Leg Strength and Alignment for Mountaineering: How to prepare for all that downhill pounding!

leg strength and alignment for mountaineering: how to prepare for all that downhill pounding!

By Lyra Pierotti, CSCS and Alpine Ascents Senior Guide

Ok, now that we have an idea of how we all operate as individual athletes from the previous blog post Strength Training for Mountaineering: What does your physiology have to do with it? let’s outline a framework for you to drive your own strength training, adapt a routine you found online, or to help ensure any guidance from professionals is meeting your body’s specific needs and actually driving the adaptations you want.

Keep a detailed training log.
You are your own best coach. Professionals can help guide you on your path, and give you the tools you need, but ultimately you’re the one who should be driving your training –because you’re the one who knows you best.

No matter where you’re at in your athletic career, from never-ever-having-trained-for -anything-before to professional triathlete to sponsored alpinist, a log will help you keep track of your progress and key into the messages your body is sending.

Start simply with a spreadsheet or document that tracks what workout you did. Give that workout a performance grade based on how you felt about it (A = superhuman, D = ended early, for example), and then track any soreness or recovery notes.

Treat yourself like a professional athlete.
My friends often humorously refer to my massage therapist, acupuncturist, and physical therapist as my “staff.” I don’t have any injuries, but if I do, I know who to call. And if I make sure to have monthly appointments with my massage therapist and acupuncturist, my body sure feels good. I am confident this kind of preventive care actually helps keep me out of the PT office!

I don’t consider myself a professional athlete, per se, but my body might say otherwise–I sure use it a lot as a mountain guide! Ponder this: Do professional athletes need elaborate bodywork routines to support their hard core training habits, or is it the skill of recovery and self-care which allows them to accumulate more miles and time, and eventually rise to the top of their sport?

Establish your own team of caretakers, indulge, and get on with your training!

Examine your movement skills.
For this, you may want to hire a professional, ideally someone skilled in looking at gait mechanics. Have a friend take a video of you running from all angles, and do the same for hiking with and without a backpack. Slow these videos down and see what you notice.

Pay particular attention to your knees! Do they track over your toes? Do your toes point roughly forward? This kind of alignment is important. If your toes point outward or your knees wobble at all, you may experience some level of knee pain at some point in your training. A good physical therapist, massage therapist, and/or personal trainer can help you align your movements in a way that can eliminate pain, promote durability and longevity, and even improve your endurance through more efficient use of your joints and mechanics.

Train healthy mechanics.
With a solid foundation of self-reflection and self-care, you can now start to train specific strength exercises with more awareness.

Slow way down, don’t use any weights at first. Stand in front of a mirror. Watch how your knees track over your toes when you do a squat. Same with lunges. Correct the joint actions and feel for any changes in sensation.

If you have any pain, stop and fix. The old adage “no pain no gain” has been thoroughly debunked–pain free movement is exactly how we make healthy gains and drive neuromuscular efficiency.

If this phase feels hard, don’t worry. Remind yourself that being able to do something consciously is a critical step toward making it automatic. It will come with practice.

Strength train with relatively heavy weights.
Ok, you’ve seen some progress on your joint mechanics and your movements are pain free! Now it’s time to add some weight. Spend the next week or so with relatively light weights. This will help to shake out any pesky and persistent issues with your newly refined movement patterns.

If you have never strength trained before, spend several weeks lifting 10-12 repetitions–this promotes what is called “hypertrophy” and builds up muscular bulk that you might need. If you can easily do more than 12 reps, add weight. If your form fails prior to 10, lighten up.

After you’ve gained a little experience and more muscle mass, it is time to lift heavier! This may seem counterintuitive for endurance athletes, but the goal of strength training is to increase strength without building too much bulky muscle, because muscle is heavy! Shorter, heavier efforts build efficient muscle action without adding bulk.

Aim for 2-6 repetitions in strength training. Be sure you can maintain good form for all lifts and if you feel even the slightest imbalance, call it quits. If you can do more than 6 reps, add a little weight, and if you can only make one good effort, lighten up a bit.

This strategy ensures you’re training good posture, alignment, and honoring the contribution that smaller muscles make to big movements. If you push too hard despite losing good form, you’ll drive muscular imbalance, poor mechanics, and inefficient movement patterns.

Remember, training is your opportunity to be mindful and build good movement habits so you can focus on the climb when the time comes.

Leg strength exercises with an eccentric component
Try these leg specific movements: Goblet squat, lunges, single-leg deadlifts, calf raises, toe-raises (to strengthen the muscle along your shin to help flex those stiff mountaineering boots). Go slowly through each movement and use a mirror to watch your joint alignment if possible.

