How to Get in Shape for Climbing a Colorado 14er

 In Colorado 14ers, Endurance Training, Hikes, Strength Training, Training

Planning on bagging some Colorado 14ers this summer? Well if you’re not training yet, it’s time to light a fire under your ass. 🔥 Because it’s now April, which means there are only 3.5 months left until the beginning of 14er season. So today, let’s talk about your 14er training plan and what you can do now to get ready.

Photos: Climbing Red Cloud Peak (14,034′) and Sunshine Peak (14,001′) in June 2016 with @adventuresofjennyp.

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Choosing Your Goal Climbs

Colorado 14ers hikes vary greatly in difficulty. You’re going to train very differently for Mt. Bierstadt than you would for the Crestone Traverse. So let’s take a minute and figure out which 14ers you’re going to go for this season.

Two major factors determine the difficulty of a 14er route: terrain and elevation.

We use the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) to rate terrain difficulty of hikes and climbs. Here are the five YDS classifications:

  • 1 – smooth trail and easy walking
  • 2 – rough trail, maybe with some easy scrambling
  • 3 – moderate scrambling that requires the use of your hands
  • 4 – difficult scrambling that requires some rock climbing skill
  • 5 – vertical or near vertical climbing, usually done with a rope

Each route gets rated according to the most difficult terrain encountered. The first six miles of the Longs Peak Trail are Class 1–2, but the last mile is Class 3. So this is a Class 3 route.

For your first couple of 14er climbs, aim for Class 1–2 routes. You can tackle the harder ones when you have your training, gear, and survival skills dialed in. 14ers.com has a handy list of 14ers grouped by easiest route.

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The second major factor to look at is elevation.

Many people who are new to Colorado ask how “long” 14er hikes are (meaning mileage). And I’ve met people climbing Little Bear Peak at 4 p.m. because “our guidebook says it’s only two miles to the top.”

And yes, I remember making these mistakes too when I was a noob. 😉 But here’s the truth.

Elevation gain, much more than mileage, determines the difficulty of a 14er climb.

Most 14er routes fall somewhere between 2,500 ft. and 6,500 ft. of elevation gain. Although some of the combination routes like Chicago Basin can add up to over 10,000 ft.

It’s important to know both the mileage and elevation gain of your goal route so that you can train appropriately. For example, if you want to climb Mt. Oxford (5,800 ft. elevation gain), you’re probably going to want to work your way up to that level. You might even climb some “easier” 14ers to get ready!

The best way to check distance and elevation gain of 14er routes is to consult 14ers.com. Seriously, if you’re going to climb 14ers, make BFFs with that site. It really does have a wealth of info.

And if you’re new to the 14er game, you might enjoy my post on the best Colorado 14ers for beginners.

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14er Training Goals

Mountaineering training is a lot like marathon training — with some extras thrown in. No amount of CrossFit or one-hour studio classes is going to do the trick. The only thing that works is trail time. Lots of it.

To give you an idea why this is necessary, here are some of the demands that 14er climbing will make on your body:

Sustain a moderate pace for many hours

How long does it take to climb a Colorado 14er? Even a shorter route is going to take most hikers 5–6 hours round trip. And more difficult routes can take over 12 hours to complete. In terms of time, that’s like running three marathons back to back. So you need to develop muscles and a cardiovascular system that can endure for the long haul.

Hike fast enough to meet the weather window

Dangerous afternoon thunderstorms are common throughout the summer in Colorado, so you need to reach the summit early. A good rule of thumb is to be off the top and heading down by noon. The faster you can move, and the longer you can sustain that pace, the more likely you are to meet this life-saving deadline.

Perform better at altitude

Colorado isn’t the Himalayas, but it’s still high enough to diminish your climbing performance. Compared to sea level, you’ll need to work about 35 percent harder at 14,000 ft. to sustain the same level of effort.

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The Key to All Three: High Aerobic Capacity

What makes Sherpas and Tibetans such amazing performers at high altitude? Research suggests they are born with a higher aerobic capacity than humans who evolved in the lowlands.

Note that this is very different from being a CrossFit beast who can do 100 burpees in a minute.

That’s cool, but not terribly relevant to hiking and mountaineering.

