The Road To Klosters – Racing Weight for Competitive Cross Country Skiers

This is Part 7 in a series of posts about training and preparation for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters Switzerland in early March 2017. See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 for an overview, specific training plans, strength training, an evaluation of the required pace to podium in the M07 and F06 age classes, critical assessment of the efficacy of Block Periodization, and fleet evaluation, respectively.

racing weight – an achievable goal

Dialing-in your racing weight as a cross country skier is an important consideration if you wish to be competitive. The pace degradation penalties associated with excess weight (primarily as fat) can make all of the difference in any competitive race whilst underweight athletes (primarily due to low upper body strength-to-weight index) will struggle to produce sufficient power to keep pace. In addition, training at the right weight will allow for proper technique and strength improvement feedback so that one can tweak training plans to focus on the most important areas currently challenging an athlete. As a masters athlete there is the additional challenge of increasing body fat driven by age-related reductions in HGH and testosterone and therefore puts further emphasis on getting to one’s optimal racing weight for the racing season.

So what is racing weight? It is the combination of body weight and body fat percentage that allows one to perform at their optimal level- some call this “optimal performance weight/composition”.  Racing weight is not just about body weight, but, importantly and functionally, about an optimal body fat percentage in concert with one’s total body weight. Being under-weight or with too low a body fat percentage is just as limiting from a performance perspective as being over-weight or with too high a body fat percentage.

Finding one’s specific racing weight is a process, not a calculation. Fitzgerald does a very good job of describing this process as well as many other aspects that play into understanding and getting to racing weight in his book Racing Weight. I reviewed this book and analyzed my diet in a previous post.

Fitzgerald offers a three-step approach to an initial calculation of a target racing weight as follows:

  1. Weigh yourself and obtain a reasonably accurate value for your current body fat percentage. From these values calculate your current lean body mass (current weight X current lean body mass percentage (= 100 – current body fat percentage)).
  2. Look up on the table (table 2.1) that he supplies for body fat percentages as a function of percentile of population and age. Choose a target body fat percentage value that you feel is appropriate for where you are in your training/fitness “reality” and calculate. You may look to the 80th, 90th, or even the 99th percentile depending on your goals and ability to commit to the process.
  3. Calculate your racing weight by dividing your current lean body mass by your target lean body mass percentage (= 100 – target body fat percentage).

Using my values as an example, I currently weight 128 lbs with a measured body fat of 7.9%. This gives a current lean body mass of 117.9 lbs (128 X 0.921)). Looking up on table 2.1 for age 60+ males the 99th percentile is at 7.7% body fat. Given my current body fat percentage and my goals, I will choose the 7.7% value. I can now calculate a target racing weight as my current lean body mass (117.9 lbs) divided by my target lean body mass percentage (92.3%) or 117.9/0.923 = 127.7 lbs. This suggests that to be in the 99% percentile of 60+ year old males I need to loose 0.3 lbs, i.e. I am already at a target racing weight (no surprise).

This calculation process gives a good starting value but it is based on where your current weight  and body composition is today. I have been training extensively and rigorously for just about 5 years and it is no surprise that I might be near an optimal body weight/composition percentage but as will be discussed below, I actually think that for cross country skiing I am substantially under-weight. For distance (and ultra-distance) running I am just about right. This highlights an issue with maintaining a “racing weight” if you are a multi-sport athlete like me since your “racing weight” will change with the race seasons. This presents a significant challenge for ensuring that you are at racing weight for the most important competitions.

Attaining and sustaining one’s racing weight is a venerable goal and one that is very much achievable for any cross country skier with sufficient drive and motivation to be competitive in their respective racing category. Many coaches argue that optimal racing weight will follow directly from a comprehensive race-season-focused training plan that has been rigorously executed upon. My experience is similar but I would add that diet is also important, particularly for masters athletes given the additional body fat production challenges presented by our ageing bodies. I will not speak to diet here since the topic is “religious” in nature and seldom leads to constructive input due to considerable (and widely distributed) mis-information coming from nutrition “professionals”, many exercise physiologists, diet supplement companies, anecdotal “stories” from athletes, and popular media. For my approach to diet please see the post referenced above.

the weight of elite cross country skiers

Although the process outlined by Fitzgerald for going about determination of one’s target racing weight is efficacious, it is not centered around any actual examples  in one’s sport of choice. It is based on statistical population percentile body fat ranges, not active athletes or better yet, those athletes who are committed to excellence. However, in the case at hand, one can look to the elite cross country skier population to obtain reasonable, data-based support for target body weight and composition values that are tested on the “real world” stage of international competition. Though analysis of this kind of data will yield some target ranges for weight/composition, the process by which one goes about attaining such a target racing weight is still very important so I will again encourage you to read Fitzgerald’s book as it contains a lot of great information and unique perspective.

In the analysis here we will follow the convention of the well known exercise physiologist researcher, Stephen Seiler. This post will present data and analysis on the heights and weights of Olympic (and, therefore, World Cup) cross country skiers as a basis for understanding the topic of racing weight specifically for cross country skiers. Seiler (and others) have studied the training, fueling, and recovery details of Olympic and World Cup champions (in cross country skiing as well as other endurance sports) as a means to establish efficacious training protocols that lead to championship-level performances. Seiler sums up much of his recent work on training intensity distribution very nicely in a lecture given a couple of years ago- something that I will come back to in a future post. The point here is that the operative principle that drives Seiler’s work is:

looking at the very best skiers and how they train, we can learn what training methods and protocols are most effective in achieving full development of one’s potential 

Similarly, in the case of height/weight optima for cross country skiing, studying the data from world-level competitive skiers should allow for insight as to what range of racing weight is appropriate to aim for. This is what is detailed in this post.

Presented in Figure 1 is a plot of the weight vs. the height of all 2014 cross country skiing Olympians with the exception, unfortunately, of the Norwegians*. There is data, however, for Norwegian Olympic cross country skiers in 2006 and prior years. Analysis of the 2006 data reveals that the height/weight trends seen in the 2014 Olympic cross country skier data are consistent with the 2006 Norwegian Olympic cross country skier data and it is asserted here that the 2014 dataset is representative of the entire 2014 Olympian cross country skier population, including the Norwegians.

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Figure 1. Height vs. weight for the male (red) and female (blue) 2014 Olympic cross country skier population*.

What is seen in these data is an expected result of a direct, nearly linear, positive relationship between weight and height, i.e. the taller you are the more you weigh and that this is an approximately linear function. Also seen are ranges of values for weight at a given height (and, likewise, a range of heights at given weights) as is expected from the variations in anthropomorphic profiles (i.e. body types- ecto, meso, and mega-morph) within the elite skier population. Figure 1 also illustrates the expected difference between male and female skiers, i.e. that the female population is much lighter as a group but this population still falls on the same linear trendline functionality with height.

