How StrongFirst’s Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

Winter is fast approaching in the Northern Hemisphere. For many, that means ski and snowboard season is about to begin. But how do we apply kettlebell training to ski conditioning? How can we use our training in the gym to improve our endurance on the mountain?

I have been trying different programs and tracking the results over the last two years and have some insights to share with the StrongFirst community. I hope you find this helpful and I hope it improves your winter sports as much as it has mine.

How HRV, A+A Training, and StrongFirst Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

As an avid splitboarder, I spend well over a hundred days each winter in the mountains, camping in them, climbing them, and snowboarding back down. Splitboarding is basically backcountry skiing, but for snowboarders. It is a great way to explore the mountains, is one heck of an intense cardio challenge, and gets you a lot of powder runs. (I wrote a book on it to explain it in more detail, which is free to my fellow StrongFirst brothers and sisters.)

My average “work” day goes like this:

  • 5:00-8:00am—Train students
  • 8:01am-2:00pm—Head into the Colorado Mountains, test out backcountry gear for brands such as Patagonia, North Face, Arcteryx, and others.
  • 2:01pm-6:00pm—Back to training students in the afternoon.

I love my days. And because of what I do, I am able to test different training protocols to see what works best for me and my goals. In a nutshell, my goal is to be Mountain Strong. Meaning, I want to be able to hike up and down mountains over 13,0000 feet tall in summer and winter, hump gear in variable conditions, and enjoy the outdoors as much as possible—without getting injured or becoming overtrained.

Would you like to get in a few more ski runs? Or get in a few more miles on your hike and not feel spent after doing so? Then read on and I will share what I have learned and how you can apply it to your training.

Mountain Strong

First: A+A Training Defined

I first learned about the A+A (alactic and aerobic) program from Eric Frohardt and Master SFG Zar Horton at the Mountain Strong Course in 2016. This was an eye-opening moment and changed the course of my training.

This training protocol directly improved my winter sports season last year. I was able to recover from a leg injury that required 200 stitches and summit more peaks than I had in the previous three years combined. And all while reducing the time I trained.

What is A+A training? In the words of Pavel:

“Alactic + aerobic training (A+A) calls for brief high-power work that is predominantly fueled by the alactic pathway. A set is stopped before glycolysis is fully deployed, then one takes enough rest to recover aerobically.”

How HRV, A+A Training, and StrongFirst Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

Second: HRV Defined

HRV (heart rate variability), simply put, is a measurement of time between each heartbeat. Your heart does not beat exactly the same each beat. Ideally, you want a bigger gap between beats (which translates to a higher HRV measurement). This is an indicator that your body is recovered and ready for its next challenge.

Every morning around 4:30am, I test my HRV using a Suunto chest strap heart rate monitor and the SweetBeat app. There are other chest straps out there and most of them cost less than fifty dollars. Also, there are several other apps that offer similar tracking metrics, but I like SweetBeat the best.

SweetBeat HRV App

When I test my HRV, I look to see if it has stayed the same, increased (which is awesome), or decreased. If it has decreased, then I dial down my training for the day. Usually, I make it a hiking day or light practice. On the days I have ignored the lower HRV reading and not dialed down my training, it has usually bit me in the rear. On days my HRV shows an increase, I go for bigger practice.

How HRV, A+A Training, and StrongFirst Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

Measuring HRV takes three minutes and is easy to do. After a few weeks, you can get a good sense of how your body is reacting to training and stresses of life (both good and bad).

HRV Looks Good

Dr. Craig Marker has written some incredible articles on HRV and how to implement it in kettlebell training. I won’t go into the science as he did a fantastic job. I highly encourage you to read these two articles:

Third: Add Your Heart Rate Goal

To implement your heart rate as a tool in your training, first find your starting point using Phil Maffetone’s MAF (maximum aerobic function) formula. 180 minus your age is a good starting point.

For me, that number came out to 143. That meant I did not want my heart rate (HR) to spike much past 143 when training. So, I typically did a ballistic moment such as swings or snatches for ten seconds or so, but no more than fifteen seconds. My HR usually approached the 130s right after this. Next, I rested until my HR went down to ~115. Usually this took 40 seconds or so.

A sample program day looked like this:

  • 10 swings on the minute until HR started creeping close to 143 (your HR goal will be different).
  • Once the HR got to the HR goal, rest a little longer between sets.
  • I aimed for 80 swings on a light day and 160 on a heavy day.

