Mountain Time: PES and Mountain Athletes

From first-time hikers to ultra-distance runners, mountain athletes need help to keep doing—and improving at—what they love. NASM’s Performance Enhancement Specialization (PES) can help you reach this hard-charging group.

by Mike Woelflein

PES can help your clients excel in settings like this

PES can help your clients excel in settings like this.

photograph by MITO IMAGES/OFFSET

The term “mountain sports athlete” covers a growing segment of the population: Activities like climbing, mountaineering, off-road cycling, adventure racing, and trail running have all seen increased participation over the last three years. According to James Fisher, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, and Joe Azze, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, GFS, YES, who between them have decades of experience working with this group, one thing these athletes often have in common is extreme passion and focus—so much focus that it can actually hurt their performance.

If your clients (or potential clients) include mountain athletes, Fisher and Azze have advice for you. Read on for ways to help these clients excel. 

First, Change the Mindset
Mountain sports athletes tend to be a highly motivated crowd (weekend warriors included). The challenge with this group? Azze says it’s getting them to believe that they need to slow down, either in general or after peaking for an event. They need to be convinced that a program with movement prep, recovery weeks, stabilization, and flexibility work will help them. The good news? A movement assessment can provide the evidence they need, as it will show exactly where—and why—they’re limited. 

“One assessment can show them their limitations, asymmetries and compensations, and how addressing them will help them become a stronger, more resilient athlete,” Azze says. 

Common Issues Found Through Assessments
Mountain athletes “tend to train for their sport by doing their sport,” Fisher says. Assessments often point to shortages in endurance, strength, or cardio that lead to problems over time, such as:

• Postural distortions, often related to the head and shoulders (especially in bikers and backpackers), thoracic spine, and lumbo pelvic hip complex.
• Muscle imbalances, including tight hip flexors, tight chest and neck muscles, overactive hamstrings, and disengaged glutes and cores.
• Knee issues, often stemming from the ankles or hips (or even the neck and shoulder area from sedentary jobs), and ankle mobility issues.

Where to Focus Your Efforts
Emphasize core stabilization, strength, and power, as well as leg strength. “For most mountain athletes (except for climbers who needs extensive pull strength), the primary issue is in one of those two places,” Fisher says. As you’re developing a program to help those areas, keep these two tips in mind. 

• Get outside. Workouts need to hit everything you need them to, from stretching to cardio and strength work. “But,” Fisher says, “you can’t impact their playtime too much. Your program needs to be playtime.” That means, once muscle imbalances are addressed, get out of the gym whenever possible. One idea: Set up interval training on trails, interspersed with other exercises. 

• Customize. Once you get through the stabilization phase, focus on sports-specific work. “Make the workout as close as possible to what they’re going to do,” Fisher says. For many of these athletes, that means lots of squats, lunges, step-ups, and other leg-strengthening exercises to prepare for unstable surfaces—along with core work, from kettlebells to Olympic lifts.

Favorite Exercise: Deadlift
“We love to get all of our athletes deadlifting well, whether they’re 15 or 70,” Azze says. The deadlift works everything from the hands to the calves, with a focus on the core (hips, glutes, abs, and lower back areas), as wells as posture integrity, breathing, and managing physical stress. Azze focuses on using a proper grip, hip-hinging correctly, keeping their shoulders retracted, avoiding inflection through the lumbar spine area, and engaging their core by driving through their hips and glutes. 

Romanian Deadlift
Illustration Credit: MCKIBILLO

Romanian Deadlift
With feet pointed straight ahead and shoulder-width apart, hold a barbell in front of your mid-thighs, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Keep your back flat and knees slightly bent.
B. Bend forward at the hips, lowering the bar toward the floor, going only as far down as you can without rounding the lower back. Rise back to the starting position, concentrating on extending your hips as you stand.

Did you know? 
A recent study found that deadlift workouts could quickly improve a client’s explosiveness: Researchers at Texas Tech put subjects through twice-weekly deadlift training, and in 10 weeks time, saw a 7.4% rise in vertical jump height, along with a leap in peak torque for the knee flexors (21.3%) and extensors (25%).

Get Your PES
Important information about NASM’s Performance Enhancement Specialization (PES).

What it is: PES provides the concepts and knowledge to build individualized, sport-specific training programs to give athletes a richer training experience and better performance, from youths to professional athletes, teams, and weekend warriors.

Who it’s for: Anybody who wants to help athletes get to the next level—and take their career there too.

What it takes: PES candidates have one year to complete the course and pass an online exam. NASM provides multiple resources for learning, including a textbook, online lectures, study guides, quizzes, and a practice exam, plus the Cardio for Performance online course. A hands-on workshop is also available.

Benefits for your business: PES is recognized throughout the industry, and it may qualify you for advancement at your facility, set the stage for a new career, or help you build a niche business, such as working with mountain clients. “It gives you an easy-to-follow, step-by-step model that allows you to take anyone and help them get better at what they love to do,” says James Fisher, NASM-CPT, CES, PES. “It’s systematic, but it’s also flexible. It works for any sport, any client.” 

Learn more: Visit or call 855-619-8278. Trainers with PES can learn more about sport-specific programming strategies in Appendix A of NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training.
The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more