A lot of people ask me how to get in shape for a 14er – it’s an extremely common concern among those new to the hobby. The good news is that hiking a 14er is easy to do if you are in relatively good shape. You don’t need to be a serious athlete. However, if you haven’t done much hiking or exercising recently, you will want to do some simple workouts to increase your chance of success. Here is a good introduction to getting in shape for a 14er, broken down into seven key tips to try. Good luck on your 14er adventure!
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How Difficult is Climbing a 14er?
As I said, most people are capable of reaching a summit if they put their mind to it. However, that doesn’t mean you should expect it to be easy. Most peaks will require between 5 and 10 miles of hiking, with 3,000 – 4,000 feet of elevation gain along the way. This is usually equivalent to 5-6 hours of hiking, mostly uphill, often over loose rocks and gravel. When you consider the fact that there is 33% less oxygen at the summit, it is easy to understand how difficult it can get. Taking the time to work out in advance and get in shape will make it much easier to climb a 14er, while increasing your chance of staying safe too.
1. Set SMART goals for your fitness.
Before you jump on a treadmill or buy a set of weights, you should set some clear goals about what you want to accomplish. The acronym SMART can help you create goals in a strategic way. Just ensure each goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. For example, you could say your fitness goal is to be able to hike Mount Bierstadt’s standard route, including 7 miles round-trip and 3,300 feet of gain, by the end of next July. This level of detail is much more likely to be successful, compared to a general goal like “climb a mountain.”
2. Build a strong cardiovascular foundation.
Once you have a goal, your first focus should be cardiovascular fitness – the ability to continually repeat actions and movements for long periods of time. Usually, the best way to build this for hiking is by hiking. However, if you don’t have any trails near you, try similar workouts that simulate the experience of hiking and climbing.
A few good workout ideas include inclined treadmills, stair machines, elliptical machines, walking, jogging, hiking, and trail running. Most people do 2-3 cardiovascular workouts during the week, with an additional weekend trip to the mountains. Aim to keep moving for at least 20-30 minutes to get the most out of your workout, and add more time or weight in a backpack as you progress and it gets easier.
Curious when you’re ready? To start preparing for mountaineering, a climber should be able to complete a 5-mile (8-kilometer) round-trip hike with roughly a 13-pound (5.9-kilogram) pack, ascending and descending 2,000 feet (610 meters) in less than two and a half hours.
3. Add in strength training for success.
Strength is critically important for mountaineers, providing the stability that protects against injury, improved balance on loose rocky slopes, and bursts of energy for challenging movements at high altitudes. Focusing on the upper back, legs, and core is most important for those hiking and climbing fourteeners.
Exercises such as static lunges, one-legged deadlifts, step-ups, and step-downs ensure that legs and hips do equal work. Most of these exercises can be performed at home using bodyweight, adding a loaded pack as balance improves and strength increases. As your calves will take most of the load whenever you are on steep terrain, include straight-leg variations of calf exercises as well. After each hike, spend time working on especially sore areas; if your quads are especially sore, put more time into lunges. If your ankles are unstable, practice hiking on loose, unstable slopes.
Climbers should strive to be stronger than they think they will need to be. When the endurance aspect of mountaineering is factored in, the conflicting demands on a climber’s body will result in a loss of strength, and that extra training will end up being just enough.
4. Don't forget to build in more flexibility.
Most hikers only focus on cardiovascular fitness and strength-building. Flexibility – the range of motion available in your joints – is a third important component of how to get in shape for a 14er. Flexibility reduces the risk of injury and also decreases delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Try to begin and end all of your workouts with a short period of stretching. Some of my favorite techniques include the frog stretch and the seated gluteal stretch. Even reaching down to touch your toes can help you release the tension in your back following a long day of hiking and climbing. This is often forgotten when people discuss how to get in shape for a 14er.
5. Fuel yourself with the right food.
The right nutrition will help you shed fat and build muscle over the course of your workouts. Most nutrition advice is unnecessarily complicated, with weird formulas and methods unproven by science. The key is to focus on eating unprocessed foods, including a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit, limit your carbohydrates, sugars, and salts, and eat plenty of protein to support muscle growth. Lastly, skip out on unhealthy saturated fats found in fried foods, and get natural, healthy fats from avocados, nuts, fish, olive oil, and similar sources. Food is a key factor for how to get in shape for a 14er.
6. Remember the FITT Parameters.
When planning out your exercises, you should remember that not all workouts are the same. A common way to differentiate them is to consider the frequency of the workout, intensity level, time, and type. Those new to working out will want to balance these four areas to avoid overreaching and potentially injuring themselves. If doing a high-intensity workout for a long period of time, limit its frequency (once a week instead of twice a week) to keep yourself at a reasonable pace.
7. Utilize cross-training too.
While swimming, biking, weight-lifting, and other workout methods aren’t directly related to getting in shape for a 14er, they can be helpful for cross-training. These are supplemental fitness activities that recruit muscle groups in different patterns while providing psychological and physiological breaks from excessive repetition. Working these activities into your workouts, especially during the off-season, are a good way to keep your workouts more interesting and less boring. While these methods are not required, they can also help you find more interesting ways how to get in shape for a 14er.
Getting in shape will make your first climb much better.
Even a few weeks of working out will make a 14er significantly easier, providing you more energy with each step along your hike. It won’t be easy – but it will be much better than heading out to the trailhead without any kind of exercise. Now that you know how to get in shape for a 14er, the key is putting together a plan to get started. Remember to check with your doctor before beginning any significant workout plan, or if you need to lose a significant quantity of weight.
How to Get in Shape for a 14er: Now You Know!
If you still feel a bit stuck and not sure how to start, I recommend picking a cardiovascular workout you enjoy and trying to do it 2-3 times per week. Add in strength exercises, flexibility, and nutrition practices a little bit at a time, and you’ll be on your way in no time. Good luck on your personal fitness endeavors, and safe travels on the trail.
More Resources on How to Get in Shape for a 14er
Looking for more advice and tips about how to get in shape for a 14er? I assembled some of my favorite articles, resources, and other links below. Have some time to suggest yourself? Leave a comment below with your idea and I might add it to the list.