The Road to Klosters 2017 – How fast do you need to be

klosters logo

This is Part Four in a series on preparing for the World Masters Cross Country Ski Championships in Klosters Switzerland March 2017. Part One gives an overview of the training program, Part Two puts structure upon the fundamental training approach, and Part Three outlines the strength training portion of the program. Here in Part Four an analysis is presented that determines the required average race pace needed to be in the top three in the M07 and F06 age categories.

background

Although snow conditions and weather can play a significant role, average pace per kilometer for races is a good indicator of where an athlete needs to be to be competitive. The annual World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships has kept generally good records of the finish times for all competitors over the years. This enables one to analyze their particular age group finish times over the various distances and techniques of competitions for many years. I have done this for Team Bumble Bee for me (Bumble) an M07 and for Bee an F06.

data collection

The data for this is available using a combination of data from the World Masters Cross Country Skiing website and the FIS website. Generally the data is not in .csv or other excel-compatible formats so it needs to be collected in a manual format that will be prone to typos and other issues typical of manual transcription of numeric data. So the data presented here might have a few mistakes but it will be indicative of the needed skiing pace for placement in the top three for each age group. There are issues with some of the datasets. For example, all of the men’s results for the 2012 Oberweisenthal Championship are not available. Over the past year I have sent numerous emails to the World Masters organization and to the FIS giving them a detailed list of the missing results but have received no response nor have any of the datasets been fixed. So these data are just left blank in the analysis shown below. The data are shown in a format of h:m:s:base 60 fractions of seconds. So the fractions of seconds value should be divided by 60 to get the fractional seconds. Of course the fractions of seconds value is of no consequence to the overall trend analysis of pace. For those who want a fractional second understanding I suggest you go to the databases listed above as I have rounded the finish times to the nearest minute or second depending on the race finish time length.

data analysis

Table I and Table II present the times  and calculated average pace for the top three M07 and the top three F06 finishers for the World Masters Cross Country Ski Championships from 2011-2016. As noted above, some data are not available. Also included in the tables is the average time and pace for the top three finishers.

Slide1

Table I. Finish times and calculated average pace for the top three finishers in the M07 (60-64) age category for the World Master Cross Country Skiing Championships from 2011-2016. Also included is the calculated average time and pace for the top three finishers. Note: some data are not available via the World Masters Cross Country Ski Organization or the FIS.

Slide2

Table I. Finish times and calculated average pace for the top three finishers in the F06 (55-69) age category for the World Master Cross Country Skiing Championships from 2011-2016. Also included is the calculated average time and pace for the top three finishers. Note: some data are not available via the World Masters Cross Country Ski Organization or the FIS.

Obviously course conditions and weather play a significant role in finish time/pace for a given race and that can clearly be seen in the data presented. However general guidance on required pace ability for a top three finish can be reasonably gleaned from these data and is presented in Table III below. There is also some influence in this analysis on exactly who was in each race but observations will confirm that it is a fairly consistent group of top performers (like Italians Gianpaolo Englaro in classic races and Guido Masiero in freestyle races in the M06-M07 age group) so the times  and paces should be representative.

Slide2

Table III. Estimated pace range for a top three finish at World Masters Cross Country Ski Championships as a function of race distance, race technique, and race snow & weather conditions for M07 and F06 age groups. Estimations based on finish time/pace data for WMCCSC 2011-2016.

bottom line

Based on the data presented here, for a top three finish in the M07 age group, it is necessary to be able to ski a short free style race (5-10 km) in good conditions at a 2:30 min per km pace and a short classic race (5-10 km) in good conditions at a 2:55-3:00 min per km pace. At the longer distances (15km-30 km) a freestyle pace of 2:30-2:40 and a classic pace of 2:50-3:00 minutes per km will be necessary for a top three finish in good conditions.

Also for a top three finish in the F06 age group, it is necessary to be able to ski a short free style race (5-10 km) in good conditions at a 2:35-2:50 min per km pace and a short classic race (5-10 km) in good conditions at a 2:55-3:00 min per km pace. At the longer distances (15km-30 km) a freestyle pace of  2:55-3:05 and a classic pace of 3:00-3:15 minutes per km will be necessary for a top three finish in good conditions.

"What's measured improves."
Peter Drucker

In preparation for the competitive season it is important to understand where you are with respect to pace so that you can monitor your improvement and also to enable reasonable expectations come race day. This is why it is important to include in your training program regular time trials at known distances conducted on the same course. Note the time/pace, the course conditions, and where you thought you might be able to be a bit quicker (and why). These data feed back into your program for identifying areas of needed improvement and to validate the efficacy of your current training load and interval protocols. This is one of the most powerful tools one can easily self-generate to guide your training.

 

The Road to Klosters 2017 – Strength Training

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This is Part Three in a series on preparing for the World Masters Cross Country Ski Championships in Klosters Switzerland March 2017. Part One gives an overview of the training program and Part Two puts structure upon the fundamental approach. Here in Part Three the strength training portion of the program is outlined.

Strength training for cross country skiing is of critical importance for any athlete that wants to perform at a high level. The development and maintenance of excellent technique, increases in power, fast start capacity, sprinting ability, double pole excellence, and many other important aspects of cross country ski racing are all highly dependent on execution of a well-designed strength training program. Yet the singular activity that typically takes a back seat in a masters competitor’s training program is strength training. Strength training should be central to a training program- year round.

It is impossible to have even good (let alone excellent) technique with out the requisite upper-body and core strength. Collapsing cores and flailing arms prevent proper body position, reduce developed power, and lead to highly diminished efficiency in any cross country skiing technique- classic and skate. It is commonplace to see skiers who are spending significant time and money in clinics and individual lessons with “experts” to improve their technique when their lack of upper-body and core strength prevents them from making any improvements. When I teach anyone, I first evaluate where they are by skiing with and watching them for a 5-10 km loop with hills. It becomes immediately obvious if there are any strength issues, and, in my experience, for an overwhelming majority there are significant strength deficiencies. Any technique teaching in such instances is of minimal or no value to the skier. Rather I suggest that the skier embark on an intensive strength program and then resume lessons thereafter. Repetition of technique drills with insufficient upper-body and core strength only leads to increasingly bad technique whereas the same drills performed with well-developed upper-body and core strength allows the skier to “feel” how proper technique results in substantial power and optimal efficiency. This developed “feel” empowers the skier to refine their technique every time they ski utilizing a power and efficiency feedback loop that is essential for tweaking one’s technique. No coach or teacher can be there all the time and it is critical that one develop this “feel” in order to facilitate continuous improvement. But it all starts with upper-body and core strength.

Strength training is the foundation of good cross country skiing technique.

synchrony- the most important aspect to strength training

When working on strength development for a sport it is important to realize that strength increases are most effective when they translate directly to the whole-body motions involved with the particular sport at hand. This is most efficiently and effectively accomplished when the exercises themselves replicate the positions and timing required in the sport. For cross country skiing this means that all strength exercises should involve whole-body motions that connect the upper body group with the lower body group through the core. This is because all motions involved with good cross country skiing techniques simultaneously recruit all three of these muscle groups (motor units) and the highest levels of power can only be attained when the full set of necessary muscle groups are used in synchrony. In practical terms, it does not actually matter how strong each individual muscle group is if they cannot act together, in a sychronous way, to translate that strength to delivered power on skis.

"As we hope you can see by now, strength is the basis of endurance."
 
Steve House and Scott Johnston in "Training for the New Alpinisim" p.144

This developed muscle group synchrony perhaps has the greatest effect on endurance- yes, endurance. Studies of high-level cross country skiers have shown that time to exhaustion in a double poling exercise can be increased by as much as 100% through a nine week program of 30 minutes per week of maximum strength training. The operative theory behind such improvements is that engagement in a well designed maximum strength training protocol will allow the athlete to develop the ability to draw upon an increasing pool of motor units that can be routinely accessed during training and competition. It is a neuro-muscular adaptation that gets “wired” into your system (and psyche) and becomes the basis for increases in endurance.

Strength training is the foundation for cross country skiing endurance.

Strength exercises that involve whole-body motions that are similar to (or, preferably, exactly like) those in good cross country skiing technique are by far the best exercises to focus on. The neuro-muscular adaptations alone, even with just small strength increases, are sufficiently important that even marginally challenging exercises that map well onto cross country skiing will lead to major improvements in skiing power and efficiency. Add some challenging weight to the equation and you have a recipe for getting the most out of your ageing body.

An excellent source for information on strength training is the book “Training for the New Alpinisim” by House and Johnston. Scott Johnston has been a coach for numerous US Cross Country Skiing Olympians over the past decade. The strength training portions of his book, although pointed toward the demands of alpine climbing, are directly applicable, with minor modifications, to cross country skiing. I highly recommend that you read this book as it is a great guide not only for strength training but also for cardio aspects as well. All of Chapters 4 and 5 and portions of Chapters 7 and 8 are of great value to understanding the physiologic basis for strength training for endurance sport, the types of strength exercises an endurance athlete should be doing, and for guidance in designing a personal strength training program. I have modeled my own program around Johnston’s general guidelines.

Here are a few examples of exercises that Johnston put up on video a few years ago that use the “whole body synchrony” principle with simple equipment in a non-gym environment:

In this video you are watching two US Olympians, a guy who spent time “on the bubble” of US Team status, and the ageing coach all engaging with simple, whole-body motions that map well onto good cross country skiing technique (with the exception of the punching bag, IMO). Use this type of program as a conceptual template, develop a program that fits your needs/situation, and you will likely see significant improvement in your skiing and ski racing.

In summary, the two guiding principles for making strength training a core part of your cross country skiing training program are:

  1. Strength training is the foundation of good cross country skiing technique.
  2. Strength training is the foundation for cross country skiing endurance.
the primal importance of double poling

As a result of a focus on strength training by World Cup athletes and the many equipment improvements that have taken place over the last decade, double poling has become a more and more important part of the sport. Efficient and powerful double poling as seen in World Cup competition is a direct consequence of rigorous, highly challenging strength programs that are currently in place with all of the competitive national teams. As mentioned previously, this focus on strength has resulted in an increasing number of competitors choosing to go waxless and double pole entire FIS homologated classic races- sometimes to victory. Although many lament the potential demise of the classic stride technique, no sport will survive if innovation and progress is squelched. I assert that double pole technique is the future of the sport and that further technique development (both classic and skate) will be partly due to the result of improved double pole technique and the associated upper body and core strength that is critical to any powerful and efficient double poling movement.

L1050754

An uphill double poling interval session- perfect training to enhance your classic (and skate) skiing competitiveness.

For the masters competitor the single most important technique and ability improvement that will result in the largest improvements in competition is the double pole. Just look at the start of any masters classic race and you will see those competitors that will be winning their respective age groups are leaving the rest of the field in the dust by efficiently and powerfully double poling away and up to a racing pace and stride frequency in a faction of the time of other  competitors. Add to this the fact that the V2 poling motion is essentially a double pole motion, and the same thing occurs in skate races. Improve your double pole and you will quickly become much more competitive.

 "...my personal goal is to become one of the best double-polers in the
world, I needed to learn from the best"

Andy Newell, US Cross Country Ski Team Member, on his 2016-2017 goals

Since a powerful and efficient double pole is entirely dependent on upper body and core strength, any masters competitor should be prioritizing a strength program specifically aimed at improving double poling ability. From improved double poling capacity will flow improvements across the spectrum of abilities needed for being competitive in cross country skiing races.

strength training for masters cross country skiers

Let’s revisit the “Big 3” physiologic challenges for the masters endurance athlete covered in previous posts:

  1. loss of muscle
  2. decreased aerobic capacity
  3. increased body fat

Arguments have been previously presented that support the ordinal listing above as most applicable to masters cross country skiing- meaning that the number one issue that we, as masters cross country skiing athletes, need to attend to is loss of muscle. This can only be sufficiently addressed with a well-designed strength training program and a detailed plan for execution. Such a program should ideally be developed with a professional that understands the unique demands of cross country skiing. It is not straightforward to find such an expert in strength training for cross country skiing as even many of those who claim to be “experts” actually aren’t.

One source for information is this fellow who has quite a bit of experience specifically with training cross country skiers at the highest level. A couple of resources that he has recently made available on the web are:

Introduction to Strength Training for Cross Country Skiing

Detailed Strength Program and Downloads Including an Excel Spreadsheet

But do not let the lack of a strength coach, strength professional, or other “expert” prevent you from developing your own program. The basic concepts are not complex and a reasonable amount of research and experimentation should allow for the development of a safe and effective personal program that one can have confidence in.

As in any training program, and particularly in a strength program,  you should be very careful about what you do as one’s individual needs and abilities are unique. This is where the guidance of a professional can be valuable. What is described here is what works for me and I do not necessarily recommend any of these exercises for everyone; the intent is to outline a strength program example- not a prescription or recommendation.

a simple strength program

If you are like me, you probably do not like gyms. I find gyms to be expensive, inconvenient, inflexible, and full of germs. I also tire very quickly of having to ask some Millennial to get off of a piece of equipment I want to use and to go “text” somewhere else. And then there is the music… enough said and enough GOM* talk…

It is simple to set up a home gym for cross country skiing-specific strength training in either a garage, a basement, or a shed. You do not need a lot of room, just a few simple pieces of equipment and some motivation.

A basic operative premise is that any strength exercise should map as closely as possible onto the whole-body movements in cross country skiing. As reviewed above, isolated working of muscle groups, while perhaps required for full development, do not activate the very important neuro-muscular adaptations that are key to powerful and efficient cross country skiing and endurance. Synchrony is “King” and your strength program should be designed around ensuring that proper muscle group synchrony is developed.

The other important aspect of strength training for cross country skiing is the development of maximum strength that will, in time, translate to muscular endurance and power delivery on skis. Here again, synchrony plays a central role and addressing a maximum strength improvement program is one of the largest levers one has with respect to significantly increased power and endurance on snow. Johnston has this type of work integrated into his strength training programs and they are nicely outlined in his book and directly applicable, with appropriate modification, to cross country skiing strength training.

a core group of functional exercises for a year-round strength program

The following are some exercises that I find to be functional. These do not form a complete matrix but rather they represent a portion of a core set of exercises that I engage in year-round and that are augmented with additional work at various points in the year. This group hits all of the basic muscle groups in a way that is specific to cross country skiing; they also do not require much of an investment in equipment.

  •  Weighted pull ups– this is a key exercise that, in the right progression, will quickly and safely allow one to attain a maximum strength goal.

Buy a pull up bar and mount it your garage/basement/shed.

Buy a weight vest and use it to provide increasing resistance as you proceed through a progressive program of overhand pull ups. Johnston gives an example of such a program (he calls it a “Special Max Strength Plan” on page 228) as follows:

2 sessions per week

adjust the load so that you can only just do the required number of repeats

Slide1

This is an eight week plan that I accelerated to five weeks without issues, but that is for me and I do not recommend it. You will see from the table that the program involves escalating total work with a couple of level weeks to allow your body to catch up to the stimulus. The rest time after each set is needed to allow for best efforts but it also allows one to include this work in a circuit program of alternating muscle group focus. You will be amazed at how much weight (as measured by percent of body weight) you can load into your weight vest by the end of this sequence. After the terminal session I maintain this exercise in the circuit program at the 3 sets of 3 reps at the terminal vest weight throughout the race and off season. The following year I go through the build progression again adding additional weight to a new plateau and then maintain that new, higher, level through the race and off season. I am now entering the third year of using this protocol and have yet to totally plateau out but at some point I am sure I will. You might think that such weighted pull ups are an upper body intensive exercise but you will find that in order to complete the pull ups you will be using all the major muscle groups including the core and leg muscle groups. Force generation in the pull up exercise requires synchronous recruitment from all three major muscle groups in way very similar to what one does in a good double pole motion and this is why this exercise is such a good one for cross country skiers.

Here is a general source for information on weighted pull ups- it is targeted to weightlifters but there is some good information on how much vest weight you should be working toward as well as some technique tips.

  • Weighted Step-ups– while you still have the weight vest on do a set of step-ups

Buy an adjustable work out step device

With the weight vest on step up onto the platform with one foot and balance (make sure the step is not too tall, otherwise you will be loading your knees in a position that is dissimilar to skiing). Then step down and return both feet to the ground and then step up with the other foot and balance again. Do as many repeats as you see fit.

  • Resistance Band Exercises– for minimal equipment cost one can work upper and lower body muscle groups in a way that recruits the core and simulates cross country skiing-specific body motions

Buy a quiver of resistance bands with a range of elasticity (durometer) and securely mount a robust, properly sized eyelet in a wall at about 12″ above head height and another one about 4″ above ground level. Slip a large carabiner through the eyelet and then slip the elastic part of the resistance band through the gate in the carabiner. Now you can use the resistance bands to do a large variety of exercises. Typical exercises include forward facing pull downs, pull to’s, overhead pull downs, abductor and adductor laterals, among many, many others. You can also use the pull-down exercise combined with a tether around the waist anchored to an opposing wall that allows you to lean forward and pull down just as one does in the double pole in skiing (this is illustrated in the Johnston video where they utilize a pulleyed weight stack on guide poles for resistance).  If you have extra money a TRX strap can also be used for these exercises but realize that you need a lot of room to use a TRX strap properly. I also do not like some of the positions that the TRX strap will put you in as they bear no resemblance to cross country skiing. If you have even more money (like about $800) the SkiErg by Concept 2 is a very nice cross country skiing-specific exercise machine. I find that you need to employ a tether with the SkiErg to get the proper poling position and muscle recruitment. Nearly all of the National Teams are now using the SkiErg (or something very similar) in circuit training both with and without tethers.

Other elastic band exercises include the use of a simple elastic band loop that wraps around your ankles which you can then do side steps across a given distance or for a specific number of reps. This is a review of many of the types of exercises you can do with elastic bands.

  • Garhammers– some call this exercise a hanging leg lift but it is actually quite different

Going back to the pull-up bar, hang off the bar and bring your legs up flexing at the knees and bringing your knees to your chest and up towards the bar, then fold your legs out parallel  to the ground, hold, and then slowly lower your legs down- this is one rep. I add a 90 degree lock-off in the arms to mimic the position of the arms during the power portion of the double poling motion to simulate the full body motion used during cross country skiing. What you will feel in this exercise is very much like what you feel when you are double poling on snow with good technique. Here is short video showing the exercise without the 90 degree lock off in the arms:

  • Simple push-ups– basic, with feet on the adjustable step (or balance ball), with one arm, picking up one leg, simple with hand weights and picking up one hand weight sequentially per rep, etc., etc., etc.

You can’t get any simpler than push-ups but they provide whole-body movements that have direct relation to cross country skiing.

  • Box jumps and/or plyometrics- side-to-side, forward and back, single foot, etc.

These are great exercises for developing explosive power essential for downhill skill development and to initiate accelerations that are often critical for starts and staying with a surging pack in a race. Unfortunately these types of exercises are fairly stressful on connective tissue and joints in general and should be carefully applied for masters skiers. Any knee issues? avoid these. Any developing joint issue? stop doing these. But if you can handle these there is no replacement for them as they uniquely develop explosive power, another thing that masters skiers are loosing at alarming rates. And do not minimize the importance of your downhill skills- for the competitive end of the spectrum, most races are lost on the downhills and without the explosive power needed to execute on difficult downhill turns and fast descents you will be left in the dust wondering about exactly what just happened.

So with just a few hundred dollars and a small space you can put together a “gym” that serves as a highly functional cross country skiing strength development tool. This equipment and the associated exercises make doing the all important strength part of your training program convenient and inexpensive- and hard to skip as you will not have any excuses about no time to make it to the gym or that the gym is closed or crowded.

“real” terrain strength programs

Getting out of the “gym” and onto terra firma and actual cross country skiing-type equipment is critical to translate any strength improvements in the “gym” to the ground or snow. There are three basic pathways to accomplish this:

  1. Rollerskiing
  2. Hill bounding with poles
  3. Mountain running
rollerskiing as strength training

I know this is not conventional thinking, but my experience leaves no doubt: skate and classic stride roller skiing on varying terrain is of minimal use to the master skier. This is because of numerous factors starting with the inherent danger associated with rollerskiing on pavement. A masters skier just cannot afford to go down on the hard pavement given their typical state of connective tissue and bone density. A good friend (and rheumatologist) once put the life of connective tissue and joints like this- you start out as “jello” as an infant, progress to “rubber” through your teens and into your 20’s, then “leather” through to your 40’s, and finally to “glass” at about 50+. We all know what happens to glass when it hits a hard surface! And diving off the road at 25-30 mph in reaction to some random texting driver is not a situation you want to deal with.  An entire ski season can be ruined just trying to get in some roller skiing in the summer and fall. I think the danger outweighs the reward for skate and stride roller skiing over varied terrain, even with the currently available (and difficult to use) brakes. “Speed reducers” are a viable option and one you might look into.

The danger, Ms. Randall says, is the (roller) skis don't come with 
brakes, and skiers can reach 45 miles per hour on them. "If you have to
stop suddenly, you pretty much have to dive off the road," she says. 
"That's why you wear a helmet."

Kikkan Randall interview in The Wall Street Journal 23 May 2012 

Another reason not to focus on varied terrain roller skiing is that  without continual coaching it is all to common for athletes to develop technique issues. Stride and skate roller skiing is actually not at all similar to on-snow skiing. This is particularly the case for classic striding. Many a skier with good technique has been derailed by too much stride roller skiing with perfect (i.e. not-attainable on-snow) kick only to find that their timing, weighting, and body position have changed for the worse once on snow. It can take some valuable time and effort to get your technique back once you have gone down this rabbit hole.

Finally, rollerskiing, according to long time Sun valley Ski Educational Foundation (SVEF) head coach Rick Kapala, is the first thing that retiring elite-level athletes stop doing. Why? Because of the danger of injury weighed against the training stimulus and “sort-of” ski-like dynamics favors not roller skiing unless it is critical to your success.

As argued earlier, the single most important motion in cross country skiing is the double pole. This is because the double pole is the motion that cuts across both classic and skate technique and it is the motion that, due to technique, strength, and equipment developments, has been enabled as a primary motion for many racers. Masters skiers can most advantageously utilize a well developed double pole to increase their speed and competitiveness in both classic and skate races. Combined with a well planned strength program, double pole technique development will have the greatest impact on your skiing. This is why I advocate for double pole rollerskiing.

Contrary to stride and skate roller skiing, double pole rollerskiing is a reliable surrogate of what one does on-snow. Body position, pole planting, timing, and weight shift in double pole rollerskiing is exactly what you will do on-snow and therefore translates well once the season starts. When done for long distances and/or on uphill grades it is a challenging workout. Double pole rollerskiing is also safe so long as you stay away from steep downhill grades. I stick to 1.5-2% grades and have no issues with control on the downhills.

One approach is to find a 2-3 km 1.5-2% grade uphill on a nicely paved road (such roads can often be found in local low-density US subdivisions with very few (or no) cross streets). Then do repeats on this uphill for whatever length workout you have planned. I typically do 45-90 minutes which involves a lot of repeats, something that may be too “boring” for some. For me, having spent my teens and early 20’s as a competitive tennis player, I find the repetition constructive as it allows one to hone in on the details of the technique and to “feel” the feedback loop that is essential for positive technique development and power generation. Just as hitting 200-300 serves per hour in practicing for tennis is essential to developing a “killer” serve, double poling at 60-90 rpm for 1-1.5 hours is similarly essential for developing a “killer” double pole. The repeats also allow you to measure your progress by using a GPS watch for pace. With some of the newer watches you can also monitor your poling rate, stride length, and ground contact time (stride time). All of these parameters can feed back into helping you develop your double pole technique toward excellence, even without a coach. There are also significant strength and endurance improvements from regular uphill double pole roller skiing that are hard (or impossible) to replicate in the gym.

I will also add a weight vest for additional challenge, something that is becoming more common. Noah Hoffman spotted Sundby one early morning this past season before a 30 km Wolrd Cup classic race double poling uphill with a weight vest- not something that I would recommend for a masters skier before competition but something to possibly include in your dryland and on-snow workouts if you are up to it. The key is to ensure that the added weight does not adversely affect your double pole technique. Any weight should be added very progressively and conservatively. With proper use of a weight vest you can straightforwardly turn a 1.5% grade into a 3% or even 5% grade- and stay safe as well.

Another approach, particularly aimed at muscle synchrony, muscle strength, and muscle endurance, is to find a challenging, long uphill grade and do an uphill-only workout. We have one of these in the Sun Valley area- the climb from Galena Lodge to Galena Pass. This road section was recently repaved and represents a 10 km, 4% grade, 400 m (1300 feet) continuous ascent with a wide, smooth shoulder. This is a challenging higher altitude double pole workout that, at 50-60 minutes duration, takes significant muscle endurance to complete. The altitude ranges from 2250 m (7400 feet) up to 2650 m (8700 feet). Here is the profile:

Galena Climb

Elevation profile for the 10 km 400 meter (4% grade) climb from Galena Lodge to Galena Pass in Idaho. A great double pole workout at steady state or threshold.

We do this workout by taking a vehicle and a bike to the top, leaving the vehicle, riding the bike down, and then roller skiing up to get the vehicle. Repeat as desired.

I find uphill roller skiing, specifically double pole roller skiing, to be a great addition to a strength program and one that also uniquely allows for technique development as well.

As far as what roller skis to use for double poling, I will recommend the Swenor Finstep. These roller skis provide a good “snow-like” feel while double poling, great glide, a “Cadillac” ride, and good ground clearance. The Finstep are also durable as I have over 2500 miles on mine and the wheels are just now starting to show wear sufficient to begin thinking about new wheels. These skis are heavy and not recommended for stride skiing unless you want to work on your calf and glute strength. There are many other roller ski options for classic striding, but, as reviewed above, I do not recommend classic stride roller skiing.

hill bounding

Hill bounding, particularly with poles is one of the most effective whole-body exercises you can do as a competitive cross country ski racer. There is much written about hill bounding but the following video by SVSEF and Gold Team Coach Colin Rodgers is about as thorough in 8 minutes as I could be in about 1000 words, i.e. watch the video- it is a great resource for incorporating hill bounding exercises into your training plan. Colin demonstrates on the same hill that we use extensively starting in September where we also include longer (20 minute) aerobic and VO2 max workouts up the cat tracks to the top of the mountain (Dollar Mountain). We are fortunate to have this hill (and mountain) right in our back yard about 5 minutes walk from the front door!

Once again the whole-body, cross country skiing-like motions are central to getting the most out of hill bounding. Cardio, strength, and technique come together in these sessions and they should be a regular part of your training plan.

mountain running

Mountain Running is the age-old dryland training method used since the Pleistocene when the likes of Bill Koch and Tim Caldwell would load up their day packs with rocks and run up Mount Moosilauke or into the Whites. There is no more enjoyable training session than a 5-6 hour mountain running adventure. The grade determines the pace, the style (i.e. running or speed hiking), and the work. Long distance Mountain Running develops lower body power, aerobic capacity, balance, and foot work (on descents) all of which are central to competitive cross country skiing. It is a great over-distance (OD) training session to do with a group and to discover some mountain areas that you have always wanted to venture into.

sadie bjornsen training team pic

US Ski Team members headed out on an afternoon mountain run in Alaska this past July.                                        Photo credit: Sadie Bjornsen link

volume

How much strength training should one do? It’s a big question and one that is entirely individual. Some general guidelines include doing strength focused sessions twice per week for 1-1.5 hours, making sure the work is safely progressive, and to be patient with results. Although you may experience significant improvements in the first few months of strength training, additional increases come more gradually. For the masters skier this process is even slower since both human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone (T) levels are waning. It is best to have a longer-term horizon of expectation for strength development- more like 18 months than the 9 months when you were a 20-something.

daily stretching – daily strength

It should go without mentioning but I will emphasize the importance of post-workout stretching for anyone who is participating in a rigorous and challenging training regimen. This is especially important for masters skiers whose connective tissue is becoming more and more brittle every day.

Another activity that can help not only with strength development but also with balance is a daily lunge matrix. There are a lot of possibilities here but I have found that the simpler the matrix the more likely one is to consistently do this. Once again the lunges should map onto cross country skiing motions as closely as possible. I do 4-5 different lunge types in 10 reps per leg for three sets daily after the primary workout. Although you will feel these lunges in the activated muscle groups, the real challenge becomes balance- in a way very similar to cross country skiing. The important thing here is the activation of the smaller stabilizer muscles which are critical to good balance and skiing skill. Here is a lunge matrix from Jay Johnson, a well respected running coach. He describes this as a warm-up matrix but I use it as a stand alone post-workout daily strength/balance routine (with the exception of the backwards side lunge as this exercise bears no similarity to any motion or position that one will be in while cross country skiing). You can also add weight to any of these lunges for additional challenge.

And a final daily exercise is the simple (though difficult for some) act of putting your socks on (or taking them off) without leaning against or holding on to something. Give it a try and you will discover what balance is all about. Do the same when you put your running shoes on and continue by tying them without stepping down. These are good balance/strength challenges that focus on the smaller stabilizer muscles- and they can naturally and consistently be done on a daily basis.

summary

Strength training for masters cross country ski racers is unique in that we need to concentrate on the elements of our physiology that are diminishing at the greatest rate and that are having the largest negative impact on our speed and competitiveness. These primary elements are loss of muscle, diminished aerobic capacity, and increased body fat. Strength training focuses on muscle loss and it is critical that we put sufficient emphasis on strength training so as to slow down or stop or, hopefully, reverse any muscle loss that we have experienced. Add to this that it is impossible to execute good skiing technique without sufficient upper body and core strength and it becomes clear that strength training should be a very high priority in your training plan.

A few approaches to strength training for cross country skiing have been outlined. They all center around exercises that map well onto the whole-body motions involved in cross country skiing. This allows for targeting of the most important muscle groups but, also, to help develop the necessary muscle synchrony (neuro-muscular adaptations) to best achieve maximal power, efficiency, and endurance.

I will again encourage you to read the book “Training for the New Alpinisim” by House and Johnston as it provides a most thorough and insightful basis behind, and exercises for, successful strength training for endurance athletes.

 

*GOM = Grumpy Old Man

Salomon S Lab Wings 8 – Review

Just as we were headed out in the Westy for a four day adventure in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, our UPS guy delivered a new pair of S Lab Wings 8 trail running shoes. Perfect timing as the trails and ridges that we planned to run and hike in the Sawtooths are ideally suited to evaluating these shoes which are intended for use in technical mountain trail situations. So off we went!

I have used the predecessor S Lab Wings shoe quite a bit (about 500 miles) this past fall and into the spring but never consistently enough to allow for a confident review and follow-up series. Meanwhile, there have been numerous reviews of the S Lab Wings put up elsewhere. Although most reviews are very positive there were two problems with the S Lab Wings, and I experienced both. The first is that the insole would delaminate and slip forward leading to “bunching” in the forefoot area. The only solution is to remove the offending layer and find another suitable replacement (or nothing as some have done). The second problem is with wear of the mesh upper in certain areas leading to early wear out and holes that allow debris into the shoe. This was reported in numerous areas but was primarily happening at the fore foot flex axis on the upper mesh material above the TPU overlays. Mine wore out here at about 350 miles and the holes got so big that I discarded the shoes at about 500 miles of use- a figure that is much less than I typically get out of S Lab products. I experienced good results from the S Lab Wings particularly on technical trail and off-piste scree fields and rocky ridges. The shoe seemed like a good choice for a technical mountain trail race with demanding terrain and I intended to use the S Lab Wings for that purpose but the uppers just did not last long enough.

The grapevine indicated that Salomon was aware of the wear-out issue and would address it in the product refresh in Summer 2016. This refresh was announced in late December 2015 and is now available in the US.

S lab wings 8

The S Lab Wings 8 is a very slightly modified version and a direct replacement for the 2015 S Lab Wings shoe.

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construction

From all appearances the construction of the S Lab Wings 8 is exactly the same as the S Lab Wings, right down to the shape and design of the outsole, midsole, and most of the upper. It still has a 28mm heel/19mm toe ramp (9 mm drop) with a die cut EVA insole (which is, hopefully, part of an insole system that will not delaminate with use as the prior model did).  Thankfully speed laces and a lace pocket are provided- something that needs to be included on the S Lab Sonic as discussed elsewhere on this site.

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The upper mesh appears to be the same material that was prone to early wear-out in the prior 2015 model but there is one change- a polymer overlay in the areas that saw excessive wear. There is a patch of clear polymer laminated upon the mesh material on both the lateral and medial sides of the shoe.

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Perhaps Salomon has found that this overlay material is sufficient to increase the life of the mesh to standards typical of S Lab products, only time will tell.

The only other change to the shoe is in the ContraGrip outsole material- it has been upgraded to the new “Premium Wet Traction” ContraGrip compond that has been demonstrated by Salomon at shows since last summer. This is a good thing since many of the ContraGrip outsoles have had issues with wet grip on stream crossings and other, hard, wet surfaces. I look forward to testing out the performance of this new compound on the typical wet challenges here in the Northern Rockies.

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Salomon S Lab Wings 8 outsole made with the new “Premium Wet Traction” ContraGrip compound.

Although there may be some other changes incorporated into the S Lab Wings 8 as compared to the S lab Wings, I have not noticed them.

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Initial running impressions

Well, given the lack of any substantial outward changes to the S Lab Wings, the S Lab Wings 8 runs exactly the same. I have not put many miles on these shoes yet but there are no discernible differences with the Wings 8 in my limited experience.

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So if you liked the Wings, you will like the Wings 8. Hopefully Salomon have figured out the manufacturing and design issues that limited the life of the Wings and the Wings 8 will perform up to S Lab standards of wear. Stay tuned for updates.

price

$180 US. This represents no change from previous model and, given that this is a very light refresh, appropriately so.

bottom line

The Salomon S Lab Wings 8 is a lightly refreshed S Lab Wings with some added wear protection and an upgraded outsole material. This shoe should perform even better than the already highly performing S Lab Wings. See below as to why you might want to wait before you go ahead with a pair of these.

new salomon shoes to be launched at outdoor retailer (OR) in august

There has been some information released about the Fall/Winter trail running shoe offerings from Salomon that will be announced at OR in SLC in August.

First there will be an all-new S Lab Sense Ultra (it’s about time!)- not sure if it is the latest “Kilian” shoe without the integrated full-foot gaiter but the shoe is said to have an 8-9 mm drop ( a big change from the current 4 mm drop) and a lot more cushioning (another big change from the current Sense 5 Ultra model)- so if you like the S Lab Wings (or Wings 8) you might want to wait for this new S Lab Sense Ultra as it sounds like a very similar shoe to the Wings/Wings 8 and the shoe may have some additional features of interest- and a price to match.

There is also a S Lab Sense 6 for 2017.

It seems the Sense line will expand further with a “Sense Marin” model targeted as a training shoe for buffed trails (like those on the namesake Marin Headlands).

And the Sense Propulse will be replaced by a more refined shoe called “Sense Pro Max” for those who are looking for the superior Salomon fit on a highly cushioned shoe.

 

The Road to Klosters 2017 – Training Plan Structure- macro, meso, and micro

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As indicated in the first post in this series, in this second post I will describe the training plan structure that I have put in place to prepare for the Klosters Masters World Cup Cross Country Skiing Championships in March of 2017.

Just to review some of the content of the first post, first and foremost, the training plan is constructed around a few guiding principles and an overarching training “philosophy”. The fundamental base of the training approach is consistency and recovery (the Big “C” and the Capital “R”) since without such a base, it really does not matter what else one does, your preparation will be compromised. Training rule #1 is strive for consistency even if the session might be compromised and strive for recovery even if you end up “over-recovered”. It is best to at least do some work and to do such work in a recovered state. Skipping scheduled training sessions or pushing through training sessions whilst not recovered end up having non-linear regressive impact on your overall training progress. Just like building an investment account where every little ends up being a lot, in athletic training every little adds up to much more than the arithmetic sum due to non-linear compounded training progress.

The second input to the training plan is to accommodate the unique needs of an older (50+) competitive cross country skiing athlete. These areas of focus (the “Big 3”) are to increase muscle mass (or at least stop or minimize loss of muscle), to increase aerobic capacity (VO2 max) (or at least to stop or minimize loss of aerobic capacity), and to reduce body fat (or at least to stop or minimize increases in body fat).

The third input to the training program is to develop a Lydiard-like periodized structure incorporating the concepts of “block periodization” (BP).

Training Plan Macrostructure (aka Annual Training Plan (ATP))

The overall training plan structure based on a 12 month cycle starting 4 July 2016 is depicted below through March 2017 in graphical form.

ATP 2016-3

Macro view of “block periodized” training plan for peak at World Masters Cross Country Ski Championships March 2017. More detail to be added and modified as the season progresses, e.g. peaking sequence in January-February, additional ski races, equipment details, actual recovery days/weeks, and a fall trail race (TBD).

As you can see, the overall structure begins with a 9 week endurance block followed by a 4 week VO2 max block, a 3 week LT block, a 4 week VO2 max Peak block, and a final 4 week LT block just prior to the 10 week race season. Also shown are proposed recovery weeks, some of the planned races (others TBD), the  strength plan, technique development, and equipment preparation. The Mesostructure section below will explain the reasoning behind this overall structure for the cardio portion of the plan. Strength, technique, and equipment plans will be covered in separate posts.

Training plan mesostructure

Each block in the the training plan has a physiological and logistical basis. Endurance training, although necessary for an older athlete is pretty much secondary in the overall build-up to the race season as explained below. Of primary importance are the VO2 max and LT blocks and the associated abilities/energy systems that will play a fundamental role in optimal racing condition.

In my case, the endurance preparation is actually quite a bit longer than depicted as I started training in mid-March for two ultra running races in June. Since I was just coming off of the ski racing season I had a fully developed LT ability/energy system after a 2-per-week LT/VO2 max interval session diet from October-early March along with 6 races mixed in. So I started the ultra running training in mid-March with endurance-level (L1-L2/low L3) efforts gradually leading to twice weekly 4 hour mountain runs with reasonable vert (5000 ft / 1200 m) over a 10 week period with a 2 week LT block in the middle (about mid-April). This fed into a two week taper, a 60 km mountain race on 4 June, a week of recovery-level running, then a 1 week taper and finally a 50 km mountain race on 18 June. I was a bit fried given the 5-8 hour race efforts just two weeks apart. I took an extra long recovery until 4 July and have now started a new endurance block depicted above. So my endurance base is substantial, others may not have such an endurance base to work from and would need to have a longer endurance block to establish a sufficient endurance base for maximizing the VO2 max and LT blocks that follow. The other point here about endurance is that older (50+) athletes who have been in competitive endurance sport continuously for a long time will not get much gain in endurance nor will such athletes loose much endurance ability by taking some time away from endurance focused training. This is because all of those years of training and developing endurance pay off later in life in the form of highly developed musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular, and economy systems that do not decay much with time. Just as Friel points out in “Fast After 50”, although something you need to maintain, endurance is one element that you do not have to put much focus on as an older athlete. The “Big 3” (muscle loss, decreased aerobic capacity, and increased body fat) are where you should put your main foci. In my case with continuous endurance training and racing for over 40 years, I am not going to have a lot of endurance gain for the time spent doing the training, however, gains in aerobic capacity and muscle gain can be substantial and they can play a big part in successful cross country ski racing. In particular, as will be covered in detail in the next post, strength development and associated muscle synchrony for increased skiing power are critical for improvement and will be a big priority going forward. Upper-body and core strength are increasing as dominant elements in the sport of cross country skiing as has been witnessed this past year on the World Cup and elsewhere.

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Sundby after winning the World Cup 15 km classic race in Toblach by double poling the entire race, December 2015. photo credit and link

After the 9 week endurance block I have a 4 week VO2 max block the purpose of which is to develop VO2 max on an upward progression through the fall interspersed with substantial LT blocks. This development of VO2 max is early in the training plan because in cross country ski racing most races are raced at or around the lactate threshold level (high L4-L5a-b) and having a highly developed aerobic capacity will enable maximum gain in the LT blocks- the most race-specific training blocks. So in the training plan you see a VO2 max block followed by a shorter LT block and then a 4 week VO2 max block to work toward a peak in VO2 max leading into a critical 6 week LT block. I am looking forward to seeing what transpires as my measured VO2 max as a young competitive road cyclist was in the low 80’s. My Garmin 920 watch has a VO2 max estimator*  that tells me my VO2 max is now about 72- a figure that I think is way too high- but at least I have a baseline of VO2 max estimation from a traditional periodization protocol to compare with what happens with this block periodization.

The final pre-race season block is a 6 week LT block to bring LT ability to a near maximum level. In this block I will be working toward about 1 hour in total LT work per LT session. I have regularly completed 3 X 15 minute LT workouts in the past year but I would like to work toward 3 X 20 minute sessions. All of these sessions will be either uphill running at about 10% grade or as bounding sessions up steeper hills with poles. At the beginning and end of this 6 week LT block there will be a LT test to monitor any gains. Having a fully developed LT ability/energy system is critical to going into the race season prepared and confident. The plan is designed around ensuring that this has a high probability of coming to pass.

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This race season I hope to be racing approximately every weekend in one form or another (either at a competitive race or in time trails on race courses). Between races will be training sessions focused on fitness maintenance and “sharpening” for individual race-specific “needs”. More on in-season training will be presented in a separate post.

Training plan microstructure

The daily planning is critical to succeeding with any otherwise well-conceived training plan. This day-to-day grind planning and attending to the necessary adjustments is what makes a coach valuable. Having a coach is an advantage that a “lone wolf” athlete does not have. One should, after an evaluation of all aspects of an individual’s situation, consider engaging with an experienced coach. The time commitment alone may justify any cost. Just something to consider.

The types of individual pre-snow training session workouts that are utilized here include activities such as trail running, trail mountain biking (MTB), roller skiing (primarily double pole), mountain hiking and adventuring, hill bounding with poles, uphill running repeats, and on-trail rolling interval runs and tempo runs.

I find that,  from a musculo-skeletal perspective, running workouts are best suited to classic technique and that MTB workouts are best suited to skate technique . This is because the whole-body motion in each of these is most similar to a particular technique. For instance typical mountain trail MTB involves significant transient high power application just as is extant in skate technique skiing and mountain trail running involves a more steady and uniform application of a lower level of power as is extant in classic technique skiing. So mixing these types of workouts will allow for a equanimiable progression in musculo-skeletal development and associated cardiovasular support. Likewise for a specialist in, say, classic technique, sticking with running-type workouts might be a prudent path to improvement under circumstances of limited time to train.

This bring us to the question of how much training time. As noted, this is an individual thing and one that cannot be proscribed, particularly for older athletes. For me, I have found that a total training time (including cardio, strength, and technique) of between 15 and 22 hours per week is supportable and successful over the long term. Occasionally I will put in a 28-32 hour week but they are very limited. But everyone is different and one must figure this out for themselves since it is essential to know what is supportable in order to be able to plan.

I will not present any detailed daily training specifics here since any such information needs to be specific to an individual and their respective background, ability, and commitment. I will however point out a system that has worked well for me when it comes to planning daily training- a weekly training cycle that is repeated and becomes habit. For me this has meant a daily training plan that, with a traditional periodization, takes the following format:

Sunday: long run/long ski/roller ski

Monday: easy/off

Tuesday: intervals

Wednesday: long run/long ski/roller ski or Tempo ski

Thursday: easy/off

Friday: intervals

Saturday: Flex

The specific workouts are designed around the focus of the periodization cycle. Sessions can be easily adjusted for different foci in the periodization and the Saturday “flex” session is essentially a catch-up if anything goes wrong during the week.

In the case of Block Periodization (BP) here, a similar pattern will be used with the minor adjustment that, for example, within the endurance block the interval sessions will be replaced by “long run/long ski/roller ski” or “long MTB”, depending on what is best for the session goal. Likewise, during the VO2 max and LT blocks the “long run/long ski/roller ski” or “tempo run/tempo ski/roller ski” is replaced by a third weekly interval session. The specific endurance, VO2 max, and LT workouts can be varied to try to minimize any “burnout” associated with repetitive training. For instance, in the endurance block through August much of the training will be accomplished exploring the inner canyons of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. These “hikes”/runs involve a lot of off-piste way-finding up steep mountainsides above treeline for many hours- perfect endurance training for cross country skiing! … and not the least bit repetitive and boring. Similarly,  mixing up the VO2 max and LT interval sessions to include some very different locales and terrain will go a long way toward making all of these sessions enjoyable- even though they will be physically tough or even “brutal”.

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Sawtooth Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains – one of the gateways to the spectacular inner canyons and the “Sawtooth Traverse” from Redfish Lake to the Sawtooth Lodge.

Strength and technique training

Contemporaneous with the cardiovascular training outlined above are strength training and technique development. As these are very important elements, I will devote separate posts to these subjects. In fact, it is important to point out that the cardio portion of the training plan above will not be sufficient to get one to the starting line as fit and as competitive as one can be- this can only happen if strength and technique are separately, but in concert with the cardiovascular training, developed. So stay tuned.

*The Garmin/FirstBeat VO2 max estimator methodology is documented  in this white paper.

The Road to Klosters 2017 – Overview

klosters logo
"To plot, to take aim at something, to shape time and space. 
This is how we advance the art of human consciousness."
Murray to Jack in "White Noise" by Don Delillo
background

With solid plans (i.e. paid airline tickets and hotel reservations with deposits) to compete in the 2017 World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters/Davos Switzerland I will be putting up a series of posts over the next 9 months on my preparations for getting to the starting line as fit and competitive as is possible for this 60 year old rapidly aging athlete. This is the first installment.

I am not a professional coach, nor do I have any certifications (which I find to be dubious anyway). I do read a lot and I currently compete regularly year round in Cross Country Skiing, trail running, and trail ultra running. I have a coach, my wife (who is also not a professional coach), and we are both former elite-level endurance athletes (in Cross Country Skiing, Road Cycling, and Cross Country Mountain Biking). We are bringing over 80 years of combined knowledge and experience in training at the elite and sub-elite level for national, international, and Olympic-level competitions to bear on our individualized training programs. What we do, and what I might describe here, is not intended to be a recommendation for anyone else as we are all individuals with very different backgrounds, abilities, and commitments. As in any athletic endeavor, one should be fully aware of their capacities and have the consultation of a professional to guide them when embarking upon a training regimen. In fact, it is clear that no one should do what we do for training as all training programs should be personalized. My purpose here is to document the build-up to the Klosters Championship by applying known, sound physiologic principles to a training program designed for me. Others may find the information of interest to varying degrees.

Although there is some spotty information, dated books, and a lot of disorganized thoughts available out in the published world, it does not amount to much. One source that has a good base of historical information is at NordicSkiRacer. Some of the links are broken but overall this is a good place to look around for some input on your own training program.

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developing a training program

Any training program should have an articulated conceptual “philosophy” and an overarching structure that addresses the approach. This is what I will describe in this post.

No reliable conceptual training “philosophy” can be conjured up out of  a vacuum of knowledge and experience; similarly, such a “philosophy” will be highly informed by the knowledge and experience of the author. Therefore my “philosophy” is a result of many years of competing as well as having read over 100 books on athletic endurance, strength, and mental training in numerous competitive sports. Expectedly, there are a few core books that I will refer to when speaking to training program development and execution. Given that I am a 60 year old competitor, the unique application of endurance and strength training physiology and protocols to older athletes will be central to a successful outcome.

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Photo credit: Teton Ridge Classic Ski Race – link

There is a singular book that I highly recommend for understanding the diminished physiologic capacity of older endurance athletes: Fast After 50 by Joe Friel. If you read but one book on training for older athletes, this is the one you should read. The content of this book has highly influenced the “philosophy” and the detailed specifics of the training program that we have developed for ourselves as we go forward toward the Klosters starting line.

Among other books that I have found invaluable and will frequently refer to are:

Lore of Running

Total Heart Rate Training

Training for the New Alpinism

Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

The Lydiard Foundation – free material no longer available

Racing Weight

The Power of Habit

In Pursuit of Excellence

Focus

80/20 Running

How Bad Do You Want It

Other books as well as peer-reviewed references will be used to support concepts, protocols, and detailed training progressions. Please comment if you have questions or if you have something to constructively add.

Training “philosophy”

Before delving into the specifics of the unique physiologic realities of an older endurance athlete and what sort of training “philosophy” might be effective, there is one overarching basic principle that applies to anyone who is engaging in a serious training regimen:

The Big “C” and the Capital “R” – Consistency and Recovery

Consistency (The Big “C”) and Recovery (The Capital “R”) are the foundational basis for any successful training plan. Progression will only result if one is consistent in their training and that sufficient recovery is observed prior to additional training stimulus. Seems obvious, right? Well, these are the two most difficult things for an overwhelming majority of serious athletes to adhere to. Maintaining consistency in the face of needed recovery is a difficult thing to balance for even the most highly motivated athletes with plenty of time to train and is particularly difficult  when one has other significant stressors in their lives and/or is an older (50+) athlete. So while The Big “C” and the Capital “R” appear obvious and seem simple to do, reality has a way of making it one of the most difficult challenges in athletic training . This balance is magnified in training for endurance sports since the training stimuli can be very taxing to the endocrine system.

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For many, attaining good balance between The Big “C” and The Capital “R” essentially comes down to significant lifestyle decisions like commitment to things such as sufficient high quality sleep, limiting other “extracurricular” activities, “healthy” eating, limited or no alcohol intake, prioritizing down time, etc. For each there will be a different balance so no recommendations are offered here, nor has anyone perfected this- it is an infinite optimization problem that one can only continually chip away at. But this is not to diminish the importance of consistency and recovery- if you accomplish just one thing, being consistent in your training and ensuring sufficient recovery is that one thing. All that follows assumes training consistency and sufficient recovery.

Ordinal Training principles for older endurance athletes

Let’s start with a quote from Friel in the book “Fast After 50” p. 108:

“This brings us back to the big three- the primary determiners of
performance decline with age according to sport science. To refresh 
your memory, these are declining aerobic capacity, increasing body 
fat, and loss of muscle mass.”
Joe Friel in "Fast After 50"

In the book Friel uses a raft of peer-reviewed studies and basic physiological understanding to found this conclusion. His summary statement is also consistent with my own experience and that of many other older endurance athletes that I have interacted with. These are the “big three” training elements that any older endurance athlete needs to address- first and foremost. I further refine these and give them an ordinal character functional with a specific sport. For Cross Country Skiing I use the following order of importance for the “big three”:

  1. loss of muscle mass
  2. declining aerobic capacity
  3. increasing body fat

It is well documented that as we age we loose muscle mass, it is known as sarcopenia. Sarcopenia has origins in decreased hormone production. Significantly lower levels of  testosterone and estrogen, growth hormone, and insulinlike growth factor are evident in most individuals. On the positive side there are studies that have shown that such muscle loss can be slowed, stopped, or even reversed if one engages in a strength program of sufficient volume and intensity- a “use it or loose it” paradigm. Including strength training in a cross country skiing training program is essential to progression since not only is one’s power production dependent on muscle strength, one’s technique and efficiency are also critically dependent on the same muscle strength (and endurance).

I will argue, assuming a highly developed aerobic fitness capacity, that in the past decade Cross Country Skiing has become an upper body and core strength-dominant sport. Not to say that leg strength is not important but rather that, building upon optimal aerobic fitness, upper body and core strength are the most important element in successful racing. Among many other examples, this is evidenced by, for example, winning World Cup skiers double poling entire 10 km – 30 km classic races that contain steep hills. This can be achieved only with a ridiculously strong upper body and core. Here is what H. C. Holmberg has to say about the subject in a recent publication:

"The revolutionary increase in the use of the DP technique has many 
causes including better preparation/grooming of ski tracks, marked 
improvement of equipment (both the poles and gliding properties of 
the skis), greater upper-body strength and endurance, and substantial 
biomechanical improvements."

So, although there are other factors, upper-body strength and endurance are critical, and I would additionally argue that such strength and endurance is, in fact, enabling. Given that the double pole (DP) technique is critical to V2 skating and that the same bio-mechanics for superior DP also lead to superior V1 and V1 alt, the importance of upper-body and core strength cannot be questioned. In fact, the emergence of the US Women’s Cross Country Ski Team at the top of the World Cup in the past 5 years is directly associated with a focus by the team on upper body and core strength development following in the path of a similar focus that has been in place with the dominant Norwegian Men’s and Women’s team for over a decade. This is why I have “loss of muscle mass” as the number one training focus for older cross country skiing athletes- it is one of the capacities that is most detrimentally affected with age and it is arguably the most important part of successful competitive cross country skiing. This is also why all training programs  for older athletes need to address the fact that we are loosing muscle mass and to, therefore, include substantial strength training elements- elements that take precedence over even aerobic, aerobic capacity, and technique training. Without the upper-body and core strength one’s technique and efficiency will suffer. Just spend a few minutes looking around at your next ski race or at the Nordic Center in your area- you will see poor technique and the associated collapsing cores and noodle-like  “chicken wing” arms all around you. Currently, strength training does not play the central role that it should in cross country skiing, at least in the US.  I will have a separate post on cross country skiing-specific strength training for older endurance athletes.

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Moving on to the #2 most important factor for ageing athletes- aerobic capacity (VO2 max). Aerobic capacity is more substantially diminished with age than either lactate threshold (LT) or economy. Reduced aerobic capacity can be partly due to increased body weight but, for an experienced older competitive athlete, the greatest portion of the reduction  is most likely due to a slow progression away from high intensity interval training (HIIT) stimuli. It is rather easy to slowly reduce and, perhaps, eventually eliminate HIIT from your training regimen given the reputation such workouts have with respect to how difficult or “brutal” they can be. This, combined with concerns for injury during HIIT, has, in my experience, lead to a slow progression for reductions in, and for some athletes, elimination of, HIIT for many ageing athletes. But as you age, HIIT becomes of critical importance to ensuring that you slow the inevitable loss of your aerobic capacity. Studies have shown that VO2 max reductions with age can be minimized by inclusion of a regular diet of HIIT. So HIIT should play a central role in any training regimen for older athletes.

Finally we come to the subject of increasing body fat. As noted above, it is well documented that as we age there is a significant loss of muscle mass and unless we experience a coincident reduction in body weight as we age (very unusual), we are replacing that muscle with fat. There are few older athletes that maintain the same or similar weight to their most competitive days in their 20’s and early 30’s. I find that one can come close but never actually get there. In my case at 5’7″ with a slight build, I weighed 119-122 lbs (54-55.5 kg) when in the most competitive condition as a road cyclist specializing in races with lots of climbing. At 60, and competing in cross country skiing and mountain trail and mountain trail ultra running, this optimal-condition weight has climbed to 124-126 lbs (56.5-57.5 kg) for mountain trail running and, with the requisite added upper body mass, to 128-130 lbs (58-59 kg) for cross country skiing. Measured body fat in my 20’s varied from a low of 5% to a more typical 7%. These days I hover at 8-10%- a significant increase. I find that if I venture into the sub-124 lb (<56 kg) territory, I begin to loose the ability to recover from workouts as well as find a larger susceptibility to minor viral issues and a tendency to being a bit “irritable”. So I have settled and come to peace with a weight range of 125-130 lbs (57-59 kg). I highly recommend that you read Fitzgerald’s book “Racing Weight” for guidance on the subject. Weight is  a very individual thing and, for some, very personal, so I will not spend much time discussing the subject other than to highlight it’s importance.

So, I hope I have made a strong case for the primacy of consistency and recovery in training and for the over-riding importance, as ageing athletes, of the need to concentrate on maintaining or increasing muscle mass, maintaining or increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing body fat. Endurance and technique development are secondary to the “Big 3”. You don’t have to take my word for this, just take the time to read and absorb Friel’s book and I think you will be convinced that by focusing on the “Big 3” and developing your training plan around this concentration there will be a path to progress and improvement even as you age.

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Training plan structure
"The bigger the base, the higher the peak."
Arthur Lydiard

There are many different training plan structures that have been successfully used by endurance athletes. Many of these structures come and go in popularity but one in particular has survived the test of time- the simple periodized Lydiard approach. The basic tenet is “the bigger the base, the higher the peak” – meaning that any success is built on a substantial base of endurance training leading into more sport specific and finally, race specific training. This progression typically involves a long 12-20 week base (the “big base” ala Lydiard) followed by 8-10 week sport specific period and then a race specific period of 4-6 weeks followed, in cross country skiing, by the approximately 10-12 week “race season” of repeated race prep, between-race rest, and aerobic maintenance. I have used such a protocol for my entire life as an endurance athlete and it has worked well and allowed me to excel and regularly perform close to my best potential. I have been somewhat reticent to try any other pedagogy given not only my personal success but also the uniform acceptance of Lydiard-like training programs across the spectrum of competitive endurance sport. However, there is a recent (last 5 years) trend in endurance sports (including cross country skiing) that, along with accumulating supportive peer-reviewed studies, indicates that there may be a constructive and efficacious “tweak” that one can apply to a standard Lydiard-like plan for improved results- it is called “block periodization”. Among a number of recent publications, I reference one here that does a reasonable job at explaining what “block periodization” is as it relates to cross country skiing training as well as providing data that can be interpreted to support the advantages of a “block periodization” protocol.

Traditional Periodization (TP) differs from “Block Periodization” (BP)  in that TP mixes the development of abilities and energy systems throughout the training plan. BP has mesocycle structure that is made up of blocks of training that address, primarily, a single ability or energy system. For example while a TP plan might have weekly interval training sessions (in the sport specific training period) that mix a VO2 max session on say, Monday, with a Lactate Threshold (LT) session on Thursday, the BP plan would take a 4-6 week period and focus on VO2 max and then follow that up with a similar (or longer, depending on the sport and the specialization of the athlete) LT “block”. The argument for this being a better approach is that by concentrating on single energy systems or abilities one can wring out every last bit of improvement that would be possible with a given athlete. The other part of a BP program that is appealing is that the macrostructure is tuned to the race season where the block progression starts with the least race-specific work transitioning into the most race-specific work. So for cross country skiing you would likely see a progression that has an endurance block followed by a VO2max block and then finishing with a LT block. This progression makes sense because the endurance base is critical to giving the athlete the ability to handle the difficult VO2 max work and then the LT block provides race-specific preparation since cross country ski races are typically raced at threshold (or just above threshold). Similarly, for mountain trail ultra running an effective progression might have an early season VO2 max block followed by a LT block and finishing with a race-specific endurance block since ultra running races are typically run at endurance-level effort (L2-low L3).

I have been experimenting with BP this running season and have developed enough confidence in the efficacy of the approach that I am proceeding with a BP protocol for the upcoming ski training and racing season. The grapevine indicates that some of the top cross country skiing national teams are adopting, to varying degrees, BP-like training programs. Not that this trend with current elite athletes would necessarily make sense for a 60 year old has-been but, given my personal experience, BP does seem to potentially give enhanced results for the same training commitment. Only time will tell.

I will also note here that Jason Koop and Jim Rutberg in their book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” do a great job of outlining and applying the principles of BP for ultrarunning. It is straightforward to modify their approach to cross country skiing. This is the only current source of a comprehensive guide to BP for endurance sport that I am aware of and I highly recommend that, if you are interested in BP, that you read the book.

I have spoken with two recent US Cross Country Skiing Olympians and they have both experimented with block periodization and both have had issues with going into the long race season energized. The very challenging pre-race season VO2max  and LT blocks can, if not properly dosed, lead to diminished returns. Both have returned to traditional mixed periodization. I will be keeping a close eye on this going forward.

In the next post I will present the macrostructure of my training program and outline detailed training plans for the next few months (July-December) using a BP protocol with a Lydiard-like progression.

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A few words about “grit” and motivation

Any commitment of substance is based upon individual motivation and some will argue that completion of any challenging commitment will take “grit”.  You have probably read articles and commentary on the importance of “grit” in training for and competing in endurance sports. No one actually does a good job of defining what ‘grit” is- even Duckworth in her recent book “Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance” fails to do so. I think this is because grit is a derivative descriptor and not an actual thing. For me “grit” is the actualization of motivation. It is not that one is “gritty” or that “grit” is genetic or that “grit” is learned, but rather that “grit” derives from motivation- either extrinsic motivation or intrinsic motivation or, likely, some combination thereof. The origin of “grittiness” is motivation and motivation is a very complex thing, one that may be the subject of future post. But suffice it to say that we know when we are motivated and we know what motivates us (so long as we are willing to be truthful with ourselves about the subject). The important point here is that motivation is another basic, foundational, part of any training program. Given the commitment needed to succeed in any challenging training regimen, it is well worth while to go about understanding what your motivation is and making sure that first, you are, in fact, motivated, and second, that you are fully behind those reasons that currently motivate you and, third, that these reasons are “durable” (meaning that the reasons are not subject to significant change in the foreseeable future). There will be little value in embarking upon a difficult and challenging training regimen only to find that your motivation is waning or that circumstances have lead to highly diminished motivational support for the daily grind. Be sure you are ready to commit and then commit. None of this is easy and it will always take a high level of commitment and enthusiasm that can only originate in authentic motivation- know yourself so you can freely release the energy needed to attain your goals.

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Heard on the Trail: Salomon May Offer “Custom” Shoe Program

After hearing continued rumblings since last fall from both Europe and State Side, the vibe is building that Salomon will likely offer a “custom” shoe program which treats the customer like one of their elite athletes- i.e. you tell them what you want and they build it.

Salomon’s elite athletes have gushed for many years how the company’s R&D department (or S Lab) in Annecy can rapidly (in days or weeks) turn out shoe prototypes for testing. This includes minor tweaks like a different outsole on an otherwise unchanged model (e.g. putting a SpeedCross outsole on a Sense Ultra for example) to totally unique examples with different midsoles, uppers, lacing, etc. Well, based on the rumor-mill it looks like some version of this might be offered to the paying public.

With no details on the specifics of the rumored program one might speculate that the program might include a number of uppers, midsoles, and outsoles  in the Salomon line-up (presumably from the S Lab line) from which one can mix-and-match to design a shoe specifically to one’s liking. The shoes would likely be made in Annecy and therefore will be very limited in total number produced. Also given the difficulties associated with production of custom shoes, only a small number of Salomon dealers worldwide (perhaps 50 total) and a few (perhaps 5) in the US would be the exclusive source for this service. Who knows what the pricing might be, but I would not be surprised to see pricing exceed $250 US per pair.

Kilian shoes Zegama 2016

Kilian’s prototype “monster” shoes with integrated gaiter and traditional lacing at Zegama 2016… what would you design? Photo credit: carrerasdemontana.com (link). My take on these shoes is that Kilian is going in a direction away from trail running races and fully into extreme adventure runs (or very difficult/technical trail races like Kima and Zegama). These shoes appear to be more fit for that type of use. I think we will see an increasing number of runners venturing into more extreme, off trail, efforts. And, therefore, a proportionate increase in the number of back country rescues and predator encounters!

Kilian clean prototype Zegama 2016

Kilian’s “monster” shoes early on (and clean) at Zegama 2016. Photo credit: trailrunning review.com (link). Emilie is also wearing this shoe, as shown in a recent (18 June)  twitter post.

Such a program represents potential for shoes with outstanding performance for specific purposes and running style, but also for production of some of the worst shoes ever produced by man. Given a combination of what little science there is on efficacious shoe design, the whims and reckless ideas of individual runners, and the importance of uniqueness to certain types, we may see some, let’s say, “very interesting” shoes coming out of a Salomon “custom” project. Perhaps Salomon will keep the combinations strategically limited to ensure that no obviously “bad” shoes are produced.

If this program does come to fruition, and if you think you have some tweaks you would like to see in your Salomon shoes, this may be a program for you.

Run With Power by Jim Vance – Review

The use of power meters for training guidance and the development of personal metrics for monitoring training progression has, over the past 15 years, transformed all rigorous training approaches for cycling. I expect the same to take place in running with the recent advent of reliable, easy to use running power meters. Jim Vance, a former professional triathlete and current triathlon and duathalon coach, has jumped on the bandwagon and written the first comprehensive book on the use of power meter training for running.

Run with Power by Jim Vance

This book is a great place to start to understand the reasons that one might want to use power data for training. The introductory chapters provide a compelling, sound basis from which a power-based training approach can be developed.

From the fundamentals (and Vance’s extensive experience in utilization of power data in cycling training) a detailed discourse on the application of power meter training to running is presented in clear language and informative graphics.

Central to any power meter-based  training is the concept of parameterization of  economy (net oxygen use per distance traveled) and efficiency (net pace per unit of power produced)- two critically important running metrics that, prior to the development of running power meters, could only be inferred from other, indirect, measurements. Experienced runners already have a sense of these parameters from their training but, just as with heart rate, having an analytic measure to confirm and reiterate what is felt or indirectly measured is yet another tool to get the most from one’s training. Although the author suggests that these data can be used in a positive feedback loop to adjust running  technique and stride specifics, I have seen little in the peer-reviewed literature that supports the efficacy of stride and technique manipulation that results in increased performance at the competitive regional, national, or international level. Setting technique aside, the use of running economy and running efficiency metrics in training is, in theory, the ultimate goal of training for running where, given an individual’s specific and unique biomechanics, a training progression that optimizes economy and efficiency will yield a competitor who will likely perform to their greatest physical potential. The mental side is another story.

In a comprehensive way, Vance runs through the details of utilizing running power for training including how to get started,  determining functional threshold power (FTP- the power meter equivalent of lactate threshold for HR training) and setting zones, and then using these data for training plan development and monitoring. Vance also provides the most concise, clearest and transparent guide that I have read pertaining to the use of the Training Peaks online software tool that has power metrics fully integrated into analysis algorithms. It is a good reference for anyone starting out with TP as their training tracking and analysis choice.

Also included in the book are some more advanced training approaches as well as some sample training plans for road running events from 5 km through the marathon.

This book does not address application of running power to trail and ultra running but it seems straightforward that the concepts are directly transferable with similar and appropriate modifications as is currently operative with heart rate training for trail runners and ultra runners. In fact, given the high variability in trail grades, and therefore in pace, the power meter is an even more valuable tool on trails than it is on roads. And for ultra runners, the power meter should substantially help in pacing during training and racing- a critical skill for success.

Provided that the current crop of power meters (e.g. Stryd) succeed in providing an accurate and easy to use method for obtaining reliable running power metrics, we should see a similar transformation of running training that has been experienced in cycling training and Vance’s book will be an important part of this transformation. If you are considering adding power to your running training, I highly recommend this book as a comprehensive, clearly written, and valuable resource.

Personally, I will not be adding power to my training metrics until Garmin transparently accommodates running power into their firmware and software for their high-end watches. Right now the integration is “clugey” at best for Garmin. Suunto high-end watch users already have a fully integrated running power capability and with direct download into Training Peaks, everything in this book can be applied to your training.

boasts
  • First comprehensive resource for use of power meters for running training
  • clear, concise writing with informative graphics
  • nice introductory information on the use of Training Peaks for training with power for running
  • can also be used as a basic training guide and plan development tool
beefs
  • no discussion on how running power meters work and which meters are currently providing reliable data
  • no specific discourse on application of running power measurement to trail and ultra running where the use of power may be most advantageous