In a follow up interview after Zahan Billimoria’s recent Totally Deep podcast episode, we explore the roots of his training methodology and how to prepare the body and mind for dynamic ski terrain.
WildSnow interviewed Billimoria last month. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
WildSnow: Hey Zahan, so I listened in the other day when you and Doug recorded the podcast; I wanted to hear what questions were asked and try to deviate a bit from what Doug was going to ask. I’ve got some years on Doug. I have kids — even an almost-adult kid. So my perspective when it comes to the training piece is also different: the thought of planned intervals makes me anxious.
Zahan Billimoria: Which is cool. There are a lot of people who are crushing and finding ways to crush late in life. So yeah, that’s great.
WildSnow: Ok, late in life, maybe…I’m not there yet; just moving in that direction. Anyhow, I’m going to jump right in. During the podcast interview, you mentioned you had done some work with a Master’s cross-country skier from Driggs. I’m familiar with him, and I remember, specifically, that guy who crushed classic skiing. So looking back to those days when you lived in Driggs, and you worked with this nordic skier to become faster and fitter, why did you seek that type of training, and did you have any preconceived formal ideas about what proper training is or isn’t?
Zahan: Great. I love talking about this. So that was in 2005, right, because it was right when Alyosha was born, and up until 2003, I had done no aerobic endurance activities. I didn’t do it as a kid. It just wasn’t part of my life. And then, in college, I found rock climbing. In 2003 I had a very serious accident. I broke my back and shattered my wrist. There was no rock climbing for years after that, and I knew I needed to find a new way to be an athlete and enjoy that part of my life. So we moved to Driggs, and I began backcountry skiing.
Then I heard there was a race at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which was a big race at the time, it was like the National Championships of ski mountaineering. So I was like, “Oh, that looks rad.”
I watched the event, it looked like they were going very hard for a long period of time. So that’s what I did. I remember I would go up Glory, which is, you know, like a .07 mile bootpack, three times in a row as fast as I could. And I started doing training of that nature — go hard, go as hard as you can. And that was my approach to training. Right? And I was getting exhausted. I was tired, hardcore. I had no background; I had no aerobic base. And Dan, the cross-country skier you are aware of, was known in our community as an endurance specialist. And we were friends. I asked him, and he said he would coach me — that was what he brought to the table. He explained we would spend 80 to 90 percent of our time just stacking volume and going slowly. And that’s where it began.
WildSnow: So one piece I’m interested in is the connection to MMA or mixed martial arts for those who are as clueless about it as me. I feel like it is pretty critical to what you present to potential clients.
One of the things I have learned from your posts is that MMA is much different than I once perceived it. I’m a little older than you, but I remember I had a buddy who always wanted me to watch cage fighting. I couldn’t do it. It was always too violent for me. Over the years, I’ve realized that MMA is clearly an art form. A lot is going on if you consider how we kinesthetically move our bodies. I’m curious, how has MMA informed you? And how does it inform your programming at Samsara?
Zahan: You’re absolutely right. I don’t talk about it in proportion to how much I practice it. But how is it for me? I mean, ultimately, I put it this way: I consider myself a lifelong endurance athlete, though, as I said, I only really started my 20s. But certainly, as an adult, that’s what’s consumed my adult life: being an endurance athlete. And by nature, endurance sports are repetitive, and the better you are at them, the better you repeat the movement, the same way every time, right? A fantastic Nordic skier isn’t going to deviate in any way from that classic stride, and the way the hip rotates, and all the little details, the sequencing of the joints, it’s going to be perfect, and the brain is going to learn it, and it’s going to repeat it. That’s true with running. That’s true of backcountry skiing. That’s true of swimming, through all of our endurance sports. And that means that as we age, our movement lexicon is becoming narrower and narrower. And all of the functions that result from us moving in one specific way, are deepened and deepened.
And you know, martial arts is a game with essentially no rules. It’s no rules in terms of how you throw a punch. Do you throw from the hip? Do you do this or that? There are no rules. For example, you ultimately want to deliver the strike quickly in a snap; but there are no rules about how you get there.
In a way, it really teaches you to harness your body’s mechanics and to harness that and execute a particular movement. Because the movements are so broad and diverse, you learn how to deliver strikes with power and capitalize on your body’s elasticity. People don’t realize from the outside that combat sports are such difficult endurance activities. The scariest thing for a fighter is not getting hit or knocked out; it is getting exhausted when an opponent still attacks you — that’s the scariest thing. You find yourself in this place where you’re just out of gas.
