If you are considering mountain climbing, even for just one adventure, you can’t just show up with your guidebook and gear. You need to be prepared to go the distance with a proper training routine. You need to spend some energy and time and get your body’s physical system ready for the demands that climbing can put on you to help protect you from injury later on.
Table of Contents
- The Physical Demands of Mountain Climbing
- Preparing for Any Training Program
- Cardio Training for Climbing
- Strength Training for Climbing
- Flexibility Training for Climbing
- Outdoor Training Activities
- Outdoor Training Activities
- Indoor Gym Training Activities
- Target Goals for Progress
- Sample Training Week
- Diet Considerations for Alpine Training
The Physical Demands of Mountain Climbing
Mountain climbing can be a very serious undertaking. The more prepared you are for the physical demands, the more you will enjoy the activity. The main challenges of mountain climbing are the decrease in barometric pressure and the reduction in oxygen as the altitude increases. Staying at high altitudes can affect your cognitive function, physical capacity, body mass, and immune system. Being fit doesn’t protect against altitude-related illness, so altitude training is also an important part of the process. While fitness is no indication of incidence rates when it comes to altitude sickness, physical ability is an important part of the process.
Preparing for Any Training Program
Regardless of the training program you choose, there are going to be some things you need to do in order to prepare yourself ahead of time.
You can’t just jump into a training program. Instead, you need to build up your level of fitness, and how slow you need to start is going to depend on your current fitness level. If you have been keeping up with training by doing some cardio and strength exercises, you will be able to get into the more intense training faster than if you had stopped training completely and need to start building a base again.
Don’t Push It If You Have Prolonged Soreness
If your soreness lasts a long time, you don’t want to push it, because doing so can lead to an overuse injury and sideline your progress. It’s also important to not push it too much so you can keep up your immune system. If your immune system is compromised from training hard, you could also be sidelined from your training plan.
Get Examined If You Have an Injury
As an endurance athlete, you may have been taught to work through an injury or follow the popular phase, “no pain, no gain,” but there’s a big difference between the burn of exercising your muscles and the intense pain of an injury. If you have an injury, you need to get examined. Working through an injury could possibly end your mountain climbing training completely, and you may never fully get back to it. See a doctor and make sure to follow all their instructions so you can get back to your training once you are healed.
Drink Plenty of Fluids
During training, you need to make sure your body is hydrated. If you don’t, this could lead to muscle cramps and fatigue that comes from depleting your your body’s potassium and sodium stores. Make sure that you drink 16 to 24 ounces before your workout and about half of your body’s weight in ounces throughout the day. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should be drinking 90 ounces, which is a little more than 12 cups of water.
An important question in your training program is when you should start. It’s never too soon to start, but it can be too late. Ideally, it’s best to train year-round and plan for a peak in training just before a climb. However, different factors, such as lack of motivation, family responsibilities, and a job, can make this impossible. You should have about four or five months of serious training with a daily and weekly schedule to get back into it.
This is a good period where you don’t lose interest but can allow for a gradual and structured approach to training. Peak training should happen two weeks prior to your trip. The week prior to your trip should be light to allow your body to recover, and the main goal for the week before is to make sure you are getting plenty of sleep.
Cardio Training for Climbing
Cardio workouts help improve the overall fitness of your lungs and heart, so they are important as part of your training program. Weight bearing activities such as hiking, trail running, and snowshoeing are important because they help build overall endurance and strength. Options for your cardio gym workouts, such as cycling or treadmills, can be used to change up training on days when you want to give your musculoskeletal system a break. You should train using heart rate zones and monitor your cardio sessions for the best results.
You can also add interval sessions to your cardio training. As altitude increases, the atmospheric pressure decreases, and you get less oxygen with each breath. Interval training helps improve your ability to use oxygen. Intervals are sets of repetitions of high-intensity aerobic exercise at a faster pace than normal with low-intensity recovery exercises in between. For example, you could run four 1-mile repeats at a harder pacer and then have five minutes of walking or slow jogging between the repeats.
Strength Training for Climbing
Cardio for climbing will only take you so far, and it’s important that you incorporate strength training into your routine. When you do strength training, you want to stick with the four major patterns and hit all the big lifts to give you balance between the pull and press muscles. Climbers are often good at pulling but not as good at pressing, so by evening out the imbalance through strength training, you can prevent many injuries that are often seen in climbers.
Here are some other exercises you can try:
- Hips: Deadlifts
- Knees: Front squats with a barbell and kettle bell rack squats
- Pull: Pull-ups and rowing
- Push: Bench press and military press
If you don’t have any experience with lifting weights, it may be best to work with a trainer. When deciding on the load, you want to work at about 80% of the max, because you don’t want to strain yourself because you don’t know where to start.
Once you’ve figured out what your load should be, try to go as heavy as you can for as long as you can complete your reps with perfect form. Always be able to do one or two reps more at the weight you are using. Many climbers don’t want to do strength training because of the myth that strength training makes you gain weight, but not only is that not true, but not doing strength training can hurt you later on.
