“Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” – the first substantive guide to the unique training required for success in ultrarunning racing

Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop

Every once in a while a training book is published that stands out as a likely candidate to become a classic. Jason Koop and Jim Rutberg have done just this with their new book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”  (VeloPress, 2016).  After two readings, I am convinced that this work will take a place next to other classics like “The Lore of Running”, “Daniels Running Formula”, and “Hansons Marathon Method” (among others) as the “go-to” book for ultrarunning training.

The training required for successful ultrarunning racing is unique and through the application of established physiology, sports psychology, and years of working with elite and aspiring athletes, Koop and Rutberg have provided a comprehensive guide to anyone who wants to excel at ultrarunning.

Ultrarunning revolution

Much of what little is available on training for ultramarathon races is based on extensions of marathon training principles peppered with anecdotal information (or, more typically, misinformation) that just does not have a repeatable, logical, and justifiable basis for establishing an ultrarunning training regimen. Parts of these “training approaches”  work, other parts do not, and little of this available information helps in development of a season-long training plan that identifies focus races and puts structure in place to allow a dedicated athlete to excel. Koop and Rutberg provide a detailed, substantive, and thoughtful process for putting together a training plan for ultramarathon racing- they call it the “Ultrarunning Revolution” and I concur that the training principles and the associated plan development process presented in the book will revolutionize accepted approaches to training for ultramarathon races. Throughout the book the authors methodically put the coffin lid on the “run more” philosophy of ultrarunning training- a training approach that not only doesn’t produce excellence but also maximizes the probability of injury. In it’s place they offer details of a high intensity interval-intensive, progressive, periodized, and race specific plan approach that is based on current endurance sport physiology understanding as well as their extensive endurance sport coaching experience.

What currently passes for ultrarunning training is perhaps reflective of the historic community that has evolved around the sport- a casual, low-key, fun-loving group of great people trying their hardest to enjoy life to the fullest. This, otherwise admirable, approach when applied to training ofttimes leads to a similarly casual, low-key process that is not consistently grounded in the realities of endurance sport physiology focused on excellence. The authors part ways with a large ultrarunning contingent that subscribes to long, low heart rate, running as the primary or, for some, the only, element of a training program. Some call this MAF (maximum aeorobic function) training and I do not remember that the term was even mentioned in this book- and rightly so! The drivel that is associated with the basis behind the singular efficacy of MAF training is nonsensical and in direct conflict with available, peer-reviewed endurance sport physiologic studies.

After over 40 years of endurance sport training on the part of myself and my 2-time Olympian wife in the sports of cross country skiing, road cycling, mountain biking, and running, and competing at the national, international, and Olympic levels, it is abundantly clear (at least to me) that high intensity interval training is the key element to excellence in any endurance sport. Not to the exclusion of other foci but, rather, as a central piece around which a training plan is designed. Koop and Rutberg provide not only the physiologic basis for utilization of high intensity interval training as a foundational part of the training process but they detail how to use intervals to the best benefit as applied to ultrarunning racing. Their guiding principle is to deliver the athlete to the starting line in the highest possible state of fitness- where “fitness” is an optimal state of aerobic capacity, anaerobic bandwidth, physical toughness, and mental preparedness. High intensity interval training plays a critical role in each of these “fitness” components- intervals, as the authors put it,  create “the stimulus necessary to achieve positive adaptations.”

Training the Gut

But the training process for ultrarunning racing is not just composed of cardiovascular, musculo-skeletal, and mental  fitness. It also includes gastrointestinal (GI) “fitness” as well and the authors devote an appropriately substantial  chunk of the book to this subject. In 45 pages of text and figures, Koop and Rutberg provide the first comprehensive guide to “training your gut” for ultramarathons. Given that the number one reported cause for failure in an ultramarathon race is GI-distress, this has been a long time in coming. Avoidance of  GI-distress-associated reduction in pace (and, for some, a DNF) is critical to any competitor who wants to race to maximum ability. Strategies for hydration, fueling, and “training the gut” are fully integrated and given the importance they deserve.

Conceptual Training Approach

The overarching training approach presented in the book is based on an “energy system” block periodization that follows a temporal progression of training blocks that increase in specificity to the focus race. In the general case of an ultramarathon this means that in the early season a VO2 max interval block is followed by a lactate threshold block and then the build-up ends in an endurance running block, preferably on similar terrain to the race (and most preferably on the actual course) just prior to the race. The early season blocks develop the cardiovascular engine and efficient neuromuscular adaptations required to be able to maximize the output of the endurance running block and, hopefully send the athlete to the line in an optimal state of fitness. To me this all makes sense, but I would point out that the jury is still out on the efficacy of the block periodization in endurance sport. Although shown to be advantageous in power sports (like weight lifting) there is scant data available that supports block periodization in endurance training. From a conceptual perspective the block periodization model is appealing and certainly worthy of one’s time and effort, particularly given the solid physiologic basis and success that the authors have had with it in their coaching practices.

Summary

“Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” is a valuable and comprehensive guide that represents a landmark in the unique and quirky realities of training for ultrarunning. The text is pleasingly readable, well structured, nicely illustrated, and grammatically consistent. Included are sidebar anecdotes from some current elite ultrarunning athletes as well as valuable peripheral information like opinion pieces on the value of downhill repeats, when to power hike vs run, the fallacy of “fat adaptation”, cross training, and many others. An index is included as well as a thorough listing of references to peer-reviewed studies. This book is highly recommended and should be read by anyone seeking to excel in ultrarunning competitions.

boasts
  • A comprehensive guide to training for ultrarunning
  • Founded on sound physiologic principles
  • Includes significant material on hydration, fueling, and “training the gut” for the rigors of an ultramarathon
  • Good discussion on the use of RPE (reported perception of effort) versus heart rate in training, particularly during intervals
  • Excellent illustrations
  • Informative anecdotes from current elite ultrarunners
  • Valuable opinion pieces on peripheral topics
  • A good index and a nice collection of reference material
  • Very readable for a lay audience whilst still being detailed enough for subject matter experts
beefs
  • No discussion of the efficacy of block periodization
  • The text alludes to the potential for power meter-based training but does not include a thorough discussion of the topic. Should the current running power meters being developed (e.g. Stryd) prove to be accurate and user-friendly, a second edition of this book may be in order.
  • The discussion on salt totally ignores the work of many researchers including the data and analysis provided in the book “Waterlogged” by Noakes. Reliance on the ACSM for guidance in this area is highly suspect and casts an ill light on the recommendations in the book. The saving grace is that too much salt rarely leads to issues.
  • Although a good index, it is a bit skimpy

“Train Like Bull, Eat Like Pig, Sleep Like Baby”

This was the training mantra of Eddie Borysewicz, the US National Cycling coach in the late 1970’s into the early 1980’s. The controversial* “Eddie B”, as he was (is) known, brought his entertaining broken English and the US Cycling Team to prominence and to the first US medals since 1912 at the 1984 Olympics. “Eddie B” was also the first and most influential endurance coach that I have ever had the opportunity to work with. I did not interact with him for very long but I took away a lot of understanding, gained a good bit of experience, and excelled to what might have been my optimal level at the time.

After studying the work of Lydiard and other groundbreaking endurance coaches, I found that “Eddie B” had a way of simplifying and codifying training approaches that enabled upcoming and elite athletes alike to develop fitness, form, and competitiveness in a safe but challenging manner. The training mantra above- “Train Like Bull, Eat Like Pig, Sleep Like Baby”-  is an example of his simplification with substance. The follow-on to the mantra is that you must have all three at all times to attain an optimal performance level. Skimp on any of the three and performance will decline.

