Mountaineering requires a level of fitness most of us don't have right off the couch. If you've made the commitment and investment to sign up for a mountaineering expedition, you owe it to yourself, your guides, and the others on your climb to be in peak physical condition so that the climb can be more successful, safe, and enjoyable.
Right now we are about 7 months out from when the main climbing season begins on Denali and Rainier...which luckily is about the amount of time most fitness experts recommend training before attempting a new activity like mountaineering. Now that time is on your side, coming up with a training regimen that is viable, effective, and fun will give you the structure you need to achieve your fitness goals.
Climbing a mountain is serious business, and your training schedule should reflect that. One of the places that I falter, and see others do the same, is when we let everything else in our lives take priority over training. This is easy to do when you might be the only one in your family or circle of friends attempting a feat like climbing a mountain. But getting into a habit of exercise and following a routine will be your best defense against letting all things trump your training. That being said, having a routine that allows for some flexibility will keep you from feeling resentful about your time spent training, and will help you stay motivated.
When at all possible, a training regimen should have you participating in the activity you are training for. Marathon runners train by running, cyclists train by cycling. Climbers should train by climbing. This means that the more you can find yourself in steep terrain (i.e. hills, stairs) wearing a pack, the more you will be training the muscle groups you will be recruiting from for your climb. The luxury of starting to train early though, means that you can ease into the steep hikes with a full pack.
Conditioning Needs for Mountaineering
Every sport has its own needs as far as training. Some sports require that you acquire more flexibility than speed, or more stamina than strength. Determining what the needs are of your sport first will make sure that your training regimen is focused and successful. The following diagram points out the conditioning needs of mountaineering.
Aim for activities that emphasize cardiovascular fitness and strength endurance. A great example of this is climbing steep terrain with a pack (see, its not a ploy). Really any activity that can get you "huffing and puffing" and "feeling the burn" will do. In the beginning this may look differently than you imagine. In the beginning "huffing and puffing" and "feeling the burn" may be achieved with a jog around the block or a short hike with no pack. The important thing is to start slow and stick to a routine. Build each week by lengthening hikes or runs, and eventually adding a pack with some weight.
Another great way to increase stamina is to incorporate intervals into your training. These help max out your anaerobic threshold allowing your body to learn how to do more with less. Break up a long run by adding some sprints. Or while you are on that long hike, find something in the distance and increase your pace until you reach that object.
Strength training for mountaineering can be a time to step out of the box, and get out of the gym. Weight machines tend to not be as effective as building the smaller muscle groups that are important to providing stability when descending a big mountain. We recommend incorporating different types of isometrics like lunges and squats to tone the muscle groups you will need for climbing when strength training.
So where is the training schedule? I have purposefully left that up to you. Creating a personalized schedule is part of the fun of training, and will give you an ownership of your training that I think helps with commitment and increasing will power. I could tell you to strength train on Tuesdays, hike on Saturdays, and rest on Sundays...but what if that doesn't work for you? The most important part of any training schedule is how easy it is to stick to, so get out the calendar and start planning! You have 7 months to get in the best shape of your life, while achieving one of the most rewarding, awesome goals--climbing a mountain.
Here are some resources to help you along the way:
RMI's Letter on Training
Article on Training by Kathy Colsey-Mountain Guide
Body Results DVD
Climbing: Training for Peak Performance
Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness