Climbing the ladder of fitness

"I'm climbing this ladder
My head in the clouds
I hope that it matters
I'm having my doubts"

- Neil Young, "Borrowed Tune," from Tonight's the Night

As we get into the "meat of the season" in the summer, most of us are well on our way up the ladder of fitness. Climbing a ladder is not easy. It requires caution and effort -- and sometimes gets a bit scary.

Start from a firm foundation

To safely use a ladder, you must place it on a firm foundation, having built a solid aerobic base earlier in the winter. If you did not plant your ladder on firm ground, you won't climb very high, at least not without risking injury. If you're halfway up and realize the base is a bit shaky, better go back down and reset it before heading for the top.

Don't use your grandfather's ladder

With recent advances in exercise physiology, racing technology and sports psychology, you should reconstruct your ladder often, perhaps every season. You may imagine a wooden ladder, but you would do much better with one built from titanium or carbon fiber.

Yet some athletes continue to try to climb "their grandfather's ladder," training the same way year after year instead of availing themselves of the better methods and tools available.

Where are you going?

Many athletes have only a vague notion of their goals for training and racing. They begin with good intentions and climb the ladder swiftly, only to find themselves on the wrong side of the roof.

Coaches commonly hear goals like, "I want to get faster." Athletes know they want to climb up, but up to where? You must be specific about the kind of fitness you are building, the direction and height you wish to achieve.

It does little good to focus on anaerobic, high-intensity workouts in a peloton if your goal is to race an Ironman all alone at a steady aerobic pace. Six-hour over-distance rides don't help those approaching the short-course or criterium championships.

If you want to win the open division at a national championship, you're going to need a bigger ladder and more time for climbing than someone who just wants to finish strong at a local race.

You can't win the Ironman in 12 hours a week of training, and you can't climb the Empire State Building with the house ladder in your garage. As you gaze into the sky, focus on a clear target and align your ladder carefully, straight up to a realistic goal.

What am I doing stuck here on this ladder?

Like the song says, sometimes we look at all the rungs up the ladder, all the work we've done and all that we have yet to do, and wonder if it's worth the trouble.

Every year I ask myself why I climb this ladder and if it's worth the time, money and sacrifice. Every year I have to come up with an answer, and it changes as the years go by.

Every athlete must search their soul for an answer, whether you're Lance Armstrong trying to decide if it's worth going for a seventh Tour win or a working mother doing an hour on the indoor bike trainer at 4 a.m. before getting the kids off to school.

It's a question you can't avoid, and you must come up with an honest, convincing answer for yourself.

Face your fear

As you get higher up the ladder, it can get scary. Alexander the Great said, "Conquer your fear and you can conquer the world." We all have our own fears deep inside.

Even though most endurance sports are not life-threatening, there is a fear of injury and suffering for beginner and expert alike. For the seasoned athlete, it's often the fear of losing or not meeting racing goals. Channel this fear into training discipline and accelerated racing effort and it becomes a productive force.

For the average athlete, I've found one of the least understood yet common fears is the "fear of going fast." I know many hard-working, fit athletes who can't seem to go as fast as expected on race day. They have no physical or training limiters, but just can't seem to shift into that "overdrive gear" to keep up with the top competitors.

Sometimes fast runners actually become frightened going fast on their bike and will back off on descents and cruise more slowly in the flats. Racers with perennially blazing bike splits sometime lack the courage to race hard for the whole run distance, especially those last few hundred meters.

You can affirm mentally and verbally that you "feel the need for speed," but perhaps the only way to vanquish this fear is to go out and do a lot of races, making sure to race your fastest to the very end no matter what the cost.

Some would say doing faster intervals would help, but I know many "interval fit" people who don't race nearly as fast as they practice. In racing, they put a stopwatch on you as climb toward the heavens, and those higher up don't wait for you.

Isolated unity

Ladders are intended for one person to climb -- they can't safely hold more than one. Like it or not, we are alone on the ladder while we are climbing. But no one ever climbed very far in racing without someone to help steady the ladder underneath: a perceptive coach, a tolerant spouse, a cheering child, a training partner, race volunteers -- even the dog that jogs along with you in the morning.

Be especially considerate and polite to those who steady your ladder and to those who are climbing other ladders beside you. Treat your helpers and fellow climbers as if your life depended on it, because indeed it does, at least the quality of your life.

Spend some time every season holding the ladder for others and you will learn the value of selflessness and become a better climber yourself.

Tom Rodgers coaches triathletes, cyclists and runners (see He is a multiple Ironman Hawaii finisher, multiple Ultraman Hawaii finisher (third overall in 2003), as well as the top-ranked masters triathlete in the USAT SMW region. Before coaching full time, he was lead biomedical software engineer and astronaut trainer for NASA experiments in the Human Research Facility aboard the International Space Station. His book on long-course triathlon training, "The Perfect Distance," is scheduled for release by VeloPress in 2005 (Joe Friel, editor). Contact him at

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