Tag : training

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Speed Flying Through The Storm

The end of winter 2017-18 presented the perfect opportunity to fly some incredibly marginal and storm conditions with the 11m speed wing. On the world’s highest mountains, the conditions for flying are rarely perfect, so in training for the Riding Giants expedition we took to the stormy skies via the path rarely travelled. I say rarely travelled as I doubt anyone has ascended Watson’s Dodd in quite the same way. Gearing up in moderate snow conditions, we started the Lake District run up to Stybarrow Dodd via Sticks Pass, however the weather was quickly deteriorating. With only thin slivers of sunshine, the snow really started coming down, and turned into a full whiteout by the time we reached the sheepfold. Dressed in thin running clothes, shorts and compression socks was possibly not the most appropriate choice of clothing, but running up the steep hill in shelter from the wind with a speed wing and harness on the back still pained the lungs and we were well warm by the time the weather truly descended.

We quickly realised the weather wouldn’t hold out for long, if at all, so we took a detour straight for Watson’s Dodd. We crossed Stanah Gill just above the sheepfold and started plodding up the increasingly deep snow pack. Out of the wind shadow of Stybarrow’s western flank, the breeze picked up until at around 700m, onward progress became futile. The higher we went, the windier it became, and with every step upwards the visibility reduced a few hundred metres. So there we stood, at 700m, standing in shin deep snow, in running shoes, compression socks and shorts. One sweaty base layer, an ultra thin running jacket and my winter saviour, a Rab Generator jacket. I was cosy on the top, but becoming positively chilly on the legs, particularly the exposed knee caps which were receiving the full brunt of the wind when trying to peer through the horizontal snow towards Thirlmere. Every so often I could see Thirlmere through the gloom and swirling snow as the wind periodically dropped, but after no more than a minute, it was back to storm conditions. Flying would be relatively treacherous, but we’d been standing on the hill for over 10 minutes, and the thought of descending by foot was becoming decidedly less appetising. So the head calculations commence; can I fly away safely? Can I see the landing zone? What is the cloud base? Is it too turbulent?

It took long enough to come to the realisation that I could probably fly, so long as I was prepared for a bumpy ride. The main difficulty would probably be the launch, which is always tough in strong winds, particularly on the more gentle slopes. I took out the wing, anchored it with snow, but almost immediately, a squall came through. The wing was almost blown away, but I quickly dived on the trailing edge and regretted undoing my neatly folded wing which I had packed only an hour before. Another 10 minutes was spent agonising over the decision to fly, but the squall soon blew out, and we were back to light snow, and a (very hazy) view all the way down to Thirlmere and the landing zone.

It was on.

I clipped in, checked the lines, brought the wing up, turned, and started running as fast through the snowy heather as I could. The take-off was fast, I must have launched in a lull, but then all of a sudden I was rising on a pillow of air, soaring, which is always unnerving under 11m of cloth and a few strands of Dyneema. As soon as that gust had come, it was racing up the hill behind me, and I quickly sank back into the channel leading to a particularly spiky barbed wire fence. With the feet brushing along the top of the snow, I just scraped over the edge and into the river gully. This is where the flight got truly rough and active piloting was required all the way to stop the fast surging and easing the fast collisions with the intense gusts. As I descended though, the visibility improved and the landing was clear. I just had to get above the road to St John’s in the Vale, then I could put in some turns and get down to the landing field.

With the feet skimming the grass, I was truly happy to be down. I love the flying, but turbulence, particularly with a speed wing is rarely a pleasant experience. In the UK we rarely get the type of thermals which halt late afternoon Alpine flying, but we sure make up for it with days of endless gusts. No laminar breeze, no smooth airflow from the sea, just pure tempestuous gusts formed over the wild North Atlantic and raging Irish Sea. It was a horrible flight, particularly in the latter stages where this unstable air mass throws the wing up and down like an overzealous puppet master, the pilot continuously fighting to remain in control. But flights like this, whilst not good for the stomach, are good experience, they help you to understand the limits of the wing, or at least of the pilot, and to fine tune the active inputs needed for good flying.

With summer finally poking its head round the corner, I’m now more ready than ever for some smooth flying under blue skies and over green fields with the occasional flock of sheep or marmot..

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Controversial Big Mountain Acclimatisation Method

As a trained physiologist specialising in the effects of low oxygen and cold environments, a very recent article published by Bloomberg focusing on a relatively modern technique to dramatically cut down time spent on big mountains piqued my interest:


The hypothesis is simple; pre-acclimatise in an altitude tent/chamber at home, allowing you to partake in normal life activities, and then at the optimal time, go and attack the mountain in a single fast strike; clearly something of a paradigm shift from the days of laying siege to a big mountain.

Does it work?

In short, yes. Prior to Everest and other big mountains, I spent time in an altitude chamber, and regardless of the time of day you are exposed to a lower concentration of oxygen, you will invariably end up with a greater number of red blood cells. This is acclimatisation’s number one effect. Other responses are a change in respiratory rate, changes to metabolism and a range of other physiological factors. But the key point is, to climb big mountains, you need more red blood cells than you can get at sea level. In the article, they mention “Climb High, Sleep Low” and point to that as being the best method for acclimatisation. This however is simply not true. The opposite hypothesis of sleeping high has also been studied, and the results of which is best are still relatively inconclusive, and also depend largely on the activity you are doing, be that training for the Tour de France, or acclimatising for a big mountain.

Of course, sleeping in a chamber is limited to the effective altitude the pump will maintain, but if the chamber can reach 5,000m which is the rough height of Everest base camp, you’ve already removed all the acclimatisation time required on the walk in to the mountain. After a couple of weeks in an altitude tent, you could quite easily helicopter straight to basecamp and then climb to camp 1 at 4am the next morning.

So remember, any reference to altitude tents or chambers not working is simply untrue. Olympic athletes train in chambers to prepare for sport at higher altitudes, and there is no reason not to bring this technology to climbing; isn’t there?


So why is this method controversial? Climbing ethics of course! As is always the case with climbing, there are purists who debate passionately the way in which climbing should be done; whether that is trad climbing, or as in this case, high altitude climbing.

Climbing as a sport is unique. It maintains a huge amount of prestige through the maintenance of ethics where style is everything; not bolting the The North Face of Ben Nevis being an obvious example.

But in this particular case, there’s no particular substance to the controversial aspects of pre-acclimatisation. Comments by Simon Lowe, (managing director of Jagged Globe), “complete bloody hogwash,” and the respected Russell Brice “it’s snake oil”, give you a flavour of the sentiment towards a modern way to climb big mountains.

To debate the extra costs that are reported in the Bloomberg article, you have to first consider the golden rule of economics: something is only worth as much as people are willing to pay. So lets (if possible coming from a more scientific and rational perspective) look at why you would choose to pay extra for something the old dogs of the hill don’t much rate.

I must at this point confess; I see no reasons against the use of this tactic. If you have the money, it really is logical, and so whilst I can’t remove that element of bias, it is key to understand that this is not bolting, an act which can’t easily be undone. It is a process which if done well has minimal effect on other climbers, leaves no additional trace on the hill than other teams, and still allows the traditionalists to spend as much time as they please in the high mountains.

Reason one: Less time in the danger zone.

This is a no-brainer. A typical Hypoxico generator can simulate an altitude of up to 6,400m. Base Camp on Everest is 5,300m whilst Camp 1 is up at 5,900m. This means with pre-acclimatisation, you can pass through the most dangerous part of the Nepalese route, the Khumbu Icefall, much faster than the traditional approach, having previously spent 14 days trekking up the Khumbu valley to get acclimatised. 6,400m is also the height of Camp 2 on Everest, so after say 3 or 4 weeks of sitting in a tent at night in your comfy bed at home, you could then go straight up to the base of the Lhotse face relatively unscathed by the altitude. But the key element here is speed. Passing through the Khumbu Icefall is simply Russian Roulette. At some point, a gigantic serac will collapse, or an avalanche will wash down the route, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be stood there when the event happens, you will probably die. So the aim of the game is to minimise the risk, and the best way to do this in the big mountains is to move fast, minimising your exposure time and the probability of getting hit. You can’t move fast if you’re unacclimatised, so this pre-acclimatisation strategy is a move to making climbing big mountains ever so slightly safer. Going against the grain of the so-called ruffy-tuffies, making big mountains safer isn’t a bad thing. Whilst you can legitimately argue this point, in my view it doesn’t make the achievement any less, and at a simplistic level, whilst, this tactic increases the length of time you are able to enjoy being in the mountains, counterintuitively.

Less Crowded Mountains

As many climbers and non-climbers alike will remember, the last years on Everest have been crowded. Every team manager with his or her eye on the forecast will send their team up to the South Col in preparation to attack the summit. This clearly means cues form, and slow climbers simply exacerbate this problem. There are usually multiple weather windows each season on Everest which the pre-acclimatisation method can take advantage of, but crucially, think back to 2012 when the fastest guy on the hill, Ueli Steck went up with the Sherpas. He was moving fast and light, avoiding the queues which would come the following day, and doing it safely; i.e. minimising his time on the mountain and avoiding the need to pass through bottle necks with too many other climbers.

Clearly this is one of the weaker arguments for pre-acclimatisation, since sleeping in an altitude tent will not make you Ueli Steck no matter how many times you listen to Welcome Home by Radical Face. That said, pre-acclimatisation will almost certainly make you faster up to Camp 2, and this gives more potential time for acclimatising higher on the mountain, getting you up the Lhotse Face and putting you in a better position to go for the summit with the Sherpa rope fixing team.


Technical Mountains

The pre-acclimatisation approach isn’t just for rich people walking up Everest; it has a place in tackling some of the world’s more technical challenging lines. Take for example some of the high altitude faces such as the South Face of Annapurna which Ueli Steck soloed. Being acclimatised allows you to concentrate on the technicality of the climbing as opposed to being overcome by the immense oppression of the invisible force of high altitude. Where the pre-acclimatisation comes into its own on such climbs however is when the challenge is as much finding a weather window as climbing into the thin air; otherwise known as the Off the Sofa strategy.

Off the Sofa Strategy

This is a strategy which has so many benefits if done correctly. If you live in Europe, alpine climbs really can be completed off the sofa, but for Himalayan prospects, the sofa analogy needs to be slightly stretched.

Take for example that climb up the South Face of Annapurna. There are a number of challenges to be overcome. The main challenges are the altitude, the weather, the relative inaccessibility, and the technical nature of the climbing, to name but a few.

Using the Off the Sofa strategy for such climbs, you would pre-acclimatise in a tent at home just as Alpenglow do. If you’re not a professional sponsored climber like Ueli Steck, then this has the added benefit of allowing you to do your day job, spend time with the family and generally wait for improving weather conditions in the near vicinity of the climb. Once the conditions look on, you book last minute flights to Nepal or utilise your flexible tickets. You then complete the walk-in in a fraction of the time it would take most climbers since you’ve been sleeping at 6,400m for the past week. You are then able to capitalise on the good weather window without excessive trips up and down the mountain adding further risk through the Russian Roulette effect in which odds of survival are gradually turned against you the more times you step foot on the mountain. If you have camps to stock, you will of course need rotations, but you will be faster on the mountain and be able to lift more gear when carrying loads. Finally, you then have the required reserve to apply your technical aptitude and perhaps push some of the limits of ultra-high altitude technical climbing.

