donderdag 30 oktober 2014

Six euros well spent

There's not much to mention on the outdoor front unfortunately... I've had limited chances to get out and I didn't use them quite as well as I should have. Let's not talk about it. I started noticing that my endurance and stamina (the possible volume of a session) are suffering badly from my regimen of short, strength and power oriented boulder trainings. I've been doing them almost exclusively for (way) too long: the gains are diminishing and the neglected aspects such as volume and endurance are hitting rock bottom. On top of that, tweaking my diet to support hypertrophy (yes, I know, I still have to finish an article about it...) made me measurably stronger (my deadhang performance took quite a leap, I'll write about that too), but also about 3 kg heavier. I feel like it helped my maximum strength, but it had a detrimental effect on more endurance oriented exercises. Although I do feel stronger than ever on short bursts, it's time to translate the power and strength gains to power endurance. Additionally, training for some stamina will help me make the most of future outdoor sessions.

So I started hitting the gym again once a week to refamiliarize with pumped forearms. For me, the best place to do that probably is Arque: the gym where time stands still and all routes are nothing but endurance and fitness tests. There's no place on earth where I climb as badly as in Arque and I can't image climbing much further out of my comfort zone. Lots of improvement potential and excellent training! Additionally, I devised a 25 move power endurance circuit on my woody and started doing laps on it. Tough! In the steep lead walls of Arque I realized that clipping quickdraws is very taxing for me: I tend to waste a lot of energy there and get pumped extremely fast. This conclusion led me to install a four hangers for quickdraws on my woody. With a harness and a short rope (three meters) I now (try to) include several clips in my power endurance circuit. It's the best 6 euros I've spent in a long time. Relatively easy sections suddenly became much, much harder and super sustained. As all holds are small, the board is steep and all footholds are sloping, holding clipping positions turned out to be a real challenge. After three training sessions, I'm not even close to completing my power endurance circuit once with clipping, whereas I can repeat it eight times more or less to the finish without.

Getting stuck in a routine is an easy pitfall and I stumbled into it again, face first. It's past time to change my game again. I've marked a few dates in my calendar at which I'm supposed to switch routines and enter a new training phase again. All is geared to achieving a peak in lead climbing performance during the holiday break in Februari. In theory it looks good. Now let's see what it really does...

maandag 8 september 2014

Berdorf again...

August was cursed. At least that's what we thought. On the first of September exactly the skies cleared up and rain stopped to fall. After waiting for a dry spell for weeks, Koen, Frans and I didn't waste any time and drove to Berdorf, our moods lightened up by the good weather forecasts and a happy Vienna. When we arrived just after midday however, everything looked suspiciously wet. Although it was sunny now, it turned out that it had rained heavily for four hours straight in the morning. Ironically, it had all fallen from a cloud that was so small that it was barely visible on the precipitation radar. Apparently the August curse didn't limit itself to August as much as we thought it did...

It took us some time to accept the fact that all routes - including the overhangs - were wet and to set our minds to easier climbing. Failing to climb a 6a+ warmup route wasn't exactly the start I had hoped for... Stubbornly I fumbled around a bit in a hard combination on sector Nikita, but got shut down by the hard roof boulder of Ayrton. The crucial pinch was wet and despite attempts to dry it, water kept seeping through the rock as if it were a sponge. Switching to easier climbing made the trip very enjoyable though. I even managed to do the last 7a I had left in Berdorf ('La Sans Nom') in my first attempt on sunday afternoon. Save for a final few 6th grade routes (6 to be precise), there's only really hard stuff left for me in Berdorf now... Time to visit some other climbing areas!

I'll miss the superb campground next to the crag, pizzeria 'Venezia' in Echternacherbr├╝ck, the 'Kebab House' in Echternach, the enchanting forest of the M├╝llerthal and running through all the little canyons and rock formations during my morning walks with Vienna though. Maybe we'll go back soon after all. There are still some very good hard routes waiting to be climbed... Who knows!

I can only hope September and October will be dry. A few more opportunities to add some ascents to this sports climbing season would be great. I'll check in here soon again, either to write about more rock trips, or to share the second part of the nutrition series. So stay tuned!

vrijdag 22 augustus 2014

Food for vegetarian climbers part 1: is climbing an endurance sport?

I've been eating almost exclusively vegetarian food for quite a while. About a year before I started my effort to become good at climbing (in 2010), I became a vegetarian. To be very precise (and unnecessarily complicated), I am what is called an 'ovo-lacto vegetarian'. In normal language that means I refrain from eating meat and fish, but I do consume eggs and dairy products. I've been reasonably conscious about ingesting enough iron, proteins and vitamins B (B12 in particular). Failing to do so is a common pitfall for veggies, especially for those who refuse to eat eggs and/or dairy as well. Through the years, I've drawn comfort from a wealth of online articles reassuring me that a sports diet without meat is very well possible and according to many even a lot healthier than a diet that includes meat. I can recommend a visit to the 'No Meat Athlete' blog to anyone who considers cutting down on meat. My steady progress through the grades seemed to confirm I was eating well enough to fuel my climbing efforts.

Nevertheless I've started doubting the completeness of my diet after subjecting myself to a more strength and power oriented training schedule at the beginning of this year, without seeing significant performance gains  (either in or outside the trainings) or body composition changes for months. Instead I often started feeling tired, fatigued, sometimes even unmotivated and I experienced more bad days than good days when I had the chance to hit the crag. Within my limited understanding of sports science, there were two plausible explanations for my 'problem': either I was overtraining or I wasn't eating well enough to enable good recovery from my trainings. Most of the symptoms seemed to fit the former. I refused to accept it: the step up in training was small and my training load wasn't unreasonably high for a climber who has done several years of fairly consequent training. And I couldn't imagine that both explanations were unrelated: in both cases the real problem is that the body fails to recover well enough from a training before the next one starts. With better food, faster recovery is possible and overtraining is harder to achieve. So once again I started reading, hoping to reassure myself that my diet was just fine.

Climbing is not an endurance sport
This time I noticed a subtlety that I missed previously: all articles explaining how carefully picking your ingredients (enough spinach, broccoli, nuts, legumes etc.) can result in a complete sports diet that has many health benefits over a diet including meat, are aimed at endurance athletes. And although sports climbers talk a lot about 'endurance' and target this in their trainings, I'd like to make a case here that climbing (and not just bouldering) isn't an endurance sport at all. Let me explain. The term 'endurance sport' usually refers to aerobic activities, such as long distance running, cycling etc. Hard sports climbing and bouldering are almost exclusively anaerobic activities. Aerobic and anaerobic activities rely on completely different energy supplies. The 'fuel' in our muscle cells is called ATP: adenosine triphosphate. Whenever a cell needs energy, it starts breaking down ATP. A phosphate complex splits off, releasing a lot of energy from the bond and leaving adenosine diphosphate (APD) behind. After about three seconds of very hard work, the cell runs out of ATP. When that happens, the cell needs to restore ADP to ATP to continue delivering work. There are three systems that are able to do this, but at very different rates and durations:

  1. Aerobic respiration (slow). In the presence of oxygen (supplied via the blood flow), glucose (stored in the form of glycogen - chains of glucose molecules - in muscles) is broken down completely into carbon dioxide and water and the energy released is used to form ATP. The mechanism is slow, but as long as the blood flow can supply enough oxygen, it can accommodate moderate activity continuously for hours.
  2. Glycogen lactic acid system (fast). When a higher demand is placed on ATP levels and there's insufficient oxygen, glucose gets only partly broken down. It provides enough energy to synthesize ATP, but lactid acid is created, causing the acidity in the muscles to skyrocket quickly. The lactid acid causes temporal muscular fatigue and is the cause of the all familiar 'pump' that hits us in what we like to call 'endurance' climbs. Once relying on the glycogen lactic acid system for energy, we have about two minutes of exercise left.
  3. Phosphagen system (very fast). For very fast ATP replenishment, muscle cells contain the compound creatine phosphate. When the bond between the phosphate group and creatine breaks, a lot of energy is released and binds the phosphate group with ADP to form ATP. This mechanism supplies ATP extremely fast and can facilitate very high intensity activities. The catch is that it can only do so for a short time: after about ten seconds the creatine phosphate storage is depleted.

