No Free Lunch

** This 2012 version has been posted on the web a few times and published in "Training For The New Alpinism", by Steve House and Scott Johnston. 


Periodically people ask me specific questions about training for endurance and specifically my experience with using short, high-intensity cross- and circuit-training to improve it. My answer sits on the 20-year period I spent climbing mountains, as well as more recent experiences with ski mountaineering racing, bike racing and decade of experience training others for similar events - and folks usually don't like what they hear.

When someone asks about what I now refer to as the "Free Lunch" method of improving endurance performance, or any intervention whereby an time-crunched athlete tries to achieve a particular result by means of a shortcut, I first refer them to an article I wrote about my two-year test of this concept. The article was long and intricate so I'll summarize it here:

No top performing endurance athletes achieve their results on a diet of short, hard intervals and circuit training in the gym. Instead they build hours and hours of baseline fitness and then temper the foundation in races, and with a very small percentage of high-intensity interval training. Do you imagine that a bicycle racer who rides 20,000 miles per year isn't looking for a way to achieve the same results without having to spend so much time in the saddle? Or that someone has invented a shortcut, a method to end-run all the effort and time and suffering, and that no one else had previously tried it? I thought I had found the shortcut. I was wrong. Others think they have found it. Some are even selling it. The true professionals are not convinced. And they are not being beaten by anyone taking shortcuts.

When I was drunk on Crossfit punch I kept trying to force the square peg of high-intensity circuit training and heavy lifting into the round hole of endurance performance simply because I liked training in the gym. I was addicted to the endogenous opiates produced by hard effort, and wanted to continue getting high. But I also wanted to run and ride long distances for long hours. So, being human and weak, I tricked myself into believing the work that got me high could also give me the results I sought. And in the grips of that high I ignored my performance on the mountain, on the day, preferring instead to point out my performance in the gym, my performance compared to others, my fast time on some contrived circuit that means nothing outside of the narrow context of the weight room.

If you train long-endurance exclusively you'll be weak and slow though able to go forever. To go long AND fast your training program must also include strength training plus high-intensity intervals and speed work - each introduced at the appropriate time - to sharpen the large foundation of endurance that we presume exists.

The actual story is longer than the conclusion and its details aid understanding. After eight years of following the training program detailed in my book titled "Extreme Alpinism - Climbing Light, Fast and High" (The Mountaineers Books, 1999), which had worked quite well I began testing some different ideas. In early-2003 I finally understood that machined-based movements limit range-of-motion and neglect supporting, stabilizing musculature so the transferability of the results to sport performance is limited, and can actually increase the risk of injury. However, movements done on foot, using free weights (dumbbells, barbell, kettlebells, etc) require three-dimensional stabilization, balance, and sport-like muscle firing sequences and timing that is easily transferable to sport-specific performance. So-called "functional training" - and I use the term "functional" to describe artificial training that has a high degree of transferability to sport performance - can increase strength in both muscles and connective tissue, which reduces the risk of injury. Muscles trained this way need not be reeducated outside of the gym because the movements, loads, intensity and duration may be easily tuned to match sport-specific actions. So instead of doing quad extensions and seated leg presses I began doing back and front squats and deadlifts, and eventually lunges and weighted step-ups because these looked and felt a lot more like what I did in the mountains.

Later that year I attended a Crossfit seminar to learn more about the modern manifestation of circuit training. I went there in shape for my sport, but I was destroyed by the varied fitness challenges that were presented. I had worked long and hard to become and remain fit for the mountains and when I was actively climbing I was one of the faster, more fit guys around, if technically less competent. The Crossfit argument and its presenter were quite convincing. I was susceptible to the easier way, the cure-in-a-bottle way, and my anti-establishment personality wanted the experts to be wrong so I fell into the trap of thinking there might be a free lunch - a shortcut to improved endurance - even though it went against everything I had learned over the previous 20 years.

Using the concepts taught at the seminar I designed a program and a test then dove in headlong. For 15 weeks my average workout lasted no longer than 15 minutes. I trained "artificially", in the gym. I executed a variety of whole-body movements with and without weight at an intensity that caused huge cardio-respiratory demands. During the final three weeks of the work-up I did some sport-specific training to sort out my equipment for the test, which was the 2004 Powderkeg ski mountaineering race, though only two or three workouts lasted as long as I predicted the test would take. In the end I placed 11th of 66 in my division after 2:21:19 of racing but I was 25 minutes slower than my division's winner and almost 50 minutes slower than the overall winner (Rico Elmer, the 2004 world champion). On the scale of Great-Good-Shitty-Sucks I sucked but convinced myself the test results proved that short duration, high intensity circuits in the gym, combined with high-intensity intervals are indeed very good preparation for endurance and power-endurance efforts despite the brevity of the workouts.

