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I am planning a trip to the Alps, where I'll do some mountaineering, mostly on rocks (little or no ice) at altitudes around 4000 m. I expect to do mostly scrambling, with only a few places per day where we'll need to climb with protection.

In the time left (a few months), I would like to improve my fitness. I can devote 30-60 minutes a day and a few additional hours at weekends.

Which types of exercise should I do, to prepare my body most effectively?

  • Running
    • How important is it to do interval training?
    • Is it important to run uphill? Downhill? If yes, how steep?
    • Should I carry weight?
  • Walking
    • I can devote a few hours at weekends to hiking with weight. How important is this? Should I carry the same amount of weight that I expect to use in the mountains? Maybe more? Or should I carry less, and aim for speed instead?
  • Biking
    • I do mountainbiking for fun, but I feel that it doesn't give me much advantage in fitness for mountains. Is there any way to adjust mountainbiking for this specific purpose?
  • I do gym and rock climbing 2-3 times a week. Do I need any other anaerobic exercises?
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    What kind of climbing? Like scrambling ridges around UIAA II only as a smaller part of the tour but mostly it is hiking? I do like those alpine tours in the Alps and I guess you are looking for the same. – Wills Mar 4 '15 at 18:09
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    Yes, mostly hiking, with a few places of real climbing. – anatolyg Mar 4 '15 at 18:18
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    I'd suggest grabbing a copy of Training for the New Alpinism as it should cover all you wish to know. Also, have you done the Harvard Step Test? – requiem Mar 4 '15 at 19:24
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    @requiem I was close to give the same suggestion with the book of Steve House. I have a copy at home but unfortunately didn't have a look into it yet. I think it covers a lot because mountaineering is so versatile. Someone who already read the book (or similar literature) could give suggestions for the particular situation anatolyg is in. He needs no help for technical skills, just for the endurance training. So I hope that we are getting a good general answer here. After all nice link to the Harvard Step Test, I've never heard of it and will try it for sure :) – Wills Mar 4 '15 at 19:56
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Instead of running or walking, I recommend you go to the gym and do the Stairmaster. This will provide an aerobic workout while building the muscles you need for hiking and scrambling. This is what I do to get in shape for backpacking trips.

Edit 3/5/2015: Providing an answer to anatols questions in the comments: I use the Stairmaster 4-5 times a week, 30 minutes each. The speed will depend on your aerobic profile: the idea is to spend the first five or ten minutes building up to your target heart rate, and spend the remainder of the workout keeping it within the target range. You can search online for "aerobic target heartrate" for details. I carry a small electronic pulse-meter to measure my heartrate. Although after you've done this a few times you'll get to know your body and you can pretty accurately guess your heartrate without it. You can use the Stairmaster with or without backpack. I recommend both. With the backpack will greater strengthen the specific muscles and better simulate the backpacking experience. Without backpack is just as good for your heart too.

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    So the Stairmaster is some sort of american stair-shaped treadmill? Since I probably will never use this, can you provide any idea on how to use regular stairs instead? Beyond "just do it", which is a good advice anyway - How fast? How many times a week? With or without backpack? How to go down? (I can find a roundabout path down without stairs - is it better?) – anatolyg Mar 5 '15 at 8:22
  • yes, a stairmaster (we call them steppers in the UK) is like a stair treadmill. Probably quit a good exercise though I doubt you'd be able to build the endurance needed for a alpine trek using one. – user2766 Mar 5 '15 at 9:00
  • I do walk upstairs with a 35 kg backpack and ankle weights as well. It helped TREMENDOUSLY. – Dakatine Mar 7 '15 at 9:42
  • @Dakatine yes this strengthens the right kind of muscles that you need for lugging a backpack around on the mountain. – Michael Martinez Mar 9 '15 at 18:54
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All these are well and good, but "No training plan survives contact with real life".

Doing something vaguely aerobic that you enjoy doing for several hours at a stretch one or two times a week is far better than the "optimal" aerobic exercise that you never do.

The best training for long days in the mountains is long days in the mountains. If you can't do that for some reason, at least do long days. How much time you spend training is far more important than exactly what kind of training you do. There are adaptations your body makes that simply won't happen in any kind of one hour or less workout. Building base endurance[1] requires at least one 3+ hr effort every two weeks or so. If you can recover in a week then 1x a week is good.

I would avoid intervals and intensity, since they require recovery time and limit the long efforts you can do. What I would suggest is keep doing the things you enjoy, just gradually increase the length of time you do them.

The one specific thing I would recommend is to spend as much time hiking with the pack, load and boots you plan to use on your trips as possible. There are lot's of small control muscles that are hard to exercise in any other way than carrying your pack. You'll also work out any pack fit issues. And well boots, there is nothing more important for a long day in the mountains than having well fitting, broken in boots.

[1]- For most people running is too intense for this kind of long workout, biking, hiking or even just going for a long walk are more appropriate.

7

In short: Build up your base endurance! This will give you the ability to perform at moderate intensity over several hours and to recover quickly after the tour.

This means, try to get many low-intensity but long training sessions. For your cardiovascular system it doesn't matter in the first place whether you do this by bike, running or hiking, just keep it long and easy. You basically wouldn't need any anaerobic exercise for that, however going to the gym or some climbing doesn't do any harm.

For base endurance Steve House's Training for the New Alpinism recommends running or hiking over cycling as with cycling you are sitting and don't have to engage your core muscles that much which you will need to stabilize your body. I for myself am tempted to deviate a bit for that since Steve House seems to have only road cycling in mind if he thinks of cycling. In my experience mountain biking is not that bad here since it invokes a greater part of the body. In my personal experience also the type of load that you put on your thighs when pedaling is quite similar to that you have when when walking up over block terrain where you often have ascend up over steps of 20 to 50 cm height.

Concerning running, don't care too much about intervals, up- and downhills and stuff, but focus on long and easy runs and not on pushing for speed. If you feel like doing some intervals, then do so, but sparsely. If you have some nice hilly ways to run then do that every now and then but don't concentrate too much on them (especially not in the early phase of your training, you can shift a bit more on those as your trip comes closer). In hilly terrain concentrate on the uphills – running downhill is primarily putting your leg joints at risk and doesn't give you much benefit, so see it as a necessary thing that you need to do to compensate for the uphill elevation gain but don't search it. If you run in hilly terrain try to combine steep uphills with flat downhills to maximize uphill performance and minimize injury risk.

For hiking, in general don't take a heavier backpack than you have to (you can of course every now and then, to get a bit used to it and if you want to check things like if it fits) but try to have fun and get a long endurance workout. If possible, try to get your hikes in terrain that resembles a mountain tour, i.e. don't walk the rolling hills with 50m up, 50m down but try to get somewhere where you can have an hour or more of uphill followed by a downhill. In this case practice to hike quick but stay in the zone of aerobic exercise.

As a recent song by Meghan Trainor says: It's all about that base!

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    I agree mountain biking is better than road riding but the position of your body while doing it is going to train the wrong muscles. It will train your core, but not to take a lateral load, like a pack on your back. So it'll help but still not ideal. – user2766 Mar 5 '15 at 10:36
  • True, but I was seeing this primarily from a cardiovascular point of view and not so much from the strength training perspective. – Benedikt Bauer Mar 5 '15 at 10:40
  • Fair enough, just pointing it out TBH :) – user2766 Mar 5 '15 at 10:50
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Typically for training for this kind of thing you want to work on two aspects of your fitness, strength (to carry the weight you need for the periods you need without pain/injury) and cardio vascular performance (you want to have the lungs and heart to process as much energy as you can as fast as you can and recover quickly when resting to allow you to continue).

Running

Running will increase your cardio vascular capacity quite well. Really I would argue that the type of running your doing isn't that important (even short sprint type work outs have proven to be very effective at building fitness). What is important is the amount of running your doing. Basically the more you run the better trained your going to be. So basically do whatever you can when you can.

Should I carry weight?