It is widely reported that elite cross country skiers are, as a group, the leanest of all endurance athletes with an average body fat percentage around 5% for males and 11% for females. Elite distance runners are a bit less lean at an average 7% body fat for males and 12% for females. The primary difference between these two populations is body type, where cross country skiers trend much more toward mesomorphic proportions and distance runners trend much more toward ectomorphic proportions. Clearly, the primary importance of upper body and core strength for cross country skiers is what drives the predominance of mesomorphs. Similarly, for distance runners the energy costs associated with carrying a significant upper body musculature outweigh any advantage the additional upper body strength might otherwise yield.  What this means is that cross country skiers are substantially more muscular (particularly with respect to upper body muscle groups) than distance runners, so even though cross country skiers are more lean, at a given height they weigh a lot more*** (data to support this will be presented below).

Presented in Figure 2 are the male 2014 Olympian height vs weight data along with the individual medal performances** for those skiers in the database (the Norwegian medalists (Hattestad- Gold in Sprint, and Sundby- Bronze in 30km Skiathlon) are not presented due to lack of weight data). A few of observations are worth noting:

  1. there are no skiers that weigh less than about 135lbs, independent of height
  2. there are no skiers shorter than about 66″, independent of weight
  3. the “center of mass” of the population distribution is at about 71″ tall and 168 lbs
  4. there can be as much as a 40 lb range in weight for some heights
  5. the Olympic medal performances are predominantly near the “center of mass” of the population, i.e. about 71″ and 168 lbs
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Figure 2. Height vs. weight for the male 2014 Olympic cross country skier population highlighted with the medal performances for individual distance events (black border on medal color) and individual sprint events (blue border on medal color). The two Norwegian medal performances in individual events are not shown due to lack of weight data for all Norwegian athletes.

Based on these observations and given the very lean nature of an elite cross country skier, it is clear that substantial upper body and core muscle mass is required to be competitive. With an average of about 5% body fat, an elite cross country skier athlete that weighs 165 lbs will have 157 lbs of lean muscle mass, fluids, and bones. That is a lot of muscle- as is obvious when looking at such athletes. This reiterates the arguments in a previous post about the primal importance of strength training for cross country skiing regardless of competitive level in the sport. There are no “scrawny” competitive cross country skiers, regardless of VO2max or lactate metabolism enzyme profile. One must put on the muscle mass to be able to perform in this sport at the highest levels. There does appear to be less of a penalty for higher weight than there is for lower weight which indicates, again, that muscle mass is critical to performance. But this will hold only if body fat is at the sub-7% or so level. Being heavier because of high body fat, is very much different (and very much more detrimental) than being heavier because of additional lean muscle mass.  Although skiing efficiency will clearly play an important role, an inability to generate sufficient weight-indexed force will ultimately limit the ability of an athlete to generate power levels required for competitive paces. This is what analysis of the height vs. weight data from the Olympians reveals.

Although skiing efficiency will clearly play an important role, an 
inability to generate sufficient weight-indexed force will ultimately 
limit the ability of an athlete to generate power levels required for 
competitive paces.

Similar results obtain for the female elite skier population. Figure 3 presents the female 2014 Olympian height vs weight data along with the individual medal performances** for those skiers in the database. Unfortunately, the Norwegian women took 8 of the 12 individual medals and no weight data is available on these athletes. Analysis of the 2006 female Olympic cross country skier data reveals that the height/weight trends seen in the 2014 female Olympic cross country skier data are consistent with the 2006 Norwegian Olympian data and it is asserted here that the 2014 dataset is representative of the entire 2014 Olympian cross country skier population, including the Norwegians. So, although no direct medal performance data for the Norwegian women can be presented, it is expected that the Norwegian medalists are indicative of (i.e. not outside of) the height weight distribution of the rest of the women Olympic cross country skiers for 2014.

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Figure 3. Height vs. weight for the female 2014 Olympic cross country skier population highlighted with the medal performances for individual distance events (black border on medal color) and individual sprint events (blue border on medal color) . The 8 Norwegian medal performances in individual and sprint events are not shown due to lack of weight data for all Norwegian athletes.

The average elite female cross country skier has a higher body fat percentage than elite male skiers at around 11% so these data indicate that, as expected, the female skier population is less muscular than the men but as will be shown below, much more muscular than elite distance female runners. The available data also show that the medal performances are toward the heavier side of the overall distribution. However, given that 8 of the 12 2014 individual Olympic medal performances are not represented in the dataset, no firm observation can be made. It is noted that among the 6 Norwegian female athletes that won individual medals in 2014, three are clearly “lightweights” estimated to be sub-125 lb weight at heights ranging from 63″-66″.

Comparison of elite cross country skiers to elite distance runners

Given that I am a competitive mountain runner and therefore participate in two competitive seasons, it is pertinent to take a look at the height/weight distributions for elite distance  runners to evaluate potential optima for athletes who are multi-sport competitors. In the following the “distance runner” population consists of those athletes that competed in the 2012 Olympics in the 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon. The 1500m athletes were included for three reasons- firstly many elite 1500m athletes eventually compete at the highest levels in the longer events, secondly typical training for the 1500m event is not radically different than that for the 5,000m and 10,000m, and thirdly 1500m running athletes are more closely aligned with cross country skier sprinters so capturing this population will make comparisons more complete.

Figure 4 presents the height vs. weight distribution for the 2012 Olympic male distance running population (as defined above).

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Figure 4. Height vs weight for 2012 Olympic male distance running athletes. *”Distance running” events included in the dataset are the 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon.

Once again, Norway does not report weights for their athletes so no Norwegian data are presented. In addition a few other athletes from other countries did not report weights, and in some cases, heights. 96% of all athletes are represented in the dataset (this also holds for the female dataset presented below).

The data indicate that in comparison to the elite cross country skier population, at a given height the distance runners exhibit significantly lower weight, as noted in the discussion above. Figure 5 presents a graphical comparison of the elite distance running population with the elite cross country skier population along with linear fits to the data for each population. The data yeild remarkably similar linear slopes indicating that the height/weight functionality for elite endurance athletes is similar across disciplines when corrected for needed additional muscle mass in a particular sport.

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Figure 5. Comparison of the male 2014 Olympic cross country skiing (red) and male 2012 Olympic distance running athletes (blue) along with linear fits to each of the athlete populations. *”Distance running” events included in the dataset are the 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon.

Evident is an approximately 20 lb difference, on average between the athlete populations. Given that the average body fat percentage is not very different (5% for the cross country skiers and 7% for the distance runners) this means that the cross country skiers have about 17-20 lbs more lean muscle mass than the distance runners. This muscle mass is certainly primarily due to increased upper body and core muscle groups, although there is likely some additional muscle mass in lower body muscle groups in the skiers as well due to the power required to manipulate and push off skis.

There also appears to be evidence that the distance runners are generally taller for a given weight throughout the dataset. This would indicate that, in general, height is a greater advantage in distance running than it is in skiing as might be expected.

The 17-20 lb difference between athlete populations in weight at a given height shown above is huge! And for any athlete it would be difficult to shift form one “type” to the other within a single year of competition. This is an even greater challenge for a masters athlete where putting on muscle is already difficult due to hormone production declines. So striking some optimal compromise between the increased muscle mass needed to be a competitive skier and the advantages of a “chicken wing” (or “strong chicken wing”) upper body more typical of elite runners needs to be struck. This is what I am currently attempting to conquer. I will outline my approach below.

