7 minute read

Z-Health Master Trainer Jen Waak is a self-described "recovering management consultant". These days, she helps other "Keyboard Athletes" improve and maintain their bodies and stay healthy even when they're stuck behind a desk all day. What surprised me about reading Jen's advice on "what you should do at your desk", was that it sounded a lot like what she did last year to get ready for a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Here's what Jen had to say about her prep and training:

It was a year ago today that I left to climb Kilimanjaro. I'm not a climber, I don't camp, and I don't like the cold. So why I thought this was a good idea I'll never know. I just knew it was something I needed to do.

After I got over the “what have I done?" stage, it was time to start figuring out what it would take to summit.

So, I started researching the trip, and here is what I learned:

  • 40% of climbers don't make the summit, and the vast majority of the succumb to hypoxia (altitude sickness) since a summit of 19,340 feet means there is about half of the oxygen at the summit than there is at sea level.
  • I was going to be traveling ~60 very hilly miles on foot over 9 days. No one day was going to be the gotcha â€" instead it was going to be the accumulated miles that would wear down my body.
  • Being comfortable in your gear is critically important since what you have with you is, well, what you have with you. And there's nothing like getting blisters and only 59 more miles to go.

In a situation like this, it would be really easy to get freaked out and not know where to start. But, using a framework I call the Energy Bank, I was able to fairly easily come up with a extremely doable training plan that made summiting downright easy.

The Energy Bank

The Energy Bank is this idea that we all have a finite amount of energy to get through the day, and everything we do during the day â€" everything â€" either adds to or depletes our bank balance: the lighting in the room, your breathing patterns, the horrible morning commute, your uncomfortable desk chair, and that grande burrito you had for lunch. It all has an impact. And just like a bank balance the higher the average balance, the larger the margin of error before going bankrupt. As you can imagine, a large margin of error will serve someone well when attempting one of the Seven Summits.

So my goal in preparing for Kilimanjaro was to get my Energy Bank Balance high enough so that the trip wouldn't run the balance down to zero â€" focusing specifically on what I would encounter on the trip that would be more likely to result in large withdrawals.

Training for the Climb

Breathing: I knew this was already a weak link for me - and given that it's also the downfall of most climbers, this became my #1 priority. My first goal was to fix my breathing patterns at sea level during everyday activities. Once I had that mastered, I went on to practicing my breathing while in oxygen debt (as ultimately that was what I would encounter on Kilimanjaro). Since I live at sea level, I couldn't truly replicate the conditions on Kilimanjaro, but instead would sprint or run stairs and focus on my breathing during and after those activities.

Vision: Another one of my weak links, I spent a great deal of time working on my visual skills. My depth perception isn't great, which translates into me being tentative going down stairs. Since I had to travel 60 miles over hilly terrain, not being comfortable going up and down was going to be a BIG problem. So, I incorporated some basic convergence drills into my training so my eyes could re-learn to focus and my brain would re-learn depth perception. Like my breathing, first I worked on this during everyday activities, and then I moved on to working it into my running stairs, long hikes, etc.

Endurance: Going and going over 9 days on rough terrain was something I didn't have any experience in. Using the Energy Bank concept, I realized that if my body was already somewhat adapted to that it would be a lot easier. But, with a hectic schedule and living in the city, I couldn't exactly take off for 9 days to climb in the Cascades. Instead, I got the idea that if fatigued my legs the night before a long hike with either a run or stair session, that I would begin the adaptation process of going long distances on tired legs. So, I would either do a long stair session or a run one night and then the next morning go and hike 10+ miles with a 3,000 foot elevation gain (since that would most replicate the conditions I'd find on Kilimanjaro). I got in probably 3 or 4 of these back-to-back training sessions prior to Kilimanjaro.

Gear: Remember that part where I said I don't climb or camp? Yeah, that meant that I had a buy and test a TON of gear for the trip. In the weeks leading up to the climb my week would look something like:

  • Go on a hike, discover I didn't have the right gear (either through blisters, sweating sunscreen into my eyes, or dealing with lots of bugs. I'd come home and take notes on what worked and what didn't.
  • Go to REI and pick up what I was missing (and just cover my eyes while signing the credit card receipt)
  • Go on another hike and re-assess. Lather, rinse, repeat until I knew I had what I needed.

Overkill? Maybe. But I had no blisters, no chafing, and at no point did I say, “I wish I would have brought…” Everything got tested on at least one 10+ mile hike.

Recovery: Early on in my physical training I got a bit ambitious and decided to run 4 miles down a mountain. That turned out to be one of the less bright things I could have done, as I couldn't go up and down stairs for several days after that. But it also highlighted something I hadn't considered â€" that I could get sore. A phone call to fellow Master Trainer and endurance athlete Shannon Mauck revealed the world of recovery drinks to me. Yet another thing for me to test â€" I needed to find something that I both liked the taste of and that would agree with my system. (Turns out I really like Accelerade.)

Did it Work?

I'd have to give the entire experiment an unqualified, “hell, yeah.” My training wasn't extreme â€" I did 6 long hikes and then a couple of hours of running, sprinting, and stairs per week. I worked on my breathing and vision for a few minutes a day, and made a point of incorporating that practice while on my long hikes. And the entire trip up the mountain was a piece of cake for me â€" I'd get into camp each night with extra energy to burn.

The biggest surprise: The mental shift in who I am. I grew up a really sick little kid, and had never considered myself an athlete. And now I had accomplished that thousands of people cannot each year. I had to redefine who I am, and now think of myself as an athlete. Because everything is a skill.

If you liked the way she managed her mountain climbing training, you'll definitely be interested in her insight into bringing more energy into your daily life: Increase Your Energy Bank Balance.