(Dominic Irvine, endurance sports coach and MBG client in 2010, has been kind enough to give us his thoughts on the fitness level required for one of our courses, and how to achieve it.)
These are my observations based on participating on one of the 'Mont Blanc Guides' programmes. By way of background, I have a sports degree, coaching qualifications in a number of different sports and regularly compete in ultra endurance events. I went with someone who had done the occasional run and one long 17 mile walk in the Black mountains. He really struggled and it is doubtful he would have made the summit. I had a blast. The information below is a very rough and ready guide and assumes the basics are covered such as stretching, warm up, that you are healthy enough to begin with!
The message is clear, you either do the suffering during training or you do the suffering during your holiday. The fitter you are the more you will enjoy your time in the mountains. During the programme you will be getting used to using an ice axe, crampons, walking over mixed terrain and altitude. Having to do all this whilst puffing and panting away may detract from the experience.
The type of exercise you are doing requires you to be able to operate for long periods of time at a low intensity. It's the equivalent of going for a very steady jog at the speed you can maintain a conversation. If you are struggling to get the words out as you jog then that's too fast. You will be carrying a rucksack,which, whilst light, is a lot easier to do if your core body (stomach and back muscles) are in good shape. It's also worth noting that you will get only very limited benefit from any training done in the last three weeks. It takes about that time for adaptations to the body to take effect. So get prepared with plenty of time to spare and do very little in the last couple of weeks to ensure you are fresh and ready for the challenge. Don't think you will get fit during the programme you won't. You will however get used to the sensation of walking at altitude.
Frames of reference:
You've done a 5hr marathon (within four months prior to attending the programme). Stop reading now, you will be fine. Keep up the good work and enjoy the programme.
You've done a half marathon in 2 hours, maybe a few 10ks. Or, you've done an Olympic distance triathlon. You will be fine too, although you will benefit from some long distance walking to build your endurance.
You've done very little apart from the occasional 30 minute jog. OK, you have some work to do. Fear not, only a small amount more will ensure you have a really great time.
You've never done any exercise. You can still do it, but get yourself a coach, follow a good training programme and you will succeed. If you don't you won't make it beyond day 1.
But all I want to do is survive?
If this is your objective, and you are happy to spend long days plodding away, breathing hard, taking a few more hours than the very fit people then you need to consider doing the following:
1. Build up to be able to do some long walks of up to 6 hours or more in duration. Aim to have done at least four or five of these in the three months prior to the event. These walks should be hilly wherever possible and you should aim to carry a loaded rucksac that weighs somewhere between 6 and 8 kilos. Practice eating and drinking whilst you are walking, small amounts of food and drink every 30 minutes or so.
2. During the week, do some shorter fast walks, you don't need a rucksack for these. Ideally find a hill and walk briskly up the hill, if it's short, walk back down and then push hard back up the hill.
3. Consider doing some simple core body work at home (do a search on the internet for suitable exercises). Aim for two 15 minute sessions a week.
4. When out and about, if you have a choice between a lift or stairs, always choose the stairs.
Aim for about 4 hours of good quality exercise a week (excluding the long walks).
I'm really busy, I don't have much time
So you have some time but not much, but want to do enough to really enjoy the week. My suggestion would be as follows.
1. Your aim is to be able to run 10k in approximately 60 minutes three times a week.
2. In your training, find a hill that takes you about 90 seconds to run up, divide into thirds and on your first ascent jog up the first two thirds and push hard the last third. On your second repetition, jog the first third and push the last two thirds and on your third repetition, push hard all the way up. As the weeks progress aim to build up the number of repetitions you can do.
3. If you can find a trail to run on, so much the better, it will help you learn good foot placement which makes walking over difficult terrain so much easier.
4. Build up to be able to do some long walks of up to 6 hours or more in duration. Aim to have done at least four or five of these in the three months prior to the event. These walks should be hilly wherever possible and you should aim to carry a loaded rucksac that weighs somewhere between 6 and 8 kilos. Practice eating and drinking whilst you are walking, small amounts of food and drink every 30 minutes or so
5. Aim to do some core body exercises three times a week.
Aim for between 5 and 6 hours of high quality training a week.
I want to really enjoy the week
1. Long walks (as above)
2. Do some long distance runs (up to 2 to 3 hours in duration at a speed you can maintain a conversation, approximately 18 – 30 km)
3. Do plenty of hill reps (as above)
4. Do plenty of trail running (these can be your long distance runs) ideally on some hills. Take a small pack with you with some food and drink to practice eating and drinking on the move.
5. Build in three core body sets a week and supplement with sit-ups and press ups to build core body and upper body strength
6. Get out into the hills on some scrambles to get into groove of moving over difficult terrain
7. Train in the wind, rain, hot days and cold days.
Aim for between 6 and 8 hours a week.
Remember: You can choose to suffer in the training beforehand or during the programme. This is a great programme with really beautiful scenery. Get the most from it by being fit enough to enjoy it. If you are motivated enough to want to stand on the top of Mont Blanc, then you will be motivated enough to enjoy the preparation.
Dom Irvine June 2010
… And a footnote from John Taylor, MBG Director / Head Guide
To make it up Mont Blanc you need three physical qualities:
1. Adequate fitness, as described above;
2. Sufficient acclimatisation to cope with extended effort over 4000m;
3. Rock scrambling and crampon technique to be able to move efficiently over the different types of terrain.
2 and 3 we will thoroughly train you for during the week, but come without 1 and there is really not much we can do about it. It’s true that some people acclimatise better than others and some are better on their feet, but fit people are much less likely to have altitude problems as they strain their cardiovascular systems much less, as well as being more surefooted through not being exhausted.
Past experience has shown that your weight will be hugely important in determining your chances of success. Look at the chart below:
Of the 1600 clients we have had to date, the vast majority that made the summit would have fitted one of the first three categories above. At most 50% of those from category 4 were fit enough, and these were usually individuals with a solid background in endurance sports who had by their own definition "let themselves go a bit". The rare clients we have had from category 5 have virtually never made it, and most have dropped out of the course in the early stages.
We do not prejudge on appearances and if you do reasonably well on the first three days on Gran Paradiso we will be happy to try Mont Blanc with you regardless of body shape. However it does seem that carrying extra weight is the single biggest impediment to acheiving the necessary fitness to climb Mont Blanc.
Everything is linked to basic fitness – climbing in small guided teams involves a high degree of co-dependency between you and your guide, and we cannot maintain an adequate safety margin on Mont Blanc unless we know our client has always got “something left in the tank”. You don’t have to be a super fit endurance athlete to do this, but you do need to take it seriously, remember the summit day is 1600m of ascent and descent spread over 12 hours and at high altitude. If you can take a couple of days in the Lake District or North Wales doing some steep walking with over 1000m of ascent per day, the experience will be invaluable to you.
Any questions regarding your training or indeed anything else to do with the course, please don’t hesitate to ask - we understand this will be a new experience for most people and are always happy to help. Good luck with your training, and we look forward to seeing you out here soon.