The 17-20 lb difference between athlete populations in weight at a 
given height shown above is huge!

And again, similar results are seen in the female populations as well. Presented in Figure 6 is a graphical comparison of the elite female distance running population with the elite female cross country skier population along with linear fits to the data for each population.

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Figure 6. Comparison of the female 2014 Olympic cross country skiing (red) and female 2012 Olympic distance running athletes (blue) along with linear fits to each of the athlete populations. *”Distance running” events included in the dataset are the 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon.

In the case of the female populations the average weight difference between cross country skiers and distance runners is 10-12 lbs which is reasonably similar to the difference seen in the male populations based on percentage of total body weight. So the female cross country skiers are similarly more muscular relative to distance runners as is the case for the male groups. In addition, the data indicates that, for females, height is no different for the two populations. This shows that, independent of height or weight, upper body and core muscle mass is critical to success in cross country skiing and may be detrimental for distance runners, particularly shorter runners.

Summary

Height and weight data for populations of elite cross country skiers and elite distance runners have been analyzed and compared to identify possible optimal weights as a function of height for the sport of cross country skiing and, secondarily, distance running. The following are a few take-aways from simple observations:

  • elite cross country skiers are significantly heavier than distance runners even though both groups have similar total body fat percentages
  • the higher weight of elite skiers is due to required upper body and core muscle mass needed to generate power and maintain sufficient pace to be competitive at the world level
  • at similar heights the average weight difference of about 17-20 pounds between the male elite skiers and the male elite distance runners and the average difference of about 10-12 pounds for females is very large highlighting the critical importance upper body and core strength in force generation in skiing
  • there are no “scrawny” elite cross country skiing athletes
  • there are no elite male cross country skier athletes below about 135 pounds, independent of height
  • elite male cross country skiing athletes are taller than 66″
  • it is apparent that, relative to the skiing athletes, in the male distance running population, height provides a slight advantage for performance whereas for the female distance running population this is not the case
  • it would be very difficult to attain an optimal skier weight and an optimal distance running weight in the same year due to the difficulties associated with adding muscle mass for a competitive ski season and then eliminating much of this muscle mass for a competitive running season
personal reflections

Going into this analysis I did not expect to see such large differences in total body weight between the elite skiers and the elite distance runners. The 17-20 pound difference for male populations is much larger than the 5-10 pounds that I expected might prevail. This realization has had significant impact on my progression projection and on the details of the associated training plan.

My current weight of 128 lbs is way too low for a competitive 67″ cross country skiing athlete. At a minimum I need to add more than 8 pounds (6% of total current body weight) of lean muscle mass to even appear on the graphs of elite skiers presented above. For me, adding 8 pounds is huge! I have not weighted in excess of 135 pounds since retiring nearly 9 years ago and that higher weight was extant only because I sat for too long in too many useless corporate meetings and “important conference calls” when the extent of my exercise was a 25 mile daily bicycle commute through polluted air. That additional weight was also mostly fat, not muscle mass. Adding lean muscle mass is a very different and much more difficult as any reader of this will attest to.

So the task is to somehow add at least 8 pounds of muscle mass in the next nine weeks to allow for optimal body composition (weight and body fat percentage) at the World Masters Championships in early March. This must be done in parallel with the cardio work and the racing schedule. The ATP had me going into strength maintenance as of 1 November. That did not happen because I hit a max strength plateau that took two extra weeks to break through and another two weeks to finish the progression. The key (for me) in breaking through this plateau was to increase the max strength sessions to three per week from two. This made all the difference and so much so that I decided to not stop the max strength progression on 1 December and have continued with the three strength/max strength sessions per week as of this writing. Based on this analysis I will continue the max strength progression for at least another 6 weeks to see if I can add the needed muscle mass. I am already at over 150% of body weight for the weighted pull-ups (65 lbs in the weight vest) so it looks like I am going to go into a strength level I did not expect to- if I survive! It will be challenging to get the quality cardio work in and continue to build strength and participate in races, but it is worth attempting. Time will tell.

Of course the muscle mass cannot be added if there is not the required collateral consumption of appropriately balanced calories. This has been a problem I have always had and was highlighted in my post on diet where I found that, although I had no issue with getting the macronutrient balance correct, I was physically unable to consume the proscribed amount of carbohydrates based on total training hours. Having never been “a big eater” I find it difficult and unpleasant to stuff myself to achieve a calorie intake goal, but it would appear that this is what I will need to do if I want to put on the kind of muscle mass that the analysis above indicates I should.

As far as running, I will to go into the mountain running season with the additional muscle mass and I plan to continue to progress with the strength program. The strength part of the equation for cross country skiing is so critical that one cannot afford to take a break from the strength work as the muscle mass takes a very long time to add. This is particularly important for masters athletes who will have additional challenges with muscle mass development due to reduced HGH and testosterone production. So this is hypercritical for a 60+ year old like me.

Carrying the upper body muscle mass in mountain trail running competitions may lead to disadvantages but given the time it takes to put muscle back on I will just have to deal with the consequences. And who knows, perhaps I will find that I have been under-weight for mountain running as well and that the upper body and core muscle mass actually leads to better performances for me- at least I can hope so…

———————

*  Norway no longer reports the weights of their skiers and they have admitted to significant “weight dysfunctions” on the ski team, particularly on the women’s team and so much so that they no longer accept any athlete that currently has an eating disorder, regardless of performance or potential. This issue with the Norwegian team is obvious in some of their top female athletes.

** As of this writing, the 2014 Olympic cross country skiing results are the subject of numerous alleged doping violations by the Russians (and perhaps others) and a number of these individual medal performances are by those that are reportedly being investigated for doping, specifically Legov (Gold in 50 km) and Vylegzhanin (Silver in 50km). So this puts a bit of a damper on direct interpretation of these medalists height/weight characteristics being exemplary. The Russian Olympic authorities have now admitted to facilitating doping coverups for many 2014 athletes.

*** This difference is glaringly obvious in races that attract both distance runners and cross country skiers, one of the most prominent examples being the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska. Here many top national (and some international) cross country skiers mix it up with top international distance runners and other mountain athletes to see who can get to the top of a very steep coastal mountain and back down the fastest. Historically, the race has been dominated by cross country skiers (e.g. Bill Spencer, Eric Strabel, and this years winner David Norris who set the “up” record and a new record besting Kilian’s effort last year) but in recent years international distance mountain runners have been at the front, including Rickey Gates and Kilian Jornet. In the following video from the 2015 race, the anthropomorphic difference between a cross country skier like multiple-time winner Eric Strabel (70″ tall, 168 lbs) and distance/mountain runners like Rickey Gates or Kilian Jornet (67″ tall, 128 lbs) is obvious, yet both types move efficiently and quick on this terrain at this distance. But put Rickey or Kilian in a cross country ski race with Strabel or Norris or put Strabel or Norris  in a mountainous 50 km running race with Rickey or Kilian and there would be no competition between these athletes (even though Kilian grew up as a cross country skier and is a dominant International Ski Mountaineering competitor).

