A few years ago, I left Chamonix, solo — at 1 a.m., under a clear sky, intent on climbing Mont Blanc in a single push before taking my plane back to Canada the following day.
I’d spent the previous week trekking the famous Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) while tackling 30 peaks along the way, and the week before that, doing acclimatization solo alpine ascents every day. My body couldn’t handle it anymore. For the first time, I had reached my breaking point. Was it a bad training plan? Poor nutrition? The wrong equipment? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out.
Turns out, I had reached the end of what a young body could do without a year-round endurance training program. I had learned the hard way, through my expedition, that if you wish to realize your highest dreams … you have to train twice as hard.
Like most of you, I have a strong need to be out in the mountains, exploring unique areas while pushing my body to its physical limits. In order to understand what endurance means, let’s start with breaking down our intensity efforts.
Endurance is the ability to withstand something challenging through strength (muscle endurance) or cardiovascular (aerobic endurance), and overcome fatigue. In order to run a marathon, you’ll need to battle against fatigue for a sustained timeframe. But when does fatigue occur exactly? It starts when your body begins to have a hard time processing oxygen. In other words, endurance is simply your efficiency to use oxygen!
There is a great foundation in sports that states, “the harder you train the better you get”. In endurance training, this doesn’t work. In fact — it’s quite the opposite! Let’s dive into the key mechanisms mentioned in the chart above.
In Zone 2, you’ll notice the aerobic threshold, which is when your body has started its “training mode” by activating all the mechanisms involved that need oxygen to function, therefore your breathing accelerates, and your heart rate increases. On the other hand, you reach the anaerobic threshold in Zone 4, during which those structures can’t function at the pace you’re asking them to and ultimately leads to fatigue.
There is a thin line between Zones 2 and 4 that you can play with in order to sustain hard efforts for a longer period of time. The good news: these two key mechanisms are highly trainable! Let me explain through my story.
The Swiss Alps are known for their rugged peaks and gorgeous meadows. I would like to add to that list — their deadly thunderstorms as well. After spending two days at the base of the mountain looking for a way to climb it, I was starting to run out of food … and patience! Improvisation took over and I found myself running up and around the mountain in the hope of finding a route to the top. Since I didn’t know how much time I’d have to run, I paced myself in Zone 2 (low-intensity) and could therefore run at a decent pace without exhausting myself. After hours of grueling climbing, I finally reached the summit with a serious thunderstorm rumbling not far behind. I spent the entire way back near Zone 4 (high-intensity) hoping to reach my tent before it hit.
What would have happened if I had untrained mechanisms? I definitely would have been stuck in a very dangerous situation. On the uphill section, I would have either been slower or would have been running at a higher heart rate, creating exhaustion at a faster pace. On the way down, I wouldn’t have been able to keep this fast pace for such a long time. In other words, the more you train, the faster you can go for the same heart rate.
Enduring training increases efficiency, security, and confidence in the mountains. It isn’t just about training.
Tips & Tricks
Now, let’s get into exactly how we can build this strong cardiovascular foundation and appreciate the mountains even more! We must train both of these two mechanisms. This means spending a significant amount of time in both of these zones to give your body the chance to adapt, and it all starts with low-intensity aerobic threshold exercises as this is the most important zone behind an endurance foundation.
Pro Tip: You want to go faster? Train slower!
Here is some advice I can give you in order to train more efficiently.
The magic number in most sports is usually about 450 training hours per year in order to see significantly improved performance. Lucky for you, the cardiovascular system is highly flexible, and you can see changes way before that. If you are new to it, I suggest reaching about 200 hours of aerobic activities throughout the year. It would send a message to your body saying “Hey, let’s build a stronger heart!”
You have reached 200 hours of training activities and need a boost? You can then increase this number by 10-15% each year. At this point, Zone 2 activities (low-intensity) should take up the majority of those hours, perhaps 60 to 80%. If you’re unsure whether your activity is low-intensity enough, you should be able to do it again the following day, and the day after that, without feeling exhausted.
Now, you are logging more than 300 training hours per year and spend most of your time in low-intensity activities? Your body has now adapted enough to include some more Zone 4 activities (high-intensity) to help you train the second mechanism, the anaerobic threshold. These activities, anything that brings your heart rate up to 95% of its maximum, require discipline as they often aren’t related to the usual activities you practice. Now you are ready to include more Zone 4 activities into your routine and you will see a significant boost in your cardiovascular foundation for your next adventure!
If you’re like me and don’t have immediate access to the highest and biggest mountain playgrounds available, there are still fun and efficient ways to train in your local areas to be best prepared for your next adventure.
Here are 3 of my favorite sessions:
The Thru-hiker Workout
We’ve all been on a hike with an overpacked backpack, anxious about what we might need in the backcountry. Done right, this is an excellent low-intensity exercise that helps both muscular and aerobic endurance. With a good backpack, try and equally load it at about 35% of your body weight and hit the trails at a decent pace. Distance and elevation gain are not the key variables here, but rather time spent with the backpack. Increase the load by 5-10% every 3-4 weeks. Make sure to distribute the weight to avoid low back pain. Water bottles, books, and heavy blankets are great everyday items to add to your base weight!
The Music Interval Workout
If you usually go out with music, then this one is for you! Open your entire music library (not your usual workout playlist), set it to shuffle, and hit your local trails. The rule is simple — for each song, alternate between zone 1 and zone 4. One song at high intensity, and the other at rest pace, and continue on. That way, you don’t get to decide when you’ll push hard and especially with which beat you’ll do it. If you’re the Patrick Watson kind of listener, then it should be a fun run out of your comfort zone!
The Pain Cave Workout
This one is for those who don’t have much time and want to squeeze a quick and hard workout into an already exhausting daily routine. Find the nearest tiny hill (it can even be a slightly uphill road) and prepare yourself mentally. You have two choices — sprint up and walk back down or sprint down and walk back up. Repeat 8 to 10 times or as much as you can hold. Before you say, “I’ll choose Option 2, it seems so much easier”, hold your breath and wait until you get out of bed the following day!
For me, endurance training has become a routine, the only path that leads to all my adventures. Without this key foundation, I put myself and my objectives at risk.
Out there, it’s you against the mountain, and since you can’t train the mountain — train yourself.
Tristan Hogue is a mountain enthusiast, student, and trail runner based in Montreal. He hopes to inspire others to live their dreams by exposing himself to unique and challenging projects around the world and passing on his wealth of training techniques and practices. Follow him on Instagram at @trist.hogue.