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Entries from Mountaineering Fitness & Training

Mountaineering Training | Make The Most Of Rest Breaks

How do you utilize rest breaks in your training and climbs? Do you take a break to eat? And another when you are thirsty?  Perhaps when your legs get tired and uncomfortable? A quick bathroom break on the side of the trail?  It’s important to take care of all of these needs but they need to approached strategically to prevent rest breaks from turning an otherwise long endeavor into an epic.  Learning to manage your rest breaks and keep them efficient makes a big difference on summit day. 

At RMI, the oft-used cliché is that we take “maintenance breaks,” not rest breaks. Consider all of the needs that need to be taken care of mid-climb: you need to relieve yourself, take in enough calories to maintain your energy output, hydrate, adjust your clothing layers to changing conditions, perhaps take care of a hot spot so that it doesn’t become a debilitating blister, get a few minutes off of your feet, and just maybe snap a couple of photos.  This list can easily turn into a half an hour of tasks, even if each only took just 4-5 minutes to accomplish.  After thirty minutes your legs will likely start to stiffen and your temperature start to drop, not to mention that a few half-hour breaks together can turn a 10 hour day into a 12+ hour day in the mountains, stretching the limits of how long we can climb safely and maintain our focus. 

The moral of the story is that efficiency is key: we want to try to take care of all of our needs in the span of ten minutes to leave a few minutes to relax before getting back on the trail and making progress towards the finish line.  Ultra marathoners do this with “walking breaks,” slowing to a walk every hour to make sure that their body is primed for the next hour.  Mountainous terrain doesn’t let us take breaks on the fly, but the principle remains the same.  Taking short, deliberate, and consistent breaks keeps us climbing strongly throughout the day. Making rest breaks efficient takes practice. Learn to multitask in your breaks: take a couple bites of food while you shuffle clothing layers, relieve yourself before you sit down to start your other chores, and sip on water throughout the break.  As you get better at it, you’ll find that you’ve taken care of everything in the first few minutes, and you can relax and let your legs get a bit of recovery for the rest of the break. 

No matter how efficient you are, the time rest breaks take add up.  Taking efficient breaks too frequently can drain just as much time as taking a couple of long breaks. In the mountains, we try to maintain a consistent pace for an hour or so before stopping for ten to fifteen minutes to refuel and take care of ourselves.  This proves to be an effective interval for our bodies in terms of replenishing depleted stores yet still allows us to reach our destination.  Practice this interval in your training too and by your next climb it will feel like second nature. 

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

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Mountaineering Training | Ladder Intervals

One of the keys to performance in endurance events such as distance running, cycling, swimming, or mountaineering, is to be able to put in a hard burst in the middle of your effort, and then recover.  We see Tour de France cyclists do this all the time, racing a full out sprint in the middle of a stage, then recovering for the final sprint 60 miles later.  Runners do it when they make a break up a hill to get away from the field, and mountaineers need to be able to do it when getting through a tough stretch of Disappointment Cleaver or clambering over the bergschrund on the fixed lines on Denali.  The ability to put on a burst AND recover while you maintain your activity is developed through interval training.  

There are lots of different intervals that can be tailored to accomplish different goals, from natural rolling intervals (Fartlek intervals), to the 4x4 interval workout.  Another useful set of intervals are ladder intervals.  

Ladder intervals are sets of increasing and/or decreasing intervals.  Ladder intervals can be done in a variety of terrain, from flats, to rolling hills, to a hill climb.  A common ladder set might be to do a 1 minute interval, then recover, then do a 2-minute interval, followed by a 4-minute effort, followed by a 6-minute interval.  Once you reach your peak (you’ve worked your way up the ladder), start working your way back down, reversing the pattern.  After the 6-minute interval, do a 4-minute interval, then a 2-minute interval, and then finish with a last 1-minute interval.  As with all interval training, the goal is to complete each one at a similar pace.  The 1-minute interval might naturally be a bit faster, but you want to avoid blowing yourself out in the first couple of intervals, so that you are just surviving through the remainder.  