This sort of approach is difficult to maintain but such is the realm of elite-level athletics. I can remember how seemingly easy the training was in the base period with the 700 mile weeks of easy road riding where the eating and the sleeping came “naturally”. Later in the periodization, the protocol was not as easy to follow- you still needed to “train like bull” but now these sessions were extremely difficult VO2 max and threshold work that, for me, affected appetite and sleep. Each individual needed to figure out how to maintain and balance all three elements. It was challenging, mostly invigorating, and, for some, not attainable.

My experience finds that a primary place where endurance athletes seem to fail is in the “eat like pig” part of the equation. A recent article by David Roche sparked my memories of these long-ago days of consuming massive amounts of food to fuel the required training (in excess of 1500 h/yr) and sleeping. It also brought to mind the number of talent-laden athletes I had the pleasure of training with that unfortunately never made the cut (including me) to the true elite level. There was, commonly, a lack somewhere among the three elements for these athletes, but the fueling part seemed to dominate in those who just about, almost, but not quite “made it”. Fueling is difficult, just as difficult as the training.

I have been married to a two-time endurance Olympian for over 35 years and, if there is one defining trait, it is that she is not only a talented athlete from a skill and training load absorption ability perspective, she is also, truly, as Roche says, a talented eater. This observation continues to be reinforced when we visit with other aging Olympic Team members where, uniformly, there is no “dieting” going on and healthy, fresh, and mostly unprocessed food plays a central role in their active lives, just as it does in ours.

Roche has made a good point and one that any intensively training endurance athlete should acknowledge, independent of age.

 

* see Wiki on the “blood doping” scandal at the 1984 Olympics

Salomon S Lab Sonic – Review – an Improved X-Series with Retro Laces

For 2016 Salomon is replacing the excellent S Lab X-Series shoe (reviewed here, here, here, and here) with a model called the Sonic in numerous versions- an S Lab version, a Sonic Pro version, and a Sonic Aero version. Salomon worked with Max King in 2015 to “improve” the X-Series hybrid road/trail shoe. It was mentioned that the major changes were in the upper mesh, the lacing system for the S Lab version (which uses a retro “standard” lace system), and the details of the TPU overlays on the upper. I recently reviewed the Sonic Pro here and noted that there were more changes than those noted above. This review is of the S Lab Sonic, which, in reality, is not like the Sonic Pro in many respects.

Here is what I said in the introduction of the Sonic Pro review, and it holds here for the S Lab Sonic as well:

First let’s remind ourselves of how good the X-Series shoe was- it was received with uniformly excellent reviews from many reviewers from many different use perspectives. I particularly liked how the shoe performed on typical Western mountain trails in the US with surprising stability in even very rocky and rough conditions. With the exception of extended scree traverses, this shoe was a very versatile mountain trail running shoe coming in at flyweight numbers (218 gms for US 7.5, 40 2/3 (EU)). It remains my primary trail running shoe.

Now let’s talk about the difficult task of “improving” any good or great shoe. In my opinion this can only happen with very minor, evolutionary changes with the realization that the designers may not have a full grasp on why the shoe was so great to begin with. This can be analogized with fooling around with a many-term, non-linear, mathematical equation whilst not knowing what the term functionalities are and expecting to have predictive results- not likely! Such is perhaps the case here, but I will hold final judgement until I have fully investigated the S Lab Sonic. However, based on an initial 35 miles (50 km) in the Sonic Pro, things do not look very good. This is an initial impressions review however, and I will follow up with updates.”

Holding final judgement on the S lab Sonic is a good thing as it is an outstanding shoe- even with the retro and fussy fabric laces.

S Lab Sonic

The S Lab Sonic is the direct 2016 replacement of the S Lab X-Series and it is clear from just looking at the shoe that this is the case. It retains, and actually completes, the monochromatic red colorway by eliminating any white except for branding (the X-Series had a small white stripe around the heel). It is truly a “red” shoe, including the entire outsole.

My US 7.5’s (40 2/3 EU) weigh in at 211 gms which is 7 grams (about 3%) lighter than the 2015 X-Series. Great!

Construction

The construction of the S Lab Sonic is essentially the same as the 2015 X-Series, with the same midsole, cushioning, drop, and perimeter structure. Also included are all of the fit technologies that Salomon has developed over the past few years in the Sense line of minimalist trail shoes.

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The S Lab Sonic road/trail hybrid running shoe is a direct replacement of the 2015 S Lab X-Series. Note the retro fabric laces that have replaced the “speed laces” seen on the S Lab X-Series of 2015.

Upper

The Upper of the S Lab Sonic has been changed from the X-Series to include a new super light and highly breathable mesh material that is utilized throughout. This singular mesh material replaces the more complicated arrangement of the X-Series where a lycra material was used in the forefoot area, a super thin mesh was used on the medial midfoot, and beefier nylon mesh was used through the heel cup and ankle area. Also added to the S Lab Sonic are additional TPU overlays covering more area at the toe and providing support for the thin mesh material in the medial and lateral forward portion of the midfoot.

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The upper of the S Lab Sonic is topologically very similar to the S lab X-Series of 2015, but a new super light mesh material has been used throughout and additional TPU overlays are present at the toe and in the medial and lateral forward portion of the midfoot.

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A close-up of the mesh material used throughout the upper of the S Lab Sonic.

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The upper mesh material of the S Lab Sonic is super thin, super light, and will obviously drain well.

The upper uses retro fabric laces instead of the familiar Salomon “speed laces” seen on all other S Lab running shoes. I am not a fan of laces as there always seem to be too much lace and no where to put it away. The “speed laces” are, in my opinion, superior in both performance and neatness. I like the way the speed laces tighten up uniformly across the shoe whereas laces can often times bunch  up and require fussing to get them uniformly cinching up. In addition fabric laces will absorb water and they can get caught up in trail debris and other stuff that might hook them (like sage plants here in the Idaho central mountains. However, I do like the fabric that these laces are made of as they are very thin, light and not likely to absorb much water. Out of the box they also tighten up nicely without much, if any bunching- time will tell if this continues with use. Salomon provides a second lace hole at the top of the lacing pattern to allow for alternate (or additional) lace integration with the upper. Note: one could try to put a speed lace kit on these shoes but the lace holes are punched and may not be durable as the kevlar lace material may cut through the fabric. On other Salomon shoes with speed lacing they provide sewn loops to put the speed laces through, which is an indication that punched holes are not suitable.

In contrast to the Sonic Pro, the upper topology has not been changed from the X-Series, including the symmetric ankle cup. As outlined in the Sonic Pro review, a more “Sense-like” topology is used on that version of the Sonic line, however on the S Lab Sonic the shape is the same.

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Salomon X seies side view

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Comparison of the profiles of the S Lab Sonic (top), the S Lab X-Series (2nd down), the Sonic Pro (third down), and the S Lab Sense 4 Ultra (bottom). Note the higher extent of the upper at the ankle in the S Lab Sonic and S Lab X-Series and the lower profile of the Sonic Pro and S Lab Sense 4 Ultra.

The heel cup construction is also unchanged although there does appear to be a bit less of a heel counter on the S Lab Sonic than in the X-Series.

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Hell construction is the same as in the X-Series, but there is less of a heel counter on the S Lab Sonic.

