We always communicate to our guests that reaching the summit is really the icing on the cake; make sure to enjoy all the layers. But being adequately prepared for a summit attempt is the difference between an unforgettable experience and one you’d rather forget (not to mention, much safer as well). The icing is delicious though!
In the following paragraphs, we’ll dive into four essential elements for a solid Aconcagua training routine, along with some suggested reading materials:


– What kind of aerobic training to focus on
– Strength training specific to mountaineering
– The importance of mobility exercises
– Psychological preparation tips

When people decide to tackle a marathon, they spend months training specifically for it. Similarly, bikers gearing up for an epic cross-country ride put in the miles beforehand. So, if you’re considering scaling a nearly 7,000-meter peak, it only makes sense to train accordingly, right?

Yet, in my 22 years of guiding on Mount Aconcagua, I’ve witnessed a surprising trend. Every year, climbers from across the globe and from all walks of life arrive in South America to take on this high-altitude challenge. Yet few adequately prepare. Many are undoubtedly fit individuals, but few have trained specifically for the unique demands of climbing uphill for 11 days on rocky terrain.

For most of my guests, Aconcagua marks their first venture into high altitude, aside from perhaps Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. While there’s little one can do to prepare for altitude itself, there’s much you can do to prime yourself physically and mentally for the hypoxic conditions you’ll encounter. This includes building a robust aerobic base for sustained hiking, strength training to power you up thousands of meters of elevation gain with a heavy pack, mobility work to ensure efficient muscle function, and simulating summit day with long, challenging hikes.

Mt. Aconcagua - Grajales Expeditions

AEROBIC BASE

AeT, Zone 2, aerobic threshold, nose-breathing, conversational pace, 2 mmol/L lactate level. These are all terms you’ll run into when trying to understand the most important concepts in endurance training. With three 8-hour treks and a grueling 14-hour summit day, it’s clear that building your aerobic base is paramount. At the very least, 80% of your aerobic exercise should be done at this intensity.

From the Training Peaks Website: “(Aerobic) Base training workouts are simple: go at a pace just below your aerobic threshold (conversational pace) … and hold it.” Sounds simple enough. Yet most people find that maintaining this pace is boring and very unsexy. If you’re going to train, train HARD! You should be covered in sweat and gasping for air. Wrong! That is the kind of training you do the other 20% of the time when you are NOT training near your aerobic threshold. Making this mistake will lead to fatigue, overtraining and a lack of aerobic endurance.

Aerobic training is time consuming and uneventful. It makes for boring Instagram reels. Sorry. And yet, on so many physiological levels, it is by far the best bang for your buck. For Aconcagua and for life. As its name implies, it is truly the base on which all your other exercise relies.

In addition, remember you are training to climb a mountain. So, this aerobic training should also be done with as much incline as possible. For those of you fortunate enough to have hills or mountains nearby try to add vertical meters as often as you can. Flatlanders and city-dwellers will have to make due with stair-master machines and treadmills that allow for 15 to 30 percent grades.

STRENGTH TRAINING

Going to the gym is a binary experience; either you love it or you hate it. Those in the latter group, however, will have to figure out a way to make it more palatable. Besides being an essential part of mountaineering prep, it is becoming more and more evident that lifting heavy weights has a long list of health benefits, especially for those of us over 45 years of age.

Mt. Aconcagua - Grajales Expeditions

The most important block of training, after learning proper technique, is called “max-strength” training. It involves lifting loads for 3-5 repetitions, for 3-5 sets at a challenging weight. The set should end with “one repetition in reserve” – that is, after doing your 3 to 5 repetitions you should feel like you could have done just one more lift, but you didn’t.

When we want our muscles to grow, hypertrophy training, we do sets “to failure” – until we can’t lift the weight anymore. However, max-strength work is about making the muscles stronger and more efficient without needing to add new muscle fibers that make us bigger.

There are two major categories of strength training exercises: compound and accessory. The first refers to movement patterns that include a variety of muscle groups and often involve 2 or three joints. Accessory exercises usually involve a more targeted muscle group. They require lesser loads and are most often added as auxiliary training to compound exercises to fix weaknesses, an imbalance or for extra stimulus to a specific body part.

The four main exercises I have found cover the largest amount of muscle groups and are the most useful for mountaineering are: the squat, hip thrusts, Romanian deadlifts and step-ups. If you add some tricep pull downs and several quality core exercises, you can design a very successful gym routine. Remember: learn proper technique (a few sessions with a personal trainer will pay dividends here), complete a proper adaptation phase, never increase the weight you lift more than 5-10% per week, push yourself but not to failure, find a balance between your strength work and your aerobic training and always allow for proper rest. You’ll be flying up those hills.

