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When it comes to mountaineering, preparation is everything. Much more demanding than hiking, ascending a mountain requires a higher level of fitness as well as experience with a variety of terrain. From training your body and making sure you have the technical skills for a safe, successful climb to training your mind for the endurance ahead, there’s a lot to do in order to get yourself ready. On top of that, you’ll also need to be equipped for pushing your body at high altitudes.
The great news, however, is that mountaineering can be done by anyone, as long as you’re generally fit and healthy and determined. Whether you’re going to be on a mountain trail for a few hours or considering multi-day expeditions, training is essential.
Here’s everything you need to know about training for a climb.
Initial Goals and Questions to Ask
The amount of training you will need depends on the type of mountaineering you’re going to be doing. There are two main types – expedition-style and alpine-style. Alpine mountaineering is the most common and tends to involve a simple, straightforward climb without the use of high-altitude porters and supplemental oxygen. Expedition climbs, on the other hand, have a fixed-line of stocked camps along the route, and expedition staff will travel up and down the route to fix ropes and set up the camps.
Both styles will require training, especially for challenging peaks and multi-day trips. But within both categories, there are a range of routes with different difficulty ratings.
At Undiscovered Mountains, our mountaineering and alpinism holidays have climbs that are graded in the following scale:
- F = facile/easy:with some gentle rock scrambling or easy snow slopes, and may include some glacier travel. These climbs are often ropeless (unless on glaciers).
- PD = peu difficile/a little difficult:involves some technical climbing or complicated glaciers.
- AD = assez difficile/fairly difficult:with some steep climbing or extended snow/ice slopes above 50%. Best suited to experienced alpine climbers.
- D = difficile/difficult:with sustained hard rock and/or ice or snow, reserved for serious climbers with years of experience.
- TD = tres difficile/very difficult:long climbing routes that are remote and highly technical. Best suited for professional climbers.
- ED + extremement difficile:very tricky climbs with the most continuous difficulties along the terrain. There is usually increasing levels of difficulty as the route gets higher.
Knowing what your initial goals are is important. If you want to achieve a climb that is slightly beyond your current fitness level, you will need to make sure your training plan pushes you further than you’ve gone before.
There are lots of questions you’ll need to ask too. Such as how long you’ll be at high altitudes and what the acclimatisation time is, how many days you’ll be climbing in total, whether you’ll need to train on any new skills (such as rope work), what equipment you’ll be using (such as crampons etc.), and how much weight you’ll be carrying. All of these factors will affect how much you need to train. But it doesn’t matter what time of climb you’re doing – altitude, ascent and cardio training are all vital and should be a fundamental part of your mountaineering prep. That’s why proper physical conditioning is essential, allowing you to climb for longer, move faster and stronger, carry heavier loads on your route, and recover quickly at rest.
For experienced or inexperienced climbers, a guide is always recommended. We use fully qualified UIAGM high mountain guidesfor all of our summits in the Alps. Not only can they ensure safety and efficiency for your climb, but they have the best local knowledge and can help you navigate challenging terrain. Even with a guide though, a solid training regime is still needed as guides are there as support but they can’t do the hard work for you.
Timeline / Schedule
We recommend having 8 weeks prior to your climb for training. This is the bare minimum though and a programme lasting 12 weeks or more would be ideal for ensuring your fitness levels are up to scratch. Of course, it will also depend on the difficulty of the peak and the length of your climb. For long expeditions with challenging terrain, the earlier you can start training the better.
Within this timeframe, it’s important to stick to a strict schedule of training. Ideally, you need to be doing exercise and training sessions at least three times a week.
It may also be helpful to break down your training timeline into a number of key phases. These are:
- First phase – fitness
The initial phase of your training should focus on general fitness. For athletes and those who regularly run or hike, this stage may be relatively easy and it’s just a matter of adjusting your workouts. For those who aren’t used to intense exercise, this stage will allow your body enough time to adapt to the new regime. Make sure you incorporate both cardiovascular fitness and motor fitness training.
- Second phase – general uphill training
Once you have established your base level of fitness with cardio and motor skills, you will need to prep your body for uphill territory. Take your workouts to the next level, with mountaineering-specific training such as long hikes and climbs. Try to fit in a broad range of hill walks and small peaks to test your comfort levels.
- Third phase – practice similar climbs
In the third phase, you should be practising climbs that are similar to the one you are going to do. This means trying to practice in the same weather conditions, carrying the same load, and doing an extended climb to test your endurance. This isn’t always possible – if you are based in the UK but are planning on going to the Alps for instance – but we recommend trying to do a mock climb as close to the same conditions as possible.
What to Include in Your Training Plan
Working out several times a week is the best way to get your body physically ready for any peak. Having a clear schedule with regular training also coaches your mind, getting you mentally ready for the challenge ahead.
