You’ve committed to climbing a mountain and now it’s time to train. Many factors determine if you will reach the summit or not. Some are out of your control, such as weather, route conditions and objective hazards. Others are entirely in your control, such as technical skill, equipment choices and, above all, fitness. Simply put, being in better shape will vastly improve your chances of reaching the summit. Fitness also correlates to safety and enjoyment. You will have more fun, and the risk of injury will be reduced, if you are as fit as you can possibly be.
So how should you train for mountaineering? Climbing mountains requires a broad set of fitness components, all of which take time and consistency to develop. Northwest Alpine Guides has partnered with the knowledgeable coaches at Evoke Endurance to create this webpage that covers some basic concepts and provides a general outline for what a weekly training plan should look like.
Keep in mind that your training plan should be specific to your goal. While training for a glaciated volcano such as Mount Baker or Mount Rainier requires some different skills than training for an alpine rock climb such as Forbidden Peak or Liberty Bell, any multi hour mountain objective requires a strong aerobic endurance base. Evoke Endurance offers a range of training products and services to fit anyone’s goal and budget. Here are some important ideas to consider as you begin training.
Develop your aerobic capacity with low and moderate intensity aerobic workouts.
This is the most important element of any proper endurance training plan. Climbing big mountains requires moving at a consistent pace for hours, days or weeks on end. Training should mirror this pattern, meaning that you should perform frequent (3-4 times per week) hikes or jogs at comfortable paces and for relatively long durations (usually at least an hour.) You cannot shortcut this training with high intensity sessions. In fact, too much high intensity training will develop the wrong metabolic pathways in your body, impeding your growth. Check out the Evoke website for a deeper look at endurance physiology or a discussion of how to set up your heart rate zones to determine intensity.
Establish sport-specific strength without increasing muscular bulk.
Strength can be a valuable asset in the mountains but it’s easy to overdo strength training. Bulky muscles, especially in the upper body, will weigh you down without an equitable performance benefit. The best mountain athletes are usually slim with a high strength-to-weight ratio. They look more like marathon runners than bodybuilders. One or two strength sessions per week is enough to develop strength. Evoke coaches recommend focusing on core strength and exercises that directly apply to mountaineering, such as step-ups onto a box, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, lunges, and pull ups. If you have a rock climbing objective, grip-strength training and time spent in rock gyms or at local crags are required.
Consistency trumps intensity every time.
Consistency is simultaneously the most essential and hardest to achieve principle of training. The beauty of low and moderate intensity aerobic workouts is that you should be able to bounce back from them in 24 hours or less. You shouldn’t be overly sore or fatigued from this type of training, especially early in a program. This can require a shift in philosophy for many athletes who previously ascribed to the maxim of “no pain, no gain.” Trust us, it’s much more effective to make achievable incremental gains over the long run than to punish yourself too much and burn out after a few weeks.
Training makes you weaker; recovery makes you fitter. The body needs adequate recovery between training sessions to adapt to a training stimulus. Evoke coaches typically schedule one day off per week and one day of active recovery, meaning a light training session with minimal impact. Recovery sessions are a great place for cross training. An easy bike ride or swim can be a refreshing change from a heavy dose of hiking or running. Evoke coaches also recommend one “consolidation week” per month, during which the training load is reduced by 30-50% to allow the body to reach a state of equilibrium at a higher level of fitness before returning to harder training.
Gradually increase training volume as fitness improves.
For many athletes, a weekly training volume of 5-7 hours is enough to produce adaptations. Once these adaptations occur, you will be able to tolerate longer sessions. The way to boost your fitness in every phase of an endurance training plan is to go longer, not harder or faster. Every added hour of exercise in an aerobic state will contribute to the bottomless gas tank you’re creating—the feeling of being able to move all day without exhaustion. One benchmark Evoke coaches use to gauge preparedness is that an athlete should be able to perform as many training hours in a single week as they expect to do on the summit day of their goal climb. For example, if you expect a summit day on Mount Baker to take 10 hours, you should be able to tolerate at least 10 hours of training in a week. Again, the majority of this training can be at a comfortable all-day pace, similar to how you will be moving on the glacier.
Use training sessions to improve technical skills and test equipment.
Good technique and equipment choices increase efficiency in the mountains. Your fitness will carry you further if you aren’t wasting energy on unnecessary movements, temperature regulation, or foot discomfort. Dial in your boots, backpack, layering systems and other equipment during training hikes. Plan at least a few sessions to focus on techniques specific to your goal, such as walking on snow with crampons, using an ice axe, and moving over uneven terrain.
Add specificity and difficulty as your trip gets closer.
Once you’ve established a fitness foundation and are getting closer to your climb, begin to make the training sessions simulate the more specific elements of your goal climb. As much as possible given the constraints of your location and time, make the training look like the climb. This will normally mean carrying a heavy pack steeply uphill. It might include honing your rock climbing skills. You can also add layers of intensity and difficulty to your workouts. One example is doing intervals during your hikes, where you briefly push your pace on a steep uphill, producing hard breathing and bringing your HR into a higher zone. Another option is adding weight to your hikes, starting with a backpack weighing 10% of your bodyweight and increasing to 15% over the course of several months. Or you may want to incorporate Muscular Endurance workouts into your plan, during which you perform hundreds or even thousands of exercise reps on muscle groups that you will be relying on in the mountains. Be cautious with these options and always remember to counterbalance high intensity efforts with plenty of low intensity aerobic work to maintain the foundation you’ve already built.
Training Plan Example
How do you synthesize the above information into a training plan? Evoke Endurance offers pre-written training plans, custom plans written by an experienced coach for your specific goal, or full-service coaching for any endurance objective. If you would prefer to direct your own training, here is an example of what a weekly training schedule could look like for entry-level athletes: