How to get Fit for Mountain Climbing

Fitness training program for mountain climbing
Make it to the top with a smile on your face.

Are you planning to climb a mountain this year?  Whether you’ve chosen a local peak or you’re planning to travel to climb a far off peak, you know you need to be fit.  It’s very disheartening to climb partway up, realize you don’t have the fitness you need to get to the top and have to turn around.  It’s even worse to get to the top exhausted and then get injured on the way down because your legs have turned to wet noodles.

So what’s the best way to get the fitness you need?  Should you go to a gym and hire a personal trainer?  Should you sign up for one of those early morning bootcamps?  Should you run up and down hills or stairs?  These activities might help you get fit but they won’t necessarily get you “mountain fit”.

What is Mountain Fitness and Why is it Important?

Mountain Fitness is the ability to move efficiently and safely over mountainous terrain, uneven rocky surfaces, and endure continuous uphill movement for the hours it will take to get to the top.  And it’s not enough to just get to the top of the mountain.  You need to have strength left to get back down safely.  I’ve heard that most injuries occur on the descent.  People give everything they have on the climb and have nothing left in the tank for the descent.

A personal trainer will help you get strong but may not train the balance and agility skills you’ll need.  Running up and down hills or stairs is certainly helpful but can be hard on the knees and other joints.  You don’t want an over-use injury that sidelines you before you even get to the mountain.

I once signed up to run a half marathon and decided to train for it by running.  In the beginning I did really well, getting out for short runs 3 days a week and a longer run on the weekend.  After a few weeks though, as I increased the distance I was running, I found my knees were getting sore during my longer runs.  I wasn’t doing any strength training to help my knees carry me on longer distances and after a few more weeks, my knees were too sore to continue training.  I didn’t even make it to the starting line.  A better approach would have included a few strength sessions each week to make sure my knees were well supported.

What is the best way to train for mountain climbing?

The best approach is a balance between strength training, to make sure you’ve strengthened your legs properly for the long ascent as well as the descent, and cardio training to ensure you’ve got the endurance you’ll need to keep you going.  Your strength sessions should focus on building a foundation for the first few weeks and then improving your balance, agility and coordination.

We recommend you spend at least 8 weeks prior to the climb improving your strength and endurance.  However a program lasting 12 or more weeks would be better depending on your starting fitness level and your goal mountain.

Our approach includes three short strength sessions each week.  We’ve found that three days a week is the best frequency to get real gains in your strength.  These workouts don’t have to last longer than about 30 minutes.  The key is consistency.  Working out regularly is the only way to create lasting gains in strength.

That being said, everyone gets bogged down occasionally by illness, family obligations, work disruptions or simply the realities of a busy life.  That’s why we recommend adding a week or two to your training schedule.  If you decide on an 8 week training program, you should begin the program 9 or 10 weeks before your climb.  This will give you some wiggle room if you have to miss a week.

Strength training exercises should target the muscles you’ll be using to go uphill as well as downhill.  As you progress through your program, you’ll need exercises that challenge your balance and agility.  Rather than adding weight in the traditional way, using dumbbells or other gym equipment, you can wear your backpack and add weight for exercises such as step-ups, lunges, and squats.  This will help you get used to wearing a weighted backpack and you’ll be developing your balance and strength with the backpack.

We also recommend 3 cardio sessions each week.  Good cardio fitness is what will keep you going during the hours it will take to get to the top of your mountain.  Two of those sessions can be shorter and should include a variety of activities such as walking or running, hiking, swimming, cycling, walking stairs or using indoor cardio machines like a treadmill, rowing machine and stair stepper.  The important thing is to get your heart rate up and keep it up.

The third cardio session should be longer and increase in duration over the weeks of your program.  It is best to get out into the mountains for this session and hike uphill or try some easy scrambling.  This is a good time to wear your backpack and gradually add weight so that by the end of your program, you are used to carrying loads that are at least as heavy as the weight you’ll be carrying on your climb.

For the third cardio session, focus on elevation gain rather than distance or heart rate zones.  Start your first week with a modest elevation gain, maybe 300 meters, and then steadily increase the elevation gains each week until you are climbing nearly the same height as your mountain climb.  Say for example, the mountain you are planning to climb will require 1,600 meters of elevation gain.  You could add 150-200 meters of gain each week to the 300 meters you do in the first week so that in your last training week, you are climbing 1,400 meters with a weighted backpack.

There’s a sample week from our 12 Week Standard Mountaineering Training Program, incorporating all these elements, at the end of this article.

What if I Can’t Get to the Mountains for Training Sessions?

If you live too far away or just can’t get out of the city for those long cardio sessions, there are ways to get creative and achieve almost the same good results.  If you’re stuck indoors, walking on a treadmill set at an incline or using stair steppers will get you the elevation gain you need.  These forms of cardio won’t challenge your balance and stability as much as hiking in the mountains but that’s why its important to include exercises in your strength sessions that focus on these skills.

You could also walk in a park in your city.  If you do, choose an area that is hilly so you can achieve your elevation gains.  Also, it is better to walk on trails than on sidewalks or paved pathways because you will build more stability walking on an uneven surface.

Tapering

During the final week to 10 days of your program you should taper your workouts.  This means reducing the intensity and duration of your workouts so that you are well rested in the days leading up to your climb and you’re in peak form on the day of your climb.  It’s interesting to use this time to re-do a couple of the strength workouts from your first week.  This will really show you how far you’ve come, how much strength you’ve gained during your training program.  That can be a big confidence boost too which can help to calm your nerves on the day of the climb.  You’ll know you’ve worked hard, created real gains and are ready to tackle your mountain.

Next Step – Training Program Options

Now that you know you need a training program and you understand the elements needed in a good training program, what’s the next step?  There are some great books out there that will give you some strength training exercises and help you design your own program.  This is a great option if you’ve got the time to read the books and you have some experience with training programs.  If you’d like a list of our favourite books on training for mountain fitness, e-mail us at info@mountfitnesstraining.com.

If you don’t have time to scour the books or you’re just not a do-it-yourselfer, you can buy a ready-made training program.  There are many options on the internet including standard programs designed for beginners, intermediate or advanced mountain climbers.  If you decide to go with one of these standard programs, remember that the training program you purchase is your own and you should modify it for your own goals and fitness level if needed.

You can also choose an online customized program.  These programs cost more but give you access to a personal trainer experienced with training for mountain activities.  Many people find these programs more motivating because the regular check-ins with the personal trainer keep them accountable.  These programs will also be designed for you specifically.  Typically you start with a fitness assessment and the program is created by the personal trainer to build on your starting fitness level.

Whichever option you choose, be sure your program targets strength, balance, agility and cardio endurance while ensuring you don’t get injured during training.  With the right training program, you’ll reach the summit with a smile on your face and have plenty of energy left for the descent.  Happy training!  Here’s that sample week:

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