Of course, you will want to add in other movement patterns after the ballistics and on off days. Usually goblet squats, get-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, planks, and presses were used. You will get a good feel for your heart rate after several weeks of tracking it during practice. You might even get to the point where you do not need to rely on the HR monitor at all. (Check out Al Ciampa’s great article on this.)

Now, the Magic Ingredient: Strong Endurance™ Protocols

After attending the Strong Endurance™ seminar this summer, my mind was again blown. This time Pavel discussed, in great and fascinating detail, how using variations of the A+A training has been proven to increase endurance.

How HRV, A+A Training, and StrongFirst Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

There were several programs in the Strong Endurance™ book, but the two that jumped out to me were 033C and 044. They are beautiful in their simplicity and relatively easy to do. At first, I was not used to the added rest time required in these program, but before long I understood its benefit.

After a week I could already feel the difference in my practices in the gym. My resting heart rate went down for the first time in years. My strength went up quickly. I was not tired after practice and I had more energy. At the end of the 033C and 044 protocols, the data was pretty conclusive. Resting HR went from 72 to 56, HRV went from 60s to 80s (sometimes even 90s), and strength improved quickly. I went from using 20kg to 32kg for movements. If I had a 36kg that would have been perfect. The 40kg remains a bit much, for now, so I will continue to practice. Talk about the “what the hell effect.”

I shared my HRV and HR data with Eric Frohardt for comparison—he had even better results using the Strong Endurance™ protocols. He was able to see incredible results and maintain a strong ski season. I think it’s best to let Eric’s words speak for themselves:

“Strong Endurance™ is going well. I’ve noticed myself getting really strong. Currently doing one-arm swings with either a 32 or 40kg bell. Doing get-ups with either 32 or 40kg, as well. Not too far off from being able to do 100 swings in five minutes at 40kg and ten get-ups in ten minutes at 40kg. My goal is to do that at a bodyweight of 180lbs (using half-bodyweight kettlebell for the movements). I figure that would establish a very good power-to-weight ratio from which to build endurance on top of for hunting. Right now, I’m running anywhere from 72 -82 HRV with an average resting HR (in the morning of course) of 48-50. Not bad for not doing cardio!”

Here is some more from Eric:

“I did work up to doing 100 swings at 40kg, but never got it done in five minutes. Had I kept going, I’m certain I would have reached this goal. I stopped due to hunting season. During the season, I try to do swings and get-ups, but it’s just not always feasible. Hard to take a 40kg bell into the backcountry with me on a week-long excursion. Especially when I try to survive off a 35lb pack for five to seven days. That said, my pack felt very light due to the training.

“Toward the end of my AGT cycle, I was averaging anywhere from 75-85 HRV. On days that I slept eight hours, I was always in the 90s for HRV. But I like to have some alone time each morning, so it’s rare for me to get eight hours. But, my average resting HR was anywhere from 46-49. If it was 50 or higher, it was high. Again, great for not doing much cardio. Though I suppose one would consider long hikes up mountains under loads as some form of cardio.

“Also, and just as important, last year I was able to do AGT/S&S training during ski season. I would do swings and get-ups two days per week and then snatches one day per week. I did the swings and get-ups early (like Tuesday and Thursday). Then, I’d do a snatch protocol on Saturday after a full day of skiing. There were many days where I averaged anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 feet of vertical and still did my snatches.

“I found that the snatches (after skiing) required slightly less leg drive than heavy swings. But they also helped me feel better. They help balance the quad-dominant activity of skiing. In fact, my back always felt great after the snatches. More importantly, I could ski two to three days in a row, including doing some bumps and even small cliff jumps without having back pain. This is a first for me as I have some herniated discs (thanks to the Navy).”

Translating Strong Endurance™ Protocols to the Mountains

Surely these quick and intense practices could not positively effect hours of hiking at 12,000-plus feet. Time to put it to the test. I went to one of my favorite backcountry ski spots and went for a four-hour hike with a friend.

How HRV, A+A Training, and StrongFirst Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

After reaching a high alpine lake, we stopped to have a snack. It was then I realized how well the Strong Endurance™ protocols were working. I looked over at my hiking partner (who is in good shape) and he was winded, as anyone should be after a good hike. I was not phased, though. The training works, and that was just the first week. Back at the truck, I took a reading to see how my oxygen level was—98% at 10,500 feet. Not too bad. I repeated this test two days later with similar results on a different mountain.