Another important component to interval training is the recovery time. Recover for between 50-100 percent of the duration of the previous effort. For shorter intervals, recovery time might be closer to 100 percent (you might recover for 1 minute after a 1-minute interval) while longer intervals may be closer to 50 percent (for the 4 and 6 minute intervals).  Recover for long enough that your heart rate has dropped and you feel ready for the next set, but not so long that your heart rate returns to a very low zone 1 or 2 effort level.  Recovery is best accomplished actively, at a very slow jog, walk, or spin; after all, the ability to recover while moving is what we are trying to develop.  

As with all training tools, the ladder intervals can be adjusted to fit your needs.  Using longer sets (at a slower pace) will help to build your lactate threshold, while shorter (and faster) sets will help to build your anaerobic threshold and recovery.  These can also be done over distances rather than time, such as on a track.  An example might be a 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 400m, 200m, 100m.  Remember that interval training requires a quality warm up and cool down, both to prevent injury, and allow you to perform and get the most out of the workout.  

Need a refresher on interval training? Learn more about general interval training…
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Posted by: Smithf201 on 5/24/2014 at 6:58 pm

Mountaineering Training | Cycling for Mountaineering Training

Some Rainier climbers are fortunate to have enough mountainous terrain in their area to train on realistic terrain for their upcoming climb.  However, many are completing their training in locations far from the mountains and with limited access to hiking trails. In these places it takes a little more creativity to functionally train for mountaineering.  Fortunately, no matter where you are, we all live in the midst of an almost unlimited network of pavement.  Road biking can be a great tool for getting a lot of variety of training done, with the added bonus that it is a low impact activity on your joints.  Depending on the type of training you are trying to accomplish, there are many ways to use your road bike as a tool:

• Long Endurance: Road bikes are a great way to get that long, 3 to 4 hour workout done on the weekends.  Look for different loops that you can do with a variety of terrain, and try to keep your heart rate in Zone 1 or Zone 2.  On a road bike, often times this means using an efficient gear to spin a good cadence or tempo, rather than mashing high gears for a bunch of hours. Keep in mind that 3 hours of spinning on a bike may not provide the same workout as a 3 hour hike on mountainous terrain so you may need extend your rides a little if you feel like you’re not getting the workout you desire. If you aren’t sure where to go in your area, check out apps like Strava or EveryTrail, which let you share your rides with other users, compare your times, and get ideas for new rides in your area!

• Fartlek Intervals: If you have a loop or ride around you with some rolling hills, your ride can turn into a natural interval workout, known as Fartlek Intervals.  Up the intensity up each hill, and recover down the backside or across the flats.  Similarly, use telephone poles, signs, road junctions, or other landmarks to setup a series of intervals if your terrain isn’t as suited for climbing.

• Speed: Along similar lines to intervals, you can do a series of short sprints or speeds (this can be really fun if you are riding with a group of buddies, and someone calls out a finish line at random that the whole group races for) that helps build your fast twitch muscle structure for those short bursts of quick steps that you encounter climbing.

• Strength: Biking works many of the same leg muscles that we use climbing, namely the quads, hamstrings, and calves.  While a lot of good road cyclists often focus on riding an efficient gear at high rpms, if you want to do a series of strength exercises, try to a type of interval where you push a higher gear than you normally would for a minute or two, then back off. Repeat this for several repetitions. Think of it as a sort of leg squat. As you get stronger, you can increase the resistance for this exercise.  This may not be that aerobically challenging, but remember the point is strength, rather than aerobic threshold with these.  

As with any workout, you will be far more successful if you set out for each workout with a focus and purpose, rather than to just go for a ride each day. The variety and quality of the training that you can do on a bike is great, but remember that it doesn’t replace the need to put a pack on for some of your workouts and do them with weight on your back, just like you will have on the climb. Similarly, road biking is great for reducing the strain on your joints, but remember that during your climb, you will climb (and DESCEND!!) 10,000 feet and your joints need to be ready for that. So if riding is better suited to your area, use it as a great tool to get a ton of training done, but don’t forget to get out on your feet, boots on, with a pack on your back. Mix it up and stay excited about your training! 

