Endurance Training: Going Backwards to Go Forward

Building an Aerobic Base

This spring I learned what it meant to be an endurance athlete… and I was definitely not part of the club. As a skier who grew up playing soccer I was used to red-lining up skin tracks, powering through boot packs, and sore muscles the next day. After an epic February cutting thigh deep skin tracks up Jakes Peak every weekend, my ski partners and I hit the Eastern Sierra with a vengeance, bagging lines from Bridgeport to Big Pine. I got stronger and stronger until a friend and I attempted to ski the Split Couloir on Split Mountain. On Split, our outing turned into a 30 mile, 16 hour haul in which we turned around at the base of the couloir and skied for a whopping 4 miles before hitting dirt again.

Skier hiking through snow

After that day, I hit a wall and my performance in the skin track declined for the rest of the season. I simply could not keep up the pace of my uphill travel at the intensity that I was used to working at and, my friends, who had a much larger endurance capacity than myself just kept on chugging all the way into June. It was time to change my “all-power” approach to ski touring, which would mean training for endurance for the first time in my life.

Backcountry skiers hiking up couloir

To get started, I bought an amazing book called Training for the Uphill Athlete by Scott Johnston, Steve House, and Kilian Jornet. The two basic principles laid out in the book are 1) You will never maximize your endurance potential without first maximizing your base aerobic capacity and 2) There are no shortcuts! The path to maximizing aerobic capacity lies in performing long workouts at intensities that are below your aerobic threshold (where most of your energy is coming from aerobic respiration and very little lactic acid is produced). For me, that meant I would have to literally walk before I could run.

Start Your Backcountry Ski Training and Get in Shape for the Skintrack

This summer, I dedicated myself to the pursuit of an aerobic base. I started by trying to find the heart rate that corresponded to my aerobic threshold using the Heart-Rate Drift Test. It was an extremely humbling experience of guess-and-check and I ultimately wound up walking on a slightly inclined treadmill before I found it. Armed with this knowledge, I resolved to do all of my training below this heart rate and began walking.

Backcountry skier hiking through snow

One of the most difficult parts of the training early on was the fact that I was steadily losing power. Since strength and other anaerobic qualities are gained and lost much faster than aerobic qualities, I noticed a conspicuous loss of overall power before making any aerobic gains. Then one and a half months in, I re-tested on the Heart-Rate Drift Test and was able to increase my threshold heart rate by 8 BPM. Two and a half months in, I’m just starting to push up into a slow jog. Progress is slow in endurance training, but I’m keeping my eyes on lasting aerobic effects and reminding myself that I’m in it for the long game: a lifetime of long days in the backcountry.

I think I’m able to endure the horrendously dull effort of getting up every morning and training at low intensities because of the strength of my goals. So badly do I want to move effortlessly through snow laden trees instead of huffing and puffing so hard I barely notice them. So badly do I want to spend all day in the alpine and be ready to do it again the next day. At the end of the day, I’m training for endurance so that I can have more fun while pursuing the sport I love.

Do you want to know how Johnny trains in the off season for ski touring? Pick up a copy of his training bible, Training for the Uphill Athlete – By Kilian Jornet, Steve House And Scott Johnston. It’s filled with ski specific workouts and training plans!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Tahoe Mountain Sports will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Affiliate commissions help fund the content for this blog.

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