Sam Heughan Is Hitting His Peak

Sam Heughan talks to The Box about “Outlander,” CrossFit and how climbing mountains helped him inspire thousands to improve their health for charity.

Jordana Brown February 17, 2016

1. Have Plyo Box, Will Travel

It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday in early September, and we’ve lost Sam Heughan. Or, more precisely, he has lost us. We’ve split up (our photo equipment alone being enough to overwhelm our tiny Scottish rental car), intending to caravan to a spot in the countryside outside Glasgow, Scotland, to get a few more shots of the actor. But somehow in the confusion of streets and traffic, Heughan and his trainer, John Valbonesi, have gotten on a different highway from the one our GPS is insisting we take.

Inspired by the promotional poster for Outlander, the TV show on which Heughan stars, we spent much of the previous day driving the small roads around Loch Lomond, searching for a suitably Scottish vista. We found it — a little lake framed by craggy cliffs — next to a small parking lot just off the two-lane A82. We were intending to lead Heughan and Valbonesi back to it, but now, separated and trying to communicate how to find the spot without being able to identify it on a map or knowing the names of any landmarks, we’re instead experiencing an exercise in frustration. A flurry of texts and calls and some frantic cellphone Google mapping follows, and we reconnect 45 minutes later outside a picturesque hotel on the banks of Loch Lomond. Blood pressure thus under control and with the plan back on track, Heughan and Valbonesi fall in behind us.

Ironically, upon our arrival, the spot we’ve chosen is immediately recognizable to Heughan. “There’s no way!” he exclaims after unfolding his 6-foot-3-inch frame from Valbonesi’s (also small) car. “I thought you might be heading here!” Apparently, Heughan tells us, that promo poster was shot right over there behind us, with a view out of the valley.

We’re on a section of road poetically called Rest and Be Thankful, and though we’re thankful to be out of the tiny rental car, there’s no rest to be had. There’s equipment — of the photo and training kind — to be lugged out of the cars, trekked over a 4-foot berm and through waist-high grass, the marshy terrain squelching underfoot. All so that Heughan can show off the CrossFit-style moves he perfected in order to look the part of Jamie Fraser.

Fraser, as written by Diana Gabaldon in her series of immensely successful New York Times best-sellers (Outlander, which inspired the first season of the series, is the first of eight lengthy tomes, with a ninth in the works), is a deep-thinking and deeper-feeling soldier from the wild Highlands of Scotland, a character whose panoply of sterling qualities (not least of which is his utter unwavering devotion to Claire, a World War II nurse who mysteriously enters his life) has earned him the nickname “King of Men” among the adaptation’s writing staff. Looking the part, however, was not as simple as sending Heughan to do some bodybuilding training — largely because Jamie Fraser was born in 1721.

“They wanted the character not to look like he’d been in the gym,” Heughan says. “He’s been living rough for months, living off the land, being chased by the redcoats; there’s a lot of horseback riding. So we wanted to have the body that could do all that. And also the job is very physical. It’s long hours, and I do all my own stunts — a lot of sword-fighting and horse-riding scenes, so it was also to protect myself, as well.”

Enter Valbonesi, a CrossFit Level-1 trainer whose company, Fight Camp Glasgow, runs boot camps that mix CrossFit and muay Thai. His first step, upon being hired by the production to train Heughan, was sending him to CrossFit Evolving, located under a railway arch in North London. “There was chalk on the floor and just lots of barbells and squat racks and, you know, the rig,” Heughan recalls. “And I was used to doing biceps curls and that sort of thing, so it was pretty terrifying. But it was also really exciting. I wanted to learn all these lifts; I wanted to lift like a pro athlete.”

So that’s where they began. “The first thing was teaching him a lot of the movements,” Valbonesi says. “That’s when we were down in London. Olympic moves were a big part at the start.”

To achieve a body that didn’t look “trained,” the training was intense — but centered around functional moves. “John came down and stayed in London, and we basically spent the whole time together,” Heughan says. “We’d train in the morning, go home, sleep for like an hour or so, eat, go back, train again, go home, sleep — sometimes we’d do three sessions a day.”