Midsole

As with the X-Series, the S Lab Sonic is a highly cushioned shoe, at least in the Salomon universe. On Salomon’s 1-5 scale of “cushion” in their technical literature, the Sense 5 Ultra ranks at “2” whereas the X-Series was rated “4” where a larger number indicates more cushioning. The S lab Sonic is also rated at “4”. This difference can be seen in the reported midsole thicknesses where the S Lab Sonic has a 24 mm heel and 16 mm forefoot EVA stack whilst the Sense 5 Ultra has 18 mm heel and 14 mm forefoot stack. So 6 mm more EVA at the heel and 2 mm more in the forefoot. Both models use the cushier “triple density” EVA “EnergyCell+” construction (where a cushier EVA is strategically placed in a matrix of a less cushy formulation). The very comfortable midfoot structure is unchanged and continues to provide a nice ride.

The S Lab Sonic also uses the ProFeel film technology developed for the Sense series shoes so there is good protection from rocks if one uses this shoe on trails.

Outsole

The outsole is nearly exactly the same as the X-Series right down to the widths and the specific grip patterns. This is acceptable given the great performance that this outsole exhibited on the X-Series. The only notable difference is in the rubber composition in the lateral heel area where a carbon rubber is used in the X-Series but not in the S Lab Sonic. Such carbon-particulate rubber compositions are tougher and more durable than non-particulate reinforced rubbers so this may lead to increased wear on the S Lab Sonic for some users. I have not had these shoes in any truly wet or muddy or technical rock conditions yet so I cannot make any evaluation of traction in these conditions at this point.

Slide2 (3)

The outsoles of the S Lab Sonic (top), the S Lab X-Series (middle) and the Sonic Pro (bottom). carbon rubber was used in limited ares in the X-Series and the Sonic Pro but not on the S lab Sonic.

Initial Running Impressions

I have had the S Lab Sonic out for about 40 miles (about 65 km) on dry pavement, packed snow trails, some ice, and a bit of mud. The traction performance, as expected is just as good as the X-Series.

As with the Sonic Pro, the S Lab Sonic is so much like the X-Series I expected it to run very similarly and it does. I did some running with a new X-Series on one foot and with the S Lab Sonic  on the other. Unlike the Sonic Pro, the S lab Sonic is just as flexible as the X-Series and perhaps a bit more flexible. The fit is even more “slipper-like” than the X-Series or the S Lab Sense 4 Ultra and it truly feels like an extension of your foot. This improved fit may, in fact, be a result of the “standard” lacing given that, when adjusted properly, such laces will more evenly distribute any stress and more uniformly engage the upper with the foot, particularly the top of the foot. So there may be some positives to the “standard” lacing on this model although I am holding judgement until I get a lot more miles on these shoes.

The lighter weight is also noticeable and the breathability of the super light upper mesh is clearly better than the X-Series lycra. One question will be how durable this new mesh material is.

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Salomon S lab X-Series (left) and S Lab Sonic (right).

With these limited miles and limited terrain, I really like the feel of the S Lab Sonic- in fact it feels a smidge better that the X-Series at this point. There is something about the enhanced “slipper-like” fit with the excellent midfoot support and the level of cushioning that combines to make a very comfortable yet high performance ride. Now about those laces….. well I guess there is always some compromise!

More miles will tell, but so far so great! Stay tuned.

Price

$170 US. Expensive, as usual but given the wear that I experienced with the X-Series the $/mile metric is likely to be quite good.

Bottom Line

Salomon has done what I thought would be very difficult- improve on the excellent S Lab X-Series. A better fit, more flexible, yet still super comfortable on road and trail. Just add some “speed laces” and the package is complete.

Salomon Sonic Pro – Review – a stiffer, “Sense”ified X-Series

For 2016 Salomon is replacing the excellent S Lab X-Series shoe (reviewed here, here, here, and here) with a model called the Sonic in numerous versions- an S Lab version, a Sonic Pro version, and a Sonic Aero version. Salomon worked with Max King in 2015 to “improve” the X-Series hybrid road/trail shoe. It was mentioned that the major changes were in the upper mesh, the lacing system for the S Lab version (which uses a retro “standard” lace system), and the details of the TPU overlays on the upper. Well… there are more changes than just these. This review is of the Sonic Pro and will be followed by a review of the S Lab Sonic soon.

First let’s remind ourselves of how good the X-Series shoe was- it was received with uniformly excellent reviews from many reviewers from many different use perspectives. I particularly liked how the shoe performed on typical Western mountain trails in the US with surprising stability in even very rocky and rough conditions. With the exception of extended scree traverses, this shoe was a very versatile mountain trail running shoe coming in at flyweight numbers (218 gms for US 7.5, 40 2/3 (EU)). It remains my primary trail running shoe.

Now let’s talk about the difficult task of “improving” any good or great shoe. In my opinion this can only happen with very minor, evolutionary changes with the realization that the designers may not have a full grasp on why the shoe was so great to begin with. This can be analogized with fooling around with a many-term, non-linear, mathematical equation whilst not knowing what the term functionalities are and expecting to have predictive results- not likely! Such is perhaps the case here, but I will hold final judgement until I have fully investigated the S Lab Sonic. However, based on an initial 35 miles (50 km) in the Sonic Pro, things do not look very good. This is an initial impressions review however, and I will follow up with updates.

Sonic Pro

As mentioned above, the Sonic Pro is a 2016 derivative of the X-Series and carries a similar appearance and outsole. It is the heavier version of the S Lab Sonic, but is otherwise pretty much the same as the S Lab (I will have more on the S Lab version in a separate post). My US 7.5’s (40 2/3 EU) weigh in at 234 gms (8.3 oz) which is about 20 gms (8%) heavier than the 2015 S Lab X-Series. This is expected given that this is a “lesser” model in the Sonic line at a lower price point. The weight of the S lab version is on par with the 2015 X-Series.

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The colorways include the black with orange shown here (Salomon calls it “tomato red” but it is definitely orange), a monochrome bright blue, a monochrome bright yellow-green, and a tomato red with black (the reverse of the shoe above) for men. For women there is a purple with bright yellow-green, a monochrome teal blue, and a monochrome pink. Salomon appears to be reserving the monochrome red colorway for the S Lab version.

Construction

The construction of the Sonic pro is essentially the same as the X-Series with the same midsole, cushioning, drop, and perimeter structure. The Sonic Pro (and S lab Sonic) shoe and the X-Series are basically road versions of the Sense trail running shoe. What this means is that all of the fit technologies that make the Sense such a great trail shoe have been incorporated into the Sonic Pro along with a much cushier midsole but with a less aggressive outsole.

Upper

The upper is constructed of similar materials and design that was used in the X-Series. The lycra front portion of the upper has been replaced with a new mesh material that looks like a cross between the X-Series lycra with the mesh of the Sense line.

Th interior of the shoe incorporates the Endofit construction as in the S Lab X-Series and Sense lines of trail running shoes. This fit feature has received uniform rave reviews and general acceptance as a superior design element in current running shoes. The Endofit approach produces a secure yet very comfortable fit via an inner “sock”. This fit is often described as “slipper-like” and I concur. The TPU overlay reinforcements, called “Sensifit” by Salomon, take the familiar zig-zag shape, as usual, but also wrap around the toe area for some minimal protection.

