Training for the 3 Peaks

If you have signed up for the 3 peaks challange or similar events it is vital you follow a fitness training plan in the build-up to the event. This will not only increase the likelihood of you completing the challenge, but also will allow for a fuller, more enjoyable and safer experience.

Prioritise your training

It is vital you prioritise your training and you should focus on high quality workouts to get the most out of your time and efforts. Due to work and family commitments or if you live in the city with no hills, most people will perform midweek training sessions in the gym and hit the hills, mountains or countryside on the weekend.  

Article Summary

This article outlines the main fitness components you should be working on and gives you some example sessions of how to develop each. Finally it gives examples of how all the fitness components can be integrated into a weekly plan.

Physiologically, what IS Mountain Walking?

Mountain Walking can be classified as a long duration low intensity activity, which relies primarily on energy supplied by the aerobic energy system. As well as developing your aerobic endurance fitness, you will need strong legs to carry you up the mountain, and cushion you whilst coming down. Therefore, the key components of a fitness plan for the mountain challenges are to increase aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, and muscular strength, particularly in the lower body.

Aerobic Endurance

Aerobic endurance, sometimes referred to as cardiovascular, is traditionally developed through cyclical exercise over prolonged periods of time. The most specific mode of aerobic exercise to use when training for a mountain challenge  would be either walking or running on similar terrain and slope incline to that which you will experiance in your challenge. For those specifically aiming at mountain walking challenges, walking uphill and downhill, over uneven and rocky terrain would be the most specific form of training. Other exercise types that could be used to develop your aerobic fitness include cycling inside or out, or the stepper machine and whilst these are not as effective or specific they may be a viable option for those that are elderly, previously inactive and beginners, or to add some variety into your routine.

Exercise Intensity

Exercise intensity refers to how hard you are working, and using the correct intensity for each session is vital for improving all aspects of fitness. If the intensity is too low the session will not produce the desired improvements and if it is too high or performed too often it will inhibit recovery and slow improvements. The easiest way to monitor intensity for aerobic exercise is by using a heart rate monitor. You can then use a percentage of your maximum heart rate to ensure you are working at the correct intensity. Firstly you need to determine your maximum heart rate (Max HR) there are  generally two ways used for this.


1-  An all-out running effort to exhaustion;- This is usually only performed on highly motivated, well-conditioned, healthy individuals and if done correctly with maximum effort is the most accurate. It is a running test to exhaustion. You are required to run at a set pace on a treadmill and increase the incline by 0.5% every minute. When you physically cannot run any further record your heart rate which is your maximum.

2-    Alternatively you can predict your maximum heart rate based on your age. This is more suitable to those individuals who are not highly conditioned,  beginners to exercise, lack motivation, or have predetermine medical factors. You can predict your maximum heart rate by the following equation;

                       220- your age = Predicted Maximum Heart Rate.

It must be remembered that this is an estimate and your Maximum Heart Rate could actually be 10-20 (or more) beats per minute higher or lower.

If in doubt about determining your Maximum Heart Rate or the intensity you should be exercising at consult an exercise professional.

Aerobic Endurance Building Sessions

There are 3 main types of sessions for building aerobic endurance which you should include into your programme. These sessions are a stable part of training for all aerobic endurance type events whether it is running, triathlon, cycling or mountain walking.

-Long Distance

-Interval Training

-Aerobic Endurance Steady State Session 

Long Distance Session

The aim of the long distance session is to work for a progressively longer period of time, with at least some of the session being performed at similar intensity, incline and terrain that you would be completing the challenge on. This is the most specific session, and you could think of the long session as a practise session for how it will be on the day of the challenge. As well as developing your fitness the long distance sessions provide an opportunity to try out your equipment, eating strategies, walking boots and will allow you to determine what sort of pace you can walk consistently at on different types of terrain and inclines.

Most people would conduct the long session at the weekend when time permits. The time and duration of the long session would be determined by the challenge you are undertaking. The distance and time of the long session would progress upwards over the training plan. For example, if your challenge was to complete Pen-y-Fan the average time it takes for a beginner to walk up and down is 3 hours. So you would progress your long session up to 2-3 hours of continuous walking, ideally over progressively hillier terrain.

