As the first American to summit the world’s 14 highest peaks without supplemental oxygen, Ed Viesturs knows a thing or two about training for big trips. From Everest to Annapurna, Viesturs has reached the pinnacle of each of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks due to focus, fitness and determination as well as an extremely calculated approach to making smart decisions at the highest altitudes. His outlook and accomplishments have earned him book deals, speaking engagements and the universal respect of the worldwide mountaineering community. So when Ed speaks, we listen.In his most recent entry for the Live Your Adventure blog, Ed shares his tips for training for your next personal summit. -LYA Editor
I’m often asked how I train and get ready for a big trip. For me, a “big trip” usually means climbing an 8,000-meter peak or some other long, cold, high altitude climb. An event like that typically lasts for many weeks, sometimes months, and I try to prep myself for that event both physically and mentally. I’ve always felt that mind and body go hand in hand during these big “endurance fests.” It will be cold, the days will be long, meals will be sporadic and most likely marginal, my body will hurt, my mind will long for the comforts of home, and at some point I may question why I really like doing it. No matter what your next adventure is, giving yourself plenty of time to prepare is the key. If anything, be humble and underestimate your strengths and overestimate the difficulties ahead. Over prepare. That will set you up with the right attitude for what’s ahead.
Regardless of where you are going or what your adventure will be, doing your “homework” beforehand will not only make the trip more enjoyable, but likely more successful, and, most importantly, safer as well. Being strong, having endurance, and having your mind and body ready to deal with hardship will be essential.
For me, doing my homework means that I want to train my body for strength and endurance, and train my mind to be ready to suffer a bit. Any summit worth gaining in the mountains, or any difficult physical objective, usually requires paying “the currency of toil.” On any long adventure, I never want to assume that I’ll get stronger and fitter during the trip. It might be possible, but typically it’s not the case—especially when climbing at altitude. So, my attitude is to be totally ready when the adventure starts.
I usually know many months in advance what my next climb will be, so I use that to my advantage and I start getting ready right away. The mountain I’ll be climbing months in the future becomes my “carrot”—the driving force and motivation that inspires me to go out and train every day. A lot of people try to train and get fit, but without a tangible goal, they often don’t have the inspiration to keep at it for very long. Having a goal in your future can be very motivating, and I tell folks that are trying to lose weight or get in shape to pick some sort of goal—a 10K run, a mountain to climb, a 3-day hike next summer. Something to set their sights on that gets them into the gym or out running.
I won’t give a specific training regime here because everyone will have different objectives, but I’ll give some idea about what I do. For big 8,000-meter peak climbs my cardio and endurance training consists of road or trail running (about an hour each session) or road biking for 2 to 3 hours, 5 to 6 days a week, as my schedule allows. I also go on steep hikes carrying 50 pounds of concrete in my pack. All of this training builds my endurance base and I do this whenever I’m not on an expedition, as it has become part of my daily routine. If you don’t live in a place were you can run, bike or hike, be creative—treadmills, stair masters, stationary bikes, even climbing the stairs in your office building wearing a pack works.
Regardless, it’s important to mix up your routine to keep things interesting and to keep you motivated. Mixing things up also works different muscle combinations in different ways and sets you up for a variety of movements out in the field. If you start your training regime early enough prior to your trip, don’t worry about missing a few days here and there. The days you do train will add up and outweigh the days that you miss. I usually try to maintain a fairly constant degree of intensity throughout, and don’t try to “amp it up” just before the trip. That’s a good way to get injured.
For general body strength and fitness I lift weights and do exercises in the gym, focusing on functional exercises or movements that mimic what I’ll be doing as I climb a mountain. A trainer once saw me sitting at a machine doing bicep curls. The rest of my body was immobile and I was just isolating my biceps. He asked me, “Where in real life or in climbing a mountain do you isolate just your biceps muscle?” I couldn’t think of anyplace where that happened. The next thing he had me doing was squats, while also doing curls, while balancing on a half rubber ball. That not only worked my biceps, but also my quads and core as well, and was way more functional.
I typically would go to the gym three times a week, and I’d suggest hiring a personal trainer to at least set you up with some sort of routine. Tell him/her what your objective is and they can create a functional set of exercises for you to follow. A trainer breathing down your neck as you do reps can push you a lot harder than you can push yourself. It’s worth it. My trainer always wanted me to simulate something harder in the gym than I would actually experience in the mountains. For instance, when I did the Stairmaster, which I would do for an hour, my trainer would have me wear an 80-pound pack. I rarely carry an 80-pound pack in the mountains, but by getting my body used to 80 pounds, the thinking was that a 60-pound pack during a climb would then feel easy!
Does training at altitude help for climbing big mountains? A lot of folks say they live at sea level and don’t think they can actually train well there for a climb and be acclimatized to altitude. I’ve lived in Seattle for over 30 years, basically at sea level, and have climbed many big mountains. You usually have plenty of time built into a climb to get acclimatized either during the trek in or while carrying loads during the early stages of the climb. Everyone, even me, needs time to acclimatize, and I’ve always thought that by living at sea level, you can actually train harder, simply because there’s more oxygen. So, don’t move to Leadville, Colorado just because you want to be a good mountain climber.
Mental preparation is just as important as physical preparation. I always try to visualize what I’ll be doing and prepare mentally for being uncomfortable for a long time. Many hard objectives and adventures require a bit of suffering during the preparation and also during the actual event. But that’s what makes these accomplishments so rewarding. I’ve been with many people in the mountains that gave up because it was “too hard.” To me it’s never been a surprise that it was hard. That’s what I signed up for! I’ve always felt that the more you put into something, the more you get out of it.
On a long, hard trip, be ready to be hungry, to be tired, to be uncomfortable, to be too cold or too hot, to be thirsty, and to hurt physically in some way. In everyday life we are not used to those feelings, and if we do experience them we can easily alleviate these feelings by eating, resting, drinking or whatever. Out in the boonies these feelings become part of your daily experience, so deal with them.
Another way to prepare mentally is to “know” your objective. When I plan on climbing a particular mountain, I try to get to know it. What’s the history of its exploration, its geography, the typical weather patterns, the best time of year to be there, the local culture, what have others experienced there, and what’s gone right or gone wrong. Get a “visual idea” of your objective by looking at photos and maps so that when you’re finally there, it’s familiar in some way.
I am often asked what’s more important for success—your body or your mind? In my opinion both are equally important and they go hand in hand.
You can be very strong physically, but if you’re not mentally tough or willing to push yourself through some pain and discomfort, you’ll probably give up no matter how strong you are. I think the key is to be sure that whatever you are doing, it’s something that you want to do for yourself, not something you’re doing to impress someone else or to make some sort of statement. Being completely passionate about what you are undertaking is essential.
Similarly, you can be tough as nails mentally, but your body has to be strong enough to be driven by that mind. A huge amount of willpower can’t force a body along if it’s not capable of something physically difficult. No matter how much you want to get to a summit, you have to be able to actually take all those steps to get there.
So to prepare for your next big thing, train your body and your mind. Enjoy the “homework.” Once you get out there you’ll be able to see the result of all that preparation. It will be worth it once you’re standing on the top of “your own mountain.”
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare and maintain a solid level of intensity. Over prepare. Start yesterday.
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