It’s important to fit in as many workouts as possible, while also leaving enough time for recovery and not overdoing to the point of injury. Balance is critical, so that’s why we also emphasize the need for having a training plan.
Here are the areas that you will need to focus on:
Cardio sessions are necessary to improve the overall fitness level of your heart and lungs and should be the first type of training you do when preparing for a mountain climb. There are a variety of aerobic exercises that can get your heart pumping and get your body used to using oxygen effectively. These include:
- Jump rope
- Power walking
Crossfit training is another great cardio workout, and at the same time, incorporates strength and conditioning. It takes a great deal of anaerobic capacity to make movements more efficient and effective, and can be built up to be a high-intensity exercise.
Build your aerobic training over time, starting with shorter workout sessions and progressing to longer sessions. As you move onto the different phases of your regime, remember to keep up the cardio each week.
Another important part of your training is interval training. This type of exercise maximises cardiovascular benefits, making your heart stronger and improving your anaerobic threshold. It involves a series of high-intensity workouts interspersed with relief periods.
During these rest periods, you can regain your energy and improve your overall performance with shorter bursts of intense training. The advantage of interval training for climbers is the ability to work at a variety of paces. This method done over a period of time will increase your heart’s capability of pumping blood through the body.
A minimum of three months is best for getting the most out of interval training – and interval training should be done every three days in your schedule.
Strength and endurance
For both alpine and expedition mountaineering, you’ll be carrying a bag on the mountain (you’ll need to carry more for alpine as there are no porters). So any exercises that target areas that have to bear the brunt of the heavy load are beneficial. This is how you can build up your endurance.
For mountain climbs, you should increase strength in all major leg muscles as well as your core muscles. Core exercises are important because you’ll be putting strain on your body for long hours, and working out this area helps with balance too.
Don’t forget that flexibility is just as important, so stretching daily is necessary. Some climbers even add yoga to their regime, tackling flexibility, strength and tone in one go.
Getting used to different terrain and weather conditions is a must for anyone preparing for a mountain adventure. Unlike standard hiking on flat land, mountains pose a number of challenges at different altitudes. The type of terrain can vary greatly, so it’s important to plan a variety of hikes across different parts of the country.
Build up to more challenging hikes as the weeks go on, and try to mirror your most strenuous climbing day in terms of pack weight, hours of exertion and anticipated elevation. If you can practice in high altitudes too, that’s even better.
Technical skills/climbing walls
Your regime also needs to focus on the aspect of technical skills, such as climbing or scrambling, ropework, or using different equipment. Not only is it important to have the strength, power and cardiovascular fitness for mountaineering, but you will need to know how to tackle tricky parts that aren’t easy for walking.
Climbing walls can be a great way to improve your balance and toughen up those important climbing muscles. You can also get the basics on rope work too.
In addition to being physically ready for the mountains, you will also need some mental stamina. This is a measure of your resilience and confidence and can be the reason for success or failure.
The best way to train mentally is to set goals and targets, not just your end goals, but also mini-goals along the way. Small milestones can help you stay motivated and will help you maintain momentum in your training.
Momentum is key. This is why having a training plan (and making sure you stick to it) is a great way of getting yourself ready. It’s also vital for climbers to stay on track with achieving their goals even when setbacks happen. Don’t let a few problems dishearten you. Setbacks happen on the mountain too, and a positive attitude will be required to get around them.
While 8-12 weeks is a good amount of time to train, starting your training earlier allows more time to adjust and prepare. So if you have more time, embrace it. Injuries, for instance, can cause frustrating delays. The longer your timeline, the more time you’ll have to get back on the horse when you fall off. At the same time, beginning a strict exercise regime too far in advance may cause you to lose momentum. So timing is everything.
Final words of advice
Training in any capacity should be fun. It’s not meant to be torturous or mind-numbing. So our advice is to keep it fun and try to pick workouts that interest you. If you train better with a friend, plan as many sessions with people who can motivate you, or consider getting a personal trainer at the gym.
If you get bored easily, make sure your training plan is varied while also having some structure. Try different hiking locations, have a good mix of terrain, views and difficulty, and vary up your workouts for both indoors and outdoors.
Here is a sample workout plan for a typical week:
45-90 minutes of running
30-45 minutes of interval training
45-90 minutes of hill walking
30-45 interval training
45-90 minutes of swimming
Day hike (focused on packing weight and gaining elevation)
2-3 sets of squats and deadlifts
2-3 sets of leg press and planks
2-3 sets of squats and deadlifts
Of course, everyone’s workout plans will look different. It all depends on the length and difficulty of your climb, as well as your current fitness level and your sporting interests. Team sports such as football, rugby, basketball or hockey are great cardio workouts. So if you’re already part of a team, you can do your cardio on game days.
If you’re new to mountaineering and want a helpful and supportive guide for your first high mountain experience, check out our introductory mountaineering week in the Ecrins. It’s a fantastic way to ease yourself into bigger climbs.
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