I enjoy your work (including your dark materials and social media contrarianism) and I thought that I'd write you for some advice. I'm in my early 40s and got a late start climbing. I'll be traveling from the States to climb in Chamonix and Switzerland this summer and since I live at sea level, its important that I train hard if I want to function well in that environment. I'm 6 months out from my trip and should be hitting it hard and instead I've been sidelined with a series of head and chest colds for about a month. I cycle through attempts at fighting through it, training light, and avoiding training all together. Do you have any tips on avoiding getting sick and how do you handle it when you find yourself coming down with something? Thanks.
I’ve often had the same problem in the past. I’d go hard at training for an upcoming trip (usually due to leaving it late to get fit), but be blazing after two or three weeks, running along thinking of dashing up ice like Ueli Steck, imagining what I’d do with my new fitness - and then - my wheels would fall off. It would start as sore throat, maybe a sudden inability to recover, being more crap than usual down the wall, but soon I’d be sick. Once I got sick I’d have to stop training (I knew someone who got ME after training while sick so I’m very paranoid) and the crapness seemed to tail off very, very slowly. It was the last thing I wanted, and yet it always happened.
This tended to mean my proper training was always spotty and so I’d just go away unfit. The strange thing is that when I went away unfit I’d get fit quite fast, and never got ill doing so, were as if I went super fit I’d come back less fit? How strange is the human body.
One of the best lessons in health and fitness I’ve been given has been via touring on stage. Doing thirty gigs almost back to back, living out of a car, going to bed after midnight, eating crap, taught me a lot, as you can’t bail when you’re meant to be on stage, or lie in bed sniffling. On such a tour you’re fighting both fatigue (which can be crushing, one reason ‘performers’ take stimulants like cocaine or speed, not for fun but just to ‘go on’), fear of illness (which will compound tiredness) and losing your voice (not ideal when there’s 20,000 people who want to hear you speak!). It was touring that I really got to understand how much more delicate my body and immune systems are, and how a different approach is needed. Soloing also taught me a few things like treat yourself like someone you love, but mainly it was standing on a stage.
First off when you begin training you need to ease into it, and I always do a month of what I call ‘pre-training’. With this you’re giving your body more than a nudge, a warning or ‘heads up’, but the idea is to slowly warm up your system bit by bit, day by day. The reason for this is that I think to get fit you need to first be fit, something the US army have had to start doing, sending recruits off to do pre fitness training before doing actual training (a sign of our sedentary lifestyles I guess). If you look at the early posts from my training blog you’ll see some more info on this.
My personal experience on trips is that you need a good base, both in cardio and strength and stamina, but it does not need to be an Olympic base, amateur league, not premier. Have this and you’ll be able to adapt quickly to your new environment, and that going at 70% and not getting ill is better than 100% and risk being crook. I would also stress that being super fit can also be a hindrance, as often these people push too hard too soon and either get burnt out or get altitude sickness (one reason 40+ is an ideal age for high-altitude not 20), not to mention staying at a high level just wears out your body.
I tend to train very cautiously, always backing off anything that I think may lead to injury and for me there’s never “one more mile” or “one more minute”. If I feel a strain I stop and do something else, but of course you need to be able to tell what’s a weak link and what’s a weak will!
Some basics also apply, but cover them again:
Drink lots and avoid anything going to dehydrate you (you should be getting up in the night to piss for example, and always have water at hand). Yes, I don’t drink much on the hill, but I do when I’m in training.
Eat as much as you can, and don’t confuse getting fit with getting thin! Don’t avoid fats but be careful of what carbs and proteins you eat. Diet wise try and work out what adds something and what takes something away. I know if I ate loads of bread and pasta and red meat all week I’d soon get ill, but brown rice, fish and porridge really adds to my mental and physical performance.
Try and keep salt and sugar to a minimum.
Sleep is a priority, especially the older you get if you’re training. For this reason I try and avoid getting pissed etc, as having a 4am bedtime will upset my body all week and is an invitation to illness. What you’re aiming for is routine and the reduction of any trauma to that routine, as one big jolt can bleed out for days or weeks. This also applies to travel.
Try and cut down on stress, both the obvious stuff, but also simple things like not using a computer/phone after 9pm (never have your phone beside your bed). It’s sucking egg stuff but reading a book for half a hour before you go to bed will give you a better sleep than one minute of checking your facebook.
Learn to be able to relax and know that resting is part of getting fit. I used to go out with someone in British cycling and I always told her that she needed to imagine that was paid to rest and that she did the training for free.
The problem with all training - well any good training - is that you only get strong by stressing your system. Go over the line and something will break. Instead what you’re doing is slowly nudge that line as you progress, day by day, rather than race to the line and trip over it. By a slow and gradual approach you need never get close to the line, while still remaining healthy and fit enough. On the subject of just how fit that should be? Well the Stoics believed that a man should achieve a good level of fitness in order to be the best version of themselves as possible, but no more than that, as to do so would make that the end, rather than a means to something more deeply rewarding.