Hikers, are you trying to train for a big peak by spending hours and hours on the Stairmaster? Or are you tired of putting on your heavy backpack and marching up and down the same hill 20 times? Or maybe you haven’t started training because you don’t think that you have enough time to get the job done.
If this is you, this post is for you!
Many of you know my story of training for Kilimanjaro at sea level using classic endurance training. This method was very effective for me. However, I want to introduce you to an alternative approach that may be a better fit for those of you who are training in the gym or have limited training time.
Meet Chelsea Ricketson and Lee Ring, CrossFit coaches and owners of CrossFit Lobo in San Antonio. When I met Chelsea in my Facebook Group, I knew I had to interview this amazing couple. Because not only do they help athletes achieve amazing fitness and confidence in just a few hours a week … they are also training for Mt. Rainier! So they know exactly what some of you are going through.
In today’s interview, Chelsea and Lee answer your most pressing questions about CrossFit training for hiking and mountaineering. Enjoy, and feel free to drop additional questions in the comments.
Crossfit for hiking and mountaineering training
Sarah: To start with, could you tell us a little about yourselves and your approach to coaching?
Chelsea: I’m Chelsea and this is Lee. We’ve been CrossFit gym owners for the last three years. One thing we really pride ourselves on is leading a community of members. We’re focused not just on helping people grow as athletes but also on their mental and spiritual well-being. It’s awesome to see out members bonding so tightly both inside and outside of the workouts.
Lee: Definitely! That being said, we’re a strength-based gym. So you’re gonna lift every day, and on top of that, you’re going to do all the high-intensity exercise people associate with CrossFit. Rather than specializing in a certain sport, you end up being a lot stronger from head to toe.
Sarah: We hear a lot about CrossFit these days, but I think a lot of people don’t realize what it actually is or what it involves! Can you give us an overview?
Chelsea: Officially, CrossFit is constantly varying functional movements performed at high intensity. So what does that mean exactly?
Functional movements mimic the activities that you do not only in sports but also in your daily life like pulling, pushing, and squatting.
For example, when we think about squats, we often picture people doing them in the gym with a barbell. But really, you’re squatting all the time every day, no matter if you’re a little kid on the playground or an older person picking up your grandchild. We all need basic mobility in order to be healthy and get through the day.
We can also lose mobility through age or inactivity. Think of an older person who’s chairbound because they don’t have the leg strength to stand and sit.
So at CrossFit, we take you through the functional movements you need to be healthy and active. And just like the movements you do in life, they’re constantly varied. At our gym, it’s rare that you’re going to see the same exact workout in the same year.
And finally, our workouts are done at a high intensity. The beauty of the high intensity is that it gets your heart rate up. That’s really where you see the magic happen — not just physically but mentally and emotionally.
Sarah: Traditionally, endurance coaches prescribe a lot of sport-specific training. How do you approach endurance training differently in CrossFit?
Lee: It’s funny, the guy who got me into CrossFit was a special operator in the Air Force. On my first day of class, he mentioned that he’d just run a marathon. Which was weird, because he also couldn’t stand running.
I asked, “How did you do that?”
And he said, “CrossFit.”
I said, “We don’t run that much in CrossFit.” In fact, it was the dead of winter in Germany, so we hardly went outside at all.
And he said, “Yeah, well, I didn’t win it. I just wanted to prove that I could do it.”
I think that’s a great example of how CrossFit can improve performance across the board for athletes in all sports. Are you gonna go out and win an Olympic medal with this approach? No. But you are definitely going to to develop your overall endurance and strength — and especially your mental toughness.
Chelsea: Exactly. We have a high school girl who’s been with us since she was about 12. She did a Spartan race last weekend — just because some of her friends wanted to do it. She came in all bruised up and scratched, but smiling too. And she told the class, “Any of you guys could do it. If you do CrossFit, you can easily do that Spartan race.”
Now, I think she did the shorter race, and she wasn’t there to dominate. But I think her story shows the sense of empowerment and confidence you get from doing CrossFit during the week, and then being able to jump into almost any endurance sport and do it adequately. Whether it’s the Spartan Race or a 5K — or even a marathon in some cases — you can do it.
Sarah: In classic endurance training, we talk a lot about the importance of long, slow distance workouts and building up your aerobic base. But I think we tend to underestimate the importance of high-intensity exercise. Can you talk about some of the benefits?
Lee: CrossFit trains both the aerobic and the anaerobic energy systems. But we do emphasize high-intensity exercise as the best tool to develop cardiovascular fitness.
Back in the early 2000s, [CrossFit founder] Greg Glassman set out to design a program for people who want to get as fit as possible with limited time. In other words, if you only have an hour a day to work out, how can you get the most out of it?
His answer was to work out at high intensity with the best form possible and hit as many energy systems as you possibly can in that hour.
Now, low and slow? Great. Most hiking is going to be very aerobic — long, slow, and steady with a slightly elevated heart rate. So especially if you’re training for a goal like Mount Rainier, you have to add some of that. As part of our Rainier training, we’ve had to get used to moving slowly for a longer time versus an hour of basically kicking the crap out of ourselves!
But on a big climb, you’re also going to need to kick into your anaerobic system now and then to push past an obstacle or make that final push to the summit. And that’s where the high-intensity workouts really benefit you. So it’s good to have a balance of both.
Sarah: I imagine there’s also a certain mental toughness that comes with all that high-intensity work that’s valuable to hikers and mountaineers!
Chelsea: Definitely. For example, I’ve always loved running. I did 5Ks and also a little bit of cross-country and track in high school. I love the meditation and mindfulness of it. It shuts my brain off and makes me happy in a way that CrossFit rarely does.
