Notes on a year of training – Transition and Base Periods

This year, before and during my road trip I followed a more strict training regime than I ever have put together for myself before.  In past lives, I have completed organized training schedules for competitive sports or events in college (lacrosse, squash, training for the Boston Marathon with the Tufts marathon team), but I had never designed my own training schedule. I closely followed the expertise presented in Steve House and Scott Johnston’s Training for the New Alpinism (TFTNA).  Because I learned a lot in the process, I decided to discuss my journey here so that others can build on it.

For those who haven’t come across Steve and Scott’s book, it is a quite a piece of work. I would expect it will become the seminal book for training for alpine climbing, if it has not already.  They present details on the physical requirements on the body for climbing, how to train year over year with the goal of annual progression in mind, combined with advise on diet, high-altitude adaptations, and even a discussion of the mental requirements of alpine climbing. I’ve found the book to be extremely well-researched and decided to build my training plan for the year nearly entirely based on the information laid out in the book.

In this post, I’ll discuss my training plan for the year, and some analysis of my transition and base periods.  In a future post, I’ll discuss the climbing specific period and the overall impressions of following this training plan for a year.

Overview of my training plan

In TFTNA, Steve and Scott present outlines of training plans for various types of climbing objectives, specifically either general mountaineering (like Rainer or Denali), or for more technical alpine climbing.  I would be doing the latter, which requires both a strong aerobic base, but also strength and motor-coordination for difficult technical movement (ice climbing, rock climbing, etc). In the book, they discuss training schedules ranging from a few months weeks to nearly a year in length. As I see it, there are four main phases to the plan:

    1. the transition period to settle into training and the process
    2. the base period to build general fitness (basically, building the aerobic motor and base strength, i.e. training to train)
    3. the climbing-specific period (turning general strength into movement-specific strength)
    4. the climbing period (actually climbing the routes that are your objective focuses)

I wanted to build a plan which lined up with my work schedule in the spring, allowing me to focusing on base training during that time-frame.  I then planned to transition towards climbing-specific training as I started traveling between different climbing destinations with Jimmy in the summer and Fall.  I hoped this would put be in proper shape for our climbing objectives in Patagonia in December and January.  Due to the time periods involved, my training schedule would end up being nearly a year long.  The key would be to be meticulous about slowly and steadily increasing my training load. In another other words, patience!

Based on my travel schedule and the time-line for my road trip, I put together the following timeline for my training:

Month Major events Training goals
November Recovery month, compile training plan, chamonix
December Bozeman Ice fest ( 9-14th) Transition (4 weeks)
January Transition (4 weeks)
February Red Rocks, Avy II Base (4 weeks)
March Base (4 weeks)
April Base (4 weeks)
May Chamonix (long moderate alpine days) Base (4 weeks)
June Chamonix (long moderate alpine days) Base (4 weeks), Increase climbing load
July Cascades (NR Stuart) Base (4 weeks), Increase climbing load
August Bugaboos and Squamish Overlap, rest, recovery, increase climbing load
September Squamish Specific (4 weeks), climb, climb, climb
October Yosemite Specific (4 weeks), climb, climb, climb
November Ice/Rock (weather dependent) Specific (4 weeks), climb, climb, climb
December Ice/Rock (weather dependent) -> Patagonia Taper -> Climb
January Patagonia (Long BA missions!) Climb!

Table showing my training plan for 2016, beginning in November of the previous year. 


Transition Period

  • Started with Scott’s Killer Core and Scott’s General Workout routines as a basis for general strength building. 
  • Because I would be completing many of my workouts from home, I looked for ways to adapt my workout routines to meet available equipment (replacing the squats w/barbell with squats w/dumbbells), and ways to adapt my home to meet my workout needs (installed a pull-up/crimp board, and a set of hooks to hang on tools).
  • My focus during this period was to get used to tracking my training, staying on a proper scheduling, and beginning to understand the basis for training monitoring (HR zones, fatigue, etc).
  • Training hours:
      • Estimated that I did 352 hrs the year before, during which I had sat out for several months due to a torn hamstring).
      • 353 hrs/year averages to 6.3 hours a week. I started my transition period at about 6 hours per week, because I just couldn’t imagine starting at 3 hours per week.

Base Period

The base period focuses on building aerobic capacity by maintaining low-intensity levels during training.  This signals to the body to focus on learning to burn fat as fuel through increased capillary and mitochondria density.  In addition to getting into better aerobic shape by methodically increasing one’s aerobic threshold, strength training is a key component of the base period. 

Setting goals and tracking performance

During the base period, I tracked each week via my own version of the spreadsheet provided by Scott and Steve in TFTNA.  Here is an example of one of my sheets.  At the beginning of each week, I created a new spreadsheet and entered in my goals for the week.  I calculated the weekly goals by copying the examples for percentage time to be spent in each HR zone or training type directly from TFNTA.  I transcribed those numbers into this spreadsheet to calculate weekly training goals based on my own yearly training volume.  With more time on my hands, or more knowledge, I am sure I could have come up with a more personalized set of training hours, but I felt like the example numbers for weeks 1-8 and weeks 9-16 in the book were good enough.

Base period – Figuring out how to meet goals

I was living in Seattle at the time and working a full-time job.  This meant my aerobic training would consist predominantly of those activities easiest to perform close to the city: hiking, running, and biking. Though Scott and Steve don’t recommend biking as a training activity because it does not require some of the core stabilization present in other activities like running, I went on bought a bike to do long commutes on each day. In addition, I incorporated a substantial amount of ski touring. My friend Dylan was working through his base period training routine at a similar time on a TFTNA training plan.  He and I coordinated on evening nights to go ski touring at Hyak or hiking at Mt. Si or Tiger Mt., depending on the weather.

For max strength and general strength sessions, I lifted weights primarily at home or the local climbing gym.

In some circumstances during my base period, I substituted climbing or another activity for a certain type of strength training.  This might be frowned upon by Scott Bennett and Steve House, but I felt that bouldering with others was an effective way to maintain some sort of social life while still “training”.  I tried to be careful during these substitutions that I matched the overall training requirements I was supposed to be focused on.  For example, to substitute bouldering for a max strength session, I tried to boulder at my limit, and to repeat problems to achieve isolated muscular fatigue.

I did not measure my heart rate during many workouts.  During the beginning of my base period training I did wear a HR monitor, but later on I simply used my own understanding of HR zones and breathing to monitor training intensity levels.   This certainly adds both some non-measurable variability and error to the data in the plot above, and presents a large opportunity for improvement in the future.

Results and analysis of Base Period

There are two graphs below.  One shows training hours spent each week by activity type, the second shows training hours per week by HR zone or type or type of training (mutually exclusive types of training).  In the second graph, I have labeled where I transitioned from max strength to muscular endurance sessions.

Total training hours by activity and type or intensity level during the base period.

It was hard to stick to the hours dictated in my training plan due to travel, work, social stuff (what if I just wanted to go cragging or ski touring with friends).  I often found it easy to hit or exceed time spent doing activities that I really enjoyed (like biking), but found it much more difficult to commit time to strength training.  I had to learn to keep the end goal in mind when faced with the decision to climb more or to lift weights, as I did believe that latter would truly benefit me.  More than anything else, during this first year of training, I got better at sticking to a training schedule and to keeping myself motivated.

I did a total 199.5 hours of training in the base period over 18 weeks.  That is an average of 12.4 hrs/week.  This exceeded my goal of 169.9 hours, for an average of 10.6 hours per week.  I know that personally many of these “extra” hours meant that I was in dire need of rest and recovery which my body didn’t get at certain points.  For example, after a trip to Red Rocks, I felt horrible during some very easy skinning on a trip to Alaska.  It adds up quickly when you are active!

