14ers 101: Training

Are you interested in hiking one of Colorado’s 14ers? Are you wondering if you’re in good enough physical shape for the task? Let’s talk about how to train for one of these high peaks!

First, let’s clarify what I mean by training for a 14er: I mean preparing yourself both physically and mentally to climb a mountain that is longer, steeper, and higher in altitude than your average hike.

Why should you train? As I’m sure you know, climbing a 14er isn’t exactly a walk in the park. There is no such thing as an “easy” 14er. Sure, there are easiER fourteeners, but none of them would be considered what you’d call an “easy” hike.

Even people who train regularly and have a high level of physical fitness can find these mountains difficult. Exactly how challenging the hiking is for you can be greatly affected by your physical and mental preparation. Yes, it’s certainly possible to successfully summit a high peak without training. But I can almost guarantee that you’ll have a MUCH more enjoyable time if you train! Your physical and mental preparation will greatly impact the way you feel both during and after your hike.

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One of my earlier peaks!

The first couple of times I hiked 14ers, I didn’t train for them. Sure, I was active and relatively fit, but I didn’t regularly work out. My cardio consisted of the occasional, very casual, ultimate frisbee pick-up game. I was certainly able to make the summit on my first few mountains, but the experience typically went like this: From the start, it was a grind to get up the mountain. As I would get higher and the air thinned, every step would get smaller and slower. I’d start taking breaks every 10 steps. By the time I reached the summit, I was completely exhausted! And only halfway done. Coming down the mountain would take almost as long as it did to go up. Afterwards, I’d be sore and worn out for days or even a week or two while recovering.

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This is my face when I’m not properly prepared. If this is your experience, I could totally understand why you’d hesitate to try again!

Because I’ve fallen in love with hiking high peaks, I now regularly do workouts with hiking in mind. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and my experience on peaks has changed dramatically. Now, on the ascent, the work is hard but feels manageable. As the air thins, I slow down a bit and focus on my breathing, but because I’ve practiced pacing, I’m able to find a pace that allows me to keep moving without stopping frequently. At the summit, I still have energy and am able to descend with a fairly quick pace. After the hike, I feel fully recovered within a couple of days.

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This is what my summits usually feel like now. This experience is a lot more enjoyable, and you might even want to do it again when you’re done!

So here’s why I train - physical and mental training helps me:

  • feel stronger during my hike
  • increase my chances of a successful summit
  • reduce my chances of experiencing altitude sickness
  • reduce my risk of injury
  • improve my recovery time

So why wouldn’t you train?

Let’s dive into some ideas on how you could train. This is a really difficult topic to discuss, because everybody and every body is different. Your training will look different from my training, which will be different from your friend’s training. Your current exercising and lifestyle habits, where you live, and your schedule and responsibilities will all play a huge role in how you’re going to train. Despite all of this, I’m a firm believer in that when you’re starting out, WHAT you do to train is not as important as doing SOMETHING to exercise, and doing it regularly. Finding ways to exercise that work with your schedule, your resources, and your body will pay back dividends. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions based on my own experience. If you already have a training plan that works for you, great! I'm not here to tell you to change what you're doing. But if you're just starting to think about making a training plan, or you're looking for some new ideas to mix up your current exercise routine, then I hope this gives you some ideas. If you don’t have a consistent exercise plan in place already, when thinking about starting one, I encourage you to start SLOWLY. Ease your way in. The goal is to build sustainable exercise habits and prevent injury!

Starting with the basics - your Aerobic Base, that is!

If you’re new to training, or have been focused on strength training or HIIT, then the best place to start is with exercise intended to improve your aerobic base. Aerobic activity is when we are using oxygen to burn fat for fuel. With training, we can improve the efficiency of this system. Fat is the best fuel source for endurance activities because it contains so much energy, and we can store a lot of it in our bodies to sustain us for long periods of time - so improving the efficiency of your aerobic system means it’ll be easier for you to burn fat as fuel for endurance activities.

