Is my training working?
Whether explicitly spoken or implied, this is the question many climbers ask of themselves, their friends, and perhaps their guides. At Alpine Ascents, we hear this question weekly. While the best answer to this question requires a comprehensive understanding of you and your objective, there are simpler ways to get a sense of your training’s effectiveness.
Is your training specific to your objective?
Consider carefully all of the physical demands that will be placed on your body during your trip, and train to meet those demands. Don’t train to meet other demands! This seems obvious, but wasting training time to hone unnecessary aspects of physical fitness is all too common.
- Distance. Does your trip require a blistering 25-mile approach on Day 1? You’d better be training your feet by doing high-mileage days in the mountains.
- Elevation gain. Need to ascend thousands of feet each day? Hike on trails with high elevation gains, walk dozens of laps on stairs or stadiums, or use a stair mill in a gym.
- Pack weight. Heavy pack? You need strength. Core strength, general upper body strength, and most importantly leg-strengthening exercises are key friends. Squats, lunges, box step-ups, etc.
- Low-oxygen environments. Reaching for the summit of Denali or Mount Rainier? High cardiovascular fitness is important for your body to deliver sufficient oxygen to your muscles and brain. Do lots of long (hours and hours long!), slow cardiovascular work to build a base. Add interval training or wind sprints to teach yourself to recover your breath.
- Long days. 12-hour summit days are not unusual on big mountains. Get out there for a dawn-to-dusk hike, and only take short 5-minute breaks every hour, so that your body is used to handling big physical pushes.
- Expedition camping. Will you be camping on the side of Aconcagua for two weeks? Plan a hike of the Wonderland Trail or another long route. Week long backpacking trips will train your body to be comfortable eating, sleeping, and living out of a tent. Comfort with these skills can ease the pressure on your body and mind.
- Off-trail terrain. Scree, rock, dusty trail, snow, ice, and uneven surfaces may await you in the mountains. If you’re going to be walking in the snow, plan to practice walking in the snow.
- Vertical climbing. Are you heading to Washington Pass to rock climb? Get into a local rock climbing gym to practice your movement skills and strengthen your fingers, forearms, and back.
Are you already able to do what you’re training to do?
If so, your training is working.
- Trekking in Patagonia. It’s 3,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss) across 12 miles to reach the famous Mirador las Torres. Most carry just a day pack. If your weekend training hike took you comfortably to the Keyhole on Colorado’s Longs Peak (12.5 miles, 3800 feet elevation gain), that’s a very good sign!
- Climbing Mount Rainier via the Disappointment Cleaver. Making it to Camp Muir requires you to haul ~40 pounds up almost 5,000 vertical feet of mixed terrain. Were you able to hike 3 laps up your local trail, which offers 2,000 feet of vertical gain? Did you wear a loaded backpack? If so, your training is working!
But, there are a few more considerations as you assess your training.
Can you do it fast enough?
Without training, many in average physical condition can make it to the finish line of a 26.2-mile standard marathon without too many problems. Unlike a monitored, attended marathon, mountain climbing is devoid of aid stations, easy opt-out points, and often impacted by concerns like weather/exposure and daylight. Finally, we’re often limited in how long we can attempt to move from Point A to Point B by the finite amount of food and water we carry.
So: the outdoor environment imposes time restrictions on our efforts. Thus, when you’re assessing your own training, it’s important to set time benchmarks that match real-world conditions. The rangers of Torres del Paine close the uphill gate to reach the Mirador las Torres in the afternoon, so you’ve got to be able to travel quickly enough to reach the uphill gate. On Mount Rainier, keeping a pace of ~1,000 feet of elevation gain per hour is important for safety and energy conservation.
Do you have enough energy at day’s end?
It’s key to be able to physically “make it” where you intend in the mountains, and key to make it within a required time frame. It’s also incredibly important to be able to complete your day’s journey with enough energy to setup camp (if necessary)…and by the morning, be refreshed and ready for Day 2’s physical output. At the end of a training session designed to mimic your objective, ask yourself, “Could I do this same workout tomorrow?”
If you’re climbing high enough, far enough, fast enough, and feel good enough to set camp and do it all again the next day, your training has worked well. Read below for a few fine-tuning comments, but congratulate yourself on having worked hard and trained well.
Are you really training?
Training is fundamentally different than doing an activity at a low level of output. While different training plans may incorporate easier days, rest days, or lower-output workouts, all good training plans require frequent intensity. If your training isn’t yet giving you the fitness you need but you are already training specifically for your objective, consider reflecting on the intensity of your training. A friend used to say, “If I’m not about to throw up at least once during a real training session, I know I’m not training.” Not every objective nor training plan requires pushing to the point of nausea, but this hyperbole is still a useful self-check.
I still don’t know/my training isn’t working!
In that case, consider a training plan, because nothing is a substitute for a professionally-crafted plan and/or the accountability of a trainer. Alpine Ascents guides, staff, and climbers have found success with Uphill Athlete training plans, and many other resources are available online or at your local gym should you need a little more help training.
Train hard, train smart, and you’ll be setup for success (and a good time!) in the mountains.
Director of Operations