How to Train for High Altitude Hiking at Sea Level
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Today’s post is based on a live training I did for our Facebook Group. You can watch the video above.
Or if you’re more of a reader, check out the transcript below. I’ve also added a bonus section with some recommended resources and gear to the end of the transcript.
Enjoy, and hope it’s helpful!
How to Train for High-Altitude Hiking at Sea Level (or Even Below)
Hey everybody, it’s Sarah, here with your live chat.
Tonight I’m going to be talking about how to train for a big-ass mountain when you live somewhere flat, because I know that’s what a lot of you are doing.
Here in the Facebook group, we have folks from Texas, folks from Indiana. I’ve seen folks from Ohio and all over the country (and other countries) who are trying to get ready for a big mountaineering trip or a big backpacking trip — and they have to do it without a mountain.
Is there a way to do it? Absolutely.
I know because I’ve done it.
I’m going to share my story with you tonight, and I’ll also give you my top three tips for training at sea level (or anywhere really flat).
My Story: Training for Kilimanjaro (19,341′) Below Sea Level
A quick intro: I’m Sarah Maurer. I’m a fitness coach who specializes in helping mountaineers and backpackers get in the best shape of their lives for big peaks.
This Facebook group is the best place to get your questions answered, so I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re not a member, definitely hop in and join us.
My training-at-sea-level story starts a few years ago. I was living in Bangkok. And my friend, who lives in Houston — another super flat place below sea level — calls me up. And she wants to know if I want to climb Kilimanjaro in about six months.
So I had to train for Kilimanjaro in Bangkok. And the way I did it was mostly by climbing stairs.
I lived in a high-rise building at the time, which was super helpful. I could put on my pack, put on some … we didn’t have podcasts back then, but I would put a movie or TV show on my iPod and just listen to the audio.
And I would march up the stairs as far as I could go — I think it was 18 stories in the building — and then come back down in the elevator, and then do it again.
I would literally do this for hours. It was really boring.
And it was also really hot, because … Bangkok. There was no air conditioning in the stairwell, so I was just a sweaty mess the whole time. It was really uncomfortable. I would drink a gallon of water while I was doing it.
The building was under construction, so the top few floors weren’t even lit. It was totally dark, so I had to take my head lamp so I didn’t trip while I was up there.
Also, because no one was really living up there, and they weren’t really working up there at the time, some bats had moved in. So as I was getting into the dark part of the stairwell, I could smell the poop. Sometimes I could hear them. They make little chirping noises.
It was like, ah, they’re up there. I hope one doesn’t fly and hit me in my face and get caught in my hair.
It was just a miserable slog, but every weekend, I would do it for hours and hours.
That’s what it took to train for Kilimanjaro when I was living below sea level.
I did have a few opportunities to go out and do some training hikes in Northern Thailand. But that’s about four or five hours away to get to the mountains. It wasn’t feasible every single weekend.
Did this work? Well, it probably didn’t work as well as training in Colorado.
But I did summit Kilimanjaro. I got altitude sickness, but I think that had more to do with us going up too fast instead of taking our time and being smart about the altitude.
My friend who trained in Houston did something similar (without the bat poop), and she did very well too.
In hindsight, one of the things I probably would have done differently is join a gym. I think having access to things like a Stairmaster and having some variety and some people around would have been very helpful for me during this process.
So can you train for mountain hiking at sea level? Absolutely.
In fact, some of the world’s great mountain athletes have trained in the flattest imaginable places.
Take cyclist Andrew Hampsten from North Dakota, the first American to win the (very mountainous) Giro d’Italia cycling race. He didn’t win the Tour De France, but he won the mountain stage and came in fourth overall.
How did he do it? He would ride his bike up and down the overpass ramp by his house in North Dakota over and over.
It was probably kind of a grind. But he made it work. Which brings me to an important point …
To train for high altitude at sea level, you have to have a special kind of hunger.
You have to really want it. Because let me tell you, it is boring sometimes.
You must have ways to keep yourself motivated, and you have to have a high tolerance for boredom. I think the people who don’t, they give up, and they don’t go to the mountain.