There are a ton of ways to incorporate aerobic exercise; lots of devoted hikers love trail running, but you can do anything like biking, spinning, running, stair stepping, and rucking, just to name a few. Anything that gets your heart rate up for an extended period of time is helping.

Tips for Aerobic Training

Some tips for this type of exercise:

  • Do any activity you actually enjoy doing!
  • Start slow and ease your way in - especially if this is new for you
  • Plan your workouts - consistency is key to aerobic exercise, so find a way to make it a part of your weekly routine
  • Warm up and cool down for your workouts - this helps prevent injury
  • Listen to your body - changes in mood and/or excessive fatigue might be signs of overtraining

Strength Training

A good next step after spending some time developing your cardio base is to add in some strength training. Strength training specifically for hiking can really help your overall physical preparedness for a climb.

Here are some areas you can focus on if you’d like to add in some strength training:

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Core strength will help many aspects of your hiking. Look for exercises that focus on your transverse abdominis, sometimes referred to as the inner abs. This muscle is key in balance and stability, which is important on rocky and steep trails while carrying weight.

Possible exercises include planks, hollow body holds, trunk rotations, and windshield wipers.


Your quads are one of your main drivers in moving upward, so they’ll be working hard on a 14er.

Possible exercises include squats, lunges and step-ups.


Your glutes are actually super important in helping prevent lower body injury! Women in particular commonly have an imbalance of strength between the quads and the glutes, with the quads often overcompensating for a lack of glute strength. This can increase your risk of lower-body strains and sprains, as well as the risk of damaging your ACL. Your glutes act as stabilizers for your legs, so strengthening them will help with stability and reduce risk of injury.

Possible exercises include donkey kicks, fire hydrants, and standing kick-backs.


Any time you’re on an incline, your calves are engaged, whether you’re traveling uphill or downhill - you might be surprised how sore your calves might be after a steep hike!

Possible exercises include a wide variety of calf raises, or any exercise that has you jumping on your toes.

General Upper Body Strength

Your upper body helps with distributing the load from your backpack. Plus, if you use trekking poles, you’ll be involving many more muscles in your arms and upper back.
Possible exercises include push ups, pullups, and tricep dips.

Tips for Strength Training

Some tips for this type of exercise:

  • Start with body weight exercises - this allows you to focus on good form and technique
  • Make sure you learn about what good form and technique is for each exercise - that’s going to help prevent injuries
  • Gradually add/increase weight as you develop strength, still focusing on good form!
  • If you get bored with exercises, switch them up! Changing up exercises also challenges your muscles in new ways
  • Give yourself recovery time - it’s generally recommended to give a muscle group 72 hours of rest between strength training sessions

If you’re totally new to this type of exercise, and if it’s an option for you, you might consider working with a personal trainer. They’ll be able to give you a lot of guidance and help you make sure you’re doing exercises correctly. Another option is to look for strength classes in your area.

Uphill Athlete has also provided three free at-home strength workouts specifically for hiking that may interest you as well! They may be a good starting point for some of you.

Training Hikes

Nothing will prepare you better for a 14er than getting out there and training on the trails. Training hikes can help you see where your training is paying off, and help you figure out your areas to keep improving. They can also be incorporated as a part of your regular fitness routine if you have them accessible, as you can start with easier/shorter hikes, and gradually work up the length and difficulty as you get stronger.

If you’re able to utilize hiking in your training journey, here are some variables that will be important to think about along the way:

  • Mileage
  • Duration
  • Elevation Gain
  • Altitude
  • Pack Weight


Many fourteener hikes are long. Mount Whitney in California, the highest 14er in the lower 48, is famous for its long trail. The main Mount Whitney Trail is over 20 miles long out and back! 20 miles is a huge day. Even the shortest 14er routes in Colorado are typically at least 4-5 miles long, and many can be much longer. You can prepare your body for this mileage by practicing similar distances on easier trails. If you don’t have access to trails nearby, you could go for long walks or spend time on a treadmill or track, focusing on building up your mileage endurance. Don’t underestimate the power of a long, flat walk. Even though it may feel as though you aren’t working hard, you’re actually building up your aerobic base, which is a crucial part of high peak training.