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Deja Vu,  guess what a bought today—road bike.  :))

Posted by: Mary on 10/19/2014 at 6:05 pm

Mountaineering Training | Time & Terrain Tips For Training

The training required for mountaineering is difficult: the workouts are strenuous, committing, and time consuming. A major challenge many climbers face is balancing training with the realities of daily life. Time and terrain are both constraining: it is difficult to find the time to fit in all of the training and not easy access to miles of trails and thousands of vertical feet is difficult to find.

The reality is that there is not one a single solution to these constraints. In order to fit in the training you need and head into the mountains prepared you have to adapt your training plan to fit with what works for you.

To help we’ve put together a collection of ideas, suggestions, and tips that our guides and climbers have used over the years to help you get the most out of your training.


There is no way around it: mountaineering training takes time. To get the most out of your training, use the time that you have well:

• Have Purpose: Make each workout have a purpose (base, interval, strength, or balance training) and know what you need to do so that you can complete it.
• Plan Ahead: Have your gym bag packed or your hiking clothes ready so that you can start right away. This will help you stay committed to fitting in your training. 
• Set A Routine: Whether it’s getting up early, using your lunch break, or skipping Happy Hour a few days a week, dedicate a time that you commit to training.
• Get Creative: Perhaps you combine your training with other activities: try riding your bike to work to get in a workout while you commute or hop on the stationary bike with your book and spin while you read.
• Break It Up: Need to fit in a 2.5 hr workout but don’t have the time? Try breaking it up into two 1.25 hr sessions instead. While building endurance requires consistent training, you’re better served by still getting in a couple of shorter sessions than cutting short or even skipping the longer session.
• Commit: Join a hiking or running group, take part in a spin class, or hire a personal trainer. Being part of something bigger helps you motivate after a long day to get your workout in.
• Plan The Weekends: The weekends are usually the best block of time to commit to training - especially the longer sessions. Pull out a calendar and mark the weekends you need to fit in your long hikes and climbs. If that means taking a trip to nearby mountains, make your lodging reservations ahead of time so that you’ll stick to your plan!


Nothing beats training for climbing like climbing, but easy access to mountainous terrain isn’t available out of everyone’s backdoor. Even for climbers who live close to the mountains, there isn’t always the time to hop in the car, drive to the trailhead, complete the workout, and return again. Don’t let this be daunting, finding terrain alternatives is a creative endeavor:

• Do Some Research: Ask around at the local gym or trails for suggestions on where others train. Websites like RootsRated.com and AllTrails.com may help you discover new trails or places to train. 
• Go Mechanical: Use a treadmill on an incline, a stair climber, or a stationary bike to get your workout in. Better yet, grab a road bike and incorporate cycling into your training.
• Stairs: Find a long set of stairs in a nearby stadium or office building and make a few laps. Skip the elevator on the way down: you’ll want to get your legs ready for the downhill too!
• Look For The Hills: No mountains around? Look for a small hill and make multiple laps of it. Training on inclines is good preparation, no matter how continuous they are.
• Think Outside of the Box: Don’t have a great 10 mile hike nearby? Can you link up a few shorter walking, hiking, and biking trails instead? Constantly looking for new terrain alternatives is a great way to stay motivated too!
• Don’t Be Limited: The goal is to get yourself ready for climbing, no matter what it takes. A recent Vinson climber told us about how he put his pack on and made laps of the stairs in his house for an hour a few times a week just to get some vertical in!

The Little Things

Given all of the hurdles faced with training for mountaineering, take advantage of little things that you can do to help fit in some training:

• Take The Stairs: Climbing a few flights of stairs in itself won’t get you ready for the Himalaya or the Alaska Range, but it certainly won’t hurt! So skip the elevator or the escalator and hit the stairs!
• Go Short & Go Hard: Don’t have time for a long workout? Still try and be active, whether it’s a quick strength circuit or an interval session. You’ll benefit from the exertion, even if it’s not the exact workout you had in mind.
• Mix It Up: Don’t limit yourself to just the gym or the same running loop day after day. Whether it’s finding a new trail or joining up with a group of other climbers or people training for a race, build some diversity into your training. It will help you keep motivated and inspired!

Did we miss something? Leave a comment and share your suggestions and tips on how to manage the constraints of terrain and time in mountaineering training!

