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Mountaineering Training: Muscular Endurance For Steep Slopes

Did you know that climbing Kilimanjaro involves taking an impressive 180,000 to 245,000 steps on average to reach the summit?

Regardless whether you're climbing Kilimanjaro, Denali or doing the Inca Trail - the game is the same... step, after step, after step.

So, if you're planning to do a high-altitude trek or expedition, it's essential to incorporate training your lower body, dedicating at least 20% of your weekly training hours to this aspect.

In my book, I emphasise the importance of Leg & Glute Strength as the second physiological system of "The 5 Crucial Cardiovascular & Muscular Systems" which are specific to high-altitude mountaineering. By training your legs and glutes in a way that's tailored to mountain conditions, you'll enhance your muscular endurance, allowing you to power through long climbs, steep ascents, descents, and navigate rugged terrain with ease and without fatigue.

So, let's delve into the three practical tips to boost your Leg & Glute muscular endurance and make conquering those 245,000 steps (or more) a breeze:

mountaineering training plan

To enhance muscular endurance effectively, it's essential to progressively increase the load or stimulus while maintaining a deliberate and controlled pace throughout each repetition. For instance, when you're doing squats, aim for a slow and controlled descent over a count of 4, followed by an equally slow 4-count ascent.

Here's why this approach is beneficial: By adopting a slower pace, you primarily engage your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are key players in developing muscular endurance. Conversely, fast and explosive movements predominantly recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are not directly involved in improving endurance. Slow and steady when's the race here.

Tip: Take your muscular endurance a step further by training with lighter weights and progressively increase the resistance as your strength improves. Aim for higher repetitions (20 to 25 reps), and keep rest periods short (30 seconds) between sets.

Step-ups are an exceptional functional exercise that closely replicate the movements encountered during treks or expeditions. For a more comprehensive simulation of the uneven steps and diverse terrains you'll face, it's essential to incorporate the following variations:

  • Height of the step: Vary the step height between mid-shin and mid-thigh levels. This range will better simulate the diverse elevations and obstacles you'll encounter, enhancing your adaptability and strength.

  • Landing foot position: Step up onto various spots, not always directly in front of you. Trekking and climbing demand versatility, so practicing stepping onto different positions will improve your stability and coordination.

  • Include lateral step-ups: Emulate the French Technique, Piolet Ramasse, by turning your body so that your shoulder is perpendicular to the step and then step up sideways. This movement effectively prepares you for ascending steep slopes, offering a practical training experience.

  • Foot weight distribution: Experiment with stepping up using only the ball of your foot or solely on your heel. In real-life situations, you won't always have the luxury of placing your entire foot on a step, so embracing the instability of using only a small portion of your foot will refine your balance and control.

Everybody is so busy focusing on the big muscles that they forget their calves play an equal role in each step they take. Your calf muscles are CONSTANTLY engaged during uphill climbs, giving you the power and stability that you need to ascend steep slopes. By focusing on calf-specific endurance exercises you can improve your muscular endurance and overall ability to continuously ascend steep slopes without tiring. Here are 3 of my favourite calf exercises:

  • Calf raises (preferably unilaterally)

  • Farmer's Walk

  • Isometric calf raise

Apply the same training progression techniques from point one and you'll be amazed at how much faster and further you can go.

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