Training for Success
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” ~ Muhammad Ali
I am going to say something that may sound like common sense to most but for some reason many beginners still do not take it seriously. Training for a challenging trek or climb should be appropriately challenging as well. I can assure you that on your Mount Rainier climb the odds are that you are going to sweat profusely, you are going to push muscles to their limit, you are going to struggle to breathe, and if you are not physically prepared, you are going to be deep in the hurt zone where the body and mind beg you to stop punishing them. I have personally danced at the edge of this zone, I have made the mistake of assuming I was completely ready for the challenge and it nearly cost me a summit bid. I do not wish that feeling of exhaustion and helplessness on anyone dedicated to reaching the summit of Mount Rainier or any other peak. Instead of trying to come up with something clever to say here to make my point crystal clear, I will just use a quote from Vince Lombardi Jr., “The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Work is the key to success, and hard work can help you accomplish anything.”
Everyone has a different physical fitness level going into their climb, which requires some serious evaluation and honesty with yourself and possibly others about where you sit on the fitness spectrum – from a seriously deconditioned individual to an Olympic athlete or CrossFit Games ready athlete. For liability reasons I must state that depending on your health and physical condition, these suggestions may not work well or be safe for you, particularly if you have a medical condition. Before using any of these suggestions or any of those you find elsewhere, please be sure to consult with your doctor or a professional trainer. I assume no responsibility or liability for your use of the suggestions in this book and you must make your own assessments and decisions, preferably after consulting with your physician and/or professional trainer.
Depending on your location on the fitness spectrum around four to six months out from your Mount Rainier climb it is time to evaluate your training plan, possibly with the help of a certified strength and fitness coach. Although it may seem to you that the climb is still quite far away at four to six months out, I assure you that it is time to get serious about developing an action plan to physically prepare for your climb. When you are about four to six weeks out from your climb, you are nearly there and it is the ideal time for fine tuning, training with some of your intended climbing gear and also a good time to test some food and hydration combinations that make you feel best under heavy workloads. At this point, you should feel physically ready to run up Mount Rainier. OK, maybe not that fit, but you should feel very confident in your conditioning that you have done all you can to prepare. You want to enjoy this challenging adventure, not suffer through it!
Personally, although I have been a certified personal trainer, CrossFit coach and Olympic Weightlifting coach in the past, for my own alpine training I have used elements of various strength, endurance and sport-specific programs create by professionals much more qualified than myself such as Mark Twight (Gym Jones), Greg Glassman (CrossFit), Louie Simmons (Westside Barbell), Greg Everett (Catalyst Athletics), Andrew Cattermole (CrossFit Sydney) and Matty Clarke (CrossFit Eora). Based on my experience, whether you are employing a trainer, doing CrossFit, creating your own program from various resources or simply modifying your existing program, there are five areas of training that I would suggest focus on or a bias toward.
- Aerobic Training
- Strength Training
- Metabolic Conditioning
- High Altitude Skills Preparation
It is important to note that some say that the only effective training for hiking and climbing, is to do more hiking and climbing. I disagree. Common sense tells us that hiking, and climbing is going to be two of the most effective training elements, as it is exactly what you are going to be doing on your climb, but lifestyle, environment, weather and time constraints on most people may require an alternative or blended approach. For me, when stuck in Australia without a wide variety of high altitude climbing options and a busy work/life schedule, I mixed it up a bit found the following helpful and think you may as well.
At least three to four times per week you should be engaging in at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity of some sort. There are plenty to choose from, such as: cycling, rowing, running, swimming, stair climbing, hiking, skiing, surfing, etc. As mentioned in the start of the chapter, it’s important that you are pushing the pace in these activities to get the results you want. As you get closer to the climb you’ll want to increase this activity to four to five times per week and try to engage in activities with hill work, such as: trail running, stair climbing, cycling or hiking. During your hill work sessions, it’s a good time to throw on your boots, pack and progressively load it up until you reach the load weight you plan to climb with, perhaps a bit over to plan for possibly adding addition camp gear. Some suggest carrying water containers, beginning with 10 lbs. (just under 5kg) and working up in weight to your target load. The beauty of this idea is that you can empty the containers at the top of a climb thereby decreasing the load downhill. If you do not have hills in close proximity you can work out on a treadmill by wearing a pack, increasing the incline and walking quickly. While living in Australia, I’ve done the treadmill work and assure you that you do look ridiculous. That being said, I’m OK looking a bit silly if it gets me summit-ready.
