Alpine climbing is extremely physically demanding. Most other sports have a history and culture of systematic training. Yet in alpine climbing, despite these demands, and the potential benefits that training can bring, few do. Many climbers come from outside this culture of mainstream sports, so do not have the background in training to apply themselves, and there are no coaches out there to guide you. There is good knowledge out there on training for endurance sports and for rock climbing, but not covering the wide spectrum of demands involved in doing long, hard routes in the mountains. This article tries to cover the wide range of different aspects to training, to help improve what you do when training for alpine climbing.
Speed, safety, enjoyment, resilience.
I enjoy the process of pushing myself hard out of the mountains, so that when I am in them, I can do harder things, or operate more within my physical margins. This makes my climbing more enjoyable, safer, more successful and gives a great sense of satisfaction of working hard to achieve a goal/route that was previously out of your abilities. Alpine climbing has to be one of the most all round physically demanding sports/activities out there. Training isn’t going to guarantee success, but it does help tip odds in your favour.
In NZ we typically have long approaches to alpine climbs, and if the approach knackers you before you come to the actual climb, you are far more likely to back off, or lower your ambitions. I have seen a lot of people walk into Empress Hut intent on a route, but when they get there are too tired to do the route and end up walking back out. Or they take 2 days to walk in and miss the weather window and not climb anything. Higher fitness also allows routes, often done over several days, to be climbed in a single push. This makes the most of short weather windows, short weather breaks, and allows a lighter pack and easier logistics. It also allows me to get more climbs done in short holiday breaks. I have a full-time, sedentary job, so to get the level of fitness I require, I need to train.
So why not just go climbing? If you have the opportunity to spend more time in the mountains, that is the best thing to do to improve. Not only do you get the specific physical training of the long hours in the mountain, but you also practice and improve in the whole range of skills and movements being in the mountains entails. If you are unlucky enough to not live in close range of the mountains, then you will need to train. To be truly competent, at some point in your life you will need to spend a significant amount of time in the mountains.
Is fitness the most important part of alpine climbing? Clearly not. Experience, movement skills, technical competence and mental aspects are key. Determination can often make up for a lack of fitness. Concentrating on fitness only, thinking that will make you a good alpine climber, won't work. Especially as a beginner, spending time in the mountains is clearly most important and should be your focus; but if you can't, then the fitter you can get will make any time you do spend in the mountains that much better. There are a whole lot of reasons you can fail on a route. It’s good to never let this be a lack of fitness.
I also find the more time and effort I put into my fitness helps with the mental aspects of a trip as well. The more work I put in, the more determined I am, the fewer excuses I have when the going gets tough.
The focus of this article is on training physical fitness, but don’t neglect mental and technical elements. They can be trained too.
Goals of training
Before planning some training, it’s useful to work out what you are trying to achieve. Do you have a certain route or trip you are preparing for? This makes planning easier. Calculate how much of every aspect of climbing is involved in your chosen route then train those aspects proportionally base on your current levels in those aspects.
It is useful to assess your strengths and weaknesses. What held you back or was the cause of failure on your last alpine climb? Mental aspects, did you give up before even trying? Route-finding or tactical errors? Technical ability on rock/ice/mixed? After many years experience in general mountaineering, but little technical climbing, I switched my focus to the steeper stuff for a number of years so I had the ability to climb technical routes on big mountains. Somebody with a different background will need a different focus.
Often training for climbing differs a lot from other sports in that you don’t have a specific event you are building up to, but you need to spontaneously take advantage of situations throughout the whole year. The bulk of my training is quite general, oriented to building and maintaining a high level of fitness throughout the year, rather than peaking for certain planned events.
Goals can be quite specific and measurable, such as the time it takes you to run up a certain hill, the number of pullups you can do, or your onsight grade at the wall. Some are harder to measure. I concentrate on things like ‘work capacity’, the ability of the body to handle a lot of work within a single day, or day after day, so that when I do go on a climbing trip I can fit in as much climbing as I can. Another goal of training is resilience. I think of this as making my body resilient to injury by improving strength in areas not normally covered by just going climbing. Hence it’s useful doing general fitness training, rather than 100% sport specific.
Components of fitness
There are many components to fitness. I would describe these as:
- Aerobic base
- Muscular endurance (sport specific)
- High Intensity (anaerobic)
- Ultra Endurance
Alpine climbing is demanding of all these aspects. I can't think of any sport that has such a wide range of physical demands, from long, slow movement over multiple hours (or days) to the strength required to pull a single hard move, or the muscular endurance to hold on for a long, hard pitch. Not to mention the technical demands, or the mental demands due to the consequences of getting it wrong. Doing a long, hard route on a big mountain is demanding of so many factors and skills that take many years to build up. It is very demanding, but that is why I see it as very worthwhile.
