How to Get Fit for the Mountains
How do I get fit for the mountains?
This is, without doubt, one of most frequently asked questions we receive here at City Mountaineering. And it’s understandable; climbing mountains is seen by most as a gruelling physical activity. In fact, the very act of climbing a mountain is often used as a metaphor for doing something really hard. So, it stands to reason that some people want to know how to prepare themselves physically before they head to the hills.
Let’s first tackle some misconceptions though. In the context of City Mountaineering trips at least, hiking in the mountains is not intended to be some gruelling feat of endurance, leaving all but the very fittest heaving for breath on the lower slopes. As trite as it may sound, first and foremost we want everyone to enjoy themselves. That won’t happen if we are pushing everyone to their physical limit.
It is true that some of our trips are “harder” than others but, for the most part, we want you to ‘enjoy, not endure’ and the chances are you're probably fit enough already. Let’s not forget, after all, that we are in the business of selling trips and experiences. We won’t sell many if people don’t enjoy themselves!
That said though, it’s fair to say that the fitter you are the more likely you are to enjoy the whole experience. And sometimes it’s just the knowledge of having trained and prepared for something that helps people push themselves that bit further in the moment (the reverse is also true: if you haven’t prepared for something, when the going gets tough you can often find yourself questioning your own ability to cope with it, not because you aren’t actually fit enough but simply because you know you didn’t prepare).
Now, of course, fitness and the advice surrounding it is a huge (and actually quite fascinating) subject. Sports scientists and personal trainers make a career out of it. I am neither, and so the following is just some general advice and ideas based on my own experiences on how to get mountain fit.
If you are preparing for something bigger, like a trip to the Himalaya or up Kilimanjaro, the following is also broadly applicable and hopefully useful. However, for some tailored advice and/or a specific training plan including guided trips to the UK mountains, please get in touch (between us we have both a wealth of experience in fitness and in climbing at high attitude).
Let’s not overcomplicate things. We’re not trying to run a four-minute mile or break the hour record. We simply want to be able to hike up and down mountains reasonably comfortably in order to maximise our enjoyment of it. Hiking is, well, walking. OK, so it’s walking up things a lot and often it's walking for several hours at a time, but it is still just walking.
So, one of the best things we can do to prepare ourselves for heading into the mountains is to go walking (it’s also a great way to break in those new hiking boots). Grab a rucksack, pack a lunch and head out for a day.
There are loads of great places to spend a day walking near to London. There’s the North Downs Way in Surrey, the Severn Sisters down in Sussex or the Chilterns to the west of London. All of these places are reachable by train from London and they all have the benefit of having a good few ups and downs.
If you want to stay in London, Richmond Park is a fantastic place for a day’s walk. There’s a few inclines and you’d be surprised at just how wild it feels in parts. Try getting off the main paths and onto the less trodden trails. There’s also a couple of cafes to keep you motivated.
Staying in London, you don’t have to walk somewhere green. Why not spend a day walking around the tourist attractions or up and down some of London’s hillier streets (legend has it that a certain Stuart Shipp trained for Aconcagua by walking up and down Telegraph Hill in Brockley with a few bowling balls in his rucksack!).
Also, try walking up the escalator or taking the stairs instead of the lift for an easy win.
Finally, don’t be a fair-weather walker. Head out on the windy and rainy days too. One of the key differences about being in the mountains is that you’ll be hiking in all weathers, experiencing all the elements (this is also one of the best bits about being in the mountains). So, getting used to walking in the wind and rain will prepare you for that unavoidable mountain weather. It’ll also give you a chance to test those waterproofs!
There are some striking similarities between cycling and hiking in the mountains. Firstly, your legs bear the brunt of things in both activities. Secondly, apart from on the steep bits, you are unlikely to be significantly out of breath during the course of either activity (unless, of course, you are particularly serious about your cycling and like to push hard). For the sport scientists amongst you, both activities broadly keep you in the Zone 1 to Zone 3 heart rate zones. Like hiking, when you’re cycling you can hold a conversation with your fellow cyclists, until you get onto the hills…
Cycling is then, for my money at least, one of the best things you can do to get fit for the mountains. And certainly I have felt at my most “prepared” for the mountains when I’ve been cycling a lot.
