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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My strength experiment: What I learned during a season in the weight room

There is a gym I go to with some charts blown up into poster form, and at the bottom of these charts is a short sentence written in small type with a very big message: “Being stronger makes you harder to kill.”

It goes on to qualify this, saying that the stronger you are, the harder it is for things like disease, accidents, the elements and even other people, to kill you. Makes sense to me.

Fitness is a major part of my life. I’m not strictly a runner, and not strictly a weight lifter. I incorporate both (plus things like cycling) in hopes of preventing mushball status.

This past fall, I wanted to try something different. Back in the days before running became a thing for me, I used to lift a bunch of weights and find cardio in other forms of exercise. When I became a runner, I worked to find a balance between the two. But after the end of the fall race season, I chose to focus on strength for a few months. I was OK in terms of strength, but I knew I could be better if I put in a little extra work. I wouldn’t stop running entirely, but the weekly mileage would drop significantly while I emphasized more time in the gym.

In this case, it was about getting back to basics. No fancy programs, no weird new exercises, nothing exotic at all. Just a workout program based on four basic strength movements: The press, the pull, the squat and the hip hinge.

If you know what these entail, you’re way ahead of the game. If not, let me define them more precisely…

Press: This is picking up a weight and lifting it over your head. This could be a barbell or dumbbells. Variations could also include flat bench or incline bench presses, but the most important press here is the overhead press. Presses work your shoulders, triceps, upper back and, in some variations, the chest.

Pull: Pulls include pull-ups, chin-ups, cable pull variations (lat pulls, seated cable rows, etc), barbell and dumbbell rows, and so forth. With these, you’re training the muscles in your entire back, your biceps, and to a lesser extent, your shoulders.

Squat: Most people know what this is. Starting from a standing position, you squat down, bending at the knees and the hips, while keeping your back straight. Barbell back squats, front squats, goblet squats, and so on. The squat is a full-body exercise, but the primary muscles used are the glutes, quadriceps and hamstrings. Truly strong people squat well.

Hip-hinge:  The hip-hinge, simply put, is the action of bending at the hips, and with a straight back, powering yourself to an upright position with your hips. If that sounds weird, just watch someone deadlift. A deadlift is a hip-hinge. So are Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings and hip thrusters. Hip-hinge exercises are full-body in nature, but they primarily work the posterior chain. Posterior chain muscles include the entire back (from the base of the neck all the way to the tailbone), glutes and hamstrings. Like the squat, a truly strong person will be strong in hip-hinge movements. Deadlifts also work your quads, and through the act of holding something heavy, strengthen all the muscles used in your grip.

There are a bunch of exercises that support these movements, and I’ll get to that in time. But these are where my focus was. If you can master them, you’ll build a strong, athletic body that can be good at just about anything, and that includes activities that most people don’t associate with weight training, like running, hiking, backpacking or even climbing.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a few reasons. This was a bit of an experiment, to see what I could accomplish in four months. I wanted to see what went right and what went wrong, and why. And if I learned anything worth sharing, to pass it along. Some things went very “right.” And that was exciting. Some things went wrong, and for the most part, that’s on me.

Another reason: Strength is often something that is undervalued in the endurance community, and similarly, neglected by a lot of people who are focused on the outdoors. Personally, I think anyone can benefit from being stronger. It doesn’t mean you must be a body builder or a power lifter (those guys usually don’t do well in our chosen activities, mostly because size can be prohibitive of endurance), but I’d go back to that poster I mentioned earlier: Being stronger makes you harder to kill.

So over the coming days, I’m going to post about this and pass along what I’ve learned. And in turn, I’m more than pleased to hear from any of you who have undertaken similar efforts. Stay tuned …

Bob Doucette