Many climbers who do train, focus only on one or some of these aspects. They may simply go climbing and go for the odd hill run for fitness. If you don't have an athletic background, the idea of going to a gym and lifting a weight is so foreign they would never do it, even though it may benefit them greatly. If you are a climber and like doing hard moves and strength training, but the idea of long, easy exercise (eg tramping) bores you to tears, you are missing out on a key part of training also. Athletes at a high level in every other sport do not train solely by doing their sport. If you have been doing the same thing for a long time and are seeing no improvement, what are you missing, what can you add to get some gains? If you are beginning as an alpine climber, what sort of things should you be focussing on? If you are motivated towards a future hard goal, what can you do beforehand to be in the best shape?
Remember what we are aiming for.
What I aim for is an all-round general athletic ability, being fit, healthy and strong, so I can do the specific climbing training, so I can move fast in the mountains without stopping, climb the hard pitches I need to, carry a heavy pack when I need to, not get injured and not get too taxed by any of it.
Training can get addictive. It is possible to take any element too far. Deadlifting 1.5 times my bodyweight is a useful core strength, but work hard to increase that to twice my body weight will not make me a better climber. Being able to run without stopping for 4-6 hours in the hills is very useful, pushing my flat marathon pace to sub 3 hours is not.
Saying that, competition is good. I find the best thing is to go out and do things with people who are better than you. Rock climb with climbers who are better, run with stronger runners, bike with stronger cyclists, lift with regular gym goers. I like getting my arse kicked every day. Be a generalist, not a specialist, but learn from and be pushed by the specialists.
Training for classic mountaineering (as opposed to technical alpine climbing) has the same principles, with a focus on aerobic and strength base in legs, without the extra technical climbing training.
Balance of components
So what component is the most important? Well they all are. It is worthwhile considering what you do not do and how you could add that to your lifestyle. I see this as a long term progression. Doing this one thing will not improve your alpine climbing immediately. The only thing that would do that is alpine climbing. It is more about having a consistent, approach building all these things into your lifestyle that give gradual gains that in the long term turn you into an unstoppable machine.
Saying that, building a good general base of aerobic endurance and strength is most important, and must be done before taking that base and converting raw power into specific alpine climbing fitness. The key physical ability of an alpine climber is to be able to keep moving all day.
The part of alpine climbing that contrasts from all other sports, except adventure racing, is its length. An alpine climb is generally anywhere from 8-60 hours, your body must be able to keep going for that length of time. If you bonk and run out of energy, it doesn't matter if you can climb M12 at the crag, you’re not going to get up. By necessity you must mostly be operating below your aerobic threshold. This is a level where breathing is easy and you are mostly burning fat for energy (large supply) rather than glucose (small reserve, fatigues quickly). The good thing is that this level is easily trainable by doing a large volume of work ideally at, or just below this level. A small amount above this level helps, but mostly it needs to be below. (55-75% Max HR) This is often called long-slow training, but it doesn't have to be slow, in a well trained athlete it can be very fast indeed, so long-easy is a better name.
This could be doing anything, ideally the more specific to mountaineering, ie hiking up hills, the better, but I think it's more important to do whatever suits your lifestyle and find fun. If you are active at work, that helps. I have a sedentary job but I bike everywhere and try to do it at a high pace, which gives me 7hrs/week base without thinking. If you don't do either you need to get into a routine to get a good volume of this sort of work, this is all about volume giving you a good base, so work it into your lifestyle. It is important to occasionally have longer sessions (>4 hrs) to see the physiological changes we desire. If you only ever go for short hard runs, look at occasionally going longer and slower.
This same principle applies in rock climbing training, a base of long, easy climbing is important to build upon, before doing more specific power or power-endurance training.
The aerobic base takes the longest to build, so training for this should be started first. It is the base upon which everything else is built. However if you have done a lot of mountaineering, this is the component of fitness which you are probably the strongest at, so it may be time to start adding the other components.
Very rarely are you limited by strength in alpine climbing except very hard technical routes, so why train it? Because increasing strength improves endurance.
When plugging steps in deep snow with a heavy pack, if you are operating at 50% of your maximum strength, you can only go a certain duration, or slow speed before exhaustion. If you increased your max strength by 50% (in an untrained person this is surprisingly easy, in a trained person, quite hard!) you are operating at only 30% of your max strength. You will then have much more in reserve and work far less hard and find you suddenly have better endurance! (To a certain point).