Importantly, the upper shape has been changed- it now resembles much more of a Sense profile than the X-Series profile. The differences are primarily at the front of the ankle where the upper has been shaved down to look much more like the Sense topology. In fact the entire front profile is much more “flattened” when compared to the X-Series and can be described as a Sense-like upper grafted onto an X-Series chassis. This does affect fit and run feel as will be described later.

Slide2 (1)

Proflies of the Salomon Sonic Pro (top), Salomon S Lab Sense 4 (middle), and the Salomon S Lab X-Series (bottom) showing the Sonic Pro to be a a Sense-like upper grafted onto the X-Series chassis.

The side mesh panels on the outer side, the beefy nylon mesh rear portion of the upper, and the beefy nylon mesh inner side all remain essentially unchanged from the X-Series. As with the X-series, the design includes no toe protection other than a small front bumper. If you are a frequent “toe-stubber” then you may have some issues with this design.

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View of the Salomon Sonic Pro from above showing the new mesh material on the front section.

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A close-up of the new mesh material that seems to be a hybrid of the original X-Series lycra and the mesh used in the Sense line.

The ankle cup is still symmetric as was the case in the X-Series and the rear upper construction is unchanged.

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The ankle cup of the Sonic Pro is symmetric as it was with the X-Series.

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The heel and heel counter remain unchanged from the X-Series design.

Midsole

As with the X-Series, the Sonic pro is a highly cushioned shoe, at least in the Salomon universe. On Salomon’s 1-5 scale of “cushion” in their technical literature, the Sense 5 Ultra ranks at “2” whereas the X-Series is rated “4” where a larger number indicates more cushioning. This difference can be seen in the reported midsole thicknesses where the Sonic Pro has a 24 mm heel and 16 mm forefoot EVA stack whilst the Sense 5 Ultra has 18 mm heel and 14 mm forefoot stack. So 6 mm more EVA at the heel and 2 mm more in the forefoot. Both models use the cushier “triple density” EVA “EnergyCell+” construction (where a cushier EVA is strategically placed in a matrix of a less cushy formulation).

The Sonic Pro also uses the ProFeel film technology developed for the Sense series shoes so there is good protection from rocks if one uses this shoe on trails.

Outsole

The outsole is nearly exactly the same as the X-Series right down to the widths and the specific grip patterns. This is acceptable given the great performance that this outsole exhibited on the X-Series. The only notable difference is in the rubber composition in the medial toe-to-midfoot area where a carbon rubber is used in the Sonic Pro. Such carbon-particulate rubber compositions are tougher and more durable than non-particulate reinforced rubbers so this may lead to better wear for some users. However, even after over 1000 km my X-Series showed very little wear in this area. But if you “scuff” your toe you may see better wear.

This same carbon rubber insert on the medial toe of the outsole was seen last year in prototypes that Salomon athletes were wearing in mountain ultras (e.g. Kilian Jornet and Anna Frost at Hardrock) so there may be a wet or dry grip advantage with the composition and placement. I have not had these shoes in any truly wet or muddy or technical rock conditions yet so I cannot make any evaluation at this point. I will note that the S Lab Sonic does not have the carbon rubber in this area- it is exactly the same as the 2015 X-Series.

Slide2

Comparison of the outsoles of the Salomon Sonic Pro (top) and the Salomon S lab X-Series (bottom). The outsoles are the same with the exception of the use of carbon rubber in the medial toe area on the Sonic Pro.

Initial Running Impressions

I have had the Sonic Pro out for about 35 miles (about 50 km) on dry pavement, packed snow trails, some ice, and a bit of mud.

The Sonic Pro is so much like the X-Series that I expected it to run in very similar way. In some aspects it is the same- the same platform, the same cushion, and the same excellent mid-foot support. However the shoe is significantly stiffer than the X-Series and I have found this stiffness to seriously detract from the comfort of the shoe. It also detracts from the excellent proprioception that the X-Series exhibited. Perhaps the shoe will become less stiff with use but I am not sure what the purpose of stiffening the shoe is. With more miles this may become apparent, but I remain skeptical.

I have also noted a different, lower, level of support around the ankle as would be expected by the “Sensification” of the upper topology. This lower level of support has been felt in off-camber and other stability-challenging situations and for me detracts from the utility of the shoe. I expect that the Sonic Pro will not be as good a performer on trails and in the mountains as the X-Series was (is).

Other than the increased stiffness the shoe has performed similarly to the X-Series and, to first order, it represents a direct replacement albeit with a bit of a different ride, but still a nice ride. The cushion is nicely balanced and “natural” feeling and the grip on the road, packed snow, and mud is, as expected, the same as with the X-Series.

More miles will tell so stay tuned.

Price

$140 US. Expensive but a bit lower than the 2015 S Lab X-Series, although the higher weight should account for the differential.

Bottom Line

A stiffer X-Series with a modified upper topology. Be sure to try these on first if you are an X-Series fan as they do feel different, and, for me, negatively so.

 

Adventures With a Reliable Friend

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Our Westy parked at the Fall Creek Trailhead in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains with the 11,865 foot The Devils Bedstead peak in the distance.

It has been nearly 23 years since we were thrilled to take possession of a 1991 VW Westfalia camper van. At the time, having recently moved to the mountain west from the east, we looked forward to adventures in the mountains and realized that the Westy (as Westfalia camper vans are colloquially known) was a great base from which to facilitate remote excursions. We were right and have never looked back or questioned our decision. Our Westy has been a reliable adventure partner ever since and we have been all over the west with her enjoying some remote and some not so remote mountain fun as well as a being a great base camp for mountain ultra-running training and racing.

In early 1994 we purchased the 1991 VW Westfalia Camper Van (Westy). We bought it from an older couple who had purchased the Westy new about a year earlier and realized that they liked the “concept” of camping more than the reality. So after finding themselves at hotels with the van rather than in campgrounds they sold it to us. The Westy was essentially unused and we paid almost what it sold for new a year earlier. Our Westy was “born” in September of 1990 and sat on a dealer lot here in the US for about 2 years before it was purchased by the older couple. This past year we celebrated her 25th anniversary with a nice camping trail running trip to Idaho’s Sawtooths. She has held up exceedingly well and at 160,000 miles still appears and runs as “new”.

We have taken her throughout the mountain west, the south west, and the Pacific Northwest including the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, and Oregon as well as many national parks (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Teton, North Cascades, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Point Reyes, and others), national monuments, and state parks. It has been great adventuring.

I am putting up this post to document where we are today with our Westy and to record the history of the vehicle for future use. If you are looking for a single vehicle that “does it all” for outdoor adventuring you may find this post of interest.

The Vanagon-based Westy

The 1986 US model year (and the 1983-1984 model year in Europe) introduced a new Vanagon model with a new water-cooled 2.1 l gasoline engine (called the Wasserboxer)  and a pretty much full overhaul and update of the rest of the vehicle from the initial air-cooled Vanagon introduced in 1980-1981. Many large and small issues were fixed and the engine saw substantial improvements in power, torque, and reliability. But the real improvements came in updates to the cooling system, the exhaust, the ignition, and the interior. Of course there were still “issues” and design flaws but they have been sufficiently “platable” and the 1986-1991 Vanagon, and the Westfalia Camper version in particular, have attained “cult” status.

One key aspect of the Westy Vanagon is the combination of substantial ground clearance, the “cab over front wheels” design, and the relatively low center of gravity all of which  gives this vehicle real off-road capability, particularly if you know how to drive on such terrain. We have had ours in some pretty rough conditions and she has performed outstandingly- and gotten to where we wanted to go!

