The Knowledge

Altitude Training with Steve House

Steve House is widely regarded as one of the greatest mountain climbers of all time. You wouldn't know it from talking to him. He just seems like a regular guy. Which he is, but he's also a maverick in the sport, not to mention a recipient of the prestigious Piolets d'Or mountaineering award (they don't give those out willy-nilly). Steve is also the author of several works of award-winning mountain literature and is the head of the world-class coaching program Uphill Athlete.

For the sake of this interview, though, all you need to know is Steve is an old and treasured friend of Mr. Kílian Jornet. In fact, Steve, Kílian, and fellow climber Scott Johnston co-authored a book: Training for the Uphill Athlete. We gave Steve a call to find out how we can be as fast or—even better—faster than Kílian up in the mountains.

Steve, you're the founder of Uphill Athlete, which is a mountain sports coaching—slash—training company. Is that right?

That's right, yeah. Our mission is to educate and inspire alpine athletes. We cover the gamut from trail running to mountaineering to skiing.

Cool, and how did you meet Kílian?

I'm not sure how we originally met...

It was a while ago.

Yeah. One of us contacted the other for some information about a mountain. I think he wrote to me asking about some place in the Himalayas, and we started talking, and then we met and did some climbing together.

So, you know him pretty well, which brings me to my next question: How can I run up and down mountains faster than Kílian?



...The First thing you have to do is choose your parents really well—


Okay, got it.

So, that's the first thing, and then second, you have to start training at age nine or whatever age he was when he started training.

Yup, easy.

The thing you don't want to do, though, is train like Kílian because Kílian achieved his ability to maintain his massive training volume and training stress over time through years of build-up. You know, he started when he was super-young, and there's really no replacement for training in those early growth years. Literally, your body will be shaped so much by what you do in your teenage years, and once you've reached adulthood, that's set—we can't change after that. For example, one thing you can't change as an adult is the stroke volume of your heart. Your heart will always be the size it is at the time you stop growing. So, someone whose heart spent ten years of its growth early in life being asked to pump a lot of blood is going to have a different heart muscle than somebody who just watched TV from age ten to twenty.

So, you're saying I'll never be faster than Kílian. 

Yeah, I'm afraid not.

So, that's the Kílian Jornet secret: he grew up doing what he does... He's a mountain goat. He's literally a mountain human.

Yeah. I do think that that's kinda his secret. I mean, there's obviously a genetic component. He's not a very big guy, right? And I've also seen—and this is just me speculating based on observation—with high altitude, going over 8,000 meters, in my experience, the people who do really well are usually not very big, which kind of makes sense because all the tissue you're carrying around has to be oxygenated at all times, and there's probably an ideal size ration of heart and lungs to tissue for endurance sports. If you look at the morphology of other great distance runners, they don't have a whole lot of extra muscle and tissue that they're oxygenating.

'Kílian is good, don't get me wrong, but I'm absolutely convinced—and I'm sure he'd say the same thing—there are people coming who are going to be much, much faster.' 

How tall is he, like, 5.7", 5.8"?

Yeah, you'd have to ask him, but probably like 5.7".

So, he's 5.7", but he's got a massive horse heart—

And he's a small-boned guy; he's not a heavy-set guy.

Right, so he's a smallish dude, but he has the heart and lungs of someone much, much bigger.

Yeah. He's like a car with a big engine and a small chassis.

Power to weight ratio... Interesting. I guess it's like that Olympic swimmer with the freakishly large feet—

Michael Phelps.

Yeah. Massive feet—

And big hands, long arms...

And that was his not-so-secret weapon.  

You know, one thing that's really interesting is I don't think mountain running is anywhere near where swimming is; like, you have to be a super-unicorn to be Michael Phelps, right?


I don't think mountain running or trail running is anywhere near that level. Kílian is good, don't get me wrong, but I'm absolutely convinced—and I'm sure he'd say the same thing—there are people coming who are going to be much, much faster. Kílian is talented, obviously, but there are not enough participants...

You mean the sport hasn't drawn in enough people to really know how far it can go?

Right. He and I have joked that it's all fun and games until the Kenyans start running UTMB—


God, that's so true. 

Yeah, it's true! And so, it's really just a function of where the money is right now. They're focused on different aspects of the sport. The sub-two-hour marathon—there's way more money in that so that motivates more people.

Okay, we've established that I'll never get up a mountain faster than Kílian, but what are some of the basic things I need to do to become an ordinary, non-professional skyrunner, having never gone above sea level, really?

The first thing you need to have is a really good aerobic base. There are a lot of different ways to accomplish this, but I think the most common and proven method is to have a lot of time running in your zone 2 and build up to a consistently high volume of running, like, however you want to measure that in hours or miles or whatever.


Bearing in mind, it takes an adult roughly ten years to maximize their genetic potential as an endurance athlete.

Oh, that's ages!

Yeah. I don't want people to think this is something you can do in twelve weeks. For most people, depending on where you're starting—and I'm talking about younger people in their twenties here—it's going to take a year to three years to build enough volume to get to where you can consistently do 60-to-80-mile (96.5-to-128.7-km) weeks. You have to creep up on that; you can't do that too quickly, or you get hurt.