Before going to Denali, I knew this involved carrying very heavy loads up 2000m to get to our base camp. This is quite different to my normal mountaineering style, dashing up peaks with small loads. So I trained differently, with some more strength work. If I trained only by running up hills with no loads, I would be more aerobically fit, but not as strong and would have struggled more with the load carrying
If you can do 10 pull ups and want to be able to do 20, the best way is not to keep banging away doing more and more pullups to gain muscular endurance, but add weight, do less, and get stronger, so each one is at a smaller % of your max strength.
To hang onto your tools for longer, you can increase your max grip strength, so you are operating at a lower % of your max. (One handed hangs.)
Core (trunk) strength is vital to link strong arms and legs, especially on steeper ground. It is also useful for carrying heavy packs and general injury prevention.
Bouldering is a good way to improve strength, power and technique for rock climbing, yet many alpinist shy away from it. Don't let ego be an issue here. Yes, you will get thrashed by the 12 year old kid down at the wall, but try and learn from them rather than be put off the whole thing out of fear of looking bad.
As well as these climbing specific examples it is useful to improve strength in other areas (such as the pushup) for good all-round balance and injury prevention. Even ultra-runners are recommended to do pushups! In untrained people, strength gains can be significant early on, then it does not take a lot to maintain these levels.
How to Train Strength
Warm Up carefully and gradually. Adjust load of exercise until the maximum reps you can do is in the range of 2-5. rest 3-5 min repeat for about 3 sets. Concentrate on form, if you can't do it perfectly, reduce the load.
Excercises I generally focus on: Squat, deadlift, pull up, hanging leg raise (and other core) and some pushing exercise (mixture of barbell push-press, push up and dips).
The squats/deadlift I do in a gym. Avoid machines that isolate muscle groups, if you do go to a gym, just use free weights. If you have not done this before, it can cause injury if not done properly, best get some training from someone who knows what they are doing. If you can't do that at your gym, it is useless and go to a better one.
Don't want to go to a gym? Doing pullups/core work is easy with a bar. Adding sufficient load to legs to gain strength is harder. For example I'd squat with > 100kg bar when going heavy. You don't get those sorts of loads by just going climbing. The max weight you'd safely add to a pack is 30% BW. You can approximate leg strength training by training power, by doing a weighted one-legged step up onto a high box. A one-legged squat (pistol) is difficult just with body weight, and is very demanding on balance.
There are many progressions/variations you can do with pullups. If you can't do a single pullup with bodyweight, take load off with a pulley/bungy and reduce weight progressively. Step up to a locked off position and do a slow/controlled lower. Hold locked off positions (frenchies) to help pull up strength.
The weaker you are, the more worthwhile this training is. It is more important to train pull up strength if you can't do one pull up, than if you are trying to increase your max from 15 to 30. Always work your weaknesses first.
This is specific to a particular muscle fibre and is how long a muscle can go at a certain % of its max. Think how many pullups/pushups you can do before muscles simply give up. This threshold can be reached in the legs, but is more difficult, often aerobic capacity limits you first. You can sprint up a very steep hill to reach this limit, but it is more often a limitation when climbing a hard pitch.
You should make this training as climbing specific as you can. There is much in rock-climbing literature on the subject. (See C4C and 9/10). Basically do many laps just below your max level.
It is important to train on tools as well, make this training as specific as you can. Want to lead a steep mixed pitch? You need to be able to hang on to those tools for a long time.
For the legs, muscular endurance can be trained with hill reps. This is great for increasing your max speed when hill running. Without hills, weighted step up onto a box is great specific workout. These sort of workouts can be of quite high intensity, so crossover well into the next section.
High Intensity (Anaerobic)
So far we have mentioned low-intensity aerobic training, where your breathing is not laboured. This doesn't really feel like training as you are not working that hard. Surely it's better to be working harder? This is the basis behind circuit training, interval training, tabata training, crossfit and many other training schemes that are trendy at the moment. You work bloody hard for a short time, feel totally spent afterwards and can fit it in before work, or your lunch break. Yes this is a useful part of your overall training. It is good for pushing your aerobic system to the max capacity and increasing max cardiac output, making you fitter. It cannot replace the long-easy aerobic training as the schemes sometimes try to argue, but it is excellent on top of this good base.
Remember, max effort means max effort. Most people doing this simply do not try hard enough. You can combine a variety of exercises (pullups/pushups/situps/ light weights) for variety and crossover into muscular endurance training. For a certain type of person, this can be addictive and very satisfying as it can be very punishing. It should only be a small portion of your overall training load however. It's good to mix up both the activities you are doing, and the duration of the intervals.
