All of us find ourselves city bound from time to time. Here are some tips and tricks for staying mountain fit even during prolonged periods out of the mountains.
There's really no excuse for not getting a good dose of cardio fitness in every day. While some forms of cardio are going to be better or more specific training than others, even the 20 minute bike or walk to work or Uni equates to over 3 hours of cardio a week without even trying. Similarly, even if you're going dry-tooling or rock climbing, biking or approaches with cragging kit are a great way of adding the little extra bit of cardio into other forms of training.
Specifically though, there are a few things which I've found have been key for increasing cardio and general strength. Having an incredibly solid cardio base before any big trip is going to make a huge difference across a broad spectrum of alpine climbing; from the approach, to moving quickly on easy terrain, to acclimatising and coping better with altitude.
- Find a hill Without a doubt, one of the most efficient forms of cardio training for alpinism is hill-running. Unless you happened to be blessed with year round snow to go plugging in with a heavy pack, then find a steep hill and get started. I've found that for me, it's pretty important to have a route or a few routes which maximise the steepness, whilst still allowing a good pace. If I go for a run on a track which isn't steep enough, then I'm only really working my aerobic capacity, and I find I'm just limited by how fast I can run. Alternatively, if I run up endless stairs, or a steep hillside, then I'm no where near as efficient, and while I might be near VO2max - that is fully into anaerobic training, I'm not having a huge benefit on my cardio fitness. For these reasons, I try to go with tracks around the 20 degree gradient. Not very steep, but definitely enough so that when running up them, I'm pushing my aerobic capacity, as well as developing aerobic power - to ensure I have that fine balance of endurance/lung capacity and power required for big alpine missions. Too often I've been into the hills with people who are either super strong, but just don't have the endurance/capacity to walk up a long hill, and end up puffing and exhausted, or with people who are exceptionally fit, but load them up with kit for a long trip, and their legs don't have the power to keep walking after the eighth hour. So far, this training has served me well, never really being limited in the mountains by fitness, and finding acclimatisation to be a breeze.
- Gyms Before someone accosts me for not knowing what cardio is, take a deep breath, and read on. There are three places where I think the gym shines. The first, is step machines, if hill running isn't viable, then they're a good way for some people to work on that leg fitnes whilst getting a cardio workout at the same time. In the same boat are rowing machines. Great for getting a full cardio workout and obviously intensity can be modified to suit. Fewer people think of more standard gym workouts as being great for cardio fitness. The reality is that cardio or aerobic fitness is really only defined by the intensity with which you do an exercise (and in our case, the length of time for endurances sake). Therefore I've found the best way to use the gym to train a combination of strength and cardio (with a touch of endurance) at the same time is focusing on reps rather than trying to do a 120kg deadlift. Spend a bit of time figuring out what's a happy level for you - where any particular exercise is not too easy, but after 10/20/30 reps it definitely feels like you're working. Don't get too carried away doing super specific climbing exercises like pull-ups, cause 4 sets of 30 rep body weight pull ups is going to be one hell of a battle. Instead do something different; squats, dips, benchpresses - variety is the spice of life! The great thing about mixing it up and adding a gym workout or two into your week is efficiency - you're doing cardio training (via the number of reps you're doing and the endurance required) while at the same time working on power, which translates directly into alpine climbing strength. That may, funnily enough, be why they call it 'power endurance'.
- Rest I didn't think I was going to talk about rest initially. However I think it's something too few climbers consider, and instead many just gloss over it. It's a particular problem for climbers as it is for high level athletes - as the drive and intense determination which commonly goes hand-in-hand with climbing often results in climbers failing to intentionally rest enough. As I see it, there are two kinds of rest; the recovery type - where you do no active exercise, but instead force your body to recover. Ways to do this include going for a sauna/spa, using a foam roller to relieve muscle tension, getting a professional massage or just doing nothing, but eating well. This is going to be the most beneficial kind of rest, where you actually experience muscle growth and strengthening - which doesn't just mean your pecs, but includes muscles like your heart and intercostal muscles which are directly related to your lung capacity. The other kind of rest is the active kind - where you do a different kind of activity to that which you've done the previous day(s). For example, if you went for a run yesterday, mix it up and do something which rests your legs, and uses your arms or core instead. Alternatively, spend a session stretching instead - another well underrated activity, often neglected for the sole reason it feels like you're not doing enough training.
Ice & Mixed (Jaz)
Living in town, you've got plenty of good options for keeping fit for ice and mixed. Doing pull ups and gym work is important for building and keeping strength. Working your lactic acid threshold on the calf muscle machines at the gym is a really easy way to get a good calf burn on. Doing pull-ups with a towel (hung over something like a beam) is the best way for getting the upper body strength and grip strength needed for long pitches on the ice.
- Make a dry-tooling crag. Easier than it sounds. You need to find rock that's not good enough to rock climb, and not too shit to be so dangerous and scary you won't want to train there. You need to consult the local climbing community, who can get pretty upset at the idea of mountaineers stealing their next chossy sport climb FA. Bolt it well, so you can lead it quickly when you turn up, and just do laps. Leading isn't the goal, it's mileage, even if it's on the same moves. It's about being able to hang your body weight off a Nomic as long as possible, and developing grace and balance while you're at it.