MOBILITY WORK

One of the best habits I have incorporated in the last few years, is adding a 15-minute mobility routine at the beginning of my training sessions. Jay Dicharry, in Running Rewired, does a fantastic job explaining why this kind of dynamic warm-up and balance work is so important. One of the main concepts he refers to are what he calls “unplugged” muscles. These are muscles that because of injury, badly learned reflexive movements or lack of use are inhibited so that they don’t fire properly. This in turn creates clumsy, inefficient movement that puts unneeded pressure on other muscle groups that must overcompensate in order to complete the task at hand. Mobility work prepares the nervous system and resets the muscles to allow for more uniform contraction and smoother movement. As Dicharry puts it, “this type of training targets muscle intelligence.”

I like to cycle between several mobility routines before doing strength work and another set of routines before doing aerobic exercise. Each routine should include movements for warm-up and others for balance and proprioception related to the workout you’re about to do.

Mt. Aconcagua - Grajales Expeditions

THE SUFFER BUFFER

There is one last topic I think worth touching on, even though it involves a word that no one likes to hear: suffering. You have done your homework. You’re aerobically fit, you’re strong and thanks to the mobility work you are moving efficiently and pain free. What else is there?

When I was in guiding school, our director always emphasized the importance of training our “agonística” (a word he invented) – our ability to endure challenging situations.

High altitude climbing can have an uninspiring list of challenges. Sleeping on an inflatable camping mattress is not the same as a cozy night on your favorite memory-foam mattress and a windy night in a tent is not as picturesque as it is from the comfort of a Swiss mountain hut.

That is why, my last piece of advice is to put yourself in tough, challenging situations, albeit artificially so that you create what we can call a suffer-buffer. Make sure to go out on several long, difficult hikes that last multiple days. Pull out your tent in the winter and camp in the snow during bad weather. Use your mountaineering boots on training walks to harden your feet against blisters. The more immune you are to hardship the better prepared you’ll be for whatever the Sentinel of Stone throws at you.

See you on the mountain!

By Ilan Zeimer. Lead guide at Grajales Expeditions with 22-years of guiding experience and 58 successful Aconcagua summits.
PH: Pablo Betancourt.

Further reading:

Training for the New Alpinism by Scott Johnston and Steve House – The bible of mountaineering training, the book goes in depth about training theory before moving on to give specific workout routines. After writing the book there was so much interest, that Scott and Steve started a coaching business called Uphill Athlete. Later, they split up and Steve kept the first business and Scott moved on to open Evoke Endurance. Both Websites are incredibly generous with free information in the form of blog posts and videos.
Uphill Athlete – Steve House Evoke
Endurance – Scott Johnston

Huberman Lab Podcast with Andy Galpin – Andrew Huberman’s longform podcast is full of fascinating, in-depth content on health and science. He is a very thorough interviewer that asks great questions. In January of 2023 he began a 6-part series with sports physiologist Andy Galpin. Andy makes even the hardest concepts easy to understand. They cover strength training, endurance protocols and even nutrition and supplements. It’s basically a free Master Class on every aspect of sports physiology.
Huberman Lab with Andy Galpin – episode 1
Andy Galpin’s YouTube Channel

Squat University – Aaron Horschig’s Youtube channel is replete with how-to videos on correct weight lifting techniques, mobility routines, injury prevention recommendations and post-injury exercises.
Squat University – squat warm up exercise

Running Rewired by Jay Dicharry – Although this is specifically a book on improving your running, I found that the mobility and correctional exercises Jay gives and the explanations he offers to be helpful for all aspects of physical preparation.
Performance Prep
Master Class

The Drive with Peter Attia – Another long-form podcast, this one is by the author of Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity. Peter is a prolific interviewer and content creator on everything to do with living a long and healthy life. His Instagram feed is full of useful exercises for strength, mobility and endurance.
The Drive Podcast
Peter Attia’s Instagram Account

Training Peaks – A platform for athletes and coaches that provides a sophisticated yet easy to use app for monitoring your training, an extensive selection of training plans for a long list of sports and a great blog full of informative articles. One of the founders, Dirk Friel, also hosts a podcast where he interviews coaches about all aspects of training and competition.
Training Peaks Blog
Training Peaks CoachCast

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