BMC Long Term Athlete Development: Learning to Train Workshop

Foot work exercises
Foot work exercises

I was very lucky to get a place on this brand new workshop that has been developed for the BMC by a small team of coaches, a scientist and a guide (although many of them fit two or more of these compartments). The workshop was going to move on from the BMC FUNdementals workshop that has been successfully running for several years now, and look particularly at the Biomechanics of more advance movement.

There are plans to develop further workshops that will fit roughly with the idea that performance has three major pathways biomechanic, physiological and cogntive. The next one planned is the one on training which is more the physiological determinates of performance, and then one of the more psychological aspects.

What these learning to train workshops seemed to be aimed at is the terrain the climbing takes place on so FUNdementals looks at indoor slabs and vertical, this learning to train looks at more vertical to overhanging terrain. As the courses develop and they move onto the training to train, training to compete and training to win. The emphasis will shift to steeper and harder terrain. Whilst the course are aimed specifically at indoor climbing and the Long-term develop of athletes. Much of the content can be adapted to outdoor climbing.

Corked Footholds to promote accuracy
Corked Footholds to promote accuracy

The stages of the long-term athlete development model (LTAD), is based on Istvan Bayli’s late specialisation model, which climbing fits better than the early specialisation model. My one minor bug bear is the use of the model for competition. Interestingly Canoe Sport uses a parallel system that refers to the stages in to ways. So Training to win is referred to as training to excell, making it seem more openly inclusive to the ‘recreational’ participation, of which climbing has a lot. It is only a name though, the content is still key, and that is what the organisers have done well.

Specifically this workshop was aimed at children of a set biological age, which is set out by Bayli in his LTAD model, that highlights key ages to focus on specific aspects of training or performance. With key times for training agility, coordination, technique, aerobic fitness, and strength.

Labeling different type of handholds and making a problem
Labeling different type of handholds and making a problem

The course was almost a trial run for the organisers, so we had the benefits of four of the organisers Ian Dunn, Dave Binney, Katherine Schumacher and Neil Johnson. The course is about to be rolled out across the country, and could well be coming to a wall near you soon. You will have needed to attend the FUNdementals workshop prior to attending the course.

What was even better was that some of the stuff these four great minds of training have come up with is basically the content of my fourth coming book. As such whilst i have worked in isolation, I feel that I have managed to reach similar results from a different angle. However many of my exercises are more specific to the outdoors.

The course looked at using footholds and handholds, more advance climbing features like corners and aretes, steep rock technique and reading routes. All had various games or exercises that can be adapted to virtually any climbing wall, and used both bouldering and on routes.

Anyway I am off to see what parts of this course I can apply to my outdoor rock climbing coaching with adults. Mainly because I don’t spend that much time teaching young people indoor nowadays.

Corked Footholds to promote accuracy
Corked Footholds to promote accuracy

Altitude and the Mountaineer

Extreme Altitude - Taking Supplemental Oxygen on Everest (Copyright LH)
Extreme Altitude - Taking Supplemental Oxygen on Everest (Copyright LH)

I once gave a very tongue in cheek slideshow about why Everest had never had a true ascent, in order to argue this case I looked in depth at the physiological changes that occur when we go to altitude, which are truly fascinating. Here I am going to look at how and why our bodies adapt to altitude, as well as looking at what lengths people now go to to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness and High Altitude Cerebral/Pulmonary Oedema (HACE & HAPE) on the highest peaks.

I guess the first thing to realise is why we need our bodies to adapt to altitude. This in essence comes down to the as we ascend the partial pressure of Oxygen gets less and less. This means that even at around 4000 metres we have around 40% less oxygen than at sea level, when you take this to 8000 metres we are talking about a 70% reduction in Oxygen we can get from the air we breathe.

Reduction of Partial Pressure of Oxygen with Altitude
Reduction of Partial Pressure of Oxygen with Altitude

As such when we first go to altitude we instantly have an oxygen deficit, which causes our blood to become slightly acidic, this blood acidosis is detected by the heart and a ventilation response is activated, making us breathe deeper increasing the volume of each breathe and quicker, both of which helps counteracts the hypoxia (Lack of oxygen).

