The Habit of Excellence

Rocky Mountain Sourdoughs (Denali team) member Jim Berryhill carrying a heavy pack on Mount Beristadt, October 25th, 2014.
Rocky Mountain Sourdoughs (Denali team) member Jim Berryhill carrying a heavy pack on Mount Beristadt, October 25th, 2014.

Aristotle wrote, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

These words ring true to me, now more than ever, as I move into the final set of training periodization in preparation for Denali. I’m a big believer in habits.

As part of my professional work, I need to think a lot about organizational culture and the opportunities for (and barriers to) change. After almost 20 years of doing this work, I’ve come to a foundational belief: organizational culture is the sum total of the habits of the organization’s people, and the habits of those people are the sum total of the individual behaviors they practice.

The same can be said for my preparations for Denali. I need to change. I wasn’t born ready to climb that mountain or magically endowed with some level of fitness that would allow me to waltz up the peak. I need to get MORE fit. This means I need to change. To create that change, to create a personal culture of “excellence” (to borrow from Aristotle), I need to create habits that allow me to develop the level of physical fitness needed to achieve the “excellence” I require. Therefore, I need to practice those behaviors – over and over again – which will form into the right habits.

Every day, I have a choice of behavior: stick to the training plan or not. It is by repeating the positive behavior of sticking with the program – even when I’m tired, even when I’m distracted, even when I’m not at my best, that I create a habit from the positive behavior. Not every workout will be my best workout, I’ll have good days and bad days, some days more focused and productive than others. That’s fine. It’s the seemingly simple act of repeating the behavior that builds the foundation for excellence.

You may recall from a previous post (“Sharpening the Ax”) that I had been developing a periodization training schedule. Basically, this schedule breaks down into four overlapping phases that occur before you goal activity (for me, climbing Denali):

  1. Transition – moving from a period of rest and recovery (usually a few weeks to a month) back into the habit of daily training;
  2. Base – establishing the foundational aerobic fitness and muscular strength to allow for the more intense training that will come later as you train specifically for your goal activity
  3. Specific – mirroring, as best as possible, the physical demands of your goal activity by breaking that activity down into its component parts and “practicing” each of those parts
  4. Tapering – training far less vigorously, with the goal of maintaining (rather than increasing on) the gains you made from the previous periods

In that previous post, I had given you insights into my base period training as I was ten months out from Denali. I also promised to spend some time discussing my “specific” training period as the climb grew closer. Well, that time is now.

Because of my need to rehabilitate my knee after my ACL reconstruction in August of 2013, I always intended to go through all four phases (or a “cycle”) of periodization two full times before my climb. Now that I’m almost exactly five months out from my departure to Denali, I have just recently entered the final cycle of my four training periods, and thus have committed to paper my final training plan.

In my first cycle, my base period was all about getting base aerobic capacity, getting used to carrying heavy weight for days on end, and working on core strength with a few climbing specific moves thrown in.

My second cycle of base fitness will need to change a little because of the bone bruise that has come along with my knee cartilage injury (see my previous post “On Setbacks”). Yes, I will still need to focus on aerobic base, or being able to keep my heart rate in my “zone one” level for hours on end, but I need to start thinking about the rigors of high altitude and the way it naturally elevates your heart rate. I also can’t put heavy weight on my legs for a few months. Bone bruises take a bit of time to heal. Once the pain is gone, I can start working my legs more vigorously, again; I’ll add that to my “specific” training period, as well as rely upon the fact that I got up to daily carries of 90lbs during my first cycle’s base period, a weight well over what I’ll have on my back on Denali (typically about 50lbs on your back and 50lbs on your sled).

So, in the interim, I can focus on:

  • Rebuilding leg strength through rehabilitation exercises that don’t directly load my bruised leg bone, which happens when the leg is near straight (e.g. hamstring curls, hip abductions, gluteus work, etc. will all work fine)
  • Spending more time in my “zone two” heart rate (140-150, for me), where most of actual high altitude climbing is done (the air is too thin for you to easily stay below a heart rate of 140 while moving)
  • Building my shoulders and back muscles to help take the weight of the heavy pack
  • Working on my VO2 max – trying to expand the maximum oxygen volume I can effectively use

I covered the first three points in my previous workout post (“Sharpening the Ax”), but didn’t have anything to say, at that point yet, about VO2 max training. Think of this the same way as you would max strength training. The goal of max strength training isn’t to allow me to do a pull up with severe weight strapped to my body or to do a step up with a pack heavier than one I will ever carry. Rather, the goal is to move up the “ceiling” of what your body is capable of doing so that the every-day activities of climbing are done at a work rate that is a lower percentage of your overall capability. VO2 max training is the same concept. You wouldn’t want to climb at or near your maximum heart rate. (Your maximum heart rate is related to your VO2 max because in order to get to the maximum amount of oxygen volume you can use, your heart needs to be working at its maximum output to move that oxygen around your body.) You wouldn’t be able to climb at your maximum heart rate for very long. You’d also start sweating – a lot – so when you inevitably had to stop, you’d freeze (at least at high altitude you would). No, the goal is to move the ceiling of what you’re cardiovascular and respiratory systems are capable of so that you are operating at a lower percentage of that total capability on a day-to-day and activity-to-activity basis.

