Physical Conditioning for Mountaineering
Any expedition, summit attempt or alpine route requires not only mental strength but physical fitness.
For best performance, it is important to prepare physically for your trip to maximise enjoyment and to optimise your chances of achieving your mountaineering goals.
Mountain Focus is delighted to team up with Tom McPartlan, a qualified and experienced physical trainer with experience and understanding of the challenges of mountaineering.
Here, Tom shares the basic principles of physical training for non technical alpine peaks, with a particular focus on people who are new to alpinism and without regular access to mountain environments.
Tom is a strength and conditioning coach and Mountain Leader based in the Lake District. He is a lover of all things mountains and enjoys climbing, scrambling, walking and running. Tom is involved in mountain sports coaching and is interested in how people can best prepare for their mountain based goals, especially those managing a ‘normal’ life, quite often far from any mountains, with goals in the big mountains.
Training for Mont Blanc
A beginner's guide to getting fit for Europe’s highest mountain
So you’ve decided you want to climb Mont Blanc. The biggest mountain in Europe, this giant is also one of the most popular alpine peaks in Europe, with many people successfully getting to the top every year.
Although around 80 people reach the summit each day in peak season, the climb is a serious undertaking and as with anything in the mountains, prior preparation is seldom wasted and I see many people going about it in a less than ideal way.
In this article I am purely going to look at the fitness side of things. Physical fitness it is a huge part of how much you get out of your trip to climb Mont Blanc, and can definitely make or break a summit day. Both in terms of summit success, but also of safety and enjoyment.
So what sort of fitness do you need to build?
For most people climbing Mont Blanc via the easiest route, the most important factor will be aerobic base and muscular endurance.
Essentially, you need to be able to keep moving at a steady pace, whilst carrying moderate load – often after having done the same the day before. For this, you will need a high level of aerobic fitness, which will help you to keep moving at a pace that allows safe margins for the day and also so that you can recover quickly.
An already experienced climber that is looking to progress their fitness for climbing more technical routes, would need more specific guidance than this article provides. The training for getting up a less technical route in an alpine environment, such as Mont Blanc, however, will need to be kept pretty simple. It will focus mainly on developing the aerobic base needed to be successful.
If you are reading this, and have booked a guide to take you up Mont Blanc, it is likely that you have a pretty busy life. Work, commuting, social life, partner, kids, family – it all stacks up. Because of this, you need a plan that works for your life, not one aimed at athletes with hours each day to train.
You will need to carve some training time in your schedule and put the work in, as the fitness required to climb Mont Blanc is considerable. The less fit you are now, the longer this will take. However, we also have to be realistic. Who has time to train for hours every day whilst working full time and balancing family commitments with the nearest mountains four to five hours away?
Further to this, it is so important that you do not turn up to France, fit as a fiddle, but with a nagging injury because you have been working too hard in the gym around a hectic lifestyle.
Arrive fit AND injury free.
To achieve this, we need to understand that training in any form, is a stressor. Just like your mortgage, kids, job, traffic jams and inner anxieties are stressors.
The body can only adapt to so many at a time, before it just starts giving in (injuries, sickness, lack of progress etc) and we actually do more harm than good.
So before starting any training, you need to be realistic with what you can fit in. If you need too, pick out what other commitments you can cut back on as you focus on this goal. The way I propose you do this is with start with a level of training that barely changes your routine or lifestyle. Then slowly build from there.
You will need to slowly increase time spent training and the closer you get to the trip, the more time will need to be dedicated to physical preparation. If you can’t train for more than four to five hours per week minimum, you will struggle.
There are two aspects to this, which I outline below:
More traditionally known as cardiovascular training, this is the first (and most basic) but important aspect of mountaineering fitness. It is the ability to just keep moving... all day. You are not going to be sprinting – you will be plodding and stopping and starting, all while carrying a load and going uphill, followed by downhill.
You need to be able to keep going.
Strength and Muscular Endurance
Strength is the ability of your muscles to exert force and muscular endurance is the ability to exert smaller amounts of force than you might maximally be able to create but having the ability to do it for longer. Hill-walking and mountaineering is easier and safer when you have strong legs, core and upper body to absorb the force, and keep you moving up steep, loose ground and/or snow whilst carrying load.
In particular this is important in descent when you will be most tired and when force exerted on the lower body is highest. Now, I do not mean you need to look like Arnold Schwarznegger – that would be a disadvantage, strength does not necessarily mean bulky or big.
I will give you some simple ideas on how you can develop both below. However, first we need to understand these three basic principles of training:
1. Gradual overload. This means start with an amount/time/distance/load that is well within your grasp. Slowly build this over weeks and months,
gradually overloading the body and eliciting improvement as your body adapts. Go to quick here and you will burn out or get injured. Go too small and you won’t see any change.
2. Recover. We get stronger and fitter in the periods between training. You must rest! Every fourth week drop your training load by 40–50 percent to prevent overuse injury and do the same in the week before your trip. Take care of your recovery outside of training by making sleep a priority and avoiding junk food and excessive alcohol. No strict diets or fads, just small changes to your norm.