The regimen was almost too successful. Heughan, despite being a self-proclaimed hardgainer, put on about 2 stone — 28 pounds — of muscle, and kept gaining. “Toward the start of the shoot, like around the fourth episode, I kept building and building, and the producers thought I was scary and getting too big,” Heughan says. “So I slimmed down a little bit. Then, toward the end of the shoot, the last two episodes, my character has sort of been tortured and lots of horrific things happen to him, so I very quickly needed to get lean, and I did that just through diet.”

Heughan is no stranger to strenuous exercise. Earlier in his career, knowing that leaner looks better on camera, Heughan started running. And didn’t stop. “In London, I used to get the train to Richmond or Kew Gardens and then run home, which was like 20 miles,” he says. “I’d do that once, maybe even twice a week, and I really found it very relaxing. Or I’d run down from my house through Hyde Park down to the river and to Borough Market, which is an amazing food market, get my lunch and then run back. It was brilliant.”

And then he started running competitively. “I did the Paris and London marathons and got some great times,” he says. “I think I qualified for Boston. I did a half marathon of 1:24, which is a 2:48 marathon, so I definitely had a three-hour marathon in me. I did a 3:20 in Paris and trained for a three-hour for New York, and I flew to New York and was ready for it, then the hurricane [Sandy] happened, and I was stuck in New York for the week.” He also often participated in shorter races to raise funds for charitable causes, most notably leukemia and lymphoma research.

“Running was something I loved doing, but then I started to notice that it didn’t really give me the kind of body that I wanted,” he says. “That’s when I started dabbling.” He added swimming and biking to the mix, did some triathlon training, but even that wasn’t enough. “I felt gym work, as well, was important,” Heughan says. “And even then I was aware of CrossFit. I used to go on the CrossFit website and look at the daily WOD and try to do it on my own, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.” It took Outlander to show him.

2. Northern Exposure

Earlier that same Sunday afternoon, Sam Heughan is wearing Under Armour underwear — and not much else. Within five minutes of his arrival at our shoot location, in the vast space that will house Fight Camp Glasgow’s new training facility, he has whipped off his leather jacket and button-down shirt and is posing shirtless for our cameras. He looks comfortable, composed and in control. Shortly thereafter, the jeans come off, too, as Heughan, having declined the offer of a more private changing room, pulls on his workout clothes and prepares to start deadlifting.

Viewers of Outlander might naturally assume this is comfortable territory for the 35-year-old actor, who bared just about all — repeatedly — on-screen in Outlander’s first season. But the next day, fully dressed and ensconced in a table at the back of Tinderbox, a busy coffeehouse on Glasgow’s West End, he confides that exhibitionism is not his natural state: “I am by no means an extrovert. The idea of being on a stage is very exposing, and I don’t like that, so it’s kind of a strange job to be in. And I think of yesterday — there I am sat on top of a box with my shirt off. Hmmm, exposing. But in a weird way, it’s kind of hiding behind something.”

There's not much hiding to be done on a stage, but before Outlander, Heughan, who graduated with a degree in acting from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now called the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), was mostly found treading the boards and, paradoxically, still feels most at home there. “I love the stage,” he says. “That’s where I’m from. It’s my joy. Film and TV are great, but they’re not the same. There are moments in film and TV when you know you’re on it and you can feel it and it’s great, but onstage, it’s electric and alive. The joy of doing stage is you start the story and you get all the way through to the end and you go through that journey every night and you learn more and more about the character and what’s happening. Whereas with TV, you live that brief moment until you’ve left it, but then it’s gone, that’s it. And then you’re done.”

Still, screens and not stages line Heughan’s future, at least for the time being. Season two of Outlander is set to air in spring 2016, and during what he (and the show's fans) hopes will be the hiatus before season three starts shooting, he has a film role lined up, playing a teaching assistant who happens to have cancer in Oxford. “Right now, I’m really enjoying this,” he says. “It’s my first big TV job, and I’ve had some great offers for other jobs. But I definitely want to go back to theater. There seem to be a lot of film or TV actors who go back to theater when they get to a certain level, so I guess you get more opportunity to do that.”

3. Moving Mountains

It’s 5:30 p.m., and back in the Scottish marsh, Heughan is looking for all the world as if he’s in his natural element. The sky has remained persistently blue, denying us the moody atmosphere we were promised by every guidebook and word-of-mouth account of Scottish weather. But as the sun sinks toward the crags above, the temperature drops and the wind whistles through the valley, causing those of us more accustomed to warmer climes to huddle deeper into our sweaters. Heughan, clad in shorts, stays warm the old-fashioned way, by moving. We’ve stomped the grass down and dragged a couple of kettlebells and a plyo box out into the marsh, and Heughan is now swinging, jumping and sprinting over the uneven ground.

There’s a reason he looks so at home in the crags and the cold. Part of it is that he is, quite literally, of the land. Born in a small town in the Scottish Borders, a large — and largely rural — area south of the biggest Scottish cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Heughan grew up rambling and mountain biking and generally being immersed in the natural. “I was brought up in the countryside, so I was always outside,” he says of the remote area where he spent his early years. “There was no grocery store. My mum was a keen gardener, and all our food was locally sourced. It was literally from the garden because there was nowhere to buy.”

But another part of it is that he has actually climbed up and over all the mountains around us. After spending 12 years living in London, plus stints in America and a job as Bruce Wayne in Batman Live, a touring production that took him all over the world, Heughan needed a way to reconnect with the Scottish landscape and find his way to Jamie Fraser. “I’d moved back here for Outlander, and to get into character, I started climbing up Munros,” he says, meaning mountains in Scotland that measure more than 3,000 feet. “There are over 300 of them — and I just find I really enjoy it. It’s something I’ve started doing on my time off: jump in the car and go out. There are some incredible, incredible mountains in Scotland.”

Including, it seems, the ones we’re standing among. “The ones that we shot behind are called the Arrochar Alps,” he says the next day. “There are three of them, and the middle one, Beinn Ime, has a cairn in the middle — basically when you get to the top of a Munro, you put a rock there to mark that you’ve been there — that’s almost like a shelter, and you can sit in it and be sheltered from the wind. Because it’s the highest one, you’re above all the other mountains and then it’s just 360-degree views above everything. It’s amazing.”

It was out of a desire to share that feeling — and a firm belief in the value of exercise and its ability to unite people, along with that rich history of using his fitness for fundraising — that My Peak Challenge was born. “I wanted to inspire people to go outdoors and do more, and I love climbing mountains, so I thought, Well, try and encourage people to get out there and do whatever they can, because obviously not everyone has access to a mountain,” Heughan says.

What resulted was an open challenge to his fans. “It turned into, you pick your own challenge, whether it’s take the stairs every day at work or once a week go for a cycle,” he explains. “Or even not something physical, maybe just write your book or whatever you’ve been meaning to do, but do something that’s a challenge, set a target date and get encouragement for it.”

Launched in December 2014 by Heughan, Valbonesi and Bear Strength, a fitness-clothing company based in Wales, My Peak Challenge ultimately raised more than $100,000 for the leukemia-and-lymphoma-research charity Bloodwise. “It sort of took on its own life,” Heughan says. “These fans all signed up for it, they all created their own communities, made their own clubs, their own T-shirts and started their own charity drives. We wanted people to post pictures of their challenges or whatever they were doing, and they started to do that and it was great. It was very organic. And ultimately, in a way, that’s ideal — sort of passing it over to the people. It’s theirs. I get letters all the time about people who have lost weight — or lost people in their lives and they want to do something to commemorate them, so they’re going to do whatever challenge. It’s raised awareness, it’s raised a lot of money for Bloodwise’s research purposes, so it’s all good.”

It’s about to get even better. My Peak Challenge 2, launched in early 2016, will feature an emphasis on team challenges and a full training and nutrition program designed to help people of all fitness levels improve their health. Already, fans are ready to go, peppering Heughan and his colleagues about details and when they can get started.

In looking to find his way into character, it seems, Heughan instead founded a movement.

For more from our exclusive interview with Sam Heughan, go to theboxmag.com. For more information about My Peak Challenge 2 or to sign up, go to mypeakchallenge.co.uk.

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Jordana Brown