We are not qualified physical trainers but we do know what has worked for us and are familiar with the general guidance given for high altitude training. Use the following guide as general information only and adapt it to your existing fitness, your goals and the environment in which you’ll be training. We strongly suggest seeking training advice from a physical trainer with altitude experience. And of course, prior to commencing any serious training program, have a check-up with your Doctor.
Mountaineering routinely involves days of 8 to 10 hours exertion. So that is what you should train towards. Ideally your training should begin at least six months prior to commencement of your trip and that is what this program caters for. Trekking is less demanding than climbing but trekking at altitude still requires high levels of fitness and stamina, so this guide is appropriate. Just adjust it to your goals. By all means contact me to discuss your physical preparation.
You should increase the length and intensity of your workouts to adapt your body to mountaineering’s high physical demands. Specific (simulating mountaineering) and non-specific (general endurance work-outs such as running, biking, cross-country skiing) training methods are recommended. Incorporate endurance, intensity, conditioning and rest into your program. Always warm up and cool down before/after your workouts to avoid injury.
Remember the following is general advice only and has been collated from various online sources. If you need it, seek expert advice from a professional trainer.
At the end of this training program, you should be able to:
- Walk and climb moderate snow and ice slopes for up to six to eight hours a day, carrying up to 20 kilograms of supplies on your back.
- Recover from a hard day's climbing within an eight to twelve hour period to resume another day of hard physical exertion.
SIX MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPEDITION:
During this month: work on getting into the training routine. Physically, by the end of this month, you should be fit enough so that your body does not ache the day after a workout. Mentally, you should feel that you cheated yourself if you do not follow your routine regularly. (Caution: Do not get fanatical about this! Keep your exercise routine enjoyable and exploratory. Do your workouts so that you will not mind doing it again tomorrow. Find exercises that are fun to do and go to places that are new. Be creative. Do not think that all must be done at a high intensity now. There's plenty of time for that later.)
Work out four days a week this month, rest one to two days and, if you are up to it, use one of the rest days to do a fun workout (e.g. ice or rock climb, biking, skiing, skating, etc.). Try to find friends that will workout with you. They can be the motivation for you to get into the routine. It is harder to forgo a workout when you know that someone is planning to workout with you that day.
Aerobic training is the emphasis of your program. You want to have the endurance to exert energy for hours at a time, day after day. This month put in at least two hours per week (thirty minutes per day) of aerobic exercise. This exercise should be a continuous effort for the given time period. The most popular type of aerobic exercise is running, but biking, swimming, cross-country skiing, and hiking are also good substitutes. Interchange them each day if one gets boring. Both my editor and guiding boss are biking fanatics and they highly recommend mountain biking and road biking as excellent forms of aerobic and leg strengthening exercises. The objective of this month's aerobic workout is to get your heart rate up to between thirty and forty beats faster per minute (over the thirty-minute workout) than your resting heart rate. Some workout professionals call this the "conversation intensity" where you are working out at a level that allows you to talk to someone during the workout, without dying. You may not start off thinking that you can talk with your heart rate up that high for long periods of time, but you will need to gradually work up to that ability.
Strength training needs to be slowly incorporated this month. You should be working on building strength in your back, shoulders, arms, and abdominal muscles. Your leg muscles will get stronger through the aerobic exercises, but you can include exercises that specifically work the leg muscles too if you feel up to it. Again, don't overdo your routine, which could cause you to lose interest. A strength program should include a three days per week routine (this is besides the aerobic training!). You do not have to join a health club to get a good strength workout. The following examples can be done at home:
- One set of sit ups (abdominal crunches)--as many as you can do.
- Three sets of pull-ups and/or chin ups-- up to fifteen repetitions per set.
- Three sets of as many push ups you can do--up to forty repetitions per set.
- If you have access to a weight set or can improvise, you can include the following as well:
- Three sets of bent rowing exercises with weights that will allow you to do ten to fifteen repetitions per set, but no more than fifteen.
- Three sets of military presses with weights that will allow you to do eight to ten repetitions per set but no more than ten.
Muscle fatigue should set in on the last few repetitions of each set and muscle failure should occur on the last repetition of the third set, if you have selected the proper resistance. Do not make your strength routine time consuming or boring at this early stage.Example week for this month:
- Monday: Run for thirty minutes at a "conversation" pace. Try not to stop, but if you feel that you have to, try to maintain a brisk walking pace. Strength train today with the sit-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups routine.
