Photo: Pre-dawn start, pitch one of the Ames Ice Hose. The eyes are the window to the mind.  Telluride, CO, 2007. Photo Credit: Paul Gardner

I shiver in the pre-dawn cold. Staring me in the face is the first pitch of the 500 foot mega-classic Ames Ice Hose. My lead, the crux pitch: one hundred feet of dead vertical ice. I’ve been here before. First time, this pitch was a coating of one inch verglas, on a vertical rock wall. No thanks. Second time, two climbers beat us to the start. It is March 2007 and I just turned fifty three. The third time is the charm. I do the mental gymnastics familiar to all climbers facing a difficult lead. I psych myself up—I trained all winter. I can do this. Paul puts me on belay, I set my picks and start climbing.

As a personal trainer, I use periodization training programs to achieve health and fitness goals for my clients and myself. Periodization is based on four principles: individualizing a training plan, progressing that plan over time, adapting physically and mentally to increased workloads, and utilizing training that is specific to the goal or sport. The concept has been around since the late 1940’s. Today it is a widely used training guide for both amateur and elite world class athletes.

Each athlete and every sport is unique, subject to different physical, psychological, and environmental demands. While this article is specific to ice climbing, the same progressions work for endurance sports, competitive cycling, multi-day mountain and desert hikes; backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and alpine climbing. My clients are generally over fifty years old, but these programs can be adapted to any age.  

Fitness programming works. Decide who you want to be and become that identity. Be a realist. Identify your problems and barriers to success, then confront them. Create a plan to achieve your goals and measure your progress. Execution is the key. Practice good work habits. Don’t worry about your goal, focus on the process of achieving your goal. See my article Creatures of Habit:

Building a Base

The first phase of my training is building a base. Generally I am working with clients who are coming off an extended recovery period or deconditioned. In this phase, strength training adapts muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints and for increasing loads. Aerobic/anaerobic endurance training improves the body’s ability to burn fat.  Combining the two in progressive workouts builds endurance and prepares your body to handle the increased workload in the strength building phase.

I use free weight and body weight exercises for strength training. The process is to build strength in existing muscles, not increase muscle mass. Correcting muscle imbalances and addressing old injuries are the key to safe progressions. Yoga and stretching exercises are added to improve flexibility and mobility.

Aerobic workouts train your body to preferentially burn fat as a fuel. This is accomplished by doing interval training at moderate intensity. Weather permitting, we are outside cycling or rucking at the local ski area. Indoors we use a treadmill, spin cycle or a step mill.

Your workouts should progress to the point where the weights are heavier, the pace faster, and the duration longer. The goal is to have fun and be safe ice climbing.

Active Recovery

Achieving athletic goals requires a capacity and affinity for hard work. Successful athletes train hard, but smart. As workload or age increases, the need for rest and recovery accumulates. Continuously hard workouts reach a point of diminishing returns. When you hit that tipping point you need to step back and let your body and mind recover. Recovery is one of the most difficult aspects of training to get right. In planning recovery periods, you need to answer the questions how, when, and how long. The sooner you recover, the quicker you can get back to training hard.

During recovery, the body realizes changes in form. These changes include improved fat burning and decreases in body fat; stronger and more resilient muscles and tendons; greater heart stroke volume; increased lung capacity; increase in muscular capillary density; and enhanced glycogen storage. Allowing this adaptation sets the stage for an increase in workload in the next training stage.

Building Strength

In sports like ice climbing, you are generally training for long duration events, but with short periods of intense activity. In this phase, strength workouts are characterized by higher weights and lower reps. Workouts might focus solely on legs, upper body, or core. On other days we hit all three. Sport specific training targets overhead arm movements with hammer throws, skull crushers, and pullups. Included are exercises strengthening shoulders, middle back, core and calf muscles.

Aerobic workouts are dominated by interval training; shifting the focus from fat burn to improving your cardio vascular capacity. I use different duration, high intensity intervals to build VO2 max, speed, and acceleration. 

The purpose of Phase 2 training is to improve your mental and physical ability to handle stress. Training research shows that subjecting the body to stress at all age levels, improves fitness, overall health, and slows the aging process. Subjecting the body to stress prepares you for real time winter adventures. Not only can you do more and recover faster, but you make better decisions when you are mentally confident and physically fit.

Progress Check

Time to reduce you workload and consolidate your gains. Are you making progress? After five weeks of training, my clients achieve twenty to fifty percent gains in strength.  Aerobic capacity measured by VO2 max improves five to ten percent. Weight loss is zero to ten pounds, and we reduce body fat by 2 percentage points.

Training for Power and Specific Sports

In this phase, we move from strength training to hard endurance training: lighter weights, twenty or more reps, and three to five sets. An example is doing a four exercise circuit with the anchor leg being 4 sets of 25 light weight squats. I add power workouts: kettle bell swings, Olympic lifts, box jumps, and medicine ball slams. Power is important in endurance sports. It gives you a reserve to call upon in times of stress.

Aerobic workouts are longer duration, high intensity intervals. Time to add in dry tooling or laps on a frozen waterfall.


Whether you are training for a competition or adventure trip, it is important to spend the last week in recovery mode. I recommend short duration light weight all body strength workouts, low intensity aerobic workouts; stretching and yoga. Stay hydrated and cut back on your calorie intake. Get psyched!

The Payoff

Photo: Cascade Falls, Grand Marias, MN 2018. Photo Credit: Laura Bergman

The air is Minnesota Cold as Hunter Farrell and I make our way down Cascade River Canyon in four inches of fresh snow. Rounding a river’s bend, we catch a dramatic view of Cascade ice fall, 100 feet of vertical ice plastered to a rock wall. Carefully, we cross the river on a snow bridge to the base of the ice. We slip into our climbing harnesses and crampons. I clip slings and ice screws to my harness, and uncoil our ropes. Hunter puts me on belay. I thought I had retired from leading ice. Taking a deep breath to calm my mind, I visualize success. I tell myself, you’ve trained for this all winter; you’ve done this a hundred times in the last thirty one years. I set my picks in the ice and begin climbing. It is March 2018, a few days before my 64th birthday and my first ice lead in the 11 years since I climbed the Ames Ice Hose.

Steve Markusen is a personal trainer, nutrition coach, adventure athlete, and writer. For information click the link and send him an email at

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