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Entries from Mountaineering Fitness & Training

Mountaineering Training | Consolidation Weeks

If there is one period of training linked to success on a grueling alpine climb like Mt. Rainier, it is the base building phase. Our intensities while climbing tend to remain relatively low, but the elevation gained, distance traveled, and hours on our feet make it imperative that we can sustain those low intensities hour after hour. Your aerobic base takes time to build, and one of the keys to building it is proper recovery to allow your body to adapt to the training stress you put on it.


Every four weeks, it’s important to schedule a recovery week, in which your weekly training volume will be about 50% of the highest volume week of the period. This is the consolidation week that allows your body to make the changes in response to your training and come out the other side stronger. These weeks feel light and you may worry that you are losing valuable preparation time, but these recovery periods are critical.


Also important – throughout your training period – is how you recover. Excessive alcohol and sleep deprivation both will inhibit at least some of your training gains. Good nutrition to support the training stress on your body is vital. And some light movement, even on your rest days, is better than being completely sedentary – it helps to move some blood through your muscles and flush out the cellular waste. Be strategic about your training, and as importantly, be strategic about your recovery!

Leave a Comment For the Team (2)

Great reminder, thank you… the 4th week at 1/2 the rate is so important for recovery.

Posted by: S.F. Baker on 2/19/2024 at 2:57 pm

Looking to get back in shape to go back to mountaineering.
I am now 66. Good health

Posted by: Steven Edwin Walls on 11/14/2023 at 4:20 am

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!

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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 1/20/2024 at 6:30 pm

Training with Heart Rate Monitors

As you design a training plan to prepare for your next climb, data about your training and level of fitness is a really useful tool. One of the best ways to get an objective idea of your current level of fitness and to measure your gains is by tracking your heart rate with a heart rate monitor.

There are two main types of heart rate monitors available: watches that use an infrared sensor to your heart rate at your wrist and monitors that use a chest strap with two electrodes to record the electrical pulses from your heart. The infrared sensors on watches measure the change in the size of veins to record your heart beat, and can give a good rough idea of your heart rate trends. Movement of the watch on your wrist can interfere with the accuracy of the sensor however, so the normal movement that comes with training activities can mean that it doesn’t record your workout very effectively. The electrodes on a chest strap pick up the electrical signals from your heart very effectively despite any movement, and therefore and the best way to get a good picture of your workouts, and what we recommend.

Heart rate monitors are effective for a couple of different purposes. First and foremost, a heart rate monitor gives you the ability to track your training more accurately. Heart rate monitors use versions of the 5 training zones that most athletes utilize, so you can begin to build an accurate picture of how much time you spend in each zone and how effective a given period, week, or workout might have been for you.

A heart rate monitor also helps you to hit your target intensity zone for a given workout. This works in both directions; it can help you to tone it down on your long level 2 endurance training if you start to push a little hard, or it can let you know that you need to push even harder to make it to your target L4 zone on a set of intervals. One of the most helpful is setting an upper heart rate threshold alarm during your aerobic building workouts to warn you when you go too hard, which happens to most!

Tracking your heart rate over a period of time can also give you a picture of your overall fitness. As your training pays off, your resting heart rate should drop, and you will find yourself covering more ground and going faster, but at the same intensity. Conversely, a sudden spike in your resting heart rate may indicate that your training load is adding up and that you need to focus a bit more on recovery.

As an added bonus, most of the better heart rate monitors also have the ability to track your workout with GPS, so you can keep track of your training routes. A heart rate monitor won’t make you fitter, but it gives you invaluable information that allows you to create a more informed training plan.


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

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There are so many choices with heart rate monitors. Can you make a few recommendations? Thank you.

Posted by: Mike on 10/8/2023 at 9:17 pm

Mountaineering Training | Reorienting Training in 2020

From RMI Guide Pete Van Deventer

This season brought about a different approach to training for me, as for so many of our guides and climbers. In a typical year, the summer guiding season counts for the vast majority of my “training” time. Multiple 12+ hour days a week in the mountains is a great way to build a deep aerobic base, and that leaves me free to fill in around workdays with activities that I enjoy (trail running, mountain biking, and ski touring top that list). While many of our climbers are training for a specific climb and many of our guides are counting those same climbs as training, the training principles between groups aren’t actually that different. Our climbers are trying to be at peak fitness for their climb to give themselves the best chance of reaching the summit, for guides the same training gives us the durability to do 10, 20, even 30 climbs a season without our bodies falling apart.