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i am scheduled to do the 4 day Rainier climb in August, 14 weeks away. Unfortunately while training i discovered a hernia and had surgery for 2 hernias 2 weeks ago. Prior to the surgery I was climbing stairs for an hour with a weighted vest and hand weights, lifting weights and cycling. I am already back to 1/2 hr climbing stairs with no problem and hiking up to 8 miles a day. I am following the Fit to climb schedule with modified core exercises until my core is strong enough. Do you think I will have a problem with this climb? I am a bit worried but feel if i continue to work hard and train smart I will be in good enough shape.


Posted by: Randy Z on 4/30/2016 at 5:56 am

Mountaineering Training | The 4x4 Interval Workout

There are almost unlimited possibilities for interval workouts that you can come up with; varying times, distances, intensities, terrain, and repetitions creates a huge breadth of workouts that can all accomplish different goals.  As you build your fitness base, threshold intervals are a great place to be putting some focus. They help to build your anaerobic threshold, increasing the intensity, time, and distance that you can go before your muscles start to fill with lactic acid. A great example of a useful threshold interval workout is the 4x4: four intervals that are each four minutes long.

To complete the 4x4 Interval Workout: 

• Look for some gently rolling terrain, either on a trail or on a road, (although any terrain can work, including even a treadmill).  Pick a starting point for your first interval, and run a threshold pace for 4 minutes from there.  For pace, choose a speed that you think you’ll be able to hold - but just barely - for all four intervals.  The idea is that each of the four intervals should be relatively similar in terms of pace, rather than the first being much faster than the last as you tire. 
• After the first four-minute interval, make note of where the finish line was, and recover for 2 minutes.  Recovery isn’t lying down on the ground or standing still, but instead a very slow jog or walk. 
• At the end of 2 minutes, return to the previous finish line, and use that as your start line, completing another four-minute interval in the opposite direction, back towards where you came from.  If you balance your pace well, then you should finish at the start line of your first interval! 
• Take another 2-minute slow recovery period.
• Complete another 4-minute interval in the original direction.  See if you can make it to where you ended the first time, if not further. 
• Recover for 2 minutes.
• Complete your last interval, heading back again and seeing if you can best your previous mark.  Nice work!  22 minutes, and you’ve completed your interval workout! 

It may take a couple of sessions for you to figure out the pacing for these, so that the last two are at least as strong as the first two.  Don’t purposefully hold back at the beginning, just set a moderately quick pace, and then see if you can maintain it throughout.  If you can, great job, and try bumping the pace up a notch next time.  If you do this workout in the same place, you’ll start to get a feel for your improvement as you watch your finish lines get further and further down the trail. 

With all interval training, a proper warm-up and cool-down is very important.  Make sure that you warm up with at least 15 to 20 minutes of jogging before you start the session, and finish with a good 15 to 20 minute cool-down period afterwards.  This will help your body process the lactic acid that was created during the workout so that you aren’t as sore afterwards helps to prevent injury.  All told, this workout takes about an hour.

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

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Mountaineering Training | Underfoot: Using Footbeds

Whether training, or on your next climb, your feet are your Achilles heel.  If you develop blisters, banged up toes, or pain in your feet or joints, the whole process of climbing comes to a grinding halt.  While training for your climb, you’ll put in countless days with heavy weight on your back, countless miles of trail and rough terrain, and many, many hours on your feet.  Taking good care of your feet and giving them proper support  through all of this training can help to minimize a lot of overuse injuries, and leave you feeling better for your upcoming climb.  Get yourself a good pair of orthotics or at least a good supportive footbed for your training footwear and climbing boots.  

Our leg alignment can change dramatically throughout our life, often as a result of changes in the structure of the foot.  These changes in alignment, when you are in the midst of a heavy training load, can leave you with joint pain and a tendency towards persistent overuse injuries that can stick around and have a major impact on your training.  Orthotics are often the best solution for fixing your alignment and keeping those injuries from cropping up.  An orthotist can mold a footbed to help your alignment stay nearer the ideal.  This helps your knees track straighter, joints stack over each other better, and femurs rotate in the hip socket more smoothly.  

