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How To Build Backcountry-Specific Endurance For Your Next Big Objective

Author: Sam Naney

August 22, 2016

Getting into the high country on your own power is satisfying in a totally unique way—you get to appreciate remote scenery that only a few ever experience. And setting the goal of a big objective can take you farther than you ever thought—especially with a little training. If you dream of going bigger in the mountains, whether it’s running, climbing or on skis, here are the basics for how to prepare your body.

Training for the backcountry is about building up the fundamental parts of your physical fitness to form what’s known as an endurance base, and then doing some specific tune-up training to make that base ready for the adventure you’ve chosen. Fundamentally, the goal is to make you ready for MORE than what you’ll likely encounter in the mountains; this way you’ll have a reserve of strength and fitness to bolster your confidence, and to draw upon if circumstances require it.

Placing technical skills aside (such as climbing-specific techniques or equipment usage; these skills should be developed in person with a trained and experienced instructor), your physical preparations for any mountain adventure require two fundamental components: aerobic fitness and strength. Within these core elements you can build in specificity of movement (such as hill climbing or ski practice) to hone in on your goal.

Below I’ll outline the basics of aerobic development and give you ideas on how to train for it—and next week I’ll follow up with training for strength. Like all fitness programs, these preparations are best done under the guidance of a coach who can monitor your progress and tailor the training to your individual goals and abilities.

The lynchpin to any successful pursuit lasting longer than three minutes is aerobic fitness. Essentially, this is your body’s ability to use oxygen to power the muscles to move farther and faster with the least amount of energy expended. Whether you’re a 1500-meter Olympic track runner or a professional climber on a Himalayan peak, the core principle and function is the same. But how do you build this system? There are three components to good aerobic training: frequency, duration, and intensity.

Frequency and duration go together, and are self-explanatory: you get better at something the more you do it. Aerobic training in particular benefits from frequent outings, done gradually over a longer and longer duration. In other words, if you begin your training with a 30-minute run every other day, to progress your fitness you should consider first adding more days of running, then increasing the duration of each run to build your overall total volume each week.

The third factor to consider in training aerobic fitness is intensity: how hard you go in your workouts. If you spend all your time training at a pace that leaves you mostly breathless and sputtering, unable to hold a conversation and speak in lengthy sentences, you’re going too hard and probably aren’t helping your aerobic system that much. This is because you’re demanding energy at too high a rate from your body, and it is therefore seeking it from more readily available sources like glycogen (sugars). In contrast, a well aerobically trained person will burn a higher proportion of fats, which have a much denser energy quantity, thus allowing you to go longer with less demand on the body.

To manage your intensity and to ensure that you’re staying in an aerobic zone during your training efforts, try the “nosebreathing” strategy: Any time you exercise, close your mouth and breathe only through your nose, in for a two-count and out for a two-count. Only go as fast as this breathing style will allow; you may likely find yourself walking more! The killer secret to this method is that if you stay honest with it and don’t cheat, over time you’ll find that you are going faster over the same terrain while still nosebreathing, which results in a greater economy: more work for less effort.

Here's my workout suggestion for building endurance. Even for winter adventures we’re often required to complete much of our training on foot during the dryland months, so this workout does well for both mountain climbs and ski trips.  Provided you can do this workout at least once per week, use the other training days to support your aerobic development with moderate-length runs or bike rides at that nosebreathing effort.

First, load a pack with 10 percent of your body weight in water-filled jugs (1 gallon = 8lbs). Now find a long (at least 3 miles) trail or road climb that has a good vertical grade (600-1000ft/mile is excellent). Examples in the Seattle area are Tiger Mountain (West Tiger #3 Main Trail and the Cable Line both work great) or Mt. Si.  Start your watch and head up the trail for exactly one hour, going only as fast as the nosebreathing effort will allow. Pour the water out at the top and jog/fast hike down. Repeat this workout every week and as you see your times get faster, you can add more weight (in 3- to 5-percent body-weight increments) and/or increase the total on-time. The goal is that by the date of your trip, you’re carrying a comparable load as you’ll have on the mountain, but traveling at a good rate with a low energy cost.

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Photo by Dan Patitucci.

Sam Naney

Sam Naney is an endurance coach and owner of Cascade Endurance, a coaching and events business based in the Pacific Northwest. After competing for a decade as a professional cross-country ski racer, Sam retired in 2014 and shifted his focus to coaching. He competes in trail running and marathon ski races, and regularly adventures in the mountains with his wife Alison, daughter Fiona and Siberian Husky Nikki.