- Tuesday: Bike (or substitute another aerobic exercise) for thirty minutes or longer. (Remember that you want to get a workout!) Try to go somewhere different today than on Monday's workout. No strength workout today.
- Wednesday: Strength workout today. You may want to include a few more strength exercises than you did on Monday. Rest from aerobic exercise.
- Thursday: Run for thirty minutes like you did on Monday. Find a different route again. You might want to travel to a wilderness trail, if one is close by. No strength workout today.
- Friday: Cross-country ski (or substitute another aerobic exercise) for thirty minutes or longer. Repeat Monday's strength workout.
- Saturday: Rest day or do something recreational. Go climbing or hiking for fun.
- Sunday: Rest day.
Some forms of aerobic exercise, such as biking, may not require you to exert the same amount of energy in a given amount of time as compared to running. You will need to monitor how you feel and adjust the duration and/ or intensity.
I recommend that you do not jump into any form of exercise without a light form of warming up first. Some stretching of the muscles you are about to use heavily is a good way to prevent injuries and get your skeletal-muscular system prepared for your exercise routine.
You should also drink lots of water. Your body will need it with these workouts, but it also needs to get use to hydrating. A common cause of adverse altitude affects is dehydration. You will need to drink large amounts at altitude (three to four litres, minimum, per day) and your body should now start getting use to taking in those copious amounts. There is a saying concerning hydration, "clear and copious" referring to urine output. For now, drinking two to three litres of water per day is recommended. (Caution: Those of you with kidney problems should check with a doctor for recommended amounts.)
Remember that you are not training to compete in the Olympics next week and this workout schedule is probably a change in your current lifestyle, so take it gradually and easily to begin with this month. You want to maintain the training, so it is better to do parts of this program rather than none at all.
FIVE MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPEDITION:
The focus of this month is building a foundation for your mountaineering fitness.
Aerobic workouts should still be, at least, four days a week with no more than two days rest per week. You should substitute one rest day for your recreational day. Increase the duration of these workouts to at least forty minutes, but you must now make sure these sessions are a continuous effort.
Strength workouts should remain at three days per week. Try to increase your weights and/ or reps, but do not exceed the maximum reps stated earlier.
This month you should include hill climbing or stair climbing as part of your weekly routine. At least once a week but no more than twice a week: Find a long hill or flights of stairs to climb. The duration of the climb should be no less than five minutes. Repeat the climb until you have completed a thirty-minute session. If you find something that allows you to climb continuously for thirty plus minutes before coming back down, that would be excellent. Carry a backpack that has about twenty pounds in it. Avoid stopping during this routine. This workout is probably the best simulation of what you will be doing when climbing. (Caution: Do not carry too much weight in your pack now because the coming down portion of this workout can kill your knees if you are not use to the weight.)
FOUR MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPEDITION:
The focus for this month is building your endurance.
Aerobic workouts should now be five days per week, with one day rest. Increase your workout sessions to a minimum of forty-five minutes. Concentrate on working continuously throughout the entire forty-five minutes. Continue to include a hill or stair-climbing workout with a backpack at least once a week. Increase the weight carried in your backpack by ten pounds and the duration of this session to 35 - 45 minutes. You can substitute one or two of your aerobic workouts with the hill or stair climbing session. Be careful with your knees on the down hills.
Strength workouts should increase to four days a week. Increase weights and repetitions, but again, do not exceed maximum repetitions already mentioned.
At this point of your training you may find that motivation might be lacking at times. Don't give up! Be creative, find new places to train, more friends to train with, go climbing to get psyched, read books on mountaineering, and watch videos or slide shows of other mountaineering adventures.
THREE MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPEDITION:
This month you begin your training in earnest. You must now get mentally conditioned, as well as physically. Take each day as it comes.
You may want to consider taking a good daily multiple vitamin with the RDA of iron, if you do not already do so. This will make sure that your body is getting its recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals that you might need with your increased exercise routines. The iron will assure that your blood will have the iron needed to maintain the haemoglobin in your red blood cells (good for carrying oxygen). Don't forget your daily intake of water and eat a healthy diet.
Your aerobic workouts should remain at five days per week and take one rest day per week. Your sessions should now last a minimum of fifty minutes.
