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How to Train for Mountains When You’re Not in the Mountains

How to train for the mountains

We all have been there – passionate mountain runners, climbers, skiers, hikers and other members of the outdoors community for whatever reason having to spend too much time in our concrete jungles or some overly flat areas. Whether it might be due to work, relocation, family holiday or general life circumstances, sometimes one has to spend time away from inspiring peaks and elegant ridges.

Even though your wild outdoors soul will still be there with you regardless, your mountain body might slowly vanish... Grim-sounding future? Here are some ideas on how to  "slow/stop the rot."

These are all general ideas for general mountain fitness with some more specific examples for my personal favourites – mountain running and rock climbing. I will not be talking about training specifics, like the duration and intensity of training, as this is very individual to each person and their training stage and goals.

How to Train for Mountains if Not in the Mountains


1

Scenario: If you’re stuck in a hilly city

To begin with, let’s briefly discuss the conveniences hilly cities have to offer.

Road Cycling

Road cycling is an excellent way to build cardiovascular fitness and increase leg power. Whether you are a mountain runner or a skier, road cycling might be the best way to build powerful legs and increase endurance. In addition to hill climbs, you can also do sprints and tempo rides for threshold training

Road Running

Depending on how abundant and high the hills are, you can definitely do yourself lots of good by either incorporating as many hilly segments in your runs as possible, or just doing hill repeats. Depending what are your fitness goals, you can of course combine both. Hill repeats usually include series of fast runs up the hill with recovery runs downhill.

2

Scenario: Stuck in a city with no hills

Well that’s a bit worse, but believe me, there are options! Here is a list of some really useful tools to stay/get fit, while waiting to get up those peaks again.

Trainer or Stationary Bike

Turbo-trainer is just a device that allows you to ride your bike stationary with varying resistance, simulating hills. Here’s a good guide, if you’re new to them, where the usage is kindly referred to as “personalized pain cave.”

Fitting… But that should not discourage you, these workouts are very efficient, and allow you to target specific training needs. Global Cycling Network has a list of workouts for different purposes, where you can train with the GCN staff (elite and ex-elite road cyclists).

You can do these workouts either using a turbo-trainer, or any other stationary bike. If you have a heart rate monitor that makes a useful addition.

Treadmill

Set it on an incline and run/hike up. When running, make sure to watch your cadence, and keep it quick, as it is very easy to lose the benefit of uphill treadmill training by just jumping up instead of pushing forward. You can use weights/loaded bag for added effort, if you’re hiking.

Other Gym Equipment

Elliptical, stair-master, rowing machine are all other good options to explore. Elliptical is very low impact cardio machine, and is a very option if you’re prone to injury (or currently recovering from an injury). I spend at least an hour each day on one of them.

Yoga

Yoga is an exceptionally good way to maintain your strength, flexibility, balance and prevent/recover from any injuries. There are different types of yoga that will help you develop/focus on certain aspects of your body.

If you’re looking for a good stretch and a way to recover, check out Yin yoga, if you’re craving experiencing the dance-like flow movement, do Vinyasa yoga. If you’re keen to check out some of those delicious inversions, strengthening your core and upper body, do some more Hatha.

The beautiful thing about yoga is that you can do it anywhere, and there are so many flavours and approaches to its practice that whatever you choose, will probably choose the right thing for you.

Push-Ups

Push-ups are a surprisingly good way of build full body strength. There is also this 100 push up movement, if interested, that promises to bring you up to any level to 100 push-ups in 7 weeks that you can look up.

Swimming

Swimming is excellent cardio training, and a great way not only to strengthen your upper body, but also your core and legs. The best part is that swimming does not have any effect on your joints, and is a safe way to train without injuring yourself. Most cities have indoor pools that are a good choice. If you want a more adventurous and a bit more challenging alternative, try open water swimming.

It is advisable to be a strong swimmer for open-water swimming and know the swimming spot really well for there not to be any dangerous currents, boat traffic or pollution. Finally, depending on where you live, you might have to get a wet-/drysuit. I find that open water swimming requires more power and a stronger core, as you need to tackle waves and wind.

Stairs

Here is an idea for you, go for a hike inside the tallest building you have in your city. Load your pack with water-bottles, books or actual mountaineering gear, and proudly build your fitness. Depending on your weight and level of fitness, add 5-25kg in your bag, and don’t forget those heavy mountaineering boots.

Rock-Climbing Specific Training

Rock climbing is unfortunately one of the sports that suffer severely from lack of access to climbing. I personally feel weaker even if I skip a week of climbing. Your grip is usually the first one to go, soon followed be a weakening upper body and core. I personally do a lot of yoga and swimming, when I do not have access to climbing, along with some grip-strengthening workouts on my hang-board.