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Cross country skier Eric Strabel (left) and dominant International Ski Mountaineer and distance mountain runner athlete Kilian Jornet (right) at the finish of the 2014 and 2015 (respectively) Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska. Note the substantial difference in upper body musculature. Photo credits: Strabel- Alaska Dispatch, and Jornet- Lugares de Nieve.

…and the 2016 race where Norris sets the “up” record and the overall record:

Salomon S Lab XA Alpine Shoes – a great hybrid shoe for mountain running adventure

Born out of requests from Salomon athletes for a shoe that would combine the proprioception of an S Lab Sense with the technical terrain capabilities of the S Lab X Alp Carbon GTX, the Salomon designers have created an outstanding hybrid shoe that is likely to find much more use than just off-piste mountain exploration.

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The XA Alpine- a shoe that is ready for some high mountain adventuring!

background

A couple of years ago Salomon, working with Kilian Jornet and other Salomon athletes, developed a “fast and light” alpine shoe with very high mountaineering technical terrain performance- the S Lab X Alp Carbon GTX shoe. This shoe is lightweight for the category (500 gms size US9), has  a Gore Tex upper/gaiter, a unique “carbon edging chassis”, accepts crampons for glacier traverses, and is suitable for lower level alpine climbs- in short a very versatile shoe for playing in places like the high Alps and other such terrain. This shoe, however, is not intended for running nor would running in it be the least bit pleasant primarily due to the stiffness.

Continuing development and testing with athletes that wanted to run (not hike or trek) in places like the high Alps and not be deterred by glacier crossings, Class 3 scrambles, or knife-edge ridge ascents that may be a part of a desired route, the S Lab XA Alpine shoe emerged from the prototype studio in Annecy. This shoe represents a hybrid design from a mash-up of technologies from the S Lab Sense mountain running shoe platform with the S Lab X Alp Carbon mountaineering shoe platform.

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The XA Alpine has a distinctive colored graphic on the lower mid-foot to heel area. The gaiter zipper works more smoothly and effortlessly than any other gaiter or boot zipper that I have ever used (including all of the zippers on the Salomon cross country ski boot line).

construction

Starting with the super responsive S Lab Sense running shoe as a basis, a slightly increased drop (from the 4mm of the Sense to 6mm here) is used to increase mid-foot support and a modified “carbon edging chassis” is added to give lateral edge stiffness for scrambling and to allow crampon use whilst still retaining substantial longitudinal flexibility for running comfort. For protection in snow and ice, limited water resistance, and to prevent intrusion of debris inside the shoe, a full-wrap gaiter is employed that includes a water resistant lower half, a highly breathable upper half, and (what appears to be but is not) a waterproof zipper as well as ankle pads and a padded cuff at the upper termination of the gaiter.  There is also a thick rubber toe cap for rock protection.

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Plan-view of the XA Alpine shoes showing the water resistant lower part of the gaiter, what appears to be a waterproof zipper, and the breathable upper half of the gaiter (which seems to have a DWR coating). The shoes are not waterproof and water does intrude rather quickly in streams. It seems that the water resistant layer is intended to minimize water intrusion in “wet snow” or “melting snow” types of conditions.

Inside, the foot cavity consists of what appears to be a S Lab Sense upper and footbed- and it definitely feels like the Sense as all of the fit technologies are present (EndoFit, SensiFit, Speed Laces and lace pocket, etc.). Due to constraints from the gaiter structure the shoe is slightly more difficult to get one’s foot into, however, once in, the feel is very much that of an S Lab Sense.

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Gaiter unzinpped and pulled back to reveal the inner “shoe” that appears to be a S Lab Sense. The fit is very good as expected from all of the fit technologies included.

This construction of an S Lab Sense upper combined with the lightweight gaiter is grafted onto a deeply lugged outsole that utilizes Salomon’s latest “Premium Wet Traction” ContraGrip rubber compound. The lugs are highly separated to help facilitate responsiveness, grip, and to allow for more efficient mud and snow release.

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The outsole utilizes Salomons’ “Premium Wet Traction” ContraGrip compound across the entire surface. This compound is astoundingly good in wet and in typical trail ice conditions- at least compared to the standard ContraGrip.

The outsole also has a specially stiff section in the medial toe area to help with footholds on more difficult scrambles and to allow for secure insertion into snow. Salomon calls this the “climbing zone” and they actually label it on the outsole.

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“Climbing Zone” section of the medial toe area.

fit

When you put this shoe on it definitely feels like a S Lab Sense, that is until you start walking around- this is when you immediately realize that there is a much stiffer outsole and chassis underfoot. It is not a “bad” feeling, just different- and different for good reasons:

Where most of us would not take the Sense across any potentially dangerous snow field, glacier, or up a challenging and consequential scramble, the XA Alpine will perform quite well and provide the confidence one needs to proceed safely.

While the chassis stiffness is important for mountain performance, it is not a drastically different feel and one that you will likely get used to quickly, as I did.

One initial issue that I have had is that the gaiter causes rubbing on the top of my middle toes near the foot proper. This was very noticeable on the first run but has become less and less noticeable as I use the shoes. It would seem that the gaiter is “wearing in” as the water resistant layer flexes and forms to the topology of my foot. I also wear super-thin S Lab Sense socks that give no padding whatsoever so wearing a thicker sock might make this rubbing entirely absent.

weight

These US 7.5 (40 2/3 EU) weigh in at 334 gms (11.8 oz). Although heavier than a 7.5 US S Lab Sense Softground (247 gms (8.7 oz)) and noticeable whilst running, the additional mountain performance more than offsets the additional weight. And remember is was not so long ago that a 350 gm trail running shoe was considered a “lightweight racer”!

Initial Running impressions

I have had this shoe out for about a total of 50km of buffed and rocky trail running, off-piste scrambling, snow field crossing (thanks to some snow above 9,000 feet), icy steep trails, and some hill bounding intervals in muddy, wet conditions.

The buffed trail running is definitely compromised from a trail feel and speed perspective (compared to usual running in the X-Series, Sonic, and Wings 8) as the stiff nature of the shoe leans more toward a structured product. However, there is still a reasonable amount of trail feel that allows for pleasant running, although I would not exclusively run in these shoes. On mountain exploration runs where there is significant off piste terrain and possible snow these will be a go-to shoe going forward.

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Once the ski season is over and the access clears up a bit next spring, these high ridges are where these shoes will be headed…

The performance is excellent on rocky and more technical trail terrain, dry or wet and is outstanding on off-piste scree, rocky steep ridges, boulder fields, and snow fields, once again dry or wet. The “Premium Wet Traction” ContraGrip really is much better than the standard composition in any wet and slippery conditions. Traction on submersed rocks at stream crossings is as good as anything that I have experienced. One note: drainage of the shoe is limited by the water resistant lower half of the gaiter. I found however that water is “pumped” out as you run.

I have had limited experience with the shoe on ice at this point but, so far, I have been astounded as to how grippy they have been- I have both ascended and descended some steep trails that have become icy with what feels like solid grip. They will eventually let go but since they accept crampons** I would suggest that anyone wanting to cross significant ice (or glaciers) might want to consider using crampons. It is not obvious why this compound would be so superior to the standard ContraGrip but there are basically three ways to get better grip in wet conditions and on ice- increased surface area, low-Tg rubber, and nano-sized particulates with sharp asperities. Based on a brief perusal of the recent patent literature all of the approaches are used by various manufacturers singularly or in combination. However, if one is to believe the data in some patents, it seems that the nano-sized sharp particulates are the key to increased grip in wet and icy conditions. I am not sure if the “Premium Wet Grip” ContraGrip outsole has the particulates though. But if it does, the grip should last if the compound has a uniform distribution of the particles throughout the thickness. If it is a surface layer only then there might be some decrease in performance with wear. Only time will tell.

I have had good performance in mud- both sandy aggregate and clay types with good grip and mud release. Much superior to the Sense. A couple of Class 3 scrambles have gone well including one that has been a bit edgy on past ascents/descents using the Sense- much more secure and confident with the XA Alpine.

If you want to see what the XA Alpine can really do on the feet of someone who knows what they are doing, then read Kilian’s post about the 7 summits of Romsdal where he tackles a difficult 24 hour traverse across the mountains in that part of Norway. He does these ascents (and, more importantly, descents) with nothing other than the XA Alpine and a prototype super lightweight ice axe. It is a great read and the video below shows some of the terrain.

For winter running on packed powder these shoes will be fine without any additional traction devices, but on ice I always go with carbide studs of some sort- either imbedded as in the SnowCross and SpikeCross or with an added and removable “mini crampon”, of which there are many varieties that will work well with the XA Alpine shoe. According to Salomon the XA Alpine is compatible with some “real” crampon models but they do not say which ones**. This is a good thing because it will allow for pursuit of mountain adventures that include significant ice.

price

$250 US. A bit on the pricey side but this is a unique shoe with a lot of technology and sophisticated design elements that are enabling for the new sport of “Alpinrunning“. There are, to my knowledge, no existing competitor products in this category. Based on functionality alone I find the shoe to be a good value if you are serious about getting out into (and back from) the areas you have always pointed at and said “We should go over there and bag those peaks.”

bottom line

A high performance hybrid mountaineering-running shoe capable of going “fast and light” through highly varied terrain from buffed trail to Class 3 scramble ascents/descents to snow fields- and, apparently, with an ice axe in the hands of an experienced user, across real ice terrain. This shoe is the first true “Alpinrunning”-specific product and it is highly recommended for those that want to do some challenging mountain adventuring.

I intend to use these shoes throughout the winter for limited running, for the to-and-fro to skiing, and hopefully for some mountain adventures. I will post updates.

 

** Update 13 Nov 2016: I came across another recent review of the XA Alpine where an experienced mountain runner/explorer and  shoe reviewer has essentially the same experience that I have had with the shoe. Additionally, this reviewer has tried out numerous crampon options and found many of these to integrate nicely with the XA Alpine. This further confirms the fact that this shoe will be a go-to high alpine running/exploring option for anyone comfortable in that terrain. See the review here:

Salomon S Lab XA Alpine Review – All Mountain, Any Mountain, All Conditions

The Road to Klosters – Fleet Evaluation

This is Part 6 in a series of posts about training and preparation for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters Switzerland in early March 2017. See Parts 1, 2, 3 , 4 and 5 for an overview, specific training plans, strength training, an evaluation of the required pace to podium in the M07 and F06 age classes, and a critical assessment of the efficacy of Block Periodization, respectively.

equipment matters – a lot!

Whether one accepts it or not, in cross country ski racing, equipment matters… it matters a lot! Having the right ski for the conditions on race day is critical to performance and will make all the difference in the race. Ski design and  technology has become complex and the functional gradations for conditions-specific ski performance has lead to the fact that, independent of successful training and proper peaking, one must have the right ski (and grind and wax) on race day to be competitive- there is very little margin for error. This is the sorry state that the sport is in at this juncture. By this I mean that there is a very large economic barrier to ensuring that a competitive, well-trained athlete has the right equipment on race day.

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Consider the ski fleets of elite skiers where some have over 100 pairs of skis comprised of multiple base compositions, flex, and grinds for each snow temperature,  each snow condition, and each deck condition.  In addition these athletes must keep track of all of these skis and be able to efficiently pick the right one for a given race. Hence, many elite competitors have full-time technicians that take care of the skis and help in the selection process on race day. In addition such fleets are added to and modified regularly (new ski models, new flex patterns, and new grinds) throughout the year. It is abundantly obvious that having a “complete” fleet of skis for today’s racing can cost upwards of $50,000 to $100,000 US (most elite skiers are sponsored by ski companies that provide skis so the ski cost is essentially zero for these skiers), plus the cost of a technician, plus the $5,000 – $10,000 per year for maintenance, modifications, and additions. And then there are the increasingly expensive waxes… poles…. and boots! Even some elite skiers have difficulty keeping up with these demands with National Teams and certain sponsored athletes with essentially unlimited budgets. Although needs are significantly smaller for a competitive masters skier, the cost associated with developing and maintaining a basic ski fleet for modern masters racing is substantial. We estimate that a minimum fleet would consist of three classic ski types (hard wax, klister, and zeros (or “hairies”) with perhaps some different grinds for the “wet” skis, and three skate skis (cold, wet, and softground) again with perhaps a couple of different grinds. This means a minimum of 10 pairs of skis at about $700-$800 US each (with bindings), so about $7,000-$8,000. While this price tag is about the same as current racing mountain bikes like this and this and this the referenced mountain bikes are not “minimum” models. These bikes are well suited to the most demanding cross country mountain bike race courses. Although a masters cross country MTB racer may have a second bike, one of these will certainly be a primary race bike used throughout the season.

Add to this that it is rather straightforward to double the number of fleet skis noted above for additional race conditions and this takes the cost for skis alone to well beyond anything that can even be bought in the mountain biking world. Lightweight, nimble race-level cross country mountain bikes are considered expensive (same with road bikes) but they are not as critical as skis are in cross country ski races. In ski races with optimally trained athletes, the ski can make all the difference in performance whereas in mountain biking with similarly trained athletes the bike rarely makes the difference. The same goes for many other equipment intensive sports. Cross country ski racing stands out as one of the most expensive sports to participate in at the competitive level, even for masters skiers. And this is not taking account of the $100 ski base grinds required, the $100 single race wax jobs, the $400 poles, the $500-$1200 boots, etc., etc.

Except for a very few, very wealthy individuals who compete as masters (and they do exist), a comprehensive fleet of skis and the needed assistance is non-existent in the masters ski world. But, one will need to have at least an approximately appropriate ski for the conditions on race day- which leads to the “minimum” fleet described above. So, as masters athletes, it is important to figure out how to efficiently cover all of the likely conditions one might meet on race day with a minimum of investment and this is where ski selection advice is important and, we assert, critical. You may have noticed in the Annual Training Plan (ATP) in part 2 of this series, a row for data input on “equipment preparation”. This is what that row is all about and is an essential part of your training.