Climbing Amongst Guides

As a final point for the use of pre-acclimatisation, we have the guiding community. Have you noticed how elegantly guides manager to climb big mountains? Kenton Cool for example, he moves pretty damn fast up Everest (and Lhotse and Nuptse too for that matter). Ueli Steck is the same (even without supplemental oxygen), as is Conrad Anker and most of the guides I have climbed with. When I climbed Mera Peak as acclimatisation for Baruntse, a guide I was climbing with had to stop halfway to the summit; he descend back to the high camp, and then re-climbed the full route to the summit. He did all this, arriving only 30 minutes or so behind the group I was with. How was this possible? Was he fitter than all of us? Did he have some physiological advantage like a Sherpa? The answer to this is yes, he was fitter, but specifically. He had just returned from a high altitude trip only days prior to the start of our trip, so would still be carrying more red blood cells than the rest of the team, and thus had the distinct advantage that he was already partly acclimatised.

Most people simply do not have time to do back to back trips in order to acclimatise for their main objective, or equally, don’t want to spend precious money and time on a single trip only to find it took much longer than anticipated to acclimatise when trying to bridge a rogue 1,000m gap between high camps.

Guides hold this advantage simply by climbing as their day job, especially if these climbs are in the greater ranges or on Europe’s loftiest peaks. So again, pre-acclimatisation is a great solution, simply getting you to the action faster, which by its nature is safer and more fun.

Sonam, Dawa, Nuru, Surendra

The Training Argument

If climbers only did fast trips to the greater ranges, would they not be missing out on vital experience which is built over many years of long trips? This is a fair point and one which is easily argued. There is no way round the initial ground work if you want to be a good climber; you simply must put the time in. But it gets to a point where the rule of diminishing returns takes over. Let us suppose that it takes x hours to gain enough experience to be deemed a competent climber by the majority of the climbing community. Beyond x hours, it is argued that the experience gains are tiny, whereas the exposure to danger continues to rise as you spend more time in an inherently unstable environment.

So, yes, ensure you have the background training in order to deal with most known consequences when climbing goes wrong, but don’t be fooled that you can’t maintain this experience by brief but intense ‘top ups’ in the mountains. You can.

Putting this simply, if you are at the ‘correct level’ for a given mountain, the argument that pre-acclimatisation takes away some necessary exposure and you will therefore suffer is false. If you know how to crevasse rescue and find avalanche victims, putting yourself in avalanche terrain when not necessary is only increasing the probability that you will be the one needing the rescue. I guess the main point here is to climb smarter.

Is Pre-Acclimatisation The Way Forward?

Yes, simply. Once the demand goes up, prices will come down and make pre-acclimatisation more affordable which will open up bigger expeditions for climbers who have a limited time available to achieve their goals. Cutting down the time taken to trek to the mountain is a big aspect of pre-acclimatisation; there is however one valley which I would always spend maximum time in, and that is the Khumbu. For me, trekking through the Khumbu is as much a part of climbing Everest as the mountain itself. There is a definite magic up there in the high valley amongst the Sherpa people, but given the option of pre-acclimatisation, I would still opt for the technological approach, but then simply enjoy the walk-in more as the gradual reduction in available oxygen tries, but this time fails to hide the beauty of one of the world’s most stunning areas.


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The Basics of Sports Psychology

As a continuation to my previous Sports Science based articles, I wanted to put an article together to summarise the basics of sports psychology, giving an over view of the subject, an outline of its importance, and a little guidance on how you should incorporate Psychological Skills Training (PST) into your routine.

It doesn’t matter what sport or even instrument you play; psychology is a key element which coheres your performance to create the desired impact. The higher the level you reach, the more emphasis good psychology plays on performance, until you reach the level of ‘elite’ where simply being physically gifted is not enough.

Of course, if you’re at the elite level in your chosen area, you will most likely have the luxury of a psychologist (along with your masseur, physio, nutritionist, tactical coach, physical coach, shopping assistant and bath water temperature checker) which is great. But for the majority, a psychologist is an extravagance usually out of the question. Fortunately, like most things, you can practice psychology yourself because after all, no one knows your own mind better than you do; you just have to be honest!

Psychology is quite a broad church with many different theories and opinions, all of which can take a lifetime to learn and master. And because psychology is one of the least understood areas of research, there are rarely wrong answers, which makes understanding this strange but nevertheless vital subject quite a challenge.

There are many examples of situations you may find yourself in which could be improved through psychological intervention. Examples include:

  • Bike racing – a time trial, where you push yourself to the limit. Everything hurts but somehow you need to push through that huge pain barrier blocking your way.
  • Mountain climbing – ever been caught in a whiteout on your own on a snowy plateau? This isn’t fun, but you need to think clearly to make the correct choices in an otherwise dire situation.
  • Public speaking – as you stand on stage, 200 people are all looking at you. Other than remembering your lines, you need the self belief to stand on that stage and captivate the audience.
  • Tennis match – you’re about to play an unseeded player in the first round of a national tennis tournament. You need to manage your anxiety levels to maintain focus.
  • The gym – outside it’s raining, there’s a hurricane and intense lightening. It’s your running day and this is now destined to be on the treadmill. How can you possibly do that hour run in doors?

Clearly there’s an immeasurable number of situations where psychological training would be a distinct advantage to performance, be that physical such as sports performance, more art based such as musical performance, or even career based such as the work presentation you need to deliver.

I’m sure everyone can either relate to one of the above, or at least can think of a situation where psychological weakness may let you down.

