Training for the Uphill Athlete – Review – a new milestone in quality and thoroughness in a training guide for the endurance athlete

summary

The book Training for the New Alpinism by Scott Johnston and Steve House set new standards for thorough, science and coaching-based training advice for alpinists and endurance athletes alike. Although focused on fast and light alpinism (aka “new” alpinism), Johnston’s background as a coach in cross country skiing permeated the book and, as a result, much of the book could be easily applied to other endeavors- like cross country skiing, mountain running, and ski mountaineering (SkiMo). With support from Patagonia as publisher, a large emphasis was placed on clear, high quality, information-dense graphics that were far superior to anything else available at the time. I highly recommended this book when it was published and continue to do so today.

Enter this new volume from Johnston and co-authors Steve House and Kilian Jornet that is focused on mountain running, ultra running, and  SkiMo. Along with the same science and coaching-based guidance, similarly superior graphics, a unique focus on strength development, and an excellent handbook to developing your own training plan, “Training for the Uphill Athlete” represents a new milestone in quality and thoroughness in a training guide for the endurance athlete.

In this book one will find a nicely presented approach to training for “uphill” endurance sports such as mountain running and SkiMo. Throughout, the authors provide a scientific and/or coaching-based foundation for the specific training programs being described. Of particular note are the sections on ATP production and lactate metabolism- the best presentation of this material that I have been exposed to. All of this gives the reader the basis for (or a starting point for) development of a personal training “philosophy”- something that is critical to the success of any training regimen. As is pointed out frequently in the book, each individual presents a unique combination of physiology, biomechanics, life situation, and personality. Provided with a basic foundational approach and the specific tools needed to enable successful, progressive training , the reader is well positioned to be able to design and execute upon a training program that is aligned with his or her abilities, time, commitment, and goals.

The overarching mantras laced through the material are:

aerobic base development, “progression, progression, progression”, and the critical importance of substantial integrated strength training elements

Too many athletes and recreationalists ramp training up too quickly, incorporate intensity too soon, suffer injury, and, potentially, burnout. By properly progressing training load and intensity and integrating strength sessions into the program such “training errors” can be largely avoided. These themes are regularly brought forward and discussed throughout the book and recommendations are provided to help the reader incorporate appropriate progressions and strength programs.

Although of limited value, the book is punctuated by sidebar stories and opinions from representative uphill athletes- both elite level and some well-known sub-elite athletes. I find these individual essays to be more of a hinderance to the authors otherwise successful goal to provide clear guidance but I know that many find such stories inspirational.

Also included are “Kilian’s Notes”- short sections where Kilian describes his training history, training methods, and some specific workouts. Again, I find these of limited value as they are coming from an athlete who has been in intensive endurance training since he was 13 years old, with a 90+ VO2max, mental fortitude that is similarly off the charts, and has raced thousands of times. Having trained with athletes with some of these attributes, I can say that what they do is not particularly relevant even to those with relatively high VO2max and long histories with training for endurance sport. If you have ever competed against or trained with someone with a 90+ VO2max you will know what I mean. I suggest that one take these Kilian missives as just that- an entertaining peek into what such an extraordinary and accomplished athlete does and not a prescription for anyone else. Unfortunately there is no warning to this effect in the book.

I have found little to disagree with in this book with the exception of the science fiction provided on “fat adaptation” and a “hook-line-and-sinker” devotion to the persistent hunting theory as a basis for understanding human endurance abilities. But these are minor items and thankfully nutrition is not a focus of the book so it is easy to let these go and concentrate on all of the truly valuable information and presentation in the book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in understanding fundamental endurance training concepts, evolving a personal approach based on these concepts, and developing a reliable, flexible training plan that will, with consistency and commitment, lead to success and goal achievement in endurance sport.

DETAILED review

Clearly the vast majority of the material in “Training for the Uphill Athlete” is of high quality with valiant attempts to align current science and coaching-based experience into the presented training guidance and training plan development. There are, however, a few areas where unfounded or not fully founded concepts are presented as “fact”. I’ll cover these along with a more detailed look at the author’s proposed training program synthesis and associated training plan development guidance.

