Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
The multitasker of all hikes, a summit attempt on a peak like Rainier or Grand Teton requires a cardiovascular system that can deliver oxygen to your muscles as efficiently as possible, even at higher altitudes; and a strong, lean body that is able to climb and descend under control, even when your quads are shaking. Balance also plays a key role, and not just in precarious situations; you’ll expend much less energy if you can step smoothly–without bobbles–from one foothold to the next.
Our plan hits all the muscles hard, from your heart to your calves. Cardio sessions are relatively intense to prepare for the coming oxygen deprivation, and strength-training sessions should build climbing-specific strength.
In a nutshell: Do two strength circuits a week, each after a cardio session; schedule 48 hours between strength workouts for muscle recovery. And take 2 days off a week.
Get Fit: The Overview
On weekdays, do three cardio sessions: one trail run, one steep hike with a 15-pound pack, and one climbing session (use stairs or a stair stepper) wearing a 15-pound pack. Begin with a 50-minute run, a 40-minute hike, and a 30-minute climb; then add 5 to 10 minutes each week. Keep a pace that allows you to recite a short sentence, but not the Pledge of Allegiance.
On weekends, spend one day getting your heart pumping: You can swim, mountain bike, trek, or trail run. Start with 75 minutes, and work up to 4 hours by the time your climb is 3 weeks away. On the other day, hike: Carry 50 percent of your heaviest pack weight and cover half the daily distance and elevation gain of your climb; build up to full pack weight and 70 percent of daily mileage and elevation gain by your 3-week date. If possible, make the hike a long climb and descent; if not, hit as many rolling hills as you can. On the next several pages you’ll find an 8-week, 7-day training plan to really help you get fit.
*RPE refers to the rate of perceived exertion, a fancy sounding term that merely expresses the difficulty of a workout from one to ten. An RPE of 1 means you’re barely breaking a sweat; a 10 means you’re burning in lactic hell.
These exercises will help you develop the full package–strength, endurance, balance, and uphill power. Do three sets of 12 to 15 reps of each exercise, unless otherwise noted.
1. Single leg squat
Builds: Quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, hips, core, balance
Stand on your right leg, keeping your left leg bent with your knee behind you. If necessary, touch a table or chair for support. Slowly bend your right leg to 90 degrees, then return to the starting position. Do all reps on the right side before switching to the left.
2. Step-off lunge
Builds: Quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, descent-specific strength
Standing on a 12-inch-high bench or rock and facing out, lunge forward with your right leg until your left knee hovers above the ground. Keep your abs tight and chin up. If necessary, put both hands on the ground to help get your right leg back on the bench. Step off with your left leg next round to complete one rep.
3. Hop and stick
Builds: Overall leg and core strength, ankle stability, balance
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, with arms relaxed and elbows tucked at your side. Jump to the right as far as you can, land on your right foot, hold for two seconds, then jump to the left and land on your left foot. Focus on sticking the landing quickly and stabilizing your body.
4. Power jack
Builds: Quads, explosive power
Begin with arms extended, shoulder-height, and your feet hip-distance apart. Jump and spread your legs wide–think of a jumping jack–and land in a squat position, then return to start. Do three sets of 10 reps, holding the squat on the last rep for 10 seconds.
Do a few balance-training exercises every day. Examples: walking (forward and backward) heel-to-toe along a straight line, or standing on one foot with your eyes closed for 20 seconds. Or throw in balance elements during a hike: Scramble over some rocks, walk (or run) the length of a log, slalom through the trees. Not only will you improve your sense of balance; you’ll also increase your heart rate.
Be persistent about push-ups and/or pull-ups. If you need to self-arrest on the mountain, or help another climber, upper-body strength is vital for both endeavors.
Add intervals to your climbs or runs. Pick up the pace for 30 seconds to 2 minutes (mix it up as you go), then slow down and go again; repeat up to 10 times. Intervals are a proven way of increasing cardiovascular capacity; the greater your capacity, the easier it is to deliver that coveted oxygen at 14,000 feet