VW stopped importing the Vanagon and the Westy derivative to the US in 1991, but the vehicle continued in production elsewhere, particularly in South Africa, where the last models were made in about 2003. There were continued improvements until 2003 and some of those were made available here in the US- more on that later.

Most of the 1986-1991 Westy versions imported to the US were  based on the GL trim-level of the Vanagon. This was the highest level of trim and included upgraded upgraded upholstery, electric motor window operation,  cruise control, high-level audio (for the period), available air conditioning, and exterior trim bits.

Here is what GoWesty, the center of the universe in the US for Westfalia-lia, has to say about the 1986-1991 model years:

1986-1991: These are the best of the Vanagons. They are easily identified by their rectangular (instead of round) headlights. The ‘86 and ‘87s had smaller thin steel “bumpers,” and the ‘88-‘91s had larger fiberglass “bumpers” and an added ventilation duct at the rear of each of the rear side windows. I put “bumpers” in quotations because neither the original thin steel or plastic “bumpers” were much of a bumper. They were more of a “might as well not have any bumper” kind of bumper. Many people think that these Vanagons were better because of the increase in displacement from 1900cc to 2100cc, but in fact this was the least important change. Indeed, the two engines are essentially identical in construction and design, with the exception of a longer throw crankshaft (74mm instead of 69mm, increasing displacement from 1915cc to 2110cc), and an improved #1 main bearing design. The more important changes were: improved exhaust, ignition, fuel injection (Digifant), brakes, and (most importantly) COOLING systems. The cooling system was COMPLETELY re-worked for 1986 and stayed basically unchanged through the end of 1991 production. The new cooling system had fewer parts, was much better at keeping air out, and was an easier system to maintain. Furthermore, the newer engine block with the better #1 main bearing design was also slightly bigger inside, enabling the displacement to be increased above 2300cc.  As a rule of thumb, I tell folks to stay away from Vanagons with round headlights. The price difference between a clean 1985 camper and a 1986 camper is small compared to the difference in value; the later is a much better vehicle indeed, and worth the extra money they command. Nice, un-restored ‘86-‘87 pop-top Vanagons run about $6-8k, ‘88-‘89s run about $7-9k, and ‘90-‘91s run about $8-12k. Exceptional examples can easily fetch double those figures.

The Westfalia Vanagon Conversion Design

The Westfalia conversion of the 1986-1991 Vanagon to a camper was (is) a highly refined and well engineered solution. This is based on decades of  experience that Westfalia accreted in such conversions. In fact the basic layout of the interior space used by Westfalia for the 1986-1991 Vanagon is still currently used in the only “Vanagon/Westy-like” vehicles available today- the Mercedes V-Class-based Marco Polo* and the VW California Van (neither of which are currently imported to the US). Even with the Sportsmobile conversion of the Mercedes “Sprinter” van in the US, the most popular layout (150S) is based on this design. I think this fully validates the concept that this layout is pretty much optimized. More on the Marco Polo later, but I will just note here that the MB Marco Polo is the current adventure vehicle used by mountain athlete Kilian Jornet. I will also note that MB bought Westfalia in 2001 and the Westfalia group were given “carte blanche” to make a camper out of the V-Class van. And what a great product they brought to market!

Interior Layout

Sleeping Accommodations

The interior space planning for the Westy is genius in application. The design is based on attaining comfortable accommodation for two adults and two children- the prototypical customer for the camper. As such two “double” beds are provided via a pull-out/reclining rear seat combined with the rear cargo area and a fold-down mattress in the forward-facing pop-top. It was intended that the parents would sleep in the more cushioned lower bed and the children in the upper “bunk”.

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Rear “rock and roll” seat folded down to make the lower bed. We have added a “memory foam” topper to both the lower and upper beds- mucho comfortable!

Pop-Top

The pop-top is the fundamental feature that makes the vehicle so livable as it not only provides a sleeping space but also provides headroom throughout the interior space- and views through the very large, zippered, screened vents in the canvas tenting enclosing the pop-top area (we have replaced the original tenting with the OEM updated version which has three vents- one on the front and one on each side of the three sided configuration; the original tenting has just the front vent).

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Top popped on a nice campsite above a lake in the Grand Escalante National Monument on a kayaking, mountain biking, and running trip in one of our favorite places in the Spring.

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At a campsite  at Wilderness Gateway which is in the easternmost extent of the Pacific Northwest rain forest along the Lochsa River in Western Idaho and southwestern Montana. The pop top is fitted with the optional rainfly in anticipation of six continuous days of rain. We highly recommend the rainfly as it protects the upper bed and extends over the luggage compartment above the cab allowing for dry storage of gear during rain events. Oh… and the Fiamma levelers are a great way to get your camper level for a good nights sleep.

Kitchen and Dining

The kitchen is highly functional and super efficient. It has a two burner stainless steel propane stove (with a pull-down stainless steel draining rack which covers the burners during clean-up), a stainless steel sink with a faucet plumbed to the 55 l water tank with electric pump, and a 3-way power refrigerator (propane, 12 V battery, and line voltage) underneath the stove area. The entire stove and sink area is made from seamless stainless steel ensuring that any water or food is contained should there be a spill or boil-over. Under the sink area is a drawer for utensils and a pantry and pot cabinet. When used in conjunction with the front seat table swung around to serve as a chopping and prep area the kitchen system forms a great work environment for cooking any level of meal. Another “dining” table that is stored above the storage cubbies next to the rear seat also rotates out to sit in front of the rear seat. Also the passenger front seat rotates to face the rear and the prep table can rotate over to provide a surface for eating or other activities. We have had up to 6 full sized adults in the van for dinner on a particularly raining evening, but 4 adults is most comfortable. The drivers seat also rotates but we never use it rotated.

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The two burner propane stove and sink area concealed under the hinged cover.

Views

Having a view from within the camper is very important for both aesthetic reasons and for safety- it is good to know what is going on around you in remote areas. The amount of continuous glass around the entire interior is one thing that makes the Westy design so superior to other such van-based campers. From the inside you get a panoramic view of your surroundings- surroundings which can be breathtaking given the ability of this vehicle to get to remote locations and primo camping spots! Many other van-based campers cut off the view from the inside with cabinets, etc. or they do not provide much glass at all. The Westy is about as good as it gets with respect to this.

The Westy as a “lifetime” vehicle

Why does one see so many pristine Vanagon Westys? Well…. one reason- GoWesty. This California-based company (Los Ossos) is, as I indicated earlier, the center of the universe for Westys in the US (and Canada, and other places as well). Lucas and his team at GoWesty have thoroughly and methodically gone through the Westy and improved, enhanced, and further developed everything from the engine to the brakes to the cooling system to the sleeping to the refrigeration…. you name it and they have had a hand in making the vehicle more reliable and more functional. GoWesty has also been restoring Westys to specifications (and prices) that are mind bending. A typical fully restored and updated 1986-1991 Vanagon Westy can sell for in excess of $70,000 after GoWesty is finished with it. It is essentially a new vehicle the likes of which is not available in the US at this time. Many think having such a “new” Westy is worth the price as GoWesty is currently booked out for over a year. Because of GoWesty, so long as you maintain the body and chassis and prevent rusting, the mechanicals can be replaced with updated versions with improved performance thereby making the Westy a possible “lifetime” vehicle.

