With an unquenchable appetite for victory, the trail king has never been stronger. Now fathering two small children, managing a foundation and launching his own gear brand NNormal. How does he do it? Kilian Jornet himself tries to answer.
Once again, Kilian Jornet has had an extraordinary trail season, surely the best of his career, in a context where the competition has become much fiercer than when he first won races over 15 years ago. “He has never been this strong“, said Jean-Louis Bal, who was contacted by phone when Kilian’s victory in this year’s UTMB was on the horizon. “Before he went to Norway, he didn’t really train. He was just accumulating large volumes in the mountains and did his intensities on the races he multiplied throughout the season, especially in winter with the ski mountaineering world cups, which he stopped. Now that he has moved away geographically and limits his travel, he does fewer races but trains much better, especially in winter. And by doing fewer transfers to competitions, he trains as much or even more in volume, even with a family life“, continued the trainer based in Ugine (Savoie). He also coached the ski mountaineering champions Axelle Mollaret, William Bon Mardion, or the second of the UTMB 2021 Aurélien Dunand Pallaz. He knows Kilian very well for having advised him in his quest for a record at Sierre-Zinal in 2019, and for regularly discussing training issues with him.
Chatting with Jean-Louis Bal lifts the veil a bit on Jornet’s training, which is in many ways fantasized. The Catalan runner expatriated in Norway explains his approach on a site surely less consulted than his Instagram, Mtnath, which compiles among other things his thoughts on his training. Here are some of his reflections on his pantagruelic season.
Kilian has repeatedly stated that his challenge this year was to “was to perform well in short and long trail running races within a few weeks. For that I chose to participate at the 2 short races I believe are most competitive (Zegama and Sierre Zinal) and the 2 long ones that would offer the biggest competition this year (Hardrock 100 and UTMB). The schedule was also interesting because the races were alternated, so: short – long – short – long which didn’t really allow to make a bloc for short and then another for long but to do quick switches several times or be in shape for both distances at the same moment.”
This kind of sequence is surely a way for the Catalan to remotivate himself to do races that he has won multiple times. But this sequence is nothing new in his career. In comparison, his 2017 season with his Himalayan expedition and double Everest + Mont Blanc Marathon win + Hardrock win (with his arm in a sling) + Sierre Zinal win + 2nd at UTMB already looked like an absolutely incredible season. But maybe the performance slider was not pushed to the maximum for Kilian’s taste, and seeing all his records fall this year (except Sierre Zinal), this hypothesis seems good.
Father and athlete, how to
When Kilian became a father for the first time, he was constantly asked how he was going to manage this new responsibility with his mountaineering. In terms of risk, he does not seem to have given up technical mountaineering or steep climbing. On the other hand, his daily schedule has been turned upside down:
“This year our youngest daughter was all the time home and both my wife Emelie and I training seriously so we did organize our days alternating our training schedules, one from 8:30 to 12:00h and the other from 12:00 to 15:30h. Then a second short session was possible when the girls were sleeping in the evening. With this I couldn’t do long sessions but try to accumulate distance with multiple short and middle sessions during the week, knowing that my body had the physiological and metabolic experience to do 20+h runs. Except the races and a couple of +4h runs, all my runs never exceeded 4h this year, but my weekly distance was as big as always, by doing more sessions in the week.“
Note that in his program, his second workout of the day is usually on a treadmill or home trainer (to keep an eye on the kids apparently). By doing the treadmill, he has maintained a running base that he used to completely disappear in the winter in favor of skiing.
I think I’m in a moment of my life where I’m happy.
Simply be happy
“I think I’m in a moment of my life where I’m happy. I feel that I do not have any unaccomplished desire in my sports career and racing motivation today is just to play and to learn about training, physiology, etc. So I feel much less internal pressure towards the result than years ago. After a few years of anxiety when living in France, moving to Norway and finding a calm and “isolated” place has proven to be the best decision, being able to be more relaxed in my everyday life. When it comes to life stress I believe it’s very important to have a environment and training expectatives that fit well with our other things in life, to not force anything into it. For me it took some time to understand that I should say no to many things to priorize the time to the things that matters most for me, and to organize them well.
