Training for Mountain Sports
Mountain sports require both traditional and specialized training for the unique demands of trail running, ski mountaineering and climbing. For mountain athletes seeking help to improve fitness, skills or mental strength, working with trainers specializing in mountain sports is a huge advantage.
Steve House is one of the world’s top alpinists and Scott Johnston is a trainer who helped Steve obtain his goals. Together, they started Uphill Athlete, a coaching service catering to the very specific demands of the mountain sport athlete.
In the Alps, we often see visitors, no matter how fit, struggle with the unique requirement of these mountains, vertical fitness. Uphill Athlete provided us with a Big Vert Training Plan to offer our followers. This got us thinking… let’s see if our followers have their own training questions for all the various sports they’re doing.
Below, Steve and Scott address the questions from our readers.
If you’re interested in the Big Vert Training Plan, you can take 20% off the $49 price with our coupon code : elevation
Uphill Athlete Training Advice
How long/’high’ are your long trainings in comparison to the total distance/d+ of your race objective?
For mountain running events of 100 miles and less we recommend that you build from a weekly training load (distance/time/vertical) of about 50% your goal event to weekly training load of 100% of the goal event itself in your biggest training weeks. That volume progression needs to be gradual so as to not exceed your ability to absorb the load. The time it will take to build to the peak training load will depend mainly on the length of the event you are training for and your current training status.
Have either of you ever had any injuries and if so, how did you deal with not being able to go out and train?
Yes. We’ve both been injured (including a couple that were life threatening) numerous times. At some point almost all mountain athletes will have to deal with an injury. Hopefully yours will be minor. But even minor injuries can keep you from training for extended periods. It sounds like you are asking about handling the mental side of missing training and the anxiety that often comes with extended lay-offs. Do not try to train through this injury: Stop when it is apparent that things are not improving. Avoid activities that cause you pain in the injury site. This sound so obvious that it does not need to be stated but it is the single biggest reasons that injuries persist. Make a plan to heal: Be proactive in your healing strategy. Use all the resources at your disposal. Read, and learn about your injury and the therapies that can help you. Then practice those diligently. Actively engaging in the healing process will give you back some feeling of control that you’ve lost with the injury. Find activities that you can safely do while injured. You’re used to a high level of activity and being sedentary will not be mentally or physically helpful. Stay as active as possible using alternative activities like swimming and cycling and even hiking or an elliptical trainer. Sitting around feeling sorry for yourself is the worst thing you can do.
Any favourite system on mental training for rock climbing?
This is a huge subject that could and does fill books, so we’re at a bit of a loss to properly address this in this format. However, we do devote an entire chapter of Training for the New Alpinism to this topic and we would refer you to that as a starting point. While there does not seem to be one single approach to dealing with the risk in climbing, certainly familiarization and small dose exposure to risk will help you to build confidence.
What’s your training advice for the Jungfrau marathon?
Have a large base of aerobic running in your legs. Then introduce some high intensity training into your plan. How large a base and how much intensity are very individual things depending on your training background and goals. We offer some guidelines here https://www.uphillathlete.com/when-to-add-intensity-training/. If you do not want to design your own training plan we offer one that you can customize https://www.uphillathlete.com/mike-foote-big-vert-ultra-run-training-plan/
First of all thank you for your excellent book Training for the New Alpinism. It has really helped me understand how to approach training, and the underlying reasons for everything. It’s possible I missed this point from the book, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on how an individual can know if they are adequately base trained and ready to move on to more anaerobic training and more advanced strength training? Are there any indicators that can be monitored? E.g. Zone 1 HR vs running pace, number of reps of a certain exercise, etc? Also, are there any helpful ”non-measurable” qualitative indicators to monitor that can be of guidance? Thanks in advance!
We do have a method to quantify when your aerobic base is adequate to support the addition of higher intensity (above your lactate threshold) aerobic/anaerobic training. You can read about that here https://www.uphillathlete.com/when-to-add-intensity-training/. As regards strength training, it’s not so simple because general (non sport specific) strength it important for all athletes up to a point where specific strength becomes more beneficial to performance results. The problem is, despite many studies, no one really knows where this point is. We do know that that lower level athletes should do more general strength whereas elites must to do more of their strength training in very sport specific ways. Not all strength training is done in a gym lifting weights. The more sport specific strength training is often done using extra resistance while doing sport specific movements. You can read more about this topic here https://www.uphillathlete.com/strength-training-endurance/.
Logistics wise ME workouts are difficult to do where I live and train, so I try to emulate steep hills by putting the treadmill at 15% (its max incline) and going quite slow with a heavy pack. Do you think its worth it, since I’m not really going up?
Yes, there will be some Muscular Endurance (ME) effect from hiking on a 15% treadmill with a heavy pack. However, you might want to consider some other options. If your goal is to climb mountains, you’ll be better off using something steeper since not many mountains have slopes of only 15%. Training your muscles by using the same joint angles as you will be using on your goal event. A stair machine like the Stairmaster type which are like climbing up an escalator will give similar range of motion to hiking steep grades. You are not actually lifting your body as much in each step as if you were climbing a set of stairs because the stairs are falling away under you as you step up. None the less we have definitely seen good gains for our coached clients using this method. Another option is to use a gym based ME workout like this one https://www.uphillathlete.com/mountain-climbing-strength-workout-muscular-endurance/
I’ve read TFNA a couple times and followed @uphill_athlete for a long time, but have always this question in my mind.. I am never sure about the crossing line that separates a long ME workout and a simple long Z1 workout, and what would be more beneficial in the transition period. For example, what would be more beneficial in the last months prior to an alpine expedition: to quit running and focus on long heavy walks, or to focus on longer runs and short intense ME workouts?
