RedBull X Alps 2015- The Training
A little over a year ago I was skiing and speed riding with my friend Gavin McClurg when the topic of the X Alps came up. At the time I knew a very little about the race. I was a fairly new paraglider pilot and had been told briefly about the race but I did not know the full breadth and scope of this adventure.
For those not familiar, the basic formula is that athletes race from Austria to Monaco via 10 turn points. The athletes are only allowed to walk or fly a paraglider. The average athlete during the race will fly upwards of 1000km (600 miles) and walk in excess of 500km (300 miles). They can expect to cover 40,000 vertical meters (130,000 vert feet) of climbing. The race has a maximum of 12 days- ie you have to make Monaco in the allotted time. In the race’s history since 2003, just 11% have finished.
In talking with Gavin, he made mention that he might want to do the race but had some reservations. (For all you non-pilots, Gavin is a very accomplished pilot and holds the North American distance record among other things.) His number one reservation was the sorry state of his knees. See, Gavin had once been a promising downhill ski racer, but multiple injuries and subsequent knee surgeries had left his knees a cartilage wasteland. At the time of our conversation he was 42 years old and had survived most of the previous 20 years in constant knee pain. He was fit, but not a runner, and the thought of up to 500 kilometers of walking and hiking seemed a little ludicrous. I chewed on the thought for a few seconds and then told him in no uncertain terms that I believed we could effectively train and prepare him regardless of the knee issue. In addition to coaching CrossFit athletes, I had quite a bit of experience training myself and others to carry heavy packs for long distances, both in a military setting and for various adventure type races. Little more was said of the race and we went back to drinking beer.
Fast forward to September of 2014. We had traded a few emails on the possibility of the upcoming X Alps, but he still held some reservations, especially about his knees. So I picked up the phone and called him. At the end of conversation he decided to begin training with the understanding that pretty quickly we would know if his body was up to the test. Of course that left me thinking, “OK, how the hell am I going to get a guy with no knees to be able to hike 10000 plus vertical feet and 30 plus miles a day?” I believed I had the answer but only time would tell if I was right.
Before we jump into the meat of the programming and his journey through suffering, we need to talk about a few things.
The first one is Gavin himself. Gavin is all in or nothing. He put his heart and soul into training for this race. No matter what the programming of the day encompassed, he did the work. All the work. There were no shortcuts, no half-assed attempts; he took what was dealt and did not stop until the objective was met. That is a very rare quality. Most think that we would thrive being able to train as a full time job, but frankly I don’t believe that most people would feel the same after a few weeks. As a coach, you want your athlete to walk a fine line. On one hand you want them to do what you ask and on the other you want them to be just inquisitive enough to be mindful of their training and to provide quality feed back on the process. He was all that and more. We had many conversations about strategies and tweaking of things but I didn’t get the classic, “I heard that (insert name here) was training using (insert flavor of the month training program here) and I think we should try that.” More on Gavin and his dedication later.
The second thing to discuss before we move on to the bread and butter is an issue of fundamental skills and a willingness to be led outside of the box. I consider myself a strength and endurance coach. Most people do not put those two words together but I have found that most outdoor athletes benefit from one of two relationships. Either have enough strength to meet your endurance goals. Or have enough endurance to meet your strength goals.
To accomplish his goal we were going to have to blend smart strength training, classic aerobic work, and time on foot in the mountains and roads. The scope of the strength training would have a few aims but be fairly simple. The first was to build the musculature in his quads, calves, feet, and posterior chain with the aim of pain free knees and legs that would climb any mountain. Next we worked on building a solid trunk to keep his posture from going to shit and causing problems down stream. The final piece was to ensure his shoulders, back and arms were capable of supporting his pack for long distances. We were not going to have him run, ever. So we used the pool, the Concept 2 Rower and Ski Erg, the Air Dyne, and bikes to achieve an acceptable level of aerobic endurance. Finally we focused on going uphill, and long walks on pavement with a pack. This was the sports-specific part of the training and key to his success. For the vertical gain, I strived in the programming to only make him go downhill 25% as much as he went uphill. This was to prevent the pounding on the knees that comes from going downhill. In his case this was fairly simple to accomplish as he often flew down by paraglider or speed wing. Additionally, in the winter we used ski touring extensively as he got huge elevation gain but was able to ski down without pounding on his body. The final icing on the cake was a strong emphasis on recovery techniques to include mobility, Compex (electrical stimulation), massage, Rolfing, yoga, diet, and quality sleep. The very first week, I told him to go out and buy some assorted mobility devices as well as Supple Leopard. Without a doubt, the focus on daily mobility both pre and post workout were keys to success in the abolishment of knee pain.
We kicked off in earnest in October 2014. October through the end of December were geared around building an adequate base in all areas of our stated goals. Often people will decide on a goal and then will jump in head first without doing the prerequisite work. The prerequisite is there so that when the training really gets hard, the body is ready and willing to accept the stimulus without breaking into a million pieces. The first two months of his training did not have a specific focus other than prepping his body to accept the torture that was to come. Not to say that it was easy. Below is a sample week of his training during this pre requisite phase.
This was nearing the end of the pre requisite phase and was starting to build in intensity and volume.
Around Christmas we entered an intensity/interval phase. Most of the time when programming for endurance athletes this will come much closer to race time. For Gavin, I put it early in the training as overall top speed was not the main goal. We still included this phase as a means to ensure he had plenty in the tank in the event that he needed to go very very hard for a short period of time. Late in the race we did just that when after a particularly hard and disappointing day, Gavin and I sprinted down a mountain and back up the other side to get him off launch and salvage a flight before the flying window ended for the day. On that day we descended around 1500 vertical feet and back up another 1000 in around 25 minutes. The intensity phase included ski touring interval sessions, IWT (interval weight training), enough aerobic work to keep the engine running smoothly and recovery sessions to keep the body moving without additional destruction.
Going into the New Year we knew that the two months leading up to the race would find him in Europe scouting the course. That in turn would lead to great sports-specific training but might be short on true aerobic efforts and access to strength equipment. Those factors led to the timing of the bread and butter of the program: a big aerobic build, sprinkled in with enough strength work to meet our defined goals of building a strong stable platform. During this phase I charted his weekly vertical gain and kilometers on the ground. We built the volume over time with deload weeks sprinkled in every 5-6 weeks to allow for the compensation to happen. Strength work was kept to 2 times a week. Each week included a couple of twice-daily training sessions. At the peak he was accumulating over 15000 meters of vertical gain and pushing over 150km on the ground. Recovery sessions were used every week to lesson the pounding while still revving up his fat burning machine. Throughout the program we built his strength but there were no end goals of meeting certain requirements on lifts. I simply wanted him strong enough. Strong enough would be identifiable through lack of pain and his performance carrying a pack over long distances.
One thing that was employed was repeating certain workouts. We repeated both mountain oriented workouts and workouts in the gym. This provided Gavin the feeling of accomplishment to know that he was improving which is critical for an athlete’s confidence.
We ended the long months of aerobic development with a test/race simulation. The goal was to give him a multi day test of what back-to-back race days would feel like. We wanted to make sure his body held up as we expected. It would give him the opportunity to really test out his gear and nutritional choices. The simulation was placed about 60 days out from the race to provide more than adequate time for recovery before the race.
Shortly after this Gavin traveled to Europe to begin the scouting mission. I kept him on a strict diet of hiking big mountains, walking plenty of pavement to condition the feet and made him build some sandbags to keep up some semblance of strength work. Going into July, Gavin had amassed over 200,000 meters of vertical gain, 2000 kilometers of walking and more sandbag getups, squats, and pull-ups than most will do in a decade. At the time of the race start, Gavin was a shredded mountain goat with a huge tolerance for pain and volume. His nutrition was dialed in and he knew that he was prepared for anything the race would throw at him. As I mentioned earlier, fancy programming is useless without the athlete who is willing to do the work. Gavin did more than was asked and did it with an intensity that I have rarely seen.