3. Think long term. No quick fixes here, and no short cuts. You have to make very unsexy, small changes in your training each week. Over a long
period of time this will add up to great improvements. So start training now, but don’t crush yourself!
This is the meat of your preparation. Long days in the mountains, and recovering from them ready for the next day, require great aerobic fitness. Essentially it is the ability to keep moving for hours at a time.
Aerobic, means ‘with oxygen’ and without boring you with the science, this means that the energy provided to create movement with your muscles is created at a much slower pace than anaerobically (without oxygen). Think of aerobic as a pace you could sustain for a long time, anaerobic as one that would quickly tire you out.
For the purpose of this article, we will define aerobic as something that gets your heart rate up slightly – movement that might get you sweating while also being able to maintain a conversation sustainably for a long time.
It goes without saying that the best training you can do would be getting out walking/scrambling in the mountains if you can. For many though this just is not an option due to location and other commitments. I would strongly encourage anyone to make time for at least a weekend or two in the mountains pre-Alps though. It will be a big benefit when it comes to operating well on your trip, both fitness wise and technically.
Outside of that, we need to think about how we can implement some training strategies day to day. I will preface everything I talk about with one consideration – everyone is going to need some individualisation to a training programme.
Every programme I design takes into account an in-depth history and current circumstance profile of an individual. From what exercise they’ve done in the past, all the way down to how much pressure they are under at work, to how much they sleep each night.
So, these ideas and principles I am discussing with you, are just that. Ideas and principles. Not black and white solutions. Think about how they might relate to your specific circumstances. You might already be fit enough for Mont Blanc, or maybe you need to set it as a two year target? It all comes down to individual circumstances and training history.
To build the aerobic fitness needed, we will have to make everything we do sustainable. High intensity training has become very fashionable in the last decade or so. The many quick hitting adaptations that take place by partaking in intensive training has been promoted by many. It’s become trendy to suffer.
In reality, however, this does nothing for the prospective mountaineer, who as we said, needs to be ready for 8–12 hours or more of being on their feet. Every time you beast yourself in one of these hardcore circuits, you are testing the body rather than training it and you are training it to do very short, sharp efforts of work.
In terms of the energy sources this uses, the energy systems within your body that it trains and the stress load that it applies to your body, it is totally unsuitable for someone who has a goal of moving at a steady pace up a big mountain over a number of days. You are training it to sprint, rather than sustain. Which one sounds more suitable for climbing Europe’s tallest mountain?
In practical terms for you, this means that if you go for a thirty minute hike with a rucksack, it needs to be at a load and pace that you could sustain for four times that period, not at a pace that leaves you struggling after twenty minutes. Keep that in mind that if it is not something you could get out and do again easily the next day, it’s too hard.
Why does this matter?
It matters because we want to build an aerobic base and this is only done by staying well under our ‘maximal effort’ pace. It is a slow process, that takes patience and commitment. We slowly develop the capacity of our cardiovascular system and local muscular system to transport oxygen around the body and recycle the waste products of exercise.
They key thing to remember here is that Rome was not built in a day. We all overestimate what we can achieve in the short term, but massively underestimate what we can achieve long term. It is the long term that counts here.
Fitting training into your lifestyle?
What we need to do now is figure out how to fit this training in around a busy, westernised lifestyle that often mainly sedentary.
The first step is to commit to starting small. Assess your current activity levels of exercise and start there.
How many hours per week do you spend training right now?
Measure this in hours and minutes – and be conservative. If you get out on your bike for two hours cumulatively most weeks, but the odd week its five hours, start by assuming your average weekly number is two hours.
How much of your training is at an easy-to-moderate pace?
Measure this in rough percentages. Ideally we want it to be around 80–90 percent easy/moderate work and 10–20 percent more challenging, where it feels more like a ‘tough’ session. For this goal, I would suggest this hard work is done mainly in resistance training, which I will come too.
From here, we look at modality, or the type of exercises we will use. In my experience, it is best to use cyclical types of exercise. So these are running, walking, cycling, rowing or swimming, stepper machine, versa climbers etc – anything where we do the same movement again and again. For climbing Mont Blanc via a less technical route, walking is the gold standard. Rowing, stepper, versa climber and cycling are a close second.
Running is only useful if you are very experienced in it! Avoid it like the plague if you are not already running, pain free fairly regularly. Swimming is fine but your body does need to learn to bear some load and swimming does not do this. Its also fairly high skill.
Now you need to plug in and just start doing some work on these modalities. There are loads of ways to do this, but I will assume you can exercise for 3–4 hours per week to start with. I will use this as a random example. You might have more or less time, but this will give an idea of the type of sessions I am talking about.
