Aerobic Training for Mountaineering

aerobic training for mountaineering

Submission from Uphill Athlete

Mountain climbing is an aerobic sport. During a climb that can last hours or days, the energy required to keep moving comes from the aerobic metabolic system. This means that your body consumes oxygen at a rate that matches the supply to your working muscles. Climbers rarely engage in sprints or rely on the anaerobic metabolic pathway, except in rare emergencies. Given the paramount importance of aerobic fitness in mountaineering, it is the primary focus of our training at Uphill Athlete. Therefore, it is crucial to prioritize aerobic training as an integral part of your mountaineering fitness regimen.

Let’s talk about aerobic self-assessment for mountain athletes and why it is important.

Having a clear understanding of how your body metabolically responds to exercise is crucial. It allows you to establish personalized training intensity zones, giving purpose and control to your individual training sessions. Starting from a point of knowledge is essential in reaching your end goal. For a comprehensive discussion on the different methods available for establishing these baseline values, read our article on aerobic and anaerobic self-assessment.

When you’re ready to begin your training, the first tangible step is to assess both your Aerobic and Anaerobic thresholds. This crucial task applies to all mountain athletes, as it allows you to accurately define your training intensities for various workouts, including mountain climbing.

These straightforward tests serve multiple purposes, enabling you to:

  • Determine appropriate aerobic training intensities and establish training zones (which will be explained later).
  • Identify any aerobic deficiencies in your athletic performance.
  • Track your progress in developing aerobic capacity over time.
  • Keep in mind that you’ll need a recording heart rate monitor with a chest strap for accurate HR data. Wrist-based HR monitors won’t provide the precision required.

We recommend performing these two tests within the first month of training to assess your personal aerobic response to different intensities. The first test, which is particularly crucial for mountaineers, focuses on pinpointing your Aerobic Threshold (AeT) at a relatively low intensity. The Aerobic Threshold can be determined through various tests, all of which are discussed in the article linked above. It is advised to start with the Aerobic Threshold test as your initial workout.

The second test is the Anaerobic Threshold (AnT), also explained in the same article. The Anaerobic Threshold, often referred to as the Lactate Threshold, sets the upper limit of Zone 3 (Z3).

Assessing your Aerobic Threshold

Assessing the capacity of the aerobic system to provide energy can range from costly laboratory tests to educated estimations using formulas. This article provides an in-depth discussion of various methods for determining your Aerobic Threshold (AeT). We present these methods in ascending order of expense while discussing their advantages and disadvantages. Here is an in-depth article on Aerobic Self Assessment Tools.

Re-testing your Aerobic Threshold

Regularly re-testing your aerobic threshold is a valuable practice for those who train consistently. This is because your training heart rate zones will inevitably shift, specifically with your Aerobic Threshold heart rate increasing. However, we advise against testing it more frequently than every six weeks, as shorter timeframes may not yield significant improvements.

That’s why we highly recommend the HR drift test for aerobic threshold testing. It’s not only simple and cost-free, but it also allows for direct comparisons with previous tests. This way, you can easily track your progress over time.

When aiming to enhance your aerobic threshold, keep in mind these crucial factors:

  • Individual response: Everyone responds differently, so progress rates may vary.
  • Total volume: Increasing aerobic training is beneficial as long as it doesn’t hinder recovery.
  • Avoiding high-intensity: It’s especially important for athletes with aerobic deficiency, often caused by excessive HIIT training, to steer clear of high-intensity workouts during the initial training period (typically 8-12 weeks for most non-elite athletes).

By considering these factors, you can optimize your training approach and achieve your desired aerobic improvements.

How to define your Heart Rate Zones?

The concept of a heart rate zone system, used to define and control the intensity of endurance training, dates back to the early 1980s when Polar introduced the first portable heart rate monitors. While there are numerous zone systems available with different zone definitions, the following chart illustrates the system we utilize, which is also widely adopted.

Our approach is firmly grounded in connecting this zone system to two crucial metabolic markers – the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds (AeT and AnT). This personalized approach effectively tailors intensities to suit your unique metabolic response to different levels of exertion.

Zone 1:

Heart Rate: AeT-20% to AeT-10%

Perceived Effort: Very easy to easy

Training Effect/Purpose: Aerobic conditioning and recovery

Metabolism: Primarily aerobic-fat

Muscle Fiber Recruitment: Slow-twitch (ST)

Training Method: Continuous 30 minutes to several hours

Zone 2:

Heart Rate: AeT-10% to AeT

Perceived Effort: Moderately hard for high AeT, but easy for low AeT

Training Effect/Purpose: Aerobic capacity, economy

Metabolism: Aerobic-fat dominates, maximum fat utilization

Muscle Fiber Recruitment: Mostly ST

Training Method: Continuous 30–90 minutes

Zone 3:

Heart Rate: AeT to AnT/Lactate Threshold

Perceived Effort: Medium, fun-hard but sustainable

Training Effect/Purpose: Aerobic capacity, anaerobic capacity, lactate shuttle, economy

Metabolism: Glycolytic/anaerobic begins to dominate

Muscle Fiber Recruitment: All ST + some fast-twitch (FT)

Training Method: Interval 10–20 minutes, continuous up to 60 minutes

Zone 4:

Heart Rate: AnT/Lactate Threshold to maxHR

Perceived Effort: Hard, maximum sustainable for several minutes

Training Effect/Purpose: Maximal aerobic power, strength/speed endurance, economy, technique

Metabolism: Both aerobic and anaerobic capacities maximized

Muscle Fiber Recruitment: All ST + most FT

Training Method: Interval 30 seconds to 8 minutes


Assessing and improving your aerobic threshold is a valuable practice for consistent trainers. By incorporating methods like the HR drift test and considering factors such as individual response and total volume, you can optimize your training approach and achieve desired aerobic improvements.

Remember to define your heart rate zones based on personalized metabolic markers to tailor intensities to your unique needs. Stay committed to your training journey and enjoy the benefits of enhanced endurance and performance. Happy training!


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