Alex "AJ" Johnson began climbing in 1997 at age ten and just two years later was named a member of the U.S. Climbing Team. By 2002, she’d won her first Youth Climbing National Championship, and year later she won the Adult National Championship. In 2008, Johnson made history by becoming the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup on U.S. soil in over 20 years. She followed that up by winning gold in Switzerland and becoming the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup overseas in 2010. Now 25 and concentrating mainly on outdoor climbing projects, she’s bagged first female ascents of V12s like Clear Blue Skies in Mount Evans, Colorado, the Mandala in Bishop, California, and Book of Nightmares and Lethal Design in Red Rocks, Colorado. This year, the Wisconsin native relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada. We caught up with her to see how she’s training for more big climbs, including the Swarm, a V13/14 in Bishop that she’ll attempt this fall.
Most people, when they think of Las Vegas, don’t think of climbing. Can you educate us?
Well, I don’t live on the strip. I live about 25 minutes away, and I only go to the strip once or twice a month. My community is super active and outdoorsy, and the outdoor climbing here is my favorite place to climb. There’s so much rock and so many opportunities to improve. I love sandstone, and there’s tons of sandstone here. It’s a lot of friction climbing. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a hold. You just stick to the wall.
In addition to outdoor climbing, you recently competed in Vail, Colorado, at the GoPro Mountain Games. How do you train for both competition and outdoor climbing?
I’ll wake up at 7:30 a.m. and go to Gold’s Gym and do yoga for an hour, then do weight training three days a week. When I’m in the gym, I rely on specific Mountain Athletics workouts like weighted pull-ups. I have an old Mammut harness that I cut the leg loops off, and I use a daisy chain to loop around the weights. I’ll do a six-set workout, with reps going down and weight going up. For example, I’ll do 80 percent of my max six times, 85 percent five times, 90 percent four times, 95 percent three times, and my max one time. My max was 75 extra pounds.
I’ll also load a bar with 70 pounds and do a squat to a shoulder press. I’ll do six to ten reps of that for three sets. It’s a great workout for injury prevention and overall strength.
But my favorite workout is a 60-pound sandbag pull. You tie a 60-pound sandbag to a 40-foot rope, sit down, and pull it toward you. Once it reaches you, you get up and run with the rope to the other end, then do it again. It stabilizes your core and works your lats like a pull-up.
How has Mountain Athletics changed you?
I always had a reputation as an off-the-couch climber who could win. Then, in 2011, I started getting beat. Since I began doing Mountain Athletics, I feel the strongest I’ve ever been, and the results came back. I’d done a lot of stationary workouts, but the Mountain Athletics workouts make you use your entire body. It helped so much with my overall fitness, parts of my body I didn’t even know I needed to train. Like my legs. My legs are so much stronger, and it’s been a huge help. Plus, I feel less tweaky and less prone to injury.
How do you train when you’re traveling?
When we did our North Face media tour for a week, we’d hit a new town every day. And I’d just figure out what to do. In Santa Fe, I went trail running, in Boulder I found a place to do my weighted workout. Even if it’s just a quick climb, as long as I’m doing something, I can maintain my fitness. You just have to be creative. I have a mini hang board that I can hang from a tree branch and do pull-ups.
How much are you climbing?
I climb five days a week for at least three hours a day. Plus, I spend 40 minutes on a hang board four days a week and an hour and a half campusing three days a week.
That must really beat up your hands.
I usually sand my hands every day to get rid of the chunks of skin, so they don’t get caught and rip on holds. Then I rub in a Joshua Tree healing salve that helps the skin regenerate.
How do you fuel yourself?
I’d never been super health conscious, but in May I started eating a really clean diet and saw a huge body transformation. I was a losing fat I didn’t even know I had. Before, I would eat Taco Bell or a burger after training and not think anything of it. But on my new diet, after training I’ll drink a whey-protein shake with mango and vanilla almond milk. It helps me heal faster, and I can train the next day without feeling like I'm going to break. For breakfast, I’ll have an almond milk, mango, whey, raspberry, and blueberry smoothie. For lunch, I’ll eat quinoa, snow peas, carrots, and rare seared tuna. I’ll snack on carrots, guacamole, and almonds all day. And for dinner, I’ll eat fresh lentil and vegetable soup. The mostly liquid meal at night was important, so I don’t feel stuffed going to bed. I feel amazing, full of energy, and really strong. And I love the way it makes me look. I don’t have a body-image problem, but I love having a six-pack. It motivates me to train even harder.
Do you take supplements?
During a six-week training cycle, I’ll take creatine the first three weeks. I get big. The second three weeks I don’t take it, but I seem to retain that strength. And I only take half the recommended dose.
All that training and climbing must make you sore. How do you manage the pain?
I take ibuprofen for pain. But Joshua Tree also makes an arnica lotion that I rub on my muscles, and it seems to make them less sore. But typically, if I’m sore, I’ll go for a four-mile trail run or drink a lot of water. That usually makes me feel a lot better.
How do you psych yourself up for competitions or big climbs?
I tend to have a pretty good head. Leading into an event, I’ll just tell myself I’m a badass. Even if I’m not feeling it, I’ll convince myself that I am. If you walk around thinking you’re a badass, you’ll be a badass.
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Alex trains in gear from The North Face. See the latest at thenorthface.com.