Monday – Session 1 30 minutes of: Walk @ moderate pace with rucksack * Carry small load of no more than 3–5kg
Thursday – Session 2 45 minutes of: 5:00 Row 5:00 Bike * Work at conversational pace At the gym, quite simply rotate through five minutes on each piece of equipment. This could be done using the stepper or walking on a treadmill too.
Saturday – Session 3 60–90 minutes of: Cross-country walk @ moderate pace with rucksack * Carry 3– 5kg and water, aim to complete this on rugged cross-country terrain. * Great opportunity to break in boots.
This is a really simple example of how we might put together three basic aerobic pieces for someone who currently trains for two to three hours per week already.
Looks mega simple doesn’t it? It is.
Doesn’t seem like much does it? It isn’t!
The aim would be to very slowly build volume here, simply by adding time to each piece. Imagine adding two minutes a week to each piece. Almost so little that you wouldn’t notice. In a year that would have extended Saturdays walk alone by nearly two hours. You will have started to lay some genuine foundations for your fitness, without turning your life upside down and with greatly reduced injury risk.
Now, as I said before, this is a completely random selection of timings and days. You might have way more time than this, or may struggle to fit this in. This is just an example of how you might put it together and the progress it over time. This example certainly would need to be built upon in order to prepare for Mont Blanc.
Progressing this will be important. I would suggest that you add volume until you are hitting roughly five to eight hours of aerobic work per week. As you get closer to the goal, you would want to start making more of the sessions more specific. Try to book a few weekends in the mountains and build (in this example) the first and third sessions in particular, as this is what you’ll be doing for Mont Blanc.
In the last ten to twelve weeks leading up to your trip, you certainly would want to try and make some of the training a bit more challenging. This can be done either by working at a harder pace or load (intensity) or by going for longer (volume). I would suggest that ideally your aim would be volume, to replicate the goal itself as much as possible.
Strength and Muscular Endurance
A smaller, but still important component of preparation and training for an Alpine day in the mountains will include some form of strength training. Now, don’t get carried away and start planning heavy deadlifts and bench press. No no no.
We are going to keep this mega basic and focus on what we need for walking up big mountains. Lower body strength for carrying heavy loads up (and down) the mountain and to protect us from injury, and some whole body and in particular midline endurance for carrying loads and creating efficiency.
I will assume you have no access to a gym – everything you need to do can be done at home or in the park.
I will also make it very clear now. This is not about blowing your eyeballs out in an effort to get really strong. We want to slowly build a base of support to help keep us injury free and to complement our aerobic work. Remember,, aerobic work is the big one here. Generally speaking though, being weaker will make you more vulnerable to injury and less resilient in general. So let’s cover this base.
Most people will be fine with one strength session a week. It should leave you mildly tired, maybe even a little sore the first few weeks but as time goes on should not take away from the aerobic work.
To make it time efficient and easy to get done, we will use a simple style of training that will also have more application to being on the mountain. I would recommend using a simple circuit style set up for your training.
Pick movements that are simple to do and use as many joints as possible (no bicep curls needed here!).
This is a very simple but effective session for you to do:
A1. Step Up – 4 x 12 per leg A2. Plank – 4 x 20-30s A3. Wall Sit – 4 x 20-30s. Rest 90s
Quite simply, do twelve step ups per leg, then move straight into a plank for twenty to thirty seconds, before finishing with a wall sit for twenty to thirty seconds. Then rest ninety seconds before repeating it four more times. Done!
This can slowly be built over time by extending the number of reps, extending time holding positions, adding load or adding/swapping movements. This simple circuit could be done in about twenty minutes, twice a week and be really effective over time. It’s so simple though that almost no-one will do it, as it almost seems too easy. For someone who has been training for years it might be.
If this is your first venture into strength training or you haven’t trained for a while though, this will be a big help as you move towards your goal of climbing Mont Blanc.
We simply need to train your musculature to be able to support your bodyweight, to be able to express enough force to move your body up a steep mountain over uneven ground in big boots with a sack on your back – and importantly come back down! Building stronger musculature, over time will lead to a strengthening of the ligaments and tendons that hold our body together and allow movement at joints, it is these ligaments and tendons that are vulnerable to injury. Particularly when confronted with a severe increase in demand, like climbing a big mountain.
These simple movements, done time and time again will really help prepare your body for what you want it to do – and hopefully without injury.
You see, what most people underestimate in the mountains is just how physically exhausting it is. Unless you are taking training for it seriously it can bite you in the you know what and the bigger the mountain, the more serious this can be.
Now, I won’t deny it, non of these training principles are sexy. You won’t find them promoted in men’s health and certainly won’t find many personal trainers prescribing it. However, the simple stuff works and a steady, long term progression is what you need to prepare for a big goal like this.
Training must must must be sustainable around your daily life and the training effect will be another stressor on top of an already stress-filled life that your body must recover from.
So, start the training process now. Design it around your life, your goals and your training history. All the above ideas are just examples and almost everyone reading this will need some form of adaptation.
Good luck, and if you have any questions or need a training programme, please do drop me a line!