9 Pillars of Fitness

100 year athlete 9 pillars gym strength Aug 30, 2023

What Do You Train at Off The Mountain? A Discussion on the 9 Pillars of Fitness 

When we train our body for mountain sports, what capabilities are we actually training? We need a framework to build our training off of and that frame works is the 9 Pillars of Fitness. Each of these pillars is essential to train throughout the year in order to keep you athletic. If you maintain athleticism you will have longevity. 

So, we felt that explaining these 9 Pillars in the context of mountain sports would be helpful for our community. We toss around these terms all the time, but what do they mean? Why do they matter on the slopes and trails? How do you know if you’re training strength versus power, muscular endurance versus aerobic capacity?   

In this discussion, OTM’s Dr. Alex Wetmore flexes his Ph.D. in Sport Physiology and Performance to define things properly. And OTM’s Ben Van Treese translates it all into sixth-grade English. 

Watch our conversation here and/or read on for quick bullets breaking down each pillar, why it matters, and common blind spots. 

  1. Mobility: 
  • What it is: The ability of your joints to move in ways required by your sport.
  • Why it matters: If you lack mobility, you’ll make compromises in technique that lead to pain, injury, or poor performance. 
  • Blind spots: Being “fit” doesn’t matter if you blow your ACL on day #2 of skiing in November due to a lack of knee and hip mobility. Because mobility training doesn’t involve sweat and endorphin highs, mountain athletes tend to overlook it. No matter your age or injury history, you can make improvements in mobility, and doing so will extend your years in the mountains. 

2/3. Speed + Power

  • What it is: Speed is how quickly you (or a body part) move from point A to B. Power is speed multiplied by force. Both are about how quickly you contract muscle tissues.
  • Why it matters: Explosive movements are part of mountain sports. Speed + Power determines whether your body can handle flat drops or blind bumps skiing in flat light; how well you manage stumbles, falls, and crashes; and how well you can change directions in a nasty rock garden on your bike ride or trail run. 
  • Blind spots: Speed + Power training isn’t just for elite athletes. Training it prepares us to do hard things and get away safely if we mess up. 
  1. Strength
  • What it is: The ability to produce force. 
  • Why it matters: Using correct posture, positioning, and technique on skis, a bike, or on foot is a matter of strength. Strength reduces the likelihood any muscle will blow up in the mountains. Think about it this way: if your knees can handle 100 units of force, and skiing requires 90 units, you’re operating at 90% of your threshold. That’s dicey. If you have a 200-unit capacity, skiing demands less than half of what your tissue can handle. That’s a lower risk of injury.
  • Blind spots: Strength training for 100 Year Athletes is NOT about training your one-rep max, a great way to end your ski season in the gym. Use strength training to prevent injury, not cause it.
  1. Hypertrophy
    • What it is: Hypertrophy is about increasing muscle tissue size. 
  • Why it matters: By our 40s or so, we start to lose muscle mass unless we train hypertrophy. While downhill athletes (e.g., alpine skiers) benefit from extra muscle mass, endurance athletes worry about gaining weight. Five more pounds of muscle is still five more pounds to lug uphill. But would you rather have an edge uphill, or have more decades to enjoy your sport? Muscle mass enables you to age without losing athleticism and reduces your risk of injury. 
  • Blind spots: Your muscle mass can fluctuate throughout the year. If you’re training for the Leadville 100 (bike or run), you can start dropping mass in the spring and regain mass after the event to fortify yourself for ski season.  
  1. Muscular Endurance
  • What it is: The ability for individual parts of your body to perform repetitive motions. 
  • Why it matters: Pedaling uphill, hiking steep scree slopes, and climbing multiple pitches takes muscle endurance (which is NOT aerobic capacity, Pillar 8). The more muscle endurance you have, the better you can sustain long efforts while doing your sport. 
  • Blind spots: Mountain athletes do not need to train muscle endurance in the gym. Long days in the mountains prepare you for long days in the mountains. High-volume gym work is a poor use of time unless you don’t have mountains nearby and need to simulate that workload indoors.
  1. Anaerobic Capacity
  • What it is: Ability to complete high-intensity tasks that last 3-4 minutes or less.
  • Why it matters: Whether you need to pedal up Park City’s Puke Hill, get through the crux of a climbing route, or sprint to the finish, you’re going to go anaerobic. Your legs will burn, and you’ll feel out of breath. 
  • Blind spots: You can build anaerobic capacity in the mountains or in the gym, but that depends on the activity and how you do it. Letting gravity do all the work on a mountain bike downhill trail won’t train your anaerobic capacity, but sprinting every flat and uphill section will.   
  1. Aerobic Capacity
    • What it is:  How much oxygen can you get your body to uptake for your size—your VO2 max. 
    • Why it matters: Aerobic activities involve 15-20 minutes of sustained, hard work. Basically, every mountain sport can tap into your aerobic capacity. While walking and low-intensity jogging technically use your aerobic energy system, they won’t increase your aerobic capacity (see Pillar 9).  
  • Blind spots: Mountain endurance athletes have a habit of training aerobic capacity (and muscle endurance) at the expense of everything else. Sure, if you want to win the Tour de France, your VO2 max better be insane. But if you’re a 100 Year Athlete, aerobic capacity is more about enjoying your sport, general health, and not getting dropped by your buddies. 
  1. Long Duration
  • What it is: Activities lasting longer than 20 minutes at a 50-60% effort or less.
  • Why it matters: Long-duration activities like hiking and walking are available to us at all ages and part of recreating with family, sightseeing, etc. On off days, long-duration activities help with recovery by keeping us in motion.
  • Blind spots: Getting in your 10,000 steps is a worthwhile goal if your baseline is doing nothing. But long-duration activity alone won’t keep you in the mountains into your 80s and beyond. It is something you can enjoy forever, but not something that will keep you skiing forever. 

4 Big Takeaway for 100 Year Athletes

  • Stop training muscular endurance in the gym! Instead of doing sets of 8-20+ reps, go bike, skin, run, climb, etc. 
  • Training VO2 max is important for performance but less so for longevity. Don’t sacrifice strength, mobility, and speed + power to aerobic capacity. 
  • Power is the underpinning of every sport. What we think of as athleticism is skillful output of power. Don’t neglect it. 
  • We can’t train all 9 Pillars of Fitness at once. At best, we can train 2-3 at a time. We balance them out through the course of a year, not a single week or month of training.  

Questions? Wonder if you’re missing a pillar in your training? Ask your coach or book time with Ben or Alex.