Single track- can’t beat it for fun or fitness! Photo: Dave Silver Photography.
(editor’s note: Check out Zeb’s guide company blog and website for more details, especially if you’re interested in skiing or climbing Rainier or Shasta or Antarctica or anywhere really: Alpine Mountain Works. Zeb is currently guiding Mt. McKinley in Alaska)
I’m no fitness expert, but I’ve put in my share of long days in the mountains. While you can’t beat climbing to train for climbing (or whatever your preferred mountain sport it), there are ways to up your fitness without travelling to exotic mountain ranges. One of the best ways to increase fitness for climbing is interval training[i]. Interval training is the process of mixing high intensity bursts of exercise with low intensity rests in between. One of my favorite things to do is mountain biking, and it just so happens to be an amazing way to get some unstructured interval training.
Whether you are ski mountaineering or alpine climbing, getting to the top of high altitude peaks is a demanding sport that requires high output of strength, power and hours of endurance. The fitness needed to achieve these goals is hard to come by without actually getting out there and climbing.
Get out more, get more fit. Photo: freehubmag.com.
The good news is that it can be done. The better news is that mountain biking is a great way to do it. Here’s why:
1. Fun exercise is easier to do. Despite how hard mountain biking can be, the challenge of getting through a technical section without taking a foot off the pedals or maintaining speed out of a corner and through the flats is strong motivation to work hard. The objective is fun and the by-product is fitness! Fun training allows us to gain fitness without having to drag ourselves kicking and screaming to the gym. The thrill of rallying down a fast, windy, burmed single-track makes me shudder at the thought of grinding out a simulated hill climb on an indoor spinning cycle.
2. Mountain biking requires a variety of skills, movements and muscle groups. It combines balance, dynamic movement, and demand for fast reflexes with power, strength and stamina. The biggest muscle groups that bikers use are their quadriceps and hamstrings, but maneuvering a bike through rocky, steep terrain also involves strength and power from the arms and back. This perfectly matches the muscle groups that are required to haul packs and skis up mountaineering objectives.
3. Most importantly, mountain biking is organic interval training. You don’t need to change anything about it. As long as you choose a suitable trail, infused with sections of hard climbing and easier pedaling, you just have to ride it well to reap the fitness rewards.
Single track- can’t beat it for fun or fitness! Photo: nutsbike.com.
Interval training is like getting an immunization, it teaches the body to deal with a virus (lactic acid) without completely succumbing to it. Here’s how it works:
Hard work sends the body into an anaerobic state where the muscles produce lactic acid. The muscles are working so hard the body can’t keep up with their demand for oxygen and they have to rely on using glycogen to sustain the intense output of energy[ii]. You have reached this state when your level of output is not sustainable for long. Your breathing and heart rate continually increase and the type 1 fun (it’s fun as it’s happening) you were having starts becoming type 2 fun (it’s only fun when it’s over). Depending on your level of fitness and the trail you’re on, this might last a minute or less or continue for several minutes. When riding to develop fitness, try to choose trails that push your limits. To gain fitness you only need to push until you can no longer maintain your pace or your breathing becomes too labored[iii].
After you’ve worked through the difficult climbing, ride at a manageable pace to get oxygen back to your muscles. Now your body is back in aerobic mode and uses oxygen and carbohydrates to break down the lactic acid that were produced during the high intensity interval.
Joel Severy on a top secret trail somewhere in Lake Tahoe, CA Photo: Zeb Blais.
Fitness is developed as your body gets more efficient at getting rid of the lactic acid. Eventually, you will be able to perform stronger for longer, without throwing up or hurting badly.
The key to getting the most fitness benefit from a ride is choosing the right trail and riding partners. On trails with a good mix of sustained technical climbing and fast flowing single-tracks, riding automatically alternates between low level endurance training and high-intensity intervals. Pick trails that challenge you, but that you can ride through without having to walk your bike too much because you’re breathing too hard. Soon enough, you’ll develop the fitness to ride harder trails, get up those technical cruxes and ride more miles!
When picking a friend to ride with, choose a strong partner that will push your limits on days when you want increase fitness. You don’t need to always ride with someone that is hard to keep up with, but if you’re looking to gain mountain fitness you’ll get the most from trying to keep up with a racer versus dragging your hung-over housemate up the hill. Do this a couple times a week, throwing in a few slow, fun rides in between to keep it fun and not burn you out.
Train “funner” not harder!
As with any fitness program, make sure that you consult your physician before beginning a demanding exercise regimen. This is hard work for your heart!