The cancellation of the climbing season this year necessitated a different approach for me. I count myself extremely lucky to live amongst Colorado’s Elk Mountains, with miles of trail running, mountain biking, ski touring, and peaks immediately accessible. With local trails one of the few outlets left to us this spring, I happily was putting in miles, finding new trails, and generally filling the aerobic base hole that the loss of the season brought. Just like everyone, I have my preferred activities, things that I count as training, but bring me personal joy as well. Ripping through swoopy single track on a mountain bike makes me grin, even if my heart is jumping out of my chest. Other activities aren’t so enjoyable, and they feel like training. I do them out of a sense of duty to the training plan, but I’m not smiling. Weight rooms top this list. I found as spring bled into summer, that I was putting a lot of time into the training activities that I liked, while totally dropping the ones I didn’t, and that was leaving a big hole in my fitness. I needed some structure.

Exercise is doing activities that stress the body and make our body work, while training is the programmed and strategic arrangement of patterns of exercise to increase performance and achieve a predetermined goal. It is difficult to put together a training plan if you do not have a goal. My goal became to build a base of specific strength and endurance to give me durability through the ski season, and I turned to our partners at Uphill Athlete for a 12-week Ski Mountaineering plan. Much of the plan involves activities that I enjoy: lots of trail running and some mountain biking for recovery workouts. There are also some twists that I usually don’t incorporate, but are fun: level 3 long interval workouts, and very short, all out hill sprints. There is also a strong focus on strength work, and though I struggle to be engaged by gyms, a different take on strength has actually been pretty fun and interesting. I’ve been doing a mixture of max strength, very low rep lifting work, as well as very high rep, very low weight muscular endurance work. Both are interesting in how the workout doesn’t necessarily feel taxing during, but for days after I find myself feeling the aftereffects. A bit sore, a bit depleted, but also seeing pretty quick improvements and results.

In Colorado, we got our first snow early, the last week of October. This kicks off the few weeks every year that feel awkward as an athlete. There is too much snow and mud on the trails to ride a mountain bike, but there isn’t enough snow to skin yet (my bar for this is pretty low, as skiing on grass still feels like skiing, but there isn’t enough even for me!). I went for a run up one of my favorite local mountain bike trails, and though the details of getting out the door were complicated (do I wear shorts because it’s in the 60s, or pants because I’ll be running through 4 or 5 inches of snow) I found a simple joy in picking my way through snow and mud and moving fast on foot on a trail that no one else seemed to be interested in taking.

I came back with renewed energy to train, running my local snowy, muddy trails until enough snow lands to allow me to ski. It has been a strange year to train, with gyms alternately open, closed, then open again, restrictions on our ability to get out and travel to our favorite places. I’d encourage everyone to set a training goal (or multiple), lean into what you can do, and blend the activities that leave you smiling with the others that are necessary to reach your goal.

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New to this climbing world, Started out with trail hiking the Grand canyon. Trying my first Mountain at the Grand Tetons in June of 2024. I have a friend that introduced me to kettle-bell work outs. An E.M.O.M. routine 6 days a week with one day of just step ups.
This has been a game changer for my fitness levels, Would highly recommend his program {Adventure fit by Derek Toshner} I adapted the workouts to fit my age and fitness one day kettlebell next day body weight routines. My age is 59, yesterday’s workout was a mile walk with a 44lb bell over head swing to switch arms every 100 steps, Seems easy right, not so much; back, forearms, legs, core, all engaged, an exercise that would help in pulling that 60 pound sled and increase cardio.

