Building A Better Mountain Athlete

by | Dec 8, 2016

Mountain Tactical Institute Founder Rob Shaul on why you’re not a better skier.

In middle-of-nowhere Jackson Hole, WY, there’s a strength and conditioning laboratory that caters to a hardcore group of mountain athletes, law enforcement, fire and rescue personnel and the military. This bunker, dubbed the Mountain Tactical Institute (MTI), is no average gym.

You might imagine MTI Founder and President Rob Shaul to be a peak-bagging badass given the description of his conditioning center (and the fact that he’s a U.S. Coast Guard Academy alum), but he tells SGB, “No, I’m not a very good mountain athlete myself. I’m an okay hiker, poor skier, crappy at fly fishing. I didn’t do it to be fit. I wanted to get into mountain sports because it was unique.”

SGB sat down with Shaul to dig deeper into the motivation behind his fitness facility, and how he’s been the architect of bodies capable of scaling the highest peaks. Here’s a hint: it’s more than training. Shaul is reinventing the way fitness research is conducted.

Starting From Scratch
According to the lifelong gym rat turned self-educated strength and conditioning coach, the field of mountain sports conditioning was basically a blank slate when he started the Mountain Tactical Institute in 2007 (then called Mountain Athlete). “What makes it so interesting is that there’s no tradition behind it,” Shaul said. “So we started developing a program all on our own, just trying out stuff and seeing if it worked.”

Apparently, it did.

Now a wide-ranging endeavor that runs the gamut from firefighter conditioning to gear testing, the Institute runs year-round Mountain Base programs as well as short-term prep sessions for specific sports. In mid-November 2016, MTI was in its last week of ski boot camp, where alpine skiers come in for an intensive six weeks of training hell. After the skiers come the ice climbers, then it’s time to bulk up the rock climbers. The revolving door of athletes keeps things interesting at MTI.

When it comes to designing his conditioning programs, Shaul can’t stress enough the importance of simplicity. “Sophisticated design is immature; simple design is what you’re after,” he said. “The programming itself matures over time, but as it matures it becomes simpler. Not new and whiz-bangy, but in the other direction.”

Shaul’s not looking to reinvent the wheel, but he is ready to challenge the rotation. Case in point: there are few things less “whiz-bangy” than dead lifts; however, after testing their efficacy on mountain application, Shaul found they didn’t make him better on the slopes.

The test: “We just did a bunch of dead lifts and then went out on the mountain. But after just a few runs, our legs were completely shot.” If it doesn’t work for Shaul and his dedicated group of skier “lab rats,” then it probably won’t work for clients coming to MTI to hone their skills.

Back to the drawing board.

The Mountain Is Ruthless
As MTI’s programs went through puberty, Shaul and his team realized how important pre-conditioning was for physically demanding sports such as skiing. The reality is, neither pros nor amateurs are skiing all day, every day. Muscles required for carving and shredding inevitably require a constant oiling in order to optimize performance and prevent injury. “I’ve heard people say that really the only way to get in shape for skiing is to ski, but there are things you can do to prepare yourself physically for the first day of the season.” Shaul said, adding that innate ability will only get you so far.

He’s proven that it’s better to sweat and suffer in the gym for six weeks before that first powder day.

To arm its athletes against the ruthless mountain, MTI went rogue when developing exercises and workout regiments, eschewing academic research in favor of its own breed of do-it-yourself fitness experiments.

The MTI team has been focused from the start on creating simple, effective training programs divorced from the idea that a good idea is dependent upon years of research and testing. “We saw how slow and, in some cases, how un-applicable academic research was for the type of training we were doing,” Shaul said, adding that many studies are “so narrow they lose their utility.” His point is that a peer-reviewed paper on, say, how fast a bear runs is significantly less useful than being trained to outrun a bear. Or in Shaul’s more realistic example, “You can do a search for all university studies on back squats and what you’ll get is every current theory on how to do a back squat. But what do you do with that information?”

If you’re Shaul sitting at the squat rack in his mountain lab, you throw it in an ideas beaker and see if anything useful precipitates. If a ton of back squats are what it takes to get an athlete ready for the backcountry, then back squats they shall get, but only after Shaul and company have worn themselves out proving the effort is worth it.

In the meantime, Shaul keeps himself busy training up a new crop of freeskiers, tackling the subpar fitness culture of firefighters and field testing waterproof sleeping bags in the freezer of a local grocery store. All in a day’s work.

Shaping Up For Ski Season
With U.S. ski resorts finally opening after a delayed-onset winter, many skiers are beginning to dread the inevitable quad burn that accompanies early-season skiing. MTI is on a mission to fight such conditioning shortfalls, which Shaul sees as preventable (to some degree). “Some trainers will have you do three or four exercises, but we make you do one exercise, again and again. Doesn’t matter if you’re sick of it.”

“What’s different about our program is that there’s really no individual customization,” he added. “The event is what determines the program, not what any one person thinks he or she needs in order to compete.”

Simplicity and tough love are what an athlete can expect from an MTI training regimen, but what’s a few thousand lunges if it means more runs and less pain when it really matters?

To put it even more bluntly, “The mountain is ruthless in the same way, no matter what.”

Lead photo Rob Shaul; Photos courtesy Mountain Tactical Institute