Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again

After three years of mistakes, some progress

On October 24th, 2016, I hired a coach. I had previously made so many mistakes that I was left with a declining work capacity and worries that I may not be able to train again. Months later, my coach told me, “I was surprised at how fragile you were.”


Previously an alpine climber, I started training again in May 2013. I thought that I’d spend that summer preparing, and then try a ski mountaineering race the next winter, two months after my 40th birthday.

That first race was an eye opener. It felt like a big, hard alpine route compressed into two hours. After the race, I was destroyed. My 10-year-old son was amused to watch me chugging a couple mugs of disgustingly-sweet hot chocolate.

But I was intrigued. That race was a great experience and with it came a big, new challenge. How much could I improve at this? I wondered.

The uphill climb and the downhill decline

I dove in and read as much as I could on endurance physiology. I spent the following three years on a do-it-myself program. My race results improved, but my physical resilience (measured in the amount of training that I could withstand) declined year after year.

A three-year training history: The shaded area, topped by the blue line, is a rough guide to my fitness progression between mid-2013 and late-2016. As you can see, the general trend (the black line) was not a positive one…

Today, I’m 43 and married with two kids. I’m exposed to the school-age germ pool. When our youngest son gets sick, I usually do too. I had more training volume twenty years ago, but it was largely random and with almost no intensity.

Each decline in the chart above was triggered by stress, illness, or injury. A good training strategy needs to account for those normal life stresses, but mine didn’t, and I paid the price.

By last October, I felt broken. I thought that I had permanently damaged my aerobic capacity. Easy workouts no longer felt easy. Recovery workouts felt hard. I started reading stories of athletes that had retired prematurely due to chronic overtraining. I worried that I was one of them.

The turning point

Later that month, I hired Scott Johnston as my coach. As an athlete, Scott was a Division I swimmer in college, a World Cup nordic skier afterward, and an experienced alpine climber along the way. As a nordic ski coach, he has produced several junior national champions, some of whom went on to ski on the World Cup and at the Olympics. He was Steve House’s coach during Steve’s uber-productive years before and after the first ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. Together, Scott and Steve wrote Training for the New Alpinism.

In late October, Scott started the very gradual process of piecing me back together.

My four-month training history: The blue line is steadily rising, gradually at first and then more steeply. That steady rise was accomplished with a very mild “ramp rate” (the speed of the weekly increases) for three months, followed by a very aggressive ramp rate over the last four weeks.

Today, I’m feeling much stronger. In skimo races in previous years, my average heart rate would fall with each ascent. I couldn’t maintain the same intensity throughout. In a race several weeks ago, my average heart rate was the same on all three climbing sections.

Here are the key differences between being coached and my previous “smart like tractor” approach:

  • Continuity, gradualness and modulation. Continuity — the degree varies, but I almost always have some kind of aerobic stimulus scheduled. Gradualness — as the second diagram shows above, my loading has been a lot more gradual. I often felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Modulation — previously, I was pretty good about minimizing the black-hole middle zones of intensity (zones 3 and 4), but now I realize that the variation wasn’t extreme enough.
  • Easy sessions are super easy. I think of them “podcast pace”. I can make to-do lists in my head without thinking at all about the workout. To put a number on it, these sessions are always ≤ 80% of my aerobic threshold (AeT), sometimes even ≤ 75% AeT, and I need a heart rate alarm to hold me back.
  • The hard sessions are super hard. And rare. And short (with reps measured in seconds). We don’t do much high-intensity work, but when we do, I have to “think I can, think I can” to get through them. I’ve started to think that most training sessions should be either boring or scary.
  • Up until recently, we haven’t done any anaerobic threshold (AnT) work. And doing some now was a brief detour because I had a couple races to prepare for.
  • My volume increases became much more conservative. The average weekly increase in training stress was 35% less than when I was managing my own training; a huge difference. But it’s that difference that allowed me to continue to train without getting sick.
  • I look at my weekly training plan as an outline of what is not going to happen. I was often a slave to the plan in the past, training when I should have taken some unplanned rest days. Since October, I don’t think I‘ve had one week go exactly as planned, especially in the beginning. Adapting the plan to real life is a key part of the process.

Here are a few changes that I’ve made on own:

  • I stopped using HRV apps. I loved the idea of an app that could tell me to train or not to train, to go easy or go hard. Not having to make that decision was a relief. However, they don’t work very well. After using them for a couple years, I did a two-month, daily comparison between the recommendations of two HRV apps (Elite HRV and ithlete) and a more manual orthostatic heart rate test (OSHR). Both HRV apps gave me false positives, especially ithlete. In contrast, the OSHR always reflected how I felt or warned me in advance that something wasn’t right.
  • I started napping. I nap three to four times per week. I’d make it daily if I could. When pressed, I’ve had more than one nap in a parking lot. Ear plugs and a sleep mask help.
  • I don’t count calories. Endurance sports are very weight-centric, especially when they’re in mountainous terrain. I’ve counted calories in the past, but I don’t think it helped much on either side, whether trying to stay lean or making sure I ate enough to fuel hard efforts. Now my mantra is “Eat healthy. Don’t be a pig. Unless it’s intense.” And I’m both lighter and healthier.

When I look back at the above list, I think it’s come down to two things: Smarter training and smarter recovery.