How to Suck Less in the Mountains, Part I

If you’re like me, you probably only get out to the mountains once a week. I work, have a family, a house to run – so getting out midweek and then again on the weekend is not always possible.

When I do get out, I want to make the most of my day, and complete my objective. This means I need to be in Mountain Shape: strong legs, strong cardio, and strong mind. Part I is all about the legs and lungs. Part II is all about a strong mind.

Strong Legs & Strong Lungs

After 20+ years of hiking, scrambling, backpacking, and ski touring, I have played around with several different physical routines, and this is what’s worked for me.

Walking with Stairs

Walking several times a week is the absolute bare minimum in order to be in any semblance of mountain shape. Walking will help you with the distances, but it’s not enough to toughen up your legs for the steep elevation gains. If you’re a really fast walker, you can elevate your heart rate and breathe in some good air, but it’s generally not considered a cardio workout. Walking will get you up the beginner routes, like Sunshine Meadows (accessed via the lift), Grassi Lakes or Fullerton Loop.

Suck Less 1

Grassi Lakes is an absolute delight of a trail just outside of Canmore. This is a must-see for all new hikers, and young children. The trail making by Lawrence Grassi is a pure joy to walk upon.

When I started to hike, I worked in downtown Calgary. At lunch, I walked over to¬† Prince’s Island Park, and then climb the stairs that lead up the river embankment towards Crescent Heights. There are 167 steps (yes, I looked up that number). When I first started I was lucky to get up one flight, but soon I could go for several rounds.

On miserable days, I would walk the stairs in my office building. Walking plus stairs was enough to get me up routes like Barrier Lookout and Rawson Lake.

Suck Less 2

I think Rawson Lake was my very first hike. I remember going with my friend from work. I wore running shoes, which would not be a problem today. 25+ years ago the screen field to the left of the lake was NOT the packed down path we have now. I remember picking my way over the sharp and tumbled rocks, and committing to buy hiking boots when I got home.


Full disclosure: I have a love / hate relationship with running. While I am enjoying running right now, there was a time when I thought: “If I never run again, I’ll be so okay with that.”

My problem is, I always try to get better and better with my running. What I’ve accomplished is never good enough. If I ran a great 5 km, then why not bump it up to 10 km? If I ran a 10 km in 60 minutes, well, now it’s time to bring that time down. It’s a never ending treadmill of always adding on. Eventually, I would exhaust myself, or pull a muscle, and stop running. For years.

Then I changed my objective. Instead of constant improvement, what do I need to be in optimal Mountain Shape? Turns out, I only need to run 5 KM, twice a week. That’s it!

This is ideal because each workout is only about 30 minutes, and really, if I can’t spare 30 minutes then I have to rearrange some priorities. It’s enough cardio to get my lungs in good shape, and the running builds my leg muscles. The distance is short enough to not damage my joints too badly. These two runs get me enough cardio to tackle just about any mountain in the summer.

Suck Less 3

Opal North Summit! This was an incredible Mother’s Day. There is nothing like sharing an exceptional scramble with my husband and daughters.

Since I have made running 5 KM x 2 / week my goal, I do not put any pressure on myself to do more. I run my 5 km at whatever speed I can, and I’m happy with the results, both with the run and how I feel while hiking.


Cycling has been the most transformational sport for increasing and improving my Mountain Shape. To be clear – I am not tooling around town with a basket on my handlebars, nor am I riding the city bike paths at 10 km / hour. No. I am giving it all I’ve got on a road bike, desperately trying to keep up with my cycle club.

It’s a real blow to the ego, but riding with the Highwood Cycling Club Women’s Group has been amazing. Some of the women are actively training for Iron Man events. Not a regular triathlon, but full-on Iron Man in brutal locations like Whistler. As someone new to riding, it’s taking all my energy and a good attitude to ride at the back of the pack all year.

But it’s SO worth it because I can get up every single mountain I want! Not even a hint of doubt about my Mountain Shape.

Suck Less 4

Descending off my first of four summits in five days on an Alpine Club of Canada mountaineering camp. Mount Sir Sanford is dominating the view on the skyline.

In the summer, I ride hell-bent for speed with the club every Wednesday, and then I do another easier ride on the weekends.

Suck Less 5

My riding buddy Bernadette (right) and I on our second 100 KM ride of the year. This was Canada Day and we rode from Okotoks to Bragg Creek and then down to Millarville. A long ride with no shortage of big hills the entire way.

In the winter, I join these same women for indoor “computraining.” Our coach does Olympic-level weight lifting, and runs ultra-marathons. If you can’t join a class, then I highly recommend some sort of indoor training. There are several DVDs, online rides, and smart-rides like Zwift. Usually these are a great workout. I’m dripping with sweat and barely able to walk back upstairs.

What is nice about biking is how easy it is on my joints. I have built up the muscles around my knee caps, greatly increasing my stability. Plus even after a really tough ride, my muscles might be tired, but I’m never sore or hobbling around the next day, unable to walk.

Winter Ski Touring

The hardest sport I do is Alpine Ski Touring, also known as Back-country Skiing. It’s more difficult than summer travel because of the equipment. Not only am I carrying a lot more gear (heavier pack, transceiver, probe, shovel, harness, slings, pulley, ice screw, rope, etc), but instead of my super lightweight hiking shoes, I’m wearing heavy ski boots, skis, binding and skins.

Add in breaking trail, and this is one sure way to get tired legs fast! To get ready for winter, I definitely run 5 km twice a week, plus some hardcore time on my bike.

I first discovered biking as the best Mountain Shape exercise possible when I did the Wapta Traverse a few years ago. I remember going up the final head wall to get to the hut, and feeling great!!! No problems! As the trip progressed, I just got stronger and stronger. Day Three going over Balfour Pass. Not a problem. Day Four, skiing down canyons, frozen waterfall head walls – no problem.

Suck Less 6

Day Three of the Wapta Traverse. Almost at the top of Balfour Pass. Vulture Col and Mount Olive are in the background.

Downhill Resort Skiing

I also do light touring and resort skiing. In the winter, I work at Lake Louise as a Ski Friend giving free ski tours of the mountain. After biking all summer, and then doing two months of indoor computraining, I was happily surprised to find myself ‘good to go’ last November. Of my entire team, I was the only one who could ski all day, without screaming in pain after every run in the afternoon. Turns out, biking and skiing muscles are pretty similar.

Suck Less 7

A great day of family skiing at the best resort in the world – Lake Louise!!!

I hope you found some good ideas for mid-week workouts to help you suck less in the mountains. Being physically prepared is only half the battle though. To see how I get ahead of my intense fear of heights, and how you can up your own mental game, visit Part II of How to Suck Less in the Mountains.

If you have a good routine for getting into Mountain Shape, I’d love to hear about it. Please tell me about it in the comments below.

Happy Trails!




Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Adventures

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: