Mountain sports enthusiasts share a common passion for conquering the heights. The Colorado Rockies offer a grand array of world class peaks, vistas, trail heads, terrain, seasons and challenges to draw mountain sports athletes from around the world. As such, these mountains present risk to the unprepared. Conditioning, fitness, strength, stamina and endurance are essential conditioning basics for a successful mountaineering experience.

What are the best exercises to prepare for your mountain sport? Richard Cunningham, MD, a sport medicine specialist in Vail, Colorado and mountain sports enthusiast discusses the best tools to ensure optimal preparation for your future mountain adventures.

Kick off your mountain sports training

Medical check-up – Whether a fit athlete, or an aspiring one, it’s smart to begin a new physical challenge with a medical check-up. Mountain sports present the increased physical challenges of altitude, intensity and endurance. A medical check-up can provide confidence for your upcoming journey.

Establish a baseline – Fitness is evaluated in six essential components, body composition (BMI), agility, endurance, strength, aerobic and anaerobic efficiency. All components work together for optimal performance and are the foundation for your fitness training.

Determine the level of challenge – Identify your mountain sport targets. Altitude, terrain, degree of difficulty, and technical requirements are some considerations. This holds true for all modes of traversing, including foot, hand and rope, skis, snow shoes, mountain bike, and conditions including the 90º vertical to any other degree of ascent. Knowing the numbers provides the target for any conditioning program.

Draw up a plan – This plan requires incremental, frequent and sustained pacing. There are many resources to help build a training plan, but the most important resource is time. Eight weeks is considered a bare minimum for adequate preparation. Elite mountain sports athletes are known to train for a year for their next challenge. These athletes often move from one level of challenge to a greater level, thereby paying their conditioning forward. However, it is always smart to recalibrate the level of challenge, re-evaluate performance demands, and take the time to develop the next level of conditioning. This ensures more success up the mountain.

Aerobic training – Mountain sports are highly aerobic. Efficient use of oxygen and the body’s fat-burning properties are key to fueling mountain sports activities. This is even more true at higher altitudes, where challenges increase while oxygen decreases. Aerobic training is designed to use both oxygen and the body’s stored fat supply to generate energy. Becoming proficient with aerobic training begins with identifying your aerobic training zone. Although sports physiologists can differ on this, one rough formula to identify your aerobic training zone is to subtract your age from 180 and then subtract 10. This provides the number of heartbeats per minute (bpm) to target and sustain for your aerobic training zone, which is typically 70-80% of your maximum heart rate. A heartbeat monitor with a chest strap is the best way to measure heart rate. However, easily performing these common behaviors will likely indicate aerobic zone physical demand:

  • Comfortable, steady breathing through the nose
  • Ability to hold a conversation
  • Mild sweat, considering weather
  • Sense you can easily keep on going

Once known, the aerobic training zone provides the boundaries for the aerobic portion of mountain sports conditioning activity. These activities can include any pursuit that accurately elevates the bpm, including hiking, riding, jogging, gym cardio equipment, among many others. Working the cardiovascular system at the aerobic level, within a consistent, sustained long-term plan is the road map. A minimum of three months is recommended to achieve adequate cardiovascular conditioning for beginners. There are many pacing plans to choose from, and the key is to commit to the zone. Endurance and stamina develop as the aerobic efficiency of the athlete is developed within the aerobic zone. It is common for fit athletes to struggle with these lower bpm sessions, but sustained consistent training at this level pays off with increasing speeds, greater stamina and endurance at a lower heart rate. This payoff makes mountain adventures far more enjoyable with less fatigue, muscle soreness, and even injury

Anaerobic training

Anaerobic activity is movement done without relying on oxygen, but is rather reliant on energy found stored in muscle and fat. Anaerobic training is a key part of mountain sport conditioning which helps to develop high intensity endurance. Anaerobic endurance supports bursts of force, while aerobic endurance supports moderate intensity endurance.

While aerobic training targets 70-80% maximum heart rate, anaerobic training targets 80-90% of the rate. This is vigorous and intense activity and serves to increase endurance during these high burst moments. This is critical for mountain sports, in situations that require a forceful move like a large step-up, or a terrain scramble requiring all fours, and, most often, managing gravity on the ascent.

The mechanism of anaerobic movement taps the muscles such that the sugar stored in muscle is converted to energy. Lactic acid is produced in this exchange. This acid builds up in the muscle, creating fatigue. A primary goal of anaerobic training is to increase performance in muscle force while decreasing lactic acid production. Two major benefits of anaerobic conditioning that work in tandem are very important for mountain sports athletes. These are

Increased muscle mass – A benefit of anaerobic training is increased muscle mass. This generates a boost in the body’s metabolism which protects from fatigue. Endurance is increased.

Increased endurance – With increased muscle mass there is an increase in fitness and thus endurance. It also improves mood, so sustained mountain adventures are more enjoyable.

Additional benefits include:

  • Revved up metabolism for added endurance on the mountain
  • Higher energy supply to meet the demand of mountain sports
  • Increase of oxygen capacity for even greater stamina

As with aerobic conditioning, anaerobic fitness plans are best designed to be incremental in the level of challenge. Working the heart at anaerobic levels within a consistent, sustained long-term plan is the goal. Including portions of both aerobic and anaerobic movement in daily fitness training plans is recommended.

Many plans are available; some are specific to each mountain sport. The plan should include the anaerobic heart rate targets and exercises of choice. Some options are high intensity interval training (HIIT), rope jumping, weight training, sprints of any kind, swimming, hill climbing, isometrics, biking, stair climbing and any movement requiring quick bursts of energy.

Strength Training

Combined with overall fitness, strength makes the mountain adventure more enjoyable. Bodyweight training, when you use your own body weight for lifting, is a great place to begin strength training. Examples include squats, push-ups, lunges, dips and pull-ups. Additional body weight, like weighted vest, strapped weights, loaded backpacks can further the benefit.

To emulate mountain conditions equipment based weight training can be added. Bench and military presses, deadlifts, power cleans, and front squats can be included. Training while wearing your mountain sports gear, including clothing, foot wear and layering expected, as well as the pack with some or all of its load will also build strength.

Mountain Sports Specializing

Many activities in the mountains require some degree of specialized conditioning. In addition to the plans developed above, consider these added fitness tips for your favorite mountain sports

High altitude fitness tips

  • Consider altitude acclimation protocols in your routine
  • Cardio is your key to a strong cardiovascular system
  • Train with a loaded backpack when ready
  • Frequently default to stair training
  • Take your time on the way up

Tips for mountain bike fitness

  • Be intentional on altitude acclimation protocols
  • Be exceptional at listening to your body
  • Nutrition and hydration are trail priorities
  • Avoid being isolated when riding alone
  • Take your time on the climb

Tips for high altitude climbing fitness

  • Cardio is your key to a strong high altitude climb
  • Train with a loaded backpack when ready
  • Stair train often
  • Develop hand, wrist, arm and shoulder strength
  • Take your time on the ascent

Tips for winter mountain sports fitness

  • Add agility such as front, back and side to side hop
  • Floor and standing stretching routine to round out conditioning
  • Balance squats, stops and holds, both legs and single leg
  • Target ample hydration during sport
  • Master your warm up routine

Tips for high altitude trekking fitness

  • Know the symptoms of high altitude illness
  • Load up the training pack
  • Run hills and stairs
  • Get to high elevations during training
  • Embrace your limitations
  • Determine to trek slow and easy

If you have sustained an injury to your recent mountain adventure, contract Richard Cunningham, MD today. He specializes in the treatment of all knee and shoulder injuries. Contact his team today.

See Full Blog

Rediscover your inner athlete

Dr. Cunningham specializes in the treatment of knee, shoulder, and sports injuries.

Step One