Making the Most of Your Uphill Athlete Training Plan

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We offer a lot of training plans at Uphill Athlete, and the list is growing all the time. We understand that it can be challenging to choose the plan that best suits your goal and time frame and then implement it most effectively. With this article, we hope to simplify the process.

  • Part 1 focuses on selecting the right plan;
  • Part 2 covers how to implement our aerobically based (endurance) plans; and
  • Part 3 covers how to implement our strength-based (climbing) plans.

Also note that we have a very active forum where you can share your experiences and ask for help from Uphill Athlete staff and the community at large.

Remember that once you buy one of our plans, you own it forever and can reuse it as many times as you like. Each time you cycle back through that plan, you’ll be fitter and wiser in its application, and you’ll get better results.

Part 1: Selecting the Right Uphill Athlete Training Plan

Which Uphill Athlete training plan is right for you? That depends first and foremost on the end goal you are targeting. Our plans are designed to prepare you for a single objective—a race, a climb, an independent adventure, or a trip or expedition. We do this for a number of reasons, the primary one being that you will have more success in your training if you train for one goal at a time.

The second and more pragmatic reason for this single-goal focus is that it would be impossible to cover all possible permutations of goal combinations. You think there are a lot of plans to choose from now!

We have grouped our training plans into two general categories: aerobically based plans and technical climbing plans. The first category encompasses plans for events where aerobic capacity and strength outweigh technical training. These include plans for mountaineering, ski mountaineering, skimo racing, and mountain running objectives. The second category covers plans where technical climbing skills equal or outweigh the aerobic demands of the event. This group includes plans for alpinism, ice and mixed climbing, and rock climbing.

Once you have decided which of these two categories your event or goal falls into, choose from the activity subheadings to pinpoint the plan that is most specific to your time frame and event or goal.

Aerobically Based Uphill Athlete Training Plans

This category includes our mountaineering, running, and ski touring plans. It is important to keep this general rule in mind: The longer the plan, the more effective it will be and the more gradually it will transition you through the progression of training periods. This is especially important when training for a significant mountain event that will last from several hours to several days—everything from a long running race or a climb of Mount Rainier to an expedition to Denali or a Himalayan peak. For all of these, your basic aerobic capacity is the single most important quality to help you succeed. Significantly improving this quality will take many weeks and months of consistent training.

You can never have too much base fitness for these types of goals. Accumulating more training volume over more months is going to net you a better fitness outcome, and having all things be equal—weather, conditions, your skills—sets you up for your best chances of success. The shorter plans mentioned below are not shortcuts to fitness. An 8-week or 12-week training plan entails trade-offs and should be used only by those with less time at their disposal.

Mountaineering Plans

Our 24-Week Expeditionary Mountaineering Training Plan follows virtually the same progression that is detailed in our book Training for the New Alpinism. It will take you through the Transition, Base, Specific, and Taper Periods. While it is called a “mountaineering plan,” it provides a great base for any extended mountain adventure. It is best suited to those with major goals and those with little structured aerobic training background. It’s our most popular plan by far and has been used by hundreds of mountaineers to prepare for climbs ranging from Mount Rainer to Mount Everest. This is also the best plan for alpinists needing to improve their aerobic base.

The 16-Week Big Mountain Training Plan is a scaled-down version of the above for those who find themselves pinched for time before their departure date. This is one of our most popular plans and follows the same principles as the 24-week plan described above.

Our 12-Week Time-Crunched Mountaineering Plan is meant for folks who are restricted to less than 8 hours/week of training. Like the 8-week plan, this plan is, by necessity, somewhat compromised and will not give as good results as the longer plans.

Our 8-Week Basic Mountaineering Plan is the shortest one we offer. We consider eight weeks to be the bare minimum time frame to effect any meaningful changes in fitness. So while this plan introduces you to many of our training principles, it is too short to give optimal results. We recommend it only for those who find themselves eight weeks out from a one-to-two-day mountaineering objective like Mount Rainier or Mont Blanc.

Trekking Plans

Our trekking plans, such as the 12-Week Trekking Plan, offer the basic structure and minimal workload we feel is adequate to prepare an inexperienced hiker for the rigors of a trek like the one to Everest Base Camp. More advanced or ambitious hikers will be better served by the 16- or 24-week mountaineering plans described above.