' terms of what keeps me up at night, it's actually just that; it's literally just tripping and not getting my hands up in time.' 


Then, once that's established, the next thing is to start running hills, both up and down. So, we know it's best to establish the aerobic base first and then start to add muscular endurance next, which is what we can do by running up and down hills. And that's why when we look at Kilian's Instagram, he's running and skiing up and down hills all the time, but he already has that massive aerobic base. I mean, he still does a lot of aerobic base training to maintain that, but he can really get a lot out of hills at different intensities, from higher intensity and super-short—which actually functions as a strength workout in the sense that the muscles are learning to fire together to produce more power—and then there's more classic strength endurance, zone 3 intervals. For someone just starting, that's probably a 30 minutes on, 15 minutes off kind of thing, but for someone like Kílian, that could be more like an hour to an hour and a half, you know? That's why he lives in Norway: he needs that much vertical to train on. If he has less than a thousand meters or two-thousand meters, it's simply not enough for him to get the training effect he needs.

Wow. Right. What about altitude?

Well, I think the high-altitude component isn't that important because everything I just mentioned will make you better at altitude. I tell people to think about it in terms of the scarcity of oxygen molecules, and the aerobic base training is making your whole system more efficient at pulling these oxygen molecules into the Krebs cycle and ultimately producing chemical energy. So, that ability to take up oxygen and turn it into motion is being trained at any altitude.

What about acclimatization?

That can be done relatively quickly by spending, you know, a few months at a higher elevation; it doesn't take years.

And how about the actual act of running in the mountains, like, the coordination it takes?

Right, well, the technical aspect of running on hills is possibly the bigger limiter. If you don't have, let's call it 'good form' running up and down hills, that can make a big difference. Like, if you're in a race, you're gonna push yourself to the wall anyway because that's kinda what races do to us, but the fear of falling or tripping could be a bigger limiter for most people.

Right, so eating shit is a bigger inhibiter than bonking. Besides that, and, I guess, altitude sickness, what else do newcomers not anticipate?

Well, I think the biggest risk is the fall risk, you know? And there's certainly been incidents of this in skyrunning. There was an American woman, Hillary Allen, who had a really bad accident during a race in Norway, and she fell off the ridge, basically, and fell quite some ways [150 feet] and got really messed up. And you know, you're wearing basically underwear up there; you have nothing really protecting you physically, so if you take a header into a boulder... That's pretty scary.

Especially if you're alone.

Right. You dive headfirst into a rock and you're all by yourself...

Steve, I gotta ask, why are you doing this? Why are you and Kílian running around up in the mountains? It's scary as hell!

Well, yeah, it is, but you focus and you concentrate, and, you know... I've never had that happen, and I don't know if Kílian ever has. But in terms of what keeps me up at night, it's actually just that; it's literally just tripping and not getting my hands up in time. I mean, the altitude isn't really a hazard because you're in and out so quick, you know? You're up and then you're back down. You might feel a little weird and have a bit of a headache when you come down, but you drink some water and have sleep and you're all good.

What are some of the myths around skyrunning or mountaineering?

That's a good question... Well, I think the biggest myth is 'This is not for me.' The myth of 'I'm not good enough, I'm not ready, I don't have the skills...' None of us had the skills until we started doing it. There's a huge community out there that is super supportive and super encouraging and inclusive and welcoming of all levels and abilities, and that's one of the things that the [Uphill Athlete] team and I try to foster: welcoming everyone and meeting them at their level.

That's really cool.

And it's not competitive. That's what I really like about it. I mean, sure, there is racing, but you look at the racers in things like UTMB, and there's no animosity between the top men or women. They're all supporting one another and running their best, and they all realize that it's just one day, and somebody can have a bad gut or something, and someone else can have a really great day, and it's all good. That's what I really love about it. Coming from the States, we've made competition such a religion, and I think that's super damaging, honestly, because it just celebrates the one winner, but for that one winner, there's a million losers. And the beauty of mountain sports is that there's not a million losers—there's a million winners because we're fortunate enough to be out in the mountains doing something that brings joy into our lives, with a bunch of folks who are, on the whole, just really good people.

That's great.

It's so great! And I love that about mountain sports and the mountain sports community so much.

'I think the thing that I've noticed that is so surprising to people is just how humble and approachable he is. He's just... It sounds funny, but, I mean, he's a sweet guy!'

Last question: You've known Kílian for a long time—what's something about him that the readers might be surprised to know? Like, does he have a tramp-stamp or something?


Well, I think the thing that I've noticed that is so surprising to people is just how humble and approachable he is. He's just... It sounds funny, but, I mean, he's a sweet guy! He's a really kind and loving person. People have him on such a pedestal—for obvious reasons—but when they interact with him, you know... He actually just came on a video call with our coaching group, like, twenty-five people or something, and he talked about his training and did a Q&A, and he was basically just hanging out; he'd put his kids to bed, his hair was a mess, and he was just like everybody else, you know?

Yeah, yeah.

But I think many people put him on this pedestal and think he's this, this—


God. Right. But then there he is in his. He's not putting on airs, and he's just super-relatable and super-chill.

He's just a regular dude?

Yeah, he's just a regular guy. He's the best. 

Thanks, Steve.

My pleasure.