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Mountaineering Training | Training for Vertical Gain

When training for any sport, the best training advice is that you need to “do the sport.” If you are training to run a 5k race, you should spend a significant amount of your training running. 24 hour mountain bike race? You are going to spend a lot of training time on a bike. Crossfit competition? You’d better flip a lot of tires, do a lot of burpees, and swing a lot of ropes. So what do we do when our chosen sport is mountaineering?

For the lucky amongst us, we have mountains and hills nearby. We can lace up a pair of boots, put on a weighted pack, and head out the door for a several hour hike. So many of our climbers don’t have the luxury of living nearby mountains (for many, not even many hills), yet so much of our training advice relies on gaining vertical elevation throughout the workout. For flatlanders, one of the best options to still achieve vertical distance during a workout is to use a treadmill set at its max incline.

On Mt. Rainier we aim to climb at a pace of about 1000 ft/hour. We use this measure because our pace varies with the terrain. In flatter terrain with less rise per step, we’ll up the tempo and move a bit faster. As the terrain gets steeper and the effort increases, we back the speed down somewhat, all in an effort to continue to move efficiently. 1000 ft/hour, therefore, is a useful benchmark in your training.

A treadmill typically has a max incline of 15%. To climb 1000ft. on a treadmill therefore, you need to walk roughly 1.25 miles of horizontal distance (what the treadmill measures). Setting the pace to 1.25 miles per hour on the treadmill will approximate the pace of the climb, at least on paper.

There is a physics argument around frame of reference that argues that a treadmill should be the same effort as hiking outside (the same argument is made for stairmasters), however, physiological studies show that heart rate and oxygen consumption (a way to measure effort) are lower on a treadmill for the same pace on solid ground. This suggests that a treadmill then requires somewhat less effort and is in effect easier. How much easier? This is a difficult question, that doesn’t have an answer. With this knowledge, we can simply set our pace to be faster than 1.25 miles per hour and increase the difficulty through speed. If we increase the difficulty enough, we will approach the difficulty of the climb.

Other great options for tailoring your training to the vertical gain involved in climbing include stadium or office building stairs. In this case, you are moving your center of mass uphill, just like in mountaineering, so 1000 ft/hour will feel similar to the actual effort. Embrace the options that are available to you, grab a pack and some weight, and see how much vertical you can incorporate into your training!


Comments? Questions? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!

Comments (3)

I love your training articles. However, once again the article I received 1/20/2020, “Training for Vertical Gain.” perpetuates an incorrect notion about training on an inclined treadmill, “Keeping your body in place while moving your feet to keep up with the treadmill is easier than actually climbing that same incline however, since you don’t have to actually push your weight up the hill with your legs.”

This is just incorrect. One does push one’s “weight up the hill with your legs” on an inclined treadmill. Because the platform is moving down you must lift your body up to keep from falling off the end of the treadmill. If the statement I quoted from your article was correct, it would not be any harder to walk on an inclined treadmill than a flat one. You do not need to be a physicist or engineer to understand that—go walk on a flat treadmill then incline it to a 15% grade—It is easy to feel it is harder and that is because for all intents and purposes you are walking uphill.

I would agree that it is harder to ascend a mountain than it is to walk on an inclined treadmill but that is because the mountain has an irregular surface, you never walk in a perfectly straight line, you are always stepping down some even if you are largely ascending, etc.

If you do not agree with me, please talk to a physicist, an exercise physiologist or a mechanical engineer and stop putting this idea in your articles about walking on an inclined treadmill or a stairmill / strair-stepper. People (me included) consider RMI an authoritative source so it is important that the info you distribute is correct.

Thanks for listening to my long comment.

Posted by: Robert Taylor on

Hi Glenn,

We totally agree that climbing stairs with weight is a very effective way to train for climbing as well (and you get the descent with weight which uses a different set of muscles and is equally important!). We struggle to convert stairs to miles as well, but what we really care about in the mountains is vertical gain rather than horizontal distance. Thought of this way, we tend to pace ourselves to climb at approximately 1000ft/hr. One story in the US tends to be about 10ft. so if you could climb 100 stories in an hour, that would be very close to the effort of climbing.

But for the sake of curiousity, the average stair in the US is 7 inches high and 11 inches deep. That means that the hypotenuse is about 13 inches. It sounds like the stride length for stairs that you found overestimates it by a bit. With that distance, that leaves you climbing 325 flights of your stairs to climb a mile as measured by the hypotenuse. Yikes!!

Good luck and happy training!

Posted by: The RMI Team on

I appreciate your article outlining vertical gain training via treadmill…........I understand it completely- and I have done it.  I have found that climbing actual stairs, with my pack, is better for my body type to prepare for vertical hiking / climbing- especially factoring altitude.   

I struggle to convert stairs climbed to miles?  Do you have some formula I can use to approximate miles climbed?  I have standard stairs inside my house- with 15 steps to the 2nd floor.  (1 flight)

I found a website that says the average step requires a 17 inch stride to climb and there are 63,360 inches in a mile.  So, 63,360 divided by 255 (15 steps x 17 inches) = 248 flights

Does this sound correct to you???????

Posted by: Glenn Weisner on

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