Body weight exercises like TRX exercises are a good way to attempt to maintain your climbing form; here are some tips from a Black Diamond athlete. If you do not have access to a proper TRX set-up, you can simply use a band for some of the exercises.

Fingerboard is a good way to strengthen your grip. Here is an instruction for an example workout. Something to note about using fingerboard though, is that if you are not climbing a lot or are a beginner climber, doing too much on the fingerboard might lead to injuries that might take months to heal. So please, take caution.

BUILDering and urban climbing. When the levels of frustration get too high, it is time to get creative. Here is an excellent example of a dedicated climber doing something referred to as buildering – bouldering buildings.

Finally, even a simple dead hang can work if there are no other options, especially, when combined with some pull-ups and core-strengthening exercises, like leg-swings.

Finally, for some inspiration, watch this video about the Wide-Boyz.

3

Mountain-running-specific training

Even, when not in mountains you should adhere to the same strategy of training, trying to have components of endurance, threshold, VO2 max and strength training in your workouts. In addition to many types of activities mentioned above, like the uphill treadmill and turbo-trainer, here are some additional ways to simulate the uphill and downhill components of your mountain running.

Running Stairs

Running up stairs in varying levels of intensity is a good way to simulate an uphill running workout. Try switching skipping every 1-2-3 steps and vary your feet placement to make it similar to running actual trails. Depending if it’s an endurance, threshold or VO2 max training, alternate the intensity and duration of the workout.

Quick descents on stairs make you develop strong quads, feet placement and fast leg speed – all necessary for fast descents on trails. Approach it with caution though, as you don’t want to roll down a flight of stairs. My tip – do not wear noise-cancelling headphones when running downstairs (!).

Don't push it too hard on stair descents, if your legs feel tired.

Pulling an Object

Pulling something like a tire, while running/walking is a good way to simulate an uphill run, as you have to lean in forward and use your arms more, which is similar to uphill running. 30-60min of object pulling could be a useful addition to your training.

Strength Training

Strength training is a good idea for any trail runner, especially for someone, who does not have access to mountains and hills. One leg squats, lunges and walking lunges (3 sets of at least 15-25 each) is a good addition to your training routine. Here is a summary of a short leg strength training session.

Some More Creative Ways

Some people, when deprived from hills, run parking garages, bridges and any inclines they can find. If you are lucky to have any hill in some proximity to you, do lots of repetitions, and that should help you get ready for the mountain running. Running at the beach in sand or through deep snow could also add an extra layer of difficulty, when wanting to train your mountain-running lungs and legs. Perseverance is something you will get rewarded for.

Psychology of Being Away from the Mountains

Often the hardest challenge to meet is not finding physical exercises to match your outdoor activities, but more to find the motivation and enjoyment in the changed landscapes. I personally don’t even feel fatigue for at least the first 20km of my mountain runs, but once at a stadium, I count each kilometre with pain and patience. Not to mention if I have to run on a treadmill...

So in addition to your body training schedule, you should train your mind and make a strategy to find reasons to train.

Find inspiration in reading about other people’s pursuits, watching numerous beautiful outdoors movies available these days, and interviews, blogs of your favourite athletes. Try to find like-minded individuals, feed on each other’s inspiration. If you’re a runner, sign up for races, start planning your next running retreat. If you’re a climber, make plans about the areas you will be climbing in. Small reminders and nudges in your daily life can make a big difference.

What is my personal training, not in the mountains?

For me mountain sports and sports in general has always been the way to relax and unwind, and even though I now started running competitively, I do not want that to change. Hence I do not have a very strict training plan and try to train intuitively a lot. What I do care and focus a lot on is the level and duration of effort.

An example of my daily training regime

  • 1-2 hours (easy) of either swimming, road-cycling, road running, elliptical or treadmill (often I combine a few of these) combined with 30-45 minutes of resistance workout on turbo-trainer, high incline treadmill (10-15%), pulling an object or running intervals.
  • Flexibility and stretching and/or yoga for at least 45 minutes
  • Specific strength exercises for upper and lower body: aided pull-ups, dips, TRX, lunges, jumps with weights, etc.

I make sure that each day I get a certain level of cardio training, and always include at least 3-4 days of extended endurance workouts and some max-effort drills. I then supplement that with muscle-group specific exercises – mainly for my core and hips, and finally – stretching.

I do a lot of yoga, and I think it’s a very important part of my training (also super fun and relaxing); it allows me to balance out my body, train sets of muscles at the same time, increase flexibility and help me recover.

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About the author

Kristina Aluzaite

Kristina is an experienced and passionate mountain runner, climber, skier, yogi and a nature lover, currently traveling across the globe and training for the World Skyrunning Series. Follow her adventures and progress on her blog Mountain Hat and instagram: @kristinaaluzaite

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