Picture yourself on your first mountaineering trip with friends. You’ve spent a month’s salary on equipment, burned 3 days of vacation, and flew 5 hours to get to Mount Rainier in WA State. A quarter of the way up to base camp your sucking air, your legs are cramping, your feeling queasy, and out of steam. You don’t understand what’s wrong; you ran and went to the gym for weeks. Worst than the physical pain is the emotional frustration and feeling that your holding up the others. Now imagine the same trip. You’re at the same spot on the mountain, sweating hard, your legs are feeling the weight, and you feel your heart rate but you are able to talk with the others, taking in the surrounding view and focusing on the route up to the summit. You feel a runners high and loving it.
Peak fitness is critical to mountaineering, trekking, major hiking, and backpacking. Contrary to popular belief you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a gym membership. In my opinion the best way to get in shape for hiking, mountaineering, etc… is by doing that sport or similar motion. This article will show you, how you to develop your own fitness plan tailored to your trip. The type and length of outdoor activity will determine your minimum level of fitness. For most major hikes, multi day backpacking trips, and mountaineering day trips (Less than 4000 ft or 1330 meters of elevation gain) you can get in shape in less than 8 weeks if you have a good base level of fitness. Aim for at least 12 weeks for most moderate mountaineering activities such as climbing Mt. Rainier, MT. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Blanc, or similar. Here are some tips to keep in mind when developing your own training plan:
1. Figure out your trips maximum elevation gain and distance per day. In the last two weeks before your trip you should be at 90-100% of this. If climbing Mt. Rainier from the Paradise visitor center, it’s almost a 10,000 ft gain to the summit which most teams attempt in 3 days with one day being a rest day. When working up to your climb, you should be able to accomplish a hike with 5000 ft of elevation and similar weight pack to your climb, then get down with energy to spare. Remember getting to the top is half the battle; you need to have energy for the way down.
2. Using a heart rate monitor and your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) is a very effective tool in conditioning. Using your MHR you’ll be able to measure and assess your fitness for the outdoors. You can pick up a decent heart rate monitor for around $50. Realize MHR was calculated off of an average, something most of us aren’t so adjust to your body as needed. To figure out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 226. (Men would subtract their age from 220.)
226 - Your age = MHR and
220 – Your age 220 – your age = MHR for men
Use your age-adjusted maximum heart rate and calculate the below percentages for the various parts of your aerobic activity during each phase.
For instance, a 35-year-old woman's estimated maximum heart rate is 181 (226 - 35 = 181).
-60 percent of her max = 109
-65 percent of her max = 118
-75 percent of her max = 136
-85 percent of her max = 154
Keep in mind, however, that this calculation can be off by as much as 15 beats, so use the rate of perceived exertion as well. When working out keep an eye on your heart rate monitor and keep your heart rate in the range of your fitness goal for that session.
For more info on MHR click here!
3. Divide the training plan into 3 phases. The first is focusing on your base. In this phase focus on getting into a routine and strength, balance, and flexibility to reduce the chance of injury later and get you prepared for later phases. Plan for 3- 4 days a week with 30 minutes of aerobic cardio activity at 60-65% MHR and 11-12 on the exertion scale (You can carry on a conversation while exercising) followed with 30 minutes of strength training. Start each workout with 10-15 minutes of stretching and warm up and end with a cool down. If your already active and have a good base you can reduce the amount of time spent in this phase and increase your MHR to 70-75 or move to the next phase
4. The next phase should focus on increasing endurance and intensity. Interval training is a great way to do this. For interval training use the exertion scale and heart rate by shifting to 1 minute spurts of 17 on the exertion scale Very hard (you are very fatigued) then back to 13 somewhat hard (It is quite an effort; you feel tired but can continue) and moving from 70-85% of your MHR. During this phase try and focus 70% of your time on aerobic activity. Aim for 3-4 days a week with 1 hr of aerobic activity. Activity can include jogging, swimming, biking, or stair climbing. Or get out for actual climbing, hiking, and backpacking for longer time periods at a lower MHR. This can include a 2-5 hour hike on the weekend with 2000 feet (600 meters) of elevation gain, wearing your backpack. There’s no better way to get in shape for a sport than doing that specific sport.
5. The last phase is working up to your goal. Aerobic activity should be at 75-85% MHR for periods of up to 1 hour for 4-5 days per week. Weekend hikes/climbs should be 90-100% of the daily elevation gain and duration of the hike/climb. If you’re preparing for Mt. Rainier via the Paradise route the first day’s elevation gain is around 5000 feet (1500 meters) and about 5-7 hours for most people. Try and find similar activities to replicate this. If you’re in the city you can always climb up stairs in buildings, count each stair as 1 foot of gain. Remember you’ll have a pack on your trip so don’t hesitate to wear a pack. Slowly add extra weight to your pack, this can be done with full water bottles. A pack in training can also help improve balance but also increases the chance of injury, so don’t make it too heavy. As you get closer to your trip your pack weight should be about 95% to what you’ll be carrying on your hike/climb. For most trips this is between 35-50 lbs (16-23 Kilograms).
6. Ensure at least 1 rest day each week when starting off even more if you don’t have a good base. On rest days you can practice knots, read articles, stretch, do balance exercises and go for easy walks. Set aside 2 rest days before your hike/climb. Also try making sure your hydrated and trying and getting as much sleep as possible before your climb.
Here are some exercised for strength training tailored to hikers and mountaineers.
-Step-ups to the side
7. If you don’t have time for a full workout try and fit in a few shorter workouts, anything is better than nothing.
8. Stay motivated by meditating (imagine yourself exercising and climbing), recruit a partner to exercise with you, schedule your work outs.
9. Practice good nutrition.
10. Check out some of the best mountaineering and backpacking fitness videos.
Note: This article assumes a base level of fitness and based on opinions and experience of the author. You should consult a physician before starting an exercise program.