Training for Mountain Goals

What’s that gaseous ball in the sky that blinds our eye? I’m feeling excited and I don’t know why! Oh wait, I think know the reason – it’s a glorious change in seasons!

Alas, the weather in the Pacific Northwest is starting to change! We’re beginning to see glimmers of the sun, and it’s time to dust off our sunscreen bottles. Since we all have unique mountain goals, we will all find different reasons to get outside this year. If you’re reading this article, you likely have certain objectives in mind. From summiting Rainier to alpine routes in the North Cascades, mountaineering and alpine climbing requires certain levels of knowledge and preparation to minimize our risk of injury, and maximize the chance of successful summits!

With the upcoming Spring and Summer seasons of outdoor adventures, there’s a lot to we can do to prepare our bodies for the physical and mental stresses of climbing. Training can certainly feel like a daunting task. How can we find the time in our busy life to train for our goals? What’s the optimal way to prepare for our goals? Here, we share some information to begin implementing a training program immediately! It’s time to take advantage of your motivation, tighten your boots, and start training for all your goals – big and small!

In this post, we focus on training methodology for mountaineering and alpine climbing based on the book by Steve House and Scott Johnston:  Training for the New Alpinism.

Physiology 101

Understanding basic human physiology sets the framework for training programs (and I promise to keep the nerd talk at a relative minimum here). Basically, climbing requires muscles to contract, and muscles require energy to do so. Where we get this energy from depends on the amount of power needed and duration of the activity.

Metabolism refers to the chemical process that creates energy for muscular contractions. This can be produced with oxygen (aerobic) or without oxygen (anaerobic). These two processes allow for different output of power and strength:

  • Aerobic: moderate power output, long duration
  • Anaerobic: maximum power output, short duration

Energy is delivered to muscles in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is metabolized in the ways listed above. Our aerobic work capacity depends on the rate at which our working muscles can produce ATP, which acts as gasoline to cellular energy. Aerobically, ATP is produced via the Krebs Cycle in mitochondria. This is a slow process with high yield (38 molecules of ATP per cycle!), so the amount of power that can be produced is limited. In contrast, ATP can be produced without oxygen via glycolysis. This happens outside of the mitochondria, and a byproduct is lactate. As lactate increases, it begins leaking into the blood and overall, the body decreases pH and becomes more acidic. This is where the phrase “lactic acid” buildup comes from. This gives us short bursts of energy when higher power level is required.

Basically, our mission is to produce more power with decrease reliance on glycolysis because glycolysis unsustainable for long periods of time. We can do this by increasing ATP production aerobically via increasing mitochondrial mass, aerobic enzymes, and capillary bed density. In order to do this, the best stimulus is increasing the duration and frequency of the training load, NOT intensity. Now that we can understand that at a basic level, how do we apply these principles to training?

There's more biological reasons for the above, and if you’re interested in learning more, please refer to Training for the New Alpinism, or ask below! We will try to answer your questions to the best of our ability.

Training Principles

Okay, now that we got some terminology and fun nerdy facts out of the way, let’s crack down on training! There’s two basic types of training:

  1. General conditioning that readies you for event-specific training.
  2. Training that prepares you in a specific way for the event itself.

The “event” is the goal—be it mountaineering, alpine climbing, ski mountaineering, or rock climbing. Thus, having a specific goal in mind is necessary when developing a training program. (Need a goal to work towards? Check out Peaks of Life upcoming climbs on our event page!)

The Training Effect

Our bodies respond to whatever stress we put into it. When we apply physical stress in our training constructively, consistently, and progressively, we set ourselves up for success. Since our bodies naturally want to be in homeostasis (biological state of equilibrium), we respond to stress via recovery. When a training effect cycle of stress/recovery is timed correctly, we actually end up with supercompensation, where our body overcompensates by ending at a higher fitness level than before the physical stress was applied. The human body is pretty neat, huh?

One of the most important points here is the need for recovery. Without proper recovery between sessions, we are at risk for overtraining and overuse (and, therefore, injury). We must remember that training makes us weaker, and recovery makes us STRONGER. Watch out for these three signs that indicate you didn’t recover well!

Guiding Principles

The three guiding principles to training are:

Continuity, Gradualness, and Modulation

Continuity

Maintain a regular schedule with little interruption. If you miss a week in training because of unforeseen or planned circumstances, you must pick up where you left off, in order to allow your body to adapt to each stage in training. Otherwise, injury or setbacks can happen.

Gradualness

It’s important to progress the stress we put on our bodies at an appropriate rate. Beginners will progress slightly faster than elite athletes because they are further from their ultimate potential fitness.

Modulation

This is the “undulating level of training stimulus that allows your body a chance to recover its homeostasis.” If we train too hard, we can't recover. Additionally, as we begin to adapt to one stress level, we will need to modulate our activities to allow for continuous progression. Each stage of added stress (training load) typically lasts 3 to 6 weeks.

