Fitness for Mountain Athletes During Quarantine
For those of us who love mountain sports, we’re in uncharted territory. Many outdoor recreation options including national parks are closed, travel is limited or banned in many areas, and shelter in place restrictions are common.
Zahan Billimoria, owner of Samsara Mountain Training, is an IFMGA certified mountain guide, and the creator of an intense body weight training program. Read on for tips from Z, that apply not only to those who train for climbing, mountaineering, or backcountry skiing, but all athletes.
Z, you were born in London, and grew up in Switzerland. What first drew you to the mountains?
I remember as a young boy, 7 or 8 years old, skiing in a small village in the south of France and looking out at Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley. I could see the towering glaciers on Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, and that really captured my imagination and never let go.
You now live in the Tetons, you’re married and a father of two. What initially inspired you to live in Jackson?
A photo of Doug Coombs airing into Corbet’s Couloir, taken by Wade McKoy.
At the time, I didn’t know the details of the photo, I used to get Powder magazine growing up in Europe and look at photos of Jackson Hole. It was dark, cloudy, and gnarly.
A couple of years ago I was doing an interview with Wade and mentioned it to him, he told me it was his photo and Coombs was the skier. That photo set my wheels in motion.
Life is short. If you want something, you better go get it right now because you don’t know what the future might be.
What is your job?
I’m a mountain guide and strength coach. My company is Samsara Mountain Training.
You recently released an at home bodyweight training program. Tell me more about it.
It is a comprehensive strength training program that can be done at home and requires no equipment.
It is designed to enhance maximum strength. To move the needle on your body’s ability to produce a maximum amount of force.
So many people train by doing a higher volume of moderate load work. That doesn’t make them able to execute harder movement.
If your body can do it 10 or 15 times, it’s too easy. This is about increasing how much force you can produce, not how often you can produce a medium amount of force.
It seems like that would come in handy in critical moments in the mountains.
That’s exactly right, that’s what this is for.
What kind of athletes is this program for?
Intermediate to high level athletes.
The program was born to enhance the performance of mountain athletes, but it has broad application to any sports that have strength demands.
I’ve tried some of the moves - they are REALLY HARD, and a serious challenge, no matter how fit of an athlete someone thinks they are. How did you start coming up with these moves, and your way of training?
Training, ultimately, is all neurological.
Until you begin to understand that it’s about the brain sending the right signals, there is no training. Only exercising.
Exercise results in a good positive feeling. We release endorphins, increase blood flow, it produces a hormonal response. We feel good, and that’s great.
Training is much more specific. It is the practice of learning to manipulate the body, to get certain outcomes.
This is done when you stimulate certain physiological responses, and those responses originate in the brain.
You have to look at the relationship between the effort of the exercise you’re doing, and the neurological response - how the brain interprets that effort.
What are your thoughts on what athletes should focus on, with so many of us being at home?
Well, there are 3 buckets in training.
One is endurance. Two is strength. Three is athleticism. Athleticism is those hard to train facets that are critical for being really good at our sports, like balance, coordination, stability.
The hardest one to train if you’re stuck at home is endurance. If you have an indoor bike or treadmill you can do this, but regardless of what your sport is, the best approach is to make the most of whatever circumstance you’re in, and don’t try to force a square peg in a round hole.
Is it possible to come out of this stronger, if we are home with limited access to the outdoors? Can we finish quarantine more fit?
With the bodyweight program, you can do it at home in a small space. You can absolutely, with this program, get stronger than you’re ever been. Guaranteed. But the harder question is, is that where you’re at right now?
This is a global pandemic. We are in a state of very high uncertainty.
When we wake up in the morning, we have a certain amount of adaptive capacity each day. If your stress level is high, the amount of energy your body is able to dedicate to something that is not life-essential, like training, is affected.
So people need to address their situation, and what’s going on mentally, before they choose how they want to proceed physically?
That’s right. It’s super important to respect the relationship between our body and our minds.
Each person has to measure, for themselves, what they need in their life right now. I want people training if it’s a way to enjoy themselves more, to be happier and more at peace in their bodies. Not out of a sense of obligation or guilt, and not if training is adding to stress.
That’s great advice. Different topic, how many times have you summited the Grand Teton? I know you’re guiding around the world a lot, curious how many times you’ve been up the neighborhood hill.
Probably over 100 times. It’s not a lot compared to some other guides.
How old were your kids the first time you brought them up the Grand?
They were 8 and 9 years old.
Z, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Anyone interested in a serious challenge, check out the Bodyweight program at:
To access a free workout and see what it’s all about, use the code:
The entire program is four increasingly difficult levels you can purchase together or separately.
Not sponsored, not an ad, I’m just really impressed with the challenge and functionality of Z’s program.
Photo by Adam Wirth, find him @adamewirth