Sometimes alpine climbing may have more in common with the ultra-endurance events (ultramarathons/adventure racing) than conventional sports, so what can we learn from them?
What I mean by this is the ability for the body to endure longer and longer events/days/climbs. I have heard this described in training for ultras like building up a callus. Every time you do it, the mind/body gets tougher, and it gets easier. How much is physical and how much is mental is hard to know. If you have never gone 24hrs non stop, it is very daunting. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
When I started mountaineering, a 12 hour day out seemed huge and I was exhausted afterwards. Then it was the norm, and I started doing 15, 17, 19, 24 hour days out and a 12 hour day felt easy and I felt well recovered the next day. I think this is a very specific adaptation which is not covered in the traditional training mentioned earlier. Your body seems to remember these for a long time, so they don’t have to be that regular, I like to get a long day (>16hr) about once a month, which is pretty easy to do if you are mountaineering throughout the year.
In Alaska with 24 daylight it is common to do much longer pushes, 30, 40, even 60 hours. It is amazing what the human body can endure, but at this point, it certainly does not function optimally! Sleep deprivation takes a large toll on focus and performance. I think this is best built up to over time and it is important to have well practiced systems (such abseiling) to keep yourself safe.
It is a good idea to gradually build up your body's tolerance to long days in the hills. The more you do, the easier it gets. I prefer to do these big days in the mountains, but if you can’t, then doing other endurance events such as doing tramps non-stop, or a 24 hour rogaine or MTB race are still quite useful. You learn a lot about your own bodies ability to cope, working together with a partner, nutrition and hydration, and crucially foot management. Just be careful and build gradually as jumping in to do a long event is an easy way to injure yourself if your legs are not used to it. A 24 hr climb is physically far easier than a 24 hr rogaine as on the climb you are often belaying/moving slower and covering less distance.
Importance of rest/recovery
Training consists of stress, followed by recovery, which is when you actually get stronger. This cycle should happen in the short term (during a workout), medium term (during a week) and long term (during a year). Every training manual suggests periodisation, which requires structure and planning. A full-time or professional athlete can plan this training load in advance, monitor their progress, adjust accordingly and gradually progress. A fully committed climber could then schedule other things in life, relationships, family, socialising, even work around these needs.
Personally, I have other things happening in life, often spontaneous and unplanned and would struggle to implement this approach. This natural cycle of stress and recovery can be done quite naturally however. I sometime have heavy weeks at work, where I'm on the road doing large hours, followed by quieter weeks at home, when I can increase the training load quite markedly. Alternating heavy and light weeks works quite well for me, meaning I can stack multiple days in a row, an important ability in alpine climbing that can be prepared for. I may have a week off, going on holiday somewhere, which means I can have a much bigger week prior to that, loads that I could not sustain week-in and week-out. I think periodisation happens naturally throughout the year, as seasons dictate differing activities. Ice and mixed climbs and ski touring in the winter, long alpine ice climbs in the spring, then classic mountaineering and alpine rock in the summer. Often not much is possible in mountains in the autumn allowing more focus on harder rock climbing, general strength and aerobic conditioning. Having various goals or trips during the year allow you to focus on different things in the leadup to those trips.
A more structured and planned approach is advisable, and some people may prefer this approach. Read T4TNA for a better idea about how to structure a good training program, and some advice on how to log/monitor your training. It's good to monitor your progress and listen to your body. Overtraining/injury will be worse than undertraining.
Training v Performance
One thing I consciously train is work capacity. That is to be able to handle a large amount of work stacked on top of each other. This is useful for multi-day ascents when you need to recovery quickly and still climb the next day when tired from the previous one. Or climb day after day on a climbing trip. This means sometime stacking a lot of training into one week. Which means doing things when still tired from previous things. Which means your performance will drop. Which means going climbing with your friends and sucking by falling off the warmup and dropping your grade. You can't sulk and worry about your ego, this is about training, not performing day after day. Be careful doing this, I only do it when I know it is followed by a brief holiday or something with no training so I can recover!
References and recommended reading:
There is a lot more on this subject than I can fit here. These texts are recommended reading.
T4TNA: 'Training for the New Alpinism' by Steve House and Scott Johnson
C4C: 'Conditioning for Climbers: The Complete Exercise Guide' by Eric J. Horst
9/10: '9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes' by Dave MacLeod
‘The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers’ by Arno Ilgner