Chapter 2 “Physiology of Endurance”

This is an excellent chapter that presents a clear and engaging discussion with excellent graphical representations of the  metabolic, physiologic, and biomechanic factors that lead to endurance. The concept of the lactate “vacuum cleaner” is very useful in helping one understand the processes taking place that will lead to enhanced endurance performance. All of this leads to the statement of the Uphill Athlete Training Philosophy:

“You will never maximize your endurance potential without first maximizing your basic aerobic capacity (AeT)”.

If one were to take just a single thing from the book then this would be that thing. How you get there is covered in the rest of the book but absorbing the reality of this statement is fundamental to founding a training approach for endurance sport.

There are a couple of sections in this chapter that I think are in need of criticism. Although neither of these criticisms affect the sound training advice being given, they do represent areas where the reader needs to be vigilant in questioning everything that is stated and to not accept outright some of the proposed mechanisms. These issues are in the areas of the “Persistence Hunting” theory of human evolution and “fat adaptation”.

In the introduction to Chapter 2 “The Physiology of Endurance”, the authors end the  first section summarizing the popular “persistence hunting theory” of human evolution with the following:

“We are the product of an evolutionary heritage that has predisposed us to endurance”.

Although giving some latitude in the text to this being a theory, this final sentence has no substantial support in the form of conclusive (or even indicative) scientific process. There exist other competing theories and interpretations of what scant evidence there is that would allow any determination of how we, as homo (sapiens), evolved. The theory of Persistence Hunting remains an unproven, although appealing, postulate that will likely never be founded by data and analysis.  This is affirmed even in the reference that the authors provide to support their conclusive statement:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23227131_The_Relevance_of_Persistence_Hunting_to_Human_Evolution

David Carrier formulated the theory in 1984 and it has been “generally accepted”- how this has come to pass I have no idea but is nonetheless emblematic for what is happening in the “soft” sciences as it concerns unsupported conclusive statements and “generally accepted” hogwash.

For entertainment it is worthwhile to listen to a humorous short podcast by Scott Carrier (David’s brother and a former NPR “storyist”) that documents David’s and Scott’s attempt at putting the theory to work and run down some Pronghorn Antelope in Wyoming. This is a re-broadcast of a story Scott did for NPR in 1984. Look for the episode “Running After Antelope” on 3/19/2015 at his podcast website here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/running-after-antelope/id972388330?i=1000338087072&mt=2

Moving on to the “fat adaptation” material, the authors present some data on page 63 that shows point data for %fat and %carbohydrate use as a function of %max heart rate for three individuals with supposedly different training backgrounds- a high intensity intervals-focused athlete, a “well-trained” endurance athlete, and an elite cross country skier. Concern number one is that the authors provide no reference for this data so that the efficacy of the testing could be checked. One has no idea if these data were ever peer-reviewed by experts or if the data are published. Using unpublished data is not appropriate for supporting generalized conclusions published in a book. Concern number two centers around the relevance of cross sectional data on individuals to any generalized advice. Without an understanding of many other factors (some confounding) that will influence the results shown, these data really have no scientific basis. They are cherry-picked graphs used to support a point being made in the text- something that is not acceptable. Use of representative peer-reviewed data from published references is the only acceptable alternative and even this type of data can be very deficient in this field of study. Without longitudinal data as well as data on individual enzymatic profiles (profiles which are temporal) there is no ability to put any generalized interpretation on what is presented. This is not to say that the arguments presented by the authors cannot be supported, just that they do not provide the appropriate references to peer-reviewed publications- an unfortunate oversight.

