This article is not only for mature and young athletes but for their parents as well.
Without a doubt, Kilian Jornet has been the most influential figure in endurance mountain sports over the past decade. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t been inspired by him at least a bit.
There are videos, and stories, showing Kilian winning a stacked World Cup ski mountaineering race and smashing a field of well-known ultra-runners only few weeks later, despite a five-month long break from running. In between, he is skiing up and down Mont Blanc for breakfast. I mean, how can you not be inspired?
I am a fan but I want to bring attention to couple of points that I think the general athletic public is perhaps not aware. In recent years, I observe many mountain/endurance athletes mimic Kilian’s training and I think, such copying, can likely do more harm than good to us in terms of long-term performance and more importantly health.
Kilian versus Us: Physiology, Training, Recovery, Resources
I am not trying to pick on Kilian here, I am simply using him as an example because he is arguably the most decorated endurance athlete right now and he is a man of extremes. If you are getting inspired by him then that’s all great, and know I am as well, but perhaps keep the following points in mind when increasing your training loads.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kilian Jornet is a freak of nature. He regularly dominates elite fields in two different mountain sports – ski mountaineering and running – in events ranging from 20 minutes to 40 hours! He seems to recover crazy fast and is never injured.
This could be due to the fact that the two sports still have long ways to go in terms of competition evolution, or that his physiology is that much better that he might not need to be racing at 100% to achieve many of his wins. Most likely, it is a combination of both.
Whatever the case, I am fairly certain that if Kilian was a road marathon runner, or a professional cyclist, he would be top 10 in New York Marathon, or Tour de France, perhaps even win.
As athletes, we respond differently to different types of training programs but there are some general principles that work quite well universally. We should shape our programs based on the demands of our goal competitions as the best performance gains are made when a training program promotes the desired adaptation effects in a long-term sustainable manner.
The above means that if you want to run ultras then you will need to spend lots of time running long miles, but if your goal are 1-3 hour races then your training needs be quite different – less overall volume, frequent high(er) intensity sessions, etc – to provide you with the most benefits for the time spend.
Kilian Jornet seems to be somewhat spared of these training specificity rules. No matter how many hours of training, combined with unprecedented vertical climbing he does, he is still arguably the fastest when the race is longer than 20 minutes. According to his website, Kilian trains 20-35 hours over 7 days a week, pretty much year round. He averages around 1000 hours and 550,000 vertical metres annually.
For you and me, raising our training volume anywhere close to his levels, even for few weeks, it is very likely to set us on a path of over-training and health issues such as joint problems, muscle imbalances, hormonal and immunity imbalances, and others.
Ability to recover well and fast is crucial to successfully improve your performance. Quality and speed of your recovery allows you to do more in training and to have an edge in competition.
Given all of the above, it’s clear that Kilian Jornet’s body must have an exceptional recovery ability. This allows him to train and race more than almost anyone in the world, and all without getting injured! I am not aware of any other athletes that push(ed) their bodies so much, for so many years, and haven’t been sidelined with an overuse injury even for couple of weeks. Will he pay the price later or he is physiologically just so superior?
With physiology, training, and recovery building on each other, we need to also consider resources when comparing ourselves to Kilian.
If you ever seriously focused on improving your performance, even for a short period of time, then you likely discovered that not enough recovery time and quality easily erodes your efforts. I believe, for most mountain athletes, this ultimately comes down to resources expressed as money and time. Between work, training, and other commitments there simply is not enough time for proper recovery on regular basis, and no money for some quality methods such as massages, physio, etc.
I don’t think Kilian is rich but he certainly has more time – to listen to his body, to take care of it, to relax his mind. He has worked hard to arrange things this way but for most of us this is not possible so it should be taken into consideration when setting up our training plan.
Killian is a full time professional athlete and at any time he isn’t training he is recovering. He also has a great support network – this also fits under the resources umbrella.
Kilian versus Us: Long-term health
Professional athletes get paid with an understanding that they are trading their bodies for money but even they still hope the trade-off won’t have serious consequences.
As amateur athletes, junior racers, or parents, we should consider future consequences a little bit more, especially, given the fact that we don’t have the same recovery resources available to us.
With everything said throughout the article, I don’t want to discourage you from challenging yourself, but I hope I was able to illustrate why you should be thinking of the size and the kind of the impact your training and activities will have on your performances and health. Kilian is using his talent to its full potential, and that is very inspiring, just don’t forget he is a bit special 😉