Our Westy remained “stock” until June of 2008 when at 130,000 miles the original 2.1 l engine and cooling system were in need of overhauls. We contacted GoWesty and sent her off to “Westy Camp” for a full re-do. It was tough to see her disappear into the distance on a transporter but, knowing that there were many more good times to be had as a result, we were confident that this was good investment. And an investment it is- we spent a significant amount to bring her up to snuff just as anyone who has one will tell you. But, to us it is very much worth it, particularly considering that there are no similar vehicles available in the US today.

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Our Westy being loaded onto a transporter in June of 2008 for a trip to GoWesty for a full rehab.

We had a new 2.5 l engine and new transmission installed as well as bigger front disc brakes, an overhaul and updating of the cooling system, a full suspension upgrade, new exhaust, an auxiliary battery, a new propane tank, new OEM tenting, a 10′ Fiamma awning, and a slew of reliability items that GoWesty has a program for fixing. Also we got the beefy and nicely padded leather South African Steering Wheel- a big and very welcome upgrade from the spindly original (unfortunately I do not see this listed on the GoWesty site anymore). It took three months but we had the Westy delivered back just in time for some great Fall camping. It was essentially a new and very updated vehicle- nice! In particular, the increased power and torque of the 2.5 l engine makes a remarkable difference in the performance of the Westy on highways and off-road and you will still get 20-22 mpg. As far as we are concerned it has been a great investment and a joy to own.

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Fully outfitted at a campsite in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. The awning is critical in the Mountain West for comfort as the sun is very intense for most afternoons and into the evenings in the summer.

If you think the Westy might be a something to look into, use the GoWesty site as it contains an entire library of technical artciles on buying, refurbishing, updating, and using a Westy. One thing that is important- there is no such thing as a “cheap” Westy as examples that sell for low prices typically end up being “black holes” of repairs and needed updates. If you fully familiarize yourself with the Westy and look at any available vehicle with a critical and educated eye you will be well served.

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On the banks of the Salmon River for some Spring whitewater kayaking.

After these 23 years we remain pleased with our Westy and the adventures it opens up for us- perhaps one will do the same for you.

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With our loyal companion- dogs love the Westy as it is a comforting and safe place.

*There is a remote chance that Mercedes will import the Marco Polo to the US as they have recently brought in the V-Class van in it’s most stripped down version. Here in the US they call it the Metris. Some US and Canadian outfits are looking at converting the Metris into a camper aftermarket but the execution of the Marco Polo is so good I will be waiting to see what develops. One issue with the Marco Polo for the US is that although it is available with 4 wheel drive, it does not have good ground clearance- something that is critical to getting around to remote places in the Mountain West. Also, it is estimated that the Marco Polo would be priced at about $85,000-$100,000 here due to import fees, etc. Here is a video of the Marco Polo Activity that Mercedes brought into the US for the Metris launch in June 2015. The “Activity” is the little brother of the full camper Marco Polo- it has the pop top and sleeping accommodations but no kitchen and associated stuff like the propane and water tanks:

 

 

2015 – Numbers for the Year, Training Recap, and 2016 Goals

My training “year” follows a December to December pattern due to a transition from trail running to nordic skiing right around late November- early December. It is a good time to tally the numbers, do some critical review, compare with 2012, 2013,  and 2014, and put together a training plan for the coming year.

Note: I am putting up this post primarily for my own use as an easy to access depository of the information and analysis. Writing such a post requires that one go through the exercise of analyzing, reviewing, summarizing, and deriving some sort of direction from the year of training and racing results. This analysis was typically in my training log journal but since there is a chance that others might find some value in this, I am putting it up here. If you have any questions/comments feel free to post such in the comment section.

This summarizes the fourth year of focused training and racing for mountain ultra trail running and Nordic skiing. There is good progress in most areas with one continuing and major deficiency- fueling for ultramarathons. More on fueling later.

The, now started, fifth year is a critical one for me as the primary long term goal I established at the outset of this return to racing is:

Starting in the fifth year of the program to have attained and maintained a high level of fitness combined with a calm competitiveness that I once enjoyed as a “prime-time” athlete back in the Pleistocene.

The metrics that I will gauge myself against for this goal are:

  1. Being no more than 10% back from the winning time in races that include National-level athletes, and no more than 15% back in races that include International-level athletes.
  2. Establishing age group course records in trail running.
  3. Always winning my age group.

All of these are challenging goals- the 10%/15% back challenge of #1 in particular. After considerable thought it has become clear that as a 60 yo trail runner and Nordic skier it is difficult to gauge one’s performances as there are so few participants in this age category. However course records, where kept, do serve as an all time, all comers metric against which one can evaluate performance in a more competitive and complete way. So doing some races with age-group course records in mind will be a focus.  Course records in skiing are not generally kept as they are not a good benchmark since the snow conditions on race day play a major role in speed. Now on to the 2015 Numbers and training recap.

The Numbers

2015

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2014

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Training Recap

2015 started off with a big set-back. I crashed out while skiing on a rutted hairpin turn at West Yellowstone in late November 2014 and injured my right rotator cuff. After a denial period it became abundantly clear that the injury was not going to heal with continued training and it may even not heal without surgery. Any level of cross country skiing was not possible given the dependence on shoulder strength. Even running was quite painful as the impulse response in the shoulder is significant (something that I had not realized until this point). So I needed to attend to this with some sort of treatment plan.

As I have fundamental distrust of the medical “profession” in the United States, I minimize any exposure to the soothsayers and profit-mongers. So after the requisite “evaluation” session with the orthopede, where, before even an MRI had been obtained, I was being scheduled for surgery, I put the brakes on that and proceeded to work with a PT to ascertain if healing could be accomplished without a surgery that is only, at best, 50% successful in the long term. The PT indicated that, based on her experience, it was apparent that there was either a severe strain or a tear in the subscapularis muscle and that, given my response to PT in the first couple of sessions, may allow for recovery via compensation (as tears do not heal without intervention) and that I might end up asymptomatic in a 9 to 12 month period. This is the path that I took and, with a focused PT treatment plan that I fully and enthusiastically executed upon, by April I was running at full volume with only minor shoulder pain and by June I was able to also re-start advanced strength training, including substantial upper body work. By November I was entirely asymptomatic, although I do not know exactly how durable I will be. Time (and crashes) will tell.

Of course this injury totally eliminated the 2014-2015 competitive cross country skiing season as I was only able to ski with no poles or only lightly use poles. So the Winter of 2015 was all about running, snowshoeing, and low level cross country skiing. I re-developed a taste for Winter running that, given that 2015 was a low snow year, was enjoyable mainly due to the fact that many of the summer trails were either “open” entirely or had been well packed. This allowed for a smooth transition into the running season without the painful “impact accommodation” period that always follows the very low impact cross country skiing season. Of course the early-March to early-April “ice” season was still extant and without the Salomon SnowCross and SpikeCross shoes conditions would have been lethal. Comparison of the 2015 numbers with 2014 numbers shows an increase in number of running sessions and a similar reduction in cross country skiing sessions reflecting the early switch to running.