The subject of “fat adaptation” is often confused with the low carbohydrate high fat (LCHF) diet cult literature some of which the authors reference (e.g. Volek’s work). Here the authors use a simplified version of a graph from one such publication by Volek (who is one of the LCHF cult leaders). This is Figure 2.10 on page 62. The graph shows what apparently are average peak fat oxidation rates for two populations of subjects- “well-trained fat adapted” and “well-trained less-well-fat-adapted” (whatever these descriptions mean?). Searching out the reference (which was not given in the text but is as follows: “Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners”, Volek, et al., Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental, 65 (2016) 100-110.) and critically reviewing the article we find that all is not well. Firstly, this study is aimed at determining the difference in fat oxidation rate of well-trained (supposedly elite) athletes as a function of %VO2max with two populations- one that habitually consumes a high carbohydrate diet and another that habitually consumes a high fat-low carbohydrate diet (aka “keto-adapted”). The study is about the potential effects of diet on fat adaptation, not fat adaptation. Yet the authors are using the data to support a point in the text about how important it is to become “fat adapted” by lots of aerobic training (sometimes in a fasted state). Secondly, the graph presented in the book does not show the point data. Rather, the data are presented as large ovals with some whiskers on it. No explanation of the graph is given other than to point at a difference that the authors are using to make a point in the text. This is very poor writing and has no place in an otherwise science-oriented book. The figure from the actual publication shows large circles with whiskers as well as all of the point data from the individual subjects of the study. The text of the published article indicates that the circles represent the average value of peak fat oxidation and the whiskers are the 95% confidence intervals (CI). Further review indicates that the peak fat oxidation point data are generated at values of  %VO2max ranging from a low of about 38% to a high of about 81%. In the publication there is a companion graph that shows the %VO2max at the peak fat oxidation value for each of the study participants. Their data show that the LCHF group reaches peak fat oxidation values at higher %VO2max values (higher HRs) and the authors further argue that these LCHF subjects can therefore exercise at higher intensity whilst burning more fat than the high carbohydrate group, i.e. that their aerobic threshold (AeT) is higher because of the LCHF diet. Yet the book authors never even allude that the differences they are pointing to are supposedly based on differences in diet. In fact, the data and analysis (if you choose to put any credence in the dicey conclusions from such a limited and flawed study) partially unfound the argument that the book authors are making in the associated text. The authors of the published article propose that one can only maximize AeT by combining both substantial aerobic base work with a LCHF diet, whereas, contrarily, the book authors contend that AeT can be maximized by substantial aerobic base work in an often fasted or glycogen depleted state- no specific diet required.  These assertions are based on a definition of aerobic threshold HR as that HR where carbohydrate and fat are being consumed equally (the 50/50 point). Thirdly, the data in the Volek article is, again, cross sectional and lacks important data on enzymatic profiles and other potentially confounding variables; this is all in addition to the self-reported diet data (lowest quality of data). Fourthly, the authors of the published article assert that the study subjects are “elite” and use a definition of “elite” that I (and anyone else who understands the nature of elite performance) have significant disagreement with (e.g. a finish within 10% of the winner is definitely not elite). I suggest you read the article yourself as well as the many peer-reviewed published articles that have various levels of disagreement with Volek et al. One such article is:

Burke et al., Science 362, 781–787 (2018)*

There is no more defective literature than that of the field of nutrition (perhaps such defectiveness is only exceeded by the literature in the field of psychology) and add this to the already deficient situation in the literature in the field of exercise physiology and you have the recipe for gibberish cake coated with statistical frosting. Much of the data is observational and self-reported and therefore represents the weakest of all data types. And what about replication? Replication? Replication is a rare bird in these fields, yet it forms the essential starting point in the hard sciences. I do not want to minimize the difficulty associated with studies of the human body and mind as these difficulties are substantial, but the fact that something is hard to do does not give one license to make unfounded conclusions as is rife in these fields.

chapter 3 “The METHODOLOGIES of Endurance Training”

This is another excellent chapter that attempts to put some structure on how one might go about training and recovering to maximize performance in endurance sport. The primary issue I have with this chapter is that the authors present yet another, slightly different, intensity zone system to add to the confusion facing anyone who decides to get serious about training. While functional within the context of the programs described in the book, the presented zone system differs in number and range with other widely used systems (like Friel’s). I had hoped that this book might be the first to present intensity zones in the much simplified format suggested by Seiler in the past couple of years. Seiler argues that there are three zones for endurance training- aerobic base, lactate threshold, and VO2max. Theses zones are defined by the aerobic threshold (AeT) and the lactate threshold (LT or anaerobic threshold (AnT))- two easily measurable physiologic markers (the authors also use these markers to assign intensity zones, but choose to develop a system with 5 or 6 zones). Yes, these markers may move about by a few HR beats depending on individual exposure to training and other stressors, but they provide the only reliable basis for setting up a functional intensity zone system. The Seiler-proposed three zone system has a zone 1 that is defined by HRs at AeT and below (aerobic base training), a zone 2 that is defined by HRs at LT to -5% LT (lactate threshold training is at the high end of this zone and tempo work is at the low end) and a zone 3 defined by HRs at LT to +5% LT (VO2max work). No training is to be done outside of these three zones. This is essentially what the authors propose but just make it a bit more complicated by having other zones- zones that will not be used. I continue to lobby for the simplified three zone system.

