Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.
Holy crap, I can’t we’re already on post 8. I might actually get to the end of this series before the cat box overflows and the recycling bin avalanches into the hall.
And if you’ve come this far, I’m guessing you’re pretty serious about this Mt. Rainier thing.
You might even be a super driven, high-achieving, self-judging perfectionist. In other words, a typical mountaineer.
And hey, a little perfectionism is a good thing. But it can also start to backfire on your training, your health, and your enjoyment of life. (Says the girl who got up at 2 a.m. last night to change the artwork on one of her Facebook ads.)
Sometimes when it comes to endurance training, less is more.
When I was training for Mt. Rainier, I was in a high-altitude mountaineering class. And for better or worse, the instructors were always banging on about how we needed to be in the best shape of our lives for the grad climb.
There were probably 2 or 3 people in the whole class who needed to hear that. But in general, I think everyone who signed up was super motivated. Maybe too motivated, in some cases.
Take me, for example. I took that training oh-so seriously. I’ve already told you how I almost killed myself with HIIT and tabatas.
About two months before Mt. Rainier, I had a horrible attack of sciatica. Did I slow down? No, I sped up.
But no matter what I did, I wasn’t getting any faster. My runs were actually slowing down. I took this as a sign of laziness and pushed even harder.
About a month out, I was depressed, whiny, and having a hard time giving a shit about the whole thing. Friends kept telling me how tired I looked.
In other words, I had a classic case of overtraining
Now. To give you an idea how resilient the human body is, I actually did make it up Mt. Rainier.
I was definitely NOT in the best shape of my life. But I still did it.
However, I can’t help but think that I’d probably have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d taken a more balanced approach to training. I almost certainly would have been in better shape aerobically.
The scary thing was, I had two more big mountaineering trips booked in the fall. Fortunately, a trainer friend who realized what was going on talked some sense into me.
She convinced to cut way back on my workout intensity and volume. Which felt super scary. But it worked.
I was probably a little undertrained for my next trip to Bolivia. But I still performed way better than on Rainier and enjoyed the climbs immensely.
I love you, and I don’t want you to fall into this horrible overtraining trap. So let’s talk about some ways to train healthy.
Overtraining Syndrome in Endurance Athletes
Endurance athletes tend to be driven perfectionists, and mountaineers are no exception. Hey, it takes a lot of grit and motivation to train hard for months at a time.
But sometimes that motivation can turn into an obsession. We become determined to stick to the schedule and push hard in every workout — even when our bodies are begging us for a rest. We don’t acknowledge that we’re caught in the downward spiral of overtraining until a lot of damage has been done.
What exactly does overtraining mean?
Back in post 3, we talked about the importance of rest. Workouts stress your body and make it weaker. During rest, your performance potential gradually rebounds — and even gets a little stronger than before. Over time, this “training effect” adds up to visible gains in strength and aerobic endurance.
Overtraining happens when training stress and rest are out of balance. If you work out too hard, rest too little, or both, you will not see performance improvements over time. In fact, you might even start to get weaker.
Symptoms of overtraining
Overtraining affects your hormones and nervous system as well as your muscles. Danger signs include:
- Unusual pain and soreness
- Loss of motivation
- Difficulty sleeping
- More frequent illnesses and injuries
- Persistent fatigue
- Decreased performance during workouts (heavy legs)
- Elevated resting heart rate for more than a couple days
How to keep from overtraining
The first rule of mountaineering training is to always listen to your body.
More than any training plan or coach, your body will tell you when your workouts are too hard, your rests are too short, or you’re ramping up too fast.
The problem is that highly motivated athletes tend to be bad listeners. We don’t want to hear any bad news from our bodies.
Instead of slowing down, we see signs of overtraining as weaknesses. Instead of thinking about what the pain means, we push our bodies harder. Basically, we shoot the messenger.
But there’s a healthier way to think about it. Our bodies are giving us valuable feedback that can help prevent a training disaster. So we really should honor that and say thank you.
How do you get better at listening to your body? Some athletes find it helpful to do a daily “mind and body scan.” You can do this as a meditation. Or just take a moment to sit quietly and focus on how you feel in a nonjudgmental way.
Grading your workouts can also help. It’s easy to fall into denial and make excuses about declining performance. But when you see a string of C’s and D’s in your workout log, it’s a definite sign that your exertion and rest phases are out of balance.
Finally, stop being so hard on yourself. Remember that it’s always better to undertrain for the mountain than overtrain.
Take my word for it. Climbing Mt. Rainier with a little deficit in aerobic endurance feels a lot better than climbing it fatigued, sleepless, sore, irritable, and sick.
How to recover from overtraining
The sooner you recognize that you’re overtraining and make adjustments, the less decline you’ll experience in your overall performance. Intervening early can totally save your training season.
Some tips for getting back on track:
- Take a rest week, even if you’re not due for one. Decrease your overall training volume by 30–50 percent.
