Former elite cross-country ski racer Scott Johnston has quietly become the leading expert in lung capacity. And his new book, coauthored with elite runner Kilian Jornet and famed alpinist Steve House, Training for the Uphill Athlete is destined to become the definitive reference for endurance workouts. Specifically, Johnston has spent the last three decades studying and training everyone from cross-country skiers to high-altitude mountaineers to ultra runners to better understand the difference between our aerobic and anaerobic engines—a difference he says very few people understand. Johnston points to the fact that so many people still see high-intensity cardio as a good workaround when there is not enough time for a longer workout. He says that even many elite endurance athletes are missing the importance of longer low-intensity sessions. Now, as endurance sports such as marathon running, triathlon, and distance trail running are exploding, people want a more nuanced understanding of cardio work than they can get through their local spin class or running club. Uphill Athlete is the bible. The new volume is a broad training guide for any cardio junky that wants to become an endurance athlete, or any endurance athlete looking to improve his “work rate.” Here are Johnston’s top tips for going further, faster.
1. Know the Difference Between Training and Exercising
Johnston says that if you want to get fitter for a specific endurance event or objective, you must train “mono directionally”, meaning that all your training hours are in service of that event. And these workouts are often far more measured than your typical gym session or spin class. While non-specific exercise will keep you healthy, it won’t necessarily make you any faster or fitter. And overdoing it is the most common culprit. “For people who love exercising, the workout is the event,” says Johnston. “So the problem is they’re often trying to break that PR every time they walk into the gym.”
2. Learn to Love Low Intensity Workouts
Johnston says that we humans are actually built for the sort of long low-intensity efforts that only engage our aerobic system (upping the intensity engages the anaerobic system). “From an evolutionary survival standpoint, it was a great benefit to be able to go days without eating, to run long distances, then still be able to chase down animals.” Generally speaking, Johnston defines low intensity work as what many fitness trackers call “zone 2”, or a pace at which you can breath through your nose and/or carry on a conversation. For many, it feels too easy. He is quick to point out that it means something different for everyone, which is why serious endurance athlete should land on their personal heart rate zones through a series of tests (see below).
3. Monitor Your Heart Rate the Right Way
Johnston says that while heart rate is actually an imperfect method of measuring effort, it’s the only method we’ve got and so you should do it as accurately as possible. “Wrist monitors simply do not work for serious training,” he says. “The technology is just not there yet and they typically read high.” Instead, Johnston recommends a chest strap monitor. He says that power meters—the type cyclists attach to their bikes—are even better, but they are not yet available for foot-powered efforts.
4. Find Your Low Intensity Zone
Figuring out one’s low-intensity heart rate zone actually starts with suffering through some brutal high-intensity work known as a lactate threshold test to determine your average maximum heart rate. While the old formula of subtracting your age from 220 is eerily accurate, Johnston says it is not good enough for serious athletes. “Personalized tests show you exactly where your body physiologically transitions from aerobic to anaerobic work,” he explains. The easiest way to determine your lactate threshold, he says, is by going as hard as you can for 30-60 minutes. Your average maximum heart rate throughout that effort is your lactate threshold number and other zones can be determined using that. (uphillathlete.com is a great resource for more details on threshold testing). For those who need even more accurate numbers, there are lab treadmill tests that measure oxygen flow and even tests in which blood is drawn during exercise.
5. Use Your Time Wisely
The endurance events most people train for last a couple hours or longer, which is why your workouts need to prep your aerobic engine for hours not minutes. “People who start taking endurance training seriously usually stop going to spin class or crossfit, or whatever else they’re doing,” says Johnston. Instead, they replace these workouts with less intense but longer workouts, even if just 20 percent longer. “Low to moderate intensity workouts are really key,” he says. “And you should find at least one day — perhaps a weekend — for a really long run or ride.” Johnston points out that it’s no coincidence that all the best endurance athletes in the world seem to do about 80 percent of their training in this low intensity zone. “The main stimulus to the aerobic system is the frequency and duration of exercise,” he explains. “Most endurance athletes train twice a day because they need to constantly be stimulating that system.”
6. Never Up Intensity to Make up For Duration
“The gross misconception that has been popularized in the fitness industry is that high intensity cardio for shorter durations has the same benefit as doing 10 miles of easy running,” says Johnston. He explains that the two metabolic processes respond to completely different stimuli and actually have zero crossover. So, while HIIT work (high-intensity interval training) will certainly make you better at high-intensity activities, it could in fact make you worse at running a marathon or cycling 30 miles.
7. Remember Three Rules For Success
Johnston points to three keys to success in endurance training: Consistency (“you can’t be missing workouts”); a gradually progressing workload; and what he calls modulation. “Your program has to have hard days and easy days, or hard weeks and easy weeks,” he says. “It has to have this modulation in the training load to give your body a chance to absorb and adapt to the work that’s been done, and to prepare your body to do the next load of work.”
8. Become Fat Adapted
Johnston calls this diet hack “one of the simplest training prescriptions to implement”. Becoming fat adapted means getting your body more used to using fat as fuel. He says that those doing a high volume of training often have somewhat depleted glycogen stores, which means the muscles go looking for fat—this is a good thing since fat is something we all have readily available. “This causes your muscles to become much better at breaking down fats and using them for fuel,” he says. What Johnston recommends, even for those who train less than 10 hours a week, is to do low-intensity workouts in a somewhat fasted state—such as in the morning before breakfast—to jump start the fat adaptation process.
9. Do Not Ignore Power Completely
Strength and power are key for not only getting faster, but also for anyone who is fighting gravity, such as trail runners, cross-country skiers, cyclists, and mountaineers. Therefore, it’s key to include some sprint work to train the neuromuscular firing patterns to produce more power from the existing muscle mass. Johnston says sand dunes are the perfect venue for hill sprints. “Hill sprints are a great leg strengthening workout for runners,” he says. “One of our favorites is to spring up a very steep sand dune for 10 seconds then walk back down while resting 2-3 minutes between each sprint.” Johnston says to start with six sprints and progress to 10-12 in a single workout, once a week. “Your legs will feel like jello after, but within a few workouts you will notice your easy running pace picking up.”
By Will Cockrell