The other issue with this chapter is the material on recovery where an ordinate list of the important recovery pathways is presented. I suggest that one read the book “Good to Go” by Christine Ashwanden. The author, a staff member at FiveThirtyEight, the well-known data-based journalism outfit, goes about using all the available data on efficacy of the many recovery methods and essentially debunks them all except sleep and floatation. Have a read- you will never foam roll or be massaged again! That is unless you want to take advantage of the placebo effect for mental issues.

chapter 4 “Monitoring your training”

This chapter does a great job at putting a framework around what an individual should be monitoring throughout a training plan, particularly as it relates to the potential for overtraining. This is an important subject and one that typically gets very little coverage in books on training for endurance sport. Yet overtraining is likely the single thing that derails or ends many careers in these sports. The material here is well placed and thoroughly presented.

chapter 5 “the application process: where theory meets reality”

Here the authors detail how to use their intensity zone system in a plan to maximize one’s aerobic base and then begin adding in high intensity work (tempo workouts, LT intervals, and VO2max intervals). Further reiteration of the importance of aerobic base capacity development is drilled throughout the chapter. It is difficult to come away from these first five chapters without the basis for a strong commitment to, first and foremost, ensure that your training includes a sufficient base period that allows for substantial aerobic base capacity development (and maximization for experienced, long term endurance athletes). This can take years to develop and it is pointed out that such longer term timeframes are an appropriate lens through which one should approach endurance training. It is refreshing to see this viewpoint as so many other training guides try to push shortcuts or supposedly “more efficient” ways to aerobic base development. Clearly there are no shortcuts and the physiologic processes that need to take place for maximization are on the “years-long” timescale. Absorbing this fact and incorporating this reality into one’s planning and goal setting will lead to a successful result rather than rushing the process into abject failure.

I applaud the authors for bringing uphill bounding to the fore in intensity sessions. This is a woefully overlooked tool for not only intensity workouts but in the development of specific strength and muscular endurance. Arthur Lydiard used hill bounding extensively in his training programs and cited how important this activity is in providing his athletes with the strength and power needed to perform on race day. Bee and I use uphill bounding with poles extensively in our training for cross country skiing with 2-a-week sessions from early August until the snow flies in late November. We find this work to be essential to high performance in skiing and I find it leads to great advantages in uphill sections in mountain running races. Bee similarly finds these bounding sessions as enabling for difficult kayak moves in powerful class IV and V whitewater.

chapter 6, 7, & 8
“strength training for the uphill athlete”
“General strength assessment and improvement”
“specific strength – training methods”

One of the features that distinguishes this book from the many others on endurance training is the integrative approach the authors take toward strength training. In the proposed training programs strength is not an “add-on” sub-activity or a “suggested” enhancement, it is at the core of the program and therefore strength is conceptually and actionably integrated into the training schedule.

Well placed arguments about how strength elements are critical to injury prevention as well as how properly designed strength elements ensure good technique and allow development of important specific strength capacity are provided and allow the reader to fully appreciate the importance of this area.

But founding a basis for strength is just the start. The authors provide a simple and straightforward plan for assessing your individual strength needs and then outline simple strength programs to address one’s deficiencies. We all have deficiencies (even the best of us) and attention to these will be critical to ensuring progression and, eventual, success with a training plan. For older athletes this section is of primary importance as detailed elsewhere on this site- strength is one of the “big three” limiters for performance as one ages. Sarcopenia does not sleep!

chapter 9, 10, & 11
“programming”
“transition period training”
“introduction to the base period”

These chapters detail out how one can go about developing an individual training plan. Understanding the essentials of training plan programming along with considerations for the very important transition period between seasons will enable the reader to put together an effective training plan and the knowledge of how this plan will inevitably be modified as one executes upon it.

Significant sections are devoted to understanding and properly programming the base period as this is the essential platform upon which any other endurance training is based. This base development then leads to additions of intensity all whilst a parallel strength program is being pursued.

The authors present a meso and microcycle process using the tried-and-true weekly focus approach that distributes work into base (B), intensity (I), recovery (R), specificity (S), taper (T), and goal (G) weeks. Bee and I have been using this system in one form or another since the late 70’s, with the exception of my experiments with “block periodization” in 2016 and 2017. We have had good success with this training plan protocol and con confidently recommend it. Now we have a book that we can recommend as well.