- Cross train. If you normally run during your weekly workouts, try to work in some rowing, mountain biking, or cross-country skiing.
- Look at your workout log carefully. Are certain types of exercise stressing you more? Try shortening the duration of these workouts or breaking them into two shorter workouts.
- If you use circuit training during your strength workouts, try resting longer between exercises.
Why do endurance athletes get sick easily? Well, they actually might not, especially when training below elite levels.
To put things in perspective, the average person gets 2–4 upper respiratory infections a year. So if you’re training for 4–6 months, there’s a good chance you’ll catch a bug at some point during the season.
So don’t freak out and assume you’re overtraining at the first cough or sniffle.
On the other hand, catching a cold at the wrong time can totally derail your summit day. And while the timing isn’t necessarily under your control, there are few things you can do to improve the odds.
Keys to staying healthy
Here are few healthy habits that can help to keep your body resilient during training:
- Eat a healthy diet that balances carbs, fats, and protein. Include plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. We’ll talk more about food in tomorrow’s post. (Yum.)
- Wash your hands, especially while traveling, after working out at the gym, and while camping. Make hand sanitizer your friend.
- Get plenty of sleep. One of the great things about training is how wonderful and luscious sleep feels.
- There’s some evidence that alcohol weakens the immune system. You don’t have to go completely on the wagon, but do drink in moderation.
- Take an “off-season” for a few months every year. Keep your training light and unstructured during this period.
Handling an illness or injury break
Oh crap! Little Suzy brought a killer cold bug home from preschool, and now you’ve got this horrible tickle beginning in your throat. Is this the end of your Mt. Rainier dreams?
First, relax. The mountaineering training season is (very) long. Taking a few days off to recover isn’t going to derail you.
Second, never try to push through an illness. You could end up making yourself sicker for longer — which actually can derail you.
Sometimes you can get away with working out when your symptoms are strictly upper respiratory (a mild cough or stuffy nose). But never push through whole-body symptoms like fever, muscle aches, or fatigue.
Third, return to training gradually. If you took three days off, give yourself an additional three days of short, low-intensity aerobic and strength workouts. Don’t dive in too fast with a long hike or hard aerobic session.
The Mind-Body Connection
Climbers who are training for huge goals often get a little obsessed and out of balance. But it’s important to remember that attitude and emotional resilience make a huge difference in mountaineering. Here are some tips on keeping your mind healthy and energized:
- Never base your self worth on your athletic and mountaineering successes. You’re a parent, partner, sibling, child, and friend before you’re a climber. And you have many other talents to offer the world. Take time during training to honor your wholeness and give energy to other areas of your life.
- Mountaineering training can be socially isolating. Try to work out with others whenever possible. Connect with other climbers who understand your highs and lows.
- Have a healthy, loving relationship with food. (More on that in the next post.) Avoid rigid, rule-based diets. Eat delicious, healthy, nourishing food with people you love.
- Accept that you can’t control everything. The weather, the snow conditions, your climbing partners, and even your own body will sometimes work against you. You will be a happier mountaineer if you let go of the things you can’t control and focus on the ones you can.
- Enjoy the journey. You could have an awesome training season and still get weathered off the mountain. So train for something besides the summit. It could be for better health or to transform your body or to be a good role model for your kids. Whatever works for you.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. The mountaineering community is small, and if you hang around awhile, you will likely meet elite people who are speed climbing 8,000-m peaks without oxygen. Yay for them. You can still have an awesome, life-changing climb up little old Mt. Rainier.
- Listen to people you trust and ignore the rest. Sometimes seeing you reach for a big goal will bring out insecurities in others. They might tell you you’re too old or too fat or just plain not good enough. Just ignore them. Those wankers need to get laid.
So there you have ’em. All my best tips on staying healthy for the mountain.
Now maybe you’ve totally seen yourself in this post. You’re thinking, “I am exactly the kind of person who will ramp up too fast and wreck myself.”
Or maybe you’re still new to this and not sure how to balance your workouts and rest days so you can get the best results.
Well, I have exactly what you need.
Introducing the Everyday Hero’s Mt. Rainier Training Plan!
It’s a 21-week training plan with all your aerobic, strength, and hiking workouts and rest days mapped out for you. I’ve even included special workout plans for flatlanders to keep you motivated and moving forward. Plus you get an ebook, trip planner, workout log, wall calendar, and gear checklist.
If that sounds like a lifesaver, click here for more info.
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OK, so you probably noticed that this post glossed over everyone’s favorite topic — EATING!
One of the great joys of mountaineering training is that you get to eat a lot and not feel guilty.
So tomorrow, we’ll talk about some strategies to fuel your body and keep it healthy and happy throughout your long training season.
Hope to see you then! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go research tomorrow’s post by making some savory Sri Racha oatmeal with cashews.