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Mountaineering Training | Using Benchmarks

As an athlete, have you or are you currently caught up with anxiety wondering if your training is working and if it will be enough for your upcoming climb? We have all been there in the nervous countdown to the start of a big climb. A useful way to calm the nerves and get good information about whether to stay the course or change up something in our training can come from periodic benchmark tests.

Training plans require adaptation to adjust to individuals’ physiological differences, and benchmarks give you data points to make those adjustments. They also can help you understand how closely your current fitness aligns with the requirements of your next climb, so that you know if you are on the right track, need to adjust to add a bit more of a type of training, or have plateaued and need to shift training strategies to continue to see improvement. In order to get a good picture of how your fitness is changing, try to standardize your benchmark tests, so that each test gives you a good comparison to the last. The most useful tests for us as mountaineers fall into the categories of aerobic endurance and strength.
Aerobic endurance tests
The best way to measure and track improvements in aerobic endurance are with a time trial of sorts. The operative word is AEROBIC, meaning in zone 1 or 2. As climbers, we are trying to maximize the pace that we can move while remaining below our aerobic threshold, in a foot borne sport (ie running or hiking). There are a number of ways to create a test depending on the terrain you have available. One would be to choose a steady uphill hike that takes between 1 and 2 hours. Record the time it takes to do that hike from the same start point to the same end, hiking it as quickly as possible, while remaining in zone 2. As your aerobic fitness increases, you would expect to see that time decrease – you’ll be able to do the same distance and vertical more quickly with the same effort.
If hills aren’t available, try using a set running loop with the same idea. It’s also possible to do this test on a treadmill. Set the incline to the same point each time, and either run or walk a set distance, adjusting the pace on the treadmill to keep you in zone 2. As your fitness increases, you’ll be able to do the test at higher paces with the same effort, and your times will fall.
Mountaineering is in the end a sport of elevation gain, so we haven’t found a distance pace that equates to success in the mountains. It can still be useful for tracking the evolution of your aerobic capacity. In the mountains we use vertical distance to measure pace, as so much depends on the terrain that we are moving through. A good rule of thumb is that for a Rainier climb, we average about 1000 vertical feet per hour as our target pace. That’s while carrying a pack that weighs about 20 lbs. Your goal should be to have that pace be very comfortable so that you are well within your aerobic capacity throughout the climb. Being able to sustain 1500 or 2000 vertical feet per hour by the time of the climb, means that you’ll be well within your fitness capacity while climbing, and thus have plenty of energy for everything else that requires attention, like the terrain, taking care of yourself, and cold temps and weather.

Core and leg specific strength are important strength aspects in mountaineering. An easy way to create benchmark strength tests is to see how many reps (with good form) of given activity you can do in a minute. Rest for 30 seconds and repeat once more. You can do this with sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, and box steps.
Our bodies take time to adapt to training, so benchmark tests are useful if done every month or 6 weeks. Over that time period you can expect to see improvement from test to test in each of these categories. If you aren’t seeing improvement, talk to a personal trainer or coach to get some advice on how to adjust your training to get you back on track.


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

Comments (1)

I’m wondering about benchmarks to see if I am capable of completing a Rainier summit climb.  I see in this article that one benchmark is being able to do 1500 to 2000 feet of vertical per hour?  So if I am able to do Paradise to Camp Muir in 3 hours with about a 35lb pack would this indicate I am capable of a summit climb?  (With a 20lb pack?)

I think I’m capable but want to have a benchmark that gives me the confidence that I can make it.  I’m plenty disciplined, committed, etc so I know I’ll suck it up mentally but want to make sure I can do it physically.

Thank you.  Dan

Posted by: Dan Hovde on

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