Outdoor fitness & training for the female athlete

Since I never played sports in high school or college and since I don’t enjoy conventional forms of working out, I’ve never really considered myself an athlete. Yet everything I do in the mountains is a form of athleticism and requires training, especially as my mountain goals have become more technical and challenging.

The first time I created and followed a multi-month training routine was two years ago, to climb and then ski down Mount Rainier with my husband, Brad. I knew that I needed to improve my strength, endurance and skills to climbing and ski a mountain that rises to 14,411 feet above sea level and is covered is crevassed glaciers. 

However, I quickly learned that training with Brad wasn’t going to work. A few workouts together revealed stark differences between us, and I realized that I needed a training plan more specific to me.

I’d like to share exactly what that looks like for a female outdoor athlete. While I’m not a certified fitness professional, I have previously worked with trainers and developed my own training programs, both with positive results.

Should women train differently than men? 

Performance varies for everybody, regardless of our gender. But do hormones and estrogen play a part in physical training?

According to Stronger by Science, “Most of the major differences in performance and metabolism between genders can be explained by size and body composition, not gender itself. Of the true gender differences, the most important ones have to do with sex hormones and fiber types.” 

Harvard Health also reports that women may be more prone to sports related injuries than men. Ankle sprains, shoulder injuries, knee injuries, stress fractures, and plantar fasciitis are all more common in women than men. According to the article there is a combination of factors that contribute to the higher incidence of injuries among female athletes including: 

  • Higher estrogen levels, along with less muscle mass and more body fat;
  • Greater flexibility (due to loose ligaments) and less powerful muscles;
  • A wider pelvis, which alters the alignment of the knee and ankle;
  • A narrower space within the knee for the ACL to travel through; and,
  • A greater likelihood of inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake.

Despite all of this, the general consensus of industry professionals is that women can successfully prevent injuries with proper technique, training, and the willingness to listen to our bodies.

I decided I wanted some additional insight so I reached out to my friend Alayne Rowan, who has worked as a group fitness and personal trainer for the past 18 years. Alayne believes that while the ways women and men go about training are fairly similarly, the biggest difference is the ease or timeline in which one is able to achieve results. 

Alayne sates that, “For indoor fitness goals, such as improving a dead lift or bench press PR, training programming for women and men are fairly similar, of course with some nuanced differences. What differs the most is the timeline in which men and women will achieve certain goals. Making gains in strength and power often comes more easily to men while endurance training typically comes more easily to women. As with anything, there are always exceptions to those rules.

With training for an outdoor adventure, such as a ski or backpacking expedition, there would most likely be differences in the training programs between a man and a woman; A woman’s program might have more strength training to prepare her for being able to carry a 40-50+lb pack for multiple days, and she also might focus more on exercises designed to mitigate injury. A man’s program might have more endurance training and mobility work. These are obviously huge generalizations, so regardless of gender, when you are preparing for a goal it is important to assess your personal strengths/weaknesses, your starting point, what your goal is, and what elements of training (strength, endurance, mobility, injury mitigation) YOU should focus on to accomplish that goal. A good training plan can and should incorporate all of the items listed above personalized to your individual needs and periodized in a way that leaves you energized and ready to tackle your goal when that day arrives.”

Mountain Training Best Practices

One does not need to be an elite athlete or hard-core gym devotee to develop a personal training plan. These are some general steps I recommend following to develop a personal training plan:

1. Evaluate your current fitness level

This might include an evaluation by a certified personal trainer (if that’s within your budget) or performing your own fitness test (like the one described here).

2. Get to know the requirements needed for a successful trip

When working up to your trip, you need to determine what the maximum elevation and distance will be, all while carrying a weighted pack. What type of terrain and climbing will you encounter? At what altitudes will you climb? It’s critical to maintain a steady pace and your energy level so that you can return to your car safely.

3. Develop a training plan that works for you

Your training plan can be something you put together on your own, or you can seek out a personal trainer to help create a customized plan. Hiring a trainer is not a necessity though — I didn’t do it for Rainier, and you don’t even need a gym membership to train.

What Type of Training Should I do? 

Long days in the mountains require multiple types of training, each focusing on a different need. High intensity cardio workouts help improve overall fitness and our lung capacity, while strength and endurance exercises help us haul heavy packs on our backs for extended periods of time. Additionally, working on balance and agility are important to help navigate tricky terrain and prevent injury. 

A general training schedule will look different for everyone, but this is an example of a basic one that I followed when training for Rainier:

Monday: Cardio 45 min

  • Gym Options: cycle, stairmaster, or row 
  • Outdoor: run stairs or backcountry ski 

Tuesday: Strength, 2-3 sets

  • Squats, lunges, single-leg deadlift, step-ups
  • Plank, boat, mountain climbers, bicycle
  • Push ups, dips, bicep curls
  • Power yoga

Wednesday: Rest Day 

Thursday: Interval Training

  • 30 min HITT class
  • Power Yoga

Friday: Strength, 2-3 sets

Saturday: Cardio

  • Usually outside skiing or hiking 

Sunday: Strength

  • Power Yoga 

Time span

Depending on your outdoor goal, you may need to spend anywhere from four to ten weeks training. You want to work on building up to more reps, heavier weights, and more intense cardio. I have found that a good training plan allows for a little wiggle room — training doesn’t have to be torture. It’s super important to incorporate regular stretching and rest days in the routine. We want to build up our fitness levels gradually and listen to our bodies if something doesn’t feel right. 

Results

In the end our three months of training was put to the test and my husband and I successfully summited Mt Rainier together. I didn’t experience any burn out and my body felt strong throughout the whole climb and ski descent. I felt confident in my skills and my ability and after skiing Rainier it only made me more eager to continue my mountaineering endeavors. Whatever your mountain goals are you have the ability to crush them! 

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  • What questions do you have about training for the outdoor female athlete?
  • What training plans have you followed, and what have been the results?
Posted in , on June 22, 2020
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2 Comments

  1. geo_jax on June 22, 2020 at 2:30 pm

    I find all the leg exercises especially useful with weight on my back. It helps not only strengthen my legs but back and shoulder muscles used to help support my pack. It helps simulate actual pack weight when backpacking.

    Loved the tips on the muscular skeletal differences between genders. Didn’t know that!

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