Strength training is my favorite type of training. I’ve often said that I was built for power, not for speed and when I ran my first (and only) 14K City to Surf in Sydney, I proved this to be true. This doesn’t mean that I avoid aerobic training or metabolic conditioning, but my bias is naturally toward strength. It should be noted that hypertrophy, or building huge muscles, does not really help you at high altitude as larger muscles require more blood and oxygen to keep the body moving, but strong muscles are important to get the body used to the increased forces that will be placed upon it. It’s important that you’re building strength training into your program at least three times per week to build increased stability and allowing for increased energy storage and power from your muscles when you need them most.
When developing your own training program, it’s important that you work to strengthen your upper body, lower body and provide focus on your core strength. Four to six months out from the climb you should aim for three sessions per week, four to five movements per session, three to five sets each movement with five to ten repetitions in each set. As you are within four to six week of the climb you can increase the sessions to four or five per week and add additional movements if you’re feeling comfortable (or bored) with the program, but be sure to taper down at least a week prior to give yourself some recovery time, reduce the chance of a training injury and simply allow yourself to focus on the climb.
Some basic strength training movements are as follows (but there are plenty of variations and others available):
- Shoulder Press
- Bench Press
- Rope Climbs
- Squat (split/front/back/overhead)
- Deadlift (standard & Romanian)
- Box step-ups (unweighted/weighted)
- Pistols/Single leg squats
- Lunges (walking/jumping/reverse/weighted)
- Over-weighted pack hill climb
- Plank (variations)
- Russian Twist
- Hanging Leg Lift
- Cable Rows/Pendlay Rows
- Back Extension
- Ab Roller
As you focus on the core, we’re not trying to build washboard abs (but if you do build them or already have them, congratulations and I hate you) but we’re looking for increased stability around your spine for the increased loads you’ll be carrying and negotiation of the change in your center of gravity while climbing with a heavy pack on. Make sure that you don’t forget the focus on core strength, focusing on multiple movements for the core particularly in the final week leading up to your climb. If your core is weak on the climb, it’s going to be a long, slow painful slog to the top.
I’m not going to lie. This part is going to hurt. About four weeks (or earlier if you’re a fan of this training) you will need to add some metabolic condition to your program. Now that you have read to this point and may be thinking, I’m OK with the other stuff but what is this Metabolic Conditioning you speak of? Men’s Fitness defines it as, “Structured patterns of work and rest periods to elicit a desired response from the body. This desired response is usually to maximize efficiency of a particular energy system. The body has several different methods of getting energy. Different ratios of work to rest periods call upon different energy systems and cause specific adaptations.” I define it as “Short bursts of extremely intense exertion, interrupted by brief moments of gasping for air and praying for just a few milliseconds more rest before starting again.” Don’t let my definition scare you away however – it must be done.
