Wouldn’t it be nice to live in Aspen so you could hike out your back door for mountaineering training? Unfortunately, if you’re like a lot of climbers, you live in a place like Cleveland, Tampa, or Dallas that requires you to do a lot of training in the gym. So today, let’s talk about how to get a damn good hiking workout on the treadmill.
When I start talk about training for backpacking and mountaineering, people always ask:
Can you actually get a good hiking workout on the treadmill?
My answer is … yes! In fact, sometimes it’s better to train in the gym, because you can control all the variables in your workout.
For example, it’s hard to keep a steady pace in your target heart rate zone when you’re hoofing it up the side of the mountain. But with a little practice, it’s really easy to do on a treadmill.
Also, running on a treadmill is safer and easier on your joints than running on pavement or a trail. So while it’s fine to train outdoors, mixing in some treadmill time cuts down the wear and tear on your body.
So if you’re convinced, let’s get started.
Here are 3 kinds of hiking workouts you can do easily in the gym.
1. Aerobic endurance
These are longer aerobic workouts lasting from 30 minutes to several hours performed at a moderate heart rate. Some coaches also refer to them as “aerobic threshold” or “long, slow distance” workouts. Benefits of this type of exercise include:
- Increase in the mitochondria density of certain muscle cells. Mitochondria are little structures in your cells that produce ATP, which is the main energy source for your muscles during moderate activity.
- Stimulate increased production of aerobic enzymes necessary for ATP synthesis.
- Boost the density of capillaries, which are tiny blood vessels carrying oxygen to our muscles.
Aerobic endurance workouts are very important, because they build your aerobic “base” over time.
In fact, this sort of workout should make up about 80 percent of your training time as an endurance athlete.
One of the biggest mistakes athletes make when performing aerobic endurance workouts is going too hard. Our natural hiking pace actually tends to be a bit above what’s optimal for aerobic endurance work. This means you tire yourself out more than you need to without getting additional benefits.
For this reason, doing some of your aerobic endurance work on a treadmill can be very beneficial.
On its face, this workout is super simple. Just hop on the treadmill and run for the planned duration.
How long exactly should your aerobic endurance workouts last? And how often should you do them?
To see an example of an intermediate workout plan, download the first four weeks of my Mt. Rainier Training Plan FREE:
Here are some tips for making sure you’re exercising at the right intensity to develop aerobic endurance:
- If you know your aerobic threshold heart rate, wear a heart rate monitor during this workout to make sure you’re staying in your target heart rate zone. Read this post to learn more about estimating your aerobic threshold.
- You should be able to talk pretty easily without gasping during this workout.
- Nose breathing should be quiet, not labored or snorty.
- The intensity level should feel like 3–4 on a 10-point scale, with 10 being all-out effort.
Some additional tips for a great aerobic endurance workout on the treadmill:
- Aerobic endurance often feels really slow — especially if you’ve been doing it too fast in the past! Have faith in the process and stick to the guidelines, even if you end up walking.
- Increase the treadmill incline slightly (2–3 percent) to decrease your running cadence and reduce stress on your joints.
- For variety, wear a weighted backpack while walking on an incline (7–10 percent is often enough to get your heart pumping).
- Boredom is a huge issue with these types of workouts. If you have a very long workout planned, consider splitting it into two shorter workouts. You will still get almost all the benefits of a single workout, and you won’t wreck your motivation!
2. Lactate threshold intervals
Intervals are repeated periods of hard effort followed by periods of easy effort and recovery. They’re very efficient at increasing your speed and stamina as an endurance athlete.
Lactate threshold (LT) intervals are performed at or just below your lactate threshold. This is the exercise intensity where acid (a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism) begins to accumulate in your blood. (To learn more, check out this post on aerobic and anaerobic metabolism.)
LT intervals are especially useful for hiking and mountaineering because they raise the intensity level at which acid buildup begins. This allows you to hike faster and work harder before discomfort sets in. For this reason, I recommend doing an LT interval workout at least once a week.
