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More Training Info > Cross-Training for Alpine Conditioning

Effectiveness of Cross-Training for Alpine Conditioning
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS June 2005

We tend to gravitate toward those things that come naturally for us and that we already do well. However, there are all sorts of benefits to including different training from what we normally do. If you spend most of your training time on cardiovascular exercise, you probably already know that adding stretching and strength training to your routine can enhance your aerobic training. Adding step ups, squats, lunges, and step downs will undoubtedly make carrying a weighted pack up and down hills far more comfortable. If you do primarily yoga or stretching, strength training can help you hold difficult poses longer so you can move up to the next level of difficulty, and aerobic training can add to your overall stamina so you can work longer. If you are interested in strength training, adding stretching or anaerobic interval training may enhance your ability to perform during your strength workouts and help you last longer in the mountains.

Cross-Training Effectiveness for Mountaineering

It gets a little trickier to assess the benefits of cross training within one of the three major categories (stretching, strength training, and cardiovascular exercise). For example, we were recently asked about the value of participating in activities such as swimming, rowing, or other non-spinal loading exercises for someone training for mountaineering. Below, in order from most to least desirable, we offer our personal opinions about the effectiveness of a wide variety of training options for mountaineering, keeping in mind 1) the concept of specificity of training (see www.bodyresults.com/e2specificity.asp for more on this topic) and 2) our clients’ needs as a representative sampling of the larger mountaineering community -- and the most universal order that would encompass the largest number of people – there are always, of course, exceptions.

The Big Three

A) Hiking, trekking, scrambling or climbing on actual mountainous terrain (the specific activity for which you are training)
B)Traveling up and down hills of greater than 8% incline, or stairs for 3 or more flights, with or without a pack (depending on your end objective; someone who will be having porters carry their weight, as on Kilimanjaro, will not have to train with nearly as much weight as someone about to climb Denali, who has to carry and drag substantial weight)

  • Elliptical training (EFX or other models; with or without a pack);
  • Step aerobics (going up and down a step trains the calves, hip flexors, and uphill propulsion muscles while also involving core endurance and upper body movements as well);
  • Unweighted trail running over hilly terrain

Please note: many people ask us whether they should take up running to get in shape for mountaineering. Many of the people asking hate the thought of running, have had ankle, foot, back, knee, or other problems before, or are hoping to lose some weight before they do their climbs. While running works for many people, the non-impact elliptical trainer works more universally for all people I have come across, including those with extra weight or lower extremity discomfort, so it moves above running in my personal recommendations for its universal appeal and longevity. Elliptical training and step aerobics form the meat of my own home/in-town routine, though I, too, have included running in the distant past. The ONLY downside I can find to training with an elliptical is having to own one in your home or belong to a club where you have access to one – whereas in order to run, you need only walk out your front door wearing running shoes.

Supplemental Options

Other cross-training options that can factor into training in pre- or off-season, or as supplemental training for the above three, include the following:

D) TIE: inclined treadmill (the higher the level, the more it simulates steep uphill climbing) and revolving stepmill
E) Fitness exercise tapes that include circuit or strength training in addition to low-impact cardiovascular training
F) TIE: biking (low-impact, non-spinal loading; while this is a good complement to the training suggestions above it probably should not form the bulk of any in-season alpine conditioning program; it would be more suitable for an off-season or rehab program or for anyone who simply cannot do any of options B-E above) and jogging (high impact spinal loading; for many this is simply too jarring on the knees and unless it is done on hills – see C for trail running – it does not target the uphill propulsion muscles as well as A-E above)
G) stairmaster machines with fixed pedals (these tend to aggravate knee conditions though newer models may have better success)
H) TIE: walking on flat ground; yoga or martial arts (all have benefits but are farther removed from, i.e. less specific to, alpine travel)
I) TIE: rowing, swimming (while both are great cardiovascular exercises, the seated or prone nature of the movements are farthest removed from the spinal loading activity of hiking, trekking, scrambling and climbing. They make great complementary training partners for off-season but in most cases should not form the bulk of a mountaineering training program)


This ordered list is arranged purely from the standpoint of specificity for alpine mountaineering. We could also make a pretty strong argument for moving rowing and swimming up to position “e” for ice or rock climbing, or even position “c” for sport or gym climbing to supplement all the wall work. Furthermore, for someone who is recovering from some sort of injury (whether ankles, hamstring strains, knee pains, etc.) there may be a place higher up on the list for any of the activities below option “f” to allow for further recovery and less impact on the targeted muscles. Finally, a person who lives in Florida who does not have access to a gym may only have two options open to him or her: flat pack walking and biking. While they are not the most ideal training options, they are far better than nothing at all! This person may want to seek out some stadium steps and add a pack for some stair climbing a few times a month. Be as specific with your training as you can be.

Additional Links

The long and short of it is this: almost any type of exercise can be beneficial at the appropriate time. By assessing your particular sport and its needs, you can choose cross-training activities that will 1) help you prevent psychological burnout, 2) train muscle groups in different ways so you keep your body in balance, and 3) complement the training you are already doing. For more on sport assessment, take a look at the following pages:
www.bodyresults.com/e3fitnesspolygon.asp for an assessment of overall fitness as it relates specifically to climbing www.bodyresults.com/s2rowpolygon.asp to learn about the needs for rowers www.bodyresults.com/s2snowpolygon.asp for physical characteristics of snow sports and www.bodyresults.com/e2prioritize.asp for ways that you can include cross-training, depending on where you are in your periodized training program.

If you have specific questions related to this complex topic that you would like us to address in future newsletters, please send us your questions or comments.


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