When your aerobic capacity is high, you can exercise at moderate intensity for long periods without tiring. You’re also more efficient in your use of oxygen, which improves your performance at high altitudes.

Having excellent aerobic endurance also allows you to rely primarily on your aerobic metabolism for fuel. And guess what? It burns FAT! So not only does it define your abs, you won’t need to stop hiking every 15 minutes to shove a goo in your face.

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The higher your aerobic capacity is, the less you will need to rely on anaerobic metabolism to sustain your pace.

Anaerobic metabolism kicks in when your aerobic metabolism can’t meet your body’s energy demands. It primarily burns sugar. But as a fuel source, it’s extremely inefficient and makes all kinds of nasty byproducts your muscles hate.

The more you rely on your anaerobic metabolism to climb, the faster you will tire out. And because anaerobic metabolism uses sugar as fuel, you’ll need to eat frequently or risk bonking. So it’s very hard to operate in your “anaerobic zone” for long periods.

Fortunately, aerobic capacity is very responsive to training.

With 4–6 months of consistent training, you can develop the same adaptations that occur naturally in ethnic Tibetans, like high capillary density, more mitochondria in your muscle cells, and higher levels of certain enzymes.

Yes, it takes some time. Your aerobic system responds more slowly than your muscular and anaerobic systems. But take it from someone who has tried and failed miserably, there are no shortcuts to aerobic capacity.

And hey, it’s April, so you have a few months to work with. So let’s get going!

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Basic Endurance Training Principles

So how do you develop awesome aerobic capacity? Here are a few important principles to follow in your hiking and mountaineering training.

Gradualness

If you stress your body too much, you won’t see training gains over time. In fact, you may get weaker. So it’s important to build up your weekly training volume slowly.

Your total training hours should increase by no more than 10 percent a week. In the early season, you may actually find 5 percent increases more effective. Always log your training time to make sure you’re not ramping up too fast.

Specificity

When possible, choose strength and cardio exercises that resemble uphill hiking (or work the same muscles).

Try to get in at least one long hike or climb every week. Other good aerobic workouts for hikers include climbing stairs, stair mills, running on hilly terrain, and walking uphill on a treadmill.

Workout Cycling

Remember, workouts actually make you weaker. It’s rest that makes you strong.

So after increasing your training volume for 3–5 weeks, take a rest week. Dropping your weekly volume by 50–75 percent will prevent injury and give your body a chance to consolidate gains.

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Your 14er Training Plan

So now that you’ve picked your goal climb and reviewed the endurance training rules, here’s how to get in shape for climbing a 14er:

Aerobic Endurance (3–4x a week)

At least once a week, do one long aerobic workout. Ideally, this will be a training hike. (See more tips on planning these below.)

During this workout, keep your pace conversational so that you can easily breathe through your nose and talk to a friend. If you’re just beginning your training, start with 1.5 to 2 hours duration and work up from there.

(NOTE: you can also break your long workout into two “longish” workouts if that’s easier on your schedule.)

The rest of your aerobic workouts for the week should be in the 30–60-minute range. Again, keep an easy, conversational pace. This might mean walking instead of running, especially for the first few weeks.

When you start your third training cycle (usually in week 9 or 10), add one tempo workout per week. Intensity should be about 80–85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Start with 45 minutes and gradually raise the time.

Strength Training (2x per week)

Perform two full body weight training sessions per week, focusing on your core muscles and lower body. When possible, use free weights to recruit your core muscles and improve stability.

When choosing exercises, focus on sport-specific ones. For suggestions, check out my post on the 10 best weight lifting exercises for hikers and mountaineers.

When you’ve developed a nice base of strength, try increasing your pack weight during your training hikes. This will help to build your muscular endurance on trail.

Your 14er day pack will usually be about 10–15 pounds when you’re carrying proper survival gear, so start there and increase a couple pounds a week. Unless you’re also training for backpacking, you can max out at 20–25 pounds.

Bonus Tips for Your 14er Training Hikes

Plan your training hikes so that you gradually increase your elevation gain. If you’re new to hiking, ascending 1,000 ft. in a day might be your first goal. From there, increase 300–500 feet a week until you’re approaching the gain of your goal climb. (You don’t have to go all the way there, especially if your goal climb is a monster. But try to get 70–80 percent of the way.)

