Training: Advanced Conditioning for Alpine Climbing

Train like a professional athlete for long climbs with a heavy pack
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
997
Train like a professional athlete for long climbs with a heavy pack

This story originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition. 

Alpine Rock Climbing Training

Photo: Andrew Burr

Steep approaches, weighty loads, and full days make climbing in the alpine a serious affair. Likewise, climbers with big alpine goals should take their training seriously. In August 2015, Climbing editors Shannon Davis and Julie Ellison were headed to the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range of Wyoming to attempt a two-day Cirque Traverse. Covering 19 miles, 10,000 feet of vertical gain and loss, and dozens of pitches of technical climbing and rappelling, the Cirque Traverse is a link-up of nine technical peaks. We worked with Rob Shaul, a strength and conditioning coach who has trained pro skiers and climbers, and The North Face’s Mountain Athletics program, to design an appropriate and ass-kicking training plan for big days in the alpine.

Start Here

This program is seven weeks long and should start in accordance with the dates of the trip: For example, our traverse dates were August 22 to 24, so we started the plan on July 7. To begin the plan, you’ll need a high level of minimum fitness: You must be able to run 12 miles total and do 1,000 box step-ups with a 25-pound pack nonstop. That sounds daunting, but it’s completely doable with what Shaul calls “on-ramp” training. He suggests a four-week plan that includes running and core strength. Run intervals or hill sprints (See: Strength for Alpinism) two days, rest one day, and run another day of intervals. Do a moderately paced eight-mile run for the fifth and final day. On all five of those days, including the middle rest day, do a 25- to 30-minute core-strengthening routine.

This program directly reflects the fitness demands of the chosen event (uphill/downhill hiking, scrambling and trail running under load, climbing stamina, etc.) and will take physical discipline and a significant time commitment to complete; this is training like a professional athlete. The plan is progressive, so it gets harder as it goes on. Commitment to training demonstrates a respect for the mountains and the sport of climbing.

Equipment Needed: Climbing gym or access to a wall; small backpack with 25 lbs. (same pack for traverse); approach shoes (same ones for traverse); heart-rate monitor (HRM); GPS or GPS watch to measure running distances; foam roller; box, bench, or stairs.

Program Guidelines

  • Sunday and Monday are rest days.
  • On days that are marked with an asterisk, wear approach shoes and a 25-lb. pack for the training (not the warm-up), unless otherwise noted.
  • Foam roll your legs and lower back everyday.
  • For climbing sessions, choose four bouldering problems two grades below your max; make sure you can transition quickly. Non-boulderers should aim for V0 or V1. Each “set” should be four problems back to back with no rest in between climbs; you will rest one minute after each set. If the gym is busy, pick two problems and climb each twice for a total of four climbs.
  • Plan your Saturdays around these mini-events, or long days designed to prepare for the actual traverse. Run and do step-ups under load, and climb at the gym. For mini-events, do 1, 2, and 3 without resting. Do the first run from your rock gym. Finish at the gym, and do the step-ups and climbing (in approach shoes). Then do the next run.
  • Weekday sessions will last 60 to 90 min. The Saturday mini-event will last 3+ hours.
  • Choose the best rest days for your schedule and adjust accordingly; be consistent.
  • If you can’t make a day, pick up where you left off. The plan gets harder, so don’t skip around.
  • Use a 16” to 18” bench, box, rock, stair, etc. for step-ups.
  • Aim to make all heart-rate zones. If your heart rate is ever too high, dial back your intensity. If it’s later in the program and your heart rate is consistently too high or too low (despite making numbers earlier), you might be overtraining, so look for other symptoms: no motivation, difficulty sleeping, and poor appetite. If these are present, stop training and take a week off.
  • For exercise demonstration videos, see Cirque Traverse Exercises.

Training Schedule

Week 1

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU (warm-up): 3 sets of 25 step-ups, 5 pushups, 10 sit-ups
1. Complete the Lactate Threshold Field Test (see below)

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

1. 4 sets: 4 problems, rest 1 min.
2. Rest 5 min.
3. 4 sets: 4 problems, rest 1 min.
4. Rest 5 min.
Repeat (16 sets total)

THURSDAY (Leg Strength & Core)

WU: 3 sets of 8 air squats, 8 pushups, 8 sit-ups, instep stretch
1. 8 sets: mini leg blaster, 6 pushups
2. 3 sets: 30 sec. sit-ups, 30 sec. EOs, 30 sec. front bridge, 30 sec. rest
3. 4-mile run @ Zone 1-2

FRIDAY (Tempo & Endurance)*

4 sets: 185 step-ups @ Zone 3, 800-meter run @ Zone 2

SATURDAY (Long Mini-Event)*

Use hilly terrain for all mini-events if possible.
1. 6-mile run
2. 3 sets: 750 step-ups, 4 V1/V2 boulder problems (no pack)
3. 6-mile run

Week 2

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU: 3 sets of 200-meter run, 20 step-ups, instep stretch

1. 5 sets: 3 min. step-ups @ Zone 4, 1 min. hip flexor/pigeon stretch
2. 8 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 6 pushups
3. 5 sets: 3 min. run @ Zone 4, 2 min. run @ Zone 1

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

Same as Week 1

THURSDAY (Leg Strength & Core)