Posted by: Richard Hulbert on 2/19/2023 at 4:22 am

I too followed Uphill Athlete’s 12-week program and then some.  Never trained harder in my life.  Still unable to summit Rainier after a second attempt.  The fitness requirements to summit that mountain truly elude me.  I had a great time being up there, but when you put in the months of hard work and dedication and still come up short, it is monumentally frustrating.  Bottom line mountaineering is no joke, and it demands a level of fitness that despite targeted training and motivated commitment, I still have not achieved.  I have immense respect for those who seem to have cracked the code and have made their goals a reality.  I only wish I knew where I am going wrong.

Posted by: Jordan Cook on 7/6/2021 at 7:34 pm

Mountaineering Training | Finding the Balance Between Training and Life

RMI Guide Adam Knoff originally wrote this for the training blog a few years ago. As we have all been more or less stuck in our homes, with life looming front and center for many, Adam's message again seemed apropos. 

Today I was surprisingly asked a question that, as far as I can tell, is as old as human curiosity, parental affection and plain ol’ sibling rivalry. This may seem strange because I only have one child, and my somewhat unhinged three wingnut dogs can’t speak and honestly don’t care about the answer as long as they are fed and played with. As you may have guessed, the question so abruptly put on me this morning was: “daddy, who’s your favorite?” Harder to guess was, who asked it? 

Things started normally enough; I made breakfast for my kiddo before packing him up and carting him off to preschool. I fed my dogs and chickens, cleaned the kitchen, and prepared for a day of light recreating before my afternoon duties began. It was when I entered the garage, home to my all important man cave and location of all my beloved fly fishing and climbing gear that things took a bizarre turn. Standing in front of me (I kid you not!) side by side, with puppy dog eyes looking up, stood my 12’6” Echo spey rod and my carbon fiber, oh so beautiful, Cobra ice tools. These sorts of things don’t just happen so I double checked my reality button. Dreaming? No I don’t think so. I have been up for three hours, had my coffee, and still felt the throb in my left big toe where I slammed it into the chest at the side of my bed. Ok, I’m awake. Drugged? No, I quit taking hallucinogens in high school and my wife, I think, genuinely cares about me. Then what? My two favorite activities in life, swinging flies for big trout with my spey rod and ice climbing, which is now doable in Bozeman, Montana, have come to a head. With a few free hours, my fishing rod and ice tools came alive and wanted me to pick favorites. Sheeesh! What’s a guy to do? 

As time stood still, I began to reflect on the week long steelhead fishing trip I took just two weeks prior to the Grand Rhond, Clearwater, and Snake rivers. Ohhh, the joy of that trip made me quiver. It made me want to reach out, grab my spey rod child and declare my love for him. 28 inch ocean run rainbows on the swing, the thrill of the next hook up, not wearing a heavy pack; the reasons almost overwhelmed me. Yes, yes, you will always be my favorite!!! Then I saw my ice tools. Hyalite Canyon is in! I can’t wait for the thrill of running it out on newly formed thin ice over a stubby ice screw, waking up before the sun, and realizing this day was bound to hold everything but the predictable. Ohh, ice tools, you are my favorite, “let’s go climb something!” I think you understand my dilemma. 

Parenting has taught me much in the five years that I’ve been at it. Love, patience and compassion are always at the forefront of dealing with children. Frustrations always arise. Liam spills my wine on the new rug, my spey rod whips bullets at the back of my head leaving welts the size of cheese curds on my scalp, ice tools rip out unexpectedly and send waves of sudden panic through me that make me want to puke. All part of the landscape I guess. So how did I answer the question, “who is your favorite”? Here I leaned on the invaluable lessons gleaned from seven years of blissful marriage. I compromised.

That day I took the ice tools out for their first climb of the season. I packed them up with the rest of my climbing gear all the while psyched I had just promised my fishing rod we would get out tomorrow. It’s a difficult web we weave, balancing work and play. I honestly felt troubled that I had to recreate two days in a row, climbing then fishing, but then again parenting is also about sacrifice. 

As readers of the RMI Blog, most of you are probably cracking a smile but are also curious how this story is relevant to the mission of mountain climbing, training, and/or preparing for an upcoming goal. Here is how I connect the dots: Fishing for me is the yin to my climbing yang. It is a glorious mental escape which allows me to shelve my daily stresses and exist purely in the moment. Everyone needs this periodic meditation to reset and clear the mind. For many, exercise accomplishes the same release but regular exercise does not necessarily constitute “training”. The expectations I put on myself when climbing on my own are very high and the specific training schedule I follow can at times be demanding, painful, and sometimes unpleasant. Here is where we tie in sacrifice. Everyone’s life is managed by time. Somewhere on that big round clock is time you can utilize for yourself. If you have a goal of climbing a mountain, running a marathon, or bench pressing a Ford truck, you need to prioritize and then commit! Finding enjoyment and purpose in life comes when these commitments are made. Being a husband and father keep me grounded. Being a passionate climber and guide keep me psyched and motivated, and the hunt for big fish calms me down. In the big picture I think I have found some balance. Remember it takes the black and the white, the yin and the yang, to complete the circle. The web you weave and balance you seek are your own, but seek it with conviction and purpose and you will be just fine.


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

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Mountaineering Training | Body Weight Core Strength Circuits

These strange times have many of us off balance and out of rhythm, and our training routines have felt the toll as well. Stay at home policies across the country have closed fitness centers and kept us at home without our usual tools. Body weight core exercises are a great way to continue to improve your strength and functional mobility, and taking your strength workout outside is a great way to break your routine and inject some new energy to training. The Dartmouth cross-country ski team uses this type of workout (and it’s where many of the example exercises come from) as part of a base and strength building cycle each fall.
Choose a jogging loop that has areas that you will be comfortable getting down to the ground on (a park, forest loop, or city parkway).

  • Set out for a good warm-up, 10-15 min at a gentle pace that is still conversational.
  • Find a comfortable spot (grass or a forest floor are much nicer than concrete!) and complete a set each of two different core exercises (pushups and crunches for instance). This style of workout will build more endurance strength since they use just body weight, so try to pick a number of repetitions that you can do several sets of, but still push you hard in the individual set. 60 full crunches and 40 pushups is a great example.
  • Jog easily for 200 meters. The active recovery of jogging easily will still allow you to recover, but will train your body to recover while maintaining at least some level of effort.
  • A set each of two more exercises (dips on a park bench and side planks). 
  • 200 meter jogging recovery. 
  • Complete a third set of exercises. 6 exercises is a great number to start from for your total workout.
  • Continue until you have done 3 sets of each exercise (9 total strength stops). 
  • Cool down and head home!


As you progress, you can vary the workout in the number of repetitions you do during each set, or by varying the total number of sets. Try to mix up the exercises that you use, so that you get a complete core workout, without stressing one group of muscles unduly. This a great workout to do with partners at a safe social distance. You can spice it up by having different partners choose the exercises for a given set, which can add variety and show you some new exercises to add to your routine. If you don’t have a loop that is suitable, try a couple of laps of a small park. While it may take some imagination to get going, getting outside and breaking up your strength routine is a great way to keep the upward progress of your training going!

These three resources have a number of good core exercises for inspiration:

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

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You should contact Maria Faires at My Active Nutrition.  She trains mountaineers all the time including individuals climbing Everest, and has trained many for Rainer, etc. on her own and through Climb for Clean Air. 

She is an excellent resource for your climbers and clients.

Posted by: George R Naumann on 10/23/2021 at 10:53 am

Mountaineering Training | An Introduction to Uphill Athlete

RMI Expeditions is excited to be partnering with Uphill Athlete to provide our clientele what we believe to be the best training information and coaching available. We invited Steve House to introduce Uphill Athlete to our blog readers, which is what follows. RMI does not receive any financial compensation from Uphill Athlete, nor vice versa. We simply believe wholeheartedly in the effectiveness of the coaching and information that Uphill Athlete provides. 


Mountaineering Training and Uphill Athlete

By Steve House

“Man discovers himself when he measures himself against an obstacle.” – Antoine de St. Exupery

Mountains are, metaphorically and physically, the obstacles by which we measure ourselves. When you get to the base of the mountain you want to be ready. You want to be safe. You also may want to emerge as a changed person. If you agree with these statements, you are the reason my long-time coach, Scott Johnston, and I write books and a blog dedicated to how to train for mountain climbing.

The gist of what we wanted people to know is this: There is no magic to endurance training. Instead, there are 100 years of history and a well understood intellectual framework behind the theory and application that applies to the full spectrum of endurance sport. 

In 2002 as a professional climber I began training under Scott Johnston. Scott is an accomplished endurance coach with an extensive background as both an alpinist and high-level endurance athlete, During the ensuing years I, alone and with partners, achieved many landmark ascents. The training process transformed me from being merely good, to becoming one of the best in the world.

In 2010 a serious climbing accident cut short my high-level climbing career. Soon thereafter Scott and I decided to undertake a project to educate the climbing public about training for mountain climbing. Three years of work culminated with the 2014 publication of our best-selling book Training for the New Alpinism followed by the 2015 publication of The New Alpinism Training Log, and the 2019 publication of Training for the Uphill Athlete, our book aimed at mountain runners and skiers. 

All training is exercise but not all exercise is training

One important thing to understand is the difference between training and random exercise. Every effective training plan must adhere to these cardinal principles:

  • It must be gradually progressive in loading the athlete.
  • It must be individualized to the athlete.
  • It must modulate the athlete’s training load.
  • It must be applied consistently to the athlete.


Training is the structured and systematic application of specific amounts, types, and durations of exercise aimed toward achieving a performance result. It does this by increasing your capacity for physical work in the several realms that make up your event, whatever that is for you. When the time is right you will be able to utilize your hard earned exercise-capacity to its fullest extent and achieve your big mountain goals.

There are a lot of people selling exercise programs as training programs. The hallmark of an exercise plan is random physical activity. There is nothing wrong with an exercise program but don’t be fooled into thinking you are training by using that approach. Which one you choose determines not only your path but also your destination.

Today, our books and our website are the continuation of our mission of openly sharing proven training knowledge for the outdoor sports we love.

If you are ready to have your training transform you and explore your own boundaries, myself, Scott and the coaches at Uphill Athlete will be honored to share our knowledge and help you do the most effective training to meet your big-mountain goals.


You might also be interested in the following articles:


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

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Mountaineering Training | At Home Strength Workouts from Uphill Athlete

We at RMI hope that this email finds you well. As many across the country shelter at home due to COVID, it can be difficult to keep a regular training regime and maintain your fitness. While many of us are restricting our movements and trying to maintain distance socially, those necessary actions can be challenging both mentally and physically as the weeks go by.

We might be removed from the gyms, clubs, and training groups that we have come to rely on, but our friends at Uphill Athlete have put up a free set of Home Strength Routines on their webpage that can help to fill the void. There are three levels of difficulty, though the exercises are quite similar, so there is a logical progression that you can use to continue to build strength. The routines are very attainable, but plenty difficult to challenge yourself (or a group of your workout partners via web chat to push each other!). 

Check them out and best wishes from all of us at RMI. For those that are finding ways to get outside, please remember that first responder resources are already stretched thin. Stay close to home, take few risks, and enjoy the fresh air while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay sane. We're looking forward to getting back to the mountains once it is safe and right to do so.


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Mountaineering Training | Getting Out the Door

“Do you train?” A climber recently asked me as we descended the Disappointment Cleaver on Mt. Rainier. My answer: “Well, to be honest, training to most guides is a way of life.” We don’t HAVE TO go for a run, lift weights, and bike all day; we GET TO. Training and performing are both mentally demanding to do and to motivate for. My remedy is to remove the need to motivate and intentionally make training part of who I am. There are two ways to view the 5 A.M. wake up to go to the gym: The first - it’s a choice you make every day and the second - it’s what you do. Consciously removing the decision to get out the door and train makes the process easier. I was suffering from decision making fatigue just the other day as I tried to decide which Tillamook ice cream to buy, but had no problem walking out the door to get in a jog because it wasn’t a choice. On days when it seems harder to get moving, I tell myself; “Well, there is no decision to make. Here we go.” 

