"To plot, to take aim at something, to shape time and space. This is how we advance the art of human consciousness." Murray to Jack in "White Noise" by Don Delillo
With solid plans (i.e. paid airline tickets and hotel reservations with deposits) to compete in the 2017 World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships in Klosters/Davos Switzerland I will be putting up a series of posts over the next 9 months on my preparations for getting to the starting line as fit and competitive as is possible for this 60 year old rapidly aging athlete. This is the first installment. Look for others to follow.
I am not a professional coach, nor do I have any certifications (which I find to be dubious anyway). I do read a lot and I currently compete regularly year round in Cross Country Skiing, trail running, and trail ultra running. I have a coach, my wife (who is also not a professional coach), and we are both former elite-level endurance athletes (in Cross Country Skiing, Road Cycling, and Cross Country Mountain Biking). We are bringing over 80 years of combined knowledge and experience in training at the elite and sub-elite level for national, international, and Olympic-level competitions to bear on our individualized training programs. What we do, and what I might describe here, is not intended to be a recommendation for anyone else as we are all individuals with very different backgrounds, abilities, and commitments. As in any athletic endeavor, one should be fully aware of their capacities and have the consultation of a professional to guide them when embarking upon a training regimen. In fact, it is clear that no one should do what we do for training as all training programs should be personalized. My purpose here is to document the build-up to the Klosters Championship by applying known, sound physiologic principles to a training program designed for me. Others may find the information of interest to varying degrees.
As for cross country skiing, although there is some spotty information, numerous dated books, and a lot of disorganized thoughts available out in the published world, it does not amount to much. One source for thoughts on training for cross country skiing that has a good base of historical information is at NordicSkiRacer. Some of the links are broken but overall this is a good place to look around for some input on your own training program. The coaching manuals from the US Ski Association (Level 1 and Level 2) are also a good source but are, obviously, focused upon the developing and/or young athlete.
developing a training program
Any training program should have an articulated conceptual “philosophy” and an overarching structure that addresses the approach. This is what I will describe in this post.
No reliable conceptual training “philosophy” can be conjured up out of a vacuum of knowledge and experience; similarly, such a “philosophy” will be highly informed by the knowledge and experience of the author. Therefore my “philosophy” is a result of many years of competing as well as having read over 100 books on athletic endurance, strength, and mental training in numerous competitive sports. Expectedly, there are a few core books that I will refer to when speaking to training program development and execution. Given that I am a 60 year old competitor, the unique application of endurance and strength training physiology and protocols to older athletes will be central to a successful outcome.
There is a singular book that I highly recommend for understanding the diminished physiologic capacity of older endurance athletes: Fast After 50 by Joe Friel. If you read but one book on training for older athletes, this is the one you should read. The content of this book has highly influenced the “philosophy” and the detailed specifics of the training program that we have developed for ourselves as we go forward toward the Klosters starting line.
Among other books that I have found invaluable and will frequently refer to are:
The Lydiard Foundation – free material no longer available
Other books as well as peer-reviewed references will be used to support concepts, protocols, and detailed training progressions. Please comment if you have questions or if you have something to constructively add.
Before delving into the specifics of the unique physiologic realities of an older endurance athlete and what sort of training “philosophy” might be effective, there is one overarching basic principle that applies to anyone who is engaging in a serious training regimen:
The Big “C” and the Capital “R” – Consistency and Recovery
Consistency (The Big “C”) and Recovery (The Capital “R”) are the foundational basis for any successful training plan. Progression will only result if one is consistent in their training and that sufficient recovery is observed prior to additional training stimulus. Seems obvious, right? Well, these are the two most difficult things for an overwhelming majority of serious athletes to adhere to. Maintaining consistency in the face of needed recovery is a difficult thing to balance for even the most highly motivated athletes with plenty of time to train and is particularly difficult when one has other significant stressors in their life and/or is an older (50+) athlete. So while The Big “C” and the Capital “R” appear obvious and seem to be simple to do, reality has a way of making it one of the most difficult challenges in athletic training . This balance is magnified in training for endurance sports since the training stimuli can be very taxing to the endocrine system.
