Climbing Denali is a serious undertaking! So your program training to climb Denali must also be a serious undertaking. There are some mountains you should consider before evening thinking of stepping foot on Denali. Check out our upcoming trips.
The Great One
For centuries, Alaskans have known this majestic mountain as the ‘Great One’. The rigors of a 3-week expedition to high altitude require a lot of effort from its team members. Not only does being fit make the experience a lot more enjoyable, it is practically a prerequisite for expedition mountaineering and can make or break the climb.
Besides spending long hours travelling the glacier and gaining altitude while carrying a heavy pack and pulling a sled, it is hard work setting up camp, shoveling tent platforms, and building snow walls. The more physically prepared you are for this workload; the better becomes your chance of success on the mountain.
Step By Step Approach to Denali Training
Step 1: Get a Vo2 mas Test
It is important to do a fitness test to understand your starting point and establish your specific Heart Rates training zones. The bulk of your training should be in zone 2 slow moving toward zone 3 training over time. Interval training should be added in later in your training. Read more.
Step 2: Understand Heart Rate Training
It is important to build a very strong endurance base to have the correct physical condition for climbing Denali. This means you have to be training in very specific and targeted heart rate training zones. Read more.
Step 3: Understand the Specific Terrain
Every trip is different. Some trips are all stairs, others are trail. The full Denali expedition is on challenging glacier terrain with steep and challenging conditions while climbing. Denali is challenging from start to finish. Denali From base to summit rises nearly 18,000 feet. We land at 6,000 feet and climb to 20,310 feet at a northern latitude of 63 degrees, it is the most northerly of any big mountain over 20,000 feet.
Step 4: Understand Elevation Gains & hours
Distances are not important on Denali. What is important to understand is the elevation gains along with the amount about of hours you will exercising on a daily basis. Everything is judged in hours. From Denali Base Camp to the summit, we climb 13,000 vertical feet, that’s more vertical gain than Mount Everest. Each day has 500m/ 1,640 feet of elevation gain to 1,000m/ 3,300 feet so you need to comfortable doing these types of elevation gains on a daily basis in your training with weight.
Step 5: Hill Training
Walking up and down steep hills of similar elevation gain to Denali with weight in your backpack is a critical part of the training. If you will be carrying 50lbs on some of the days on Denali you need to slowly build up to carrying this weight. I highly recommend reviewing each piece of kit to make sure you are not over packing and bringing the lightest weight gear available.
Step 6: Gym Training
In my opinion you should be training like an athlete, managing diet and showing up on the side of Denali light, lean and strong. It is important to supplement longer hikes with daily gym training sessions, building the correct overall body and leg strength. Endurance and strength training will be core of that Denali training. Read more.
Step 7: Train for the Downhill
Most people are not doing enough downhill training and building the correct stability, core and leg strength for for moving down steep trail and down steep stairs. Make sure you make time for specific weight training needed for the downhill. Read more.
How Long Should you be Training
Obviously you will have previous training and experience before Denali. The training program we describe here is designed to get you fit and strong within a six-month period. This assumes that you already have a basic level of fitness (you should be used to about 10-14 hours of exercise per week), some prior mountaineering experience, and have done long hikes with heavy boots and a pack.
The program is based on the concept of progression, which means increasing the length and also intensity for your workouts gradually and systematically to adapt your body to higher and higher effort levels, preparing you for 8 to 12 hour days on the mountain.
To achieve this adaptation, both specific (simulating the climbing on Denali) and non-specific (general endurance work-outs such as running, biking, cross-country skiing) training methods are used. Our structured training program is split up into macro-cycles of 1-month sections incorporating workouts of endurance, intensity, conditioning, and rest.
You’ll need to adjust the program to work for your level of fitness, your schedule, and your training environment. Check with your personal physician and start with getting a fitness test or vo2 max test to establish your heart rate training zones.
Aerobic fitness is gained by working out in a zone 2 heart rate (about 65%) for longer than 45 minutes. We recommend building up to 2 hour per day. The intensity level should be such that you can carry on a conversation, but are breaking a sweat.
Hiking, running, up hill cycling, cross-country skiing are all good ways of building endurance. You’ll spend most of your time on these. One longer training session per week, should be followed by a rest day. Then daily training sessions should be focused on endurance and strength. If your daily training sessions are in the gym, I personally think the stair master with a weighted backpack is the best way to build strength and endurance for up hill travel. You also need a weight training plan and plan for training for the downhill.
70% of your training should be focused on endurance with your heart rate at 65% to 75% of max. Trying to keep a consistent heart rate in zone 2 why carrying weight is critical while training for Denali. The other 30% should focus on strength training.
Now your breathing hard! Think about climbing a steep section of the glacier with a heavy pack in deep snow… You’ll work up to doing these workouts later in the schedule.
Conditioning or strength training is an important part of your preparation! Your goal is to be light, lean and strong for a Denali expedition. A strong body, especially a strong core, is necessary for all sorts of things, such as carrying a heavy pack, building camp, and carrying your loads back down the mountain.
It also is a key element in preventing injuries and keeping your body balanced. This conditioning can be achieved in a variety of ways, choose what works best for you: cross-fit, yoga, Pilates and strength training in the gym. You should be adding 3 strength training workouts per week to your endurance training sessions.
