Trail Runner’s Book Review: Training for the Uphill Athlete

Training for the Uphill Athlete: A Manual for Mountain Runners and Ski Mountaineers, by Kilian Jornet, Steve House and Scott Johnston. Patagonia, 2019. Reviewed by Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian. Images courtesy of Patagonia. Above photo: Steve House and Kilian Jornet on top of the Täschorn, Switzerland. Photo: Steve House Collection.

In the April, 2019 Trail Runner Magazine, Doug Mayer penned “Running to Extremes’” where he expressed his concern that too many runners, inspired by social media posts, are venturing onto alpine terrain without having acquired the necessary skills to make it out safely.

Here, in the Uphill Athlete, follow author Steve House as he discovers a similar lesson, and consequently taps into Scott Johnston’s 30-plus years of training experience and the incomparable Kilian Jornet’s hard-won insights. Although I revel in uphill challenges, regarding them as speed work in disguise without the stress of interval training, the feats of endurance depicted here have nothing in common even with the notoriously strenuous Mt. Washington Uphill Road Race. Except, perhaps, a willingness to train hard and suffer more than the average flatlander.

Photo by Kílian Jornet.

What struck me at first glance was this book’s similarity to the amazingly detailed Jack Daniels’ Running Formula, the gold standard for countless college coaches. Presented in the Uphill Athlete are the periodization levels and training plans requisite for aspiring alpinists, promising great rewards for those willing to put in the work. The difference, of course, is the reality that adherence to proper training could be a matter of life and death and not just a finish line triumph.

After reading this book, I am awed at all that goes into Kilian’s seemingly effortless mountain conquests. And even more impressed that the authors are quick to point out the current concern about overtraining syndrome, which has felled so many promising athletes like author Steve House and Olympian Ryan Hall. As Christie Aschwanden points out in her scientific expose of recovery products, Good to Go, the best and cheapest recovery tool is sleep accompanied by an awareness of what your body is capable of at each particular stage of your life.

Luke Nelson, Chloë Lanthier, and Clare Gallagher run in the Dolomites, Italy. Photo by Eliza Earle.

To offset this somewhat grim reality, the journey is replete with panoramic, Sound of Music photos where it is so tempting to squint a bit and superimpose an image of yourself over whatever seemingly insignificant human is summiting the mountain. And better still, some of those shots depict hardy ski mountaineers and skimo racers. This is particularly timely. I have spoken with Mike Owens, who teaches Skimo at Magic Mountain in Vermont and he informed me that Skimo is currently the fastest growing winter sport. It harkens back to the early days of skiing when the lack of ski lifts led enthusiasts like my husband to skin up a mountain and then enjoy a wild downhill reward. I was thrilled to learn about this sport—one which I fully intend to experiment with next winter.

Highlights for me are the inspirational athlete essays, providing real-life examples of the principles illustrated in each section. Kilian Jornet and Jeff Browning figure prominently as well ski mountaineers Javier Martin de Villa and Luke Nelson. But my favorite essay, and significantly the book’s conclusion, was written by Emelie Forsberg (Sky Runner) who writes, “I do not run to compete. I do not train to win races. I run because it brings me joy.” This reinforces the authors’ belief that despite all the exercises and schedules they present, training should above all be fun. How many times have you entered a race on a course you have never explored, with no expectations, only to discover that your more relaxed attitude produced an amazing result?

Even if, like me, you will never summit the Jungfrau Marathon or run the John Muir Trail, this book enables you to discover a kinship with those who do, as we are all ultimately runners striving to do our best.

Kílian Jornet runs down the Täschhorn, Switzerland. Photo by Steve House