Skimo and Ski Mountaineering Plans

Our beginner 16-Week Skimo Racing Training Plan is intended for those who want to dip their toes into this exciting winter sport. For the more experienced racer who has a very good training background, we also offer an Advanced 16-Week Skimo Training Plan. Both plans work best for skiers who are coming off an active summer season of running and hiking in the mountains.

Our 8-Week Ski Mountaineering Hut-to-Hut Training Plan is a lower-level plan for those with little to no background in organized training who are getting ready for their first multiday hut-to-hut ski trip. For more advanced ski tourers, we recommend our 8-Week Haute Route Ski Tour Training Plan, which is more demanding in terms of starting fitness and time commitment. See below for a more ambitious plan for ski mountaineers.

The 12-Week Grand Traverse Training Plan is a beginner-to-intermediate-level plan for those with the goal of skiing Colorado’s Grand Traverse race or a similar long backcountry ski race. It can also work well for those seeking a better fitness base for a multiday hut-to-hut ski trip such as Canada’s Wapta Traverse, the Ortler Ski Traverse in Italy, Austria’s Hoch-Tirol, or the Haute Route.

The 12-Week Freeride Training Plan is for expert backcountry skiers and ski mountaineers who seek out steep lines on big mountains. This advanced-level plan is intended primarily for skiers who will skin or climb to the tops of their objectives. It also serves well for heli or lift-assisted skiers looking to improve their all-mountain skiing. The plan is not for novices and assumes you have a solid base of physical conditioning, no current injuries, and that you have been very active over the summer but are looking to put the final touches on your fitness during the fall. 

Mountain Running Plans

None of our running plans are intended for complete beginners. They assume some level of running background, with that level explained in the following descriptions of the individual plans.

The 20-Week Mike Foote Big Vert Plan is by far our most popular running plan. It is the most advanced and the most adaptable to the needs of the athlete. With some work on the part of the owner, this plan can be used to train for events from less than 50 kilometers with as little as 2,000 meters of elevation change to those over 100 miles or with 5,000 meters/16,000 feet of elevation gain/loss. Its key ingredient is a special muscular endurance workout that is used for a minimum of the first 9 weeks, and up to 14 weeks for those who have more than 20 weeks to prepare.

The 20-Week Luke Nelson’s Intro to Ultrarunning Training Plan is a great plan for those just venturing into the realm of ultra-distance running. It assumes you are currently comfortable with a training load of 25 miles/week.

Our 24-Week Beginner Marathon Plan (Road or Flat Trail) is our most traditional running plan, based on time-tested programming. It is ideal for events around marathon distance and on gently rolling terrain with less than 500 meters of elevation change.

The 16-Week Via Valais Training Plan is an abbreviated version of the 20-Week Mike Foote Big Vert Plan. It is geared toward accomplished runners seeking to tune up for this challenging Swiss hut-to-hut run or a similarly demanding mountain running goal.

The 16-Week Wonderland Trail Training Plan is designed for mountain runners of intermediate experience who are aiming to spend three days running the challenging 100-mile loop trail around Mount Rainier.

Technical Climbing Training Plans

Plans like our Ice and Mixed Climbing Strength Plan and Josh Wharton’s rock climbing plans are, for the most part, strength and skill oriented. They can be shorter and still effect real changes because these qualities train up more quickly. They are best for those with specific needs and short-term goals. If you have the time and can manage the added work, you can use these as supplemental strength sessions during the Specific Period of one of our longer big mountain plans. So, if you’re preparing for a very remote, highly technical rock or steep ice climb, stacking one of these plans on top of a mountaineering plan during its final weeks can be a great approach.

Steve’s Rock Alpinist plans are meant to stand alone, as they include significant aerobic training on top of climbing-specific workouts. These were built with summers in the Bugaboos, Alps, or Dolomites in mind.