Likely yes, this will help improve the muscles you will be using while walking (think stability muscles in your core) as well as your cardio.

If you're runnnig you're already working at a higher intensity then walking so alter the weight accordingly, don't try and run with a full pack because you'll likely just injure yourself and then you won't make it at all!

Walking

Obviously walking in hills is the most similar exercise to what you will actually be doing and is therefore the exercise that will improve your performance the best. I would try and simulate the conditions of what your going to do as closely as possible, so take a full pack with everything in it that you plan to take. This also helps you decide, do I really need that pillow or would I prefer less weight?!

Biking

think of biking much like running, good for cardio but the muscles used are not quite right. So I'd say good, but not ideal.

A note on slow twitch vs fast twitch

Muscle fibres come in two forms, slow twitch and fast twitch. Fast twitch are power and speed muscle fibres, slow twitch are endurance muscle fibres. When it comes to muscle training you want to concentrate on the slow twitch ones. So weight training and sprinting are less good. If you do do weight training you want high reps, low weight.

4

A personal anecdote. Two fairly unfit blokes go to the Alps and spend a week on long but easy training climbs. Then they are joined by two athlete friends who are in hard marathon training. The two fairly unfit blokes who have trained in the Alps proceed to walk the runners into the ground for the next few days till their friends build up their Alpine conditioning.

I think that one of the main lessons from research is that training is very specific. Beyond basic endurance conditioning, I find that nothing helps to prepare me for carrying a pack up and down steep hills nearly as well as carrying a pack up and down steep hills - you'll be using muscles that simply aren't engaged so much in other sports. The carry-over from flat-surface running and from cycling might be less than you hope for.

Though I disagree with the poster who advised against anything intense - the benefits of HIIT seem to be so pervasive that it surely plays a role in any conditioning programme if done in moderation with ample recovery time. In the hope of getting the best carry over, I use hill-sprints.

Stair climbing with a pack or weight vest might be worthwhile if you can't get to the hills. I've also found benefit in squats and lunges with low reps - building the strength of the support muscles helps with endurance, I find, especially with long descents.

But perhaps the most important advice is to schedule some time at the start of your holiday for progressive training climbs to acclimatise to the altitude and specific physical demands of Alpine work. If you have a level of basic fitness, you'll quickly adapt.

  • Does "walk into the ground" mean the same as run into the ground? (I have never heard either of these expressions) – anatolyg Apr 5 '15 at 13:01
  • Yes - it means that we were much faster than them on the approaches even though they were athletes and we were slobs... – Tullochgorum Apr 5 '15 at 13:51
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    I don't think you can conflate acclimatisation to training though its still a useful point! – aaaaargZombies Apr 8 '15 at 20:15
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As most people have recommended Training for the new alpinism is a very comprehensive sports science book on exactly the subject your interested in. It covers much more than a stackexchange answer could expect to.

From said book,

Aerobic threshold power output is the single most important measure of a person's aerobic system.

Why should you care so much about your aerobic fitness? because the body can only store about 2500 calories in glycogen, the fuel used to generate power anaerobically as apposed to around about 100,000 calories in fat, which will be used to generate power aerobically.

As alpine climbing is an endurance activity lasting sometimes several days you can see that dipping into your glycogen supply is a luxury that should be reserved for difficult crux moves or unexpected emergencies, not to compensate for a lack of aerobic fitness on the approach.

The most effective training will likely be quite boring unless you have access to some really nice country side. Walking with a weighted pack up something, local steep hill, stair master, staircase of multi-story building. Put something like water or rocks in your bag that you can dump out at the top to save your knees on the descent. I'd avoid running with weight for the same reason.

Improving aerobic fitness is quite a large topic but the consensus is low intensity high volume. Adequate recovery is as important as the workout.

  • Could it be that in the part about the calories somewhere there is the "an" of "anaerobically" missing? – Paul Paulsen Apr 9 '15 at 10:57
  • @PaulPaulsen Yes, well caught. – aaaaargZombies Apr 13 '15 at 16:48

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