-by Steve House
From time to time it is important to set course towards new goals for the next few months, the next year, and beyond. But let’s be adult about this; we all know that goals are achieved through smart work on a consistent basis. Dreams are pillow-fantasies.
Here is my five-step plan to achieving goals:
- Work every day
Imagine and dream (but not too big)
It’s fine to imagine what you might someday do, a dream can become a long term goal, something that is far beyond your current physical and or mental abilities may require many years, maybe a decade, or more, of work. The men and women who achieve the most in their fields did dream of being great alpinists, runners, ski-mountaineers, sure. But they had also had key raw materials: Timing. Priorities and circumstances. Support and dedication.
Take myself as an example. I am 46 years old, a new father, and I work a lot of hours to keep my ship afloat. Let’s say I decided I would like to run a 2:30 marathon. Yet currently I cannot run a single 6 minute mile, let alone 26 consecutive 6-minute miles. Forget it. My time for running a fast(ish) marathon has past.
However, what if I decide I want to redpoint a 5.14a sport climb? I can currently climb 5.13a without too much work, I’ve got decades of rock climbing experience under my belt, and I have space in my garage to build a little training wall, and I know a lot about training. So bumping a few levels in my rock climbing is possible. Climbing 5.15a, making quantum leaps in my rock climbing and placing myself among the best rock climbers of today, given my age and time commitments, could never, ever happen. Timing is crucial.
Priorities and circumstance
As we often remind our athletes in training, it takes a lot of work to build a new physical capacity to do something, though not nearly as much work to maintain that capacity once you’ve built it. So be realistic in considering circumstances and priorities such work, relationships, family, when you consider building a new capacity. This has a real impact on what you can achieve on a short or medium term basis. Which leads us to:
No matter how badly you want to train, if you can’t actually carve out the time from your job and familial responsibilities, increasing fitness isn’t going to happen. How much time does it take to train to be a good endurance athlete? Good question. For the first 2 months, most people will need roughly 6 hours a week. But by the time you’re 3-4 months deep into training you’ll be fit enough that it’ll take a lot of effort to create a training stress on your ever-fitter muscular and cardio-vascular systems. Expect 12-15 hours of actual training time each week. For the fittest among you that could top 20 hours/week. And that’s not counting driving to the trailhead for the uphill water carry, showering, or preparing the snacks the night before your early morning run. Your muscles won’t become fitter when you think about training, you’ve got to do the work. The three watchwords of training are: 1.) Consistency, 2.) Gradualness, and 3.) Modulation. #1 is consistency. You’ve got to train 5-6 days/week. Without fail. If you want to build a new physical capacity as a mountain athlete.
Hint: KIS (Keep it Simple)
For many of us the only way to fit in something new, such as correct training, is to let go of something else. Simplify. If there is something in your life that you’re willing to let go of, a hobby, a volunteer position, this could be a prime moment to put a training plan into place and make it a part of your new routine. Training must be an integral part of your life or it won’t be a priority and it won’t get done.
Intention and focus
This is a point at which a lot of people make mis-steps. Our culture has a strong “you can do anything” streak. However, attempting to achieve sporting goals that are different is a recipe for mediocrity, frustration, and failure. No amount of commitment can overcome Newtonian physics. Physical achievements such as cranking out hard rock climbing moves require vastly different muscular and energy systems from skiing well. Here are some things we’ve actually told people:
- No, we cannot coach you to rock climbing very well and crush high-altitude mountaineering concurrently.
- No, criterion bike-racing cannot be part of your training plan for climbing an 8,000 meter peak.
- You ran a PR in the marathon last year, great, we can take that base and shape your physiology into that of a high-altitude mountaineer in six months.
- As you competed in Crossfit Nationals in the 60+ Masters division last year, we cannot take that base and turn you into a good, fit mountaineer in less than 24 months. Sorry. However, if you want to train for rock or ice climbing, that can be done much more easily.
These examples are real-life (and understandable) misconceptions about what, physiologically, we can physically achieve at one time or within a time-frame. Set goals that build on what you can do right now and you’ll be a lot more successful.
Take all of those things we just covered, and calibrate. Take where you are now and make whatever adjustments you think you need to make to create a reasonable, attainable goal. A great way to know if you’ve calibrated correctly is consult an expert or mentor. If you want to climb an 8,000er, talk to someone who has climbed a few. (Preferably not the same person who would sell that trip to you.) If you want to run a 100-mile trail race in sub-24 hours, review a few of your long runs and pacing with a veteran ultra-runner. In short, consult outside expertise for a reality-check.
Define process goals
You are ready to determine what you might need to do between now and your ultimate-goal; these are called process goals. Want to climb an non-technical peak the Himalaya, but have never worn crampons, maybe a weekend ice climbing class should be on your immediate horizon.
Training and Process Goals
Process goals can, in fact, get in the way of the physical training when the timelines are too tight. If I am coaching an athlete to prepare to climb Everest this May, then I will try to talk them out of climbing Aconcagua in January. Why? Because Aconcagua, while it might be good experience in certain ways (altitude experience comes to mind), will de-train you. You’ll loose fitness while on that expedition. That will mean that come April you won’t be as fit as you could have been if you’d stayed homed and trained according to the plan. This is counter-intuitive to those unfamiliar with training methodology, but it is absolutely true. And it is a mis-step a lot of people make. My advice for those that need the process goals to attain experience, such as altitude, is that the overall timeline needs to be long enough to accommodate both.
Work every day
Doing the work to become fit is the bread and butter of our books, this website, training plans, and coaching services. This is absolutely the most difficult part of the entire process. And it is exactly here where most people get stuck and fail before they embark on their expedition or toed their start line. All the coaches at Uphill Athlete, myself, Scott Johnston, and Sam Naney, have lived and breathed the life of professional endurance athletes: sleep, eat, train, eat, repeat. It takes months, often years, to build the physical capacity to do difficult things like climb hard or run fast and it takes many more years to optimize those physical abilities.
Succeed and let it go
I’ve talked to a lot of journalists about my climbing career over the years, and one common question they ask goes something like this: “Before you started up Nanga Parbat, did you really think you could climb the Rupal Face?” I laugh. Not only did I think we could, I absolutely knew we could. No doubt. None. The work was done. Given the right weather and conditions we would be able express the skills and fitness we’d honed for over a decade. The climb itself took a mere six days. The climb Vince Anderson and I achieved is thought of as a landmark achievement in Himalayan climbing. In fact, we should be famous for the work we did to prepare ourselves to be capable of the climb. The climb happened because of the work we had already done.
Success, in the end, comes to those that prepare well, work hard, have a bit of luck and possess the patience to see it through to the end. Yet the achievement isn’t important because it is the getting there that gives our lives shape, purpose, structure, and focus day in and day out. Successful, self-made people, are rarely proud. Those that I’ve known are humble. Humble because they’ve been humbled and simultaneously ennobled, by the process of careful, smart, purposeful work, day after day, week after week, year after year, and decade upon decade.
Imagine. Calibrate. Plan. Work every day. Succeed. Easy to say these words, hard to live by them. Yet that’s what makes being an uphill mountain athlete such a special thing.
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