Mt. Rainier Training Plan
So, you've committed to a climb of Mt. Rainier, now you've got to get in shape if you want to have any chance of making the summit.
Where to begin?
First things first, let's look at what you'll be expected to do during the climb:
Hike up 5,000 vertical feet to Camp Muir in under 5 hours with a 40lb. pack
Rest for 6-8 hours at Camp Muir
Climb 4,400 vertical feet to the summit in under 5 hours with a 20lb. pack
Descend from the summit to the parking lot in approximately 8 hours (including 1-2 hours at Muir)
Basically you've got to be fit enough to reach Camp Muir and then be able to essentially do it again after only a few hours rest. If you're climbing independently, there won't be any externally imposed time limits like there are with a guide service. However, I often find that climbers who struggle to reach Muir in 5 hours typically struggle on summit day - most likely resulting in a non-summit. Additionally, if you are climbing with a guide service, time limits are generally strict and failure to meet them may get you taken off the summit attempt. These time limits should be seen as a minimum to exceed, not a standard to meet.
There are three main fitness components that will ensure your success on the mountain: Aerobic Endurance, Muscular Strength, and Anaerobic Capacity.
Pretty much any standard cardio exercise will do: running, cycling, hiking, etc. These workouts are to be done at an easy pace - most commonly known as Zone 2, which is between 65 and 80% of your maximum heart rate. If you don't have a heart rate monitor, you should be able speak in full sentences while exercising. If your breathing increases and you become unable to speak in full sentences, that means you need to slow down. This training may feel too easy or you may feel like it's not doing anything for you, or that you're not getting anything out of it. Resist the urge to go faster. Aerobic training works despite feeling easy. Just do the workouts and trust that they are working - you'll see real results in no time.
Aerobic workouts improve the efficiency of the aerobic system by boosting the density of red blood cells, improving circulation, and strengthening the heart muscles, making it easier for your body to get fuel to the muscles. Basically, your aerobic endurance will determine your ability to 'go long', or to be able to exercise for hours on end with minimal breaks. As you continue to train aerobically, you'll be able to increase the speed and duration at which you can exercise, all while staying in the aerobic zone. You'll also be able to recover more quickly from workouts. Furthermore, this training also allows your body to tap into stored body fat for fuel. While working out in the aerobic zone, 50% of the calories you use are coming from stored body fat. Continued training in this zone will make your body more efficient at using body fat for energy. This will be an immense help on summit day when even your favorite foods become totally unappetizing. Prolonged training in this zone will also help you shed some unwanted pounds before the climb, making you lighter and therefore faster.
To demonstrate the importance of strength, let's first compare two world-class athletes: Eliud Kipchoge (an elite Marathoner) and Sebastian Kienle (an elite Ironman Triathlete). Eliud stands at 5'5" and weighs 123lbs., whereas Sebastian is 5'11" and 161lbs. Of course there's a height difference, but besides that, why the nearly 40lb. difference? They both compete in long distance events where weight is a premium, so shouldn't they both be featherweights? The difference is in the muscle mass. Eliud doesn't need a lot of muscle to run, but Sebastian needs muscle to be able to swim 2.4 miles and pedal a bike for 112 miles before he even sets foot on the run course. It takes muscle to swim and bike. I guarantee that if you convinced Eliud to do an Ironman, he wouldn't bike well and, consequently, wouldn't run well either. He simply doesn't have the required muscle to pedal a bike that long and that hard. Here's the moral of the story: being a fit runner, cyclist, etc. alone doesn't necessarily guarantee success in mountaineering. It takes muscle to carry a heavy pack uphill for hours on end. Building strength in your legs, core and upper body will allow you to climb efficiently and will help you recover from long, hard efforts quickly, as well as improve balance and coordination.
For mountaineering, here are the exercises we want to focus on:
Take a look at this chart. This shows you how much weight to lift, and how many reps and sets for different types of training. We want to focus on Strength early in our training, and then Endurance later on. Training for strength mean high weight and low reps - you shouldn't physically be capable of doing more than about 6 reps, if you can, you aren't training with enough weight. You can add extra weight to any of the workouts I have listed above, some of them may just require a little creativity with bars, plates, or dumbbells. As often as possible, I recommend using free weight as opposed to machines. Free weights provide an additional balance component and train your body to use proper form and technique. Lifting free weights is much more applicable than machines to what you actually face in the real world. Some of your leg strength will come from hiking with your pack, but building strength in the gym first will give you a solid foundation upon which to build your more climb-specific fitness.