The disappointment associated with the early season skiing injury was major. I had worked throughout the summer and fall of 2014 to build upper body strength, particularly max strength. This was spurred on by my realization years ago from observations made at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver (actually Whistler)  that the largest lever to improvement in cross country skiing is to develop a powerful double pole capability. The double pole technique has equal impact on both classic technique skiing where double poling is  a fundamental stroke and in freestyle technique skiing (skating) as the classic double pole motion is nearly exactly replicated in the V2 (or 2-skate) and to a lesser extent in the V1 (or 1-skate). So improvement of this ability has impact across the spectrum of motions that are used in cross country skiing. I also realized in the 2013-2014 season that I could double pole away from my fellow masters competitors and that, even at age 58, I was able to stay with the leaders particularly easily in double pole sections of races. I was doing this with a base that only included double pole roller skiing in summer and fall, dryland hill bounding, and on-track double pole workouts in season but with no specific strength training. After reading Training for the New Alpinism I realized that a max strength program as described in the book would likely result in significant increased capability for double poling. I followed a plan similar to that presented in the book and realized significant increase in double poling power and was very excited to see how this would play out during the 2014-2015 competitive season. Well, that season never happened but I am pleased to report that given continued focus on strength training, and max strength in particular, the 2015-2016 competitive season is looking good. Estimates from time trials and three races indicate that I am 2-3 minutes faster per 10 km (8-10% faster) in equivalent conditions this season even though I am now just weeks shy of 60 years of age. This just goes to show that there is always room for improvement, at least at this point.

I typically target about 700 hours of training as this volume has served me well for preparing for endurance sport competition over the past 40 years. At 908 hours, the year turned out significantly higher but this is because I am logging “active recovery” as part of training as my coach insists that it is critical to know what, if any, active recovery is taking place to ensure competitive health. Excluding the “active recovery” I have a total of about 700 hours in sports-specific (nordic skiing and running, and associated strength training) training. Of course, these volume data are only of value when viewed through a “time in zone” optic as will be reviewed below.

As for distance, it is remarkable that I have run almost exactly the same yearly total distance the past 4 years in a row- 2098 miles (2015), 2087 miles (2014), 2065 miles (2013), and 2067 miles (2012). The differences from season to season have been in the zone distribution and the addition of significant (about 2 per week) interval sessions the past two years (2014 and 2015). In skiing the distance is of course way down (due to the injury) at 1211 miles (2015) vs. 1848 miles (2014) and 1796 miles (2013) but still significantly less than 2012 (2120 miles). Without the injury, the season total would have been in excess of 2000 miles with significant (2 per week) interval sessions. That’s the target for this season.

I kept a focus on vertical ascention again and succeeded in exceeding 500,000 feet. Equaling or exceeding last years  600,000 foot mark was not attained partly due to the lack of skiing, as the total vertical for running is about the same from 2015 and 2014. The total this year is an average of about 1400 vertical feet per running workout which is about 350 feet less of vertical per running workout in 2015 vs. 2014. 2016 includes a goal to get the average vertical ascention per running session up to about 2000 feet as I continue to focus on very mountainous races.

I have extracted out the interval session data. I kept up the “Tenacious Tuesday” and “Ferocious Friday” weekly interval sessions with mostly lactate threshold workouts on Tuesday (hence “tenacious”) and VO2 max workouts on Friday (hence “ferocious”). Such intensity work was critical to performance and maintenance of  VO2 max and I am finding validity in this approach as summarized and detailed by Joe Friel in the book “Fast After 50” . Friel reiterates over and over how important the intensity work is, particularly for “senior” athletes. I can feel the very positive effects of committing to consistent inclusion of these sessions, both in running and in skiing. The intervals have a different impact (excuse the pun) in running than in skiing but it is all positive and necessary to be competitive. I note here that I have always enjoyed intervals- something that is not common. There is something about the structure and sense of accomplishment that comes with a regular diet of interval sessions.

On the subject of structure, I continue to find a regular weekly pattern to be most effective for training. This is something that I have adhered to for much of my athletic life, and when I tried other, less regular, approaches my fitness has fallen off.

So I will continue with the general weekly structure that I have had in place since the Pleistocene:

Sunday – long (endurance)

Monday – easy/off + strength

Tuesday – lactate threshold intervals (“tenacious” Tuesday)

Wednesday – long (endurance)

Thursday – easy/off + strength

Friday – VO2max intervals (“ferocious” Friday)

Saturday – FLEX: catch-up for missed stimuli, tempo efforts, long (endurance) to provide back-to-back efforts when appropriate w/Sunday long (endurance), etc.

This leads to a 14-20 hour week which I find manageable from both an energy and time perspective. In practice I end up looking forward to these workouts partly because of the weekly variety but also due to The Power of Habit (a book I highly recommend).

Microscopics

I am not going to present the full suite of microscopics (time series of distance, time, vertical ascention, and TRIMP) as I have in the past. I have not found the results to be of much use in analyzing and planning forward-going training. The microscopics are of value for context and other, more general information, but they do not play a significant role in planning, particularly in the ultra running season as races play such havoc with training flow given the significant taper and follow-on rest.

Training zone distribution is pretty much determined  by the regular inclusion of significant weekly interval sessions, however it is important to monitor training zone during the “easy” training sessions as it is all too difficult to keep out of the zone 3 “no man’s land” that will sap one’s ability to truly embrace  the intervals with the zone 4 and L5a-c efforts. Presented below is my training zone distribution for the 2015 running season.

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and compared to 2014 and 2013:

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As can be seen, in 2015 I managed to minimize time spent in zone 3 whilst maintaining significant fractions of total time in zones 2 and 4. This is the distribution of time in zones that I have been attempting to achieve for the past few years. The primary reason for attaining this result is the two-per-week interval session regimen that I held myself to. Another reason is that I increased the zone 5 work from about three percent to over 8 percent. I did this specifically to work on VO2 max as this is a capability that is continually challenged in older athletes, as reviewed by Friel in Fast After 50. As a younger athlete I had a very high measured VO2 max (low 80’s) so this is a capability that is important for me to maintain and, perhaps, develop. If one were to put any confidence in the algorithm that Garmin includes on the 920XT, it tells me that my VO2 max is currently 73, which seems a bit high but not outside of possibility. The 2016 program will continue with the VO2 max work but I will be adding some long, high zone 3/low zone 4 efforts to the mix as this is one capacity that I have not been concentrating on and may lead to a increased ability to respond in a dynamic way in races, particularly in the much shorter (30 min-2.5 hour) ski races.

As far as ultra running racing it was deja vu all over again with an inability to properly fuel after about 20 miles (32 km). I did two very mountainous races (100 km with 17,000 vert and 60 km with 11,000 vert). Both ended in disappointment even though I felt great about the training. The first 100 km was challenging because I went to the start line with a sore throat and although things went well for about 30 km once we climbed up to the high point of 10,000 feet at about 40 km, I started to loose consciousness and realized that racing was not a good idea. I was unable to consume anything from about 25 km on and this surely contributed to the consciousness issues . I made my way down to the 50 km point and dropped. In the 60 km race, once again an inability to fuel as a critical  3500 foot (1100 m) climb came up at the 35 km mark. Just as in the same race last year, I slowed down and let my stomach settle and then continued on to finish the race strong but not anywhere near what my potential is on that course if I can get the fueling down.

Based on my reading, the number one issue for competitive ultra runners is the ability to fuel throughout a race. As I said last year I need to either overcome this issue or move on. I have been encouraged by the content in a couple of recent podcasts on “Science of Ultra” specifically about fueling. If you have not checked out these podcasts I highly recommend that you do- they are very informative and the guests are respected scientists in their respective fields, not unqualified “experts” with very questionable “opinions”. These “posers” seem to have completely permeated the podcast world.  I will be practicing fueling on all runs (even shorter runs)- something that I have not been doing and something that is said to be critical to allow your system to accommodate the discomfort associated with fueling whilst pushing. Such practice may also allow for “upregulation” of carbohydrate absorption- a good thing.