For many, attaining good balance between The Big “C” and The Capital “R” essentially comes down to significant lifestyle decisions like commitment to things such as sufficient high quality sleep, limiting other “extracurricular” activities, “healthy” eating, limited or no alcohol intake, prioritizing down time, etc. For each there will be a different balance so no recommendations are offered here, nor has anyone perfected this- it is an infinite optimization problem that one can only continually chip away at. But this is not to diminish the importance of consistency and recovery- if you accomplish just one thing, being consistent in your training and ensuring sufficient recovery is that one thing. All that follows assumes training consistency and sufficient recovery.
Ordinal Training principles for older endurance athletes
Let’s start with a quote from Friel in the book “Fast After 50” p. 108:
“This brings us back to the big three- the primary determiners of performance decline with age according to sport science. To refresh your memory, these are declining aerobic capacity, increasing body fat, and loss of muscle mass.” Joe Friel in "Fast After 50"
In the book Friel uses a raft of peer-reviewed studies and basic physiological understanding to found this conclusion. His summary statement is also consistent with my own experience and that of many other older endurance athletes that I have interacted with. These are the “big three” training elements that any older endurance athlete needs to address- first and foremost. I further refine these and give them an ordinal character functional with a specific sport. For Cross Country Skiing I use the following order of importance for the “big three”:
- loss of muscle mass
- declining aerobic capacity
- increasing body fat
It is well documented that as we age we loose muscle mass, it is known as sarcopenia. Sarcopenia has origins in decreased hormone production. Significantly lower levels of testosterone and estrogen, growth hormone, and insulinlike growth factor are evident in most individuals. On the positive side there are studies that have shown that such muscle loss can be slowed, stopped, or even reversed if one engages in a strength program of sufficient volume and intensity- a “use it or loose it” paradigm. Including strength training in a cross country skiing training program is essential to progression since not only is one’s power production dependent on muscle strength, one’s technique and efficiency are also critically dependent on the same muscle strength (and endurance).
I will argue, assuming a highly developed aerobic fitness capacity, that in the past decade Cross Country Skiing has become an upper body and core strength-dominant sport. Not to say that leg strength is not important but rather that, building upon optimal aerobic fitness, upper body and core strength are the most important elements in successful racing. Among many other examples, this is evidenced by, for example, winning World Cup skiers double poling entire 10 km – 30 km classic races that contain steep hills. This can be achieved only with a ridiculously strong upper body and core. Here is what H. C. Holmberg has to say about the subject in a recent publication:
"The revolutionary increase in the use of the DP technique has many causes including better preparation/grooming of ski tracks, marked improvement of equipment (both the poles and gliding properties of the skis), greater upper-body strength and endurance, and substantial biomechanical improvements."
So, although there are other factors, upper-body strength and endurance are critical, and I would additionally argue that such strength and endurance is, in fact, enabling. Given that the double pole (DP) technique is critical to V2 skating and that the same bio-mechanics for superior DP also lead to superior V1 and V1 alt, the importance of upper-body and core strength cannot be questioned. In fact, the emergence of the US Women’s Cross Country Ski Team at the top of the World Cup in the past 5 years is directly associated with a focus by the team on upper body and core strength development following in the path of a similar focus that has been in place with the dominant Norwegian Men’s and Women’s team for over a decade. This is why I have “loss of muscle mass” as the number one training focus for older cross country skiing athletes- it is one of the capacities that is most detrimentally affected with age and it is arguably the most important part of successful competitive cross country skiing. This is also why all training programs for older athletes need to address the fact that we are loosing muscle mass and to, therefore, include substantial strength training elements- elements that take precedence over even aerobic, aerobic capacity, and technique training. Without the upper-body and core strength one’s technique and efficiency will suffer. Just spend a few minutes looking around at your next ski race or at the Nordic Center in your area- you will see poor technique and the associated collapsing cores and noodle-like “chicken wing” arms all around you. Currently, strength training does not play the central role that it should in cross country skiing, at least in the US. I will have a separate post on cross country skiing-specific strength training for older endurance athletes.