Aerobic workouts probably the most important type of workout for a long climb like Rainier, but the problem with doing only long, slow workouts is that it only lets you go long...slowly. We want a bit of speed for a climb like this. Of course that doesn't mean you'll need to sprint at any point on the climb, but there may be some sections where you'll need to move quickly, and at altitude, that can be a tall order. Think of it like gears on a car, if all of your training has been in 1st gear, what happens when you suddenly need, 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th gear? If you've never used those gears in training, how could you expect to use them for the first time at 12,000ft....at 3AM....in the dark?
To build these additional 'gears', we want to do interval training. These are short, hard spurts with rest in between each set. These can be done with almost any aerobic-type workout (running, cycling, hiking, etc.). Each set will consist of between 3-6minutes of hard effort, (~95% max HR, or 9 out of 10 on a difficulty scale), with an equal amount of rest (walking, jogging, etc.) in between each set. It's not an all-out 'everything you have' kinda sprint, but these should feel hard. If you're new to intervals, start with between 2-3 sets and work up to a maximum of 12 sets. Hill intervals (like turning the incline on the treadmill up) will work as well, the goal is to get the heart rate up near its max.
Anaerobic training has a number of crucial benefits for climbers: increase in cardiac output, strengthened connection between the muscles and the brain, and an increase in VO2max (the ability to absorb and use oxygen). It will make your normal aerobic pace seem even easier by comparison and help you breathe easier at high altitude.
I haven't yet touched on hiking as part of training for Rainier - and there's a reason for that - not everybody has access to good hiking trails. Many parts of the country are too flat for decent training hikes, or they are simply too far away to be a reliable training source. Of course hiking is probably the best way to train for a mountain like Rainier, but the important thing to note here is that it is certainly possible to be successful on Rainier with minimal to no hiking. To compensate for a lack of hiking trails, you can use a treadmill with the incline turned up, or you can do some box steps. If you choose box steps, set up in front of your TV with some Netflix going, otherwise the boredom factor can get pretty extreme.
If you do have access to good hiking trails, that's great, and they will certainly help get you in shape for the climb. I'd recommend doing a minimum of 1 hike per month, more if you're able. Start carrying a pack right away, but don't start with too much weight. Somewhere around 10-20% body weight to begin with and work up to around 30% or more. If you know your Rainier pack will weigh 40lbs., train with a max of 50-60lbs., this will make your Rainier pack feel light by comparison. Choose tough hikes that will challenge you - for those in the Seattle area, I recommend Mt. Si, Mailbox Peak (the old way), and Tiger Mountain (cable line trail). By the end of your training you should be able to ascend 1500-2000ft per hour with your maximum pack weight.
One of my 'favorite' hike workouts to do is to take a fully loaded pack and do a tough hike as fast as I can maintain (I've done Mailbox Peak in 2hrs to the top with 50lbs this way). These are hard workouts, but I've found them to be extraordinarily beneficial at promoting mountaineering fitness.
Rest is arguably the most important part of your training. Your body gets stronger when you recover from workouts, not when you actually do the workouts. Be sure to take a rest day each week, and if you feel flat during a workout, or if you find performance plateauing, take additional rest day. If you become sore after a weight session or hike, going for a walk or run will promote muscle recovery and is more effective for recovery than being sedentary.
6 Months out:
The goal at this stage is to build your aerobic engine and increase maximum strength, intervals are less important here. All of your weight training should be geared towards maximum strength. This is often referred to as the Base Phase.
Tuesday: Aerobic (45 min)
Wednesday: Weights - Strength (45 min)
Thursday: Aerobic (45 min)
Friday: Intervals (30 min)
Saturday: Aerobic (60 min)
Sunday: Weights - Strength (45 min)
3 Months out:
The goal at this stage is to take your foundation and build upon it with more climb-specific training. Begin to increase the duration of workouts, especially aerobic workouts. Try to do one long workout each week (ideally a hike). By this point all of your weight training should be geared towards endurance. This is often referred to as the Build Phase.
Tuesday: Aerobic (60 min)
Wednesday: Weights (Endurance) (45 min)
Thursday: Aerobic (60 min)
Friday: Intervals (45 min)
Saturday: Aerobic (2-3hrs)
Sunday: Intervals or Weights (Endurance) (45 min)
1 Months out:
The goal at this stage is to hone all of your training with more climb-specific and high-intensity workouts. Get in those extra intervals and some tough hikes. When you reach 1 week until the climb, taper by reducing workout volume (but not intensity!) to ensure you're fully rested and ready to climb! This is often referred to as the Peak Phase.
Tuesday: Aerobic (60+ min)
Wednesday: Intervals (45-60 min)
Thursday: Aerobic (60+ min)
Friday: Weights (Endurance) (45 min)
Saturday: Aerobic (2-5+hrs)
Sunday: Intervals (45-60 min)