Mountain Strong Part 1: What Is Strength to You?

We recommend you visit the Uphill Athlete strength training landing page—Strength Training for the Mountain Athlete—for a full rundown of how to develop both general and specific strength for your chosen mountain sport.

The Uphill Athlete KIS Strength Series

-by Uphill Athlete Elite coach Sam Naney

Many of the fittest and fastest mountain athletes in the world achieve their goals without lifting a single weight in a gym. In our Uphill Athlete Strength Series we will explore strength and strength training as it relates to climbers, skiers, mountain runners, and alpinists.

This is the first in a series on strength and how it relates to the uphill athlete. We will explore the history of strength training, our chosen definition of the concept, and how you can effectively apply strength to round out your training diet.

To begin, we must first answer a crucial question: what is Strength? Putting aside the history and various ways to develop it, we define strength as an ability to perform the most work with the least amount of effort. Under this, we can account for a broad swath of applications, from the Olympic weightlifter who can snatch 300lbs, to the mountain runner who runs a marathon with 8,800 feet of climbing in 3:45 (as Kilian Jornet did in July 2017). In both cases, a significant load is placed on an athlete and they in turn leverage an ability (their “strength”) to accomplish that load with great efficiency.

But we can go further: Strength is also speed: when a track sprinter like Usain Bolt steps to the line of a 100m sprint, his muscles and tendons tension with incredible potential energy, and at the moment the gun goes off his brain communicates a nearly-instantaneous signal to those muscles to contract with tremendous power, propelling him off the blocks and into a world-record performance. In this example, we can identify Bolt’s strength in two capacities: the contractile force of his muscles, and the neuromuscular efficiency which his central and peripheral nervous systems use to command function from those muscles at incredible rates. That too, is strength.

The above example leads us into an important distinction: that of the person who exercises in a gym with lifting weights as an end unto itself, versus the athlete who uses gym strength training PLUS other means in order to develop their full performance potential for their mountain sport.

An athlete who is interested in maximizing their performance should first look at what component parts make up their “ideal” of fitness. Taking the mountain runner as an example, we can identify the following pieces of this puzzle:

  • Aerobic efficiency: Essentially this is a metabolic ability of the body to utilize fat as fuel while running (or skiing or climbing) at an overall power output.
  • Speed: This is a form of strength (we’ll discuss this in a later article).
  • Muscular Endurance: The ability to produce a higher work output of the muscles over longer durations and in a predominantly-aerobic state – another form of strength
  • Form/Technique: Proficiency at moving quickly over the running terrain. Including an ability to avoid injury and maintaining good form despite accumulating fatigue – yet another form of strength! 

Our hypothetical running athlete now may look at those pieces and decide how to train each one, first individually and then gradually combining them into complex, very specific workouts as they approach their “A” performance or event. In our upcoming articles we’ll help break these concepts down and provide examples of great strength training workouts you can do in the gym, on the trail or at the crag, to directly increase your performance and hone your physique to a knife’s edge of specificity for your sport.

You might also be interested in: Mountain Strong. Part 2: General vs. Specific Strength


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