So how you conserve your energy and string movements together, allowing you to make progress but not exhausting yourself, is all about movement efficiency.
The way we as humans can be can get more output than our body can produce is by capitalizing on an elastic rebound. Because, like an elastic band, you can draw it open, and it doesn’t require any energy to propel itself back. Right? So all we’ve got to do because our bodies are elastic is we’ve got to find ways to get that elastic stretched, and as you release it, that’s free return energy.
The best runners in the world are the ones that capitalize on their elastic system. Our Achilles, for example, is a tremendously elastic tendon that stores and releases energy. One of the many things I’ve learned through martial arts is how to harness the elastic energy in my body and use that to increase my efficiency and ultimately go further with less energy.
WildSnow: When was the last time you were on a fight card? I don’t even know if you call it that in MMA.
Zahan: I’ve never done that. I’m still a real beginner. So I have never competed. But it’s definitely a scary prospect. There’s risk. And I think, for me, like with the mountains and risk, that has a parallel with MMA that I’ve appreciated.
WildSnow: And, there are some tough dudes in Wyoming, so there’s that. And it might be a good local fundraiser, you know. I’m going to plant that seed.
Zahan: It’s scary to think about getting a professional fight, but I think it’d be really exciting and a really cool experience.
WildSnow: Ok, let’s pivot a little bit, specifically to skiing and what you folks offer at Samsara. One of the things that Samsara markets towards the idea of big mountain skiing. For our readers who want to engage with some sort of formal training plan but they see or read big mountain skiing, and they ask, “am I a big mountain skier? I’m not sure I’m a big mountain skier.”
How does that type of reader fit into what Samsara offers?
Zahan: I think we always seem to struggle with scaring more people away than we should. The reality is that if you look at the athletes that we train, it is very diverse. It’s moms with four kids. It’s guys in their 50s and 60s. And sure, it’s young elite athletes as well. At least half, if not two-thirds, of our athletes, are people who live professional lives and recreate athletically. So we’re a lot less rad than we look on the outside.
For me, big mountain skiing, and maybe why I think I focus on that, is because uphill skiing is athletically conventional. It’s relatively simple.
But big mountain skiing and the adventure on the way down and how you navigate complex terrain on the way down, whether that’s just a straightforward couloir or complex glaciated terrain, is really athletic. It’s very springy, very steep, and very agile. Right? Skiing is about turning left and right. And agility is about changing direction and the body’s ability to synch those interactions.
So for me, I think I am equally, if not more, interested in this: Can we use a gym environment to get better? Or is all we’re doing just like matching ups and downs so our legs and heart can tolerate more uphill volume? My answer is no. We can absolutely improve our athleticism, as well.
WildSnow: I’m just curious, do you feel like there was something that you accidentally left out and wanted to address after you did the podcast episode?
Zahan: We talked about the concept of movement training. We discussed how movement training could impact the way that we move uphill. So expand on this notion that uphill performance is two parts. It’s the size of your aerobic engine and the efficiency of your movement. Now, if you look at training across our industry, the only thing people are talking about and working on is the size of your aerobic engine; people aren’t really focused on how we pattern better uphill movement. I think that’s really important. So we covered that, but we didn’t talk as much about the downhill aspect when that movement becomes more complex and unpredictable. In that sense, you’ve got natural terrain, and the job of a skier is to interpret and then problem-solve natural terrain dynamically on your feet with gravity. That’s the joy of skiing. To me, I am every bit as interested in how we improve our brain and body’s ability to interpret and react to natural terrain; that’s what’s so exciting.
WildSnow: That is really interesting. I feel like, as I noted, I can modify what I need aerobically, to maintain the capacity; I’ve obviously lost capacity, but I maintain it sufficiently to ski with whomever I want to ski with and maybe keep up. But the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that my ability to move my body the way I want in the mountains, especially in higher consequence terrain, has been completely compromised in the past two years. So that’s resonating for me because I’ve realized, and it’s taken me perhaps two years to realize, that I need to do something. And I think what I need to do is sort of what you’re talking about.
Zahan: I think you’re spot on with that. This is what we were talking about earlier, like what I was saying about, for example, classic skiing or any endurance sport. It’s very repetitive. If we hold hone a movement, we get better and better at that exact movement. But in skiing, it doesn’t care about one movement. In skiing, it is about here’s wild, natural terrain, and guess what? Here’s wild, natural snow, and while we’re on the topic, natural snow changes dramatically from breakable crust to blower pow, to bulletproof hard corn, you name it.
