What I’ve Learned About Training While Guiding At Exum

Coach Z’s three biggest lessons on how to thrive, not just survive, in the mountains.

Ten years ago when I was guiding full-time for Exum Mountain Guides, one of my clients booked me to climb the Grand Traverse, a two- to three-day link-up of all the central Tetons. We had climbed the Grand and backcountry skied together, but this objective was on another level—and he needed to train for it.

What I wrote out in an Excel spreadsheet became the first Samsara training plan.

Our latest 16-Week Grand Teton Plan—and all of our training plans today—reflect the lessons I’ve gained through almost two decades of guiding with Exum, observing the ways in which people fall short when preparing for big alpine adventures, along with the decades of combined experience that we as a team of coaches have in the study of human performance.

Here are the three biggest training lessons I’ve learned about thriving, not just surviving, in the alpine while working at Exum: 

1. Build the Aerobic Base

The single biggest factor that determines success in the alpine is your base fitness. For years at Exum I would see CrossFit athletes, who had trained their hearts out, struggle in the mountains. They had put in the work, but now it wasn’t paying off. Why? They had no aerobic endurance.

Endurance boils down to one factor: aerobic efficiency. No amount of going “all out” for 30 to 60 seconds is going to hold up in the mountains. Aerobic capacity is built through long, sustained, and slow aerobic workouts over months and even years. For the first four to six weeks of your training you don’t need to be very picky about how you get it either: mix up running, hiking, swimming, or riding.

As we say at Samsara: Go long, go slow, avoid rests, and train fasted when possible.

2. Train for the Descent

For many athletes, the crux starts at the summit and ends at the car. Athletes who train their aerobic endurance well, but neglect the strength and tissue capacity side of the equation, might cruise the ascent, but find themselves wincing in pain on the descent.

All the aerobic training in the world won’t help your body tolerate the stress of getting back down. For that you need bulletproof joints, and thick, healthy tendons. The way to develop this capacity is through slow, loaded strength training.

If you are doing more than around five or seven reps per set, the loads are likely too low to create the necessary mechanical stimulus to trigger collagen adaptations.

Keep the reps low, the effort high, and the movements slow. All of the strength work that you’ll find in our 16-Week Grand Teton Training Plan is designed to prepare your body for long, grueling alpine descents with a pack on.

(Also, don’t forget to trim your toenails!)

3. Hone Movement Patterns

Energy is a finite resource—for every athlete.

Regardless of your fitness, if your movements on the mountain are tense and labored, you will quickly burn through your energy reserves. There isn’t enough fitness in the world to make up for inefficient and poorly coordinated movement.

When you learn to move the way your body has evolved to move, the natural obstacles that the mountains present will be easy for your brain to decode, and your body will find an efficient way through. That’s where Athlete IQ training comes in. IQ sessions are designed to help you pattern natural patterns of human locomotion that will enable you to flow through complex terrain, and save your energy.

Our new 16-Week Grand Teton Plan is the ultimate high-alpine training plan for the mountain athlete. It's designed for summer alpine climbing missions that involve big vert, complex movement, and long days in the mountains. Our built-in aerobic formula allows athletes of every level to automatically dial in their weekly training volume according to their current fitness and available training time.


Summit and Descend with Style

Grand Teton
Training Plan

Aerobic Capacity | Max. Strength | Athlete IQ