by Carrie Lane, Director of Sport Performance
I get it, you live in the flatlands but your head is filled with visions of summiting far off peaks high in the alpine. Or perhaps you travel so much that the only majestic scenery you see is the lovely landscape print hanging in the lobby of the Hampton Inn you are staying at? Why should only those people living with mountains right out their back door get to sleep on vistas and take in priceless sunrises over jagged, panoramic views? You’d love to plan a trip to summit a challenging, remote peak. But…. the training. There’s no altitude where you live. The tallest hill is the highway on-ramp. Without some proper training you'll be sucking air and feeling a burn in your legs like you've never felt before. Read on for some tips for getting creative when you've got mountains to climb.
Finding good hiking and training environs for your alpine goals can be tricky. Creative mountaineers have found all kinds of ways to effectively train their legs and lungs while living in or traveling to some in-opportune locations. I have known athletes who walked up and down the long bridges of Charleston, SC, ran levee hills along the Mississippi in Louisiana, trekked to the local football stadium in Nebraska, and even logged elevation in a hostel stairwell in Cairo, Egypt. It might get mind-bogglingly repetitive, but if stairwells and stadiums are all you got, make the best of it. Variety is key, not only for your mental sanity, but also for the prevention of injury. Here are some variations you can add to your stair and hill workouts:
1. Weighted pack. This should go without saying, but for any serious trekking or mountaineering undertaking, you need to train to walk with a weighted pack. If you don’t have access to weekend or evening hikes in the mountains, the simplest (and probably most boring) workout you can do is to walk on a graded treadmill or a stairmill with a weighted pack. Calculate the weight you will carry on your trip. Start your training program carrying around 40-50% of that weight. Gradually work up to 115% of your pack weight for some of your training hikes. But take several weeks to work into this weight.
2. Fartleks: Fartlek, a Swedish word meaning “speed play”, is a training tactic used by endurance athletes since the 1930s to work anaerobic and aerobic energy systems in the same workout. A simple, beginning level fartlek I use with my athletes is walking on an incline 8 x 30 seconds at a brisk pace. They are breathing HARD, pushing their leg drive on each step. Each 30 second interval is followed by about 1 minute of easy walking. They can either continue walking uphill or turn around and walk back down. Once they get the hang of the constant intensity fluctuation, I progress the workout by increasing the interval time and/or decreasing the rest time.
3. Fartleks 2.0: Once you get the hang of the pace-changing, you can really add some variety. A favorite fartlek that I add in later in my programs is a mixture of hill and flat land work. So it may be 4 x 1:00 hard hill walks with each interval followed by 1:00 of easy walking. Then a short rest at the bottom of the hill. Then a hard 1-mile walk on flat land. HARD. This should take around 12:00. Then repeat the hill intervals again.
4. “Pyramid” Your Pack Weight: If your training takes you to a stairwell, short hill, or a stadium, bring some weights that you can add and leave them at the bottom of the stairs. Do 2 flights with 40% of total pack weight, then do 2 flights with 50%, and work your way up. Then work your way back down by taking weight back out. Before you know it, you’ll have done 30 stair intervals that have worked both your leg strength and lung capacity.
5. Vary your direction: Your knees will thank you!! This works especially well in a stairwell, where you have a railing to hold on to in case you lose your balance. Walk up a flight sideways facing to the right, another facing left, another facing backwards. Then do the same as you walk back down. Changing directions on your up and down hill walks will provide balanced strength training to your leg muscles, which will significantly strengthen your knee joint.
6. Cross-step walks: These work well if you have a stadium full of bleacher seats, or a wide open grassy hill. Instead of walking straight up and down, walk at an angle, crossing your downhill foot over your uphill foot. Like the multi-directional stair walks, the cross-step works the sometimes neglected muscles on the inside and outside of your legs (adductors and abductors), which again provides stability and strength for your knees. Crossover steps are common in snow, so these are good to practice if you are pursuing a snow climb.
7. Tire pulls: I trained an athlete in South Carolina who was training for Denali. We were trying to replicate pulling a sled. So we had him get an old tire (these are easily obtained for free from tire shops), an old backpack with a sturdy hip belt, and some rope. With the tire attached to his hip belt, he walked through a field dragging the tire behind him. Then he even walked to the gym dragging the tire, lifted some weights, walked on the stairmill, and dragged that tire back home. However you want to do it, adding a tire to hill walks or fartleks, will keep building those legs.
8. Sand walks: Walking or running in sand is another great way to condition your legs. Again, pace variation or pack variation for set intervals are common ways to spice up the monotony.
Training for a big mountain objective needs to be consistent but doesn’t need to be boring. Don’t let the flat land or a crazy travel schedule hinder your ability to get in some good quality work. A little creativity and persistence will keep you on-track with your training.
Do you have some creative workouts of your own? We want to hear about them. Leave your comments below