Duration is only slightly different from mileage, although usually if you’re training in one of these areas you’ll be training in the other. But I want to mention hike duration independently from mileage for this reason; the time it takes you to walk 5 miles around your neighborhood is NOT the same amount of time it will take you to do a 5 mile 14er route. This can be really difficult on a mental level. Even the shortest fourteener routes can take several hours to complete. Many people average a pace of about one mile per hour on high altitude hikes. Sometimes the travel is even slower! This means that an eight mile route might take 6-7 hours, or it could take ten hours or longer, depending on your pace. Yes, these long days are difficult on a physical level - your feet hurt from all the steps, your shoulders hurt from carrying your pack, your knees hurt from the steep slopes; but they can also be incredibly challenging mentally. For hours on end, it’s step after step after step after step after step, and you think to yourself at least 478 times, “How am I not at the summit yet?!”

Have you heard of an SMMF workout? Hiking can definitely fit into this category. Using your training to work your way up to longer days will help prepare both your body and your mind.

Elevation Gain

You can use elevation gain to find training hikes that simulate the type of terrain you’re likely to see on a high peak climb. You’ll be able to experience the physical demands that a steep trail places on your body. When you’re looking for steep trails to hike, more elevation gain with lower mileage equals a steeper slope.

For reference, if a trail averages 500 feet of elevation gain per mile, that’s almost a 10% incline on a treadmill; 1,000 feet per mile is almost a 20% incline (treadmills usually max out at 10-15%). You can determine the average elevation per mile by dividing the total elevation gain by the distance in miles of the hike. For example, Mount Morrison by Red Rocks Amphitheater is a 3.6 mile trail, out and back, with 2014 feet of gain according to the AllTrails app. If I divide 2014 feet by 1.8 miles, the distance from the base of the trail to the peak, that gives me 1119 feet per mile. That’s a pretty steep trail!


If you have the option, I recommend seeing how your body reacts to high altitude before attempting your first fourteener. Altitude doesn’t bother some people very much; but for others, you may discover that it feels like you have a “ceiling;” or a certain elevation above which it becomes incredibly difficult to continue climbing. Knowing this about yourself can help you physically and mentally prepare for your experience. If you’re in a place like Colorado, there are plenty of easier hikes that go above treeline that you can incorporate into your training. There are some pretty simple and straightforward 13ers, like Mount Flora and Mount Sniktau, that allow you to experience high altitude on shorter climbs with simpler, not super steep trails.

If you’re out of state and you don’t have access to a high altitude playground like we do in Colorado, then this can be more difficult to incorporate. If getting above 10,000 feet isn’t an option for you, then take stock of your other options. What is the highest elevation you can get to within a reasonable distance? Is there somewhere that you could make a weekend trip to for training? If you truly can’t find a way to practice at altitude, then the next best thing is to focus more heavily on elevation gain in your training hikes. Try searching for hikes in your area that have a steep incline.

Pack Weight

The last aspect to consider when you’re thinking about training hikes is your pack weight. On a 14er hike, you’re likely to be carrying more weight in your backpack compared to your average day-hike. This will be due to carrying things like extra water, food, layers, and emergency supplies. It’s good to get an idea of how much your backpack is likely to weigh. Once you have an idea of what your pack will weigh, you can work up to carrying that amount of weight on your training hikes.

Finding Training Hikes

When you’re looking for training hikes with certain parameters like mileage and elevation gain in mind, a really awesome resource is the AllTrails app or website. (No affiliation!)

Even with a free account, Alltrails will allow you to filter your search for hikes based on mileage and elevation gain. When I was at sea level in California for a few weeks before climbing Mount Whitney, I wanted to maintain the physical preparation I had done the months before. I was unfamiliar with the hikes nearby, so I opened AllTrails and searched for hikes that had a minimum of 3,000 feet of elevation gain. I found some really awesome hikes to do while I was traveling to help keep me in tip-top shape for Mount Whitney.