Metabolic conditioning for the climb can take the form of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts. The premise of this training is simple but effective: intersperse bouts of high-intensity aerobic activity with lower intensity bouts, or rest. To be honest, my CrossFit roots are showing in the one, but I’m not alone in my belief that this type of training for climbing makes you hurt more now to hurt less later. The additional benefit of the intensity found in the HIIT program is the mental strength that is built out of physical and mental challenge present in this method. There are several different options for the metabolic conditioning training, but some common ones are multiple repetitions of sub-one-minute activity with sub-one-minute rest of hill sprints, cycling sprints (standing off saddle), rowing intervals, burpees, box jumps, or a wide variety of CrossFit workouts designed for metabolic conditioning. One tip that I do have on this section is to really push to the “red line” in these workouts, particularly on the lower body. Having suffered through a few steep routes with my quads, hamstrings, calf and tibialis muscles screaming at me to stop – do yourself a favor and get them over it. You can thank me with a photo from the summit.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be able to move efficiently and flexibly on the mountain. Often, when the focus increases on other areas of training, it is mobility that takes a backseat to the detriment of your health and wellness. As you continue to push your muscles along the cycle of being broken down by training and recovering again to build strength, they will bind, tighten and are more prone to injury. If you haven’t already planned to dedicate much time to stretching and flexibility, I encourage you to do so now. Whether just downloading a yoga app on your phone or tablet, building stretches into your program or participation in yoga, Pilates or other mobility courses, you’ll find it easier to continue training, avoid injury and feel better overall. No one is saying you have to go out and buy a hot pair of yoga pants but you do need to put in the mobility work. Yoga pants are an added bonus.
High Altitude Skills Preparation
Although there are many skills that your guide, your fellow climbers and your own research will provide to you over time, I’m going to give you two of the most important skills you need to know when climbing at high altitude – the Rest Step and Pressure Breathing.
The rest step is a method of walking/climbing that can help you to preserve both your legs and your lungs when in the mountains. You will find that your guides use the rest step naturally and it’s because they’ve been training as mountaineers to use this method to be more efficient with energy at high altitudes on very steep slopes. I’ll do my best to describe it here but you may need to either see it in person or watch a YouTube video on the topic, such as the Kick Step and Rest Step demo found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5cFBkuMpmE
As you step forward, you lock your rear knee and keep all your weight on that rear leg supporting your entire body momentarily on that locked out leg. The forward foot rests on the ground but carries no weight at all; you could pick it up off the ground without disturbing your position. As seen in the video, when you’re ready to take the next step, simply shift your weight to the front foot, step forward with the other and lock the rear knee again.
There are two primary reasons why it’s advised you train to effectively use the rest step on Mount Rainier:
- As you ascend and naturally lose energy, your locked rear knee will provide support for your weight without requiring help from the leg muscles. This gives your leg a micro-moment of rest that over time makes a huge difference in your performance.
- Stability is important. With weight on rear leg, rear knee locked, front leg forward for balance, the position is completely stable. You can stop in that position and rest for as long as you need to. I found this incredibly helpful for energy conservation as we climbed up the steep section of Emmons Glacier toward the crater.
As you walk higher toward the summit of the mountain it’s a given that there will be more steep sections to negotiate. You will find during your climb that as you reach these sections there are several different paces to your rest step to match the terrain:
- Flat and Downhill — Walk normally, keeping a comfortable and steady cadence.
- Increased Incline — Shorten your stride and maintain the same cadence as before.
- Steep Incline — Continue to walk normally but begin to use your rest step as needed.
- Very Steep Incline — Go into the full rest-step and follow the cadence of the team lead.
- Might as well be a climbing wall — If too steep, you will continue using the full-rest step along switch backs or will opt for the French, German or American techniques to directly ascend the incline.
For me, once we ventured onto the Muir Snowfield, I began to periodically use pressure breathing on my ascent. As the atmospheric pressure changes the higher you go, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the oxygen you need into your lungs, compounded by the need for more oxygen due to exertion that you’re placing on your cardiovascular system with the climb. I’d dive into a discussion on Boyle’s law and the effect of pressure on gases, but I’ll save the science discussion for another time. To keep it simple, by periodically pursing your lips and exhaling forcefully and fully as though you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake, you let the gasses in your lungs escape rapidly, allowing for a more efficient exchange with oxygen in the “thinner air” and back pressure to assist a deeper next breath.
Although some may debate the effectiveness of this technique, I can attest to the fact that it took my mind off some very difficult sections, seemed to give me more oxygen and made me feel a bit more energized, if only temporarily. Additionally, the guides are most likely going to remind you to pressure breathe from time to time on your climb, so better that you know what it’s all about now. So, make a wish for a good weather on your summit push and just like facing down a giant birthday cake full of candles be sure to blow your exhaustion (and carbon dioxide) away.