Part 2: Implementing an Aerobically Based Training Plan

Getting started on a new training plan can present hurdles: You need to carve out time for training. You need to get a TrainingPeaks account and connect your heart rate monitor/GPS watch to it. Learning to use the TrainingPeaks platform will take a bit of effort, but we have seen that it is well worth it for the long-term benefits it brings. If you have not yet read these two articles about TrainingPeaks and how to use it, please do so now:

A quick Google search will show you how to sync your Garmin, Suunto, Polar, Wahoo Fitness, and/or any other brand’s accounts to TrainingPeaks to automatically upload your workout data to that platform.

A Note on Stress and Consistency

No plan is going to work if you don’t follow it. Strive for consistency. If you miss more than two workouts in a week, it is advisable to repeat that week. Pay attention to your fatigue. Life has a way of throwing you curves. Stress from life will wear you down, and piling training stress on top of life stress is not going to serve you well. Just because the plan calls for something does not mean you will benefit from it. Prioritize rest and recovery so that your body can absorb the training.

Setting Your Intensity Zones in Training Peaks

TrainingPeaks is set up for the conventional sports of road running, cycling, and triathlon. Their metrics for tracking your fitness and fatigue work amazingly well when power and pace data are accurately recorded. It is much more challenging to track intensity and training effect for mountain sports, where we are relegated to using heart rate as a proxy for work intensity and training load. But heart rate is the best metric we have, and we have some tips to help you record your workouts. In the following video, Steve gives a nice presentation on using the TrainingPeaks Dashboard (available with their Premium account):

For the best and most accurate tracking of your fitness and fatigue, the single most important thing you need to do is correctly identify your training zones in your TrainingPeaks account settings. This will return an accurate hrTSS (heart rate Training Stress Score) for each workout, which in turn will make your Performance Management Chart more effective. (Read more about TSS and the Performance Management Chart.) Set your zones by following the instructions below.

Notes on hrTSS

When TrainingPeaks uses the term “threshold,” they are referring to your Anaerobic or Lactate Threshold. We use both your Aerobic Threshold (AeT) and your Anaerobic Threshold (AnT) to define your heart rate zones, and consequently differentiate between them with those abbreviations. This is important because the hrTSS for each workout is calculated based upon the time spent above and below your personal AnT.

The following zone information is needed only for plans that contain aerobic training. The strength-based plans like Steve’s Ice and Mixed or Josh’s rock climbing plans do not rely upon hrTSS.

Step 1

You will want to anchor your zones to real metabolic events that reflect your personal response to training intensity, not something completely arbitrary like a percentage of maximum heart rate. As such we recommend not using the default zones that show up in your settings. Instead, pare down the number of zones to four. Do this by clicking “Remove” to the right of the zones until you have just four left.

Step 2

Manually enter your heart rate for the top of Zone 2, which is the Aerobic Threshold (AeT) heart rate you determined using this test that you did on day one of your plan. Set the top of Zone 1 at 10 percent below that. To find the top of Zone 3, conduct this test. Zone 4 will be any heart rate above that. For very easy recovery-type workouts, stay at or below the very bottom of Zone 1.

Step 3

Click “Save & Close” and your zones will be set.

Adjusting hrTSS in TrainingPeaks

As mentioned earlier, heart rate is not the most accurate measure of intensity and thus of calculating TSS, but it is the best one for mountain sports. No one has yet invented a good power meter for anything other than flat running and cycling. And due to the undulating nature of the terrain, when you are going super slowly uphill, you may be working your hardest. So hrTSS is our best tool for determining training stress in a workout.

At Uphill Athlete we use the following adjustments for TSS to account for the added muscular load that comes with going uphill and downhill. For each 1,000 feet (300 meters) of vertical gain, we add 10 to the hrTSS. For every 10 percent in body weight that is carried, we add another 10 to the TSS per 1,000 feet of vertical. This is certainly not scientifically derived, but it acknowledges the added load of elevation gain and added weight. The most important thing is to be consistent in how you calculate TSS so that your TSS and other metrics will be reflective of that load.

In general, we see about 60 hrTSS/hour for workouts in Zone 2. You can use this when your watch battery dies.