To estimate your LT, put on your heart rate monitor and perform a 20-minute run at the fastest pace you can sustain. Then take your average heart rate and multiply it by 0.95 to estimate your LT. Perform your LT intervals at within 10 beats below your lactate threshold.
If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, just perform your LT intervals at a 6-7 intensity level on a 10-point scale (with 10 being all-out effort).
Here’s a simple 55-min. lactate threshold interval workout for beginners:
- Warm up with 10 minutes of easy cardio. Start with walking and gradually increase the pace until you are jogging lightly.
- Perform 5 x 5-min. LT intervals with 5 minutes of rest in between.
- Keep your pace steady throughout the interval. It’s best to start a little slow and pick up a bit in the second half. It’s fine if your heart rate takes a couple of minutes to hit the target zone. Don’t try to sprint to drive it up.
- During your rest period, jog lightly or walk.
- Finish with at least one interval left in you. Stop whenever you reach this point, even if you haven’t completed five intervals.
Progress the workout by increasing your interval time, number of intervals, or decreasing the rest period.
Need help with the math? My mini ebook Intro to Intervals includes a table that can help you progress your LT interval training:
3. VO2 Max intervals
Because VO2 max intervals are performed at near maximal intensity, they increase the risks of injury and cardiovascular events. See a doctor before exercising at maximal intensity if you have a chronic illness or risk factors for heart disease. Don’t begin these workouts until you have built a solid base of aerobic fitness and are exercising 6–8 hours a week.
This is another type of interval workout that improves your body’s ability to transport oxygen. It’s especially useful for hikers who are headed to higher elevations. When there’s less oxygen available, you need to be able to move it efficiently to your muscles!
VO2 max intervals involve working very hard (8–9 on the intensity scale) for short periods (30 seconds to 3 min.). As in other interval workouts, periods of effort are followed by periods of recovery.
Not every hiker needs to train for VO2 max.
Consider adding a VO2 max workout once a week if you are training for a big goal like a mountaineering trip and you are already doing 6–8 hours of cardio.
I recommend that beginners actually perform VO2 max intervals in sets, much like lifting weights. Here’s what this might look like:
- Warm up for 10 minutes.
- Perform 3 sets of 3 VO2 max intervals. Intervals should last 1 minute with 3-min. rest periods between intervals. Rest 10 minutes between sets. This will give you a total of 9 min. of hard effort.
- Cool down for 10 minutes.
Performing aerobic intervals on the treadmill can be tricky. Here are some tips for a safe, effective workout.
- Be very comfortable with your treadmill and its controls before attempting to run at fast speeds.
- Start slowly (effort level 6-7). Gradually increase the speed over the course of one minute until your effort level hits 8–9.
- If you find it hard to reach the target intensity with running alone, try raising the incline by 1–5 percent.
- Just can’t dial this one in on the treadmill? Pause it, hop off, and do a minute of burpees or squat jumps. Return to the treadmill for your recovery intervals and your rests between sets.
- Heart rate is a poor indicator of effort during short intervals. Listen to your body instead. Exercise at the highest intensity you can sustain for the interval.
- As with LT intervals, always finish with one interval left in you. Stop when you feel very fatigued.
Some general treadmill pro tips
- If you are new to treadmill workouts, start slowly. Take some time to understand how the controls work. Wear the safety key, which stops the machine if you fall.
- Try to avoid gripping the handles of the treadmill. This decreases your heart rate. If you’re tempted to grab, decrease your speed.
- Don’t hog the treadmill during peak hours at the gym. If you’ve got a longer workout planned, try to do it when the gym is not crowded.
- Be considerate. Wipe off the treadmill console and handles when you are finished and return the incline to 0.
There you have ’em. 3 ways to get a damn good hiking workout on the treadmill.
Got any treadmill training tips? Comment to share.
Originally published March 22, 2019.