You’re right that there is definitely a Muscular Endurance (ME) training effect from long low intensity workouts like mountain hikes and runs. We distinguish between this type of long/low intensity muscular load and the much more focused ME workouts we describe in several places on our site such as this https://www.uphillathlete.com/vertical-beast-mode-what-is-muscular-endurance-why-it-is-important-for-any-alpinist-or-mountaineer-and-how-do-you-train-it/
In your case of preparing for an expedition or major alpine goal we recommend that you do 1-2 of these focused ME workouts each week for 6-10 weeks during the final preparation period. These should be accompanied with a high volume of low intensity aerobic training as explained in the above article. This is a very important aspect of this sport of training. The intensity and volume of this aerobic base needs to be at a level that allows you to recover within 24 hours to do the same base aerobic work again the next day. In the Transition period we do not recommend ME workouts for anyone but the highest level elite athletes.
How to you recommend balancing high intensity vs endurance when training for a sport like skiing, where one might want to crush it inbounds (2 min bouts at very high intensity separated by 5-10 min rests) during the winter, but then be able to transition to ski mountaineering (skinning/climbing say 10-15k vertical feet in 10-20 hours) in the spring?
What you are asking for is a common request we hear and one for which the answer will not satisfy you. There is a fundamental law of training: You can’t perform at your best NOW while also training to perform your best in the future. We explain this in detail here https://www.uphillathlete.com/capacity-training-vs-utilization-training/
Ski mountaineering requires a very high work capacity for aerobic work due to the duration of the work as well as high muscular endurance work capacity due to the weight of your gear and pack you’ll be carrying. Increasing capacity these two realms requires quite different training stimuli.
Those hard 2 minute downhill blasts are demanding a very high muscular endurance (ME) capacity. But they’ll will be maximally utilizing whatever ME work capacity you have when you start resort skiing in this manner. Building ME capacity through appropriate ME training during the preseason will help set you up for a more successful downhill ski season while also allowing you to do plenty of aerobic capacity training during the ski season as well. If you these resort ME utilization workouts are too far above your current ME capacity, they’ll leave your legs so worked that you will not be able to handle the needed aerobic capacity training that you need for the spring. The issue you will run into is that this hard ME work you do at the resort will impact and be impacted by your aerobic base training if you choose to do that aerobic training by ski touring. You (no one can) can’t maximally build these 2 capacities at the same time. So, you need to decide which of these has a higher priority for you.
Yes! For complete female beginners at pretty low fitness: what would you prioritize so they can train to hike/walk faster and further? Aerobic base, strength, other or all of the above?
Strength and aerobic base training are essential for any person interested in improving their endurance performance. They each serve a critical role and one without the other will not give you good results. So, yes, both!
Also, thank you so much for your book. I have had so many penny drop moments out of it as to where I personally have been going wrong in training and how to make it better and not only do I feel stronger but I’m enjoying it more too so thank you thank you
Thank you for your kind words. You and many thousands of others are why we wrote Training for the New Alpinism. It’s always nice to hear that it is helping people.
If you compare a 30-50k and a >100k trail runner, how the time they train in each zones (1..5) vary ?
It does not change at all the percentage of training in the different zones. They all need to do 85-90% of the training time in Zone 1 and Zone 2 and the rest can be split between Zone 3, 4 and 5.
I failed to finish a 100km this summer (stopped at about 46km). What are the few training tips to achieve endurance(+speed) in a mountainous trail race (+ 6700m / – 6700m)? I ran a few 50km races finishing in about 8-9 hours on average. How much kms per week should I run ?
This would depend on why you had to stop. Your failure to finish might have been caused by the other races you did. If you had been racing 50km several times during the summer before this 100km race you have lost your fitness base by doing too much racing rather than focusing on training for the long race. It is typical that you will taper off your training load for a week and maybe more before each race. It is also typical that you will need reduced training for 1-2 weeks after these races to recover. If you do this several times in the summer this can add up to 2 months of reduced training load. This is not an ideal way to prepare for a major racing goal. If you can race through these shorter races with no taper and minimal recovery after, then the races can be part of an effective training plan. However, if these 50km races were a stretch and required that you reduce your training as suggested above then you raced too much and trained to little. One of our athletes, Luke Nelson finished 8th in the 330km Tor de Geant race in September off an average of 60km/week for the preceding 9 months. Super high training volume is not an absolute necessity for longer races. Correct training is a must however.
How much gym strength training sessions should one do to prep for 50km trail run with 2000m of ascent?
That depends on what you are doing in the gym. Strength training can take many form. While there is no simple formula as to how strong you need to be for an event like this we find that most mountain runners do not do enough strength training. But …..absolute strength is not very important for runners. What is critically important is muscular endurance which is a form of strength. This type of training can dramatically improve the fatigue resistance of the main propulsive muscle groups. The pace in long mountain race is low enough that the metabolic demands are rather low for a reasonable well trained athlete. In short races, where metabolic turnover is what limits the pace and results in the short term fatigue and causes your pace to slow. Whereas in long slower races the pace drops off due to localized neuro-muscle fatigue. Specific Muscular Endurance training to make your main running muscles more fatigue resistant should form a significant part of all mountain runners training programs. Doing conventional strength training can have some effect on muscular endurance but we recommend specific muscular endurance workouts.