But one thing that I love about CrossFit is that it made me a better person internally. You really go through a spiritual battle day-in and day-out in order to lift up that weight!
Sometimes working out feels shitty. It highlights all the best and worst parts of you. It’s especially tough here in Texas, when it’s hot and you’re doing burpees and thrusters and jumps — and just dying. I’ve gotten so angry that I kicked a bucket across the room. How’s that for sportsmanship?
But that’s my favorite part about CrossFit. You have to confront that person inside of you on a daily basis because of the high-intensity and because the movements are so unpredictable. You’re stepping into the unknown every day, which makes you more mentally and spiritually agile. You get to a point where you’re like, “You know what? Whatever life has for me today, I’ll handle it.”
Sarah: I can see that mental toughness and agility being a huge benefit on your Mt. Rainier climb!
Lee: For sure. This kind of mountaineering is new to us. We’re definitely headed for the unknown. We’re not sure how our minds and bodies will react. But CrossFit has taught us that whatever happens, we can deal with it.
Sarah: I really think mindset is everything in mountaineering. On Mount Rainier, you’re going to climb 10,000 feet in a day or two. There’s almost no way you can prepare yourself for that physically. At some point, you really have to dig deep and find that mental toughness. I’m convinced 80 percent of that climb — of most big climbs — is mental. So from that standpoint, you’ve got a big advantage!
Chelsea: That’s good for us to hear, because there’s only so much we can do. There’s not a whole lot of elevation here, so we’re doing our best.
Sarah: I’m very curious about how you’re training for Mt. Rainier. How do you break up your week between CrossFit and long, slow distance?
Chelsea: For me, I do CrossFit anywhere from four to six days a week. And once a week, I do a 5K on the rower. It’s not really hiking-specific, but it gets me into like low intensity cardio space for a long time.
We also go on a 90-minute hike once a week with our packs, and I add about three pounds of weight every time. I think I’m up to about 33 pounds at the moment.
And then throughout the week, we add sport-specific exercises into our workouts like weighted step-ups and box jumps. We’ll try to hit 100 to 200 reps of those a week while holding weighted sandbags around our necks.
Lee: We got some great advice from a friend’s son who was a huge CrossFitter and now does a lot of mountaineering up in the Pacific Northwest. He says that strength is great to have, but your breathing is crucial. If you learn how to control your breath and your heart rate at altitude, you’re going to acclimate faster and perform better.
There are CrossFitters, and I used to be one of them, who will drive themselves really hard until their heart is coming through their throat, because they think that’s what fitness is about. But that’s not really training much of anything. So we’ve worked a lot more on finding our tempo and controlling our heart rate and breathing and then translating that into workouts.
Sarah: Do you have any endurance training success stories among your CrossFit members you’d like to share?
Lee: One of our coaches, Becca, runs 5Ks, 10Ks, and half-marathons. Like many of our members, she’s a recreational runner who’s not out to set course records. But through CrossFit alone, she PR’d her 10K last month and has PR-ed her 5K several times over. This is with zero running training — just the strength and endurance workouts she gets from teaching and doing CrossFit five days a week.
Sarah: It sounds like CrossFit can work for all kinds of people: kids, older adults, athletes, beginners. Do you think it’s the best approach for everyone?
Lee: I used to say it’s for absolutely everybody. But I’ve changed my mind about that.
Any person can do it physically. All of the movements can be modified for your fitness and skill level. But not everyone has the mindset.
For example, one of our members who’s in her late 50s came to us very overweight. She had never exercised, was in remission after breast cancer treatment, and could barely walk for 10 minutes. But she showed up ready to work every day. Since then, she’s lost 70 pounds, and now she’s running and feeling amazing.
And at the same time, I’ve had Division 1 college athletes come through who were in great shape but just weren’t ready to trust and buy into the program. When you’re coming into CrossFit, it’s important to check your ego. We can tell you from experience that you’re going to be challenged, and sometimes you just have to take a big bite of humble pie and keep going.
It’s also important to understand that CrossFit is a community, and each gym is different. It’s like walking into Thanksgiving dinner at three different houses on the same block. You don’t know what you’re gonna get.
Chelsea: You’re gonna get turkey.
Lee: Probably, but it’s gonna be different each time.
Sarah: Is there anyone you would not recommend CrossFit to?
Lee: Probably the number one thing to keep in mind is that CrossFit doesn’t specialize. It’s focused on creating well-rounded functional fitness. So if you want to compete at cycling, running, powerlifting — and if you want to reach the elite level of your sport — it may not be the best approach for you. Because to move into that top 3–5 percent, you will need to specialize.
Chelsea: It’s also important to keep in mind the risk of overtraining. Because if you’re at that level of the athleticism, you’re putting in hours and hours a week of training already. So if you want to throw CrossFit into the mix, that could be a recipe for burnout and overtraining.
Sarah: You two, thank you so much for talking to me today! It’s definitely opened my eyes to the benefits of CrossFit for hikers and mountaineers in training. Have an awesome day and hope you’ll stop back and let us know how things go with your Rainier climb!
Chelsea: Yes, will do!
Chelsea and Lee are the owners of CrossFit Lobo, a CrossFit gym in San Antonio, Texas. They were in the military for a few years before settling in San Antonio. A few years ago, they came across an opportunity to take over CrossFit Lobo, and they have enjoyed owning and operating the gym ever since. Chelsea runs her own blog on Almost Elite, where she shares her experiences as a gym ownership and delves into the personal development piece that is so crucial to business ownership anywhere.
Follow Chelsea’s and Lee’s adventures at:
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Originally published May 17, 2019.