Alpinism, traditionally a haven for rebels and misfits, has been slow to come around to the concept of training purely devoted to the pursuit of excelling at climbing in the mountains. This is one distinct area in which sport-climbers, comp-climbers, and boulders are far ahead of their summit-loving brothers and sisters.

To be sure, many of the colorful figures of modern alpinism have graced us with anecdotes of their training regimes:  Lionel Terray’s tales of humping huge loads of ammunitions to the gun emplacements during WW1 can easily be considered training; Ceasar Meastri famously claimed to do push ups while making love to his wife. But he also cycled to distant climbs, both of which contributed to making him one of the strongest climbers of his generation; Walter Bonatti carried snowballs in bare hands and surely this helped prepare him for the rigors of winter bivys that killed several less well prepared partners.  Reinhold Messner spent untold hours traversing back and forth on the side of an old stone building to build finger strength for his early important climbs in the Dolomites. When Messner transfered his energies to the Himalaya he did timed uphill runs throughout the same mountains, often boasting about vertical-climb rates (800-1000 meters/hour) that remain impressive even today. But other than colorful allusions like these, modern alpinists have had no distinct role models to follow: No Roger Bannister or Michael Phelps to lead the way to breaking new barriers through careful application of athletic training principles.

How I train is one of the most common questions I get. And it is one that I usually shy away from answering due to the complexity of the answer.  It is worth remembering that a well applied mediocre plan is almost guaranteed to produce better results than the best program in the world misapplied. I want to take this opportunity to outline, in a very general way, how I go about my training for alpine climbing.

One simple but pivotal concept underlies great athletic performances. We are not robots.  We will not all have exactly the same response to the same training stimulus.  We are not living in a lab where all the variables of life are minimized.  Our mind controls not only our body but also creates our perceptions and expectations which can distinctly shape our adaption to any training.

Define your goals.

In building a training program I essentially work backwards from what, and when my goal is. For example: Climbing Rainier, or in my case, K2.  The reason for this is that a training cycle will prepare one for maximum fitness during a peak period. Once you decide when you wish to peak, or summit, as the case may be, you can build your time-table. The typical program lasts 10 months prior to the expedition or climb(s) you’re training for.

Determine how much time you have to train.

Ascertain how many hours you trained last year and realistically assess how much time you have available in the coming year. Training, as indicated by the antedotes from a few of the fathers of alpinism, can take many forms.  If you are a mountain guide, you probably spent a lot of hours hiking with a heavy pack and leading easier climbs. That’s training. If you work in an office, maybe you commute on a bicycle. That’s training. What you need to know is approximately how many hours you kept your heart-rate at about 50-60% of your maximum. To estimate your max heart rate you can use the 220 minus your age calculation or any number of similar formulas. (To get a truly accurate number you need to go to a physiology lab and be tested for Max HR (heart-rate) and VO2-Max.) Your previous-year’s training volume will determine your training volume for the coming year, which as a rule of thumb, you should increase by no more than 10% per annum. The older you are, the lower that percentage increase will be. 

Plot the Macro-cycles.

Now take your calendar for the next ten months and start delineating the macro-cycles of your training program. Working backwards from the date you will leave for your climb you will have the following periods:

Foundation Period. 24-32 weeks. This is the bulk of the training period. During this period you’ll need to put a lot of time and dedication into training. The volume,and quality, of the training you do here will determine how effective the Adaptation to Specificity period will be. This is in my opinion, the most important, most rigorous, and most boring part of the training cycle.

Adaptation to specificity. This is when you convert all the weight-lifting, trail running, cycling, etc. into fitness specific to your climbing goal. This period lasts 4-6 weeks

Taper.  This typically lasts 2 weeks before you start traveling, or before you start climbing, if you can know exactly when that will be.  Tapering is very important and often people don’t do this well, I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself.

In the most basic application take the number of weeks you have for this period and divide the time into three-week cycles.  Each one of these three-week cycles are going to be mini-periods of easy/medium/hard weeks. Each week will be approximately 10% more volume than the previous week. Each three week-block is going to be approximately 10-20% more volume than the previous three-week block.  A precautionary word here, in practice you must not get too obsessed with these numbers. You will have to vary your volume day to day and week to week depending on how you feel, your stress-level in other parts of your life, your personal health, etc.

Here is an example of a three week micro-period from the early part of the foundation phase:

Week one: 8 hours. 5 hour cardio. 2 hours rock-climbing. 1 hour weight-training.

Week two: 9 hours. 5.5 hours cardio. 2.5 hours rock-climbing. 1 hour weight-training.

Week three: 11 hours. 6 hours cardio. 3 hours rock-climbing. 1 hour weight-training.

Let’s discuss these different components of the micro-cycle. 

Cardiovascular fitness is the foundation of alpine climbing. All of this training during this period should be in what is known as zone 1 and 2 heart rates.  For more information on heart-rates and heart-rate zones, consult this essay:  http://www.howtobefit.com/five-heart-rate-zones.htm For your training choose to do cardio-exercise that you enjoy, is easy to do from where you live, and that is relatively low-impact on your body. Whatever it is, the requirement is to allow an even, easy heart-rate for a prolonged period of time. I recommend doing some sport you’ve been doing most of your life. Personally, I mix it up between cycling and trail running, using the bike more when the weather is hot and running more when the temps are cool and the trails are in good condition for running. This is the basis of training for alpine climbing and I put a lot of time in this department, typically around 700 hours of cardio per year, an average of two hours per day every day. 

