What do you do when a friend tells you they just snagged a permit to climb Mt. Whitney and has as spot saved for you? Well… if you are one of the 13.1 million people in the US who live at sea level, then you might think twice about trying to climb the highest peak in the lower 48. But don’t say NO just yet. You can still get in darn good shape for any climb, sea level be dammed!
As an avid mountain climber/trail runner/adventurer, who also happens to live at sea level, I get a lot of people asking me on how I stay in shape. So in the spirit of sharing, I wanted give you some insight into how I train for any mountain adventure!
1. Get out and run “unevenly”
Simple, elegant, tested. Many alpine routes require hiking long miles on uneven uphill terrain – that should be no surprise since that’s what many mountain climbing approaches are about. So to make sure my legs are ready for the challenge I (and you) should hit the road or trail as much as we can. Personally, I like to keep running schedules varied. Sometime I will jog a long route with flat terrain and some days I focus on “heavy hill” routes. I add interval training and sprints about 3 days per week and I rack up the miles before the big day by running a minimum of 3 – 10 miles each day 2 weeks out. (That adds up to 21 miles for the week on the low end and could reach 70 on the high) Working hard to ensure your legs have the stamina before tackling the hike will help to ensure you can get up AND down from the summit.
TIP: Vary the timing of your runs. Running in the early morning is great since you should be hitting the trail before dawn but also make sure to run in the evenings because you never know when you need to push those couple extra miles to get to camp… in the dark.
2. Get high (in elevation)
Training at elevation is amazing! When I lived in New Mexico, I would go to the top of the Sandia Mountains (10,678 ft.) and trail run for three hours. Now… at sea level, it can be tough to find anything near me above 6000 ft. (and it’s still a 1.5 hour drive away). So what do you do? Find some friends, grab your dog, hop in your car, and get high – in elevation. When training for any climb I make sure to spend entire weekends at elevation. If 5,000 feet is all you can get to this weekend… then go for a long hike. If you have an extended holiday then get your butt to a 10K peak and camp. Camping, hiking or trail running as high as you can (especially higher than sea level) will help prepare your body for the elevation you will face above tree. FYI – Even at 6000 feet above sea level, you exhale and perspire twice as much moisture as you do at sea level. Plus, hiking at elevation helps you log more miles, test gear new and prepares you for the adventure to come. Win, win, win.
2. Butts and guts
For me, successful mountain climbing comes down to the training I do in advance (both mentally and physically). And knowing that I am about to carry a 45+ pound pack, uphill for 4-10 hours means that my legs and core (yes core) need to be strong. Personally, I like to take at least 2 days per week to focus on my legs. Again I mix up my routine by hitting a stair stepper (real or machine), a bike (stationary or mobile), or I just load my pack to about 25 pounds and perform various squats and calf raises. When my legs get tired from any of those activities I know it’s working and I always make sure to push a bit harder… believe me training hard now pays off in the future.
Guts, (aka core) in an often over looked but still critical element to training. Half way through the first day, that pack will become your nemesis (on the trail it’s mine) and to make sure I’m ready to lug that beast around I do a variety of hip and abdominal exercises. Having a strong core before the climb will help stabilize the pack on your back, make your body (and legs) work a bit easier, and can even make putting the pack back on after a rest bit less difficult. Plus then you can say you carried a 6 pack all the way to the top of Whitney.
3. Run for the hills
You will be going uphill… a lot. So now is the time to become one with the steepness and Zen-out on hills. I make sure to hit a hill (or 6) eve time I go running. Flat is fine but it’s not often a terrain you get when working to climb a summit and you need to practice like you play. I take at least one day to do 10 hill sprints near my house and that does include a nice jog down the hill before rest. Remember, half of your hike will be downhill too. I also make sure to go running at “elevation” and that always involves a hill or two.
TIP: If you don’t have a hill nearby then find some stairs or better yet a parking garage and go for a run! But make sure to watch out for cars and slow stair walkers.
4. Get hot and unleash your yogi
Flexibility is always a helpful thing to have on the trail. Flexibility in planning, in choosing camp locations and literally flexibility in the form of stretching. When training for mountain climbing, I make sure to add in a heavy dose of Namaste and sauna sweat. Yoga is great for mobility, static exercise/sytrength and personally it helps me clear my mind and relax… something I think we all can use more of. As for the sweat lodge, relaxing in a heated room (also something I do with yoga) helps removes toxins, stresses my body in a different (but safe way) and gives me the chance to not feel like I am always “going”. Varying your routine and not always “working-out” is a big part of avoiding training burnt out and for me, yoga and sauna sweating are great ways I find to “take a day off” without taking a day off.
Check out this article on making heat your friend if you want to know more.
5. Mind over matter
Let’s face it… even relaxing at elevation can really get to you when you were sleeping at sea level the day before. But knowing that you may have a headache… that your will be tired… that your legs will be sore is all part of the fun. Part of my training routine, and multiple times before the hike, I visualize the route, the tough parts and most importantly the view from the top. I don’t try to fool myself into thinking that the summit attempt will be easy because if it was then everyone would sign up to climb Mt. Everest. Instead of just focusing on the “bad”, I make sure to visualize the fun parts of the journey. I picture talking with friends, exploring a new trail, sleeping under the stars, and how good that raspberry crumble desert will taste on day 4… stuff like that. Having the right attitude about the hike ahead of time will keep you focused, determined and excited for the incredibly amazing experience you are about to have.
With that all said, everyone’s body is a bit different and we all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to climbing in the high alpine. Make sure to take on any training challenge in a way that makes you happy, keeps you safe and lets you tackle the challenge at your own pace.