Can’t Train at Elevation? Try the 125% Rule

If you already have a specific peak and route in mind as your goal, you can use the 125% rule to help you set more specific long-term training targets. Basically you set training targets for mileage, elevation gain, and pack weight based on 125% of those statistics for your chosen hike. You then gradually work your way up to that increased distance, gain, and pack weight. If you can complete a hike that is 125% of your goal hike, you can feel pretty confident in your physical ability to achieve your goal.

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If you want more on using the 125% rule to set training targets and working up to them, check out this video from Short Guys Beta Works.

Be Smart, Be Careful

If you are someone who is newer to training, please ease your way in. The goal is to build a consistent habit, something that’s sustainable over the long term. If that means that you start by finding 2 days a week to workout for 10 minutes, then that’s great! We all start somewhere. You want a routine that you’ll stick with. Once you’ve built your consistency, you can start expanding it as you feel ready to do so.

If you’re looking for ways to get started with training, you could consider trying a class at your local rec center, or getting a personal trainer. Otherwise, there’s tons of free videos out there with different exercises to try. You can also search for bodyweight exercises if you don’t have access to any equipment.

More In-Depth Resources (things I’ve learned a lot from)

If you’d like to go deeper into training, there are lots of resources out there. One that I highly recommend specifically for women is the book ROAR by Dr. Stacy Sims. This book is more about women’s training in general as opposed to mountaineering training, but I’ve learned SO MUCH from this book and I recommend it to all women. Dr. Sims discusses how to exercise keeping your cycle in mind, nutrition and hydration advice that is more woman-focused, and covers advice for peri- or postmenopausal women.

Another popular resource among mountaineers is a book called Training for the Uphill Athlete. This is not for your everyday casual hiker, though. This is specific to mountain running and ski mountaineering, and is definitely a little intense if you’re just getting into this sport. This could be a resource for you if you’ve already done some peaks and decided that this 14er thing is for you, or if you already have a pretty established training routine and want to get more serious about training for bigger objectives (like ultra marathons or skimo races).

If you’re someone who might be thinking, “this sounds great, but there’s no way I can set aside time for myself to train,” then I may have a resource for you. There are many of us out there (and I say “us” because this used to include me) that have it ingrained in our minds that taking time for ourselves is selfish; if we aren’t working or taking care of the family, then it’s not something we should be doing. Let me say this: Taking time to take care of yourself and pursue your own goals (maybe doing a 14er!) is NOT selfish, it’s self-care! If this sounds like you, I recommend checking out Melissa Urban’s The Book of Boundaries. It’s all about setting boundaries with yourself, family, coworkers, etc. around your needs, and maybe it’ll be just what you need to help you set and hold a boundary around a little training time for YOU each week.

Here are some Amazon Affiliate links to the above books:

ROAR by Dr. Stacy Sims

Training for the Uphill Athlete by Steve House, Scott Johnston, and Kilian Jornet

The Book of Boundaries by Melissa Urban

Short Guys Beta Works offers a multitude of educational videos around many hiking, climbing, and mountaineering topics. It is a bit more on the technical side of things, but there is some good information there you can peruse.

Google and YouTube are also easy ways to look up ideas for exercises and training activities if you’re needing ideas. Just remember, as always, make sure you’re taking the time to learn about good form and technique, and start slow with any new exercise or routine! If you get injured trying to train, you won’t be doing any 14ers.

So those are my suggestions for getting yourself physically and mentally ready for attempting your first fourteener. To some of you, it may seem like a lot. Whatever you choose to do to prepare physically and mentally is very much your decision. I promise that doing some form of training will greatly increase the quality of your hiking experience. The better you train, the better you’ll feel on the mountain.

Here’s to hoping you have a lot more type 1 fun than type 2 or 3!

Good luck, and get out there.


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