscles and tendons you use when moving in vertical terrain. Climbing will keep your core strong and compliments cycling. But that doesn’t compensate if your legs are shot when you get back in the mountains.
I think you need to decide if your cycling is to support your mountaineering or you want it to be more than that
To summarise , Is your cycling to help support you to be fit for mountaineering or is your cycling to improve your cycling to the best of your ability? In my view you can’t do both, without unlimited time.
At the moment my mountaineering is on the back burner whilst I work on my cycling. But I’m sure the priority of the hobbies will switch round again at some point.
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