Physical Training For Mountaineering

(by Chris Clarke, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 2003)
As the evenings shorten and the weather changes the opportunities to go climbing usually start to diminish at this time of the year. People start to think of indoor walls, hot rock and winter mountaineering trips. Whatever your approach to the next 6 months of the climbing calendar, you will certainly benefit from some form of structured physical training.

‘Fitness’ as it is generally referred to is sometimes quite a misunderstood term. As the word itself implies, it is having your body suitable fit for the intended activity. It is important to realise that fitness requirements differ from sport to sport. Therefore your fitness programme must reflect the particular requirements, which are specific to your objective. For example, you wouldn’t cycle extensively to train for a marathon although it would benefit your cardiovascular fitness.

This brings us nicely to one of the next principles of any physical training regime, which is defining objectives. Is it a bouldering competition or trekking up an Alpine peak? Is it a hill walking marathon or ice climbing? You must set an objective for yourself. This could be a specific climbing trip where you know generally what is ahead of you or leading a particular route, which is higher than your current ability. Once this is done you will be more focused and if motivation begins to sag – you can re-focus on the goal.

There are 3 broad components of physical fitness, namely, cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility. Each plays a particular role in the overall result and in climbing you need all three. The foundation of all physical training, in any sport, is cardiovascular fitness. So what is it exactly? It is essentially the ability of the heart and lungs to take in oxygen and transport it to the muscles that are performing the work. The more efficient this process is, the fitter you are. To improve you must train aerobically. Various activities will do this for you, just name your poison – running, cycling, treadmill, hill walking (uphill). Do it at least 3 times a week and don’t exceed 80% of your maximum heart rate for best results. Above this level of intensity you are risking injury with no further aerobic benefits.

As a rule of thumb your maximum heart rate is 225 minus your age. So for a 35 year old the max heart rate is 190 beats per min. and your training rate should not exceed 152 beats per min. It is surprisingly easy to exceed this level of activity so a good heart rate monitor is a very valuable piece of kit if you are serious about your training. If you wish to burn body fat train at about 60% of your max heart rate. Any higher and you will bypass body fat reserves and mainly burn carbohydrates.

The next component of fitness is strength. All the cardiovascular fitness in the world is no good to you when climbing if you do not have physical strength. Strength is defined as the ability to exert a given force such as performing a specific climbing move. Power is defined as performing an act of strength quickly. This could be blasting through a difficult section of a climb like a mantelshelf move. One of the most specific ways to improve strength is simply to go climbing as often as possible. Try to second routes which test your strength and therefore improve it, rather than leading at a more comfortable level. Bouldering is great strength training. If you can’t get to a wall or simply don’t like them, you can do a weight training circuit at a gym. It is important that the exercises you select are specific and as closely matched to climbing as possible.

Last, but by no means least, we have flexibility. This is often omitted in training sessions but it is actually very important for sustainable and injury-free training. When you train aerobically, the muscles contract or shorten. In order to maintain suppleness and agility the muscle needs to be stretched. If you stretch before and after a session you are preparing physically and mentally for the hard exercise to come. It makes sense to prepare your body so as to reduce the chance of injury. This is especially true on an indoor wall. Before stretching raise your pulse by doing a short jog. Again, choose exercises which are specific to climbing, particularly ones which improve back and hip flexibility.

If you are appalled at all of this hard work, there is some good news – rest and good nutrition are just as important as the actual training. The formula for improvement in any sport is:

  Train + Rest = Improvement

It is during this rest phase that we actually improve rather than the training period because your body is adapting to the increased workload. In real terms this means training say on Monday, resting Tuesday and training again on Wednesday or Thursday if the body has recovered. Training on a tired body is asking to be injured or inviting illness due to a depressed immune system.

This is only a brief overview of the principles of training and in future articles I will try to expand on some of these areas a bit further. This will include diet recommendations, pulling together a training programme and how to perform a training session properly.

In summary, I leave you with the following tips:

  • Climb often but train aerobically and stretch
  • Don’t over-train – build gradually
  • Rest properly between sessions
  • Have an objective
  • Ensure your training is specific to climbing
  • Stay hydrated
  • Eat well