First Ascent guide and newly announced South Col team member Melissa Arnot is famous in climbing circles for the intensity of her training regimen. Her hard work has led to three successful summits of Mt. Everest, the most of any Western woman. With the Everest season just around the corner and her focus trained on a fourth summit, Arnot shares valuable insight into how she builds strength for big peaks without burning out or losing focus on the objective. This is her advice on how to structure your own spring training. -EB Editor
Words by Melissa Arnot
When I type the word ‘training’ into the search of my email, almost 1,000 messages appear. Questions from clients and friends. Endless exchanges between my trainers and me.
Skimming through all the information, I have arrived at two realities. The first is that I am just an average athlete with average capabilities, which is important to understand so you can take what I say seriously. I am not physically elite in any way. Any of my past climbing partners can tell you that I am only average when it comes to speed and strength. My ability to catch a ball is embarrassing. But I do have reasonably good balance and great endurance; those are my strengths. The second reality is that climbing and mountaineering are a huge part of my life, so training is as much a part of my day as checking Facebook is part of yours. It is what I do, a deep part of who I am.
I know, I know, you want the goods. What exactly is it that I do for training? What would I recommend for beginning mountaineers? Well, before I tell you, remember my basic realities – if you also struggle to catch a ball, know that I am not responsible if you fall off the step mill at the gym!
With that out of the way, my advice is simple: complete fitness is important. That means good cardiovascular endurance paired with strength training and flexibility. Training by doing the activities that closely mimic what you are training for is the best way to get in shape, physically and mentally. Any cyclist who has ever taken a running day, and ended up a wreck of sore muscles the next day knows this.
So first things first: identify your goals, and try and understand from others (guides, friends, that Facebook thing) what challenges they present. If everyone says it’s being exhausted and cold at night, then you are going to need to try and get your brain and body prepared for that.
When I go on Himalayan expeditions, it’s like a giant reset button for my training. I go in as strong as I can, push myself on the trip, and slowly the altitude takes everything from me so that I return home a skinny heap of well-oxygenated tissue. Wash, rinse, repeat.
When I repeat, I start again as though I never trained at all and I can really see the difference in what I do. I have tried many, many programs and here is what I can say is true:
1. Pick an activity that you like. If you hate running and you choose to run for cardio training, you will hate training and likely not do it.
2. Select a timeframe for training that is reasonable and manageable. I typically train very hard for the 8 weeks preceding a climb. But remember, the fitness is a deep part of my life. If you plan six months of training, make sure you can handle that without burning out.
3. Variety! Have a plan to change things up frequently. On paper biking looked so good to you, but if in practice you hate it, don’t worry because next week you switch to running.
4. Lastly, be very flexible, and I don’t mean yoga. Be prepared to tweak the variables in your program to make it work for a changing schedule, motivation or environment.
I train for four to five days a week. I live in an area where I can strap on crampons in the winter and walk uphill, so that is my go-‐to activity (since it IS the activity I am training for). Three days a week I will get up before the sun does, grab my pack (the Alchemist 30 with a 50 pound weight vest stuffed inside) and spend an hour or so going uphill. I think it is very important for me to train with the weight walking downhill also. I know a lot of people save their knees by carrying water and dumping it for the walk downhill, but I have never been on a summit where I got to dump all my gear for the walk down.
However, I travel frequently and don’t always have that big ski hill to walk up. I’m not shy about finding trails, even if it takes snowshoes and spending that hour with a pack on.
In addition to that, I will train in the gym at least four days a week. I like to push the intensity on machines where the numbers help me measure my progress. I switch between sprinting, step-mill workouts, and getting comfortable and sweaty on the spin bike. Very high intensity intervals are my preference. I mix in four days a week of weight training, with a strong focus on my shoulders, back and central core.
Following this routine, or some variation of it, year after year, I have watched my fitness and endurance increase over time. And it’s fun to push myself and see what I can do and how that changes.
So, my simple advice to someone looking to train for a mountaineering trip is this: find balance. Increase your endurance. Suffer a little and realize that the suffering will end and the reward will be big. You don’t have to be a physically elite athlete. You don’t have to train for 4 hours a day. Immerse yourself in the journey and see what you can learn about your body and mind.
Enjoy it. This is the good stuff.
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