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Coach Case Study 5: Conquer Everest

The Endurance Coach help people from a range of abilities achieve their goals in a variety of disciplines. Training methods vary depending on the athlete concerned and programs differ considerably. This series of blogs focuses on a selection of athletes – all with differing circumstances and considerations - and describes how their training was designed and adapted throughout 2016.

It’s always satisfying to train people for a wide range of endurance challenges so when Mick contacted the Endurance Coach in July 2015 to help him prepare for an attempt at Mt Everest the following year it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

As well as being an experienced mountaineer Mick was also a keen fell runner and a lover of the great outdoors. He was already in great shape but the most challenging aspect to the training process would be was that Mick worked on an oil rig. He would work offshore continuously for three weeks and then be home for three weeks on a repeating cycle.

The program initially focused on running to improve general fitness and we decided to use a variety of events to provide intermediate goals along the way. As training progressed more time would be spent on Everest-specific training which would involve carrying progressively heavy loads for longer duration.

For anyone to contemplate training for Mt Everest while working on an oil rig requires a huge amount of determination, commitment and focus. At the start of the coaching process Mick had competed at the Lakeland 100 and finished in 26:39. It was a decent result but considering Mick had broken his big toe on a rock in the first ten miles it was an impressive performance and showed beyond doubt he had the necessary character.

Because of his work schedule Mick’s training had to be split into two distinct categories:

  • Indoor:

Mick had access to a gym and treadmill when offshore so all running had to be done on the treadmill

The gym also enabled Mick to compete the necessary strength and conditioning (S&C) work

  • Outdoor:

When at home we used the hills and trails to their full potential

Events were scheduled regularly making use of the local fell running calendar

As Mick was so keen the challenge was to limit the amount of training he did, especially when offshore. As there was very little else to do the temptation was to spend more time in the gym. Similarly at home, because he had so much free time Mick would happily have spent the majority of his time running up and down hills.

Previous case study blogs have discussed the tendency for athletes to complete excessive volume in the early training cycles and the same principles applied to Mick: if he completed too much training early on he would be burnt out by the time he traveled to Mt Everest. Training was therefore split into three distinct phases (program notes are included):

Phase 1:

August – October:

Develop fat burning efficiency

Improve strength

Improve speed

The training will be primarily polarized, i.e. low intensity to improve fat burning and high intensity reps to improve strength/speed

Mid-range training this early in the plan will leave you fatigued when it really matters during Phase 3

Phase 2:

November – December:

Improve strength endurance

Maintain strength/speed gains

There will be more long hills scheduled during this phase

Training will improve your ability to maintain high resistance aerobic effort for increasingly long periods

Some runs will be weighted to develop strength endurance

Phase 3:

January – March:

Develop climbing-specific strength endurance

Maintain strength gains

Long, hilly runs will still be important but the priority will be climbing-specific with heavily weighted hilly walks/climbs

Some multi-day trips and/or summit climbs during the winter would make sense to provide some specificity but exact details can be discussed and finalised at a later date

Training was initially designed to achieve three main objectives:                              

  • Increase fat burning efficiency:

Mick received physiological testing at the Endurance Store and we found he was very inefficient at burning fat. To be able to perform under great physical stress for several days on Mt Everest we needed him to be as aerobically efficient as possible. Fasted sessions and long L1 sessions were scheduled to train his body to be less dependent on carbs and adapt to accessing his own fat stores as fuel.

  • Improve running speed:

Hill and speed work sessions were completed weekly to improve force production and leg speed. Efforts were relatively short so overall training stress wasn’t too high and recovery would be possible between sessions. It might seem counter intuitive for someone training for Mt Everest to be focusing on becoming a fast runner at 5-10k but it comes back to basics: the faster you are at short distances the faster you’ll be at longer distances. The faster you can run complete an ultramarathon the better your endurance for the attempt on Mt Everest.

  • Avoid over training:

This was the biggest challenge but it was essential Mick understood the consequences of getting carried away so early in the training process. Recovery weeks were included every third week which coincided with the shift changes to enable Mick to recover properly before the next block of training.

