By Rob Shaul
1) Get Sport-Specific
I learned the hard way when I started coaching that general fitness only gets you so far when it comes to transferring fitness to mountain sports performance. Two of my lessons stand out. First, general fitness strength and barbell training don’t do much for rock climbing performance. I learned this lesson directly when I tried to follow a mountain guide, who I coached, up some easy 5.8-5.10 trad routes. I could do front squats all day long, but halfway up the route my grip was gone and I was peeling off the rock. Rock and ice climbing are grip dominant! Improving climbing fitness means primarily improving grip strength and endurance.
Second, concentric strength doesn’t transfer to eccentric strength. My first year our alpine ski dryland training was dominated by heavy front squats, lunges, back squats, dead lifts, etc. When the ski resort finally opened, my athletes’ legs were weight room strong! Then, the following Monday, all were cursing me because two runs into opening day, their legs were mush! How could this be??? Turns out alpine skiing demands eccentric leg strength. When skiing, gravity bounces you down the hill, and each time you touch the mountain with your skis it wants to force you into the ground. Resting that force takes eccentric strength. We had spent the pre-season training concentric strength. Huge difference.
Point here is there are no quick fixes or short cuts. If you have a rock climbing trip planned, your pre-trip training should be spent primarily in the rock gym climbing routes, bouldering, and working the system, campus and other grip-training equipment. Mountain biking trip? You should be on your trainer spinning, and working in some upper body strength. Backpacking trip? Throw on a 30-50 pound pack, hike some distance, and hike some vertical – stairs, hills, etc.
2) Hammer on the “Mountain Chassis”
Most mountain sports start with the legs, lungs, and core. I call these the “Mountain Chassis.” General fitness exercises should be focused here – squats, lunges, leg blasters, hinge lifts, loaded step ups, distance running, sprinting, sandbag get ups, isometric core bridging, etc. Legs, lungs and core are your “engine” in the mountains.
3) Train Vertical
This is a mountain trip after all. You’re likely going to be going up and down. Train going up with loaded step ups or climbing stairs wearing a pack. This will not not only train quad, core and calf strength, but also mode-specific cardio. Train coming down with leg blasters. It’s the downhill which is the most intense and soreness-producing.
4) Get Trip Specific
Have an alpine route planned which consists of 20 pitches of 5.10? Then get your butt in the rock gym and keep training until you can climb and recover from 30 pitches of 5.10 routes. Does that mean you’ll have some multi-hour sessions in the rock gym climbing the same 4 pitches again and again? Probably, but this is what you need to do. Why 30 pitches? Over prepare and be ready for the unexpected.
Planning a peak-bagging trip with 4,000 feet of vertical gain and loss and 10 miles round trip wearing a 20# pack? Train up to be able to do run/walk 6 miles, do 2,000 step ups, run/walk 6 miles and do another 2.000 step ups all the time wearing 20-pound pack.
There are no short cuts – especially in training time. You have to train long to go long – and many mountain trips and events are long endurance and stamina events.
5) Use the week to train Fitness Attributes, and the Weekend for “Mini Events”
Completing the training session like the one described above for the peak-bagging trip will take several hours. Most won’t have time during the weekdays to complete it. Use the shorter, 60-90 minute weekday training sessions to train specific attributes – say step ups on Monday, running on Tuesday, Step ups and core on Wednesday, etc. Use the weekend – usually Saturday – for longer “mini events” where you stack fitness attributes together for a longer event. For example, 1,000 step ups followed by a 6-mile run, followed by 1,000 step ups. “Progress” your mini events up to the duration, or close to the duration for your actual trip. The weekend mini-event should get progressively longer and harder.
6) Use Mini Events to Test Gear and Nutrition and train Mental Fitness
Train the way you’ll play – wear the same shoes, clothes, pack, and eat the same food, gels, supplements you plan to use on your trip or event. In the middle of it isn’t the time to find out your boots cause massive blisters, your pack shoulder straps are not padded well enough or the brand of gels you planned to eat make you throw up after a couple of hours. As well, mini events are great for training your mental fitness and stamina for long pushes. We’ve seen this ourselves and heard it from athletes training for military selections and dangerous alpine climbs …. mini events made them more mentally fit and it paid off during the real thing.
7) Consider Training part of the Experience
Straight up – 1,000 step ups wearing a 40-pound pack is pure drudgery. There’s nothing fun about it. But …. The Mountain Doesn’t Care. There’s no special summit for city-folk who decided not to train appropriately. There’s no special summit for busy executives who work 60 hours/week. Each mountain has one summit, and there’s no escaping the work to get to it. Don’t resent this, or bemoan it. Rather, embrace it. Trust me, putting the time and work in to appropriately train for your mountain trip will add to the overall experience, and make the trip more enriching and authentic. You man not actually come to “like” step ups, but after a few weeks, you won’t hate them as much. You’ll come to appreciate them for the great tool they are for making your body and mind mountain-fit.
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