How HRV, A+A Training, and StrongFirst Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

Now—three months into using the 033C and 044 Strong Endurance™ protocols, tracking HRV daily, and putting several students though similar plans—I can honestly say these protocols work. I have increased endurance, lowered my resting heat rate, and increased my strength. I have a full summer of hikes in and feel better than I can ever recall. I have spent many nights camping at elevation and feel great. Heck, I even do many of my practices up there. There is something special about training outside. It is good for the mind, body, and soul.

If you are looking for a plan to get ready for ski season, I would encourage you to give these Strong Endurance™ protocols a shot. The only things I added to them were get-ups, goblet squats, and some pull-ups on off days, along with lots of hiking and camping.

Once you understand the concept of conditioning the mitochondria to be more efficient in order to improve endurance, the sky is the limit. Or in this case, the top of the mountain.

I hope this information helps some of you out there. Winter is coming—so get Strong Endurance!

Sean Sewell
Sean is a personal trainer and owner of Colorado Personal Fitness. He specializes in functional training for outdoor recreation. He loves using kettlebells as well as TRX with his students. He is NSCA- CPT, NPTI-CPT, and TRX Force certified.

Sean holds an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) 2 certification. He is also the co-pilot for Engearment and is constantly testing out (and breaking) gear in the mountains.

When not training students in Denver, he can be found in the backcountry splitboarding, Tenkara fishing, hiking with his wife and dog, and drinking cold beer. Drop him a line anytime to chat about health, life, and gear: Sean@ColoradoPersonalFitness.com.
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17 thoughts on “How StrongFirst’s Endurance Protocols Can Improve Your Ski Season

  • Sean, I am interested in training utilizing my HRV. You said you test it when you wake up. If I get up at 6 AM to head to work should I test it then to drive my workout which I do at 3or 4PM? Or should I check it in the afternoon before my workout to gauge which workout I will consider?
    Thank you,
    Will

    • Hey Will,

      Great question. I would recommend measuring the HRV at the same time each day. Preferably as soon as possible after waking. I sometimes double check it before training as well (usually 10-11am), though I don’t think that is necessary.

      Hope that helps!

    • Hi Dwayne

      The plans referred to in this article are similar in that it is simple and is based around swings (or snatches). But the rest periods are longer, the load is waived and the reps alternate (for the 033C and 044) There are MANY other plans in Strong Endurance though.

      The plan below (from Pavel) is much closer to S&S. Just longer breaks. Hope that answers your question.

      Take care

  • Hi Sean,

    Great article.

    I don’t understand the significance of measuring blood O2 sat at elevation and its relevance to endurance training protocols. Could you elaborate on your thinking? You may email me if you prefer.

    Thanks!

    Al

    • Hey Al

      Thanks for the great question. I was taking the O2 levels at elevation prior to the 033C protocol and comparing it with my hiking partners. Often times the O2 would be in the upper 80s, sometimes in low 90s. After a few weeks of the newer protocol (with the added rest) It measured 98. I thought that was a good metric to show that my body was adapting to the chalenges at elevation. I compared the O2 test with my hiking partner (who was not using the SE protocols, just “regular” whatever that is :P” training.

      I hope that clarifies my thinking. I could be completely wrong…. I often am 🙂 But I think the before and after, as well as comparing to a “control” (hiking partern) on several occasions was the best I could do with my resources.

      I am open to any suggestions as well. I thank you for your great article. That helped me start this process in the first place!

      Sean

      • It’s interesting that you saw a change in SpO2. I always was under the impression that your saturation was largely untrainable and just due to chemistry, partial pressures, and hemoglobin/myoglobin ratios (I spent a stint at a pulse oximeter company writing software for those devices, so I’ve played around with them a lot). After 20 years living in Boulder, I still hover around 95% and I drop pretty quickly at higher altitudes. I can tell when I cross 12,500 because I start getting sick. I’ve never seen a change in subjective feeling or even objective measured SpO2 no matter how well trained I am (or maybe I just need to step up my game because I’m always poorly trained).

        • Hey Mike!

          Hello CO friend 🙂 I am not 100% sure how to explain the improved O2 level. I do spend 50+ days camping at 10-11k ft. I also do a lot of practices, hikes and of course, LOTS of touring around at elevation. Maybe these are also contributing factors? I am usually at 98 in Denver for reference. I just double checked as I am replying to this (and I am completely spent after just attending the SFB this weekend – which I highly recommend!) SO 98 is my baseline, even when spent. I truly doubt you are poorly trained my friend! If you up for a hike (or some backcountry skiing) we can link up and test out some stuff. Drop me a line anytime.