This is where PST (psychological skills training) comes in. PST is a collection of many techniques used to improve psychological strength. For this basic introduction, we’ll look with the most widely discussed facets, starting with everybody’s favorite:

  • Arousal regulation (self awareness, anxiety reduction techniques, adversity coping and arousal inducing techniques).
  • Imagery (where, what, when and why).
  • Self confidence (expectations vs. performance, self-efficacy (believing in reaching goals/own ability) assessing self-confidence and building self confidence).
  • Goal setting (effectiveness, principles, development, design, periodisation).
  • Concentration (attentional focus, concentration vs. performance, types of attentional focus, self talk, attention skills and improving these skills).

I have my own personal way of looking at psychology for performance which is a common sense approach and is easily implemented.

Firstly, PST is a collection of psychological/coping strategies. The ‘skills training’ part of PST is an effort to encourage athletes and the like to practice the coping strategies, just as they would practice the physical aspects of their event. A coping strategy as simple as maintaining motivation after a loss, if practiced enough, becomes a skill which can be relied upon in competition.

We will use Arousal Regulation as the first example – this means that before any big event where there is pressure and stress, such as a big tennis match where all eyes are on you, you will be somewhere on the arousal scale. The scale starts at ‘laid back, uninterested’ and goes all the way through to panic which is associated with anger and violence. At the start of the competition, you are aiming to be right in the middle: confident and alert, but not irritable or extremely nervous. There will be nerves of course, but these have to be managed so that they do not interfere with what counts. For a tennis match, this would be your game plan. In an interview this could be your background research on the employing company. Nerves help keep you alert, however when they cause you to forget or deviate from the plan, coping strategies need to be put in place.

In the next article, I will give examples of coping strategies from a very specific scenario (bike racing), however for now, I will give a brief outline with general examples you can use and adapt for your next event.

Arousal regulation: this is all about maintaining composure. I use tennis as an example because you see a broad spectrum of emotions, from McEnroe smashing his racket, to Roger Federer regularly gracing around the court. There are always exceptions to the rules where someone excels with a ‘poor’ technique, and McEnroe is a great example, however there is always the question, would McEnroe have been any better had he had greater composure, or was his temper the thing that pushed him onward?
For the mere mortals, composure should be the aim. Adversity coping such as after losing a point/game/match/job prospect from a poor interview etc, is all about quickly learning from that loss with an analytical mind and without too much emotion, then bouncing back to the next challenge.
A technique for this is using positive self talk (thinking). This is a key strategy, and you already almost certainly use self talk, but perhaps more negatively than you should. For an injured athlete, self talk usually starts at “this is career ending/I’m not going to improve/get to the level I aspired to. Instead, the simple solution is to use positive self talk “I’m feeling down today, but I’m still on track with rehab, I need to be patient and I will make it back”.

“Winners see what they want to happen, losers see what they fear”
Linda Bunker

Imagery: this is my favorite aspect of PST. It is the one where you can truly see the power of the mind and the distinction between the psychological and physical aspects of performance, specifically pain. Pain is a perception which can be turned on and off at will. Hypnotherapists demonstrate this well, however more typically we’ve all been in the situation where you burn or cut yourself accidentally, but only feel the pain once you see the injury. This is one facet of imagery, and I will use a personal example of indoor training to help give an insight to how the pros use it to enhance performance. Imagery is a skill which takes a while to master, and where the final aim is to have one or more ‘scenarios’ you can use during a tough training session or competition. Whilst on the stationary bike trainer (think treadmill but for cycling – an equally unappealing prospect), I have a particular race which I run through mentally. The aim is to have the scenario playing in your mind like a projector playing a film. The more you allow yourself to become immersed in the imagery, the more powerful it becomes. Eventually, you will be able to use more senses than just sight alone. You will start to hear what the crowd are shouting, and the instructions you are receiving on race radio, maybe even the smell of the air. Essentially, to quote Eminem, you loose yourself in the moment.
Physiologically, this is a powerful tool and during sessions where I have used mental imagery, I have always sustained a greater power output than when simply gritting the teeth and hoping to get through the session.

Self confidence: how you see yourself as an athlete, performer or candidate is very important. All the best elite athletes have endless self confidence and self efficacy (belief in reaching goals and belief in your own ability). Projecting a confident persona is critical in close quarter situations ranging from boxing right through to a sales meeting. Some people have limitless confidence which leads to the attitude of “winning was the only option; how could I possibly lose?”, whereas others may display a more realistic confidence. A lightweight boxer is always going to be confident in their ability, but put them against a heavyweight champion, and you would (hope to) see a more realistic attitude that the outcome may not be favorable. The key here is matching expectations to performance, and using slightly elevated expectations to raise performance.
One PST strategy for self confidence is the easiest and least used tool to access. Simply, sit on a chair in a quite room, straighten your back, and broaden your shoulders. This is commonly known as a ‘power pose’, and is debated to evoke physiological responses such as a release of testosterone. The hypothesis is that low confidence, nervous people make themselves as small and unnoticeable as possible, whilst confident people consciously or subconsciously want to take up as much space as possible and let everyone know they are present.

Goal setting: everybody needs and uses goals in some form or other. Hopefully everybody has also heard of Smart or Smarter goals (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, timed, ethical & recorded). There isn’t too much to add here, except for this should be the first PST you get right, or at least practice. Once you have your goals, you can then work on your confidence, imagery and coping strategies to meet those targets. The rules here are also quite slack, especially considering ‘realistic goals’. What is realistic to me may not be realistic to you, so let yourself make the final decision about what you deem to be realistic. Sure, listen to people along the way, but personal goals are your own, so make sure you and you alone make the all important call. Lionel Messi’s doctors probably wouldn’t have thought top flight football was a realistic goal when he was 13 and suffering from a mild form of dwarfism due to a growth hormone deficiency, for example.

