Friday, August 31, 2012

Training for the Stairwell

I often wonder how other stair climbers train. I’m looking to improve my own training regime so I’d love to learn a thing or two from other climbers. In this post I will share my own personal training plan; hopefully others can learn from it or better yet... offer up suggesting for improving it.

Before I get into the specific details of my training program, it would help to know a little bit about my personal stair climbing goals and training limitations:
·        I know many climbers excel at other sports and often have training plans aimed at competing in multiple disciplines; I primarily train for stair climbing races, so my training regime is focused mainly to get better at climbing.
·        I do not have easy access to a tall building. My training staircase is only 7 stories tall, so my stair case workouts are typically sprints.
·        I’d like to run, but I have too many chronic injuries. I hope to get healthy enough to run again someday.
·        I’m heavier than most climbers since I used to lift weights. I’m not yet ready to sacrifice upper body muscle mass to cut weight, so I continue to incorporate upper body strength work into my work out plans. I like my beach muscles!
·        I have limited time to exercise, so my workouts last about one hour.
·        Since I’m relatively heavy (175+ lbs) and I incorporate a lot of sprints into my workouts, my training regime is geared toward shorter climbs (200 meters or less).

Now that you know a little bit about my background, here are my key workouts for the week:

Strength Training
After warming up, I do the following exercises.
·        Two sets of 26 squats immediately followed by 26 lunges (13 on each side) while holding two 30 pound dumbbells. Rest 2.5 minutes between sets.
·        Three sets of 15 deadlifts with 2.5 minutes rest between sets. I usually start off at 95 lbs. and increase the weight each set. When I’m 100% healthy, I typically max out at 185 lbs. (about 10 lbs. heavier than my body weight). When my sciatic nerve is acting up, I will skip the deadlifts completely do a 3rd set of squats & lunges instead.
·        Two sets of hamstring curls with 1-2 minutes rest between sets. I mainly go for muscle endurance with this exercise rather than pure strength. I typically do about 40-50 curls each set with a little more weight on the 2nd set. The 2nd set is done until exhaustion.
·        Two sets of Tabata leg presses with 3-4 minutes rest between sets. I’ve worked up to about 220 lbs. with this exercise, but keep in mind that not all leg press machines are calibrated the same way. I used to keep the weight “up” during the 10 second rest periods, but I found that it puts undue stress on my hips which can aggravate my recalcitrant piriformus muscle & sciatic nerve. This does make the exercise a little bit easier; before I switched technique, I would normally end my 2nd set around the 3 minute mark.
·        20 minutes of pull-ups or 25 minutes of push-ups (depending on the week). I often ride a spin bike in between sets.

Since stair climbing requires a fair amount of anaerobic strength, most of my training is done using low weights and high reps, which promotes muscle endurance & leg strength instead of pure power. After all, even short stair climbs last upwards of 4 minutes, which is hardly a sprint.

Climbing Machine Workout
I use a Climber to build my cardio endurance and I follow a very specific routine so I can measure my performance from week to week.
·        6 minute warm-up:
o   2 minutes @ 110 steps per minute (spm)
o   2 minutes @ 120 spm
o   2 minutes @ 130 spm
·        1 minute active rest (holding the rails @ 140 spm)
·        4 sets consisting of 4 minutes @ 170* to180 spm followed by 1 minute active rest after each interval
·        3 minutes active cool-down:
o   1 minute @ 140 spm
o   1 minute @ 130 spm
o   1 minute @ 120 spm

*as a reference point, I would be hard pressed to keep up 170 spm for longer than 10 minutes when fresh

This is my primary exercise for developing my cardiovascular endurance since it gets the heart rate going without overly taxing the muscles. Since this exercise is essentially interval training, it is designed to build up my VO2 max. However, the intervals are long enough to mimic the race conditions of a longer climb. I’m truly suffering after during the 3rd and 4th intervals; the last couple minutes are a true mental challenge.

On a good day I might be able to achieve a 1 to 1 ratio of time spent at 170spm vs. @ 180 spm. My goal is to decrease this ratio (i.e. more time done @ 180 spm).

Stair Climbing Workout
My staircase is too short to mimic a stair climbing race, but it is perfect for doing interval training. This is the most physically demanding workout since it taxes both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
·        Warm-up with a slow climb to the top followed by a minute of jumping jacks and active stretches
·        Interval 1: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 2: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 3: No Hands + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 4: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 5: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 6: No Hands + 5 minute rest
·        Interval 7: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 8: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 9: No Hands + 5 minute rest
·        Interval 10: Outside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 11: Inside Rails + 3 minute rest
·        Interval 12: No Hands + 16 jumping squats

Each interval is done at about 85-90% capacity and lasts about 45 seconds in duration. Three minute rests are sufficient for the first few intervals, but are barely adequate for the latter half of the workout. I incorporate longer rests when I climb without the rails during intervals 6 and 9 since these climbs quickly burn out the legs. I try to keep even splits for each climb; if I climb too fast in the beginning, I’ll pay the price during the last few climbs. I take the elevator down only during my longer rest breaks (intervals 6 & 9). Otherwise, I alternate climbing down backwards and forwards (one flight backwards followed by one flight forwards). This method reduces the stress on the calves and Achilles tendons and still allows me to descend the stairs at a reasonable pace. 