- Rig up a tree. Similar rules to choosing a dry-tooling crag apply to trees. Be discrete. Macrocarpa is the best species I've found for replicating the feel of kicking and swinging into ice. Redwoods are ok but a little tenuous if the bark rips off. Old radiata pine is fun but super scary since the old dry bark shapes are often best to dry-tool rather than swing. Even with heaps of laps you almost certainly won't kill the tree, but I've had to pull out my "Honours Degree in Botany" card to convince a few irate tree-huggers of this fact in the past (I am also a tree hugger, but prefer natives). Having said that, about 10 people have semi-regularly used my tree over the last 3 years and now it's time to find a new one before we take it too far. Annoyingly I've had people pinch quite a bit of gear from the tree over the years (fixed rope, biners, slings, etc.) so if you are setting up a tree off your property then don't leave any gear you couldn't afford to lose. Tree climbing is really the closest thing to ice climbing. It's similarly tenuous and scary, physically almost identical (although, footwork on trees is harder as you can't make a 'triangle' stance on a narrow tree trunk), but it's easier to rig up a climb and do plenty of laps. One possible problem - you'll mostly be toproping, and a tree trunk is a smaller target than a waterfall. Don't hit your rope with your axe.
It's important to remember that you don't really do pull-up level work when you're ice and mixed climbing. Even if you can only do a few pull-ups, what's more critical is to have good core strength and lock-off endurance. Core strength keeps your feet on the rock and your weight on your feet when you're climbing beyond-vertical mixed routes. Lock-off strength helps you find the best tool placement for the next move.
I’ve spent the last two years living 2+ hrs from any crags with a shoe-box bouldering room as my local climbing wall. And while I can’t recommend this living situation for any aspiring alpinist, I can happily report that my on-sight grade for trad and sport have both ticked up a few levels at the crag and in the mountains. Here’s what works for me:
- Climb regularly - I usually go bouldering a couple times a week and try head outdoors in the weekend couple times a month. If unable to head outdoors at least a couple times in a month due to poor weather or some other commitments, I make sure I make some extra trips to the climbing wall.
- Indoors - I work on endurance, and any ‘weaknesses’ I’ve identified.
- Outdoors - I work on my speed and my ‘leading head’.
- Focus on endurance - If your an alpinist this really is key. Depending on the scale of your objectives you need to be able to preform from anything from a few hundred metres to 1000m or more. As a result, you really want to be able to climb many routes at or just below your on-sight grade. This is quite different to hard single pitch climbing or bouldering.
- Bouldering - I start every session with 10-25min of continuous climbing followed by a high through put of climbs at or near my red-point limit. The key is to maintain a level of fatigue where I’m having to shake out every few moves.
- Leading - This is better suited really. My partner and I take turns climbing in sets of three. You can down climb each one too if you like. The key here is to minimise the time taken between each climb in your set.
- Target your weaknesses - For me this is power, especially explosive power. I make sure I try problems that require moves with explosive power, and I’ll come back to routes I’ve done in a static style and try them in a more dynamic fashion. Figure out your weaknesses and spend time outside your comfort zone, for many people this will mean climbing slabs, cracks or off-widths. This could also mean working on finger strength.
- Speed and Efficiency - Whenever I’m route climbing (indoor leading too), I’m trying to increase the speed and efficiency with which my partner and I complete a route. When climbing, this means avoiding needless placing and replacing hands, feet or gear. When belaying, this means setting up a tidy belay and being ready to hand over or start climbing when the next transition occurs. It’s worth pointing out that climbing fast is not rushing but avoiding unnecessary down time.
- Leading ‘Head’ - this has never been much of a problem for me, but it can be quite a focus for some climbers. Basically how can you reinforce calm and calculated climbing decisions, while avoiding those made out of fear. A few things that have worked for me:
- Plan ahead - identify likely upcoming gear placements, no fall zones and easy terrain before moving off a good stance.
- Be rational - so you’re scared. Are you endanger of falling, and if you do will you get hurt? If yes, seek protection. If no, continue calmly.
- Know your limit - it is rare that I unexpectedly fall. This means I can ensure I’ve appropriate protection wherever I may fall allowing me to avoid negative experiences I need to get over later.
Core & Flexibility (Rose)
Core, flexiblity and muscle balence are all pretty key for improving you rock, ice and mixed ability as well as ensuring you remain injury free. I like to do two to four 'Core & Flexibility' sessions a week each one lasting about 10 to 20min, and have been for years. In my case I focus on my arms, core, back and legs. I do these in three sets of three with each exercise targeting slightly different muscle groups.
- Arms - I keep this really simple and basically do pull-ups and push-ups. I do each in sets of three, and try involve as much of my body as possible. To this end, I do the pull-ups with alternating offset arms, and I do the push-ups with alternating legs of the ground (left then right then half of each). With the push-ups I also vary the angle between my body and the raised leg to further increase the core engagement required. It should be noted climbers commonly end up with a muscle imbalance resulting form over developed sholders which push ups help to counteract (or at least so I've been told).
- Core - I've been doing core exercises a couple times a week for years. A strong core is increadibly useful - from approaching over rough terrain through the full spectrum of delecate to steep powerful climbing (ice, mixed or rock). Three exercies that seem to cover most bases are: normal sit-ups, crunches with opposite knee to elbow, leg-lifts with alternate twists 90 degrees left or right.
- Back - Until recently, this has been an afterthought for me, but they are important for maintaining balence with ones core muscles. I do both a set of extension leg/arm lifts while on my belly and some extension and rotation streaches. The streaches are in response to an injury I suffered some years ago, and I find this is a good time to do my physio recommended exercies. I credit the continued observance of these streaches with my lack of ongoing limitations from my injury.
- Legs - I find my legs are plenty strong enough through a combination of running and cycling, so I spend this time focusing only on some hip-flexor streaches - which were again recomemnded to my by a physio several years ago as a preventative treatment for knee pain. I've found these work great.
As for quantities, basically do as many of each as needed to fatigue the muscle group in question. I find this is actually less than you would expect assuming your focusing on high quality movements. For instance, I only ever really do three sets of 10x push-ups and am always pretty fatigued by the end of the last set.