Concentration: finally we come to concentration which is hopefully not too ironic given that we’re now nearly 1800 words down.  Concentration ties in with arousal, and the two almost go hand in hand. If you are overly nervous or uninterested, then concentrating on anything which demands attention will be difficult. There are many skills for developing attentional focus such as self talk which we have previously mentioned. The key to concentration is understanding when concentration is most often lost. Usually, it is at the point of tiredness, when the level of physical exertion allows for a depleted mental capacity. This is perhaps the major culprit, however others include momentum shifts in the game, bad decisions affecting your focus, and unexpected obstacles, such as facing an opponent who turns out to be a lot better than their ranking suggests, thus drawing your thoughts away from your game plan and towards their flashy technique. I will use a technique from squash to demonstrate, however this could easily be applied to any racket sport, or any sport in general with some subtle alteration.
In squash, the referee has the power to decide who wins the point. In some cases, you may not agree, and at crucial times in a match, this is sure to knock your concentration if the call goes against you. The simple refocusing skill is to put in a long rally immediately after a bad decision. The aim is to expend a little energy in order to forget what has just happened, and start to concentrate back on your game plan. As anyone who has played squash will no doubt attest to, you will be far too tired after a 50 shot rally to even remember what the score is, let alone what happened in the last point.


Hopefully this has given a introductory insight into psychology for the benefit of performance. In my next article, I will give very specific examples of the above for a high performance athlete, but in the meantime, see how many strategies you can implement in order to knock a second off that pb, or simply finish the dreaded morning run with a smile on your face.

Bonne chance.

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Heart Rate A Barometer Of Health


This article is inspired by an athlete you’ve probably never heard of, yet was at one point the greatest athlete in his sport, in addition to being analogous to the greatest athletes of all time. David Palmer, a professional squash player from Lithgow, Australia recently retired from the sport at the beginning of November, having had one of the most illustrious careers ever seen.

David’s story is a lengthy one; however the focus of this article is a period in his life from 1992, where he had to choose between the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and Joe Shaw, a coach who pioneered the use of, at the time, highly advanced methods for the development of elite athletes. David chose Joe to the annoyance of the AIS, and subsequently became one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Joe used many methods to monitor David’s progress, and whilst these are now mostly common practice among elite athletes such as using binaural beats to alter the brain wave zone and implant positive affirmations, at the time they were revolutionary, and some still are.

The Resting Heart Rate

A key training aid which can be employed by a variety of athletes (stretching from recreational to elite) is that of the resting heart rate (RHR). Most people who exercise can tell you how to measure the pulse, and also that a low pulse can in theory denote a good level of fitness. Most people however are unaware of the full potential of the RHR to describe the current and future states of their body.

Joe Shaw used this expression to explain the reasoning behind measuring the RHR:


If we take the example of most exercisers from above, most can measure the pulse, however most people’s knowledge of that system stops at understanding.

The pulse rate can be thought of as not just an indication of fitness, but also as an indication of vitality. It’s essentially a barometer of the body.

There are limitations however and these need to be understood in order to realise the importance of the RHR.

Firstly, it is natural for some people to exhibit symptoms of arrhythmia. Arrhythmia is a condition whereby the heart beats faster than normal (tachycardia), or slower than normal (bradycardia). This point shows the main limitation of using RHR as an exclusive measure of fitness. For example, you may test untrained subjects at random, and find that some have a RHR of around 50bpm. You may then test well trained subjects, and find some of these also have a RHR of 50bpm. Whilst this is an extreme example, it shows that RHR’s are highly variable and specific to the individual.

Levels of Fitness

So whilst it may not be scientifically accurate to compare between subjects, the RHR can be used very accurately to measure within subject fitness (the fitness of an individual). Many formulas exist to determine various zones of heart rate, and also as a predictor of fitness based on the RHR, however the most important measurement is the starting RHR; that is the very first RHR that you take and record. With this number, fitness can be measured very accurately providing several factors are met. Firstly, the RHR should be recorded daily, and secondly, the heart rate should be measured (preferably when you wake up) at the same time each day to ensure consistency.

On taking the RHR for a period of around 4 weeks, you can begin to understand your own pulse rate better, and even pre-empt and prevent overtraining which is explained later.

A trap many people make the mistake of falling into, especially at the beginning of a training programme, is expecting the heart rate to fall down too quickly. When no decrease is noticed after a week, they get disheartened and stop their training.

A lowering in RHR is brought about through long term training, resulting in athletic bradycardia/ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement in the heart muscle). This can often take many months, with shorter term changes such as increases in red cell volume occurring first. Once the RHR starts to decrease, it’s important to always refer back to the initial RHR value, since this will show your true progress, and be much more informative that a generic heart rate zone table used to describe the general population. These should generally only be used as a rough guide.

A Barometer of Health

Another feature of the RHR which is relatively unknown by the majority of athletes is that the RHR is generally very stable, and usually fluctuates only, and very precisely, at the onset of illness, so the RHR in this respect can be thought of as a barometer of health.

An extract from Joe Shaw’s journal illustrates this:

“I cannot stress the importance of this measurement strongly enough. The RHR is an indicator and a barometer that informs you of problems before they occur. If his RHR rises from 37 to 40 overnight then there has to be a reason. David assesses what he did yesterday, how he feels, tired or whatever, what he ate, and establishes a reason. If he cannot, then he monitors the RHR the next morning and it has risen to 42.  He immediately stops training because he has an illness about to commence, or it has by now commenced, and he requires medication or rest.”

Whilst this may seem a very extreme example (it must be remembered David made his living from sport), it illustrates the point that the RHR, when measured in a consistent way can advise on whether or not to train, and whether the current training regime is resulting in improvements to fitness.