Training volume was initially relatively low as we established a workable routine with the session frequency. Intensity was achieved with short intervals, some on the flat and some using very steep gradients. When offshore progress could be accurately measured as everything was done on a treadmill.

Conversely when at home there was less emphasis on structured interval training and greater use was made of club fell runs and events: this stimulated the necessary gains but avoided the strict structure required for when offshore and provided a much needed social aspect to training.

Cycling was also included in the early stages to provide some cross training and prevent injury. These sessions were easy so they wouldn’t compromise the run sessions. 

As the climbing would involve carrying considerable weight for long periods at altitude S&C work was included within the program. Exercises needed to focus on Mick supporting load through his spine to increase his ability to maintain posture, balance and function when fatigued. The notes in the program described the aims of the S&C work:

  1. Strength decreases from mid-30s onwards so S&C work is essential to everyone whether they’re athletes or not
  2. Force production when climbing will improve with increased muscle fibre recruitment
  3. Joints will become stronger and move more efficiently so risk of injury should be reduced
  4. The exercises will require full ranges of movement (inc. torso extension and rotation) which you’ll be completely lacking with a running-specific program
  5. The increased postural strength should allow you to maintain posture when running/mountaineering for longer periods
  6. Increased recruitment of muscle fibers should result in more availability during high intensity efforts, especially when climbing

As training progressed Mick began to complete some sessions carrying weight. Speed was irrelevant as the weight became heavy but the aim was to condition him to develop the necessary strength.

Local fell runs were scheduled whenever possible and the first couple of months also included a couple of 50k events. Mick had also arranged a winter Bob Graham Round attempt in the winter. The first attempt was cancelled due to the weather but he then rescheduled it for January and completed it in 23:37. Not bad considering we weren’t specifically training for it!

It was clear from the race results and BGR success that Mick was in good form so it was a case of transferring that running fitness into Everest-specific fitness during the third phase of training. I was also conscious of not reaching peak fitness too soon as it would be disastrous for the Everest attempt.

Training became focused on maintaining hard efforts for longer and the duration of weighted runs became longer. Double session days were common but there still wasn’t as many long runs programmed as many people would assume: the aim was to increase overall training stress through frequency and consistency. The longest run he did offshore was a timed marathon on the treadmill two weeks before the BGR attempt.

Three months before the Everest attempt multi-day long walks were included when Mick was at home. The walks were as hilly as possible to simulate the stresses of climbing and descending while carrying a heavy load. When offshore Mick would be walking on an inclined treadmill for up to six hours carrying more weight than he would be during the attempt. An example of his training when at home was three days of back-to-back walks:

FRI)                 7 hr L1-2b hilly walk (125% Everest weight)

SAT)                6.5 hr L1-2b hilly walk (125% Everest weight)

SUN)               6 hr L1-2b hilly walk (125% Everest weight)

The longest weighted walk Mick completed at home was ten hours.

To increase specificity and practice his mountain skills Mick also completed a mountaineering trip in the Scottish highlands during the winter. Fitness is important but skills and familiarity in the mountains are essential.

As the trip approached it was a case of avoiding over training and ensuring Mick began the attempt in the best shape possible. Whereas most endurance events are straightforward for me to design the training and taper, climbing doesn’t begin as soon as the expedition arrives at base camp. There is considerable traveling involved and then there’s also the period of altitude acclimatisation. It was uncharted territory for me as tapering for an event is usually much more straight forward.

Instead of a taper we ‘maintained’ fitness as I was unhappy with increasing training stress so soon before Mick left for Nepal. As with any training plan the aim is to get the person to the start line fit, healthy and feeling good and I didn’t want to risk Mick becoming over trained. By tapering before he left Mick might have lost too much fitness so it was really a case of best judgement and hoping for the best.

On 22nd May Mick achieved his ambition and reached the summit of Mt Everest. There are many variables which determine whether an Everest attempt is successful or not and some of these are completely out of the climber’s hands. What the person is in control of is attitude and determination during the training and the attempt itself. Mick was unwavering throughout the entire process and did what was required, simple as that.

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