My mistake was to believe that these workouts and the entire test took place in a vacuum when, in fact, I used a 15 week-long "sharpening" period to fine-tune a 20-year endurance base gained by training and climbing at intensities specific to long endurance effort. The same training program would not produce a similar result in an athlete who did not have the same foundation. Or for someone without similar understanding of pacing (energy management), and the nutrition and hydration strategies, which can only come from long, individual, trial and error experience such as I had done during my climbing career. Having missed the tree AND the forest, I pushed my deluded self deeper into the rabbit hole.

Convinced of the truth of my experiment, I lined-up at the North American Ski Mountaineering Championships one week after the Powderkeg. A single, moderate workout done midweek was enough to stall my recovery progress and I blew up halfway into the race then struggled to finish next-to-last. It has become obvious since - and should have been then - that recovery must be trained, and recovery adaptations occur just like the compensatory reaction to imposed athletic demands. I had trained myself to recover from efforts of a particular intensity and duration. The Powderkeg cut deeper than my ability to recover. I started the race in Jackson Hole with my tank 1/4 full but without a gauge I had no idea it would be empty within an hour. I based my pace on how I felt on the start line, having not yet heard Scott Johnston's wise words, "Everyone feels good at the beginning of a race." When my tank ran dry I went out with whimper, not a bang.

In response to this experience I began adding one long effort to my "free lunch" training program every 7-10 days. This appeared to improve recovery from longer sessions so - in my bubble - I kept trying to force the training means I wanted to use to produce the results I wanted have, and interpreting those results by putting the best possible spin on them when they did not match my expectations.

During my infatuation with "free lunch" method of improving endurance I argued it to Scott Johnston with the fervor of a born-again fanatic. Being a friend he was nice enough to listen, and even tolerated the spittle. Eventually he countered by writing, "I still stick by the tried and tested methods I have described (in our correspondence). Not because I know so much but because I have seen them work, and work well for many years on both myself and many, many others. They have produced world champions and top national results."

He was nice enough to treat me with kid gloves when he stated, "To say that one anecdotal experience convinces you that your way is better seems hasty. It seems unlikely that all these great athletes have been wrong in their approach and that you have stumbled on some secret training method yet to be discovered. Because, if your way could give the best results then the best athletes would have adopted it; especially if it could be done in less time."

When I opined that so-called "elite athletes" were finishing well in endurance events on a diet of 20-minute workouts and less-than-800m runs he replied, "I have seen this phenomenon many times in younger skiers but also in Masters racers who, because they didn't have much time to train, did a majority of their training in Zone 3 and 4. Basically they were looking for a shortcut to fitness. In every case that I have personally seen or been involved in coaching; when these skiers (from ages 20-50) went to a more conventional Zone 1-2 regime followed by well timed and administered Zone 3-4 workouts their results improved."

This fell on deaf ears because I wanted badly to be right - the same way every time-crunched athlete wants to believe that he can compete in (not merely finish) a marathon or ultra-distance event on a training diet of six hours per week by doing 3x20 minutes in the sub-threshold sweet spot three times per week. It is easy to confuse "hard" with "effective". And it is tough to argue with experience earned on the national and international level but I did.

I kept training short and racing long. I wasn't fast. I didn't recover well. I didn't progress from year to year. Surely I was doing something wrong because the program itself couldn't be flawed. So I tried harder. When greater intensity didn't work I increased the frequency of my over-distance efforts, and modified and tested and continued racing to the same fucking results. When I tired of that I began looking at the definitions, and the general sameness of the intensities, and I discussed the causes of fatigue and my lack of power with various coaches, trainers, and thinkers.