Say your VO2 max is 50 ml/kg/min (you move 50 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute at your maximum cardio-respiratory output). Let’s also say that in order to put one foot in front of the other on a 30 degree slope carrying a 30 pound pack, you need to move 30ml/kg/min of oxygen. So, you’d be taxing your cardio-respiratory system at 60% of its capacity. Now let’s say you train your VO2 max to 60 ml/kg/min. You still are using 30ml/kg/min of oxygen to carry that pack up the slope, but now you are operating at 50% capacity, not 60%. While the actual effort you need to put into carrying the pack up the slope is the same, the LEVEL of effort your cardio-respiratory system needs to put into doing the same work effectively just decreased. Now you can do the same work for longer periods of time.

Now factor in high altitude, where your ability to take in oxygen is compromised due to the lower atmospheric pressure pushing less oxygen into your lungs. VO2 max is basically a measure of your ability to use the heart and lungs (which work together) to get a volume of oxygen to your muscles. We know that, at elevation, your heart rate and respiratory rate are already higher. So, you have less ability to “find a higher gear” to move more oxygen; you can’t breathe faster and pump blood faster to move more oxygen because you are already breathing and pumping fast. So, you need to move more volume per beat/breath in the first place. Increasing your VO2 max does precisely that. Again, you are moving more oxygen per beat and breath so you don’t have to beat and breath faster.

VO2 max is incredibly hard to train. Gains pretty well max out at 15% improvement. It is also painful to train. Holding at or near your maximum heart rate (90%+ as the threshold) for durations beyond a couple of minutes is incredibly uncomfortable, and you need to hold that rate for about four minutes, and do that about four times in one training session (with three minute rest intervals) to move the needle. A good measure of if you are in your VO2 max training zone is to check to see if you are fully, painfully gasping for air. Imagine gasping for air for four straight minutes. You may as well be in the Himalaya. (Of course, I guess that is the point.) Then, do it again. And you have to do that just about every day of the week.

(If you really want to go deep into VO2 max training, check out “Comparing VO2 Max Improvements in Five Training Methods” by John F. Moxnes for the Norweigian Defense Research Establishment).

My base VO2 max is 42.2 ml/kg/min (you can have this number tested in a way that is only slightly more painful than training for VO2 max improvement.) The average for a male my age is upper-30s. So, my VO2 max is above average but not all that outstanding. However, it is really pretty darn good for an asthmatic, which I am (asthmatics have statistically significantly lower VO2 max levels of about 10% according to an NIH study). The fact that I’m not in the mid- to lower-30s probably has to do with the 26 years of competitive soccer I played. My training expectation, then, would be to get to just below 50 ml/kg/min. That would put just behind the bottom range of VO2 max levels for elite hockey and soccer players. I still would be well shy of Ed Viesturs reported 70+ ml/kg/min and even further from the elite cyclists and cross-country skiers who almost exclusively occupy the 80+ and 90+ levels.

One other thing to mention about oxygen utilization as it relates to energy consumption: you pump blood and breathe faster in correlation with the energy you are using. That seems obvious, but it is important to understand this not only for planning training to achiev fitness levels but also in relation to your workout footwear.

Huh? Footwear?

According to various studies, including one done by the US Army, carrying an amount of weight on your feet requires 4.7 to 6.4 times more energy than carrying the same amount of weight on your back. It simply takes more energy to “swing” weight (as you do when you walk) than it does to carry it along with the bulk of your body mass.

So, think about what you have on your feet when you climb to inform what you need to wear on your feet as you work out. A typical high altitude boot will weigh 2.0 to 2.5 pounds; your crampons weigh 1.25 to 1.5 pounds apiece; even your alpine socks – a liner sock and your outer sock – will add up to near 0.25 pounds on each foot; do you wear gators? Another 0.25 pounds each. So, you can quickly add 4 pounds or so to each foot. How much do your training shoes weigh? Not that much. Get some ankle weights and make up the difference, particularly during your cardio workouts – although I wear them for all of my workouts. (I highly recommend ankle weights over working out in your boots; you don’t want to unnecessarily wear down the tread on those expensive things.)