The above exercise routines form the core of my training plan, but I also incorporate cycling, indoor rowing, and swimming (during the summer) on my "easy" days as well as a few sessions of push-ups, pull-ups, and core exercises each week. I normally take one day off per week, although I will usually sneak in a 30 minute session of core exercises if I'm home for the weekend.

I'd like to improve my workout plan in order to get faster in the stairwell; I'm very open to suggestions for improving in it. Comments would certainly be welcomed!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Struggling with Motivation

Since the Bennington Monument race in May, I’ve suffered from lack of motivation. One root cause is that my fitness levels have hit a plateau. A year ago, my climbing times were steadily improving, but in recent months, I’ve seen little to no improvement. This fitness plateau has had a profound effect on my motivation. I call it the “all pain and no gain” syndrome; I hate putting my body through grueling workouts without having any measurable improvements in fitness.
To make matters worse, I had a string of business trips where my eating habits and exercise schedule went out the window. When I finally got back into my regular exercise schedule, I had gained a few pounds and my fitness levels decreased proportionally.
I’ve overcome several obstacles over the last few months and although motivation is still a challenge, I’ve learned a few helpful hints that have helped me stay motivated.
1)     A little bit of exercise is better than nothing at all.
This tip is more about preventing discouragement rather than increasing motivation when I had limited time to exercise. During my latest string of trips I felt awful whenever I bagged a workout; partly due to guilt and partly because exercise helps me cope with stress. On the other hand, I felt pretty good on the days I exercised, even if I only managed to sneak in 15 minutes or so. These short sessions helped minimize the loss of fitness. It also helped me get back into shape once I resumed my regular schedule.
2)     Don’t always focus on performance.
When I train hard, I usually have a goal in mind (e.g. certain number of reps, weight lifted, and pace/duration climbed). When I got back into the stairwell after a long business trip, I felt sluggish. Between jetlag, weight gain, and limited training, I had lost my edge. Midway through my first workout, I stopped timing myself up the stairs and ripped up my time tracking sheet. Rather than feel depressed because I couldn’t achieve my usual goal, I focused solely on having a good workout.
3)     Put on your workout clothes.
For several weeks I dreaded going to another grueling training session. Simply walking over to the gym was mentally challenging since thoughts of the upcoming workout were always at the forefront of my mind. To make it easier, I tried focusing on simply getting dressed. Putting on my gym clothes was painless and easy and it took my mind off of the upcoming workout. Once I was dressed, I usually felt ready to exercise.
4)     Reset your fitness benchmark.
My fitness peak plateaued in March and decreased a bit in June. Resetting my fitness benchmark helped in a couple different ways:
·        Before I reset my fitness benchmark, I was climbing faster than my body could handle. I’d burn out prematurely and feel like crap because I failed to achieve my goal. By resetting my benchmark at a lower performance level, I could finally complete my workouts.
·        Once my benchmark was set a reasonable level, I was able to see improvements from week to week. This bolstered my confidence and motivation because I knew I was getting my edge back.
5)     Sign up for a race.
Even though racing season is still a few months away, signing up for a race helps me keep focus. Earlier this month I signed up for the Willis Tower (Sears Tower) race in Chicago and made a promise to be in better condition than I was at the end of last racing season. Whenever I feel like skipping a work out or overeating on junk food I ask myself - how will my actions impact my race?
6)     Have a rival and an idol.
As a competitive stair climber I know the capabilities of most climbers on the circuit, especially the folks on the east coast. As such, there are a few people that I know I can beat if I can just shave off a few seconds. Likewise, there are folks who I can’t touch in the stairwell, but want to emulate. I use both for motivation. When I’m getting tired during my stairwell sprints, I often try to visualize racing against one of my rivals to help get me to the top of the stairwell. Similarly, I think about my idols when I plan my workouts & diet; after all, if can pick up a few seconds by imitating my idols, then someday they will become my rivals!
After a solid 6 weeks of regular training, I’m feeling much better about the upcoming racing season. I’m still struggling with my weight, but I’m also a bit stronger and my power outputs have improved. I can’t wait for my next race, but at the same time I’m glad I have a couple of months to train. I want to be in the best shape of my life come race day. I’m planning for a top 10 finish, so I need to shave off at least a minute from last years’ time!