Try box step-overs instead of simple box steps. For this variation, do exactly what it says–step over the box instead of back down to your starting stance. The ‘over’ part is critical. The downward phase, where your quads are loaded while they are lengthening (this is called an eccentric load), is very taxing on your muscles. Think of it this way–you’re essentially in a controlled fall where your muscle is overpowered and is giving way under the load. Give yourself a little more rest between efforts when focusing on training those downhill muscles.

Recover intentionally.
Recovery is part of training, not a break from it. It is important within sessions as well as between sessions. Within your workout sessions, lift your 2-6 repetitions (discussed above), and then rest until you feel fully recovered. Don’t worry about a timer, just listen to your body and begin again when you feel you have all of your strength back.

Properly recovering between workouts is critical for rebuilding and repairing muscle, and driving the adaptation process wherein you actually become stronger and fitter. Low level aerobic exercise can sometimes take less than a day to fully recover, while a hard strength workout can take up to three days.

Increasingly, research studies and athlete anecdotes are pointing to the benefits of sub-maximal strength training. You still want to lift heavy (the 2-6 rep protocol works well), but try keeping sessions shorter (under an hour) and gentler (moving slowly and recovering fully between sets). In this way, you may find that you are able to train more frequently, because your training is causing less muscle fatigue and damage. And with less acute training stress, you may find yourself avoiding injury and overuse, having an easier time building the habit of training, and sneaking in more movement overall. Keep this up, and after a few months you will likely have accumulated many more hours of training!

Recovery is more than just time off from training, however. It is also ensuring you get ample sleep, and getting your muscles to relax. Keep up with your massage therapy habit, and also learn to massage sore muscles yourself to keep knots away and ensure healthy and balanced muscle action. Knots functionally shorten the length of the muscle so ignoring these can lead to imbalances that may ultimately show up as joint pain!

Get sport specific with pack carries and downhill running.
Mountaineering may involve a little scrambling or steep snow and ice, but the majority of the physical demands involve walking for many hours a day with a heavy pack. As such, it is necessary to get sport specific with pack carries.

However, this can be overdone, so nailing the sweet spot is critical. Overtraining is an issue in every sport, but with heavy pack carries we can cause undue compression in our spine if we are sloppy, rushed, or impatient in training.

After you have spent some time strengthening your legs and core, start carrying a light backpack on your hikes. Keep it light for several weeks while your body adjusts to the new challenges to your posture and balance.

Next, take a detailed look at the climb you are planning. How heavy will your pack be? Will you need to carry a heavy pack for 2-3 days in a row? More? Or will you be alternating between heavy and lighter pack weights as you shuttle loads between Camps 1 and 2 on your expedition? Start to mimic your specific trip with your pack carries.

Mix in some downhill running to continue to develop the eccentric strength of your quad muscles without putting more strain on your spine with that heavy pack. Remember, there is a very fine line between preparing for heavy loads and doing too much for those small muscles in your spine!

I also recommend packing your actual equipment (plus some bags of rice or similar to mimic the weight of food and group gear) instead of using water jugs. This will ensure your pack feels more like what it will on your climb, plus you get the added benefit of practicing packing your kit.

You may have heard of training with water jugs so that you can dump the water out at the top to “save your knees.” If this is necessary for you to stay pain free, certainly go with it. But remember that you have two other avenues to assess the health of your knees: First, tend to the health of your quad muscles (eliminate knots!) and learn how to get your knees to track properly so you are not damaging the joint. Second, see a professional if you have persistent knee pain.

If your structure is healthy, you can likely build the strength necessary to tolerate a lot of downhill pounding. But if you do not adequately strengthen your legs, be prepared to have very, very sore quads for several days after your climb.

As you progress through your training, don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals with questions. It can be very worthwhile to hire a guide for a shorter climb or skills day a couple months before your climb, to make sure you’re on track and get a few more training tips. Personal trainers are also a great resource, even if they don’t have specific mountaineering experience, because they can help to identify your areas of growth. Climbing a big mountain is a huge investment of time and money–so be sure that yours is well spent.

Learn more about senior guide and coach Lyra Pierotti

leg strength and alignment for mountaineering: how to prepare for all that downhill pounding!

Years ago, a client on Tahoma/Mt Rainier told Lyra she sounded like a coach. Curious, she reflected on her own years as a competitive athlete and her passion for helping her guests achieve new heights. In addition to seeking technical guide certifications, she started her study as a fitness professional, becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and pursuing further studies of movement mechanics and the female physiology. Lyra now operates her own small personal training company called MOVEmentum and enjoys the opportunity to help her clients take a new approach to training for their big goals. Check out her website, www.movementumtraining.com for more information or to sign up for a free consultation.

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