So, with all of that in mind, I started last week with my first week of what will be 13 weeks in my base period for this cycle, each week consisting of:

  • 2 days of core strength training
  • 2 days of weight resistance training (shoulders, back)
  • 2 days of max strength training
  • 1 light cardio day – 90 minutes in my zone one heart rate (this is my pseudo-rest day)
  • 6 days of leg rehabilitation exercises
  • 6 days of cardio training, including 3 days of zone two training (where most of my climbing will be done), 3 days of interval training getting to 80-85% of my maximum heart rate (mirroring when you hit steeper pitches or difficult crux moves), and 6 days of VO2 max training

You’ll note that this adds up to well over seven days. Basically, I’m doing triple sessions: strength training (core, resistance, and max) combined with cardio days while layering VO2 max training over it all. I guess if you throw in the knee/leg rehabilitation, that makes quadruple sessions. How much time is that? In rough numbers, the leg rehab only takes about 20minutes, the resistance training about 30 minutes, VO2 max about 40 minutes (including warm up), and 60 minutes of cardio. So, it’s not like I’m working out all day. But it is a lot of work, and I could not have done this without the first cycle of periodization that increased my fitness level to the point where I could take on this workload.

One other thing to note about base period training: if you plan on losing weight before you climb, do it now. It is harder to make substantial gains in strength and aerobic capacity while you are in calorie deficit. This is part of what my base training period was for during my first cycle of periodization training and part of why I always planned on doing two full periodization cycles. I’m not substantially overweight by any stretch. But I did want to lessen the stress on my legs. There are three ways to do that: 1) train your legs – check; 2) carry only the gear you need, and make it light – check; 3) weigh less, yourself – check. I dropped about 10 pounds; too much more and I start giving up strength, and the gear weighs what it weighs. I don’t want my pack to weigh 50% of my body weight or anything like that.

So, after those thirteen weeks of base training are completed for my second periodization cycle, I’ll be moving into my climbing specific training period, which will last eight weeks.

Denali is not a complex climb to break down into its component parts. There are really only two types of climbing that breaks down into three components: 1) days of long-hauling heavy weight; and the summit push – which by our route (the West Rib Cutoff) is 4000’ vertical on steep terrain, which means both 2) my legs need to be used to that vertical, and 3) arms and shoulders need to be ready to help out on that vertical. As such, my “specific” training period will cover those three components, attempting to reach a point where the training is more robust than the climb will be, itself. Hopefully, my rehabilitation period for my knee/leg during the base training cycle will allow me to take on the heavy pack, again.

So, the “specific” training period looks like:

  • 2 max strength days to keep pushing that strength ceiling on the climbing specific moves of step-ups, lunges, and pull-ups
  • 2 days of carrying a progressively heavier pack for longer and longer intervals (I’ll likely have 90-100 total pounds on the mountain, split between my back and my sled, so carrying it all on my back in training should make the load feel light on the mountain)
  • 2 days of climbing or inclined treadmill work mirroring the summit push, which breaks down into two four-week cycles:
    • Week 1: 4000’ vertical carrying 50% of my summit pack weight
    • Week 2: 4400’ vertical (110% of summit day) carrying 50% weight
    • Week 3: 4800’ vertical (120%) carrying 50% weight
    • Week 4: 5000’ vertical (125%) carrying 50% weight
    • Week 5: 4000’ vertical carrying 100% of my summit pack
    • Week 6: 4400’ vertical carrying 100% weight
    • Week 7: 4800’ vertical carrying 100% weight
    • Week 8: 5000’ vertical carrying 100% weight

Also thrown in are mock-up outings designed to take this indoor training regimen to the outside. Hauling a heavy sled to the base of a couloir or ridge (couloir or ridge depending upon avalanche conditions), climbing the couloir or ridge with a summit pack, and camping on or near the summit (for acclimatization). The closer I get to Denali, the more I will do this so as to get the acclimatization effect as well as to ensure that I’m used to the sled.

Members of the 2013 Kautz Glacier (Mount Rainier -14,410’) Team climbing Torreys Peak (14,267’) via Cupid and Grizzly from Loveland Pass (over 5700’ in gross vertical gain due to the up/down nature of the climb). April 28th, 2013.
Members of the 2013 Kautz Glacier (Mount Rainier -14,410’) Team climbing Torreys Peak (14,267’) via Cupid and Grizzly from Loveland Pass (over 5700’ in gross vertical gain due to the up/down nature of the climb). April 28th, 2013.

The rest of the specific training period is dedicated to maintaining other gain as opposed to making great improvements:

  • 2 days of core strength
  • 1 day of resistance training
  • 2 days of zone 2 cardio
  • 1 day of VO2 max training

Finally, after the 8 weeks of the climb-specific training, I’ll have 2 weeks of tapering, ramping down my training to get the much needed rest I will need prior to the climb. Intense training increases your capacity to do work. Rest gives you the energy to do that work. So, my tapering period will consist of only 1 day per week of resistance training and light (zone one) cardio for a limited time every other day. The goal here is to consolidate and keep my strength and cardio gains, not add to them. It takes a lot less work to maintain than it does to improve. Of course, with reduced work comes increased rest, and those energy reserves will come in handy on the climb.

So, in combination with my “Sharpening the Ax” post, I hope this additional post helps round out the picture of my personal take on fitness training for big climbs. Each climber needs to plot her or his own course to achieve their desired fitness levels, but maybe this will give you a few ideas you may pull from – in specific enough detail – as you take on your own goals… and build your own “habit of excellence.”

Until next time, climb high and climb safely,



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