          Take care

      • Sean,

        I dove into respiratory physiology earlier this year, and I can’t find anything that any fitness protocol would do to increase HB affinity for O2 in a reduced partial pressure environment; but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen.

        I will preface this by saying that the SE protocols are very effective, but I think that you’re reaching by assigning them to changing your O2 sat at elevation.

        I would ask, what else have you been doing differently? If you’ve been exploring the breathing exercises in the SE manual, e.g., you may have found your variable.

        Great discussion.

        Al

        • Hey Al,

          I am really loving this discussion! Yes, I did start incorporating breathing. Having the heart rate monitor hooked up and using the app to track HRV – it is easier to learn how to control breath and therefore control HRV. It also served as a way for me to relax and be more present. I was thinking of making a video to show the whole 3 minute HRV tracking process I do. It might be helpful? Basically, I do the HRV reading first thing in the morning, write in a gratuity journal (that has been a really great tool on a lot of levels!) and focus on my breath. Starts the day off in a great frame of mind 🙂

          Another variable that might be working is the fact that not only am I hiking, swinging kettlebells and backcountry touring at elevation…. I am sleeping at elevation. This might be a major contributing factor. My armchair assumption would be that spending all that time at 11k or higher then sleeping, has forced my body to be more efficient…. Maybe? 🙂

          Like you said – the absolute last thing I ever want to do is mislead or misinform anyone. The actual science of why the improvements have happened is WAY beyond my troglodyte brain.

          Lets keep the discussion going friends! Snow is falling here in Colorado, so it is time to put the skis and boards to use 🙂

          Take care!

  • Love it! My winter sport people range from pro snowboard cross (60 second race) to amateur free rider (45 minute climb followed by 3 minute descent) to purely recreational skiers and snowboarders. Hardstyle and Easy Strength methods have given them power, speed, agility, resilience AND endurance their colleagues do not have. Looks like we are finally quantifying the endurance WTH effect we have been enjoying for many years.

    • Hey Eric

      Thanks for kind words and sharing your positive experience applying SF to snowsports. I dig your website too!

      It was very nice to finally have some quantifiable data to share with others. Sharing results over the months with Eric was awesome. He really gets after it, so hearing his success with this was a great reassurance that the StrongEndurance protocols work and can be replicated.

      I hope you and your students have a wonderful season!

      Sean

    • Also worth noting… This morning’s HRV was SUPER low – 39. Easily the lowest I have recorded. Resting HR was way higher as well – 90. So both of these metrics are way off from my usual (as I would expect from 2 days of getting my butt handed to me!) so maybe the O2 baseline of 98 in Denver today is actually a bit lower than on other days. I can double check once I am fully recovered. Keep ya posted if it changes! Again, thanks for the dialogue on this. Exciting stuff (if you are a nerd like me!) 🙂

  • Hello!

    I am not sure if StrongFirst is planning on selling the programs (if they do, grab one!) but they will be offering the StrongEndurance seminar in the future.

    For this article, I used the 033C and 044. I won’t divulge the details, but try this:
    10 swings on minute, twice on left. Rest for about 2 minutes. 10 swings on right on the minute, twice. Rest about 2 minutes. You have now done 40 swings and taken ~6 minutes to do so. Rest another minute and repeat 🙂 Enjoy!

    • Hello!

      Great question and I think you will like the answer! The Strong Endurance plans are only available for attendees of these courses. BUT, Pavel has 2 recommendations for you (and all the others who would like plans)

      1) email Dr. Craig Marker at craig.marker@strongfirst.com for plans to test out.

      2) Try this plan out. Direct from Pavel!

      * Train 2-3 times a week.

      * Select the kettlebell that enables you to swing it with most power (not light and not heavy).

      * Do 10×10 (sum of both arms) one-arm swings or snatches with maximal power.

      * Alternate arms every set.

      * Actively rest between sets (walk around, do “fast and loose” drills).

      * Do a set every 1.5-3min:

      —Every 1.5min for very conditioned athletes

      —Every 2min for most people (the whole session takes ~20min)

      —Every 3min for very powerful athletes

      I hope that answers your question and sets you in the right direction. Be sure to let us know how you like the plan!

      Sean

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