4. The Best Thing You Can Do to Train for Mt. Rainier

 In Endurance Training, Hikes, Mount Rainier, Skills, Training
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Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.

Welcome back! So in yesterday’s post, we mapped out your Mt. Rainier fitness plan for the next few months. And if you got that far, you’re showing some serious signs of actually doing this! (Woot.)

Now let’s round out your training roadmap with some workout-specific details.

This brings us to one of the most important posts I have ever written.

It’s the number one thing you need to know to get yourself up the mountain.

And don’t worry, it has nothing to do with PMA or the Law of Attraction or #unicorns farting rainbow sparkles. It’s extremely concrete and actionable.

Sticking to this principle could have saved me so much pain and money in my mountaineering career!

Here it is:

Mountaineers, your #1 training priority is to build your aerobic endurance.

Write that down on a Post-It and stick it on your bathroom mirror (even if you’re not sure what it means yet.)

So what is aerobic endurance?

Basically, it’s the ability to exercise your cardiovascular system for long periods without tiring. When you train your aerobic system well, you’re able to move faster and climb harder with less fatigue.

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 don’t need to stop your whole rope team every 15 minutes to shove a goo in your face.

However. When your aerobic endurance is poor, your body will start tapping into your anaerobic metabolism to keep going.

Now anaerobic metabolism has its place in mountaineering (when you’re running from a serac fall, for example). 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 need to eat frequently or risk bonking. So it’s very hard to sustain for long periods.

climbing mt rainier difficulty

Why is aerobic endurance important for mountaineers?

Mountaineering is the ultimate endurance sport.

To put things in perspective, the typical mountaineer climbs for 12 hours to summit Mt. Rainier and return to camp. By contrast, a marathoner runs for maybe 4 hours. Without a pack.

Mountaineering also expends massive amounts of energy. Even a little runt like me can burn 3,000 calories climbing a mountain. I’d have to eat 30 goo packets in a few hours to fuel that anaerobically. And it still wouldn’t work, because my body can only digest so many calories an hour.

So it’s essential that I get to a level of aerobic endurance where I can move at a good pace for long periods while still using fat as fuel. And that means training for a high aerobic threshold. (More on that in a minute.)

So if aerobic endurance is the key to mountaineering performance, why is my trainer/CrossFit instructor telling me to do fartleks and tabatas?

Straight up: Probably because they have no effing idea what mountaineering actually involves!

Not to be too hard on fitness professionals. I’ve worked with several in my mountaineering career. All were awesome at what they did and got great results for many of their clients.

They all designed beautiful strength training programs for me. And a few also had me do intervals (anaerobic training).

But not one of them ever said to me, “You should lay off the weight lifting and go for more long runs.”

And it’s not just me. Several of my Mt. Rainier teammates hired trainers to get ready. Same story.

I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • Most fitness professionals, including those who specialize in outdoor athletes, haven’t trained many mountaineers. So they don’t appreciate the unique demands of the sport. Honestly, there aren’t very many sports where athletes exert for 12+ hours.
  • Unless they’re a distance running coach, they may not have a lot of experience with training endurance athletes in general. Now that I’m in the early stages of getting my CPT, I’m shocked at the lack of specializations out there for trainers who want to work primarily with endurance athletes.

But I suspect the biggest and most insidious problem is that both the clients and coaches are hoping for a shortcut.

As we’ll discuss in a minute, building aerobic endurance takes time. You have to put in a huge volume of training at low intensities to see results.

It’s definitely not a sexy area of fitness. It’s repetitive and slow. And no one’s figured out a fancy way to package and sell it to the masses. (Let’s face it, Endurance Blast Boot Camp! is kind of an oxymoron.)

By contrast, HIIT training and circuit training (think CrossFit) are super hot right now.

Doing these short, high-intensity workouts won’t improve your aerobic endurance. But they sure can give you a lean body and big muscles relatively fast. So you’ll look like you could climb a big mountain, even if you can’t.

The CrossFit trap (as I like to think of it) can be surprisingly seductive.

I’ve been distance running since high school, so I know the drill. But I’m always dreaming that some brilliant exercise physiologist will come up with a program that can speed up aerobic endurance training.

So I actually bought into the CrossFit trap when I was training for Mt. Rainier. Yes, this girl who knows better did 2–3 days a week of HIIT! And sometimes even a Tabata for good measure.

The results: I got to about 75 percent of max fitness, which was enough to get up the mountain. But I was also exhausted, overtrained and depressed. And to my shock, I struggled with weight gain as my body lost its tendency to burn fat as fuel.

Once I realized my mistake, I went back to classic endurance training. And just three months later, I climbed a much bigger mountain with greater ease and enjoyment!

The moral of the story: sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. Put that on your bathroom mirror too!

fitness plans for climbing mount rainier, miss adventure pants

Fitness Plans for Climbing Mt. Rainier: Aerobic Endurance

One awesome thing about aerobic endurance workouts is that they’re pretty easy to design yourself. Here are a few principles to follow.

Aerobic endurance exercises

Aerobic endurance training is delightfully nonspecific. Pretty much any activity that gets your heart rate up and that you can sustain for awhile will do the trick.