For strength training, we use the following TSS amounts:
  • General conditioning and core workout: 60 TSS/workout
  • Max strength with a core warm-up: 80 TSS/workout
  • Muscular endurance (ME) workouts: These vary a great deal but have a very heavy training load. For both our Uphill Athlete gym-based ME workout and our weighted uphill carries, we typically award between 100 and 150 TSS/workout. This depends on how long it takes you to recover and have your legs feel decent again. If it takes two days until you feel decent, give it a 100. A three-day recovery makes the TSS 150. Just try to be consistent with how hard the work feels to you and how long it takes to recover.

Modifying an Aerobically Based Training Plan

You may need to modify your plan. The volume of training we specify in each plan is what we consider the minimum necessary. However, these plans are generic and may very well need tweaking to fit your specific needs. Here are common ways our athletes customize their plans to best suit their starting fitness and time frames. Bottom line: Be realistic.

Addressing ADS and Adding Weeks

The two most common reasons people ask us about modifying our aerobically based plans is that they realize they suffer from Aerobic Deficiency Syndrome (ADS), or they have more than the allotted number of weeks in the plan before their goal.

For the ADS folks, who are often new to any sort of structured aerobic training, we suggest adding more weeks to the Transition Period (early weeks), where the focus is primarily on increasing aerobic capacity and general strength. Additional weeks can be inserted into the Base Period as well for a similar effect.

For those with more weeks on their hands, the same approach will work. There is nothing magical about 8, 12, 16, or 24 weeks. As mentioned above, in general a longer training period will give better results. When adding weeks, keep the aerobic training volume progression going as before. Duration of this type of work is the best training stimulus. More is generally better. Note that you will need to repeat some of the strength weeks when extending the plan this way.

Modifying for a New Training Cycle

If you are starting a new training cycle using a plan you already own (once you buy it, you own it forever)—and you have not had a multi-month break from training and everything went well your last time through the plan—you should start the new cycle at a higher training load. Hopefully you have kept a nice record/log of your training in TrainingPeaks to refer back to. As a rule of thumb, we recommend starting the first week of the Transition Period at an aerobic volume that represents 50 percent of your previous cycle’s average weekly aerobic volume. Another rule of thumb for subsequent cycles of an old plan is to bump up the aerobic training volume about 10 percent per week for each subsequent cycle.

Are You Struggling with the Training Load?

If you are struggling to handle the workload in any plan, you need to stop and reassess rather than trying to bull your way through. Adjust the training load down and get back on top of the train/recover cycle. Don’t be afraid to cut weekly volume by 50 percent and toss in a few rest days. It is better to catch this early and be proactive than pretend all is good when the wheels are starting to come loose.

If you are persistently struggling with the training load, even after making lifestyle adjustments, it could be that your chosen goal and the training needed to support it are unrealistic. As tough as this may be to accept, it’s better to discover it early—before you have invested a ton of money and time in a trip that could potentially end badly. Scaling down to a more achievable goal and training load will pay off in the long run as you learn what works for you. After all, we learn better through positive reinforcement.

For more on monitoring and adjusting your training, consult our books Training for the New Alpinism and Training for the Uphill Athlete.

Part 3: Implementing a Strength-Based Climbing Training Plan

Learning to use the TrainingPeaks platform will take a bit of effort, but we have seen that it is well worth it for the long-term benefits it brings. If you have not yet read these two articles about TrainingPeaks and how to use it, please do so now:

Our plans that are primarily focused on strength and skill development, like our technical climbing plans, will have some equipment requirements. Nothing crazy, mind you. A moderately well-equipped weight room will have all you need for the general strength training, and a climbing gym will contain all the tools you need for the climbing-specific work. Many climbers own the basics of a pull-up bar and hangboard.

Depending on the plan, it may be that you need to conduct an assessment of strengths and skills before starting in on the actual training. You will be instructed to do so if needed. While these plans are of a fixed length, they can be extended on either end. If you find the workload too challenging, it may be that you need to spend a few weeks doing a lighter version of the plan’s training to prepare you for the plan. In that way, you will get the most from the training that is prescribed.

You can extend the plan on the other end by following the same type of progression that you have been following for a few more weeks.

With this information we hope you can get the most from your training plan. Still have questions? Email us at coach@uphillathlete.com.
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