MOUNTAINEERING REQUIRES CARDIOVASCULAR AND MUSCULAR ENDURANCE AS WELL AS MENTAL STRENGTH. When climbing any mountain, your body will need to perform the same movements many, many thousands of times, often on successive days, and usually in suboptimal (e.g. sleep & calorie deprived) conditions. These demands set mountaineering apart from more traditional sports.
When you’ve chosen a mountaineering objective and made the commitment to invest time in a training program, the next step is to evaluate your current level of fitness relative to the demands of your objective. For example, the demands for a three-day Mt. Baker climb are different than the demands of a three-week climb of Aconcagua, which are different than the demands of a two-month Mt. Everest expedition. Understanding the challenges and demands of your next mountain objective are key, evaluating those demands relative to your current fitness and skill level allows the creation of a training plan that is right for you.
Although each mountain and route is unique, the process to build the necessary strength and endurance is the same:
Phase 1: build cardiovascular capacity
Phase 2: build strength
Phase 3: build muscular endurance
We all have commitments outside of mountaineering and it is key to schedule workouts at times that are cohesive with your life. If you miss a workout, let it go, don’t try to double-up the next day as you will only succeed in creating more fatigue and compromising form. If you miss multiple successive workouts, then you should repeat the week.
Phase 1: build cardiovascular capacity – eight to ten weeks
The initial phase is focused on building aerobic or cardiovascular capacity. This phase will involve many hours of low-intensity cardiovascular work. Considering heart rate zones, this work will primarily be done in zone 2, the aerobic zone where your body has sufficient access to oxygen. The heart rate at which you no longer have enough access to oxygen and the work becomes anaerobic is called your aerobic threshold (AeT). Your aerobic threshold will dictate the intensity of aerobic training during each phase and is especially important during this first phase as most of your aerobic training sessions will occur at or below your aerobic threshold (AeT). Expect to spend many hours running or biking at this level for the next eight weeks. This phase will also include strength training focused on your core and lower body. This foundational strength training is important as it will begin to build the strength your body needs to carry a heavy load over varied terrain in the mountains. While this phase may initially feel easy, it will progressively become more difficult. It is important to have this foundation as you build the aerobic capacity needed for long days in the mountains. It is also the basis of the next two training phases, taking enough time in this first phase is crucial to building a strong base.
Cardiovascular training for mountaineering is ideally accomplished outdoors on hilly terrain. Realistically though, not everyone has easy access to this type of terrain, many mountain athletes need to complete at least some of their training in a gym. When choosing gym equipment try to mimic mountainous terrain. For this reason, a stairmill is the best gym substitute because it requires you to lift a portion of your body weight with each step. Stadium steps or stairs in a tall building are also good choices. Treadmills can also be used but most top out at a 15% grade which is lower than what you’ll typically experience in the mountains.
An example during this phase might look like:
|Tuesday||60 minute run at AeT (the length of these runs will increase throughout)|
|Wednesday||Strength training. May include squats, step-ups, step-downs, pull-ups, push-ups (we will add resistance to these exercises throughout)|
|Thursday||75 minute run at AeT (the length of these runs will increase throughout)|
|Friday||Core training with a focus on planks, sit-ups, windshield wipers, kayaker, hanging leg raise, etc.|
|Saturday||2-hour hike with 2,000 feet of gain, carrying 20% body weight|
|Sunday||4-hour hike with 3,000 feet of gain, carrying 20% body weight|
Phase 2 – building muscular capacity – eight weeks
The second phase is all about building functional muscle while maintaining the aerobic base that you created in phase one. The goal is to gain strength without adding unnecessary bulk. It is important to gradually and consistently increase your training load while building muscle. Think about the movement you’ll experience in the mountains: Will you primarily be walking uphill? Will you be pulling, pushing? Using a fixed line? Identify these movements and select a few simple exercises like squats, lunges, and pull-ups that mimic this movement. Gradually add weight or longer hold times as you progress. Near the end of this phase, after you’ve achieved a strong strength base, we will be ready to add mountaineering specific strength exercises.
