Two-time Everest summiteer shares training tips for long, strenuous climbs and other endurance activity
By Leif Whittaker
Before I learned about proper endurance training and started working as a coach for mountain athletes, I subscribed to the saying, “No pain, no gain.” In 2012, when I was preparing for my second ascent of Mt. Everest, my goal in the gym was to make getting out of bed the next morning an excruciating ordeal. I believed core workouts should leave me feeling like I needed an appendectomy and cardio efforts were ineffective unless I pushed myself to the point of puking. If workouts didn’t hurt, I wasn’t getting stronger.
After three months of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and Olympic-style weightlifting, my body started looking stronger than it ever had. I was living in Salt Lake City at the time and one reason I liked these workouts was that I could complete them in less than an hour and still have time to ride chairlifts at Snowbird or go to the bouldering gym, two activities that contributed little to the fitness profile I would need to summit Everest. Still, it felt like I was training extremely hard, much harder than I had for my first expedition to Everest.
Most of my workouts the first time were long hikes and slow jogs. I hiked local trails, sometimes unweighted and sometimes carrying a backpack full of books. I jogged around town and occasionally sprinted as fast as I could up a long set of outdoor stairs. I did push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups twice per week. I climbed volcanos in the Cascades and visited Colorado to hike at higher altitudes and ice climb in the winter.
Knowing what I know now about endurance physiology, it’s no surprise that I ended up performing better on the first expedition. I had extra gas in the tank during each phase of the ascent, which isn’t to say it was easy; it was the hardest thing I had ever done. But I never reached my true physical limit. Even on summit day, I charged up the final slope, pushing to a max heart rate just to see how it felt at over 29,000 feet. By contrast, my gas tank was often empty during my second expedition, and although I did reach the summit, I didn’t possess the fitness reserves to do anything beyond getting myself up and down alive.
Training for Everest is fundamentally the same process as training for Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier or any other similar peak. Climbing big mountains requires an athlete to sustain moderate energy outputs for days, weeks or months on end. It was foolish and shortsighted of me to think I could develop this type of fitness with 45-minute CrossFit workouts. Effective training, like the event itself, requires much more patience.
The foundation for endurance is your aerobic capacity. Moving the human body requires the contraction of muscles, and the energy for this contraction derives from two metabolic pathways: Aerobic and anaerobic. In a nutshell, aerobic metabolism depends on oxygen and fat to fuel long, sustained efforts, while anaerobic metabolism does not require oxygen and is fueled by glycolysis to produce short, high-intensity outputs. Both pathways can be trained, but they generally develop in inverse to each other. Training the aerobic pathway tends to diminish the anaerobic pathway, and vice versa, which is why you don’t see marathon runners built like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Improving aerobic capacity will benefit all types of endurance athletes and provide the physiological foundation for higher speed, power and intensity. Aerobic capacity supports your ability to kick past a competitor in the final lap of a race or bound up a mountainside with a heavy backpack. It also helps you recover quicker from workouts, even high-intensity ones.
The only sure-fire way to develop your aerobic capacity is to do a lot of low-intensity aerobic work, at or below your aerobic threshold. Tests and formulas can help you identify the exact heart rate for your aerobic threshold. The gist is that aerobic training must be done at what an athlete perceives to be an easy effort, where breathing is comfortable, and they could go much longer if required. The trick then becomes to add consistency and volume, meaning daily sessions of gradually increasing duration. Some of the top endurance athletes in the world log more than 20 hours per week of training, with 80-95 percent of that done at low or moderate intensities. There are no shortcuts; you simply must put in the time on the trails, streets, treadmill or stair machine.
Once an aerobic base has been laid, athletes can begin to add other key fitness components, such as max strength and muscular endurance. However, even in the later stages of a training plan, high-intensity work should be infrequent and always counterbalanced with easy aerobic sessions.
When I learned about these concepts from famed coach, Scott Johnston, it was a revelation to me. Workouts themselves were less painful and I hopped smoothly out of bed each morning, ready for more training. Best of all, I made significant gains while avoiding injury.
As a coach for mountain athletes of all abilities, I frequently push back against the idea that training should hurt. Cultural influences such as film and social media lead us to believe that exhausting workouts result in instant rewards. This may be true for a short time, but too much high-intensity training always leads to overtraining, burnout or injury. Because this type of training is so difficult, both physically and mentally, few people can maintain it long-term. Beyond that, doing burpees and 100-meter sprints simply isn’t going to help you climb for 12 straight hours on your summit day. The human body has an amazing ability to adapt, but it doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how hard you push it. The best athletes are those who, over the course of months and years, have consistently contributed to their fitness profiles, building themselves up with achievable incremental steps.
If you’re training for an upcoming summer climb or endurance event, I encourage you to start now and take a gradual approach. The best thing you can do also happens to be the most enjoyable: Get outside on a local trail and settle into a pace you can maintain the entire day; breathe the fresh alpine air and listen to the birdsongs; and if you happen to forget you are training, that means you’re probably doing it right. x
Leif Whittaker is a coach, author, speaker and former climbing ranger for the U.S. Forest Service on Mt. Baker. He is a founding member of Evoke Endurance. More about him and his coaching can be found at evokeendurance.com.