Ski Experts, Ski advisers, ski Gurus, and the “Ski Whisperer”

Team Bumble Bee works with this fellow for ski advice, ski supply, fleet evaluation, ski grinding, and waxing. I cannot sufficiently stress, as a competitive ski racer, how important it is on race day to pick the right skis, the right grinds, and the right wax, in that order. For a given set of conditions, no grind or wax will make a ski with the wrong flex characteristics fast. Similarly, no wax will make a ski fast with the wrong grind for the conditions. So start with the right ski and go from there.

As it concerns skis, I have one basic rule- never ever buy a race ski from a rack in a shop. The details of your specific needs are rarely, if ever, accommodated by a ski that just happens to be on a rack in a ski shop. If you are serious about racing you need a ski with the right flex characteristics for your weight, height, and skiing style. This involves more than a “ski fit” with a thin card slid under the ski or even with the so-called “ski fit” machines that have appeared over the years. You need an experienced, highly informed, and enthusiastic ski expert to help with ski and grind selection. If properly chosen, you will be using these skis for many seasons. For the small additional fee (about $100 US) over and above the retail list for a given ski that ski gurus charge, you will get a hand picked ski from racing stock that will continue to perform.

Nordic skis are the Lambos of the ski world— precision and details 
matter— while alpine skis are a bit like your stock Mustang.
Jason Albert, Outside Magazine

What is racing stock? Well, it is the portion of so-called “race ski model” production that have uniform, smooth, and paired flex characteristics (the number of skis that meet these criteria typically make up less than 20% of all race model skis manufactured) . These critical ski characteristics are variable since the production process and materials are not sufficiently controlled to allow for high consistency. After production the race-quality skis are screened out and set aside for sponsored athletes, race teams, and “pickers” to choose from during visits to the factory. The other 80% of the manufactured race model skis go to the shops, and it is not likely that you will find a good “race-quality” ski among these skis. This is why we advise any one who asks us, that they find a ski expert that makes summer visits to select skis at the factories. The “ski whisperer” is one possibility and one that we highly recommend. Such ski advisers can not only pick the right skis for you, they can also help you build and develop a workable fleet (skis, bases, and grinds) for the racing you intend to do. Depending on your bandwidth for spending money, it may take a few years to fully populate a minimum fleet of skis, but since you are working with an expert these skis will be right for you and should perform well for years. After the initial fleet building period, modifications (e.g. grinds) and additions (e.g new technologies like the Salomon Carbon skate ski) can be made annually without significant economic impact. But you need to be methodical and efficient about the process.

annual “ski therapy” session

It is important to annually meet with your expert and conduct a fleet evaluation to ensure that you will have the correct selection of skis for the races you intend to do in the upcoming season. The “ski therapy” session will remind you, in detail, of what it is that you have, what gaps there are, which of the existing skis are working well (or not), and, likely, you will get some additional education on how when to use each ski. It is a great thing to do, especially with an expert; although you could go through the process by yourself if you are sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced enough. The point is to make sure you do this exercise- it is just as critical as the training if you want to be able to perform at your highest level.

We have recently had our annual “ski therapy” session with the “ski whisperer” and, combined  with some ski additions communicated earlier this summer prior to factory visits, we have decided to update a few grinds on existing skis. Working off a spreadsheet with all of the available flex, base, and grind data on each ski and with historic notes from racing, we discussed the entire fleet in detail, our “A” races and the likely snow conditions, and which skis are going to be “top of mind” for each race.

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We also took advantage of the extensive European racing, World Cup, and Olympics experience that the “ski whisperer” has to discuss what we will likely find for ski conditions in Klosters in March. This will help when packing since we will not be bringing our entire fleet with us and we will be in contact at that point when the conditions are more defined.

We ended our session with the feeling that we should have what we need for all but the most unique snow conditions and confident that we can concentrate on athletic preparation and not equipment acquisition going forward. It is definitely a good feeling. We highly recommend that any serious masters athlete consider developing a working relationship with someone like the “ski whisperer” or perhaps “ski whisperer” himself- he comes highly recommended.

The Road to Klosters – Block Periodization?

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This is Part 5 in a series of posts about training and preparation for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters Switzerland in early March 2017. See Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 for an overview, specific training plans, strength training, and an evaluation of the required pace to podium in the M07 and F06 age classes. This post will begin a critical review of “block periodization” as applied to cross country ski racing training for masters skiers.

As stated in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I (Bumble) have adopted a “block periodization” approach to training for the cross country skiing race season this year. The other half of Team Bumble Bee (Bee) has decided to stick with the traditional (linear) training periodization that got her to two Olympics and many National Championships and National Championship podiums. Perhaps a wise choice but since we have almost 40 years of history of training together in many sports (road cycling, mountain biking, cross country skiing, road and trail running, and adventure racing) it will be an interesting season to see what the effects of a block periodization approach can have for an ageing athlete- both good and bad.

block periodization

To obtain a detailed understanding of Block Periodization you will be well served to read Issurin’s book on the subject. The following is a brief synopsis of some take-aways that I have found useful in adapting Block Periodization (BP) to cross country ski racing training and specifically for a 60 year old experienced endurance athlete. I am assuming that the reader has a basic grasp of periodization and training plan development. For a good introductory-to-intermediate exposition on periodization I will suggest Chapter 8 of Friel’s book Total Heart Rate Training or Chapter 2 of House and Johnston’s book Training for the New Alpinisim.

Traditional periodization is comprised of a Macrocycle that is a year-long or many month-long sequence of Mesocycles called Base, Build, Peak, Race, and Transition. Here Base is “General Preparation”, build is “Specific Preparation”, “Peak” is Pre-Competition, “Race” is Competition, and “Transition” is the period between seasons (or between “A” races) for rest and recovery (both mental and physical). Within the Mesocycles are the individual workouts or series of workouts and they are called Microcycles. The “periodization” of this sequence has to do with not just the macro sequence of periods but also the length of each training period and the workout progressions in each period. Many athletes will have multiple Macrocycles in a calendar year to target multiple “A” races.

The distinguishing aspect of traditional periodization is that in each of the mesocycles all relevant abilities are exercised in parallel, although with varying focus. So a traditional periodization mesocycle will have appropriate levels of endurance, high intensity intervals, technique, speed, and strength stimuli to achieve the desired training effect.

It is important to point out that cross country skiing has a 10-12 week racing “season” where world-level competitors will be racing  every week (and possibly more than once each week). Typically there are a couple of rest periods (a week of no racing) distributed during the season. This leads to a long “Race” Mesocycycle and this period needs to focus on staying sharp and rested for the entire season (or most of it). Some athletes choose a few races and develop a “race” mesocycle that allows for numerous peaks along with “B” races mixed in. The best skiers, however, are able to race competitively for the entire season with perhaps a short break before the most important “career” races like World Championships (every two years) and Olympics (every four years).  For masters competitors the racing density is typically much lower (perhaps as often as every other week) and recovery between races is less challenging, although the slower recovery rate for ageing athletes can make such recovery just as challenging as for the World Cup competitors.

