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Training For The New Alpinism - Steve House and Scott Johnson (Read 3817 times)

duncan

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This is the most impressive manual on training for climbing of the many I’ve read. It is beautifully illustrated and presented. For your £25 you get a heavy tome: 1.55 kg, the weight of a big trad. rack, should you wish to calculate the additional training effect of reading it whilst doing your 3000 step-ups. 

The book is a blend of modern knowledge about exercise physiology and personal experience. The authors are scrupulous about presenting them separately and refreshingly honest about the limitations of both types of evidence. The anecdotes, from an impressively wide range of Alpinists - contemporary and past masters, are worth the entry fee alone. There is a certain amount of repetition; how many different ways can you say 'just (wo)man the fuck up'?   

The central premise of the book is the most effective strategy to achieve substantial performance gains is through long-term, high volume, non-specific endurance and strength exercises topped-up by a relatively small amount of climbing-specific work. This is supported by many references to endurance sports like running and cross-country skiing. To what degree this should be applied to more technical activities like climbing - even Alpinism - is moot. I admire the authors’ willingness to present counter-examples to their thesis: a chapter on climbing as training, many of the anecdotes and case-studies are examples of success through ‘just climbing’ rather than training, and House wistfully comparing his achievements on the west face of Makalu with those of Kurtyka, Kukuczka and MacIntyre more than 30 years before. One of House and Johnson’s arguments is these are exceptions, naturally brilliant athletes. Mortals like the authors and readers need to put in the hours away from the mountains. House had been climbing for many years before his Revelation about endurance training occurred though. Perhaps he underestimates the effect of this background as equally necessary to his leap forward in standard?

As you might expect, the endurance training section is the beating (between 50-75% MHR) heart of the book: excellent, thorough and contemporary. Both science and practical application are covered in depth. In summary, most people should do a lot more volume at a somewhat lower level intensity than they think they need. I've inadvertently applied this at my punter level over the last 9 months, with a degree of success in sport and trad. onsighting. I’m certainly going to continue to incorporate this approach. Cross-fit is briefly, elegantly and deservedly given a good kicking.

The strength training chapters are less applicable to rock climbers in my view.  Opinions vary on how specific rock climbing training should be and the helpfulness - or otherwise - of non-specific supportive training. This book is very much of the Mark Twight or Stevie Haston school of dumbbells and pull-ups. Technical gains are barely mentioned. The possibility that emphasis on basic strengthening might have a negative effect on movement skill is not considered. The short section on core stability is weak but this is a problem not specific to this book. In contrast to decades of study of into endurance physiology, good research into core training is minimal and theorising is running far ahead of evidence.

Nutritional advice is more evidence-based than often the case in this area and doesn’t go overboard about supplementation. It makes the good point that high performance in the mountains is demonstrated by groups eating mostly fat and protein (pass the cheese and salami Andrej) but also by those mainly consuming carbohydrates (more dal and rice Pemba?).

The chapter on mental fitness is mostly anecdotal, necessarily argue the authors. I disagree. There are large literatures on motivation, behaviour change and attitudes to risk, all could easily be extrapolated to climbing. Perhaps this section could have used a little outside help?

Occasionally, the risks of high-standard Alpinism are alluded to. Fitness and therefore speed are presented as enhancing safety. House also suggests, obliquely, that doing the bulk of training away from the mountain might be a safer approach than just climbing a lot. Eventually, all that time spent in the mountains is likely to catch up with you. 

Does Training for the New Alpinism offer much to boulderers or sport-climbers? Not directly but we can still learn from it. One of the the underlying messages certainly applies: overnight success comes after years of hard graft (climbing) and incremental increases in training (climbing) volume and intensity. The sections on periodisation and planning the climbing year could well be applied by boulderers, particularly those brave enough to sacrifice months of performance to achieve a short but higher peak. It has some useful ideas on how to avoid burning out on a road trip.

I enjoyed this book, it made me think even when I didn't agree with it. It is essential reading for those wanting to improve their fitness for long routes of all types, of interest to anyone who wants to get better at any form of climbing.


T_B

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Interesting review Duncan - thanks for posting

Muenchener

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Good summary. I bought the e-book, and regret not having waited / shelled out for the hard copy.

Does Training for the New Alpinism offer much to boulderers or sport-climbers? Not directly but we can still learn from it.

I personally have no interest in engaging in any nasty dangerous New Alpinism, but lots of interest in all-day rock routes with longish approaches and long complicaetd descents, where the ability to keep going for twelve to fifteen hours - and still be sufficiently alert to not fuck up when rigging abseils - would be survival-enhancing.

Accordingly I am making an effort to up my aerobic training volume. Can't run because of a knackered knee, so instead hillwalking, which I enjoy anyway, and cycling which I don't much like but am willing to do as a means to an end.

Muenchener

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Opinions vary on how specific rock climbing training should be and the helpfulness - or otherwise - of non-specific supportive training. This book is very much of the Mark Twight or Stevie Haston school of dumbbells and pull-ups. Technical gains are barely mentioned.

I think they take it as given that one can already climb runout, crumbly 5.11, Grade VI ice etc. - or at any rate, that technical climbing ability as such is unlikely to be the limiting factor  in the sort of endeavours they're interested in.

There was an interview with Üli Steck in DAV Panorama a couple of years back in which he said the baseline qualifications for a modern alpinist are 8a redpoint and a three hour marathon.