One of the factors that I constantly struggle with in preparing for big polar or mountaineering expeditions is the simple fact that I am an average person – both in height and weight as well as physical abilities. Unlike an Olympic or Pro athlete, I was not genetically gifted with overwhelming speed or strength. In high school, I was the slowest person on our varsity soccer team. That same year, I was also our best mile runner on the track team. (I have since realized that I have absolutely no fast twitch muscles.) What I may lack in natural ability, I make up for in drive and determination. You can do a lot with above average motivation, I’ve learned.
Training for polar trips is relatively simple as most expeditions are long tedious slogs. Therefore, my main exercise goal is building strength and endurance. While lacking as many intense physical bursts as mountaineering, polar expeditions are a battle of attrition on an exponentially increasing level. About North or South Pole expeditions, I often say, “you can fool yourself. You can fool your friends, but you can’t fool the last 100 miles.” Mountaineering training is more complex as more skill and altitude-related activities are incorporated into my overall plan.
I operate under one simple platitude, train hard, travel easy. Old school expeditioners took a different approach and would get in shape over the course of the expedition, but in my opinion that is a bit too late. Good and thorough training will improve your overall chance of success, decrease potentials for injury, create positive group dynamics and positively affect decision making. I have witnessed way too many bad decisions made when physically exhausted that were based on personal energy levels versus an objective decision-making process.
My goals in training are relatively simple – maintain a high cardiovascular level and overall general fitness, build strength and endurance, practice related skills and acclimatization….all while still trying to manage fundraising and planning requirements, and most importantly – maintaining quality personal relationships. Sounds easy, right? Not so. As any self-employed person knows, there is always more work to be done. A lot of skill and practice have taught me to carefully balance the many directions I am constantly pulled. Therefore, a trip to a public speaking event or fundraising presentation often creates large gaps in my training schedule.
As on expeditions, I rely heavily on routine and schedules. Saturday is a long 4-5 hour bike ride or all day hike. Sunday workouts are a little shorter, but still strenuous. During the week I’ll usually take one or two days off, but most weekly workouts are a minimum of an hour and a half with something around three hours thrown in as well.
Running is a great way to maintain a general fitness (especially when traveling). It is a also a good time saving work out (compared to biking) and an effective way to do altitude training. Luckily, I’ve been relatively injury free over the course of my life. Knock on wood. There are lots of bumps and scrapes, but no broken bones and no stitches (as of today). I did, at one point unknown to me, damage my mid meniscus which later required a minor surgery. Since then however, I do have regular pain and aches in my knees which occur in various situations and a wide range of degrees. The upshot of my knee issue is that my running training is somewhat limited although I still make an effort to run weekly just in case I’m forced to travel and it’s my only exercise option.
Biking, therefore, has been an excellent source of both strength and endurance. A majority of my training now is on the bike – both road and mountain. I find I can get a good combination of training elements – especially living in Colorado where I can also obtain substantial elevation gain – routinely riding up to 10,000 feet – on a longer ride. Biking serves another purpose as well. Because a good workout on a bike takes multiple hours, I am able to build good muscle memory and endurance for long days as the trail. Equally important, a long tough bike ride helps condition the mind for the many long expedition days to come. Read: boring, repetitive and tedious.
In preparing for my Everest climb this year, I was faced with a difficult hurdle to overcome: over training. My ‘big’ year has been full of constant action. Since the end of November I have spent nearly nearly 100 days on expeditions. After the North Pole ended in April, I took a normal week off and then started training again. I felt fine initially, but after a month and half of hard exercise – backpacking rocks (that’s right, rocks) up the Rocky Mountains, long 4-5 hour bike rides and climbing Mt. Rainier – I found myself in an unusual position: I was constantly fatigued. On short bike rides, I found that I would have a quick buildup of lactic acid. My strength seemed to have mysteriously vanished.
It was tough mentally to know that not exercising for over a week would be the best way to train for Everest. Nearly two weeks later, I was finally back to proper form. Cranking off a three hour mountain bike ride at 7-8,000 feet proved that I had not lost much cardiovascular fitness. Feeling strong on climbs was, if anything, simply a relief.