Incorporate a shortened "stress" or anaerobic workout session for one day of the week. This workout should be around thirty minutes and you want this session to get your heart rate up to around 130 to 180 beats per minute for at least one minute duration at a time, but not longer than two minutes. Recuperate between these high intensity bursts within three minutes before going at it again. Physiologically, the faster your heart rate during the stress exercise and the less rest time you give yourself between the exercises, the more training benefit you will reap. You should really be working hard during this session and feel relatively exhausted at its end. An example of this type of workout is running a hilly course, sprinting the up-hills (as your high intensity burst), and jogging the down-hills and flats, for your recuperation. This type of workout is one of the best natural ways to build up your red blood cell count (which is responsible for getting oxygen to your cells) and getting your cells to get rid of lactic acid (a waste product of cellular respiration and cause of muscle fatigue) more efficiently.
On one of your aerobic workouts, include what I call the "McKinley Edge". This is an extra uphill, a longer or added loop, or an extra spurt of effort included in a workout to get your mind ready to handle the "extra mile" effort that might be required on Denali. You need to determine the "McKinley Edge" before you start the workout and stick to that plan.
Strength workouts remain at four days per week and should be a habit for you by this time. Increase your weights and repetitions accordingly.
Continue your hill and/ or stair climbing workouts, but do this twice a week now. This can be a replacement of two of your aerobic sessions. Increase your backpack weight by another ten pounds. You may want to consider carrying jugs of water for weight so you can empty them at the top of your elevation gain, assuming that you do not have to repeat the climb often in the one session. This way you do not have to carry the weight down and pound your knees. (Caution: Remember that you will be carrying very heavy loads down the mountain when the expedition is over, so strengthening your leg muscles for down hills should be considered.)
This month try to get out into the wilderness once or twice to test your gear. Make sure your boots are comfortable, apparel fits and does what you want it to do, tent sets up easily, backpack fits and handles the heavy loads, sleeping bag feels good, and you are getting familiar with the stoves, etc. The only way to do these things is to go camping and climbing. You do not want to find out that things are not just right on Denali. You can substitute two of your aerobic workouts for this outing if it is an overnighter.
TWO MONTHS PRIOR TO EXPEDITION:
Maintaining your routines and your health is key for this month.
Continue your aerobic workouts at five days per week and at least one rest day. Workouts should be a minimum of an hour in duration. One aerobic workout per week should last for at least an hour and a half. Continue with at least one stress session per week and shorten the rest periods between the high intensity portions. Remember to include the "McKinley Edge" to a couple of your workouts every week. Your uphill and/ or stair climbing workouts should now be a regular substitute for an aerobic session twice a week with at least forty pounds in the backpack. Wear your climbing boots for these sessions to get use to them, if you have not been doing so already.
Strength training is now for endurance purposes. Continue to strength train four times per week but use two of those days for emphasizing repetitions done quickly. If you have someone who can time you, do your exercises in the same number of sets, but use lighter weights (decrease your resistance by 40% of what you used before) and do as many repetitions as you can in a minute per set. You should use a weight that gets you to almost complete exhaustion at the end of the minute. If no one is available, do your exercises till muscle failure. (Caution: Do not lift free weights alone!). The other two days should be used to maintain your routine from last month.
Again this month, get out to the wilderness and test your gear. Get the kinks out of them and you. Remember to still drink your water, eat well, and get lots of rest.
ONE MONTH PRIOR TO EXPEDITION:Focus on adding intensity to withstand fatigue. This is the final 4 weeks of preparation. Your base fitness should continue to get stronger. Keep with your conditioning routine. Increase the effort in your sessions. Do as much specific training as possible in your endurance and intensity workouts. At the end of the 4 weeks make sure you have several days of complete rest and recovery. Easy stretching or yoga would be great at this time. It’s important to come to the expedition fit but relaxed.
A FINAL NOTE
We are all different and we respond to training differently. Therefore adjust the training to allow it work best for you. Don’t be intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of training for 6 months. Take it day by day. If you fall behind, don’t try to catch up by taking short cuts; adjust your progression to what is manageable for you. Also, don’t increase your workload too fast; you’ll risk getting injured or too tired. Listen to your body! If you are sore every day, you’re probably training too hard. If you develop an injury, see a doctor! Where practical, try to train with the gear that you will use during the expedition, particularly your backpack and boots. Better to find out that they don’t fit or rub in unexpected places before you arrive at the mountain! And have fun – you are preparing for one of life’s great adventures!!