Many climbers rent boots for their climb.  While rental boots are well made, high-end brands, they are not broken in to your foot.  A custom orthotic or an aftermarket footbed such as “superfeet” is the best way to make that boot feel as though it has always been on your foot.  With the long days climbing up and down Rainier, or weeks on the glaciers of Denali, that extra comfort and support can be a major boon to enjoying the experience.  

In the last several years, there has been a lot of support for the idea of running in very low support shoes that mimic what it would be like to run barefoot.  While studies do support the idea that this is better for your body when running or walking, the heavy loads that we put on our backs and the stiff to nearly rigid soles of the boots that we wear when training and climbing all demand that we support our feet.  Look into your alignment and footbed needs and find your way to more comfortable climbing and training!

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Mountaineering Training | Training With Trekking Poles

The use of trekking poles during climbs (in appropriate terrain) can dramatically reduce your expended effort, allow you to move more efficiently, and ultimately let you climb longer and further.  Trekking poles help us to balance, taking some of the work away from the small muscles in our feet and ankles responsible for balancing, and involving the core and skeleton instead.  They also help enormously when it comes to managing a large and unwieldy backpack.  There are ways to use and hold trekking poles that improve their efficiency.  

A common question is how long should the poles be?  For climbers’ purposes, trekking poles should be significantly shorter than most would think: right around hip height.  By setting our poles at hip height, and holding the pole by placing the palm on the top of the grip and draping fingers over the pole, the skeleton can take much of the load from the pole, reducing fatigue and effort.  The shorter height allows the bones of the arm to stack over each other, taking the load rather than the muscles.  Remember, this is not cross country skiing and having the pole tall and out in front of you only means more, yet less effective, work for your arms.  

Another element to think about is how overly active arms can actually create more exertion for your body.   Imagine that you were hiking up a set of stairs.  Now put a tall pair of poles in your hand, and hike the same stairs while you try to push yourself up with the poles at the same time.  Rather than two of your limbs working hard to move your mass uphill (lots of work already!) all four are doing the job; only your arms, working out in front of you, act as levers instead of pistons (like your legs) so they are mechanically much less suited to the task.  But, by moving your arms and trying to push on those levers, your heart rate will rise with the extra exertion; the result is a higher heart rate, earlier fatigue, and less efficient use of your system if your poles are out in front of you (like a cross country skier).  Even with the poles set to hip height, we see this happen often on steep rolls, when climbers don’t lower their grip on the pole to keep their hands at a comfortable height.  Once the hands are above the heart, they have little effect on balance or upward motion, and the heart has to work harder to pump blood uphill to them. Through small steep terrain features it’s key to choke up on your poles to avoid this.  

These are not absolute principles but suggestions. Play with them during your training to teach yourself to move more comfortably and efficiently with poles.  It will pay big dividends on your next climb, and can help to take some of the training stress of hiking up and downhill with heavy packs, off of your joints, helping to prevent injury!

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Thanks for the tips! Would definitely want to have a trekking pole myself brought on hiking.

Posted by: Marge on 5/25/2016 at 10:57 pm

I’m doing the Ironman Lake Tahoe as a training program for my Mountaineering goals.  What are your thoughts?  If I do well with the Ironman at 6,000+ feet in elevation will this be more than plenty of training?  I have 9 months until the race.  After the race I expect to be in the best shape of my life.

Posted by: Will Beaubien on 1/26/2014 at 6:44 pm

Mountaineering Training | Training In Cold Temperatures

Another wide ranging cold front is dropping across the U.S. this weekend, drawing down Arctic air and threatening to plunge temperatures below zero from coast to coast.  Seriously cold wintertime temps aren’t abnormal for many athletes in more northern climes, and most grit their teeth, throw on a couple more layers, and continue with their training.  Training goes on and we make the most of the weather, but treat these cold snaps with respect.  Several studies, by the Norwegian and Swedish national athletic programs, as well as the US Olympic committee, have shown that strenuous endurance training in cold, dry conditions can lead to lung and bronchial irritation and inflammation, and that prolonged training in these conditions increases the incidence of asthma and bronchospasms. 