Scott clued me in to the relationship between volume and recovery. "In XC skiing the shortest normal man's race (before the advent of the sprint format) is 40 minutes while the longest can last a bit more than two hours. A World Cup (WC) skier will compete in 40 races in a season though not all are WC events. My biggest year was 45, which included 8-50km races. We were racing three days per week, sometimes four. A big base seemed to be what allowed us to recover quickly from one effort and be sort of rested for the next. Note: there was not training during competition phase only racing and rest so volume would drop a lot. At least that was the theory we were sold on and practiced, and all the big guns seemed to prove. Hence a big training volume for a WC skier would be 800-1000 hours per year. This included hard training too but probably 90% time-wise in Zone 1-2. My guess is that Alpinism is closer to XC skiing than it is to swimming or rowing in terms of duration and need to recover quickly." I had used examples of rowing and swimming and sprint triathlon results to bolster my position on the subject of high intensity training. Then I read this:

"Back in the early and mid 60s the German's training approach ... (placed, ed.) ... a greater emphasis on high intensity intervals. What they found was that, to a great extent they did reach high performance levels with this training program. But, they were not seeing progressive improvement from year to year among their elite athletes. Every year they came up to the same level, fell back down in the off-season, and repeated the process the next season. Then they changed the composition of the training to higher volume, lower intensity (fewer killer intervals at max speed) and the long term progress began to occur."
Stephen Seiler

I realized how badly I'd swallowed the hook, and how hard I had hit the ceiling of anaerobic development, at the expense of other capacities. So I read on.

"In an endurance workout lactate content must not rise too high ... if it does then lactate tolerance is trained instead of endurance capacity ... Intensive workouts going together with high lactate values may be damaging to endurance capacity ... Endurance capacity may deteriorate by this kind of training."
Peter G.J.M. Janssen

"The acidosis, caused by high lactate values in the muscles, damages the aerobic enzymes system ... the acidosis is the cause of the deterioration of aerobic endurance capacity."
Peter G.J.M. Janssen

"Overloading this training intensity ... prevents the body from developing the aerobic base. Rowers can even fall so far behind that they have to start developing the aerobic base from the beginning. It can take weeks or even months to correct such overloading."
Wolfgang Fritsch

"In the end, excessive anaerobic training pulls down your VO2 max, and you can't even run the slow stuff very well."
Ron Daws

"Anaerobic training raises your respiratory quotient. This means your percentage of energy derived from sugar increases and fat burning decreases. In time, this may force more anaerobic metabolism and less aerobic function."
Philip Maffetone

"During short maximal exercise fat mobilization and utilization is inhibited by lactate production and acidity; even low lactate concentration (3-4 mmol/L) has diminished FFA concentration in the blood."
Heikki Rusko

"Because oxygen transport (at low intensity) is not a limiting factor, the muscles in question can be more easily overloaded by the duration of the training session to increase their oxidative capacity and fat utilization."
Heikki Rusko

"During the 1950s and 1960s, the top runners' training heavily emphasized intervals. But the interval-trained champions were soundly trounced when Arthur Lydiard's runners came on the scene. Peter Snell, Ron Clarke, and Murray Halberg did just 6-8 weeks of speedwork, after laying in a 12-week base of pure aerobic endurance running. Runners who've done tremendous volumes of speed work - like Emil Zatopek and Bill "Mad Dog" Scobey - couldn't match the times of the endurance-trained Lydiard athletes."
George Beinhorn

"Zatopek is a good example of the failure of sole reliance on repetition training. As a national coach, he can tap the whole potential of Czechoslovakia. But where were his men at the Rome Olympics? They didn't win a thing. Yet most coaches still will not believe my system is the right one. One result is that a good many fine prospects have been ruined by excessive speed work and by trying for quick results."
Arthur Lydiard

"Perhaps the most important part of your body, the one most responsive to training and most important for competition, is the nervous system ... One unique ability of the nervous system is its capacity to learn ... Each workout is a small part of a memory stored in the brain ... If we train indiscriminately, that is recorded. If we over train, that too is recorded. But if we train effectively, we maintain that memory too. The nervous system remembers everything it experiences, so be careful what you put into it. Sometimes a long process of "re-training" is necessary, especially in those who have abused their body through improper training."
Philip Maffetone

"Performance in team pursuit racing (a 4km, four minute-long event, ed.) is highly dependent on aerobic capacity, anaerobic skills, and aerodynamic factors. The training concept of the 2000 record-breaking team pursuit team was based on unspecific training of these qualities and periodical, short-term recall of previously acquired track specific skills. Aerobic performance was trained through high overall training mileage (29,000 –35,000 km per year) with workload peaks during road stage races. Before major track events, anaerobic performance, and track-specific technical and motor skills were improved through discipline-specific track training."
Yorck Olaf Schumacher and Peter Mueller

To understand how these concepts of training volume are applied by the top athletes in the world I cite some examples from Stephen Seiler's 2009 research review:

Runner: 550 hrs (female WR holder as example)
XC Ski: 700 hrs (same female as above)
XC Ski: 800 hrs (female, WC)
XC Ski: 850-875 (male, Petter Northug, 2009/10 and 2010/11 seasons)
Runner: 750 hrs (male marathoner average, elite)
Cyclist: 1000 hrs (Pro?)
Rowing: 1000-1100 (male WR holder 2004)
Swim: 1300 hrs (Phelps, estimated)

Stephen Seiler and Espen Tønnessen

Distribution of intensity is clearly important and Seiler concludes that, as a general rule top endurance athletes spend 80% of their volume at around 65% of VO2 Max while doing the remaining 20% of the work at approximately 90% of VO2 Max. A small percentage of higher intensity work may be done by some athletes with specific need. (ref. Inigo Mujika, "Endurance Training - Science And Practice", Inigo Mujika S.L.U., 2012)

In my experience, the distribution of training in the "free lunch" training context is exactly opposite to that shown to be most effective at improving endurance performance. During my experiment, before I began tweaking by adding longer efforts, my average total training time per week was 3-4 hours and roughly 70% of that was done at very high intensity, defined as 90-95% of VO2 Max, or at loads of 90% +/- of 1RM. I did the remaining 30% of the work at low intensity in warm-up, cool-down or recovery phases, or while practicing technique. This ratio alone shows very clearly why the "free lunch" could not, as a stand-alone program, possibly improve my endurance.

When I mined my old training logs I realized I'd done my best climbing in the mountains during the years when I averaged between 800 and 1000 hours of volume annually. I asked Steve how much he was averaging per year. Over the first six months of 2008 he accumulated more than 600 hours of training volume to prepare for Makalu later in the year. During the eight weeks prior to setting the record on the Grand Traverse in the Tetons (6hrs 49min) Rolando Garibotti hiked and climbed and ran 125,000 feet of elevation gain. The final week of his preparatory program, which included the actual record-setting traverse, totaled 31,700' of vertical gain. Of course, he covered many, many miles as well and this took many, many hours. My best season of bike racing (2010) coincided with the greatest volume of training: 8100 miles on the bike and 510 hours total training volume, an increase of 25% in mileage, and about 10% in total volume from recent yearly averages. To me, all of this indicates that an entry fee - in this case, a certain amount of training volume - is required to perform at every level and the higher the level the higher the fee. Expectations must match investment, and rules govern the game.

I broke the rules but expected an equivalent or better outcome. Eventually I paid. Eighteen months of nothing but short, hard efforts "cured" my endurance. Sure, I could go hard, sometimes for 2-3 hours but hard is relative and doesn't necessarily mean fast. I couldn't recover when I did go long, and the old days when I could move for 12-24 hours non-stop were a distant memory. Thus ended my love affair with short duration, high intensity "cross-training" to the exclusion of other forms. After failing to overhaul the method itself, and failing to create a hybrid, I decided it was time to rehabilitate my own fitness by returning to the basics, by following the rules.

It took a long time. Every day I cursed myself for having sacrificed the hours and days and years I had worked to build a 20-year base on what was obviously a pipe dream. I trained 435 hours in 2006 but spent too much time in the gym: I could have spent those 57 hours on more relevant work. In 2007 I trained 475 hours, with only 29 in the gym. In 2008 I averaged 40 hours of training per month, very little in the gym and my lactate threshold bumped 11 beats per minute higher (BPM) than in 2005. As a percentage of VO2 Max it was within 2-3 BPM of the highest levels I achieved in the mid-90s. I could put out reasonable power for about four hours, and keep going for eight or nine. By 2009 fitness was good enough climb Denali in 13 days roundtrip, and to be present in the field sprint at the end of the 206-mile Logan-to-Jackson road race, where I finished 4 seconds off the winner. In 2010 I was 2nd (in my category) at the Tour de Park City after 150 miles of racing, 60 of them in a hard breakaway with five others. I was happy to be back.

I recovered my endurance fitness faster than one could create it from scratch because my body remembered its former condition and I hadn't lost my ability to manage fueling and hydration, temperature regulation and pacing. I recovered movement efficiency and economy, and quickly rediscovered the psychological state that allowed me to enjoy sustained suffering. All of this factors into performance. I recovered my endurance when the balance of training information and experience, combined with the realities described in my training log overcame my conviction there was an easier way. There is an order to follow. There are rules. It's not random. It's not whatever-the-fuck. It's planned and executed and tested and modified along the way because there is no such thing as a shortcut or a free lunch, and no way to evade hard, intelligent work.

As long as the bar is high or distant there is no way but the hard way. How could it be any other way?

Mark Twight
Mark Twight