An example during this phase might look like:
|Tuesday||60-minute interval run|
|Wednesday||Strength & core. May include squats, lunges, step-ups, step-downs, pull-ups (low rep, high weight)|
|Thursday||75-minute hill repeats run|
|Friday||60-minute recovery run below AeT|
|Saturday||3-hour hike with 3,000 feet of gain, carrying 30% body weight|
|Sunday||5-hour hike with 5 – 6,000 feet of gain, carrying 20% of body weight|
Phase 3 – creating muscular endurance – eight weeks
This is where it all comes together, the final phase combines the first two as you will train your muscles to perform at a high level for many repetitions. During this phase, the focus is on expanding your endurance rather than on building muscle. So, plan to do many repetitions of the exercises that mimic the movement you’ll experience in the mountains. For example, by the end of this phase, you should be able to do multiple sets of 100 repetition body-weight squats.
|Tuesday||strength training – similar exercises to Phase 2, but with added weight and jumping exercises, progressing in reps and weight throughout|
|Wednesday||75 minute run with HR progression|
|Thursday||muscular endurance strength training with core maintenance|
|Friday||30-minute recovery run, HR below AeT|
|Saturday||4-hour hike with 3,000 of gain, carrying 30% body weight|
|Sunday||6-hour hike with 5 – 6,000 feet of gain, carrying 20% of body weight|
During the entire training process, it is important to listen to your body as there will be times when you are tired and sore and need to adjust your workout accordingly. This is a part of the process and it is more important to scale down a workout when you are fatigued than to push through it.
It’s smart to plan one rest day per week and one recovery week per month. During your recovery week, your workout load should be 50% of normal. Listening to your body and giving it the rest it needs is crucial to allow your body the time it needs to recover and to avoid injury.
It is often difficult to know whether you have trained sufficiently and appropriately for a mountaineering objective. While this is challenging to quantify, it is possible to define milestones at each training phase. For example, efficiently hiking 1,000 feet in 60 minutes with 20% of your body weight while wearing mountaineering boots on varied terrain is a suitable milestone during the muscular endurance phase. Running intervals on a 10% incline for 60 minutes while your HR is at AeT is a good measure while building muscular capacity.
By collecting physiological data throughout the training process, it is also possible to quantify your fitness level and to measure your progress. Physiological data should measure the characteristics of each workout such as HR, pace, power. This should also measure your overall fitness and fatigue levels. When paired with listening to your body, this data provides the best snapshot of your progress and physical readiness for your mountain objective.
Mental preparation is as important as the physical preparation. You will need the mental capacity to work through challenges when things get tough on the mountain. Oftentimes, climbers greatly underestimate this. You can build your mental fitness in many ways, here are some options that have worked for others:
- Take the time to understand why climbing this mountain is important to you. Knowing your why will give inspiration when things are difficult.
- Visualizations are also beneficial to mentally prepare for a climb. Visualize yourself successfully climbing the route’s most difficult segments. What does it feel like? Smell like? How is your body moving? Online climbing videos are a great way to elicit your visualizations.
- Have a plan. Many athletes benefit from identifying concerns and possible problems (such as gear failure or fatigue) and then documenting a plan to work through each issue. This way, you have a mental plan ready to execute if a problem occurs when you’re climbing.
The final component of mountaineering preparation is tactical. This includes gear, skills, and route knowledge. Videos, books, and blogs from other climbers are a great way to assess the typical conditions and demands of your chosen route. Once you understand the characteristics and challenges of your climbing objective, simulate them as much as possible on other, lesser mountains. For example, if ascending and descending fixed lines are important skills, build a fixed line on a smaller peak near your house, rig a climbing rope and ascender to your staircase at home, hang a climbing rope from the tree in your back year to practice ascending with prusiks. Be creative here if you don’t have easy access to mountainous terrain.
Training to climb a big peak takes commitment and can be especially daunting at the beginning. Remember that time invested to prepare now will ensure a better experience on the mountain.
The key to a successful training plan is to:
- Begin early
- Have a flexible plan that builds your aerobic base, muscular capacity, and muscular endurance.
- Listen to your body
- Prepare mentally and physically
Dedicating the time now will ensure a more enjoyable, safe, and successful experience when it counts – on summit day!