This long race season is the reason that the oft-heard quote “successful cross country skiers are made in the summer” holds so true. There is no making up for training once the season starts; so your fate as a competitor is essentially sealed by mid-December- just about the time that reliable snow is on the ground. It is critically important to do the general work from May-August, the specific work from August-November, and the Pre-Comp work in November-December. Once there is snow on the ground you will be racing.

The period sequencing allows an athlete to develop abilities (for instance, muscular endurance) and then maintain these abilities with reduced stimuli in subsequent periods that have a different focus. The macro progression needs to be sequenced in a way that is particular to one’s sport, the type of racing that is targeted, the timing of the races (or race season), and the time and commitment of the athlete. In the case of cross country skiing racing, endurance is the focus of the base period, VO2max development and Lactate Threshold pace are the focus of the build period, the peak period focuses on speed skill, technique, and getting sharp and rested, and the race period is focused on staying sharp and rested. This can be fairly complicated given all of the individual particulars for each competitor and is the reason that having a coach to help is a good idea for any committed athlete, including masters. But you can develop an effective training plan yourself if you are sufficiently motivated and knowledgeable.

A very common traditional periodization approach used by cross country ski athletes is based on 7-day microcycle within a 4 week mesocycle. This approach includes stimuli for many  energy systems (abilities) in each week of training. For example, a typical traditional periodozation week might have a mid-length endurance workout and strength session on Monday, lactate threshold intervals on Tuesday, another endurance workout on Wednesday, a technique focus workout and strength session on Thursday, VO2 max intervals on Friday, a Tempo workout on Saturday, and an over-distance (OD) workout on Sunday- then rinse and repeat. This pattern is then adjusted within weeks to accommodate a 4 week cycle that includes one or more volume weeks, one or more intensity weeks, and, typically, one recovery week. For instance, in the “build” period an emphasis will be put upon VO2max and Lactate Threshold sessions and endurance, technique, speed, and strength will, to varying degrees, be de-emphasized. Multiple similar 4 week mesocycles can be scheduled to elicit the desired training stimulus (e.g. a longer endurance focus in the “base” period). The 4 week mesocycles are then planned such that as the race season approaches the training focus is shifted to the abilities that are most important for racing excellence, in the case of cross country skiing these are VO2max and Lactate Threshold pace.

Block periodization (BP) does not attempt to keep all abilities equally developed, rather each mesocycle has a singular focus (or, at most, two) that allows the athlete to fully develop a given ability. A basic tenet that drives the assertion of the efficacy of BP is a particularly strong argument for what some call “advanced” athletes. These are individuals that have been in rigorous periodized training regimens (typically in a traditional periodization protocol) for many years and have either reached or come close to their ultimate athletic potential. For advanced athletes following such a protocol, it is asserted by BP proponents that the traditional periodization approach has essentially taken the athlete to a performance plateau that is either the end-point for this athlete or represents a platform from which further performance improvements can be made by additional focus on the ability and/or intensity (or abilities/intensities) that are critical to racing success. So, in contrast to developing all energy systems (abilities) together on a weekly basis (traditional periodization), BP utilizes multi-week “blocks” of singular focus on a given intensity (or ability) to attempt to lift the athlete off a performance plateau by “fully” developing the energy system that drives that ability at that intensity. For example a common BP approach will have a 4-6 week VO2max mesocycle where the athlete does 3-5 VO2max workouts per week and essentially nothing else but rest and recovery. This could be followed by a 4-6 week Lactate Threshold pace mesocycle where, similarly, the workouts are singularly focused on maximizing Lactate Threshold pace. It is claimed that traditional periodization cannot do as good a job of ‘fully” developing such energy systems since efforts and time at intensity are diffused across a number of abilities and energy systems during the weekly training plan. Numerous studies have shown such a “block” protocol to be superior to traditional periodization in numerous endurance sports including cross country skiing.

Makes sense right? Well, there is a lot of data and substantial World and Olympic Championship history to support the efficacy of traditional periodization. This is the reason why an overwhelming majority (I estimate greater than 95%) of the best endurance athletes use some version of traditional periodization. However, BP is relatively new to endurance sport having only been incorporated in a meaningful way in the last 1-1.5 decades by a comparatively small number of world-level elite athletes. Perhaps the results of well-designed BP programs have yet to be highly publicized partly due to the highly secretive nature of many coaches and athletes when it comes to the specifics of their training regimens. Additionally, given less experience with BP, coaches may have difficulty with dosing, particularly with the highest intensity work. One of the primary negative feedback issues that I have discussed with a number of advanced and elite athletes that have tried BP is that they felt like they had perhaps too much intensity prior to the race season and then felt flat at important races. This is where the all-important 3 D’s come in- density, dose, and downtime. You need to get this right or you may well go over the edge- that perilous edge that defines the difference between success and failure that highly developed athletes face on a daily basis- a situation that a training program and associated coaching is supposed to avoid. This is yet another reason to have a coach. It is still early days for the application of BP to cross country skiing (and other endurance sports) but there is promise, particularly for “advanced” athletes.

block periodization for masters athletes

Many serious masters athletes are “advanced” athletes, that is they have been competing at a high level in their sport(s) of choice for many, many years- perhaps as many as 30-40 years- like me. Such athletes have likely reached performance plateaus and may be looking for a training approach that will allow them to break off the plateau and begin to see significant performance increases. This is one reason why BP is a good choice for advanced masters competitors.

A second reason for a masters competitor (not just advanced masters) to give serious consideration to BP is based upon a critical assessment of Friel’s “Big 3” performance limiters for masters athletes. Recall that these are:

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

BP is ideally suited to address both the aerobic capacity issue and the muscle mass issue by allowing the athlete to focus on these within appropriately scheduled blocks in the periodization. Not only could BP break a masters athlete off a performance plateau, but those blocks focused on VO2max (aerobic capacity) will give the masters athlete the chance to beat back the foreboding effects of age and stop reductions in, or, hopefully, increase their VO2max.

These are the reasons that I am going with a BP program this season.

Training update – the first VO2max block

As you can see from my ATP, I spent July and August in a 9 week endurance “block” and entered into a 4 week VO2max “block” in late August through late September. I did some mini-block training this past spring while training for two ultramarathon running races and that seemed to work well, or at least as well as a traditional periodization. So with a bit a of familiarity, I went “all in” on a difficult block in September. Having not done any real high intensity training for over 10 weeks I eased into the workouts by starting with 1 minute duration efforts for the first week, 2 minute for the second week, 3 minute for the third week, and then ladders for the last week. This made the workouts less monotonous than some BP workouts I have seen and they were quite challenging as well.