Flexibility Training for Climbing
Stretching helps with muscular tension and flexibility. When you are static stretching, you don’t want to stretch through the pain, because this causes tearing and stretching muscle fibers. You can also do yoga in order to get more flexible for climbing. Yoga poses such as a wide-legged standing forward bend help keep your back bendy and your balance in check to help you stay injury-free and improve your climbing technique. Also try the eagle pose, tree pose, and bridge exercises.
Outdoor Training Activities
There are plenty of outdoor training activities that you can do to prepare for mountain climbing. The best training for climbing is climbing, but that is not always feasible. Instead, you can simulate the physical challenge you would encounter with some other outdoor activities. Here are some examples:
- Hike uphill with a pack on
- Climb stairs with a pack on
- Ride a bike uphill over rough terrain
- Go cross-country skiing
Jogging is an extremely popular way to exercise outside, and it can be helpful for your training. However, you shouldn’t rely only on jogging. Variety is the spice of life, and it also ensures that you’re working all of your muscles and not just the same group over and over.
Indoor Gym Training Activities
There are plenty of exercises you can do at the gym. Gym sessions should start with a cardio warm-up on the Stairmaster or treadmill at an incline to get your muscles loosened up and get the blood flowing. Keep these activities low so you don’t get tired—this is just the warm-up, after all. Then move on to your weight training sessions. After weight training, you can do a longer cardio session to target your fitness and move the blood through the recently broken down muscles. You can also do your stretching and flexibility exercises at an indoor gym to make sure you are keeping your muscles loose.
Target Goals for Progress
All the training you need to do can start to sound overwhelming, so you need to have some goals to shoot for in order to gauge your abilities as you start to get closer to the climb. Your goal should be tailored to what you want to accomplish. Here are some sample target goals you can shoot for in order to track your progress.
- Work on gaining 4,000 feet in elevation in under four hours using a 40-pound moderate pack, then work to gain 3,000 feet in elevation in under four hours using a heavier 50-pound pack
- Increase the resistance and speed on a cardio machine, such as Stairmaster, for an hour but don’t reach a threshold of exhaustion and aim to get 2,500 feet in just one hour
If these goals seem like a lot to you right now, don’t be afraid to customize them to your specific needs. Overworking yourself is the quickest way to hurting yourself, so you should make sure your goas are attainable for your skill level.
Sample Training Week
A sample training week should have workouts five days of week with one day of active rest that may include foam rolling/stretching or light walking. Three days should focus on full-body strength workouts and interval training, and two days should include longer cardio-output workouts. One day should be designed as a training hike day or a bonus cardio day. You should be doing cardio every day except on the day of active recovery, but on days where you do strength training, only do intervals of about 30 minutes. Flexibility stretches should happen every day, including on your active recovery day.
Diet Considerations for Alpine Training
Your diet is going to have to be individualized for you but there are some guidelines that will allow you to be on the path to optimal performance.
Pre-Workout or Climb
Before you climb or train, you want to figure out the duration and intensity of the session, so you can plan an appropriate meal. With shorter and higher-intensity climbs, fuel up with easy-to-digest carbohydrates, such as quick oats, bananas, or dried fruits. For lower and longer intensity sessions, include slower digesting carbohydrates, such as beans, quinoa, or brown rice, in order to have more sustained energy.
You should also consider the timing of your meal. You want to get 25 to 30 grams of carbohydrates 30 minutes before, and you should also include 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of training to make sure there are enough amino acids in your bloodstream to improve strength and prevent muscle breakdown. You want to avoid any fats pre-workout since they take longer to digest and could cause stomach issues while you are working hard. If you already have eaten a meal with a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein one to two hours before training, you won’t need to supplement it with additional pre-workout fuel.
Mid-Workout or Climb
You should be replenishing glycogen stores every 60 to 90 minutes using 30 to 60 grams of carbs. If you find you are having issues keeping your blood sugar stable and that going longer than the hour makes you weak or fatigued, you should refuel every 60 minutes. If you go longer than the optimal time, you risk fatigue, a lower performance threshold, and muscle breakdown. For high intensity short activities, high-quality carbohydrates are great fuel and won’t cause an afternoon crash. Be sure to drink water every 30 minutes, especially when you are consuming concentrated gels or snacks.
Post-Workout or Climb
Recovery begins the moment you stop your training. During prolonged activity, glycogen depletion and muscle breakdown happens, so knowing what to eat is going to have an impact on your performance. Within 30 minutes of stopping, eat a protein and carbohydrate snack, and try to minimize fat intake, because this can interfere with the protein absorption and can slow digestion.
Stay hydrated, especially during recovery—this is just as important as the nutrients you are getting. You also need to make sure your electrolytes are replenished, so adding electrolyte powder to water can add more salt to your recovery meal. Athletes can normally exceed the recommended daily sodium intake because of the large amount of salt and fluid lost through sweating.
Training for mountain climbing is an important process that should never be skipped. If you’re going to be going mountain climbing in the future, you should start planning your training regiment and adjusting your diet now so you can prepare yourself for the best possible mountain climbing trip.