The plot below shows deviations by week from intended training hours by type of training.  If the a bar is positive for a certain activity and week, that means I exceed the number of intended number of hours training for that type of training during that week.  The negative bar shows that I didn’t complete the number of target hours.

Deviations from training goals for each activity type, by week.

The above is a bit of an eye-chore, but it is easy to see that I did a lot more cragging than was intended, and a bit less strength training than I should have. The following diagram shows more clearly deviated from the type of training recommended in TFTNA for that period.

This chart shows how my total training time in each intensity level differed from the total time I should have spent in that zone or type of training.

This diagram, though it compresses a bit of information, does make it easier to make a few general observations about my ability to stick to the training plan for the base period.  There are two things that can be easily observed:

  1. I did A LOT more cragging and “alpine climbing” than intended.  A lot of this was gym time, or was time out on climbing trips (Red Rocks, for example).  It also appears that I did a lot of zone 2 compared to the total goal hours, the absolute value of the difference is actually not too large (just 5 1/2 hours or so).
  2. I did much fewer strength and max strength hours than I would have liked. These are particular important training hours, as they help to build muscular endurance so that you aren’t already sore by the time you reach the base of a climb.  In Patagonia, long approaches did take a lot out of me.  I remember on the beginning pitches of some of the climbs feeling the lack of power in my calves and quads.  I do think, on the other hand, that the time I did spend weight lifting did help enormously with stability and speed on the approach terrain.  In particular I remember hopping easily across talus and large boulders with huge packs.  It was amazing how the power in my legs translated to confidence in movement later on.

By the end my base period, I had probably lost 5-10 pounds and felt like I was in great aerobic shape.  In particular, I went and tackled objectives like the Coleman Headwall on Mt Baker in a day.  I could feel, even just after a few months, the increase in my ability to recover quickly and to move quickly lower HR zones where I wasn’t burning a bunch of muscular glycogen or blood glucose – i.e. no bonking.


During the base training period, I tried to adhere to a fat-based diet heavy in vegetables, and a moderate amount of protein.  I would contribute a large part of my ability to stick with the training cycles and to recover towards diet.  When I was particularly vigilant and starting avoiding a lot of sweets or processed carbohydrates, I could feel myself becoming very comfortable with going for a while without food. I could feel my body craving fats instead of carbohydrates, and was excited about the ability to perform long, long intensity workouts without a lot of food.  For anyone considering planning their base period, I would suggest looking into how to plan a cooperative diet to go along with it.  Ping me if you want some links!

That’s all on the base period and my training results this year for now. In my next post I’ll outline the climbing specific training I did while on the road and before traveling down to Patagonia. Hope to see you then!

Data analysis performed with Python  numpy/pandas/matplotlib.  See code here.


5 thoughts on “Notes on a year of training – Transition and Base Periods

  1. Deebo

    Great write up. Thanks for this. I own and have read and reread TFTNA but I have a hard time translating the general training schedule to my own situation for some reason. Your write up helps me to see how it can be applied specifically. I also just so happened to have recently learned pandas for some number crunching at work so A+ on that! I have young kids so in order to get some of the climbing I want to get at done I’m going to need to prioritize and focus. This helps a bunch. Cheers.

    1. chris

      Awesome Deebo. Really glad it helped you out. I bet balancing kids and training is hard, so all the power to you!

  2. Elliot

    Hi, really interesting read and well written up! Loving the Excel work.

    I’ve also read the book but struggle with diet generally, I’d be really interested to hear more details about your fat-based diet with moderate protein? I’ve always thought (like a body-builder) as much protein as possible was the way forwards.


  3. PJ

    Thanks a lot for sharing!

    I was wondering whether you felt your large volume of aerobic training influence your cragging ability?

    I’m fairly new at mountaineering and climbing, so I still have a lot of schouder stability and antagonist muscle power to gain. I’m wondering if I should take some volume of the Zone 1 workouts and add them to the strength training volume.


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