You have got to react to all of that however the heck you want to. But you have got to respond to this very, very dynamic environment. Heck, sometimes the snow moves with you; how dynamic is that?
So as we age, that’s what athletes lose across the board, what you’re talking about. It’s such a reality. I know so many people in their 50s and 60s who have barely lost a minute of their top PR times, their fitness is right there.
But when you watch them move and ask them to solve problems, they really struggle, and there’s this growing realization that, like, “wait a minute, I didn’t use to feel like this. But now I do.” So you’re absolutely right. And I think recognizing that is key because it’s very solvable.
WildSnow: I’m also curious about the mental piece. I’m a firm believer in visualizing a positive experience before you execute something physically. I know in the recent past, I’ve been on a ski line and frozen up. I couldn’t see myself making the moves, and I literally couldn’t make the moves, like I was locked up. I think I was missing that mental piece. My question is, how do you approach that side of the sport, the mental aspects of it, and build that capacity?
Zahan: Yeah, well, curious. The first thing I’d say is that I don’t actually think that they’re very separate. I think that they’re very connected. What I mean by that, for example, is if like you describe that moment when you’re faced with a piece of terrain, and your body locked up, it wouldn’t respond. To me, the way that I would express that is your brain lost confidence that it had a solution to the natural environment.
Here’s an example: I’m standing on the summit of the Grand Teton with my friend, Max Hammer, who is the best skier I’ve ever watched, the most beautiful skier. And the conditions suck. It was just refrozen, and it was just ugly. It’s a mess. I remember standing at the top, thinking, “I have no idea how I can make this look nice.”
And Max just went down and just did his art. It was beautiful. And then, when I skied it, I skied it much better than I anticipated. When I looked at that piece of terrain, my brain said, “I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t know how to navigate this problem.” And so the reaction is tension.
So you flex, you get stiff. And, of course, we all know that feeling sucks. And it’s really inefficient. We get very tired and don’t move well at all. And when you look at how most people train in the gym, what are they doing? They’re going head-to-toe tension all the time. What’s deadlifting? Deadlifting is a clenched jaw, flex every goddamn thing and bear it out as hard as you can.
That is the opposite of how I want to stay. I want to ski light; I want to ski fluid. When I watched Max do it, my brain could see a solution to the problem. Even if it wasn’t in my body, I could see, “oh, that’s what it looks like to problem solve this terrain.”
And then I went, and problem solved the terrain, and of course, it didn’t look like Max, who was elegant. But, for me and my body, it was great. I did great. I’m proud of those turns. That was the best I could do.
That’s why I say the mind and the body, that connection, are not two separate games that we’re playing. The body follows when the brain believes it has a solution to the problem. But when the brain blanks out, and it’s like, “I don’t know how I’m going to navigate this, and now I’m starting to go to these disastrous situations where when I try to problem solve this, I’m falling in my head,” that’s terrifying. Then the body cannot implement that plan to execute that solution.
I think movement training changes everything. And for me, the sport that I’ve experienced the greatest transformation is rock climbing. Because many years ago, I fell and broke my back in a rock climbing accident. And I’ve always had a fear of falling. And so often, when I look at rock climbing terrain, I always ask, “am I strong enough to overcome it?” And I always used to use strength and tension as a way to overcome it.
Now I realize this is a movement problem, and I need a movement solution. I believe that movement training has a dramatic impact on mindset. And I think it is the same thing in skiing.
That said, you know, I’m coming off of many very close calls, the loss of many friends, and actual accidents of my own. And no question in my mind that I’m psychologically in a very different place than I was ten years ago. For me, it’s the journey, a journey has chapters, and not all chapters have to be the same. I won’t be the same skier that I was ten years ago.
I don’t need to live up to my or others’ expectations. But me, being capable of, or being a master of this type of environment, it’s so ok to be scared. It’s so ok with me to be, “I know I used to love that type of terrain, but I’m scared of that now. I don’t need that right now. I want to enjoy this.
It fluctuates. It ebbs and flows. There are chapters and moments where I’m feeling all the confidence in the world and all the enjoyment of those more dicey types of terrain and other things when I’m not in that mindset. It is like accepting new chapters, embracing life’s ongoing change, and not trying to live up to my own expectations that I’ve created at a different point in my life when I had different stories in my head and different experiences that made up my presence of mind, my mindset.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.