Chapters 12 & 13
“special considerations for SkiMo and ski mountaineering”
“special considerations for mountain running”

These two chapters elaborate upon some of the specific and unique aspects of the two sports and how to adjust your training to meet those unique needs. These sections are well written and provide valuable information for those just getting into these sports but the material is also valuable for even experienced competitors.

bottom line

A well written book that is worth your time and will pay back big dividends in successful endurance training so long as you make the commitment and ensure consistency.

 

*Some relevant quotes from the Burke article:

Short-term fat adaptation strategies, or even long-term adaptation to ketogenic LCHF diets (80% fat, <50 g of CHO/day), which can increase normal rates of fat oxidation by two or three times (21, 22), are limited in application to a small range of sporting events in which utilization is low enough for muscle energy to be provided by fat oxidation (21, 23). To date, it appears that protocols that substantially increase fat oxidation also decrease metabolic flexibility by reducing CHO substrate pools and/or the ability to rapidly oxidize them. The bottom line is that when elite athletes train for and compete in most sporting events, CHO fuels are the predominant and critical substrate for the working muscles, and the availability of CHO (22, 24), rather than fat, wins gold medals. We propose that the increased rates of fat oxidation observed after endurance training and “train-low” strategies (see When less is more) are a proxy for an increase in mitochondrial density; for competition success, this machinery is best utilized by harnessing it to enhance the oxidation of CHO-based fuels.

21. J. S. Volek et al., Metabolism 65, 100–110 (2016).

22. L. M. Burke et al., J. Physiol. (London) 595, 2785–2807 (2017).

23. S. D. Phinney, B. R. Bistrian, W. J. Evans, E. Gervino, G. L. Blackburn, Metabolism 32, 769–776 (1983).

24. J. A. Hawley, J. J. Leckey, Sports Med. 45, S5–S12 (2015).

Within their repertoire of training nutrition strategies, athletes can now include practices that augment adaptive processes in skeletal muscle; these include commencing training with low exogenous CHO availability (fasting overnight and/or withholding CHO during a session) or the more potent trainload strategy of deliberately commencing selected training sessions with lowered muscle glycogen stores (e.g., using a first session to deplete glycogen and then training for a second time after withholding CHO to prevent glycogen restoration) (29, 30). Although studies consistently report augmented cellular responses as a result of trainload strategies, the translation to performance enhancement has been less clear (29, 30). Early investigations failed to detect superior performance outcomes; this was attributed to the overemphasis of such sessions within the training program and their resultant impairment of training intensity (44). These sessions need to be appropriately placed into a periodized program to complement high quality training (7). A recent, clever sequencing of practices (Fig. 1) integrates a performance-promoting session and an adaptation-focused session while adding the benefits of a prolonged increase in exercise-stimulated cellular signaling and posttranscriptional regulation during glycogen-depleted recovery and exercise (45). In subelite populations at least, better integration of train-low and train-high sessions into the training sequence (Fig. 1) has been associated with superior performance compared with the same training undertaken with normal CHO availability (46). So far, however, this does not seem to be the case in studies involving elite populations (22, 47), although it is often incorporated into real-world training sessions (48). Although further studies are needed, part of the challenge in advancing this area of research is the lack of agreement with regard to the terminology and implementation of the practices involved; we have tried to address this in a separate commentary (7).

29. S. G. Impey et al., Sports Med. 48, 1031–1048 (2018).

30. J. D. Bartlett, J. A. Hawley, J. P. Morton, Eur. J. Sport Sci. 15, 3–12 (2015).

44. W. K. Yeo et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 105, 1462–1470 (2008).

7. L. M. Burke et al., Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 28, 451–463 (2018).

45. S. C. Lane et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 119, 643–655 (2015).

46. L. A. Marquet et al., Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 48, 663–672 (2016).

47. K. D. Gejl et al., Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 49, 2486–2497 (2017).

48. T. Stellingwerf, Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 22, 392–400 (2012).

Also, a good read on the lamentable situation in science today:

The Inevitable Evolution of Bad Science:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/the-inevitable-evolution-of-bad-science/500609/?single_page=true

 

 

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