Getting back to the “3Ds” (density, dose, and downtime) mentioned earlier, I was careful about how much intensity to start with and what to build up to. As far as density, although I wanted to do three VO2max workouts per week, I scaled that back to two in this first block to ensure that I did not go over the edge. For dose, after doing a bunch of research on the subject, I settled on starting at around 12-15 minutes of L5a-b work*** progressing through the block to about 25 minutes of L5a-b work***. I did more recovery (downtime) than I thought I needed, just to be careful at this point. Specifically,

All workouts are hill bounding with poles on steep (10-15% grade) to very steep (20-30% grade) hills with active rest periods:

week 1/workout 1: 10 X 1 min on 1 min rest on an uphill (10 min total work)

week 1/workout 2: 20 X 1 min on 1 min rest (20 min total work)

week 2/workout1: 7 X 2 min on 2 min rest (14 min total work)

week 2/workout2: 10 X 2 min on 2 min rest (20 min total work)

week 3/workout1: 5 X 3 min on 3 min rest (15 min total work)

week 3/workout 2: 7 X 3 on 3 min rest (21 min total work)

week 4/workout1: ladders- 2 X (1-2-3-3-2-1 min) on equal rest (24 min total work)

week 4 workout 2: ladders- 2 X (1-2-3-3-2-1 min) on equal rest (24 min total work)

Here is a typical heart rate trace and elevation profile from one of the ladder repeats:

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Heart rate trace and elevation profile from a 1-2-3-3-2-1 min hill bounding interval ladder on equal active rest. LT is 155, L5a 155-158 bpm, L5b 159-164 bpm, max HR is 170 bpm***.  In the graphic, gray is heart rate and green is elevation. The first 1 min interval does not get into range but the rest do including the first 3 min interval where I hit max HR- something I tried to avoid but so be it. I would prefer for these to have more “flat tops” (i.e. longer time at higher HR) but these are pretty good for VO2max intervals- LT intervals will have nice” flat tops”. The total elevation change for the 3 min intervals is about 50 m (165 feet).

I was getting 18 -24 hour recovery indexes from my Garmin 920XT after these workouts so I probably went into the block with good rest and seem to be absorbing the work fairly well, meaning that the downtime I implemented was sufficient. I will put up a separate post on why I think the FirstBeat recovery index that you get on a Garmin 920XT (and other models) is a valid assessment. One concern that I have is that I did an easy 10 km run today (September 30) during this recovery week and I got a TE (FirstBeat training effect) of 3.6 and a recovery index of 27 hours- not good for an easy run. I will be taking things very easy the next few days before embarking on a 4 week LT block.

I am also curious to find out if this extended VO2max block has had any impact on the FirstBeat measurement of VO2max.  My VO2max has peaked at about 72 according to the 920XT over the past 2 years of use. If one has confidence in the FirstBeat algorithim this value would be only about 13% less than a “real” VO2max assessment of 82 done in 1979-1980 at the OTC at age 24. I am highly skeptical that such a small decline in VO2max is possible after almost 40 years, so I question the accuracy of the FirstBeat algorithm. However, based on the analysis protocol, VO2max trends are probably quite accurate and worth following. Prior to the recent VO2max block the watch had detected a peak of 63 during the summer endurance block. So I will be looking to see if this has changed significantly as I proceed into the LT block where the watch will be regularly detecting circumstances that allow for a calculation of VO2max. This should prove to be interesting.

Concurrently with the VO2max cardio block, I have been going through a max strength build program (“block”) as described in Part 3 of this series and on the ATP. All is going well and the build continues for another week where I should terminate the progression at over 150% of body weight for the pull up work. I met with a stubborn plateau at the 3/4 mark of the progression but with a bit more rest I was able to push through to the next weight increment. The hypertrophy is clearly in evidence- hopefully that slows down as it is a fine line for an endurance athlete between muscle mass and efficiency. A second max strength build progression will start sometime around November 1 (shifted from October 1 due to the stubborn plateau in the first progression), but I will have to get yet another heavier weight vest as I have maxed out the heavier one I got in August for the current block. That will make three increasing weight weight vests purchased over the past year. I do expect a hard plateau to come with this next heavier vest.

So having made it through the first high intensity block without any issues things are on a positive vibe- but being just at the beginning of this experiment I will defer any assessment until the first races in December. Having not ever done that much high intensity (VO2max) work over such an extended period ( 4 weeks), it seems that the protocol is “doable”, but the real question is: is it better than traditional periodization? – we will be finding out!

*** important note on heart rate zones

I utilize Friel’s heart rate zones which are enumerated in the back of his book Total Heart Rate Training. The values are based off percent of lactate threshold (LT)- a method that is derived from this easily measured physiologic variable. Many other systems utilize a percent of maximum heart rate- something that can be difficult (or dangerous) to reliably measure. I include three heart rate zone charts below to illustrate the differences that are yielded when using three different protocols- Friel’s based on LT (I give approximate % max HR values as well), “Nordic Elite” (an historical categorization typical among Cross Country Skiers) and the categorization shown in the book Training for the New Alpinisim. Friel (and many others) break up Zone 5 (Level 5) into three sub-zones (a,b,&c) and has workouts designed around these additional demarcations within Zone 5. The US Ski Association (USSA) also does this now where Zone 5 is split into sub-zones called 5, 6, 7 which are equivalent to Friel’s Zones 5a, 5b, and 5c. However, the USSA (USST), in their coaches training manuals, use very different zones than those typified by the Friel system. For instance, the USSA Level 3 is too broad and encompasses most of Friel’s Zone 2, all of Zone 3, and all of Zone 4. For instance, the USSA Level 3, for me, is from 139 bpm (90% of LT) to 155 bpm (100% of LT). So for my LT (155 bpm) the USSA Level 3 goes from low aerobic pace to race pace. Therefore proper segregation of effort into Friel’s (and many others) aerobic Zone 2, the “no man’s land” of Zone 3, and the very important steady state-tempo-lactate threshold Zone 4 is not defined. The USSA “Level 3” ends up confusing many athletes familiar with traditional five and seven zone systems- systems that are highly ingrained into the endurance training literature. In addition, in the manual, the description of and example workouts in “level 3” refer only to the upper end of this level (Friel’s Zone 4) and no mention is made of the ill effects of spending much training time in the lower end of the USSA level 3 (the traditional “zone 3” no man’s land). So why have such a broad categorization?  It does not make sense. For these reasons I recommend not using the USSA system and that one consider the Friel-type protocol as a primary operative and intellectual construct.

But remember that it is critically important that one accurately define heart rate zones to efficaciously utilize heart rate as a training tool. This is the principal mistake that many athletes make when using heart rate monitoring for training- they do not take the time to set the zones accurately. Also, if using LT as the basis for the zones, one must update the zones regularly when you are in intensive training because LT will move around a bit depending what the focus of the training is. For example, my LT typically moves from 153-155 as a function of whether I am in an endurance focus (153) or an intensity focus (155).

HR Zone charts based on Friel, Nordic Elite and New Alpinisim protocols for a few max HR and LTs:

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

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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. Regular time trials are one of the most powerful tools one can easily self-generate to guide your training.

 

The Road to Klosters 2017 – Strength Training

klosters logo

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 slightly less than 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.