House and Johnston have written an engaging, thorough, and well-illustrated training manual for alpinists or any endurance athlete. Although written for the alpinist, this book is particularly valuable for the mountain ultramarathon trail runner. The overlap between alpine-style climbing and mountain ultramarathon trail running is substantial and the committed mountain ultramarathoner will benefit greatly from a focused read of this book. From the long “event” time duration to the importance of core strength for optimal performance and injury prevention, alpinisim and mountain ultramarathoning are nearly inseparable from a training perspective. In fact in many sections of the text one can interchange the word “climb” with the word “run” and loose no meaning or relevance. Replacement of some of the upper body strength guidelines with similarly structured run-specific guidelines and and one will find the information in this book is nearly all directly applicable to mountain ultramarathon training. Given that there currently exists no such comprehensive training manual specifically written for mountain ultramarathon training, this work is a great resource for the ultramarathon athlete. Although the importance of the mental aspects of training and competition (or expedition completion for alpinists) is well accepted, there is very little in the literature directed to the mountain ultramarathon athlete. Again, this book stands as a solid offering on the subject of mental training and development for intensely hard and long duration endeavors, whatever form they might take. House and Johnston, with publisher Patagonia Books, have produced a beautiful book from a graphic perspective as well. The illustrations, pictures, and interesting “vignettes” from many of the world’s best alpinists serve, along with the excellent and thorough text, to make this book a classic tome that will be an important part of the canon for at least a generation.
I have always subscribed to the importance of “tangential reading” and have made such reading a fundamental part of the pursuit of knowledge. “Tangential reading” is the study of work in other (allied or disparate) fields to enrich and cultivate deep understanding of concepts or subjects that are a primary focus. Examples include the study of chemical thermodynamics when pursuing a full understanding of statistical physics or a reading of classical geometry texts whilst grappling with basic calculus. The approach and perspectives brought forth by workers in “tangential” fields of study invariably bring new insight and a more thorough understanding of the subject matter at hand. Similarly, such studies of “tangential” fields are also important in non-allied fields as influences upon thinking in other, very far afield, endeavors. An example here being rigorous study of mathematics and mechanical physics and the resultant substantial influence on the work of artist Richard Serra in his forms of “torqued ellipses” and “torqued torus inversions”, for example*. It was in this spirit that I came upon Steve House and Scott Johnston’s book Training for the New Alpinism – a Manual for the Climber as Athlete recently published by Patagonia Books. Although it was expected that there would be some overlap between mountain ultra-endurance running and cross country skiing training with training for alpine-style climbing, I was surprised with exactly how large this overlap is. A reading of this book has not only reinforced many training principles that are part and parcel of any rigorous training for endurance sport, but the authors have also done an admirable job of distilling much of this information into a very readable, engaging, and well-illustrated discourse. The alpine “vignettes” that are strategically placed throughout the book nicely emphasize points made in the text and offer inspiring photographs of alpine pursuits.
But perhaps the most functional attribute of this book is the applicability of the contents to any number of endurance sports. House and Johnston have stripped away much of the overlay of sport specific context that impairs many other training texts when it comes to communicating fundamental training concepts. Here a neutral ground of endurance training is developed and then applied to the alpine discipline. As a result endurance athletes of any variety will benefit from this book and, at the same time, be exposed to perspectives that are specific to the alpine discipline- much of which resonates with all endurance sports. Although Noakes, Daniels, Lydiard, Friel, Magness, and others have provided similar training precepts, each has done so within the atmosphere of running or cycling culture. In Training for the New Alpinisim alternative approaches based on the same training concepts are uniquely valuable to those athletes looking for broader perspectives, a deeper and more rich understanding, and, perhaps, some new direction to enhance one’s own training regimen.
The organization of the book is nicely done and follows a logical sequence from introduction to fundamentals to specifics to sensible nutrition to mental aspects. Along the way many detailed plans, progressive approaches, and suggested protocol are offered and documented in a straightforward manner. Although in excess of 400 pages, a reading goes swiftly due in part to the well written text but also due to the quality of the book including the paper, the illustrations, the pictures, and the collected short-form writings of some of the most accomplished alpinists. It is truly a pleasure to read. Thanks to House, Johnston, and publisher Patagonia Books for their focus on the graphic excellence and structural quality. Low quality books with sub-standard graphics are commonplace today and it is refreshing to read such a well-done product.
A few take-aways
1. The reiterative but often not followed precept of 80/20 (or 90/10, depending) proportions of L1-L2 to L4(L5). Here again the authors point out the critical importance of limiting the intensity of workouts in order to perform at an optimal level on race day (or survive a climb) and during scheduled hard workouts. I often drift out of this protocol and need consistent reminders to back it off and save the high intensity capacity for the high intensity workouts and races and not spend much if any time in the no man’s land of L3.
2. The importance of max strength workouts to develop reserve capacity power at a high power to weight ratio. This is such an important factor for competition yet there is very little written on the subject. The authors provide excellent information here.
3. Begin additional reading on mental aspects and develop some sort of operative approach to enhance mental thought processes under highly stressful conditions.
A few quotes from the text
“It is not our natural tendency to value struggle over success, a worldview that climbing sternly enforces. Embracing struggle for its own sake is an important step on your path”.
House and Johnston (p 21)
“Constantly overcoming difficult training challenges and examining ourselves along the way improves self-assurance. That confidence frees imagination. It opens doors to new, more difficult projects, and expands our problem-solving repertoire”.
Mark Twight (p 15)
I couldn’t recover when I did go long, and the old days when I could move for twelve to twenty-four hours non-stop were a distant memory. Thus ended my love affair with short-duration, high intensity “cross training” to the exclusion of other forms”.
Mark Twight (p 98-99)
“You get these high-powered people who want to climb Mount Everest, they spend $85,000… there is a Sherpa in the front pulling, a Sherpa in the back pushing, carrying extra oxygen bottles so you can cheat the altitude. You haven’t climbed Everest. The purpose of climbing something like that is to affect some kind of spiritual or physical change. When you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out, and you’re an asshole when you get back”.
Yvon Chouinard (p 365)
An enjoyable read with valuable training advice and programming, a slew of high quality illustrations and pictures, applicability across endurance athletics (in particular mountain ultramarathoning), and much insight into the operative physical training programs and associated mental training that has worked for many of the world’s top alpinists. Add this to your list of “must reads”. Highly recommended.
*Charlie Rose has done numerous interviews with Serra where he makes it clear how important curiosity and the associated pursuit of “tangential” reading is to the creative process. One such interview can be viewed here starting at about 23:00: