Training for the Uphill Athlete – Review – a new milestone in quality and thoroughness in a training guide for the endurance athlete

summary

The book Training for the New Alpinism by Scott Johnston and Steve House set new standards for thorough, science and coaching-based training advice for alpinists and endurance athletes alike. Although focused on fast and light alpinism (aka “new” alpinism), Johnston’s background as a coach in cross country skiing permeated the book and, as a result, much of the book could be easily applied to other endeavors- like cross country skiing, mountain running, and ski mountaineering (SkiMo). With support from Patagonia as publisher, a large emphasis was placed on clear, high quality, information-dense graphics that were far superior to anything else available at the time. I highly recommended this book when it was published and continue to do so today.

Enter this new volume from Johnston and co-authors Steve House and Kilian Jornet that is focused on mountain running, ultra running, and  SkiMo. Along with the same science and coaching-based guidance, similarly superior graphics, a unique focus on strength development, and an excellent handbook to developing your own training plan, “Training for the Uphill Athlete” represents a new milestone in quality and thoroughness in a training guide for the endurance athlete.

In this book one will find a nicely presented approach to training for “uphill” endurance sports such as mountain running and SkiMo. Throughout, the authors provide a scientific and/or coaching-based foundation for the specific training programs being described. Of particular note are the sections on ATP production and lactate metabolism- the best presentation of this material that I have been exposed to. All of this gives the reader the basis for (or a starting point for) development of a personal training “philosophy”- something that is critical to the success of any training regimen. As is pointed out frequently in the book, each individual presents a unique combination of physiology, biomechanics, life situation, and personality. Provided with a basic foundational approach and the specific tools needed to enable successful, progressive training , the reader is well positioned to be able to design and execute upon a training program that is aligned with his or her abilities, time, commitment, and goals.

The overarching mantras laced through the material are:

aerobic base development, “progression, progression, progression”, and the critical importance of substantial integrated strength training elements

Too many athletes and recreationalists ramp training up too quickly, incorporate intensity too soon, suffer injury, and, potentially, burnout. By properly progressing training load and intensity and integrating strength sessions into the program such “training errors” can be largely avoided. These themes are regularly brought forward and discussed throughout the book and recommendations are provided to help the reader incorporate appropriate progressions and strength programs.

Although of limited value, the book is punctuated by sidebar stories and opinions from representative uphill athletes- both elite level and some well-known sub-elite athletes. I find these individual essays to be more of a hinderance to the authors otherwise successful goal to provide clear guidance but I know that many find such stories inspirational.

Also included are “Kilian’s Notes”- short sections where Kilian describes his training history, training methods, and some specific workouts. Again, I find these of limited value as they are coming from an athlete who has been in intensive endurance training since he was 13 years old, with a 90+ VO2max, mental fortitude that is similarly off the charts, and has raced thousands of times. Having trained with athletes with some of these attributes, I can say that what they do is not particularly relevant even to those with relatively high VO2max and long histories with training for endurance sport. If you have ever competed against or trained with someone with a 90+ VO2max you will know what I mean. I suggest that one take these Kilian missives as just that- an entertaining peak into what such an extraordinary and accomplished athlete does and not a prescription for anyone else. Unfortunately there is no warning to this effect in the book.

I have found little to disagree with in this book with the exception of the science fiction provided on “fat adaptation” and a “hook-line-and-sinker” devotion to the persistent hunting theory as a basis for understanding human endurance abilities. But these are minor items and thankfully nutrition is not a focus of the book so it is easy to let these go and concentrate on all of the truly valuable information and presentation in the book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in understanding fundamental endurance training concepts, evolving a personal approach based on these concepts, and developing a reliable, flexible training plan that will, with consistency and commitment, lead to success and goal achievement in endurance sport.

DETAILED review

Clearly the vast majority of the material in “Training for the Uphill Athlete” is of high quality with valiant attempts to align current science and coaching-based experience into the presented training guidance and training plan development. There are, however, a few areas where unfounded or not fully founded concepts are presented as “fact”. I’ll cover these along with a more detailed look at the author’s proposed training program synthesis and associated training plan development guidance.

Chapter 2 “Physiology of Endurance”

This is an excellent chapter that presents a clear and engaging discussion with excellent graphical representations of the  metabolic, physiologic, and biomechanic factors that lead to endurance. The concept of the lactate “vacuum cleaner” is very useful in helping one understand the processes taking place that will lead to enhanced endurance performance. All of this leads to the statement of the Uphill Athlete Training Philosophy:

“You will never maximize your endurance potential without first maximizing your basic aerobic capacity (AeT)”.

If one were to take just a single thing from the book then this would be that thing. How you get there is covered in the rest of the book but absorbing the reality of this statement is fundamental to founding a training approach for endurance sport.

There are a couple of sections in this chapter that I think are in need of criticism. Although neither of these criticisms affect the sound training advice being given, they do represent areas where the reader needs to be vigilant in questioning everything that is stated and to not accept outright some of the proposed mechanisms. These issues are in the areas of the “Persistence Hunting” theory of human evolution and “fat adaptation”.

In the introduction to Chapter 2 “The Physiology of Endurance”, the authors end the  first section summarizing the popular “persistence hunting theory” of human evolution with the following:

“We are the product of an evolutionary heritage that has predisposed us to endurance”.

Although giving some latitude in the text to this being a theory, this final sentence has no substantial support in the form of conclusive (or even indicative) scientific process. There exist other competing theories and interpretations of what scant evidence there is that would allow any determination of how we, as homo (sapiens), evolved. The theory of Persistence Hunting remains an unproven, although appealing, postulate that will likely never be founded by data and analysis.  This is affirmed even in the reference that the authors provide to support their conclusive statement:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23227131_The_Relevance_of_Persistence_Hunting_to_Human_Evolution

David Carrier formulated the theory in 1984 and it has been “generally accepted”- how this has come to pass I have no idea but is nonetheless emblematic for what is happening in the “soft” sciences as it concerns unsupported conclusive statements and “generally accepted” hogwash.

For entertainment it is worthwhile to listen to a humorous short podcast by Scott Carrier (David’s brother and a former NPR “storyist”) that documents David’s and Scott’s attempt at putting the theory to work and run down some Pronghorn Antelope in Wyoming. This is a re-broadcast of a story Scott did for NPR in 1984. Look for the episode “Running After Antelope” on 3/19/2015 at his podcast website here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/running-after-antelope/id972388330?i=1000338087072&mt=2

Moving on to the “fat adaptation” material, the authors present some data on page 63 that shows point data for %fat and %carbohydrate use as a function of %max heart rate for three individuals with supposedly different training backgrounds- a high intensity intervals-focused athlete, a “well-trained” endurance athlete, and an elite cross country skier. Concern number one is that the authors provide no reference for this data so that the efficacy of the testing could be checked. One has no idea if these data were ever peer-reviewed by experts or if the data are published. Using unpublished data is not appropriate for supporting generalized conclusions published in a book. Concern number two centers around the relevance of cross sectional data on individuals to any generalized advice. Without an understanding of many other factors (some confounding) that will influence the results shown, these data really have no scientific basis. They are cherry-picked graphs used to support a point being made in the text- something that is not acceptable. Use of representative peer-reviewed data from published references is the only acceptable alternative and even this type of data can be very deficient in this field of study. Without longitudinal data as well as data on individual enzymatic profiles (profiles which are temporal) there is no ability to put any generalized interpretation on what is presented. This is not to say that the arguments presented by the authors cannot be supported, just that they do not provide the appropriate references to peer-reviewed publications- an unfortunate oversight.

The subject of “fat adaptation” is often confused with the low carbohydrate high fat (LCHF) diet cult literature some of which the authors reference (e.g. Volek’s work). Here the authors use a simplified version of a graph from one such publication by Volek (who is one of the LCHF cult leaders). This is Figure 2.10 on page 62. The graph shows what apparently are average peak fat oxidation rates for two populations of subjects- “well-trained fat adapted” and “well-trained less-well-fat-adapted” (whatever these descriptions mean?). Searching out the reference (which was not given in the text but is as follows: “Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners”, Volek, et al., Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental, 65 (2016) 100-110.) and critically reviewing the article we find that all is not well. Firstly, this study is aimed at determining the difference in fat oxidation rate of well-trained (supposedly elite) athletes as a function of %VO2max with two populations- one that habitually consumes a high carbohydrate diet and another that habitually consumes a high fat-low carbohydrate diet (aka “keto-adapted”). The study is about the potential effects of diet on fat adaptation, not fat adaptation. Yet the authors are using the data to support a point in the text about how important it is to become “fat adapted” by lots of aerobic training (sometimes in a fasted state). Secondly, the graph presented in the book does not show the point data. Rather, the data are presented as large ovals with some whiskers on it. No explanation of the graph is given other than to point at a difference that the authors are using to make a point in the text. This is very poor writing and has no place in an otherwise science-oriented book. The figure from the actual publication shows large circles with whiskers as well as all of the point data from the individual subjects of the study. The text of the published article indicates that the circles represent the average value of peak fat oxidation and the whiskers are the 95% confidence intervals (CI). Further review indicates that the peak fat oxidation point data are generated at values of  %VO2max ranging from a low of about 38% to a high of about 81%. In the publication there is a companion graph that shows the %VO2max at the peak fat oxidation value for each of the study participants. Their data show that the LCHF group reaches peak fat oxidation values at higher %VO2max values (higher HRs) and the authors further argue that these LCHF subjects can therefore exercise at higher intensity whilst burning more fat than the high carbohydrate group, i.e. that their aerobic threshold (AeT) is higher because of the LCHF diet. Yet the book authors never even allude that the differences they are pointing to are supposedly based on differences in diet. In fact, the data and analysis (if you choose to put any credence in the dicey conclusions from such a limited and flawed study) partially unfound the argument that the book authors are making in the associated text. The authors of the published article propose that one can only maximize AeT by combining both substantial aerobic base work with a LCHF diet, whereas, contrarily, the book authors contend that AeT can be maximized by substantial aerobic base work in an often fasted or glycogen depleted state- no specific diet required.  These assertions are based on a definition of aerobic threshold HR as that HR where carbohydrate and fat are being consumed equally (the 50/50 point). Thirdly, the data in the Volek article is, again, cross sectional and lacks important data on enzymatic profiles and other potentially confounding variables; this is all in addition to the self-reported diet data (lowest quality of data). Fourthly, the authors of the published article assert that the study subjects are “elite” and use a definition of “elite” that I (and anyone else who understands the nature of elite performance) have significant disagreement with (e.g. a finish within 10% of the winner is definitely not elite). I suggest you read the article yourself as well as the many peer-reviewed published articles that have various levels of disagreement with Volek et al. One such article is:

Burke et al., Science 362, 781–787 (2018)*

There is no more defective literature than that of the field of nutrition (perhaps such defectiveness is only exceeded by the literature in the field of psychology) and add this to the already deficient situation in the literature in the field of exercise physiology and you have the recipe for gibberish cake coated with statistical frosting. Much of the data is observational and self-reported and therefore represents the weakest of all data types. And what about replication? Replication? Replication is a rare bird in these fields, yet it forms the essential starting point in the hard sciences. I do not want to minimize the difficulty associated with studies of the human body and mind as these difficulties are substantial, but the fact that something is hard to do does not give one license to make unfounded conclusions as is rife in these fields.

chapter 3 “The METHODOLOGIES of Endurance Training”

This is another excellent chapter that attempts to put some structure on how one might go about training and recovering to maximize performance in endurance sport. The primary issue I have with this chapter is that the authors present yet another, slightly different, intensity zone system to add to the confusion facing anyone who decides to get serious about training. While functional within the context of the programs described in the book, the presented zone system differs in number and range with other widely used systems (like Friel’s). I had hoped that this book might be the first to present intensity zones in the much simplified format suggested by Seiler in the past couple of years. Seiler argues that there are three zones for endurance training- aerobic base, lactate threshold, and VO2max. Theses zones are defined by the aerobic threshold (AeT) and the lactate threshold (LT or anaerobic threshold (AnT))- two easily measurable physiologic markers (the authors also use these markers to assign intensity zones, but choose to develop a system with 5 or 6 zones). Yes, these markers may move about by a few HR beats depending on individual exposure to training and other stressors, but they provide the only reliable basis for setting up a functional intensity zone system. The Seiler-proposed three zone system has a zone 1 that is defined by HRs at AeT and below (aerobic base training), a zone 2 that is defined by HRs at LT to -5% LT (lactate threshold training is at the high end of this zone and tempo work is at the low end) and a zone 3 defined by HRs at LT to +5% LT (VO2max work). No training is to be done outside of these three zones. This is essentially what the authors propose but just make it a bit more complicated by having other zones- zones that will not be used. I continue to lobby for the simplified three zone system.

The other issue with this chapter is the material on recovery where an ordinate list of the important recovery pathways is presented. I suggest that one read the book “Good to Go” by Christine Ashwanden. The author, a staff member at FiveThirtyEight, the well-known data-based journalism outfit, goes about using all the available data on efficacy of the many recovery methods and essentially debunks them all except sleep and floatation. Have a read- you will never foam roll or be massaged again! That is unless you want to take advantage of the placebo effect for mental issues.

chapter 4 “Monitoring your training”

This chapter does a great job at putting a framework around what an individual should be monitoring throughout a training plan, particularly as it relates to the potential for overtraining. This is an important subject and one that typically gets very little coverage in books on training for endurance sport. Yet overtraining is likely the single thing that derails or ends many careers in these sports. The material here is well placed and thoroughly presented.

chapter 5 “the application process: where theory meets reality”

Here the authors detail how to use their intensity zone system in a plan to maximize one’s aerobic base and then begin adding in high intensity work (tempo workouts, LT intervals, and VO2max intervals). Further reiteration of the importance of aerobic base capacity development is drilled throughout the chapter. It is difficult to come away from these first five chapters without the basis for a strong commitment to, first and foremost, ensure that your training includes a sufficient base period that allows for substantial aerobic base capacity development (and maximization for experienced, long term endurance athletes). This can take years to develop and it is pointed out that such longer term timeframes are an appropriate lens through which one should approach endurance training. It is refreshing to see this viewpoint as so many other training guides try to push shortcuts or supposedly “more efficient” ways to aerobic base development. Clearly there are no shortcuts and the physiologic processes that need to take place for maximization are on the “years-long” timescale. Absorbing this fact and incorporating this reality into one’s planning and goal setting will lead to a successful result rather than rushing the process into abject failure.

I applaud the authors for bringing uphill bounding to the fore in intensity sessions. This is a woefully overlooked tool for not only intensity workouts but in the development of specific strength and muscular endurance. Arthur Lydiard used hill bounding extensively in his training programs and cited how important this activity is in providing his athletes with the strength and power needed to perform on race day. Bee and I use uphill bounding with poles extensively in our training for cross country skiing with 2-a-week sessions from early August until the snow flies in late November. We find this work to be essential to high performance in skiing and I find it leads to great advantages in uphill sections in mountain running races. Bee similarly finds these bounding sessions as enabling for difficult kayak moves in powerful class IV and V whitewater.

chapter 6, 7, & 8
“strength training for the uphill athlete”
“General strength assessment and improvement”
“specific strength – training methods”

One of the features that distinguishes this book from the many others on endurance training is the integrative approach the authors take toward strength training. In the proposed training programs strength is not an “add-on” sub-activity or a “suggested” enhancement, it is at the core of the program and therefore strength is conceptually and actionably integrated into the training schedule.

Well placed arguments about how strength elements are critical to injury prevention as well as how properly designed strength elements ensure good technique and allow development of important specific strength capacity are provided and allow the reader to fully appreciate the importance of this area.

But founding a basis for strength is just the start. The authors provide a simple and straightforward plan for assessing your individual strength needs and then outline simple strength programs to address one’s deficiencies. We all have deficiencies (even the best of us) and attention to these will be critical to ensuring progression and, eventual, success with a training plan. For older athletes this section is of primary importance as detailed elsewhere on this site- strength is one of the “big three” limiters for performance as one ages. Sarcopenia does not sleep!

chapter 9, 10, & 11
“programming”
“transition period training”
“introduction to the base period”

These chapters detail out how one can go about developing an individual training plan. Understanding the essentials of training plan programming along with considerations for the very important transition period between seasons will enable the reader to put together an effective training plan and the knowledge of how this plan will inevitably be modified as one executes upon it.

Significant sections are devoted to understanding and properly programming the base period as this is the essential platform upon which any other endurance training is based. This base development then leads to additions of intensity all whilst a parallel strength program is being pursued.

The authors present a meso and microcycle process using the tried-and-true weekly focus approach that distributes work into base (B), intensity (I), recovery (R), specificity (S), taper (T), and goal (G) weeks. Bee and I have been using this system in one form or another since the late 70’s, with the exception of my experiments with “block periodization” in 2016 and 2017. We have had good success with this training plan protocol and con confidently recommend it. Now we have a book that we can recommend as well.

Chapters 12 & 13
“special considerations for SkiMo and ski mountaineering”
“special considerations for mountain running”

These two chapters elaborate upon some of the specific and unique aspects of the two sports and how to adjust your training to meet those unique needs. These sections are well written and provide valuable information for those just getting into these sports but the material is also valuable for even experienced competitors.

bottom line

A well written book that is worth your time and will pay back big dividends in successful endurance training so long as you make the commitment and ensure consistency.

 

*Some relevant quotes from the Burke article:

Short-term fat adaptation strategies, or even long-term adaptation to ketogenic LCHF diets (80% fat, <50 g of CHO/day), which can increase normal rates of fat oxidation by two or three times (21, 22), are limited in application to a small range of sporting events in which utilization is low enough for muscle energy to be provided by fat oxidation (21, 23). To date, it appears that protocols that substantially increase fat oxidation also decrease metabolic flexibility by reducing CHO substrate pools and/or the ability to rapidly oxidize them. The bottom line is that when elite athletes train for and compete in most sporting events, CHO fuels are the predominant and critical substrate for the working muscles, and the availability of CHO (22, 24), rather than fat, wins gold medals. We propose that the increased rates of fat oxidation observed after endurance training and “train-low” strategies (see When less is more) are a proxy for an increase in mitochondrial density; for competition success, this machinery is best utilized by harnessing it to enhance the oxidation of CHO-based fuels.

21. J. S. Volek et al., Metabolism 65, 100–110 (2016).

22. L. M. Burke et al., J. Physiol. (London) 595, 2785–2807 (2017).

23. S. D. Phinney, B. R. Bistrian, W. J. Evans, E. Gervino, G. L. Blackburn, Metabolism 32, 769–776 (1983).

24. J. A. Hawley, J. J. Leckey, Sports Med. 45, S5–S12 (2015).

Within their repertoire of training nutrition strategies, athletes can now include practices that augment adaptive processes in skeletal muscle; these include commencing training with low exogenous CHO availability (fasting overnight and/or withholding CHO during a session) or the more potent trainload strategy of deliberately commencing selected training sessions with lowered muscle glycogen stores (e.g., using a first session to deplete glycogen and then training for a second time after withholding CHO to prevent glycogen restoration) (29, 30). Although studies consistently report augmented cellular responses as a result of trainload strategies, the translation to performance enhancement has been less clear (29, 30). Early investigations failed to detect superior performance outcomes; this was attributed to the overemphasis of such sessions within the training program and their resultant impairment of training intensity (44). These sessions need to be appropriately placed into a periodized program to complement high quality training (7). A recent, clever sequencing of practices (Fig. 1) integrates a performance-promoting session and an adaptation-focused session while adding the benefits of a prolonged increase in exercise-stimulated cellular signaling and posttranscriptional regulation during glycogen-depleted recovery and exercise (45). In subelite populations at least, better integration of train-low and train-high sessions into the training sequence (Fig. 1) has been associated with superior performance compared with the same training undertaken with normal CHO availability (46). So far, however, this does not seem to be the case in studies involving elite populations (22, 47), although it is often incorporated into real-world training sessions (48). Although further studies are needed, part of the challenge in advancing this area of research is the lack of agreement with regard to the terminology and implementation of the practices involved; we have tried to address this in a separate commentary (7).

29. S. G. Impey et al., Sports Med. 48, 1031–1048 (2018).

30. J. D. Bartlett, J. A. Hawley, J. P. Morton, Eur. J. Sport Sci. 15, 3–12 (2015).

44. W. K. Yeo et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 105, 1462–1470 (2008).

7. L. M. Burke et al., Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 28, 451–463 (2018).

45. S. C. Lane et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 119, 643–655 (2015).

46. L. A. Marquet et al., Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 48, 663–672 (2016).

47. K. D. Gejl et al., Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 49, 2486–2497 (2017).

48. T. Stellingwerf, Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 22, 392–400 (2012).

Also, a good read on the lamentable situation in science today:

The Inevitable Evolution of Bad Science:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/the-inevitable-evolution-of-bad-science/500609/?single_page=true

 

 

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The Road to Beitostolen – Course Profile Analysis and Training Update

As discussed in a previous post, the courses for the Beitostolen 2019 Masters World Championships (Masters World Cup (MWC)) are very well documented and described due to the homologation certificates provided by the Organizing Committee in Beitostolen. The existence of the homologation certificates is primarily due to the fact that FIS World Cup races are held at the Beitostolen complex and this requires detailed homologation certification by the FIS. As a result, the organizers have substantial profile data for the trails/tracks within the complex. However, the Beitostolen organizing committee have also gone a further step and obtained full FIS certification for each of the three loops that will be utilized for the 2019 MWC- courses that are not used for World Cup events. This has provided reliable, detailed data on the courses for the competitions- a very good thing!

What is missing however is actual continuous profiles of each of the courses that are made up of various combinations of the three certified loops. With this in mind, I have “knitted” together the loop data for each of the primary loop distances- the 10 km course and the 15 km course. This allows one to better observe the “flow” of the courses and to develop individual strategies for racing. I have also compared the Beitostolen courses with the courses in Klosters (MWC 2017) and Minneapolis (MWC 2018).

Presented below are the 10 km and 15 km courses for the Beitostolen MWC plotted utilizing normalized elevation in feet. As these data are taken visually from the provided profile images, the race course profiles represent a best-effort transcription to digital data which may have some minor errors. However, the course flow and magnitude of climbs are all accurately represented.

There is one climb in particular that should be noted- the climb at about the 6.8 km distance mark in the 15km course (on the Urban Round or “B” Loop in the C-B-A loop sequence). This climb is only in the 15 km, 30 km, and 45 km races.

The profile provided by the organizers shows that this hill climbs from about 783 m to about 820 m (37 m/121 feet) over the 2050 m to about 2300 m “B” Loop distance marks (a total of 250m distance- about half of the total climb distance). This yields an average grade of about 15% for this 250 m portion of the climb and, based on analysis of the other loop profiles, represents the most challenging hill for the competitions. The hill continues another 200 m but significantly decreases grade for the reminder of the climb (to about the 2500 m “B” Loop distance mark) with the exception of a “bump” at the very end. The provided homologation certificate shows the average grade for the entire climb to be 9.1% with a section as high as 21.5% (not sure where this steep section is but it may be at the very top of the climb). Although not a particularly long climb, the 15% average grade for the first 250m and then a continued, albeit gradual (about 3.5% average), climb for another 200m seems that it will be challenging, particularly for classic skiers. Combining this with the 21% grade of unknown length and location (this will probably be a herringbone or Klaebo “Klomp” for classic skiers) adds additional challenge. For freestyle skiers it will not be as challenging a climb and might represent a good hill to put on a surge to break up a pack.

Course comparisons with past Masters world cups (2017 and 2018)

The 15 km and 10 km Beitostolen course profiles are presented below along with the profiles for the Klosters 2017 MWC. It is clear that for the 15 km courses the total climb is very similar between the the venues but the “flow” of the courses are not. The Klosters 10 km course is much more difficult than the Beitostolen 10 km course, with 125 m (410 feet) more climb and the different ‘flow” characteristic. The Klosters courses “notch” up to higher and higher elevation with no extended downhills until the very end- this makes these courses more difficult due to the lack of recovery between climbs. The Beitostolen courses should allow for fairly high speeds, conditions permitting.

Comparison of the Beitostolen 15 km and 10 km courses with the Minneapolis 2018 MWC courses shows exactly how “less difficult” the Minneapolis courses were. Firstly, primarily due to snow conditions, the Minneapolis courses were all shortened significantly. Uniquely, the 30 km and 45 km classic races were shortened due to a train blocking the course after the first lap. As a result the “15 km” course was 13 km, the “10 km” course was 6.5 km and the “30 km” course was 22 km (but would have been 28 km even if the train did not block the course). Secondly, there are no extended climbs in the Minneapolis courses and, although not shown here, the 30 km and 45 km courses had an entirely flat 5 km section in each 15 km lap. Thirdly, the total climb for each of the Minneapolis courses is significantly lower than for either the Beitostolen or Klosters courses- 30% to 50% less!

Note: the Minneapolis course profiles have been derived from GPS data taken during the competitions.

As far as preparations for the Beitostolen courses, it seems that a concentration on extended climbs at or about 10% average grade will do one well, particularly for classic skiers. Given the numerous steep sections, classic skiers should be practicing their herringbone skills as these steep sections appear to come frequently throughout both the 15 km and 10 km courses. Although the courses may ski differently to what the profile might suggest, having a good LT block of training prior to any peaking protocol will be of significant utility. An efficient herringbone will also be a welcome skill at heart rates above LT.

competition

Although registration is not yet closed after an extension from 31 January to 15 February, the M07 is again the largest group and many of the perennial medalists from the recent past as well as some competitive skiers moving up from the M06 category have registered. It looks like the classic fields will have the deepest competition but there are some excellent freestyle M07 skiers as well. Unfortunately a number of the past M07 freestyle medalists are not currently registered- hopefully they will in the next week.

Team Bumble Bee decided to go with a mix of techniques for Beitostolen- selecting the 15 km free and the 10 km and 30 km classic races. We are both committed to being well-rounded skiers and not focusing on just one technique. It makes life interesting and we get to mix it up with a different set of skiers for the free technique race.

training

Team Bumble Bee is in a final volume block of training prior to our peaking protocol. The first week of the block has 18-20 h of training but also significant intensity to ensure that the training load is sufficient for a maximal super compensation effect. After a few days of recovery, this block ends with a 30 km freestyle race with 600 m (1968 feet) of climbing at altitude (2000 m/6500 feet). This race course is very similar to the 30 km Beitostolen course (two 15 km courses), with similar steeps and downhills- should be a good simulation opportunity.

Bumble all alone and catching back after sipping a feed in the local 34 km downhill freestyle race.

We both had reasonable results in the local 34 km downhill freestyle race this past weekend, although the profile of the race does not suit our strengths of climbing and surges as there were essentially no climbs. The course is perfect for a large, powerful skier- physical traits that would not be used to describe Team Bumble Bee! But with enough effort the “bees” can be competitive.

Best of training to all of those (if any) who are reading this!

It’s All About the Vertical is back

Team Bumble Bee is still steadfastly working away at writing “Brave Enough – a Training Handbook for Masters Cross Country Skiers” and I initially thought that much of the training theory, planning, and execution presented on this blog would be used in the handbook. As we continue writing, we are finding that virtually everything is being re-written in one way or another. So I have restored all of the past content on this site and will continue to add to it as I have time, interest, or should an interesting subject come about. The re-writing has slowed the progress on the handbook but it is likely that perseverance will ultimately win out.

I know many have asked for access to past content here at It’s All About the Vertical- it is now provided and hopefully, going forward, some new content as well. Enjoy!

Why “Grit” is a Phony Term that is Irrelevant to Achievement

Note: I wrote this two years ago but never posted it for some reason. Having recently been exposed to additional discussion on the topic I have made minor updates and now post the piece here.

One sits astounded in the realization that someone has made-up a term, built a career upon this made-up term, writes a best-selling book on the pseudo-subject, and creates an entire field of pseudo-study- all without adding anything resembling a basic, reliable understanding of the (pseudo-) “thing”. Well, such is very much the case in the “work” of Angela Duckworth and her associates on the subject of the phony concept of “grit”.  After reading her recent book on “Grit” twice and delving into published “peer-reviewed” papers, I can find very little of value in pushing the concept of “grit” in any school, workplace, or sports setting.

Like the many diet cults that come and go with the seasons, “grit” has limited statistical relevance and, when critically tested, a durability on par with paint on a west facing wall in the US desert southwest. Similarly with diet cults, measurements of “grit” rely on individual self-perception and not quantitative, objective measurements (or even repeatable, testable observations). Such is the plight of the very difficult endeavor of research into the human body and mind. But these realities, just because they present significant limitations on conclusive observations, does not allow license for dissemination of unsupported assertions.

Most recently Duckworth is back-treading on the singular importance of “grit” in high achievement, claiming that others have misunderstood her and that there are character traits that are as, or more, important. Remember that traits cannot be learned and that the whole idea behind grit as a concept in teaching and achievement is that it can be learned- it is a skill. Sounds like a good deal of contradiction there, something that often happens when one overstates the importance of some variable or that such importance actually has no foundation- something that I think is the case for “grit”.

criticisims of “grit”

There is a growing body of criticism of “grit” as an identifiable, singular, so-called non-cognitive skill that is correlated with success and other positive outcomes. One of the more complete critical reviews is here and available free here. A summary of Duckworth’s response to the article is here.

The criticisms are many but the primary one (in addition to the obvious over-statements by Duckworth et al. of the effect of “grit” on success (which is particularly egregious in the popular book on the subject)) is a clear concern over the entire concept of “grit” being just the overblown hype of a research group falling into a “jangle fallacy” black hole- in part by not being fully cognizant of, and fluent in, the literature.

The “jangle fallacy” concern is based on the assertion that what one might refer to as “grit” is actually just another name for the well-developed concept of the personality trait know as “conscientiousness”, something intimately entangled with the even more fundamental notion of motivation. The important point here is that a trait is not a skill and much of what has been trumped-up about the importance of so-called “grit” is that it is a skill that can be learned. “Conscientiousness” or motivation are not things that have been found to be “learnable”. Rather, they are most likely a result of some combination of genetics and environment.

But Duckworth and her co-workers do not let any of this contain their zeal for spreading the concept of “grit” as a skill and their imperatives for blanketing the unknowing (and seemingly critical thinking-deficient) education profession with false hopes for fundamental, positive change to education paradigms (such as KIPP programs). I find the whole situation to be very lamentable. A similar situation is extant for the allied concept of the “growth mindset”, but I will not elaborate on that here.

I have always taken great exception to the efficacy of self-reported data of any type. Such data are unreliable, subject to significant bias, and represent data of the lowest quality- data that probably should not be collected in the first place, let alone be the basis for conclusive remarks. Recent extensive reviews of the validity of published research in Psychology found very low replication, something that I find to be self evident given the low reliability of much of the source data for many studies in this field.

Egalitarianism, the protestant work ethic, and teachings toward a path of success

There has been a general trend in recent decades in both popular literature and the highly defective research in the field of Psychology that describes a path to success that is paved with hard work along with a consistent application of effort toward a defined goal. The folklore goes on to attribute the overwhelming majority of any success to just these two factors, often ignoring, in large part, the environmental factors, timing, talent, and motivation also at play. Perhaps the most well known of these teachings is that summarized by Malcolm Gladwell in his very popular book Outliers. In the book Gladwell leans on the work of Ericsson and others and the uber-popular “10,000 hour rule” that is supposedly supported by Ericsson’s research. As asserted in a previous post on the “10,000 hour rule”:

“… ‘the rule’ provides that the development of an “expert” or “master” level of accomplishment requires a minimum of about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” and that this improvement follows a linear growth rate. “Deliberate practice” is focused (perhaps structured) training where one consciously addresses weaknesses whilst maintaining (and possibly improving) strengths. The 10,000 hours works out to about 10 years of focused training before one can attain an “expert” or “master” level in the endeavor. ”

and further:

“The underlying supposition is that “nurture” super-dominates “nature”, i.e. as some would say “talent is over-rated”. The egalitarian basis of ‘the rule’ has resonated with a society that values a hard-work ethos that leads to success, something that is perhaps fundamental to any civil society. But reality is, in this case, something very different.”

The egalitarian hard-work ethos (and it’s direct connection with success that is espoused by Ericsson and others) that has been generally assimilated into US culture, has naturally lead to the growth of a well-documented meritocracy in the US (and elsewhere), and to the associated high societal value placed upon college degrees in general and those from certain institutions in particular (Ivy League institutions, Standford, Chicago, etc.). For many, the inculcation of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) in either straightforward (often via religious teachings) or subliminal ways, has played a fundamental role in their individual intellectual development. In my experience, the at-large adherence to the PWE in the US has lead to general acceptance of the concept that work will outdo talent. This is something that I have found to be unsupported in virtually all endeavors but particularly so in those areas of achievement requiring the highest levels of thought and concentration- areas like science and mathematics but also in more creativity-centeric fields like art and writing.

Given the societal importance placed on merit and the substantial parental and academic supporting structures that have come to be, it is no surprise to find a dysfunctional situation at the top of the achievement pyramid. Perhaps Walter Kirn best described this situation in his 2005 essay for The Atlantic Magazine on the subject of the US Meritocracy, where he summarizes his experience upon matriculation at Princeton:

“That’s why we were here; we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That’s what they wanted, so that’s what we delivered. A talent for nothing, but a knack for everything. Nobody told us it wouldn’t be enough.”

And Kirn is right- those “gritty” Baby Boomer graduates found that accruing various merit badges along the way in one’s education and career was not nearly enough. Being one such Baby Boomer Meritiocrat, I have had a front row seat observing my fellow Baby Boomers throughout a 30-year scientific and business career and in endurance sport at the elite levels. It became abundantly clear over the years that although the meritocracy can efficiently produce hard workers and that businesses, academic institutions, and sports development organizations can produce environments where hard work can flourish, there remains a paucity of true achievement- achievement that pushes for new knowledge, new products, and sports performances- work products that are of value, utility, and produce victory, respectively.

motivation- the fundamental basis for achievement

If there is one glaring and very consistent observation that I have made in elite-level endurance sport, world-recognized scientific research, and US business success, it is the dominating importance motivation, timing, and, in the case of sport and science, talent. In fact, that which many define as “hard work” oftentimes plays a minor role in the definition of the success being described. The “minor role” of hard work is not minor in terms of time or effort, but in terms of what has made the difference in attaining the success. I have have observed (and I expect that many who are reading this have as well) an overwhelming  majority of such successes to be a result of innate talent, timing (particularly in US business success), and intrinsic motivation on the part of the individual(s) associated with the success. The “hard work along with a consistent application of effort toward a defined goal” is necessary but significantly insufficient for any durable success. This has been recently documented in endurance, power, and combat sports by Issurin in a meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine the subject of which is defining prerequisites for demonstration of athletic achievement. Issurin, in his summary article, reviews available data that show (as quoted from the abstract of the article):

“Data pertaining to Olympic champions indicate that their superiority compared with other elite athletes is determined by high intrinsic motivation, determination, dedication, persistence, and creativity.”

The author additionally goes on to dispute the validity of the 10,000 hour rule as it relates to endurance, power, and combat sports. Rather, the data support that 3,000-7,000 hours of specialized training is sufficient to attain world-class standing for those endurance athletes that have high innate talent (e.g. high VO2 max, high lactate metabolism, and well suited biomechanics in the case of endurance athletes). As outlined above I see no difference in intrinsic motivation and the (derivative) terms determination, dedication, and persistence. So, although it is claimed in the article that each of these are separable traits, I propose that determination, dedication, and persistence all follow from the fundamental notion of intrinsic motivation.

Much of these approaches are informed by the egalitarian notion that asserts that hard work, independent of talent, is fundamentally important.

We all bring our own personal experience to the table when thinking about something like “grit” (as defined by Duckworth). Those who have made significant contributions to their fields of study are often viewed by those not internal to the work as being highly focused, dogged, and super-persistent. However, my experience is contrary to this view. In 30 years as a research scientist I have consistently observed the highest achievers of significant work to exhibit superior levels of open mindedness and curiosity- not necessarily a dogged focus on a single thing for many years. In fact numerous significant contributions that I have been witness to have been realized only when the researcher, after vigorous initial work, has put the subject and study aside for some period and pursued something else only to return to the initial area of study with new and different knowledge, mental models, and, in some cases, new tools and new colleagues. This sort of investigative process requires substantial open mindedness, high levels of innate curiosity, and accretion of numerous fundamental platforms for thinking in different ways. These sorts of attributes have, in my experience, a singular underlying driver- motivation.

Motivation has consistently been the differentiator between the high achievers of substance* and the rest. If one chooses to use the word “grit” to describe a trait (not a skill) then “grit” might be best defined as the actualization of motivation. If one is motivated then they will likely appear to be “gritty”. This is particularly the case when work on a given subject reaches a phase where the active work is a matter of following through on gathering and analyzing data once the breakthrough thought process has been achieved. In addition there are data that show how motivation appears to be highly influenced by chemical reactions in the brain, i.e. high motivation is correlated with high production of L-dopamine and a native, large set of dopamine receptors. Perhaps such inherited biochemistry is super-dominant and controls the level of motivation within an individual. It does help to explain why individuals with the same upbringing, environment, and opportunity can have vastly different levels of motivation and therefore achievement.

the fallacy of “grit”

Grit is not a “thing”, a skill, or a “breakthrough”- it is a made-up term that seems to be best utilized in justifying funding for defective research with substandard statistical power, hoodwinking educational institutions into false hopes for increasing achievement, and for selling books full of unsupportable claims. Unfortunately, the faulty concepts of “grit” as a skill are being thrust into an unwitting education community desperately looking for a solution to current issues with achievement. The application of the so-called “concepts” of “grit” do nothing to help individuals develop as substantive thinkers or achievers. “Grit” is irrelevant to achievement and the use of concepts of “grit” may even hinder such development by over-emphasizing “the doing of something” rather than allowing for a focus on critical thinking prior to and during the substantial work involved in making progress. Rather, looking toward a better understanding of the origins of motivation will much better serve mankind than focusing time, energy, and dollars on the falsity that is “grit”.

It is common to see researchers take great effort to produce data that clarifies a poorly-constructed null hypothesis, leading to negative critical review and eventual realization (or perhaps not) that the experiments are misguided due to a lack of critical thinking and discernment at the outset. Unfortunately the field of Psychology is not providing rigorous critical review and therefore allows for the publication of unfounded results, conclusions, and claims. This is how I think the concept of “grit” came about… and why, unfortunately, it has continued to flourish.

 

*high achievers can be sub-divided into (at least) two categories- those who just achieve something and those who achieve something of substance.

The Road to Beitostolen – looking forward to deep competition

Team Bumble Bee is well into preparations for the 2019 World Masters Championships in Beitostolen, Norway in early March. It is always challenging to have just one  “A” race so late in the season. The required focus makes other, earlier, races less important but these races are still critical to the necessary progression to ensure a peak performance. Balancing the race schedule with training whilst not getting “stale” is the goal for the 2018-2019 season. Arriving at the start line in Norway fast, fit, and fresh- that is the overarching goal.

We are excited about the races in Norway because we are also hopeful that more high-level competition will show up given the location right in the center of the cross country skiing mecca that is Scandinavia. Deeper competition, particularly in the women’s fields, will be a welcome thing. Team Bumble Bee is focused on competing against the best skiers in the world- it is what drives us and motivates us.

We’re monitoring the Datasport MWC entrants list to decide which races to enter base on the competition- we’ll enter the races that have the stiffest competition. At the 2018 MWC in Minneapolis, for example, none of the top M07 skaters showed up but most of the top M07 classic skiers did, so I entered only the classic races. Hopefully we will see strong M07 fields in both techniques so that a skate race might be part of the series for me. For the F06’s, we just hope that some strong competitors who do not usually compete in F06 MWC show up given the venue location. Otherwise things may be a bit boring for Bee.

training, tweaks, and time trials

For the past three years I have been utilizing a “block periodization” protocol for training. This protocol is useful for advanced, long-time endurance athletes who wish to attempt to break off a performance plateau and further maximize their output in races. For me it works well but results in a rather monastic existence as all intensity workouts are completed alone since there are few others that take this route. Bee likes to do intensity with others and there are very few “racers” here in the Sun Valley area that actually train to race with structured interval workouts. So she has been stuck these last couple of years doing most of her intensity alone as well.  As a result, this year I have decided to return to a “traditional” or mixed periodization protocol that, after a base period, utilizes numerous four week cycles that include volume focus (V), intensity focus (I), or recovery focus (R) weeks to build toward a peaking period prior to “A” races (note: V+ and I+ are peak weeks for volume and intensity, respectively). This will allow Bee and me to do intensity workouts together and challenge one another in head-to-head repeats or by giving one another “head starts” and then try to catch during the interval.  Another technique to make things interesting in mis-matched pairs is to allow the slower person to use a fast wax to help them keep up. It is fun and makes the intensity sessions just that much more enjoyable- yes enjoyable! We love intensity and look forward to our twice-weekly sessions. We see way too much of an attitude of dread on the part of many other athletes when it comes to intensity. If something is perceived as “dreadful” it will likely be dreadful. Better to take a positive posture on something as critical to racing success as intensity sessions!

My annual training plan for the 2018/19 season is shown below and shows the traditional periodization through a series of 4-week “build” blocks leading up to our only “A” race this year- the World Masters Championships in Beitostolen. Norway in early March.

2018-2019 training plan. For a larger format view, ctrl-click on the image and select “open in new window” and then click the image.

In addition to the volume (V), intensity (I), and recovery (R) week indications, there is a bit more detail in this plan than I have shown in the past. The first additional detail is a row which shows targeted total hours of weekly training  and the second is a row showing estimated “intensity minutes” for the training week. “Intensity minutes” are the amount of time spent doing specific intensity workouts and are derived from a percentage of the total hours of training for a given week. We utilize suggested intensity proportions that Friel has found to work well with advanced athletes. Presented below is his chart for determining intensity time percentages as a function of what type of period one is executing upon. Time at intensity (intensity minutes) includes rest periods for whatever structure you are using. For instance a “lactate threshold” (LT) workout of 6 X 8 min with 3 min rest has 48 minutes at threshold work and 15 minutes of rest, so the total “intensity minutes” is 63 minutes. The weekly intensity sessions are designed to align with the percentages of intensity minutes in the table below.

Friel’s chart for determining intensity proportions as a function of type of period in a structure, periodized training protocol. See blog post here.

Friel has developed a system of periodization that includes base periods, two build periods, a peak period, and, finally, a race period. Build 2 is probably the most critical part of the program as it is the highest prolonged intensity training of the entire cycle. At 24% of total training time at zone 4 and above, this is a challenging period and one that I find to be what best prepares me for not only for racing but also in being able to absorb subsequent training efficiently and enjoyably.

As you will see in the training plan, I prefer to number all the build periods sequentially rather than have just two types- Build 1 and Build 2, where Build 1 introduces race specificity along with a few other elements and Build 2 focuses on race specificity whilst decreasing other elements. Instead I design each Build period according to the need as determined “on the fly” as there are so many extraneous factors that come into play during the season. However, the Build periods do not stray too far from what Friel suggests- I just tweak them for my personal needs.

We live in a “de-energized” nordic community where many formerly avid racers have gotten old and have selected to no longer race. These ‘oldsters” have not been replaced by younger racers because the area is so expensive to live in and the (few) jobs in the area do not pay sufficiently to offset the high cost of living in a ski resort. Accordingly, very few younger people have the wherewithal to select Sun Valley as a place to locate. All of this, of course, is in addition to the rarity of a nordic ski racer to begin with. As a result there is less energy for putting on races in the Sun Valley area and where in the past we typically had 4-5 races on the local trails we are now down to 1-2. So… Team Bumble Bee has devised a series of time trials that we schedule into our training plans. These TTs are on specific courses so we can track times and speeds over the years. We have two 10 km courses and an 18 km course that do a reasonable job of replicating what one might see at a World Masters race with  respect to climbs and downhills. The TTs play an integral part in determining our form and identifying any deficiencies that can be worked on in the coming weeks of training. Doing TTs is a very useful tool, particularly when you do not have many local or regional races to choose from.

Strength – the key to excellence in skiing

Strength has become a centerpiece of our training for a number of reasons. The three primary drivers are:

  1. As an aging athletes, we are fighting an important battle with the well-documented process of sarcopenia (loss of muscle) that is the result of hormonal changes as we age. Natural levels of human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and testosterone all are falling of at a fairly rapid rate. This puts strength work at the top of the training pyramid for aging athletes. Such strength work both builds muscle but also provides the body with the stimulus to produce the hormones and growth factor that would otherwise be absent.
  2. Cross country skiing has become an increasingly upper body/core-strength dominated sport. Advances in technique and equipment have allowed for increased reliance on the upper body muscle groups. A strong and durable upper body, connected via a similarly strong and durable core to the already well-developed lower body muscle groups is critical for fast and efficient skiing.
  3. One of the most significant elements that we, as aging athletes, lose is dynamic/explosive power. This ability is critical in the kick phase of classic skiing and the push-off phase in skate skiing. Maintaining and developing explosive power is a difficult thing for older skiers but one that, with properly designed strength exercises, can be straightforwardly accomplished, albeit with lower expectations that what one would have as a youngster.

Given these realities, our strength program is a year-round, intensive activity that is always in progression. There are a few periods of maintenance, but these are only during the most competitive periods, otherwise strength is playing a large role in the weekly plan.

We endorse a three-times weekly strength session protocol of between 60 minutes and 90 minutes (30-50 minutes during the race period). The protocol includes dynamic exercises that can be directly mapped onto motions and force production as similar to cross country skiing as is possible. Static exercises such as planks have no place in this program. Rather, a starting point of a plank may progress with a dynamic upper body movement in a way such that it approximates a specific cross country skiing movement. Similarly, pull-ups combined with a dynamic lower body movement are utilized. This theme permeates all of the exercises we do.

bietostolen race courses

The organizers at Beitostolen have done an outstanding job at selecting and documenting the races courses that will be used at the Masters World Cup. They probably have a large database course measurements to tap into since the site is also a World Cup venue and the courses therefore have been precisely measured for homologation with FIS. Leveraging these data for the Masters World Cup has led to some nice courses for competition at the masters level.

I summarized the FIS/World Masters Cross Country Ski Association (WMCCSA) requirements for the Masters World Cup last year and compared those requirements with the World Cup requirements. Table I presents the data and the comparison.

Table I. FIS and WMCCSA requirements for Masters World Cup events compared to requirements for FIS World Cup events.

Beitostolen have now provided their homologation certificates for each of the three courses that will be used during the 2019 Masters World Cup. The certificates are shown below for the most difficult  “A” course (World Cup Loop), the less difficult “B” course (Urban Loop), and the easy “C” course (Lake Loop or “geezer” course for F09 and older and M10 and older).

Here are the uphill summaries:

Course “A” (World Cup Loop):

Course “B” (Urban Loop):

Course “C” (Lake Loop):

The courses for the 5 km, 10 km, 15 km, 30 km, and 45 km races are built from combinations of the three course loops. The following course sequences will be utilized:

5 km: C

10 km: C-A

15 km: C-B-A

30 km: 2 X 15km (C-B-A-C-B-A)

45 km: 3 X 15 km (C-B-A-C-B-A-C-B-A)

The F09 and older and M10 and older only use the “C” course for their 5 km and 10 km race distances.

Looks like we will all be very familiar with the C-B-A combo by the end of the 2019 MWC!

The terrain summaries for each of the courses follows:

Course “A”:

Course “B”:

Course “C”:

It is a delight to have all of this information available so that one can simulate the courses on one’s home trails. We’ve already got some ideas for a couple of loops here in Sun Valey that might do a good job of mimicking the the “A” and “B” loops. The organizers, however, have not provided a summary of the height difference (HD), maximum climb (MC), and total climb (TC) for each of the race lengths. Table II is a summary of these data:

Table II. Height difference (HD), maximum climb (MC), and total climb (TC) for the three loop courses and the five race distances.

The organizers in Beitostolen have pretty much hit the specifications that the FIS and WMCCSA require (see Table I and Table II) for Masters World Cup events. The total climbing is similar to but slightly greater than that at the Klosters 2017 MWC (except for the 15 km where the Klosters 15 km course exceeded the FIS/WMCCSA limits for total climb) and much greater (by about a factor of about two) than the Minneapolis 2018 MWC. Minneapolis was challenged with low snow and the organizers were limited to trails that had snowmaking or that they could get snow to. As a result the lengths of the races and the climbs were reduced relative to what was planned. And, of course, there was the train that blocked the course in the 30 km/45 km classic races which in turn lead to further shortened races and less climbing. Bottom line for Beitostolen: focus on climbing because there will be a lot of it.

It will be interesting to see how the Beitostolen courses will ski. They appear to have good “rhythm” but you never know for sure until you ski a course.

Based upon inspection of the profiles, the 10 km course will not have a significant climb until about the 7.2 km point and after a downhill there is a steady climb to the finish for the last 600 m. It will be important to push these sections of the course as it might be hard to get away in the undulating terrain in the first 7 km.

Similarly, in the 15 km race there is no significant climb until about the 6.7 km mark. The course climbs sharply and then steadily for about 1.5 km so this will be a “crux” point in the race as after this climb there will not be another significant climb until about the 11 km mark and then the 600 m climb to the finish. Since the 30 km and 45 km races use the same loop sequence these observations apply to these races as well.

Focus, finesse, and finishes

In my wrap-up of the Minneapolis WMC, I noted that I was losing focus at points throughout the races, that I was not picking the best (or even just good) lines through turns, and I was not setting up properly for finishes as I lost two out of three sprints in the individual races. So the theme for Beitostolen will be race focus, trail finesse, and smart finishes. I’ve been actively working on all of these elements in training and hopefully it all comes to fruition in a series of races coming up in the next few weeks. If not- more work to do!

Brave Enough – a new project by Team Bumble Bee

Team Bumble Bee (aka Betsy and Bob Youngman) have embarked on a new project:

Brave Enough – A Handbook on Training for Masters Cross Country Skiers

“it’s all about the vertical” is taking a hiatus.

You can monitor progress at the Brave Enough site where there will be updates and new content forthcoming.

Thanks for reading, commenting , and providing lively interaction on “it’s all about the vertical”. It has been a rewarding experience!

Salomon S Lab Ultra at 1000 km – a great shoe gets better

About a year ago Salomon began showing the Spring 2018 product line-up for trail running. They decided (for reasons not obvious) to replace the outstanding and very popular 2017 S Lab Sense Ultra entirely- i.e. no update to the current model, no Sense Ultra 2, just drop the model (the Sense Ultra was still in the SS18 catalog but availability was clearly limited to the in-stock production from 2017). Given that this shoe was the best selling S Lab shoe ever, many did not understand the logic behind the decision. I too questioned this decision and,  based on my substantial experience with the Sense Ultra, purchased additional pairs for the upcoming 2018 running season.

The 2018 replacement for the S Lab Sense Ultra model is the S Lab Ultra (this shoe appears in the Salomon SS18 catalog as the S Lab Sense Ultra 2, a name that was dropped by by Salomon by Spring 2018 and replaced with the simpler “S Lab Ultra”). The S Lab Ultra is a very different shoe with a narrower last, a new upper with much more protection, a new midsole construction, and, most prominently, external (not laminated) Sensifit “straps” that are integrated with the footbed and the lacing. It is also about 50-75 gms heavier. Salomon worked with professional mountain trail runner and 100+ mile race specialist Francois D’Haene on the design and they focussed on performance optimization for the UTMB (Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc) race terrain. The shoe is rumored to be based on D’Haene’s actual foot shape that is very narrow and long.

I did not do an initial impressions review of the S Lab Ultra because I was rotating it through with a couple of pairs of Sense Ultras and did not feel that I was giving it enough testing time. Now that I have about 1000 kms on the S Lab Ultra I feel confident in what I have experienced.

All of the additional “stuff” on this shoe comes at the cost of increased weight- 285 gms for my size 7.5US/40 2/3 EU. This is to be compared with the Sense Ultra which weighs in at 260 gms. This is a small but not insignificant difference particularly for long runs/races.

Salomon S Lab Ultra 2018. A new shoe in virtually all respects when compared to the S Lab Sense Ultra of 2017, including new external sensifit straps.

A critical eye will immediately question the need for the external SensiFit “straps” in a running shoe. Given that there were no significant issues with upper stability and foothold in the Sense Ultra on challenging mountain terrain, this feature seemed to be either “gimmicky” or actually added some level of performance. Only individual testing would suffice to answer this question. One can also immediately see the heritage of the external straps in current and past Salomon S Lab Skate boots for cross country skiing. The latest (super light) iteration includes a monocoque carbon fiber shell for the lower part of the upper, a carbon fiber cuff, and an integrated strap (all for the measly sum of $1,200 US!).

Salomon S Lab Carbon Skate Boot (left) and S Lab Ultra (right) showing the cross country skiing heritage for external straps on footwear, where such straps have been included in Salomon’s top line models for over a decade.

But cross country skiing, and skate skiing in particular, is a very different situation as it comes to footwear. The fundamental skating motion involves powerful lateral strides where a stiff sole and upper are critical for efficient force production against the snow and the integrated straps assist in further immobilizing the foot to ensure no lateral movement within the boot. This scenario is not something that plays any important role in mountain trail running so it was an open question as to why Salomon put these straps onto their flagship mountain ultratrail running shoe. Well, it turns out that there are reasons and I will get to that below.

I am still looking to see if Salomon will ever use their substantial knowledge of the use of carbon fiber reinforced technology in their running shoes. It seems to be a natural progression for certain areas (like the stiff carbon fiber plate under the foot in Nike’s Zoom Vapor Fly 4%) but nothing yet from Salomon.

upper

The upper is very different from the Sense Ultra with a different mesh, much beefier toe bumper, substantial polymer overlay protection, and, of course the SensiFit “straps”. Salomon also returned to a “top loading” lace garage seen on Salomon shoes in the early part of this decade. I never had a problem when Salomon switched to a “bottom loading” configuration, but many users complained that it was difficult to get the laces into the garage due to the interference with the tightened laces. There is a simple technique that avoids this issue but some never mastered it. Now it seems that Salomon might go back to the original “top loading” approach.

Salomon S Lab Ultra uppers after 1000 kms. Notice, when compared with the Sense Ultra of 2017, the beefed-up toe bumper, substantial polymer overlay protection, and SensiFit “straps”. I expected the shoe would run warmer but it hasn’t.

Given all of the “beefing-up” of the upper I expected that the shoe would run warmer than the Sense Ultra but this did not happen. Apparently there is still sufficient ventilation, even with all of the overlays, to keep my feet as cool as they are in the Sense Ultra.

I was initially concerned about the interface between the mesh portion of the upper and the polymer overlay protection. Such interfaces typically yield the highest localized strain and can often lead to increased erosion and wear. However, even after 1000 km (600 miles) there is only the slightest evidence of erosion in these areas.

Close-up showing one of the high strain areas in the marsh-overlay area and just the very beginnings of some erosion wear along the flex axis.

midsole

The midsole is a new construction with some new materials as well. Included in the forefoot is a material that Salomon calls Energy Save that is reported to provide substantial cushioning as well as dampening- similar to the “opal” inserts used on other models. In the forefoot there is an Energy Save layer under a thiner Energy Cell+ layer as can be seen from the side of the shoe- the Energy Save is the white layer and the Energy Cell+ is the red material. Other parts of the midsole (midfoot and heel) use the Enery Cell+ material exclusively which has good cushioning characteristics but less dampening. Also included in the forefoot is a ProFeel Film layer situated between the Energy Cell+ and Energy Save layers. This combination gives ample rock protection- at least for this 128 lb runner.

outsole

The outsole is essentially the same as that of the Sense Ultra with the exception that the Sense Ultra uses a black version of the Premium Wet Grip ContraGrip compound. The S Lab Ultra uses a red version. The primary difference is that the black version has carbon particles dispersed within the polymer along with the wet-grip-inducing nano-sized silica particles and nano-sized porosity. The red version has no carbon particles. Some have noticed reduced wet-grip with the red compound. I have not experienced any significant performance reduction in this regard.

Also, the outsole does not have lugs in the middle quarter (in the arch area) similar to the original S Lab Sense “Killian” shoe from 2012. There is no ProFeel Film layer in the area but I have yet to have any issue with protection.

I am getting the same outstanding level of wear performance on the outsole as was evident with the Sense Ultra. Given the current state of the outsoles at 1000 kms, I expect to get the same kind of use that I experienced with the Sense Ultra, i.e. in excess of 2000 kms of use.

Salomon S Lab Ultra outsole after 1000 kms of mountain running in a 50/50 mix of buffed single track and rocky, technical terrain. As usual the only area that shows any wear of significance is the outer right foot rear lug- a place I scrape regularly on downhill braking.

fit and performance

The fit of the S Lab Ultra is a bit on the narrow side for Salomon and Salomon shoes have always been considered narrow when compared to the chunky, high volume fit of most shoes designed in and/or marketed in the US. I was a bit concerned but found the fit to be snug and comfortable but definitely narrower. The narrowness has some advantages when in technical terrain as the shoe will fit in between rocks that I otherwise would have had to sidestep with the slightly wider Sense Ultra. I found this to be very helpful on super technical rocky downhill trails and mountainsides where I was able to keep a rhythm that otherwise would have been necessarily syncopated and therefore slower. Nice!

I have never noticed the increased weight over the Sense Ultra in runs as long as 5 hours however one might begin to tire earlier in longer runs/races.

After these first 1000 kms, I find the fit continues to be comfortable and have had no issues with hot spots or pinching. The shoe does feel very different than the Sense Ultra however. Specifically the S Lab Ultra is stiffer and the exteroception* is reduced. Although this is generally not considered a good thing, there are trade-offs occurring that, depending on terrain, can lead to advantages. The cushioning is just slightly less than the Sense Ultra but it has not affected my comfort level even in longer runs

One of these trade-offs is stability on sharp rock. The Sense Ultra, although very good does not hold a candle to the S Lab Ultra when traversing a sharp rock field at speed. The stiffer, less compliant S Lab Ultra provides, under similar conditions, a significant increase in placement stability and a much reduced lateral displacement at the footbed. This is where the “straps” come in. One can feel the straps lock your foot in when you hit high-level technical terrain (e.g. loose, sharp rock on steep slopes).

I tested the S Lab Ultra against the Sense Ultra on multiple back-to-back intervals on a steep (25-35% grade) 300 m climb followed by a return run down. Both my sense of stability and “sure-footedness” were superior in the S Lab Ultra and my times were about 5% faster at the same exertion level (HR and RPE). 5% is a big number here and it may be much smaller on less demanding terrain but I’ll take that improvement particularly on long steep climbs and descents!

price

$180 US and well worth it. With the miles that this shoe is giving along with the comfort and performance it is a hard to beat value.

bottom line

A great replacement for the Sense Ultra with enhanced rocky terrain stability that comes at a slight cost in weight.

*many manufacturers and reviewers of trail running shoes (including me in the past) often utilize the term proprioception to describe how well a shoe allows one to “feel” the trail. However, proprioception is actually defined as: the perception of joint and body movements as well as position of the body, or body segments, in space. Whereas exteroception is the sense of the outside world’s interaction with our body mainly through touch. Exteroception is an input to the determination of proprioception. Proprioception is a much bigger thing and studies have found that it can be learned to some extent but also has a genetic component as well. As it concerns shoes, one should use the term exteroception since this is the information one is getting from the shoes to allow the brain to then compute a proprioceptic understanding of the instantaneous position of the body in space. It’s the difference between “trail feel through the feet” (exteroception) and “total body position feel” (proprioception).