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Training Principles for the Uphill Athlete

BY Scott Johnston

Performance in the mountains shouldn't be left up to chance: here's how to optimize your training to have a good day every day.

The following is an excerpt from Training For the Uphill Athlete, a manual for mountain runners and ski mountaineers, by Kilian Jornet, Steve House And Scott Johnston.

These three words embody the principles of all successful training programs. Keeping these in mind as you build your program will keep you from making gross errors.

Correct training places one or more of your body’s systems into a crisis state. These stresses impact the body’s structural and functional systems. The myriad adaptation processes that occur to both these systems take place at varying rates and are induced by varying stimuli.

A failure to adapt (known as stagnation) can occur or even worse can cause overtraining, which is a diminishing level of fitness when these three cardinal rules are not adhered to. It takes time for the body to adjust to the training load you impose. A reapplication of another similar training stress will not give you the benefits you seek if your body’s structural and functional systems have not sufficiently adapted to your current training load.


Continuity in training refers to maintaining a regular schedule of training with minimal interruption. You have to be motivated and disciplined to fulfill the requirements of the plan you undertake. Obviously, there needs to be some flexibility to account for the unexpected. Lapses in training do happen. They can be managed, but they cannot be overlooked. If you miss a week of training due to work, travel, or sickness, you can’t pretend that you actually did all that training and progress to the next part of the plan. Your body will not be prepared for the next step, and you’ll be likely to have setbacks.

How you manage this discontinuity depends on its length and the reason for it. Occasional breaks of a day or two are not much of a problem as long as they do not diminish the training load by more than roughly 5 percent in a month. Frequent or prolonged breaks from training that amount to more than 5 percent of the monthly volume do create a need to adjust your subsequent training by taking a step back in the plan.


The most effective training must be progressive, meaning that the training loads need to gradually become larger than those that have come before in order to have a beneficial effect. As your fitness increases, what used to be too much will gradually become not enough.

Gradualness is an acknowledgment of the time your body needs to adapt to the training stimulus. Given the right training stimulus with adequate recovery your body has a remarkable ability to adapt to frequent gentle nudges.  But it does not respond well to infrequent, bludgeoning. Occasional bursts (or lapses) of enthusiasm and motivation that result in big changes in training load are a common approach to training by beginners and dilettantes. The results from this sporadic exercise (we can’t call it training) will never lead to optimal results and can be disastrous. Gradualness is a virtue that cannot be overemphasized.

Once your body is adapted to the stress of the current training load, what used to create a physiological mini-crisis will no longer be enough load to cause your body to keep adapting. Some creative changes to the training load need to be implemented for the next cycle or progress will stop as you become adapted to this old level of stress. The types of changes vary according to the qualities that the athlete hopes to develop and tend to fall into two distinct categories: volume and intensity.

For a quality such as aerobic capacity, these adjustments are simple and involve mostly an increase in training volume. To effect simultaneous adaptations of different qualities like anaerobic capacity and speed, or aerobic endurance and muscular endurance, more elaborate training methods need to be implemented and must be administrated with care and finesse.

A gradual progression of the training load means different things for different athletes. Beginners and those with a low annual volume of training can progress faster than those with many years of training who are closer to their ultimate potential fitness.

As a general rule, beginners (under 350-400 hours/year) can increase training load, as measured by time, by as much as 25 percent per year. Advanced athletes, training more than 500 hours per year will be unable to make such jumps because they are already operating much closer to their limit. For them, a 10 percent jump in yearly volume should be considered a maximum. Elite-level athletes often make no change in overall annual training volume, instead seeking gains by juggling the type and amount of higher-intensity and specific training.


Modulation refers to the undulating level of the training load that allows the body a chance to recover its homeostasis after a build-up period. Modulation allows you to stress the targeted systems then give them time to adapt before applying new training load. Depending on the systems you target, this modulation can follow a cycle measured in hours up to one measured in days. With care, an athlete can modulate training to allow several systems to adapt at the same time. Being mindful of and recording your daily perceptions of how you feel before, during, and after training in a training log helps you learn how you adapt to the various stressor in your life.

An extreme form of modulation is called “Overreaching” sometimes employed by advanced athletes. This entails a short planned period of very high training loads preceded by a slightly below-average week and followed by a substantial recovery period. Overreaching could be two massive back to back weekend workouts followed by three of four light days. Or it could be an entire week staying high in a hut and packing in long days with a couple of interval workouts which might necessitate a full week for recovery.  Planned overreaching is not the same as randomly exercising when the spirit moves you.

To learn more about training for mountaineering and mountain running, get your own copy of Training For the Uphill Athlete, or check out UphillAthlete.com.

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About Scott Johnston

Scott Johnston is coauthor with Steve House of Training for the New Alpinism which is still causing a revolution in the alpine climbing and mountaineering worlds and the just released Training for the Uphill Athlete coauthored with Kilian Jornet and Steve House. Scott is a lifelong athlete and coach, and competed internationally in swimming before racing on the World Cup circuit in Cross Country Skiing. Through his competitive years he also climbed at a high level around the world. He has coached multiple world-class athletes in a variety of sports. He is co-owner with Steve House of UphillAthlete.com a website for athletes interested in mountain running, ski mountaineering and alpinism. Their website provides a trove of free useful informational articles as well as training plans and coaching service.