The following exercises have good crossover with mountaineering. Try to use them in your longer sessions:

  • Actual hiking and climbing (duh)
  • Running, especially on trails, stairs, and hilly terrain
  • Stair mills
  • Climbing steps
  • Walking uphill on the treadmill (increase the grade to at least 10 percent)

Of course, all of the above are high impact, and the training season is long. So if you are coming off an injury or want to reduce wear and tear on your joints, include some cross training:

  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Pool jogging
  • Rowing
  • Elliptical machine

If you’re coming off an injury or have chronic joint issues, you can even start the season cycling or rowing and transition gradually into more sport-specific activities.

Do 1–2 long aerobic workouts each week

Here’s how I structure my workout week.

  • In the last post, we talked about how to estimate your starting training volume. (Go back and grab that number if you need to.)
  • Now assume you’ll do two 50-minute strength workouts a week. So subtract 100 from your total volume.
  • Now divide the remaining minutes in half. This is the length of your “long” workout. If you have access to some wilderness, you can do it all in one go as a long hike or climb. But if you’re stuck in the gym this week, it’s fine to break it into two “longish” workouts.
  • Make up the difference in shorter aerobic workouts lasting at least 30 minutes each.

Start with low intensity

Start the season by doing all your workouts just below your aerobic threshold. This is the intensity where your body is relying almost exclusively on aerobic metabolism for fuel. For our purposes, we’ll measure it as a heart rate.

How to find your aerobic threshold:

  • First estimate your max heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.
  • Grab a heart rate monitor, warm up, and jog at an easy pace (about 65 percent of your estimated max heart rate). Observe what happens to your body as you increase your pace and heart rate.
  • Try to pinpoint the heart rate at which talking to a friend becomes difficult. (If you don’t have a friend, talk to yourself or pretend you’re on the phone.) Your sentences will start to get a little choppy as you inhale sharply at the end of them.
  • It’s also the heart rate at which breathing through your nose becomes a little uncomfortable. You may feel a bit oxygen starved after a few minutes at this pace and get the urge to open your mouth. Nose breathing will also get noisier (though not necessarily snorty).
  • For most people, your aerobic threshold will be around 75 percent of your max heart rate. But it can be lower or higher, so keep playing with it until you dial it in.

A word of warning: training at this intensity will feel really slow! At first, people will probably be passing you on trail and running past you in the park. But resist the urge to rush. You are training a very specific body system, and this is the best way to do it.

The good news is that as your aerobic endurance improves, your aerobic threshold will rise. It may take a couple months before you notice a difference, but it will happen! So be sure to reevaluate it every few weeks.

Ramp up for three weeks, then rest for one

Your total training volume (strength + cardio) should ideally increase by 5–10 percent each week. That being said, listen to your body. Don’t hesitate to repeat a week or rest earlier if you’re feeling overtrained. Remember, your goal is to train the whole season — not do every workout perfectly on schedule.

After two cycles, add one higher intensity workout per week

This should be performed at 80–85 percent of your max heart rate and should take up 10–20 percent of your total weekly training time. At this intensity, you will be tapping into your anaerobic metabolism, so you may be tired and sore afterward. Start slowly and allow extra time for recovery as needed.

And there you have it. A roadmap to take you from Bootcamp Betty (or Barney) to Endurance Beast!

I am really passionate about this area of training, mostly because I have listened to bad advice and felt the consequences. So if you have questions, please jump in the Facebook group (it’s free!) or hit me up by email.

And if you want even more training help and support, I have exactly the thing you need!

Introducing the Everyday Hero’s Mt. Rainier Training Bundle!

It includes a 21-week training plan (with all your aerobic endurance workouts mapped out). Plus an ebook, trip planning tools, a workout log, a wall calendar, and a gear checklist. And you won’t have to do math or make spreadsheets to calculate your weekly volume and training cycles! (Phew.)

mt rainier training plan ebook, miss adventure pants

So go ahead and sketch out your first week of aerobic endurance workouts. And then meet me here again tomorrow to talk about priority #2: strength training. Because it takes some serious mountain thighs to carry a 50-lb. pack up Mt. Rainier. And I’m going to show you how to get them!

See you then.

Catching up on the Mount Rainier 11-Day Planning Challenge? Find all the posts here.

mount rainier climbing itinerary, miss adventure pants

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Showing 4 comments
  • Mike G.

    Right on the money Sarah. Burning fat is the key for Endurance performance. I have some other endurance training tricks I’d like to discuss with you that go back to my competitive cycling background.

    • El Jefe

      Holy crap, I would love to hear them! We really must grab a hike sometime. I miss you!

  • Joe W

    I fell into the same HIIT trap- for me it was kettlebells. For 3 years. I really stuck to it.
    I should have been doing LED. Now, I do. Fun fact: you can actually improve endurance as you get older- you just have to train all season. And the off season. And then another season. Oh, don’t forget to train in that off season…

    • El Jefe

      Oh no! You too? At least I’m in good company. The thing that sucks is that kettlebell workouts are actually super fun. (And way shorter and less monotonous than running or walking uphill for hours.)

      And great point about endurance and age. I was actually reading up on some of the newer research on that after I turned 40. The thinking used to be that athletes would hit peak endurance in their late 20s and go downhill from there. But now that we have more athletes running ultras well into middle age, we’re realizing that the longer the distance, the later the peak. And older endurance athletes who keep up their training can often compete with much younger ones. So good news for mountaineers and outdoor athletes who didn’t start at age 22.

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