What do many of us guides do for training? You name it and guides are doing it: road biking, mountain biking, rock climbing, yoga, HITT, sprinting, jogging, swimming, skiing, weight lifting, sit-ups, bouldering, and on and on. The guiding lifestyle lends itself well to activity and a solid foundation of endurance, and as a result our training may be less structured. We all make choices around what’s important to us. If I am building fitness for a specific climb however, I will be more organized about my approach, dividing my training into specific categories and foci to more efficiently reach the gains that I’m depending on. This is probably more applicable to many of the climbers I work with, for whom their next climb likely is one of the largest athletic feats they have taken on in their life.

Training takes time in what is often a busy schedule. What if we took 5 to 10 minutes from different ways we spend our time each day (time on our computers, socializing, food preparation, tv watching, house cleaning, shopping, sleeping, social media) and put that into fitness?  There is no way I can navigate your personal time management, but it is all a compromise and we can do almost anything but not everything. 

There are lots of good blogs here on types of workout and training preparation routines so I’m not going to outline specific workouts here but instead link to some of my favorite references:






Christina Dale has led climbing expeditions all over the world - from Everest Base Camp to the Mexican volcanoes to the summit of Denali. She’s skied from the top of Chilean volcanoes, peaks in Patagonia, and across Mount Cook. During the summer, she’s a regular on Rainier. She spends her winters ski patrolling at Crystal Mountain, with her avalanche search and rescue dog in tow.

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

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Mountaineering Training | Training Zones


A major component of a successful training plan and regimen is varying the intensity of workouts in an organized way to create an increase in overall fitness and performance. Some workouts are hard, some are short bursts of maximum effort, and many are long and slow endurance sessions. As we consider the goals of different training periods and the types of training that they entail, workouts tend to be defined by their intended HR or intensity zone.

Training zones have traditionally been distilled into 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. For those that train with a heart rate monitor, percentage of max heart rate (MaxHR) is a common way to help identify your training zones. The most common method to determine your MaxHR is to subtract your age from 220. This can provide somewhere to start, but MaxHR shows a high degree of variability between people, mostly due to genetics. It does decrease with age, and level of fitness actually has very little effect on one’s MaxHR. As you get further into your training plan and have some HARD workouts, you’ll get a sense for where your MaxHR more realistically lies. If you see a higher MaxHR show up on your workout than the formula says you should, go with that. If you can’t get anywhere near your calculated MaxHR despite the hardest workouts, go with the highest value you’ve seen.

While MaxHR is one of the most common ways to determine an individual’s training zones from common software platforms such as Strava, TrainingPeaks, etc, there are other methods that can offer a bit more refinement. These include the HRR or Heart Rate Reserve method, or completing an Aerobic Threshold Test and Anaerobic Threshold Test.

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 for building your aerobic base and to aid muscle recovery.

Zone 2: 60—70% of MaxHR is where the body is most efficient at building endurance. This is still a purely 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 your aerobic capacity, a lot of your long workouts will take place at this intensity.

Zone 3: 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. Physiologically, Zone 3 is the space between your Aerobic Threshold and your Anaerobic Threshold. It can bring powerful training improvements to both aerobic capacity and anaerobic threshold, but the benefits quickly plateau over the course of a training program, so use it sparingly. It is useful for some tempo workouts and interval training, 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. Above your anaerobic threshold, your body’s ability to remove and process lactic acid is overwhelmed, and it begins to build up. This intensity becomes unsustainable over the course of an hour or less. This 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. It is difficult to measure Zone 5 with a heart rate monitor because the body’s ability to maintain zone 5 is on the order of several seconds, and there tends to be a lag in the HR response to the effort. Needless to say, these efforts are all out and explosive, 10 to 15 seconds long.

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.


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

Leave a Comment For the Team (2)

very useful inputs, for someone like me who aspires to scale denali/ kilimanjaro and many more with rmiguides !  and thinking how to get started

Posted by: kiran balijepalli on 11/28/2022 at 7:41 pm

Does heart rate change with altitude? Should my first push up the hill to Panorama Point match my last push prior to Muir?

Posted by: Rob on 5/16/2021 at 8:02 am

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