Strength

I continued with a  specific strength training program this year. Included is a broad spectrum of units that work maximum strength, core, and what I call “stability” micro-muscle groups in the knees, ankles, and arms. The maximum strength program- a modified version of the program outlined in “The New Alpinism” book by House and Johnston- is designed to recruit and synchronize a number of major motor units. These exercises have made a big difference in power in double poling in skiing and has increased core stability on long runs. The protocol involves weight vested, max ability, low rep, pull-ups building to about 150% of body weight. I highly recommend such a program as it is a “strength not show” protocol to ensure that excessive muscle mass is not developed- an important consideration for endurance athletes where power to weight ratio is supreme. I also found that garhammers and weight vested step-ups to be very effective for power development in  both skiing and running. The version of garhammers that I do includes a 90 degree hold in the arms (rather than just hanging from the pull up bar) whilst proceeding with the full sequence of raises, including the leg extensions. This produces additional tension and challenge right the way through from the shoulders to the calfs- all in synchrony- a critical factor often overlooked. All of these exercises can easily be done at home in a minimum of space- no need to join or go to a gym facility.

2016

2016 goals include the three general goals outlined above to be facilitated by more racing than I have done in the past. In running I will concentrate on the 50 km-50 mile distance to try and develop an ability to fuel throughout a race. The plan is to do a 50 km race in April, a 50 miler in May, a 50 km in June, a 50 km in July, spend the rest of July adventuring in Idaho’s Sawtooths and White Cloud Mountain ranges, a 60 km in August, and  50 miler in the fall sometime. I will also be doing some shorter races when they coordinate with training. Hopefully this racing program combined with the fueling strategy above will work and I will be able to start finishing races on something other than wisps of carbohydrate vapor! Also a target of averaging about 2000 vertical feet per running session is in place since I will continue with a concentration on very mountainous racing.

As far as skiing, the plan is to finish this season strong with good performances in the February and March races leading up to Masters Nationals in late March where, based on results so far this season, I should be in contention for the win in the classic race and to be a threat in the freestyle (skating) race. Over the summer I will concentrate on  specific strength, double pole roller skiing, and hill bounding.  All of this is focused upon putting in place the best skiing fitness and tactical racing I can muster for the 2017 World Masters in Switzerland in late January.

Salomon S Lab X Alp Mid-layer Hoodie – Review

Salomon introduced a new line (called  X Alp) of mountaineering and ski mountaineering clothing, footwear, and packs late last year for a spring 2015 launch. The intention of the line is to facilitate “light and fast” adventures into the mountains whether by foot or by skis. The products are light, include new and/or innovative fabrics and constructions, and they are very tailored to the intended use. Only a limited selection of the line is available in the US and I purchased a couple of items and have now put these through some extended use this fall and, now, into winter. The item reviewed here is the X Alp Mid-layer Hoodie.  Whilst this piece is presented as a “fast-and-light mountaineering” garment, it turns out to be very versatile in other such high-output endeavors and I am surprised with how often I use it  either separately or as part of an upper body system.

S Lab X Alp Mid-layer Hoodie

The X Alp Mid-layer Hoodie looks like a rather pedestrian 3/4-zip mid-layer but upon inspection and use one realizes how versatile this piece is.

X Alp Mid front

Salomon S Lab X Alp Mid-layer Hoodie constructed of Polartec PowerGrid fabric and stretch woven wind-resistant overlays in strategic areas. This design yields a very versatile top in a number of high-output activities including running and cross country skiing.

The construction consists of a 3/4-zip design utilizing a lightweight base fabric of highly breathable Polartec PowerGrid with strategic areas (chest, hood, and wrists/forearms) additionally over-layed with a stretch woven wind resistant fabric. I find these overlays to be critical to the versatility of the mid-layer. A typical mid-layer without the wind resistant overlays has limited use as the high breathability of the PowerGrid fabric (or other typical fabrics used for such midlayers) would lead to poor performance in the presence of even a mild wind at cool to cold temperatures (about 40F/5C and below). The addition of the over-lays makes this piece an excellent stand alone garment in a wide variety of conditions, something that many other mid layers are not capable of. The additional warmth and wind protection in these strategic areas leads to surprising overall comfort combined with excellent breathability. The overlays also are somewhat water repellent and in light rain have allowed for continued performance for an hour or more.

The close-fitting, helmet-compatible hood is comfortably snug and is cut so as to not restrict peripheral views. With the stretch woven overlay, this hood is warm even in windy conditions.

The fit is what Salomon calls “active fit” which is a close fit but not tight. I find this fit to be comfortable, but, according to my wife, I represent a good example of a “skin and bones” user ( BMI below 20). Salomon have also designed the X Alp midlayer with their “Motion Fit” program that intends to facilitate large amplitude, dynamic, bind-free motions. The design also includes thumb loops, something that I seldom use, but something that I can imagine how they may be functional for some users in certain situations.

The zipper is asymmetric and closes to the right of the mouth eliminating that annoying “zipper-over-mouth” discomfort typical of many other mid-layers when fully zipped. Instead you have the soft, highly breathable PowerGrid material over your mouth- much better!

I have extensively used the X Alp midlayer both on trail runs  and while cross country skiing in a variety of conditions ranging from sunny and cool (<40F/5C) to sunny and well below zero F/-18C, to rain showers and cool (30-50 F/0-10C) temperatures. The X Alp midlayer performed very well in all instances. I have also used the X Alp Mid-layer on some high (>10,000 feet/3000 m) mountain adventures as a stand alone piece and in combination with a technical top layer in some adverse weather (snow, rain, hail, and high (>60 mph/ 100 kmph) winds). Performance has been exceptional.

For running, I have found the midlayer to be a highly versatile stand-alone top that I now use for all of cold weather (<40F/5C) runs whether it be sunny, lightly raining, or snowing. Combining the midlayer with a wind shell (like the S lab Light Jacket) or, if it is raining hard, the S Lab Hybrid Jacket, the versatility is even more remarkable. I have found this mid-layer to perform well in day-to-day winter conditions trail runs in valleys or in the mountains, on day long cool-to-cold mountain adventures, and as a midlayer for cross country skiing on cold (near zero F/-18C) days in combination with a performance top layer (e.g. S Lab Motion Fit Jacket).

The close-fit, helmet-compatible hood is critical for comfort in high wind and cooler temperatures. In a typical cool-to-cold weather trail run here in the Northern Rockies, it is most comfortable to have the hood down in the valleys and protected areas but once up on the ridges deployment of the hood makes all the difference. The hood is also a welcome addition for cross country skiing where it replaces the more common “babushka lady” arrangement of a buff brought up the back side of the head combined with a hat that the Norwegians have made popular. The hood option is a simpler, less fussy, and more versatile option in my opinion, but not often seen on the ski trails. Perhaps in time we will see more hoods in cross country skiing.

Price

$160 US. A bit on the expensive side but, given the versatility of the X Alp midlayer hoodie, a good value given how often one will likely use it from Fall through Winter and into Spring.

Bottom Line

The Salomon S Lab X Alp Midlayer Hoodie is a highly versatile, lightweight, and stand-alone winter running top and midlayer for cross country skiing. Combined with a wind shell, a water-resistant/waterproof overlayer, or a technical top layer (e.g. the companion S Lab X Alp Smartskin Jacket) a wide variety of high-output activities in mountain conditions can be comfortably pursued. Highly recommended.