Same as Week 1

FRIDAY (Tempo & Endurance)*

4 sets: 200 step-ups @ Zone 3, 800-meter run @ Zone 2

SATURDAY (Long Mini-Event)*

1. 6.5-mile run
2. 3 sets: 775 step-ups, 4 V1/V2 boulder problems (no pack)
3. 6.5-mile run

Week 3

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU: same as Week 2
1. 5 sets: 3 min. step-ups @ Zone 5, 1 min. hip flexor/pigeon stretch
2. 2 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 8 pushups
3. 4 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 8 pushups
4. 5 sets: 3 min. run @ Zone 5, 2 min. run @ Zone 1

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

Same as Week 1

THURSDAY (Leg Strength & Core)

WU: same as Week 1
1. 2 sets: full leg blaster, 8 pushups
2. 4 sets: mini leg blaster, 8 pushups
3. 4 sets: #2 from Week 1
4. 4-mile run @ Zone 1-2

FRIDAY (Tempo & Endurance)*

4 sets: 100 step-ups @ Zone 3, 1,200-meter run @ Zone 2

SATURDAY (Long Mini-Event)*

1. 7-mile run
2. 3 sets: 800 step-ups, 5 V1/V2 boulder problems (no pack)
3. 7-mile run

Week 4

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU: 2 sets of Week 2
1. 5 sets: 4 min. step-ups @ Zone 4, 2 min. pigeon stretch and lat/pec stretch
2. 2 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 8 pushups
3. 4 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 8 pushups
4. 5 sets: 4 min. run @ Zone 4, 2 min. run @ Zone 1

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

Same as Week 1

THURSDAY (Leg Strength & Core)*

1. 4 sets: 200 step-ups @ Zone 3, 1-mile run @ Zone 2
2. 3 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 10 pushups
3. 2 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 10 pushups
4. 4 sets (no pack): #2 from Week 1

FRIDAY (Tempo & Endurance)

4-mile run @ Zone 1-2 

SATURDAY (Long Mini-Event)*

1. 8-mile run
2. 3 sets: 825 step-ups, 5 V1/V2 boulder problems (no pack)
3. 8-mile run

Week 5

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU: 4 sets of Week 2
1. 5 sets: 5 min. step-ups @ Zone 4, 2 min. pigeon stretch and lat/pec stretch
2. 3 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 10 pushups
3. 2 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 10 pushups
4. 5 sets: 5 min. run @ Zone 4, 2 min. run @ Zone 1

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

Same as Week 1

THURSDAY (Leg Strength & Core)*

1. 4 sets: 225 step-ups @ Zone 3, 1-mile run @ Zone 2
2. 3 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 10 pushups
3. 4 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 10 pushups
4. 5 sets (no pack): #2 from Week 1

FRIDAY (Tempo & Endurance)

3-mile run @ Zone 1-2

SATURDAY (Long Mini-Event)*

1. 9-mile run
2. 3 sets: 850 step-ups, 6 V1/V2 boulder problems (no pack)
3. 9-mile run

Week 6

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU: same as Week 5
1. 5 sets: 5 min. step-ups @ Zone 5, 2 min. pigeon stretch and lat/pec stretch
2. 4 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 12 pushups
3. 5 sets: 5 min. run @ Zone 5, 2 min. run @ Zone 1

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

Same as Week 1

THURSDAY (Leg Strength & Core)*

1. 4 sets: 250 step-ups @ Zone 3, 1-mile run @ Zone 2
2. 4 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 12 pushups
3. 5 sets (no pack): #2 from Week 1

FRIDAY

Rest Day

SATURDAY (Long Mini-Event)*

1. 10-mile run
2. 3 sets: 900 step-ups, 6 V1/V2 boulder problems (no pack)
3. 10-mile run

Week 7 

TUESDAY (Endurance & Strength)*

WU: same as Week 5
1. 5 sets: 5 min. step-ups @ Zone 4, 2 min. pigeon stretch and lat/pec stretch
2. 3 sets (no pack): full leg blaster, 10 pushups
3. 2 sets (no pack): mini leg blaster, 10 pushups
4. 5 sets: 5 min. run @ Zone 4, 2 min. run @ Zone 1

WEDNESDAY (Climbing Stamina)

Same as Week 1, but only 8 sets total

THURSDAY

Rest Day

FRIDAY

Rest Day

SATURDAY

Rest Day

Lactate Threshold Field Test

  1. Warm up according to calendar at right, then do 1,000 step-ups as detailed below.
  2. Complete 200 step-ups as fast as you can with your HRM tracking your average heart rate and total time.
  3. After completing 200, set a new interval to track a new average heart rate.
  4. Complete 800 step-ups as fast as you can.
  5. Record your average heart rate for the final 800 step-ups. That is your lactate threshold (LT) on which all of the training in this plan will be based.
  6. Use the following percentages of your LT to find your target heart rate for each zone listed on the calendar: Zone 1 is <84%; Zone 2 is 85-89%; Zone 3 is 90-94%; Zone 4 is 95-99%; Zone 5 is 100-106%.

Strength and conditioning mastermind Rob Shaul started Mountain Athlete in Jackson, Wyoming, in February 2007 to cater to skiers, climbers, and extreme outdoor athletes. Since then, he has trained dozens of professional athletes, and most recently, he teamed up with The North Face’s Mountain Athletics program to design training plans for the everyman outdoor athlete to complete big objectives.