The first system involves oxygen and is called aerobic, the other two don't involve oxygen and are therefore called anaerobic (the term 'anaerobic system' is also often used to describe just the glycogen lactic acid system). Although easy parts of sports climbing routes may require only the aerobic respiration to deliver energy, sports routes typically consists of hard, sustained sections that mainly rely on the (anaerobic) glycogen lactid acid system. Crux sections and bouldering will even be in the phosphagen system regime. So let's be very careful in calling climbing an endurance sport and applying knowledge, customs, diets etc from other endurance activities to climbing. On a cellular level, they are very different. That means they have different nutritional requirements as well.

Additionally, when doing very tough, powerful exercises (like hard bouldering or redpointing) the muscles get damaged. Many small ruptures occur (called 'microtrauma') and in the subsequent recovery process the muscles regenerate. When the exercises were hard enough, the muscles will grow in this process: 'hypertrophy'. This can only happen when all the necessary nutrients are present. Obviously, activity that results in hypertrophy has a different nutritional requirement than typical aerobic endurance activities.

So what's the message?
This is where I'd like to end the first of three posts on food for climbing from the viewpoint of a vegetarian. My aim was to outline how hard sports climbing and bouldering are different from what we usually call endurance sports. They rely on different biochemical systems supplying the required energy and put a heavy demand on muscle regeneration. For all athletic activities, independent of their nature, great supplies of glycogen and an abundance of red blood cells are desirable. In red blood cells, oxygen is bound to the iron atoms in hemaglobin molecules and transported to the muscles. Obviously, failing to consume enough iron (a common pitfall for vegetarians who are sloppy about their diet) will limit the capacity to transport oxygen and decrease your athletic performance dramatically. But in hard climbing - as in all other anaerobic activities - there are some additional food dependancies, particularly on proteins to regenerate muscle tissue and on creatine to supply the phosphagen system with a proper storage of creatine phosphate. Both are abundant in meat and can be tricky to consume in large quantities in a vegetarian diet.

While reading about all this food stuff I started linking the lack of training results and my symptoms of unexpected overtraining to a lack of protein and creatine (I've safeguarded my iron consumption with a glass of Roosvicee Ferro daily ever since I cut down on the meat). Parts 2 and 3 of this series of food posts will deal with these two nutrients specifically. This summer I started supplementing them a bit and in the upcoming posts I will describe the first results I've got from them and why it will probably be completely different for you, even if you are a vegetarian too. Stay tuned!

woensdag 13 augustus 2014

Holiday recap

Just a few more days and the summer holidays are over. Due to several reasons I didn't get to climbing outdoors nearly as much as I'd wanted, but other things in life sometimes get in the way of our desires... On the bright side, I'm paving the way to a nearby future that gives me the flexibility to climb more and achieve my goals. If that means a little less rock climbing now, I consider it a good investment. That said, I did get out a bit and in particular two days in Berdorf with Frans stand out. I finally climbed an old Nemesis that somehow slipped through my fingers on a few occasions when I tried it at the end of previous visits: the beautiful 'Kaffisdous'. It's the final 7a+ I hadn't yet climbed in Berdorf and with an easy start and a hard 12 move power endurance finish it should be right up my alley, but long story short it turned out to be a real pain in the neck to climb it. Consequently, I was very happy to do it now with Frans. Followed by an unexpectedly quick ascent of the vertical 'Tapis Roulant' 7b+ with a very fingery boulder crux on my second attempt (while putting up the quickdraws...) and an ascent of the vertical technotour 'Superschlup' 7b (generously graded 7b+ in the guide with an ambiguous definition) on my first attempt, the results of this trip are the highlights of the holiday. Other short excursions to rock unfortunately didn't give the desired results. I've been puzzled by a bit of a summer dip similar to the one I experienced last year and started to suspect that food and sleep could play a big role in it. So I made some alterations in my diet and I'll write more on that soon! Additionally I'm implementing changes in the way I train, with more attention for general fitness, injury prevention and flexibility. Also more on that soon... Now, I'll set my mind to the next year of work, getting back behind the school desks myself and I'll dream about the places I'd like to visit while saving for a van that can get me there with the dogs. Meanwhile, I'll be training my ass off to shine whenever it's time again.