After the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, the US Olympic committee found that over 25% of the American team suffered from bronchospasms (uncontrollable spasms of the bronchi), and that of cross country skiers (athletes making long and exerted efforts in snowy and cold conditions), this respiratory problem was present in over half of the individuals.  A similar study of elite level cross country skiers in Sweden and Norway showed repeatedly that over half of these athletes display asthma like symptoms and decreased lung capacity. 

While a few days of training during a cold snap won’t be enough to cause most athletes long term respiratory distress, it could be enough to cause some bronchial irritation and inflammation that could impact training for the next few weeks.  This may be a good time to focus your training week on a few more gym and indoor workouts, and if you do train outside, consider training with a neck gaiter or buff over your mouth, to help warm the air as it enters your lungs.  In chronically cold places, such as Alaska, athletes have developed special masks for training in cold conditions.  Essentially stripped down respirators, they hollow metal grid of the mask retains the heat of each exhaled breath, helping to warm the next breath.

Stay motivated, wear a few more layers, and take care.  If an outdoor workout leaves your lungs and throat feeling raw and irritated, don’t push it.  Do your next few sessions indoors, the irritation heal and subside.  Good luck and happy training!

Read more about the respiratory studies here.

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Mountaineering Training | Guide’s Perspective: My Training For Aconcagua

At the end of a long season on Mt. Rainier I enter my off season; sleep deprived, constantly hungry around midnight (breakfast time at Camp Muir), fuzzy on what my role is at home after being away for 5 months and physically worn down.  I am in great shape to walk uphill slowly with a heavy pack, but that’s about it.  All of my attempts to continue my strength and conditioning during the Rainier season can’t override my body’s need for rest.  Yet when my guiding season ends, training season begins.

Personally, I hate the monotony of traditional gym training, which is why I use CrossFit.  The workout is different everyday and the community is supportive and at the same time competitive.  I am asked to improve my competency in the following fitness domains: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.  I have coaches who hold me accountable to my goals and adapt the programming to my needs.  It is a tricky balance though, since diving into this type of programming after being absent for five months exposes me to injury.

I typically have two and a half months starting in October to train for the Aconcagua season. For the first week my schedule is 2 days on, followed by 1 active rest day. The 2 days involve attending a one-hour class, which incorporates a 15-minute warm up, 10 - 15 minute skill session followed by the 7 - 20 minute workout.  The class finishes with mobility and recovery exercises.  My active recovery day might be a long run, mountain bike, or climbing.  My goals during this first week are to work on the ten fitness domains and get plenty of sleep. The active recovery days are designed to give me a break from the intense workouts, but are certainly not a day to sit on the couch. 

For weeks 2 - 6 I increase my training to 3 days on followed by 1 day off.  My off day will usually be an active recovery day.  During this phase I continue to build on the previously mentioned fitness domains.  Increasing intensity and output allows me to embrace the suffering of the next set, mile, or hill climb.  This helps me address the mental side of climbing mountains. 

During weeks 7 - 10 I continue with 3 days on followed by 1 rest day.  On Monday and Wednesday I will complete a one-hour class in the morning and that evening o an additional hour of interval training; either running or rowing.  My rest day is just that, a day to recover and prepare from the two-a-days.  I program eight workouts per week to train my body and mind to work hard when I ask it and better utilize rest when available.  Interval training provides the most direct correlation to how I exert myself in the mountains.

When I arrive in Argentina I am confident that I am prepared physically and mentally for the expedition.  I may still struggle with altitude or fatigue at times during the 20-day trip, however, I have trained my body and mind to work hard when needed and (as importantly) rest when opportunity arises.

Mike King guides around the world for RMI Expeditions, from Argentina to Alaska.  He has climbed and guided across the country, thru hiked the Appalachian Trail, and ridden his bike across the country.  Mike now lives with his wife in Bend, OR, where she owns and runs Fearless Baking.  Mike will be guiding an Alaska Mountaineering Seminar next May, and is headed to Aconcagua on December 20th with Jake Beren.  Follow them on the RMI Blog!

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two time in mauntain kilimanjaro.nice group!!!!!

