Mountaineers, are you kicking so much ass this season that you’ve totally outgrown your mountaineering training plan? It happens, and it’s a great problem to have! So today, let’s talk about some advanced mountaineering training exercises you can work into your program if you’re really kicking ass.
These are also great goals to work toward when you really want to take your game to the next level. Maybe you want to climb super high-altitude peaks or get ready for a big expedition. Or maybe you’re just curious to see how far you can really go with your fitness!
One of the first things people want to do when they’re totally slaying the training plan is to ditch that plan. So first, let’s talk a little about the value of mountaineering training plans and why you still need one.
How to get more out of your training plan
If you’re getting ready for a big climb, there’s a good you’re working from a training plan — one that you found on this blog, one that you purchased elsewhere, or maybe even one you created for yourself.
This is a good thing. Training plans can be a huge help. It’s so important to have a roadmap that shows you which workouts to prioritize and how to structure your time.
Training plans also take away the guess work around, “What the French toast do I do for today’s workout?” When you’ve got all of your endurance and strength training mapped out week by week, you can spend less time spinning around and second guessing yourself — and more time working out.
I never want you to feel that that your training plan is set in stone or that you must follow it perfectly to succeed. (Or be limited by it, if you can do more.)
The truth is, the best training plan in the world is individualized.
That means that it takes into account your individual schedule and response to training.
It allows for the fact that you have a dog who needs walked, two kids who need picked up from ballet, and a job that is sending you to Tampa next week.
An individualized plan also takes into account how you feel. When you’re physically and mentally fatigued, it backs off to allow you to rejuvenate. And when you’re kicking ass and on a roll, it ramps up the volume and intensity.
How do you make sure that your plan is individualized?
At the start of each week, sit down and look at your training plan. Then think about your life, your schedule, how you’re feeling, and make any adjustments you need.
Because you’re reading this post on advanced mountaineering training, I’m assuming you’re doing well and want to increase the difficulty level. So in the rest of this post, we’ll look at four ways to do this.
A word of warning: don’t try to tackle all four of these goals all at once! If you do, you won’t be able to see what works and what doesn’t. Get a handle on the first one before you move on to second one, and so on.
1. Build a killer aerobic base
Base is volume (hours) of moderate-intensity cardio training you’re doing every week (including hiking). Aerobic base workouts are also known as “long, slow distance workouts,” though they may actually be quite fast for a fit hiker or mountaineer! Aerobic base training should make up about 70–80 percent of your weekly training hours.
Hands down, your aerobic base is your most important asset as an endurance athlete. It’s the aspect of your fitness that takes the most time to develop. And your ROI is monster strength and stamina that allows you to climb for 12+ hours without collapsing. So if you have more time to invest in training, this is the No. 1 place I’d put it!
What volume should you be shooting for when building your aerobic base?
For all endurance athletes, a good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 10 hours of moderate-intensity cardio each week. For most busy adults, this is about the max they can fit into their lives without coming unglued.
However, if you’re really kicking ass, and want to extend your aerobic base training, you can take the volume as high as you want to. I’ve gone up to about 16 hours a week while working a full-time job. And elite athletes like Steve House get up to 30 a week and beyond. (Check out this article for some interesting stats on the training hours Olympic athletes put in!)
What’s the best way to train your aerobic base?
Any cardio performed at moderate intensity will help to improve your aerobic base. Here’s how I break it down:
- Your longest workout of the week should always be as sport-specific as possible. This means hiking or climbing in terrain similar to what you will encounter on your goal climb. So if you are training for Mt. Rainier, you want to hike some steep hills wearing a heavy pack. And if you can work some snow climbing in, that would be even more specific!
- At least one base workout a week should be cross-training to give your legs and hips a break. Good options include cycling, mountain biking, rowing, or a spin on the elliptical trainer.
- The rest of your weekly base workouts should involve sport specific cardio like hiking, running (especially on hills), trail running, walking uphill on an incline treadmill, and climbing stairs.
2. Add a 4–8-week max strength period
Your No. 2 priority depends on your goal climb:
- If you’re training for an expedition-style mountaineering trip that requires you to carry a 40–60 lb. pack or pull a sled, keep reading.
- Otherwise, move max strength down to No. 4. It’s still helpful, but not as high of a priority.
What is a max strength period?
A max strength period involves lifting really heavy weights for a period of 4–8 weeks. (Eight is ideal, but even four will give you some great benefits.)
Examples of max strength workouts include:
- 5 sets of 5 reps (3–5 minutes rest between)
- 6 sets of 4 reps (3–5 minutes rest between)
Benefits of max strength training
In addition to improving your overall strength, lifting heavy weights helps you to recruit new muscle fibers.
What’s that, you ask? Well, when you first start lifting weights, you’re not actually using every muscle fiber you have! In fact, you’re actually using relatively few of them in the beginning.
As you lift, your brain creates new neural pathways to more muscle fibers and causes them to fire with each rep. This is known as “recruitment.” Have you ever noticed that when you first start lifting, you see results really quickly? It’s not because your muscles are getting bigger but rather because you’re using more muscle fibers.
Training with moderate weights will help you to recruit a lot of muscle fibers. But to really max out and get most of your muscle fibers connected, you need to do a period of heavy lifting.
Maximizing muscle strength in your legs will really help you when you’re walking up steep hills carrying a heavy pack or pulling a sled. Also, when you’re hauling weight, you need extra core strength to balance and stabilize your body. So if you’re headed out on an expedition, make sure all of your muscle fibers are recruited and doing their jobs!
When should I do my max strength period?
Ideally, you should perform the max strength period early in your training season when the volume of your cardio workouts is still low. The benefits you get will last all season.
