Fitness Testing for Mountaineering

The subject of fitness testing has come up for mention a few times recently, so I’m throwing out a few options and suggestions for tests (linked at the bottom of the page for reasons of space) as well as my own views which stem from administering tests to hundreds of athletes and taking quite a few myself.

Firstly, the most valuable test you could take might be a medical before you start. Don’t go out and push yourself in tests or training unless you’re sure your body is up to it. It might also be worth your while getting assessed by a good physiotherapist or physical therapist for any weakness or imbalances that could give way when you start training hard.

Fitness testing can be valuable, but probably not as necessary as many people believe. You can learn a lot from a set of tests, but it’s nothing compared to what you’ll learn from looking back over what you’ve done and being honest with yourself. By all means do the tests, but don’t ignore what you already know. Also, don’t see tests as pass or fail, they’re a learning exercise, neither an achievement in themselves nor a barrier to success, if you do “badly”, that's great, now you know what you have to do to climb your mountain. Remember the ability you’re trying to assess, if you do a terrible test but find you’re strong on the hills, or vice versa, you don’t need me to tell you which one is the right answer.

Testing your HR is a good use of your time, and your money if you want to do the gold standard tests. You can gain quite a bit of guidance by knowing your aerobic and lactate thresholds as they’re the two key marks and you’ll spend a lot of time training at or near them, so much so that it’s arguable that they’re the only two marks that matter. One of the common pitfalls here is establishing what you believe to be your “maximum” heart rate and setting zones based on the figure in line with a standard scheme which isn’t as useful or standard as many people suppose, because there’s no standard, universally agreed scheme of zones. If you establish your thresholds and they sit at a percentage of max HR that doesn’t match some scheme of zones, the scheme is wrong for you and you should be focussing the AeT and/or LT you know is right, don’t shoehorn figures into the scheme. Also, while we’re at it, the 220 minus age formula is a statistically derived health tool, not a formula for assessing personal fitness, so don’t base your training on it. It also doesn’t account for improvement, your theoretical max HR would be the same at the start of your programme as it would 20+ weeks later after a lot of hard work, so if you based your training on that formula and a standard model you’d still be training at thresholds that no longer applied to you. There are other formulae claiming to be more refined and accurate, but I don’t know of any of them being widely accepted as being more reliable.

Similar problems come from measuring V02 Max, a figure that’s widely and misleadingly touted as a reliable standalone indicator of endurance ability. It’s popular because it’s an easy mark to assess outside the lab, the beep test is probably one of the most widely administered in team sports and there are formulas for extrapolating V02 max from other information that people commonly already have such as race times. Even in the lab you may be mislead by being given a VO2 max result when what you actually need to know is your AeT and LT. It’s also gained popularity as an indicator from some high-intensity training systems which focus on “cardio” or “conditioning"*, giving it a credence it doesn’t entirely deserve. A high VO2 max on its own is not all it’s cracked up to be, there are other factors which go alongside it to turn it into something useful in performance. If you get your training right, it will probably increase, but don’t specifically aim to increase it or there's a good chance you’ll take a wrong turn.

*Cardio and conditioning are two of the most misused, misleading, unhelpful terms in training. More about that here

There are two important things about devising any set of tests for yourself or taking recommended tests;

·         some element of them at least roughly resembles what you’re training for – so test yourself using things like hills, box steps, stair, treadmills, stairmasters, running or biking.

·         they can be repeated faithfully – same time, state of tiredness, same hill, box, machine and load etc.

One of the reasons a box step test works well is that it is perfectly repeatable, same box, same pack, same time/height gain etc. gives you a directly comparable set of numbers, so aim for the same simplicity and consistency in your tests. Besides the numbers, record everything from the test, your weight, feelings, HR, time of day, weather, load, recent training, everything, because unless you do your second test might be an imperfect mirror which tells you less than you’d like to know, or worse still leads you in the wrong direction.

If you’re repeating tests, don’t do it too frequently. If you leave a week between your first and second tests early in a training programme you will almost certainly see some improvement which looks dramatic, but is actually not a real, sustainable rate of change. Testing too frequently can be discouraging and misleading as the rate of change slows, so don’t do it to yourself. I feel that every 6-8 weeks is about right, which would get you three to four tests in a complete programme and that should be enough to know what you have to do from the beginning, make sure you’re progressing and assure yourself you’ve hit the target at the end, any less than that is starting to be a waste of valuable training time with no useful information gained.

Tests are subjective and have motivational and learning element to them which can change results, there will be great athletes who do badly in tests and not so great ones who can turn it on for the test but not so much when the pressure is on. A niggling knee injury might make the regularity of a box step test painful for you, where a steep hill isn’t a problem or vice versa. Your training and sports history also plays a huge part, you’ll have developed strengths and weaknesses such that you might ace one kind of aerobic test and struggle in another.

The comparison charts for results are similarly flawed. Many are outdated, not adjusted for gender, age, height or bodyweight where they should be, or based on unrepresentative samples. You’re trying to be solid in almost all of aspects of fitness rather than high-performing in a limited range, so don’t worry if you can’t do the chin-ups total the table says is “good”, focus on learning how that mark translates into climbing performance for you and improving or maintaining it as needs be. You can alleviate that problem by creating your own chart. If you find yourself at a time of particularity good fitness, such as when you’ve just finished a trip or race that went really well, take a set of tests and record it so that you now have a standard of your own to aim for each time you need to know how you’re doing.

The aim of the testing is to help you get the best from your training, then take that training onto the hills. Ultimately, everybody who is training for the mountains is going to do so in a fairly similar pattern – mostly low intensity in one format or another, some strength training, as much hiking, climbing and scrambling as life allows, a small bit of high-intensity training, maybe some mobility, lots of core work and that’s about it. If you take a set of tests and they tell you to do something totally different to that, the tests are almost certainly the problem, not your fitness, so have another look at them. One of the issues with that is highlighted by the title of an article below, suggesting the aim is to “beat the test” – if your aim is to beat the test, you’re taking it for the wrong reasons and if you let yourself be guided so much by the test that you start training to pass it rather than letting it guide your training for your next mountain, then you’ve really taken a wrong turn.

If you’re going ahead with tests, remember what they're for, bear in mind all the caveats and limitations and best of luck, I hope you get results that tell you what you need to know. Here’s a link to some suggestions for tests you might like to try.

Hope you’re training and climbing well,