Crucially for more regular exercisers, the RHR can give indications of the onset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is important to note that contrary to popular belief, anyone partaking in regular exercise has a risk of developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, especially if the individual partakes in heavy bouts of high intensity, short duration sprint or power exercises. Another extract from Joe Shaw’s journal illustrates this:

“[David’s heart rate has risen from 37 to 42 in two days.] It may be that he is overtraining, and the warning signs have been given. You can bounce back from exhaustion in 2/3 days but overtraining is a state of prolonged fatigue and can destroy your athlete. One AIS pupil ran 400 meters in 75 seconds, 30 times in the morning, considering that essential to his fitness. He finished with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and in my opinion these runs did not help him at all.”

“Overtraining may be defined as a state of prolonged fatigue caused primarily by excessive training and characterised by decrements or stagnancy in performance despite continuous training (Costill 1986 & Kuipers and Keizer 1988). Overtraining is the result of short term balance between stress and how your body adapts to it (Michael Yessis Ph D .Sports Medicine)”

Using expression the if you can’t understand it, you can’t control it etc… through not understanding the actions of the RHR, an athlete could mistake a sudden increase in heart rate as a sudden drop of fitness, or conversely, could train exceptionally hard but not detect any noticeable decrease in heart rate. Both these situations require a thorough evaluation of the training plan:

1) Am I doing the correct type of training which is specific for my needs? 2) Am I giving my body enough time to rest and recover? (A fundamental part of training) 3) Am I eating and drinking to sufficiently replace the nutrients I have lost? 4) Is my training regime sufficiently varied? 5) Am I being realistic? (Remembering that it can take several months to notice a decrease in RHR)

From the above examples and current literature, it would appear that the monitoring of RHR is imperative if you are serious about maintaining health, and increasing fitness levels.




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The Need For Specificity

This article covers arguably the most essential element for effective training; specificity.

Having specificity in training is not as hard as you might first imagine, however it’s something which many people lack, and inevitably stops them from reaching their potential.

Clearly, having specificity just means being specific in your training; but specific to what? The answer again is clear; you have to be both specific to the goal you are training towards and specific to your own individual needs. If for example you are training to run a marathon, you will struggle to run a good time if you have only trained on the bike. This is an obvious example, however when looking at the finer details of training, it is less clear what denotes good specificity.

Again using the example of the marathon runner, the bulk of the physical training will constitute running, however if you were to run a marathon every day, the majority of people would end up being constantly late for work, and potentially ending up with chronic fatigue/overtraining. So being specific doesn’t just mean training exactly the same as a key event every day, instead it means being smart with your training.

Have you ever turned up to a race in any sport where for the first time you are competing beside other people, and have struggled to maintain your own rhythm or to run as you would do on a training run? Many people who feel like this during races do so because they have never run in a big group of other people. It takes a very focused individual who can turn up to a race with 200 other competitors, and not be influenced by everyone else’s pace and rhythm.

Again, this demonstrates the need for specificity in training. If you are training for a competitive race and are hoping for a good time, make sure some of your training is in as close to a race environment as possible, so you get used to not being forced along at 5 minute mile pace by the local world champion who has decided to enter the race for a spot of training.

The next danger is trying to add too many elements to your training programme which forces an otherwise good programme to become much less specific. A good example of this is altitude training. I have talked quite a bit about altitude training in my other posts but I’m climbing Everest so for me, that’s as specific as it gets. Many other people however decide that because Paula Radcliffe and other elite athletes train at altitude, what is good for others must be good for them; but this is not always the case. There are many advantages to altitude training, such as increased red cell production, increases in EPO (erythropoietin) concentrations, and angiogenesis (growth of new blood cells), however there are a whole host of positives and negatives which have to be measured before deciding altitude training will benefit sea level performance. An example is that all the adaptations described above have the ability to increase sea level performance, however at altitude, you risk muscle wastage, altitude sickness and thus reduction in training, and the fact that these adaptations take weeks and months to become beneficial. There is a chance you will become worse off after altitude training, and hence this means that the value of altitude training for sea level performance is something to be carefully considered.

The final element of specificity in training is intra-exercise specificity. Using the example of a power athlete (combination of strength and speed components) such as a 100m sprinter, it is easy to show this idea of intra-exercise specificity during weight training. There are countless combinations that the sprinter could use to decrease their sprint times such as different reps, sets, and weights. A sprinter however will aim to mimic the requirements of the sport by lifting weights (70-80% 1RepMax) in an explosive fashion, thereby replicating the movements seen during a sprint. Whilst the athlete could lift light weights for many reps in a ‘muscular endurance’ type approach, this would not be specific to sprinting and thus power athletes match the way they lift weights to the demands of their sport.

For an example of training specificity in a cardiovascular situation, take the example of a squash/tennis/badminton player. Instead of 60-100 minutes of constant running, more specific would be 60-100 minutes of interval training to replicate the start-stop nature of these games.

Alongside specificity in training, is specificity of the individual. Athletes are often described as finely tuned individuals who know their bodies inside out. The ability to listen to your body is a skill which develops with training and will enable an individual to know what training works best for them. In conjunction with the training that works best for the individual, is the training that the individual actually needs. Using the example of an Ironman triathlete; saying that cycling is their weakest event identifies the specific element requiring work, however it isn’t very specific for a training plan. From identifying the specific element, the next phase is narrowing down the need of training as much as possible; for example the Ironman triathlete may struggle to maintain peddle stroke pressure for the duration of the cycle. This means that training time is not wasted on hitting the apex whilst cornering or improving hill climbing times which the athlete is already good at. Instead their training focuses around lower limb muscular endurance and lactate threshold training in order to reduce their triathlon time by the largest possible margin.

As mentioned above, perhaps the most important concept to grasp which will help you be more specific in your training is the use of time. Time is a finite quantity so you have to use it well. Think about the most effective and specific use of your time to achieve your goal. If you are training for a long distance race, think about whether a 45 minute fast-paced run is as beneficial as a 1.5 hour medium-high paced run in achieving your goal. This video provides quite an inspiring take on the value of time:

Before and after each session, you should remind yourself of the need for specificity. Think to yourself, is the activity I’m going to do beneficial to my overall goal? If not, can you justify your use of time in doing the activity?

Once you have finished the training session, evaluate what you have just done. What did you get out of that session, and did its result agree with the initial aim of the session. Training with specificity is greatly aided with good evaluation. Evaluate every session you do, and if needed, instigate change into your training regime.

In summary, remember to keep your training specific both for the training purpose and the individual, then decide if what you are doing is beneficial to your overall goal. Remember also to keep an element of diversity in your training; time spent away from your chosen sport can be as equally beneficial. Most importantly, be productive with the time you are given.

It would be impossible to detail here the specific training requirements for every person, so if you want more information specific to you, go to my website (matthewdthornton.com) and feel free to contact me.

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Scottish Winter 2011

Photos courtesy of Zac Poulton, James Morrison and Mark Scales

So having just returned from my first Scottish winter, I thought now would be a good time to share the experience.


It’s hard to know where to start, as packing my bags for the trip seems a lifetime ago. I guess a good place is in fact the packing. So having seen the kit list from AP, and confident I had most of the kit; I set about the challenge of packing all the kit into two bags. This went strangely to plan, and left me with only my boots which would have to be worn on the plane. Being yellow, I knew they wouldn’t fail to turn heads in the exotic departure lounge of Luton.


Being on the flight was a relief, as I hadanticipated being questioned about having an ice axe and crampons in my luggage. I spent half the flight amused by the Scottish dictionary that Easy Jet had kindly provided, so you could navigate your way around the Scottish slopes like a pro.

I then spent the rest of the time with the realisation I had a 5 hour wait at Buchanan bus station in the centre of Glasgow, how bad could it be?

The bus station was an interesting place, where birds came for the relative warmth, but then realised it was colder inside the bus station than outside, so spent half an hour trying to operate the bird proofed automatic doors. As all this excitement unfolded, I sat on a low backed metal bench, the most uncomfortable type of bench possible, shivering away for 5 long hours.

Eventually the wait was over, the bus to Onich arrived, and after a long drive through dark wilderness, I reached the hotel about 6pm, after a 16 hour journey. This gave me an average speed of 23mph, which is incredibly slow given the 600mph ground speed of the airbus.

That night after settling in at the Onich hotel, I finally met my course companion, James, a first officer for Ryan Air; and our guide/instructor Zac. Also having a passion for flying, it was great to meet James, the first pilot I have ever met, which was a great talking point for the week. After discussing our hopes and aims for the course, sleep soon followed.


Up early the next day, we drove out to Glen Coe, but after realising the snow was far from ideal, we drove back up to the Fort William Ski Centre, and took the Gondola up to about 700m to begin practicing the basic boot work skills. This then progressed to the famed ice axe arrest, with all the possible variations, including the possibility of being handed an axe whilst hurtling down the mountain at break neck speed. Eventually, we donned crampons, and with great aesthetics, plodded up to Aorrach an Nid, the high point of the day, before eventually descending to the van, and meeting a guy from the SAIS, who told us the snow pack was ‘one finger, pencil, four fingers’. After dinner, Zac gave us a lecture on avalanches that padded all the information we had been given throughout the day, and even explained the ‘one finger, pencil, four fingers’ as a way of ‘exploring’ the snow pack.


Both James and I gained a great deal of respect for avalanches, but also a variety of methods we could use to create a good picture of the snow pack, to help avoid avalanches in the future. We also found out that James is a trained meteorologist, which was a great addition to our weather forecasting system, and unlike many weather presenters, gave a excellent forecast for the whole week, and being a pilot, he would say to 96.725% accuracy. At some point that night, I managed to vaguely sort my kit out into a rough drying system, that I would go on to perfect in later days.

The second day saw the introduction of a rope, to protect on steeper ground. This day also saw the introduction of the infamous walk-ins, which by the 4/5th day, I actually began to enjoy. Over the 5 days, I got particularly well acquainted with the walk-in to Stob Coire nan Lochan, which was the walk-in of choice for day 2. This was quite a shock to the system since the last walk-in consisted of a 5 minute walk to the gondola.


Eventually we reached a grade I gully that led up the North West face of Gearr Anonach, and after gearing up like only a guide and 2 ‘students’ can (students taking at least twice as long after putting on the harness backwards, and crampons on the wrong feet), we started up the gully to practice bucket seats, and rope work. Reaching the top of the gully, we then unroped and climbed up the ridge to our first main summit, Stob Coire nan Lochan at 1115m. We then climbed down to the top of Broad Gully, created a snow bollard in the soft, wet snow, and abbed down the first pitch, before descending the rest of the gully in a very un-Ueli Steck style, and eventually found a snowman at the bottom.


A final presentation from Zac on an expedition to Baruntse, gave me a much more professional insight into the preparation I would need for the northeast ridge on Everest, and in a few days, completely changed the way I thought about my preparation schedule.

From this point onwards the course became far more climbing orientated on steeper and more exposed ground. The previous day’s snow was soft and wet, but from the third day onwards, the temperatures dropped, and on the fourth and fifth days especially, hard névé formed, and the avalanche risk dropped.

The third day was our first introduction to steeper ground, on the grade II ledge route.  Of course the first obstacle to most climbs is actually getting there, so we began the walk-in, roughly four times the length of the previous day, but much more manageable thanks to its steady incline. I did develop a worrying method of passing the time in my head, by counting the pattern of streams that crossed the path. Most were path, rock, stream, rock, path; however double rock crossings are also encountered leading to a path, rock, stream, rock, stream, rock, stream, rock, path pattern, however this was rare… moving swiftly on.