Below is a table of ascent and descent times frequently taken on the main mountains we use on our challenges. Your long session should aim to build towards the time it takes to complete those mountains in your challenge. The times given are quite broad due to the large range of abilities different groups have.













Cadir   Idris




Scafel   Pike




Ben   Nevis





You should take the following considerations into account when planning your training routine, but especially when planning your long distance session;

-The average ascent times are 2-3 hours with up to 5 hours in some instances.

-The terrain is rocky and uneven in places.

-You will be going uphill and occasionally it may be steep (like a staircase) in places.

-The demands of the challenges often involve multiple ascents of mountains, usually three.

This means your body needs be able to work for the required length of time for your individual challenge, be able to move steadily uphill and downhill and in some instances be able to repeat this 2 or 3 times. Your training methods should therefor mimic the above.

 If you are undertaking a Welsh or Lake District 3000ers challenge you may need to be walking almost constantly for over 15 hours! Although you would not generally put 15 hour long sessions in, some 7-10 hour days in the hills should definitely be included.

 A common practise for ultra-distance runners is to perform two long sessions on back to back consecutive days, and this technique could be adapted very effectively if you are training for multiple ascent mountain challenges like the Welsh and National 3 peaks challenge or for very long single day challenges like the Welsh and Lake District 3000ers. If you are completing a challenge such as the National 3 Peaks you may perform a weekends training which includes completing 3 back to back long sessions of similar duration and at similar times to that of the challenge. For example, on Saturday morning complete 3-4 hours, on Saturday late evening complete 3-4 hours and then early on Sunday morning complete 4-5 hours. This would be performed a couple of times in the 6 weeks building up to the challenge. Likewise if you are performing a Welsh or Lake District 3000ers Challenge then performing two long 7-10 hour back to back mountain days would definately help you prepare.

Interval Training

Interval Training consists of periods of hard work followed by periods of active or complete rest. This is the most effective at developing aerobic endurance, but it is also the most demanding on the body and therefore should be used sparingly. Interval sessions usually last between 30-90minutes including warm up, which is useful as most people have this amount of time to fit into their day for exercise. Interval sessions are completed at intensities faster than ‘race pace’ and the primary benefits come from the volume of training performed at intensities that otherwise could not be sustained for such prolonged periods of time.

In order for the interval session to be effective you will need to work at an intensity that is greater than that which you are used to. It could be faster, steeper or against a higher resistance but it must be greater than that used in other training sessions. The best way to progress interval training is to use running, and to progressively increase the speed. If you do not run or prefer not to then walking quickly uphill for various amounts of time can be used. Interval training could be performed on the bike or stepper but again this will not be as specific as walking or running uphill..

There can be considered two types of interval training; Low Intensity Interval Training(aerobic intervals) and High Intensity Interval Training (anaerobic intervals)

Aerobic Intervals

Aerobic Intervals generally last greater than 2 minutes at a heart rate of 80-85% Maximum Heart Rate, and this primarily stresses the aerobic energy system. These are most beneficial for beginner and intermediate exercisers and those needing  to develop low intensity long duration aerobic endurance as used in mountain walking.

 The following sessions could be performed outside on a hill, or on a treadmill.

Warm   Up

10-15   minutes

Raise   Pulse, Dynamically Stretch

Work   Duration

5   minutes

At   80-85% Max Heart Rate

Work   Incline



Rest   Duration

3   minutes

Heart   Rate 60-80% Max Heart Rate

Rest   Incline






Cool   Down

10-15   minutes

Decrease   Pulse, Statically Stretch

This is an example programme, for a more personalised session you should consult an exercise professional.

The speeds you work at will be determined by your heart rate. If your heart rate is not above 80% maximum heart rate during the work perioid then you will have to walk or run faster.

Anaerobic Intervals

Anaerobic Intervals are short work duration at a very high ‘all out effort’. They last less than 2 minutes, and are effective at developing aerobic endurance and anaerobic endurance. They are a very time efficient way of improving aerobic endurance, but because they are very demanding they should only be performed 1-2 times per week, by the more experienced exercisers. They are a very time efficient way of improving aerobic fitness, and have been shown to improve aerobic capacity in as little as two weeks. It must be remembered that anaerobic intervals require a very high maximal or near maximal effort.

There are many different ways to design a anaerobic interval session, and one suitable for mountain walking performed on a stepper is provided below.

Warm   Up

10-15   minutes

Raise   Pulse, Dynamically Stretch

Work   Duration

30   seconds

All   out effort

Rest   Duration

60   seconds

Active   recovery such as walking



 Build up over sessions

Cool   Down

10-15   minutes

Decrease   Pulse, Statically Stretch


Aerobic Endurance Steady State Sessions

These sessions work at a given aerobic intensity with a cap on the upper level. They are not as effective at developing aerobic endurance as interval sessions (due to the cap on the upper limit), or as specific as long sessions, but they allow a quicker recovery and so can be performed more often or on days preceding or following the harder more demanding sessions. Used with a combination of long distance training and intervals sessions they allow an effective way of developing endurance without hindering recovery. The sessions usually last for between 30-90minutes depending on the event or goal, and are usually performed at a heart rate of 60-80% maximum heart rate.

One point to remember is that many people go to hard in their aerobic steady state sessions which stifles their recovery and means they can not work hard enough in their harder interval sessions!

Resistance Training

Resistance Training improves aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and movement economy which all aid in improving low intensity exercise endurance required for Mountain Walking. The resistance training component of the plan will not only develop muscular strength and endurance, it will also help toughen muscles, joints and connective tissues to help deal with the demands of the rugged trails and reduce the risk of picking up injuries. You should follow a resistance training programme 2-3 times per week. It is advisable to get qualified help to take you through the exercises, and ensure you are using the correct intensity.

You should focus on large multi joint exercises that develop whole body strength especially in the legs. Remember it’s the legs that get you up the hill. And the more you have left in your legs the better they will be at the control and cushioning you need when coming downhill. The better they are at dealing with coming downhill the less fatigued they will be for the following mountain. Strengthening your legs is a WIN WIN situation!.

 The best exercises to follow to condition your body for Mountain Challenges are Squats, Lunges (Walking and Alternate) Step-ups onto a knee height box and Step-downs off a lower standard height step. These should be the focus of any routine and most people will want to add some general upper body and core exercises. Exercises that have the weight on your shoulders (BB Squats and BB Step-ups) will mimic the demands of having your rucksack on. For upperbody exercises it is best to focus on one push forwards (chest press) one pull back (seated row) one push upwards (shoulder press) and one pull down (lat pulldown). Another important and often overlooked movement critical to mountain walking is to include some form of hip flexion exercise. The Hip flexors are the muscles at the front of the thigh/hip that allow you to pick up your legs and feet, they are vitally important for walking up steps!. For more advanced resistance trained individuals a split routine could be considered in which you concentrate on different muscles/movements on different days. The more experienced would also benefit from a periodized plan and lower rep strength work, but for this I would recommend taking more advice from a qualified and experienced exercise professional.

 A suggested whole-body Resistance Training session is set out below.

 Warm up and cooldown appropriately before the session. Record the weight you use and when you can complete 3 sets of 15 reps with correct form it is important you increase the weight.




BB Back Squat



BB Step Up



BB Alternate Lunges



Low Box Step Downs



Calf Raises



DB Chest press



Seated Cable row



DB Shoulder Press



Lat Pulldown



Leg Raises




Max Time











Remember to warm up and cool down appropriately before and after all sessions. Please remember this is an example and the exercises used, the resistance, and intensity will be determined by your current health and fitness level, exercise history, postural assessment and exercise goal.

