Another look at training, performance and being ready to climb mountains

The high country can be fun if you’re physically ready for it.

I’m in a group on Facebook that deals with strength and fitness, and the administrator of that group asked me to post something there about what I do for conditioning in terms of being in what I call “mountain shape.”

This is an evolving thing for me, but over the years I’ve found some things that have worked well, and others not as much. Anyway, I figured I’d share that here, just in case some of you were looking at ideas for getting ready for hikes and climbs in the mountains, particularly when the altitude is high. Keep in mind, this is a post for a group that is focused on people focused on strength training, so it’s going to have a bias toward that and away from endurance athletics. That said, I think these ideas are fairly universal for people wanting to perform better at altitude. Have a read, and feel free to chime in with a few of your own ideas.

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I’m a big fan of Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. He’s a beast on the hill. His primary ways of getting in shape: He runs 8 miles a pop, and he guides on Mount Rainier. That’s what got me into running.

BUT… as we all know, a lot of steady-state cardio can have negatives. Especially if you’re trying to build muscle. Steady state has its place. Lifting coach Tony Gentilcore wrote an entire post about its benefits in developing capillary density, aerobic capacity, etc. (he’s a legit lifter, too; can pull 600+ on the deadlift). But the body adapts to endless steady state cardio over time, and its benefits diminish. Meanwhile, lots of weekly mileage running can start to eat away muscle and sap strength. Metabolic changes can also occur, making it harder to maintain leanness over time. So what’s the middle ground? Some ideas:

You can get your run on without having to run tons of miles. Intervals, negative splits and sprints will get you in shape.

Intervals: You can do this in a number of ways. I like doing 8 repetitions of 400-meter runs. I push these hard, take a 90-second break, then do the next one a little faster. You can vary distances, too. 200-meter intervals at faster speeds can get a lot of work done. If you’re a real sadist, 800-meter intervals. If you can get to the point where you’re doing 8×800 or 10×800, you’re gonna be one tough mutha when it comes to stamina.

Sprints: 40- to 50-meter sprints are awesome. A hard sprint workout will not only get that conditioning benefit, but it will also enhance overall power and athleticism. That said, if you’re not used to doing sprints, ease into these at first. Someone who isn’t used to doing sprints, then shows up at the track and goes all out is asking for an injury. Do your homework, start conservatively, then work up to it. Sprinting is a skill. Check out this link for more.

Negative splits: A “split” is a term used to describe the time you run a specific length of a run. So on a 3-mile run, you could have three “splits” of a mile apiece. A negative split describes when a runner runs each split faster than the one before. This is a TOUGH workout. How I do it: I jog the first mile, easy pace. Second mile, I run at a goal “race pace.” Conversation at this pace would be difficult, as in short, infrequent sentences. On the last mile, I speed up again at a “suicide” pace. It’s not a sprint, but it’s fast enough that finishing that last mile at that speed is not guaranteed. You might want to ralph when it’s over. Great builder of VO max/mental toughness.

Take your fitness outside the gym to get in mountain shape. Go hike. Go climb. (Brady Lee photo)

As for conditioning specific to the mountains, I’d suggest three things. First, you gotta hike. Hike hills. Carry a loaded pack. Spend a few hours out there. Second, you gotta climb. If you’re going to tackle a mountain that’s not a walk-up, you need to put your body through the movements you’ll use on the peak. Find a local crag, go to a climbing gym, etc. It’s practice. Lastly, become friends with the stairmaster. Yeah, it’s an inside-the-gym machine, but it works all the muscles used in going uphill. Try increasing your speed as you go to mimic the increased aerobic demand of elevation gain.

Don’t forget to lift!

And as always, keep lifting. Your lifts should be based on the four basic movements: Squat, hip-hinge, press and pull. All of these are useful on the peaks, in building strength, and in everyday life.

How it looks for me: I lift Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For conditioning, I do the stairmaster on Monday; short tempo run (steady state, race pace) Tuesday; longer run OR hill run OR negative split run on Wednesdays (this will be a high-demand conditioning day); stairmaster or HIIT on Thursday; medium-length tempo run Fridays. Saturday is an outdoors day. So I’ll go hike, climb, or do a long bike ride. I keep Saturdays open and fun, but fun with a purpose. Sundays I chill.

So there you have it. Again, if you’ve got your own ideas, let’s hear about it in the comments. And for more on this topic, check out this post.

Bob Doucette

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