Strength Training for Mountaineering: What does your physiology have to do with it?

strength training for mountaineering: what does your physiology have to do with it?

by Lyra Pierotti, CSCS and Alpine Ascents Senior Guide

Climbing big mountains requires incredible endurance. You don’t necessarily have to move fast, but you have to keep moving for hours, days–sometimes even weeks. Training to have an excellent aerobic base is critical, not just for that continued movement ability, but also for your body’s ability to recover, day after day.

Some athletes naturally tolerate high mileage, endless vertical, and long days–and just seem to keep getting stronger. Others may feel beat down, require more rest, and actually require more strength training in order to tolerate all the repetitive movement on those long endurance days. This can be genetically or even hormonally programmed, and it’s really important to listen to your body’s specific needs, and train accordingly.

Let’s take some time here to dive into some details of strength training for your next big mountain objective…

What’s your muscle type?
Our skeletal muscles are composed of two fiber types: slow- and fast-twitch (or type I and type 2, respectively). Your specific composition is driven by several factors, including age, activity level, and genetics.

In general, fast-twitch muscle fibers tend to be easier to damage with overuse, but quicker to repair. Athletes who tend to show a natural tendency toward strength and power sports, or who tend to build muscle quickly, may thrive with more strength training than athletes with more of a tendency toward long aerobic activities. Strength training gives those easily fatigued fast-twitch muscles a higher tolerance (or durability) for the repeated muscular actions required in endurance activities. If you suspect you might be more of a natural strength and power athlete, you will likely need more strength training in order to tolerate endurance efforts.

Strength training should always be combined with a very intentional self-care program including mobility, self-massage, and relatively frequent appointments with a good massage therapist–because muscles which are fast to repair sometimes do a sloppy job of it. A massage therapist can help smooth your muscle fibers into alignment, and ensure separate muscle groups glide freely over each other–instead of getting bound together in knots and pulling at odds with each other, which can cause joint pain

For endurance athletes with predominantly slow-twitch muscle fibers, strength is also very important, but these athletes can probably handle higher mileage without as many sore muscles and knots. These athletes may not bulk up as much with strength training, but the gains can be significant with tendons and even connective tissues gaining strength.

How do your hormones impact training?
Another factor which will impact your own specific approach to training is your hormonal cycle. Male athletes are very well-researched. They have a circadian rhythm which drives daily hormonal patterns. Most recommendations for intermittent fasting, keto, optimal time of day to train, etc. that you read online are probably geared for male bodies.

These recommendations can be starkly different for the female physiology, which adds an infradian hormonal cycle on top of the circadian one: The roughly monthly menstrual cycle. For female athletes, keto and fasting is never recommended, though it can be tolerated during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle.

For female athletes, the most important thing to note is that you will need to consume 20-30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of exercise in order to promote muscle building. After this time, your body will start breaking down muscle (catabolism), so you want to be sure you’ve supported muscle building metabolism (anabolism) in the brief period of time you have post-training. This is very different from the male physiology which has several hours post-exercise to build muscle.

This simple nutritional change can powerfully impact the female body’s muscle composition in a surprisingly short amount of time. Whey protein is the top recommendation due to the specific amino acid composition (notably leucine) and the speed of absorption; but there are good vegan alternatives as well.

Female athletes will also want to try to consume 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, which is significantly more than has been taught to many of us. The research is evolving and contributes to many female athletes consuming far too few calories overall to support their activity levels.

All athletes (but female athletes in particular) need to be aware of the potential for Low Energy Availability (LEA). If female athletes experience fatigue, or a drop in performance, it might be an issue of under-fueling. Women in particular are subject to an inordinate amount of body shaming and may be culturally pressured to eat less. This can have dire consequences to performance and overall health.

Slow Down, Ease Off – but Always Show Up
Your optimal training type and load may look very different from someone else’s. When in doubt: Slow down your aerobic pace, and shorten your strength sessions. Research keeps confirming that submaximal work is intensely beneficial–so consider this your encouragement to enjoy the “workout that doesn’t feel like workout” and just get outside for a hike, or head to the gym and lift a few heavy things for a half an hour. This little bit is much, much better than putting it off for a longer session later and risking skipping that one, too. Build the habit of movement every day!

Keeping a detailed training journal or log will help you keep a laser focus on yourself and your own goals without getting sidetracked or sidelined by other athletes and inappropriate-for-you training regimens.

The best training program is the one that keeps you interested, motivated, and healthy. As such, you will miss less training sessions to injury, overuse, or burnout. When you’re spending several months training for Rainier–or several years of training cycles to prepare for Denali–you will have accumulated much more time and built up more experience if you stayed healthy and psyched and got in all those training days.

Training for mountaineering is all about the long game. Settle into a rhythm, have fun–and enjoy the many benefits to a lifelong habit of training!

Learn more about senior guide and coach Lyra Pierotti

lyra pierotti

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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