Combination Training

Combination training works on two or more aspects of fitness in one session and if you are struggling for time this may be a good option for you. The most common and traditional type is circuit training in which various different exercises are combined to form one session. In fact many of the current group exercise fitness classes available, including Kettlebell s, TRX, Boxercise and Crossfit are simply derivatives of the circuit training format developed by Leeds University in the 60s and popularized by military and group circuit training classes across the world over the last 50 years. Undoubtedly this combination or circuit training is effective at developing many aspects of fitness at once, and is extremely time-efficient (you get a lot of comeback for the time invested). However it must be remembered that it is not as effective at developing muscular strength and endurance as specific strength and endurance training using barbells and dumbbells, or as effective at developing aerobic endurance as interval training, and the long session as described above.

An example Combination training circuit with varying time intervals, and exercises is given below.

Follow each exercise one after the other. Complete the circuit 3 times.

5   Minutes Walking or Running uphill on treadmill incline 10%

20   knee height step ups per leg

20   Step Overs (step across knee height bench)

20   Leg Raises

15   Step downs per leg ( of a standard low step)

20   Bodyweight Squats

2   minutes Flat Walking Recovery

 Please remember this is an example circuit and the type of circuit, exercise intensity levels and exercises used will be determined by your current health and fitness level, exercise history, and exercise goal.  


Don’t let stiff muscles or poor range of movement around the joints hinder you. If you have a stiff Gluteus or Hamstring muscles every time you pick your leg up you will not only be lifting the weight of your leg and boots but also having to pull against those tight muscles. Regular static stretching performed for 10-15minutes after each session will help reduce these problems and help ensure your body moves efficiently. A whole body stretching routine is ideal, and in particular ensure you pay attention to Soleus, Gastrocnemius, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteus and Hip Flexors. For static developmental stretches you should hold the stretch for 30 seconds. For a whole body stretching routine you should consult your exercise professional.

Suggested Weekly Programmes

There are two suggested weekly breakdowns of training routines for a mountain challenge.

Pogramme one provides for 5 or 6 days of training per week depending on whether Friday is taken as an aerobic session or rest day. Programme two provides 4 or 5 days training per week, depending on whether the Wednesday session is taken as aerobic session or rest day.

Please remember these are examples and that exact programme design will be determined by your current health and fitness level, exercise history, exercise goal, lifestyle and work and family commitments. For a more specifically tailored plan for yourself it is advisable to get advice from a qualified and experienced exercise professional.


Programme 1

Programme 2


Resistance   Training & Anaerobic Intervals

Rest   Day


Aerobic 40-60mins

Resistance   Training & Intervals


Aerobic   Intervals

Aerobic 40-60mins Easy or Rest Day


Resistance   Training

Combination   Training


Aerobic 40-60mins Or Rest Day

Rest   Day


Long   Walk on Hilly Terrain

Aerobic 60mins Easy


Rest   Day

Long   Walk on Hilly Terrain

  Other considerations

 If you are combining Resistance Training and Aerobic or Interval Training on the same days as suggested in parts of the programmes, the order you perform each component depends on a number of factors. The most important are the programme goal and your individual strengths and weaknesses. If you need to increase muscular strength and endurance, and already have a good aerobic level, developing muscular strength and endurance would be your main goal then perform the resistance training first whilst you are fresh, and aim to work really hard at increasing this area. If you have high levels of muscular strength and endurance, but need to develop your aerobic endurance fitness then perform the aerobic exercises first, and then perform strength after a small rest. The key is prioritising what you need to improve on to achieve your fitness goal, whilst ensuring you maintain other components of your fitness.

Weather conditions in the uk are variable and you should practise in all conditions. Furthermore, some of your challenge may involve sections when you have to walk over rough or uneven terrain in the dark using a head torch. You should therefor practice walking at night over similar terrain!

 And finally if you are walking uphill using a treadmill


 Unless you are planning on getting toed up the mountain it is probably the biggest waste of time seen in commercial gyms.

 Final Note

 In summary…

 …Work hard… select the correct exercises… stick to your plan… train with the correct intensity… get advice from an experienced professional... complete your challenge… and have a great time doing it.


Written by Ben Morris

(BSc Hons Sports & PE, Summer Mountain Leader, Single Pitch Award, Dip PT)

March 2013



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