Take Some Rest
You need to build in a rest day each week and make sure you have an easier training week every 4 weeks. This rest week of training is to allow for physical and mental recovery before the next block. Don’t skip these! The body needs this time to adapt to the progressively harder workouts.
Six Months Before the Climb
Focus on increasing aerobic capacity with endurance training and getting a conditioning program started. Plan to spend about 6 hours per week doing general endurance training (outdoors or indoors, hike trails, run, bike, swim, ski, stair-master, etc.) with workouts lasting 1 hour and one longer one lasting up to 3 hours of easy pace, and workout (45 min long) of conditioning (choose your own).
You should have 2 rest days per week. At the end of the month, take 4-5 days completely off from your training, which will give you a good time to recharge mentally and physically.
Five Months Before the Climb
Focus on increasing the length on your endurance workouts. Spend 8 hours per week doing general endurance training with weighted backpack, starting to focus more on hiking / running / snowshoeing if possible and less on other exercises such as biking.
Work up to a 1 hour 30 minute workout in zone 2 per day. Make sure you are adding in 2 maybe 3 specific weight training sessions per week. Take 2 rest days per week and 3 days completely off at the end of the month.
Four Months Before the Climb
Focus on all-around improvement. “creating a foundation for the serious training block coming up. Spend 8-10 hours per week on endurance training (again, try to incorporate specific training: hiking, running, 30% incline treadmill, stair master). Add more weight to your backpack.
start to add interval training into your routine. This work-out should be 30 minutes of higher intensity training (heart rate 80% of max) this could be for example running on hilly trails, hiking a steep mountain trail, a faster bike ride, spin class or intervals on a track. Be sure to warm up and cool down for this workout.
Two of your endurance workouts should be up to 2 hours long. Keep with your conditioning routine. Be disciplined and take 1 rest day per week. Take 3 days completely off at the end of the month. And take a deep breath“ now we’re getting serious!
The Final 3 Months of Training
Focus on specific training. Try to train with your pack loaded with increasing weight. I normally add 5kg/10 or 11lbs of weight to my backpack each month leading up to the trip. Try to get out on steep trails for your hikes. Try and get in 1,000m/ 3,300m of elevation gain. If you can’t get out to do the specific training, do stair master workouts or something similar. Do 2 sessions of conditioning per week. One workout with 30-40 min of higher intensity integrated in it is preparing you for harder efforts on the mountain.
2 Months pre-trip – Focus on longer workouts. By increasing the length of your workouts you are getting ready for the long days on Denali. Try to do one long workout per week, a hilly hike up and down would be best and the pace shouldn’t be too hard. Keep with your 2-session conditioning routine. Also keep your once-a-week intensity workout. Rest and relax at the end of the month.
1 Month pre-trip – Focus on adding intensity. This is the final 4 weeks of preparation. Your base fitness should continue to get stronger. Adding one harder workout (a second intensity session) will give you the ability to withstand fatigue better once you get to the mountain. Keep with your conditioning routine.
Increase the effort in your sessions, trying to maintain consistent heart rates for longer duration. Do as much specific training as possible in your endurance and intensity workouts. At the end of the 4 weeks make sure you have several days of complete rest and recovery. Easy stretching or yoga would be great for this time. It’s important to come to the expedition ready and relaxed. You want to be well rested and chomping at the bit to get going.
How to Customize This Program
Of course everyone has a different body, a different work schedule, and a different terrain to train on. For this reason you must make adjustments to your own personal training plan. Make it work within your possibilities. Switch the training days around if necessary.
If you don’t have any mountains to climb nearby, try to at least hike outside on stairs or up and down buildings. If you are city bound the Stair-master workouts with weight will be your best bet. Climbing flights of a high-rise building, and 30% incline treadmill with a a weighted backpack will be important.
Find some hilly trails nearby and occasionally try to do longer climbs in the mountains. It maybe dark when you come home from work, try an indoor routine and get outside on the weekends. Be creative.
A Bit of General Advise
A 6-month training program can seem long and daunting. Don’t get overwhelmed instead, take it day by day. If you fall behind, don’t try to catch up by taking short cuts adjust your progression to what is manageable for you.
Also, don’t increase your workload too fast, you’ll risk getting injured or too tired. Listen to your body! If you’re sore every day you’re training too hard. Check your resting heart rate daily when you wake up, if your heart rate is elevated go for an easier work out that day.
Find partners to do your workouts with, it’s more fun and keeps you honest. If you develop an injury, back off right away don’t let it get bad. Adjust your workouts and see a doctor or personal trainer.
Nutrition and Hydration
It’s important to develop good eating and drinking habits when you exercise frequently. Remember that this is what fuels your body! On long workout days (more than 1 HR), bring snacks with you (e.g. gels, bars, dried fruit, etc.) and drink water often.
Drink several quarts of water a day if you sweat a lot. Replace your lost electrolytes after exercise, it will help you recover faster. Dehydration is hard on your body try to avoid it.
A Final Word
Besides being physically fit, an expedition takes a lot of preparation. You should train with all your gear (including your pack, your mountaineering clothes, boots, harness, personal gear, and so on). You should also mentally prepare, an expedition is always an adventure and the altitude, the weather, and the glacial environment can be very taxing at times. Be ready for the unexpected!
If you have questions about the training to climb Denali, please contact us. If you would like a custom-tailored training plan to get you ready for the big mountain, contact us and we can set you up with your personal Denali trainer. We also have training courses in Scotland and Colorado if you are looking to add more technical training.