Why Specificity in Training Matters for Serious Trekkers and Mountaineers
One of the most common responses I hear when I tell others about both Backcountry Fitness and my own training regiment is, "Why do you need to train for that? Can't you just be fit?", or, "Isn't the best way to train for hiking to hike?" These are legitimate questions, with some real truth behind them. However, the reasoning behind specificity training dives much deeper that you might think.
First off, the "can't you just be fit?" argument. There is no doubt that for many people, just being fit will get them plenty far in their outdoor adventures. A basic level of fitness could get a novice hiker through a moderate backpacking trip, or up an easier 14,000 footer. In addition, I fully agree that some hikers' typical jaunts, such as three, four mile outings over easy terrain, warrant only that they are healthy enough to walk. For the purposes of this argument, I am focusing on moderately to extremely fit hikers, trekkers, mountaineers and alpinists who are taking on challenges that would push them past their comfort zone. For some, this might be a single day, 15 mile hike. For others, it could be a month long expedition on Denali. In either situation, it is possible to succeed with just a basic level of fitness, as the argument goes. Success without specific training, however, doesn't immediately disqualify the need for the training itself.
I relate this thought to a marathon. Take into consideration that there is a huge difference between "finishing" a marathon and "competing" in a marathon, just like there is a difference between a casual hiker and a serious mountaineer. Both scale mountains, both enjoy being outdoors, one is not virtuously "better" than the other. However, you cannot prepare the same way for casual hikes versus serious expeditions, just as the sub 3 hour marathoner does not have the same running program as a basic participant. The sub 3 hour marathoner trains with specificity, focus, and progression, just as the serious mountaineer should.
In addition, even the casual marathoner risks acute and chronic injury and decreased success rates when not having prepared for their race. Similarly, while the casual trekker may not need a six day a week expedition training program, adding specific exercises and movements to their weekly regiment can have a number of benefits. For those hikers, think of these points....
How much did I enjoy that?
You made it to the top, congrats! How was the actual experience, though? Did you get to enjoy the challenge and the views, or were you keeled over every 50 meters trying to catch your breath? Did you feel like you were just pushed past your comfort zone and accomplished something, or did you feel like your comfort zone ended way too early, and you should have done that with more confidence?
What was my risk of injury?
Everyone will get lucky, and everyone will definitely get unlucky. A single trek doesn't truly exemplify your risk of injury, because anything can happen. However, over the course of a long list of adventures, what is your risk of getting hurt? Do you feel solid on the trail, or do you constantly feel your knees or ankles buckling at the wrong time, or back pain coming and going? While general fitness can get your body from one place to another, it does not guarantee that you're at less risk of injury. Specific stability training, unilateral movements and multi planar exercises are needed to reduce your long term risk of injury from rolled joints or chronic problems due to imbalanced, weak muscles. Again, anyone can get away with a handful of hikes and claim to be bulletproof. It's the "lifetime health" within your sport that really needs to be taken into consideration.
Could I have gone further?
Last year my fiance and I spent a long weekend hiking and canyoning in Zion National Park in Utah. We descended the Subway, hiked the Rim, and, of course, walked through the Narrows, one of the most popular canyon river trails. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people crowded the first two miles of the trail. Once we got about an hour in, though, there were less and less hikers, and after an hour and a half there came a giant boulder which had to be climbed, and we, the only ones who were able to scramble up and over, were left to explore the canyon completely alone. We were able to do this because both of us came into the trip specifically prepared for long treks and physical canyoning, and we were rewarded with silence and our own slice of heaven. That's something that can only be earned, and not taken by those unprepared for more strenuous or faster trips.
Could I do that again?
Lastly, how'd you feel after that last big hike? Could you get up the next day and do it again? Or for another five days straight? Being more prepared and ready for the specific demands that moving uphill and downhill brings can not only make the trek safer and easier, but also make the recovery period much faster, allowing you to get back to life or your next adventure ASAP.
Now for the other question I often get, which is "Isn't the best way to train for hiking, to hike?" Yes, being in the mountains is the best way to prepare for being in the mountains, that is absolutely true. Playing basketball is also the best way to get better at basketball. However, do you not think that professional basketball players spend hours also strength training, working on movement, balance, mobility and stability all related directly to their sport? Why, then, should trekking and mountaineering be limited only to the mountains, if you want to achieve things only the most prepared can accomplish?
I also often point out that while guides often just spend time in the mountains, they also LIVE in the mountains. If your full time job is to spend dozens of hours a week hiking, then terrific! Most serious trekkers, though, have other full time jobs, in cities far away from huge peaks. They do not have access to mountains daily, and stairs can only mimic the trails so much. These people in particular must have a dedicated training program to make up for the fact that they may only spend a weekend or two a month in the outdoors.
Finally, just last week I was ice climbing with an accomplished climber who has guided over a dozen expeditions on Denali. While chatting about mountaineering specific training, he noted that over the years many of his clients had started to prepare for Denali with more specific conditioning, and it had shown. His clients had became more and more physically prepared for their undertaking, and success rates had risen. This new age thought of treating mountaineering more as a sport to train for and less as a challenge to just jump into, has led to stronger, confident, and more accomplished athletes.