So how do you rise above and endure? Let’s dive into my top three tips.
1. Find Hiking and Mountaineering-Specific Exercises That Work for You
For your long hikes and your longer training sessions, you want to focus on sport-specific exercises. Basically, you’re going to want exercises where you’re stepping up or walking uphill.
How do you do that at sea level? Here are a couple exercises that work really well. For extra resistance, you can wear your backpack with some weight inside.
Climbing stairs and ramps
It’s just amazing how people train and they really do succeed using simple stair climbing — whether that’s climbing up stairs in a building or going to the gym and hopping on the Stairmaster. If your gym will allow you, you can Stairmaster for a couple of hours.
One caveat about the Stairmaster: Steve House and Scott Johnston (authors of Training for the New Alpinism) point out that it’s actually less effective than climbing real stairs or hills, because the step is descending under your foot. So it’s probably good to mix it up and avoid training on the Stairmaster exclusively.
Ramps are another option. Near where my mom lives in Ohio, there’s a parking garage with long, sloping ramps. And I’m always looking at it like, “Ah, I could run up that.” (I haven’t actually done it yet, but that might be an option for me to train when I’m home.)
You can also create the ramp effect by walking fast on a treadmill with the angle cranked way up. Wear a backpack for extra resistance.
Stadiums are another good one. I know here in Denver, obviously, we have lots of mountains. But on days when they can’t go to the mountains, a lot of people go to the Red Rocks Amphitheater and just run up and down the stairs or benches.
Small Hill Repeats
If you are in a place where the hills are small, that’s OK. Just go out and get on some hilly terrain and go up and down for a few hours. (Even if that means climbing the same hill over and over.)
Over time, you’re probably going to get some pretty good elevation gain. You can actually do the equivalent of hiking for hours up one big mountain like we do here in Colorado and then coming down.
There’s nothing wrong with breaking it up this way. You’re still working your muscles and getting in your cardio.
And you actually might have some advantage over someone who’s doing a long, sustained climb. Because then, when that person turns around and comes down, their heart rate goes down, and they lose some of the cardio benefits.
(Marathon) Step-Up Workouts
No matter where you’re training, there might be days when you just can’t get out and hike. And your friend for those times is an exercise called the step-up.
You’ve probably heard of it. It’s where you just basically step up onto a box or a bench with one foot, step down, step up with the other foot, step down. It’s really exciting, right?
The video below demonstrates the step-up exercise. One note: she does a whole set on the same foot before switching. But for long, sustained workouts, I actually recommend alternating your feet on each step. You can adjust the resistance by raising the height of the step or wearing a weighted backpack.
Now, you’re going to want to watch some Netflix while you do this, because it’s going to be boring if you do it for a few hours.
But just have a step-up marathon if all else fails. That’s totally fine. Put on some Game of Thrones or whatever you like and just go for it.
Also, if you know how high you step, you can actually figure out the elevation climbed. If you have a tally counter (clicker), you can count your steps.
2. Break Your “Long” Workout Into Two “Medium” Workouts
How do you get through a marathon step-up workout without dying of boredom? I’ve experimented with this, and here’s my best advice.
If possible, you should do one long, sport-specific workout a week. This should take up 30 to 50 percent of your total training time for the week. It should be getting longer every week. And then every few weeks you can ease off and take a break.
But if that workout duration is just killing you — if you’re crying on the Stairmaster because you’re so bored and you’re losing all your motivation — just break it up.
Make it into two medium-length workouts. It’s totally okay to break that time up. Just as long as you’re getting your total training volume in for the week, that’s great.
For a little extra bang for your buck, you can do your two medium workouts on back to back days. But you don’t have to.
Now if you can tolerate very long training sessions once in a while, I think that’s good psychologically. It’s a chance to get your brain and your feet used to working for longer. I recommend hiking for those workouts whenever possible.
But if you’re just really, really bored and out of your mind, it’s totally okay to break it up.
Want to see an example?
I created a training plan that shows you how to schedule the same workout volume for mountain training and flat-land training. This allows you to mix and match schedules so you can grind out a long workout during the weeks when you’re feeling motivated — and also break it up when you need to.
