ACSM'S Health & Fitness Journal:
DEPARTMENTS: Fitness Focus
This copy-and-share column discusses mountain trekking and climbing.
Brad A. Roy, Ph.D., FACSM, FACHE, is an administrator/executive director at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. He is responsible for The Summit Medical Fitness Center, a 114,800–sq. ft. medical fitness center located in Kalispell, MT, and a number of other hospital departments. He is the editor of the Medical Fitness Association’s Standards and Guidelines for Medical Fitness Center Facilities and immediate past board chairman for the Medical Fitness Association.
Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest and does not have any financial disclosures.
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Periodically, it is good to break out of the normal exercise routine, and spring, summer, and early fall offer the perfect opportunity. Venturing into the mountains and other wilderness areas can be a refreshing and exhilarating change of pace, provided one has a good base of conditioning. Mountain trekking over varied terrain with elevation changes and the added weight of a day or overnight backpack frequently draws one’s attention to areas of the body that have not been conditioned well. It is not unusual to hear comments about sore muscles that “I didn’t even know I had!” However, with proper conditioning, you can enjoy challenging hiking and climbing treks with minimal discomfort.
Safe and enjoyable hiking and climbing require a solid cardiovascular base, and this should be the core of your conditioning program. Start with a light-to-moderate intensity walking program and progress to where you can handle 2 to 3 brisk walks of 30 to 60 minutes each week. Once you can comfortably handle the brisk walks, begin to gradually introduce varied terrain that incorporates walking up and down hills, stairs, and ambulating across uneven surfaces. Supplementing the walking program with other training devices such as elliptical trainers; bikes; and, for the more fit, even jogging/running will provide an additional challenge to the leg muscles and cardiovascular system.
Mountain hiking, scrambling, and rock climbing also require muscular strength and endurance to meet the challenge of carrying a pack over varying terrain, traveling up and down hills, and to better utilize the upper body for climbing. Additionally, strength conditioning can help minimize muscular soreness and discomfort that often is experienced after these invigorating outdoor adventures. Such soreness usually is associated with eccentric or negative muscular contractions where the muscle progressively lengthens against tension (e.g., quadriceps muscle activity when walking downhill).
Strength training is generally recommended 3 times per week, but benefits can be derived from 1 to 2 sessions per week. A circuit of 12 to 15 exercises that includes both upper and lower body muscle groups will stimulate an excellent base of conditioning, and those interested in basic rock climbing should include exercises that also strengthen the forearms and fingers. Resistance should be set at a level that allows for 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise, at approximately 75% of maximum. Begin with one set of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Although some people may choose to gradually build to 2 to 3 sets of each, research has shown that significant benefits are derived from a single set of each exercise. The focus should be on proper form, utilizing slow, controlled movement through the full range of motion. Because both hiking and climbing offer numerous eccentric movement challenges, slow lowering movements should be emphasized by taking 2 to 3 seconds to lift and 4 to 8 seconds to lower the resistance.
As conditioning improves and the weather allows for more outside activity, progressively increase the walking duration for 1 or 2 of your weekly walking sessions to 90 minutes. To begin the transition to outdoor trekking and climbing, gradually introduce a pack consisting of water bottles and other gear that adds up to approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of your body weight. Additionally, a circuit of exercises with the weighted pack will add variety to the conditioning program and simulate some of the challenges experienced on the trail. Activities such as stepping up and down a step or multiple steps, pushups, squats, and others can be part of a brisk outdoor walking circuit. Some fitness facilities offer climbing walls that provide additional conditioning and technique development for those interested in scrambling and basic rock climbing.
Changing your exercise routine and adventuring into the great outdoors can be refreshing, fun, and an exhilarating way to enjoy physical activity. However, proper conditioning is essential and should include activities that develop a strong cardiovascular base and muscular strength and endurance and promote balance and coordination. A personal trainer may be helpful in developing and monitoring an individualized conditioning program oriented toward mountain trekking and climbing.