You don’t have to go full Lycra, carbon fibre either. Any bike will do.
Richmond Park is, again, your friend here. In London, it really is one of the best places to cycle and even has a few – albeit small – hills (try doing hill repeats to train your climbing lungs). Do be prepared for the pelotons of Lycra and carbon fibre though! Slightly further afield, the Surrey Hills are a truly beautiful place to cycle and are easily reached from south London (or jump on a train to Dorking and start from there).
My final point on cycling is that commuting by bike can be the easiest of easy wins. In the time it takes you to suffer a commute on public transport, you could have cycled instead. You’ll have done your training for the day without having to make any extra time for it. You’ll also save money, help the planet, feel happier…don’t get me started on the infinite benefits of cycling as a means of transport but, suffice to say, it is the answer to most of our problems!
Anyway, if you find the distance to work intimidating, try thinking about it in terms of time instead. For instance, a five-mile cycle might only take you half an hour. Or perhaps just cycle to and from a train station. In any case, if you’ve cycled to work every day for the few weeks leading up to a trip to the mountains, I guarantee you’ll feel well prepared.
Running is a difficult subject to tackle in this context because how far and how fast people can run is very dependent on individual fitness levels. It is no doubt a very good way to get fit and to stay fit though and it can be a great way to prepare yourself or the mountains if you enjoy doing it.
Consider again the type of activity hiking in the mountains is though. It is one in which your heart rate remains relatively low. Because running is an impactful activity, and simply because it can be hard, it’s likely that your heart rate will be higher when you are running than when you are, say, cycling or walking. The other effect of that is that you’ll probably be able to cycle and walk for far longer periods than you could run for. And as we discussed earlier, hiking is, if nothing else, an activity that takes several hours.
One way to get around that, of course, is to run slower for longer. If you have a heart rate monitor, aim for running in Zone 2. That can be a very slow pace for some people so, to make it more interesting, try trail running. The North Downs Way offers some great trail running, as does Richmond and Bushy Park. The added benefit of running on trails is getting used to travelling on rough terrain (and trails are generally hiller than roads).
Lots of people don’t enjoy running. Regardless of why that might be, the only way you are going to stick to something is if you enjoy it. In my view, walking and cycling are far better ways to prepare yourself for the mountains so, if you don’t enjoy running and your goal is simply to get fit for the mountains, don’t do it and don’t feel as though you have to.
The gym is a dirty word to Stu. You won’t ever find him in one. In fairness to his view, hiking is an outdoor activity and there are few things that you can do in the gym that translate even marginally to climbing mountains (the Altitude Centre is an exception to this, of course, and there is much to be said about the benefits on training in high altitude conditions).
However, sometimes in the midst of a busy working week, the gym is the only thing some of us can squeeze in (another reason to cycle to work).
So, what can you do in the gym that will help prepare you for the mountains? Well, the treadmill is surely a good bet. Set it at a low pace and at an incline, strap on a rucksack filled with kit and start “hiking”. The rowing machine also offers great cardiovascular benefits whilst placing an emphasis on leg strength/endurance.
As far as weights go…well, when it comes to mountain climbing, they don’t. You could make an argument for supplementing your training with squats, lunges and leg press to build leg strength, but I think it would be a fairly weak one. The movement of hiking up a mountain slope is more comparable to walking up stairs than to doing a deep squat.
If you do use the gym to prepare for the mountains, do so with caution and take heed of this fable:
Many years ago, I attempted to climb Aconcagua in the Andes. It was on this trip, in fact, that I first met Stu. Anyway, as it happened, in the months leading up to the trip I met my now wife. So, whilst Stu was hiking up Telegraph Hill with bowling balls in his rucksack, I was in the gym working on my biceps to impress my new girlfriend. Guess who summitted that mountain and who had to turn back?
In reality I was probably fit enough to summit but, as I alluded to earlier, I knew my training had been entirely inappropriate for my goal and this played on my mind as soon as I got out of breath and my first altitude headache set in. So, rather than see these as the normal effects of being at high altitude, I convinced myself that my lack of proper training was to blame. There was no way I was summiting that mountain.
If you'd like any further advice on anything discussed in this article or on getting fit for the mountains in general, please don't hesitate to get in touch.