Whilst the increased breathing increases the saturation of Oxygen in the blood it decreases the Carbon Dioxide saturation, leading to alkalosis which effects respiratory control and leads to the sleep aepnia (Temporary stopping breathing with a sudden gasping for breathe).

The next major change that happens in the first few hours of being at altitude is the renal response, where hyperventilation causes alkalosis in the blood is counteracted by a release of bicarbonate in the kidneys. As a part of the chemical reaction with the bicarbonate the kidneys, urination increases, which has a further benefit to the climber at altitude as it increases the concentration of red blood cells by reducing blood volume by excreting blood plasma. The blood does become more viscous or thicker, making it harder to pump round the body.

The loss of fluid through urination is exacerbated by dryer air found at Altitude, as such any climber at altitude needs to counteract the loss of so much water and remain hydrated through increased fluid intake. This needs to be achieved by balancing fluid out with the fluid you drink, another way is to take note of the colour of your urine, the dark and brighter the yellow the more dehydrated you are.

As we remain at altitude our bodies will remain in a oxygen starved state, and in order to maintain cognitive function, the blood flow to the brain is increased. As a consequent of this the brain starts to swell, at worst this can result in a cerebral oedema, at best it can result in a headache.

The next response the body has is one that amazes me, and takes around a week to ten days at altitude to occur. Eythropiotin is released by the kidneys, and when it arrives at the bone marrow, that itself has sense the hypoxia and put the EPO receptor to the surface of the cells to receive the EPO and the process starts to produce more red blood cells. In the process is halts dieresis and pulmonary hypertension.

EPO is a drug that many cyclist and endurance athletes have used to increase there red blood cell count without having to go to altitude and train. It has caused some athletes to have serious medical complications and has even resulted in death when used as an aid to performance. As such it is illegal under the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), however it is very hard to detect as it is a naturally occurring hormone.

The last step is a muscular response where after prolonged exposure there is muscle loss. This is believed to help the capillaries get closer to the muscle cells and in particular the mitochondria, where the oxygen and energy are used to produce movement, by reducing the distance between them.

All of these changes help make the transfer of oxygen from the air to the muscle much more efficient. So much so that when fully acclimatises there is only a small difference between the oxygen saturation in our veins (after oxygen is used) between sea level and 5800 metres.

Reduction of Oxygen through the body in an Acclimatised Person versus a Person at Sea Level
Reduction of Oxygen through the body in an Acclimatised Person versus a Person at Sea Level

Now there are a growing number of ways that people have used to help acclimatisation. However the one true way to avoid any of the adverse effects of Acute Mountain Sickness or one of the Oedemas is through allowing your body the time it needs to acclimatise. With at least a week needed to start the process of growing more oxygen carrying red blood cells, some people simply don’t allow themselves enough time.

With low cost air fares and the ability to have ‘quick hits’ to the Alps some climbers might be interested in looking at medication to enhance the bodies ability to acclimatise. Alternatively you might be one of the lucky people who can afford to head up an 8000 metre peak, and therefore need to take some more radical steps to stay fit and healthy.

One of the most popular aids to acclimatisation is aspirin, whilst it has helped improve physical performance, and reduce altitude related headaches. Test has not shown it actually help you physiological, in that it doesn’t have an effect on blood oxygen saturation levels. Another simple and key thing to remember is that when first at altitude the body tries to compensate for the lack of oxygen by getting causing you to urinate a lot, so remember to counteract that by taking on as much water as you are losing from exercise and excretion.

The one drug that can help us acclimatise quicker is Diamox, this drug has been tested in a series of trails and has shown that it has a very real physiological effect on the body, by increasing the blood oxygen saturation level significantly in a 24 hour period at 3500 metres. It also has been shown to reduce the occurrence of sleep apnoea. It does have some side effects, and it needs to be prescribe by a doctor.