Posted by: goodluck ndossy on 12/17/2013 at 12:55 am

Mountaineering Training | Training Zones Explained

One of the most important things to remember about training is that successful training is a conglomeration of various activities and intensities that as a whole improve your body’s physiological performance.  While many people may consider going for a half hour jog each day as “training”, when you are preparing for an activity like mountaineering, your training needs to go beyond this.  A major component of successful training is varying the intensity of workouts.  Some workouts are hard, some are short bursts of maximum effort, and many are long and slow endurance sessions.  A great way to think about these sessions is through the concept of training zones. 

Training zones have traditionally been distilled in to five categories, based on their physiological effect and the corresponding effort they require.  While it’s not a particularly exciting way to label them, the categories are named Zone 1, Zone 2, Zone 3…you get the idea.  There are a number of different theories and ways to define these zones floating around in the training world; Google training zones to find all the reading you could want to do on the subject.  For those that train with a heart rate monitor, percentage of max heart rate (MaxHR) is a useful way to help identify your training zones.  There are a variety of formulas to determine your MaxHR, but a good approximation for most people is to subtract their age from 220.  Heart rate monitors are great training tools, but are not necessary to train properly.  Another method of setting the zones is to use perceived effort.  The zones are described as follows:

Zone 1: Zone 1 is described as the aerobic recovery zone, and is between 50—60% of MaxHR.  At this intensity, the body burns fat for energy, and allows muscles to replenish their glycogen stores.  On a perceived effort scale, this workout almost feels like a non-workout.  At the end you should feel that you didn’t go hard enough to accomplish anything perhaps.  In reality, this is a great intensity to aid muscle recovery. 

Zone 2: 60—70% of MaxHR is where the body is most efficient at building endurance.  This is still an aerobic effort, and for those without a heart rate monitor, it is a pace that you can carry on a conversation while exercising.  Since this is the best physiological zone for building endurance, a lot of your long workouts will take place at this intensity. 

Zone 3: This is a bit of a gray area.  Zone 3 is between 70 and 80% of your Max HR, and generally is the zone when you stop being able to talk in full sentences, but can still get out short bursts of words at a time.  It’s a bit too fast for really building endurance, and not fast enough to develop speed or anaerobic capacity, so most serious people spend little time training at this zone.  It is useful for some tempo workouts, but is probably the zone to spend the least amount of your training time. 

Zone 4: Here, we are talking about speed, discomfort, and shorter efforts.  Zone 4 is the anaerobic threshold zone.  At 80 to 90% of MaxHR, your body burns significantly less fat, using the glycogen stored in the muscles instead.  This form of energy transfer is less efficient (lack of oxygen!) so lactic acid is a byproduct.  At your anaerobic threshold, your body’s ability to remove and process lactic acid is overwhelmed, and it begins to build up.  This is translates to your race pace, and feels like an effort that you won’t be able to keep up for very long, and what you’d like most to do is slow down or stop. 

Zone 5: 90 to 100% of MaxHR.  This is for pure speed and all out effort.  It typically involves intervals, or short bursts of max effort, and is useful for increasing your anaerobic threshold and increasing your body’s ability to cycle lactic acid and recover from hard efforts. 

Training zones are a great way to set the goal for a workout and ensure that you are getting maximum benefit from your training sessions.  Identify which zones you’ll be working out in before hand to design the day’s workout goals, and afterward assess yourself to see how you did - were you able to maintain your effort in your planned zone(s) throughout the workout?

The description of the zones is not set in stone.  If your heart rate monitor says that you are in Zone 2 but you are having trouble carrying on a conversation, then you should scale back what you consider Zone 2 to bring it in to line.  If you are going as fast as you possibly can but can’t make it to Zone 5, then your MaxHR estimation might be a little high, and you can scale it down.  Once the levels are dialed in, they are a great way both to design and track your workouts going forward.

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

Leave a Comment For the Team (2)

I keep seeing this “a good approximation for most people is to subtract their age from 220” and have asked several trainers what’s the basis for this.  None could answer.  Are there any supporting studies?
It would seem that the overall fitness of the individual would have a good deal of influence on the maxHR.

Posted by: Michael Palmetier on 7/5/2017 at 6:21 pm

Are these zones % of max heart rate or % of working heart rate. (Max hr - resting hr x % traing range + resting hr)

Posted by: Brett on 7/7/2015 at 11:24 am

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