You can download the first 4 weeks of the plan for FREE. (While it’s somewhat specific to Mount Rainier, the schedules will also work for general mountain hiking.)
3. Stay Hungry.
I’m going to be really honest with you. If you’re training at sea level, you’re just going to have to have more motivation than someone who is training in Colorado or Washington state.
They get to go climb beautiful mountains every weekend, and it’s gorgeous, and birds are singing. And you are running around the mall in traffic, right?
A good way to think of it is in terms of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation.
If you’re into long backpacking trips or mountaineering, you almost definitely have some intrinsic motivation.
You’re doing this because you love it, and because you’re really hungry for your goal.
But no one on earth is intrinsically motivated 100 percent of the time. We’re just not wired that way as humans.
So think about adding some extrinsic motivation into your program. That’s motivation that comes from outside of you.
One of the best sources of extrinsic motivation is social support.
I know that when I was training for Kilimanjaro in Bangkok, my friend in Houston was a great source of support. We could Skype each other and talk about how boring and terrible it was to train in these flat places.
And we could also talk about how awesome it was going to be to see Africa and all the new gear we were buying.
Just having her there to talk to and complain to and get excited with was so important.
So if you have a buddy that you can train with, I think that is huge.
You can also find social support online. There are so many people who are just training by themselves who need community for support and motivation.
That’s one reason I created my Facebook Group. A lot of us in that group have been through the whole training-at-sea-level thing. And we will try to lift you up and do our best to help you.
People who aren’t in training can also motivate you. Maybe your partner, child, or friend can serve as an accountability buddy who’s watching you and cheering for you, but also making sure you stay on track. And you can also help them with a goal, whether it’s eating better or quitting smoking. It’s a great way to get important people in your life involved in the journey.
Rewarding yourself can also help.
Obviously you have a huge goal, which is the climb or the hike, but make little goals too.
It might look something like: Okay, if I hit all my planned workouts for the next three weeks, week four is my rest week. And if I’ve been consistent with my training, I’ll take that week to travel to the beach and relax.
I did that once in Thailand, and it was great. I didn’t really work out that much, other than jogging on the beach a little. I didn’t do any stairs. No bats. No poop. It was fantastic.
You can actually make your rewards bigger over time as you progress towards your goal. Maybe when you meet one of your early goals, you get a little piece of gear like a water bottle. And as you crush bigger goals, you can reward yourself with a new bike or a mini-vacation.
Bonus Tips: Gear Recommendations
Here are a few essentials to help you plan your flat-land training and beat the boredom!
- Training for the New Alpinism ($29) by Steve House and Scott Johnston. This book shows you how to build a mountaineering training plan step-by-step. It includes many exercises that can be done outdoors and with minimal equipment. I’ve incorporated many of these ideas into my training this year, and I’m getting good results.
- Audible (FREE trial, plans start at $15 per month). Listen to almost any book while you hike hill repeats, climb stairs, or workout at the gym! I especially love this service when I’m taking long hikes alone. And I can’t believe how much more reading I get done since I joined. To see if it’s for you, sign up for a FREE 30-day trial.
- Wahoo Tickr Heart Rate Monitor ($49). One advantage of repetitive workouts and gym workouts is that you can get super targeted with your heart rate training. Heart rate monitors can be pricey, but I’ve found that this inexpensive one totally gets the job done. The interface is a phone app, so it’s best for people who work out with their phones.
So there you have them. My best advice on how to train for high altitude hiking at sea level.
You’re going to have to be tougher in your mind. You’re going to have to work harder.
But you know what? It’s going to be that much sweeter when you actually do get there.
I know for me, standing on top of Kilimanjaro after spending like 300 hours of my life walking up stairs in bat poop to get there — it was just so sweet when that moment finally happened.
It’s a different feeling than someone who’s trained in Colorado who’s been on a dozen summits during training. It’s a lot better.
Anyway, if you have any questions, experiences, or tips to share, go ahead and pop them down in the comments.
And if you’re training and want some extra motivation and support, be sure to hop into the Facebook Group!
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Originally published August 20, 2018.