For most people travelling to most altitudes the use of proper hydration and time to acclimatise, a little aspirin to take the edge of a headache will be enough. If you were heading out for a quick route in the Alps, then it might be advantageous to look at taking Diamox to aid your acclimatisation.

At extreme altitudes that are found on the world highest peaks, there is a growing trend to use what were previously treatments for both pulmonary and cerebral oedema caused by altitude (HACE & HAPE), as preventative treatments. This was discovered in several tests that took a population of people with clinically diagnosed cases of HAPE, and then sending them up a cable car to 4500 meters. Half the group would take a placebo the other the drug for testing.

The results showed that both Nifedipine and Dexamethazone drastically reduce the participants having to be evacuated with pulmonary oedema. As such many climbers on Everest now take a heady concoction of Diamox, Nifedipine, Dexamethazone and supplemental oxygen.

Supplemental Oxygen has an very rapid and beneficial effect on the body, as little as two litres a minute of flow rate will effectively mean the equivalent descent of 1500 metre at about 6000m. Making it a very effective and essential treatment for AMS, HAPE and HACE, as well as virtually essential for ascents of the highest peaks like Everest.

As such I argued that there had been very few true ascents of Everest, as most summiteers will have taken one or other of the medical aids to altitude. After I gave that lecture, someone emailed me saying that Halaber and Messner had only taken sleeping pills and aspirin on there ascent. Which is as close as anyone has got to a ‘clean ascent’, although it should be noted that ‘sleeping pills’ have an adverse effect on acclimatisation as it suppresses the respiration.

One thing that I have found interesting from this research is that nowhere can I find a reference to using EPO as a acclimatisation aid. As if a climber was to take EPO before they headed to altitude, would they in essence pre-loaded there body with the higher levels of red blood cells that normally take a week to ten days to develop naturally? Of course I am no doctor, but whether this would be better or safer than using Diamox I don’t know, in fact I am not sure anyone does?

It also brings up a debate of ethics, what is acceptable for the average joe, going to the Alps, versus someone trying to put up new and exciting super alpine routes or ascend the world highest peaks. All of these medical aids to acclimatisation are arguably a form of cheating. However when does staying healthy and/or alive become unethical? I guess that is a question each individual needs to ask themselves, what is the level you are willing to reach alone and with enhancement.

Anyway, the above is just a basic guide to acclimatisation and altitude. I hope at the very least you found it interesting. If you are going to altitude I would advise that you look into asking your doctor or alternatively contact the BMC who have medical advice for mountaineers a link can be found on this interesting news item on Kilimanjaro.

Nature of Snowdonia

Frontcover of Nature of Snowdonia
Frontcover of Nature of Snowdonia

I have put some links on this site to places where a Mountain Leader can get a few ideas about the common plants of the mountains of Wales. I have just got a copy of this book, and if you work as a Mountain Leader or you are looking for a book that will give you the edge on your environmental knowledge for you Mountain Leader Assessment, then this is the book for you.

Mike has put a lifetimes worth of knowledge into this book, and pesda press has set out the text and numerous pictures in a easy to use fashion. This book has the potential to rock the Outdoor World, as for the first time it seems to bring together all you need to know about the nature of snowdonia, no longer do you need a book on plants, another on lichens, another on geography, another on animals, and yet another on birds.

A truly one stop shop for all you need to know about theĀ  Nature of Snowdonia.

For more info visit

Beacon: Instructors Coaching Workshop

On Monday the 8th February I am delivering a Coaching Workshop for Instructors. If it runs like it did last year I will spend around two hours showing instructors which parts of there current practice is ‘coaching’ and help them to develop some more robust practices in skill aquisition.

As well as talking about the effects of anxiety on learning, and ways to combat this through a progressive approach to building confidence. If you are interested in attending this workshop then contact the Beacon Climbing Centre, I think these sessions are free to local instructors, but ask at the Beacon.

The beacon runs a series of evening courses for instructors, and make excellent forms of continuing professional development. If you are reading this and helped me out on my research project don’t worry I haven’t forgot about you I am in the process of setting a date for a coaching session for you guys, it will probably be Saturday 20th Feb.