With my wife Emelie we shedule our training when our older daugther was at kindergarten, and in the evening when they were asleep so we could spend time with the kids when they’re home. For the work, I would do it in the naps of the kids and I would spend some hours every evening on the Foundation and Nnormal, and try to get at bed at least at 23:00h. If I had meetings or interviews I priorized to do them to be in the evening so it didn’t interfere to my training or familly time. If not I was doing them in my easy runs with headphones. […]
Today, being a dad and spending time with our daughters […] would seem that in terms of pure training programing isn’t perfect but in my experience it’s just to be aware of that when making small changes in the training loads […]. In the past years I’ve been working more time, […] and this also takes away a great amount of time for training but it also helps in keeping the thoughts on other things than training, racing and oneself and thinking about things that matters more. “
A diagram posted on Twitter by Canadian researcher Peter Tierney, taken up by Kilian Jornet, which shows the cost/benefit ratio of different means of recovery.
You don’t do core? Neither does the best trail-runner in history.
Certains details (that can be core, gym, stretching…) can be “particularly relevant for professional athletes that have a lot of time and will fill it by doing exercises around the training plan. Doing lots of skiing in the winter and then lots of my runs on mountain terrain where is mostly scrambling, I don’t do any strenght session, also because having limitated time for training I believe that the stress to the body from strenght training would be too much to be able to give the best at the running or skiing sessions, where I want to put the focus because they are more specific.“
In other words, the best is the enemy of the good. Some marginal gains are useless if the essential physiological work is not assimilated. In saying this, Kilian warns us of a pitfall that many runners fall into: believing that we will improve a lot thanks to a small fashionable detail (e.g. Djokovic who eats without gluten, Froome who trains in the lipidic channel, etc). This is often counterproductive.
“I don’t believe at special workouts that will give you a boost on performance“, Kilian adds. “That will only give very short term adaptations that will be lost soon.” He rather believe “in the addition of repetitive stimulus that will create adaptations at cellular level and will make you change your capacities for the long run.“
Do not train too hard, in order to stay physically and mentally fresh
It is important to be “very sensitive at what do I want to feel in that session and focusing on those sensations. This is something that demands time to listen and feel our body, but I believe at the end is the best tool we have to monitor our training.[…] I think today with social media is very easy to be tempted to race the trainings and that is in my opinion a big mistake. I rarely finish a training very tired, I try to do the work that will make adaptations trying to save energy (physically and mentally) so in the race day I can use it.“
Kilian is a special case. When it comes to training, it is his philosophy that should be remembered.
Kilian does not have a monolithic approach to training. He goes to coaches whose approach suits him, researchers in sports science, doctors, nutritionists, including the Norwegian cross-country ski team or the Ineos cycling team. On this last point, his progress has been enormous lately. “I remember when he used to eat pizza and Nutella pancakes before Mezzalamas or PDGs, that has changed a lot“, notes Jean-Louis Bal, who has seen Kilian’s legs become thinner. “He has probably lost two kilos at a glance, that is to say 57 kilos“, assumes the Savoyard trainer.
If Kilian explains his training at length, he warns the readers: do not reproduce it identically (everyone has a different history, different constraints, a different body and different abilities).
And Kilian is definitely a special case. It is rather his philosophy that we should remember. Know yourself (for example Kilian teaches us that he gets injured as soon as he does too much flat speed, it’s up to you to see what your weaknesses are), learn from competent people around you, adapt, stay on simple and cheap things (sleep, nutrition, evacuate stress) and don’t get lost in a technical training spiral.
For those who want to read Kilian’s text about his training, here is the link. The best trail-runner in history is very transparent, to the point of revealing in detail his planning for the year where we could almost track his every move. He also confides in us more personally, becomes aware of his agoraphobia (one can only assume that he is pumped up during a UTMB week with delirious fans who want to get close to him), explains the course of his races, his bad feelings in most of the season’s races (except Zegama), where he nevertheless broke three records and set a time in Zinal that would have allowed him to win many previous editions. So, the sub 19 hours on the UTMB seems clearly accessible.