Assessing Fitness Level

General fitness is important for a variety of objectives. Measure your base and your progress using the following exercises:

  • Timed 1,000-foot (305-meter) vertical ascent on steep second- to third-class terrain carrying a pack weighing 20% of body weight. This should be somewhere local to return to for a retest. Alternatively, you can do a timed box step with same weight (20% body weight) to reach 1,000 vertical feet (305 meters) – box should be 75% the height of your shin (tibia), usually 8-12 inches high.
  • 60-second test for maximum repetitions of the following exercises:
    • Dips
    • Sit-ups
    • Pull-ups
    • Box step-ups
    • Push-ups

Listen to Your Heart

Though not necessary to monitor during training, heart rate is an excellent tool to monitor intensity of our training sessions. By measuring heart rate, we can quantify the effort we are putting into our training. Each zone of heart rates is based on our maximum heart rate, which is typically measured by 220 minus age, but this has proven to be inaccurate for most individuals. Instead, a “max test” can be used:

Make sure you’re well-rested, motivated, and healthy. Gradually warm-up for 15 minutes and work progressively harder. The last 2-3 minutes should be spent breathing and sweating moderately. Without resting, run hard for 2 minutes up a hill with incline steep enough to still allow you to run (6-10%). In the last 20 seconds, run as hard as you can to the level of complete exhaustion. If you collapse at the end, you likely have elicited maximum cardiac response! After the 2 minutes, check your heart rate as it should be within 5 beats of your maximum.

Heart Rate Zones

Zone 1 is “Basic Endurance” (55-75% max HR), and the zone in which we spend most of our time in the mountains. It’s important to recognize that training at a higher intensity does not always increase aerobic capacity. Rather, longer duration at lower intensity may offer higher benefits. The easiest way to determine if you’re in Zone 1 is your breathing. If you start mouth breathing, you’re likely out of it already! As your aerobic capacity increases, you’ll be able to go faster and higher while still maintaining your heart rate in Zone 1.

Generally, Zone 2 is “No Man’s Land” as it’s too hard to be easy, and doesn’t offer the benefits of higher intensity training. Zone 3 is “Uppermost Aerobic Training,” and is described as a fun kind of hard. This should be a pace that could be maintained for an hour, and the upper limits of Zone 3 are often named the Anaerobic Threshold or Lactate Threshold. Zone 4 is the “Anaerobic Zone” where our bodies can no longer rely on oxygen for fuel. Typically, Zone 4 can be maintained for a few minutes, and training at this level doesn’t yield significant gains for mountain fitness. The “Maximum Effort” in Zone 5 can only be sustained for 10-15 seconds, and plays a role in overcoming a climbing route’s crux and building strength, power, and power endurance in muscle groups used to go uphill.

Strength Training

It’s important to target maximum strength and strength endurance for climbing. Even though we don’t usually tap into our maximum strength during climbs, having our muscles ready to work is critical – especially when it comes to more powerful moves for our upper body, and steeper sections for our lower body. With maximum strength, the aim is to increase the number of muscle fibers recruited for movements. Muscular endurance will allow for these fibers to work over longer periods of time. Below are some exercises to get you started on a strength routine for the upper and lower body. These types of exercises are typically performed with either maximum resistance (for maximum strength) or maximum repetitions while maintaining good form and no muscle shaking (for muscle endurance).

Read more of the theory behind "Mountain Strong" strength training by Scott Johnson: Part 1 | Part 2  | Part 3

Exercises

Upper Body

  • Push-ups
    • Important to keep the elbows tucked in with push-ups! Of course, there’s other variations with arms wide, but by keeping the hands directly under the shoulders and elbows tucked in, you work different muscles. Rather than lowering to your knees as you fatigue, try raising your upper body by placing your hands on a bench or a box for more repetitions.
  • Dips
    • Start with box dips, then you can progress to handlebar dips.
  • Pull-ups
    • Obviously this is your favorite exercise, and everyone LOVES pull-ups, almost as much as burps! (Okay, maybe not.) Check out some tips for good pull-up technique here.
    • Can’t do one? No fear! Start training by eccentric control (slowly lowering). Don’t use resistance bands to help with the pull-up motion, because this stops the most important portion of the pull-up. Rather, start hanging on the bar and engage shoulder blades, then either use a box to step yourself up to chin over the bar or jump up, and lower down to fully straight elbows as slow as possible! Do 3 in a row if you can’t do one single pull-up.
  • Scotty Bob’s
    • A push and pull combination movement! Start by doing three in a row, then you can progress to more. See the how-to here.
  • Endurance: Rock Climbing
    • At the rock gym, the goal is to put on as much vertical as possible for muscular endurance training. Climbing up and down routes about 2 grades below your maximum level, and pay attention to heart rate while climbing, too! Try to stay in Zone 1, but you'll notice how your heart races as you reach the crux or harder moves.
    • Another idea as you progress is to wear a pack while climbing (never exceed 20% body weight unless you have really good finger strength background).