However, if you’re now in the middle of your training plan and feeling good, try working in a short max strength period of four weeks. You’ll still get lots of benefits.
Note that it’s generally not a good idea to try to peak on strength and cardio at the same time! So if you’re almost at peak week before a goal climb, save max strength for the next go round. You’ll still be fine, I promise.
What exercises are best for max strength?
Max strength workouts take a long time, mostly because you have to rest so long to recover between sets. So unless you want to be in the gym all day, it’s best to pick 3–6 sport-specific exercises that work multiple muscle groups. I like to do one upper body exercise, one lower-body exercise, and one core exercise. Some good choices:
- Pull up (with assist as needed)
- Push up (use a weighted vest or raise your feet for extra resistance)
- Step up
- Squat (back squat, overhead squat, split squat)
- Hanging leg raises are ideal for this phase, because they offer so much resistance and range of motion! (See the video below for some tips and variations.) If you don’t have a bar or rings at home, head to the playground. For even more resistance, put on your mountaineering boots.
3. Work up to 40 minutes of lactate threshold training per week
What is your lactate threshold?
Your lactate threshold is the exercise intensity where you are working so hard that acid begins to accumulate in your blood and muscles.
Acid is a byproduct of anaerobic (glucose) metabolism. When you are exercising at moderate intensity, your body produces very little acid and can easily remove whatever acid it produces. This is why a well-trained endurance athlete can go pretty much forever at moderate intensity — and why aerobic base training is so important!
However, when you are exercising above your lactate threshold, you are are essentially a time bomb. Acid is accumulating in your blood, and it causes you to cramp and fatigue and feel nauseous. If you keep going at the same intensity, you’ll burn yourself out in 30–60 minutes.
The higher your lactate threshold is, the longer you can sustain intense activity without fatiguing. It’s also possible to acclimate your body to acid to some degree, allowing it to work above the lactate threshold when you really need to push.
Lactate threshold workouts are the way to go if you want to get faster on long hikes and climbs. They also have a ton of benefits for people who are training away from the mountains and need to simulate the intensity of a steep uphill climb on flat terrain.
How can I estimate my lactate threshold?
To raise your lactate threshold, you need to exercise at or just below lactate threshold intensity. The most common way to accomplish this is through lactate threshold (LT) intervals.
Before starting LT intervals, use this field test to estimate your lactate threshold heart rate:
- Exercise at the hardest pace you can sustain for 20 minutes while wearing your heart rate monitor. Need a heart rate monitor recommendation? Check out my review of the Wahoo Tickr.
- Afterwards, use your tracking app to find your average heart rate.
- Multiply your average heart rate by .95 to estimate your lactate threshold heart rate.
Once you know your lactate threshold heart rate, aim to peak 0–10 beats below this number during your LT intervals. For example, if your lactate threshold heart rate is 160, you’re going to aim for a maximum working heart rate between 150 and 160.
How do I push my lactate threshold to the max?
Most endurance training plans will have you do 15–30 minutes of lactate threshold training a week. However, if you are really looking to take it to the next level, work up to 40 minutes of LT intensity exercise per week. An advanced progression might look like:
- 5 x 5 min. LT intervals (5 minute rest periods)
- 5 x 5 min. (3 min. rest)
- 3 x 10 min. (5 min. rest)
- 3 x 10 min. (3 min. rest)
- 30 minute tempo run (at near-LT intensity, no rest)
- 3 x 12 min. (3 min. rest)
- 2 x 20 min. (5 min. rest)
4. Work your way up to 15 min. of HIIT training per week.
I know that some of you are sad that HIIT is only No. 4. I get it. I love it too.
This is because there aren’t too many mountaineering situations where you’re going to be performing at maximal intensity, which is the aspect of fitness that HIIT really trains. (Maybe if you’re running from rockfall or straining to climb out of a crevasse.) During a big climb, you’re going to rely a lot more on your aerobic system, which is why we want to dial in your aerobic base and lactate threshold training first.
The good news is that every mountaineering and endurance training plan should include some HIIT. This is especially important if you are traveling to high altitude. HIIT is one of the best ways to improve VO2 max, which is your body’s capacity to use oxygen. And when the air is thin, you want to be able to use every molecule that’s available!
What does advanced HIIT training look like?
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. Basically, it involves performing very short intervals at near-maximal intensity (an 8 or 9 on the 10-point perceived effort scale).
Most training plans involve 5–10 minutes per week of near-maximal intensity exercise. (For example, 7 x 1 min. intervals.)
But if you’re ready to ramp up, I recommend:
- Working your way up to about 15 minutes of near-maximal exercise per week. (Do this slowly!)
- Gradually increasing your HIIT interval length to 3 min.
- Decreasing the rest periods between HIIT intervals. This teaches your muscles to work in an acidic environment. Aim for a 1:1 work-rest ratio.
A sample advanced HIIT progression you can work on over a number of weeks:
- 3 sets of 3 x 1 min. intervals. Rest 3 minutes between intervals and five minutes between sets.
- 9 x 1 min. intervals (rest 3 min. between intervals)
- 9 x 1 min. intervals (rest 1 min. between intervals)
- 6 x 2 min. intervals (rest 2 min. between intervals)
- 5 x 3 min. intervals (rest 3 min. between intevals)
So, there you have it. Four advanced mountaineering training workouts to build into your plan.
And if you’re not quite ready for these, that’s totally OK. You can still climb your mountain and have fun doing it.
If you’re still new to training but think these workouts sound fun, be sure to bookmark this post for later! You’ll be there before you know it.
Need some help putting it all together?
Check out my 21-week Mt. Rainier Training Plan that does all the math and aerobic and interval progressions for you!
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Thanks for reading, and have fun kicking your own ass with advanced mountaineering training!
Originally published June 7, 2019.