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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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:
- Craig Marker: A Science-Based Plan to Prepare You for the SFG Level I and SFG Level II
- Craig Marker: Heart Rate Variability: The New Science of Recovery
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.
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.
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.
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!