Determining the elevation of a particular hike can be a little tricky, especially if you live away from the mountains. Some useful tools to try:

  • Online hiking sites
  • Park websites
  • Hiking blogs (look for trip reports)
  • Caltopo.com (this is a free site where you can print topo maps and also plot points and distances)
  • Smartphone Apps like Strava and MapMyHike (track your hikes so you’ll have the distance and elevation data for future reference)

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How to Train for a 14er at Sea Level

There are two keys to training for mountaineering without a mountain: 1) creativity, and 2) a high tolerance for boredom.

Because let’s be honest. Hiking up and down an overpass is always going to be way more monotonous than climbing snow couloirs in the Rockies.

One major thing you can do to fight boredom is to break your weekly long hike into two shorter hikes. Each should represent at 20–30 percent of your weekly training volume.

And here are a few workouts to try if you don’t have a big, sustained slope to hike up:

Hilly Hikes

Sometimes hiking up and down on a hilly trail can add up to surprising elevation gains. Turn on Strava, head for the hills for a few hours, and see what you come up with. Make it a game to increase your elevation gain each week.

Hill Repeats

During my Mt. Rainier training, I had to go home to Cleveland for a week due to a family emergency. I scoured the internet and found a hiking trail called Furnace Run Loop that gains 360 ft. in 2 miles. Lapping that sucker eight times gave me 16 miles and almost 3,000 ft. of elevation gain. Not bad for little old Ohio!

Climbing the Architecture

Some unnatural stuff you can lap in the name of mountaineering training:

  • High rise buildings (take the elevator down to avoid a dizzy descent)
  • Parking garages
  • Stadiums and amphitheaters (your local high school is often a good bet)
  • Overpasses
  • Bridges

Keep your eyes out for other possibilities. Make the world your jungle gym.

Stair mills

It’s definitely no one’s first choice for a three-hour workout. But grabbing your backpack and hitting the stair mill can save a training day when you’re traveling for work or the weather is terrible.

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So there you have it. Exactly how to get in shape for climbing a 14er.

If you have questions or want to discuss training in more depth, I encourage you to jump into my Facebook Group. (Yes, I’ve been taking a Facebook break lately. But starting today, I’m back. And our awesome group is my No. 1 priority.)

Hope to see you there! Happy training.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Michelle
    Reply

    So good to see a fellow Ohioan! Especially from Cleveland!! I grew up in the Parma area, currently a little closer to akron… and dreaming of more hiking & outdoor time. Colorado is on my bucket list, though I have a feeling when I get there, I won’t want to leave. It was kind of like that with alaska too…
    I’m seriously considering thru hiking the AT, the Long trail, and maybe someday the Colorado trail! (Amongst 19 million other activities) But I’ve already fallen in love w the vibe of your blog. I see myself living the way you do in another year or so- my heart and soul are already committed, my reasoning brain just needs to get over itself, and my financials need to stabilize a tiny bit more, and BAM. Time to live with greater passion!
    Yikes, what a novel…we’ll nice to “meet” you!!

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Nice to meet you too, and thanks so much for reading and hanging out! Be very careful when you visit Colorado. So many people come for a vacation, then only go home to get their stuff! Also, if you know any great hiking trails in NE Ohio, I would love your advice. I will be spending a bit more time there in coming months, so need so places to get my fix.

  • Michelle
    Reply

    I’d suggest hiking as much of the Buckeye trail as possible! There are several places where you kind of have the option of following the paved hike/bike trail OR the more natural trail, which has some decent inclines, and a lot of beautiful woods. Follow the blue blazes!:)
    I’m dying to experience Colorado &to go back to Alaska…opting outside for life!!

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      That’s awesome! I never knew there was a thru-hike in Ohio. Have you done the whole thing?

  • Jim H
    Reply

    Excellent advice – Colorado approved! One can build amazing 14er fitness on a treadmill inclined at 15% – you will gain 792’ of elevation per mile. Train in your boots and pack. And a couple or three sessions per week in your local rock climbing gym will dramatically improve your scrambling skills. Best strength exercises are squats and weighted lunges.

  • El Jefe
    Reply

    Great advice! I’m going to tuck that treadmill nugget away for future use!

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