In this case, this means climbing! Yeah! I love climbing, and this doesn’t feel like training at all. And it’s important, all the fitness in the world won’t do you any good if your climbing skills are poor. I live near a great crag, so I can easily go down and pick up five or six pitches of climbing in a couple of hours.  The goal of this climbing should be to do pitches that are relatively easy for you. As I’ve redpointed 5.13, I focus on 5.11’s and 5.12’s. If you climb in a gym, try to do longer pitches, and avoid hard bouldering. The goal is to develop endurance at a low-heart rate. Doing short, high-intensity exercises of any kind will be counter-productive to the endurance training during this phase.

This is included in the foundation stage for general conditioning, injury-prevention, and developing a strong core.  I include one whole-body movement with a relatively heavy weight making an effort to do the exercises in a very slow, controlled manner. 

Whole-body movements cause the body to secrete the hormones needed to stimulate muscle growth: testosterone and human-growth hormone.  Over-head squats, Over-head lunges, and Dead-lifts are a few of my favorites because they are fantastic in the neurological sense: reinforcing core-limb integrity and coordination.  Be VERY careful here, because these exercises can be dangerous and EVERYONE needs coaching from a qualified instructor while learning these movements.  

In the strength phase I will  work up to one rep max (1RM) in a whole-body movement like this:
10 x 35% of 1RM
2 minutes rest
5x 55-60% 1RM
2 minutes rest
2x 75-80% 1RM
2 minutes rest
1x 85-87% 1RM
2 minutes rest
1x 95% 1RM

After that I will do one set of ten dead-lifts at roughly 120% of my body weight, making each move slow, immediately followed by 25 fast box jumps on a 36” box immediately followed by a dozen or so pullups, locking off at the top for ten seconds each time. I do this for three rounds. This is my variant of a Gym Jones workout called “Jones Crawl.” One key is to vary every work out so that the body doesn’t have time to adapt to any one specific work-load.

Finally I warm down with 4-5 additional exercises targeting my weaknesses at the time. These are done at an easy pace and with the emphasis being on form. Most of us have weak core so one or two good core-strengthening exercises are advisable. Some suggestions are: various plank-poses (try them with low-rings), kettle-bell or dumbbell crawls, or turkish-get-ups.  If you are unsure of what these exercises are, you can search through the many instructional videos on the internet. Add one or two-climbing specific I often finish with a light workout on a hang-board if I’m not climbing that day. Lastly, I include a simple posture-strengthening exercise to counter-act my bad posture gained from so much load-carrying over the years.

As a guideline for how to structure the number of reps to do, I refer to Michael Yessis’ 1992 book titled “The Kinesiology of Exercise”. People like to oversimplify the effects of strength versus repetition. Actual effects will vary depending on age, existing fitness, gender, the phase of the annual cycle, as well as the volume and intensity of the training. In summary these effects can be generalized as: 
1-4 reps increase pure strength but do not increase muscle mass.
4-9 reps increase strength together with muscle mass .
10-15 reps increase muscular strength, muscular endurance and muscle mass.
16-30 reps increase muscular endurance with little to no increase in muscle mass. 
31-50 reps increase muscular endurance with no effect on muscle mass.
50-100 reps increase muscular endurance, cardio-respiratory endurance, there will be a possible loss of muscle mass (or fat), and absolutely no increase in strength.

In the eight weeks before departure I do three simple, hard workouts each week and spend the rest of the time getting quality sleep and food. This is a period during which your body really adapts and you get a lot stronger very quickly. This is where all those hundreds of hours of volume are converted into raw uphill climbing power. It has been well demonstrated that the greater your base (in terms of volume, or hours) the greater your gains during this period will be.

The hill-climb: If you’re going to climb a big peak, you’d better be able to carry a pack uphill wearing boots. To train this I go to a nearby hill with 1,500 feet of vertical gain. There is a river at the base of the hill and I fill up a large 5-gallon flexible water bladders (One gallon of water weighs eight pounds.) At first I do these work outs with about three gallons of water, and work up to five gallons of water. Starting from the river I hike uphill fast, going as hard as i can maintain to the top. When I start this period it takes me around 45 minutes to go up this hill when I start and I get down to the low 30 minute-range by the end of this period. At the summit of the butte I dump my water, rest for 2 minutes, and hike back down. This is all done wearing an old pair of mountain boots similar to what I’ll wear on the expedition. I repeat the hill-climb three to five times. Going for a total of 200 minutes with your heart rate near its max will lay any hard-man (or hard-woman) low. After this I immediately go home, eat, and often I take a nap.

Long-slow distance day.  This is a workout that lasts all day. For me that means a 10-15 hour day in the mountains. Hiking up and down hills with as much scrambling as the terrain allows. I like to avoid technical climbing as belaying others brings my heart rate down when the point is to maintain my heart rate at a moderate rate for most of the time.

Climbing-day.  This is fun. Just go out and do as many technical pitches as you can. Living near Smith Rock state park, I go to the lower gorge, a place stacked with 5.10 cracks. There I do as many routes I can in one day, often the sun is the limiting factor, especially in the summer. My aim to get at least twenty pitches in and will try to climb many of them wearing a light ten-pound pack.