Lower Body

  • Box Step-ups
    • Targets uphill muscles
    • Make it harder by increasing the height of the box or holding weight
    • Believe it or not, the stair stepper doesn’t simulate the act of walking uphill too well because the step is actually falling away from you. Stick to hill climbing or box step-ups for more specific muscle training.
  • Squats
  • Poor Man’s Leg Curl is a great way to target the hamstrings, which are essential especially for control on downhill portions.
  • Endurance: challenge your lactate threshold with Mini Leg Blastersthe Quadzilla Complex, or Leg Lactate Complex.
  • Endurance: Hiking with weight
    • The point is to have the rate of climbing limited by your leg muscles, NOT breathing (pay attention to maintaining nose breathing, Heart Rate Zone 1!). Progress percentage of body weight in your pack and vertical distance covered by starting with about 50% of your goal’s vertical and 0-50% the weight you’ll carry in your pack.
    • Hint: a gallon of water is 8 pounds; one quart is 2 pounds.

Core Muscles

Last but certainly not least! Scott Johnson presents his “Killer Core Routine” here. Why even train the core in the first place, you ask?

  1. All athletic movements originate with the core musculature.
  2. Your core connects your arms to your legs.
  3. A weak core results in less effective use of your arms and legs.
  4. A weak core exposes you to injury.
  5. Strength in the core will become the foundation for all your endurance.

Climbing-Specific Training

Peaks of Life Guide to Rainier

So, you want to climb Rainier? Climbers on the Peaks of Life team have developed a progressive plan to build an appropriate level of fitness for the elevation gains of Rainier. Below is the three-month plan developed by our team:

  • Month 1:
    • Week 1: cardio - 5 hours cardio training
    • Week 2: Hike with >5 miles <2k vertical feet carry 15lbs
    • Week 3: cardio - 5 hours cardio training
    • Week 4: Hike with <10 miles >2k vertical feet carry 15lbs
  • Month 2:
    • Week 5: cardio - 5 hours cardio training
    • Week 6: Hike with >10 miles <2k vertical feet carry 25 lbs & 3 hrs cardio
    • Week 7: cardio - 5 hours cardio training
    • Week 8: Hike with <10 miles >2k vertical feet carry 25 lbs & 3 hrs cardio

By this time, you should be able to run 10 miles or hike 20 miles in a single day. If you are not there yet, it is time to step up the intensity of your cardio training for the next two weeks.

  • Month 3:
    • Week 9: cardio - 5 hours cardio training
    • Week 10: Hike with >10 miles <2k vertical feet carry 35 lbs & 3 hrs cardio

By this point it is VERY important that you are able to run 10 miles or hike 20 miles in a single day.

    • Week 11: cardio - 5 hours cardio training
    • Week 12: Hike with <10 miles >2k vertical feet carry 35 lbs & 3 hrs cardio 

Other Considerations to Training
Training for Mental Fitness

This is “the most difficult 80%” of training, and is critical to mention before closing.

Motivation is will, and will has two parts: power and purpose. Without power, your purpose cannot be realized. Without purpose, your power will be diffused and will become impotent.

Firstly, recognize the why behind your climbing – what motivated you to start? You may have to dive deep for this, searching to where it all began and how you felt when you first started climbing. Then, start observing your thoughts and emotions that arise as you climb. Recognize that thoughts create emotions, which can be translated into bodily sensations, such as thinking “I feel so tired,” or “This is so hard,” while slogging up a seemingly never-ending hill (false summits, anyone?). Often times, these thoughts and emotional states are more wearing on the body than the physical stress itself.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.
- Buddha

Taking into account our fears, especially the fear of failure is also important. Failing and failing well is critical to our development as climbers, and often times we impose self-doubt on top of this fear of failing. In training, we sometimes need to surround ourselves by a non-judgmental group in order to feel comfortable with the idea of failing, therefore leading to more confidence. When we set goals, we are afraid we won’t rise to our own expectations. However, we don’t often succeed at our first go. Did Margo Hayes send La Rumba on her first attempt? No, but that didn’t stop her from failing time after time, then again rising to the challenge day after day…

We all have natural biases and subconscious roots to our emotions, and we all have the ability to rise above our self-imposed limitations. Build confidence via skill and practice, find fulfillment in what you set out to do, and stay concentrated – both on your goals and in every moment you spend climbing.

Imagine your goals, and start executing a plan to achieve them. Your success begins with you, and it begins today. Climb on!

Here’s to Climbing for More Than A Summit!


References

House, S. and Johnston, S. (2014). Training for the New Alpinism. 1st ed. Ventura, California: Patagonia Books.

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