On reaching the CIC hut, we geared up, and started into the snowline. The snow was still soft, but the forecast was improving all the time. After completing the first two pitches, and seeing 3 people solo up past us, we gradually improved, and learnt the various methods for protection, and moving together. Having said that, I am still not sure the method of arresting a fall on a ridge by jumping off the other side counts as a straightforward method of protection. The weather was gusty with the occasional shower of spindrift. I assumed it could get much worse, after all, I was still unexpectedly warm and dry.


We eventually topped out on ledge route and onto Carn Dearg at 1221m. The Ben was still in the clouds at this point, and it would soon be dark, so we abbed off the metal flag marker of number 4 gully, and through the cornice which had been painstakingly cut a day or so before, leaving it just wide enough for a climber to squeeze through.

On the way down, we progressed with a bit more finesse than the previous day, and met up with Mark Scales, the guide just for the next day. After seeing Mark and his partner speed down the path to the car park, I became slightly worried at the pace the next day’s walk-in would be conducted.

After reaching the car park just after dark, we had time to think about what we had just achieved. A grade II route in Scottish winter conditions, not bad after 2 days on crampons.


After a deep sleep, and plenty of rehydration, I was just about ready to battle the next walk in. Mark in no way believed Zac carried the rope the previous days, but that was worth a try. After leaving, we headed over to Stob Dearg to try something on the north face, but the snow was far too patchy, turning the first half of the climb into a rock climb.

So we headed back towards the three sisters, and set off for the second time for Stob Coire nan Lochan.  The pace as expected was high, and half way through the walk in, I was constantly dripping with sweat, which says something when the valley temperature was around freezing. We made our way over the coire and up into the snow line, and geared up. Dorsal Arête was the climb of choice; however there was another group at the base of Broad Gully, so we set off for a grade III variation on the lower fan-shaped buttress. On the way, we practiced some of the more advanced foot work methods, and the techniques needed to climb the mixed ground of the arête.


Now armed with 2 axes, I belayed mark up the first section, struggling to give him enough slack. Eventually, after taking at least twice as long, I reached the belay, and repeated the process. Being 6ft, Mark was able to place all the protection high on the rock spikes. Being nearer 5ft, removing the protection was a nightmare, although the axe does become a useful extension of the arm. Eventually, higher up, we decided to stick to the arête proper, giving Mark an ideal opportunity to place more ridiculously high protection. After a bit of mixed, and ‘Fred Flintstoning’ on the rocks, we reached the final pitch, where I just randomly asked if I could lead. The reply was ‘yes, but you will fall twice as far if you slip’… Although not the best confidence booster, it meant every step counted.


The view from the top was amazing, with cloud free summits on all but the highest mountains. It was in fact the first time we had seen the sun all week. After climbing over to the top of the lost valley, we descended down some steep névé which was the best snow we had seen all week.

De-gearing still took annoyingly longer than the instructors, but it was improving. We then raced down the lost valley at what felt like running pace, and 45 minutes later, were back at the van before dark.

Conversation at dinner that night revolved around James’s and my fascination of flying which truly is a never ending subject.

Friday was soon upon us, and that marked our final climbing day. The day before, I had decided to stay an extra night to avoid a 48h journey back home, which involved waiting back at Buchanan bus station for an hour, then sleeping over night at Glasgow airport, then waiting for my flight at 7pm the next night.

Fridays climb back again with Zac would oddly be our first Munro of the week, Stob Dearg, also known as The Beuckle, which was lower than previous climbs, but had the necessary prominence to count as a Munro.


The climb was relatively straight forward, up a gully to the col, then across to the summit. However today we focussed on moving without the aid of a guide, and making our own decisions. The snow conditions were still good, with the widespread frost making for good climbing, and the lowest avalanche risk of the week.

In an effort to show how to look the part, Zac demonstrated the art of coiling the rope, as true guides look. I noticed if you combine this look with a few hexes on the rack, you can both look and sound like a guide.

After summiting, we then raced around to Stob na Doire at 1011m, although still not a Munro. After racing back to the col, we abbed down the gully, and after watching two people foolishly try to climb a buttress without ice axe and crampons, subsequently dislodging a melon sized rock, we de-geared and made our way back.


That night was taken up with chatting to Zac about his invaluable advice for my next 2 trips in preparation for Everest, sharing all the photos from the week, and eventually talking to James about flying.

The next day, after finally saying goodbye to everyone, I was left in the hotel by myself waiting for the coach to Glasgow. The place was deserted, but it was the first time I had seen the place in the light, giving me a chance to see the beauty of the surroundings. The coach trip was the same, giving me chance to see and reflect on all the climbs we had done around Glencoe.


Arriving at Glasgow airport, the place was surreal, there was no one to be seen; the whole of Glasgow International Airport was empty! I counted the flights on the board, there were 7 flights for the whole night shown on a 3 screen board that had the capacity for 60 flights!

As James had predicted the flight was short and smooth; my car journey however was 6 times as long as the flight it’s self.

My first Scottish winter was over.

I could not possibly detail everything that happened. Even though I have almost written more than my dissertation, and even though it was a short 5 day course, so much truly happened. I experienced some of the best days on the mountains in this time, and really found the magic of Scottish winter climbing. Climbing over the week with 3 great people, I had the best week I could have asked for.
Special thanks goes to Zac, Mark and Adventure Peaks, who I will be joining in July 2011 to climb in the Tien Shan. I would recommend them wholeheartedly. You can find out more here:

Zac Poulton – http://www.zacpoulton.blogspot.com/

Adventure peaks – http://www.adventurepeaks.com/