Moving on to the #2 most important factor for ageing athletes- aerobic capacity (VO2 max). Aerobic capacity is more substantially diminished with age than either lactate threshold (LT) or economy. Reduced aerobic capacity can be partly due to increased body weight but, for an experienced older competitive athlete, the greatest portion of the reduction is most likely due to a slow progression away from high intensity interval training (HIIT) stimuli. It is rather easy to slowly reduce and, perhaps, eventually eliminate HIIT from your training regimen given the reputation such workouts have with respect to how difficult or “brutal” they can be. This, combined with concerns for injury during HIIT, has, in my experience, lead to a slow progression for reductions in, and for some athletes, elimination of, HIIT for many ageing athletes. But as you age, HIIT becomes of critical importance to ensuring that you slow the inevitable loss of your aerobic capacity. Studies have shown that VO2 max reductions with age can be minimized by inclusion of a regular diet of HIIT. So HIIT should play a central role in any training regimen for older athletes.
Finally we come to the subject of increasing body fat. As noted above, it is well documented that as we age there is a significant loss of muscle mass and unless we experience a coincident reduction in body weight as we age (very unusual), we are replacing that muscle with fat. There are few older athletes that maintain the same or similar weight to their most competitive days in their 20’s and early 30’s. I find that one can come close but never actually get there. In my case at 5’7″ with a slight build, I weighed 119-122 lbs (54-55.5 kg) when in the most competitive condition as a road cyclist specializing in races with lots of climbing. At 60, and competing in cross country skiing and mountain trail and mountain trail ultra running, this optimal-condition weight has climbed to 124-126 lbs (56.5-57.5 kg) for mountain trail running and, with the requisite added upper body mass, to 128-130 lbs (58-59 kg) for cross country skiing. Measured body fat in my 20’s varied from a low of 5% to a more typical 7%. These days I hover at 8-10%- a significant increase. I find that if I venture into the sub-124 lb weight range I become “crabby”, have difficulty sleeping, and become more susceptible to viruses. The same was true in earlier days when I ventured into the sub-119 lb range. I can highly recommend “Racing Weight” for guidance on this importanat subject. Weight is a very individual thing and, for some, very personal (and bordering on “religion”), so I will not spend much time discussing the subject other than to highlight it’s importance.
So, I hope I have made a strong case for the primacy of consistency and recovery in training and for the over-riding importance, as ageing athletes, of the need to concentrate on maintaining or increasing muscle mass, maintaining or increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing body fat. Endurance and technique development are secondary to the “Big 3”. You don’t have to take my word for this, just take the time to read and absorb Friel’s book and I think you will be convinced that by focusing on the “Big 3” and developing your training plan around this concentration there will be a path to progress and improvement even as you age.
Training plan structure
"The bigger the base, the higher the peak." Arthur Lydiard
There are many different training plan structures that have been successfully used by endurance athletes. Many of these structures come and go in popularity but one in particular has survived the test of time- the simple periodized Lydiard approach. The basic tenet is “the bigger the base, the higher the peak” – meaning that any success is built on a substantial base of endurance training leading into more sport specific and finally, race specific training. This progression typically involves a long 12-20 week base (the “big base” ala Lydiard) followed by 8-10 week sport specific period and then a race specific period of 4-6 weeks followed, in cross country skiing, by the approximately 10-12 week “race season” of repeated race prep, between-race rest, and aerobic maintenance. I have used such a protocol for my entire life as an endurance athlete and it has worked well and allowed me to excel and regularly perform close to my best potential. I have been somewhat reticent to try any other pedagogy given not only my personal success but also the uniform acceptance of Lydiard-like training programs across the spectrum of competitive endurance sport. However, there is a recent (last 5 years) trend in endurance sports (including cross country skiing) that, along with accumulating supportive peer-reviewed studies, indicates that there may be a constructive and efficacious “tweak” that one can apply to a standard Lydiard-like plan for improved results- it is called “block periodization”. Among a number of recent publications, I reference one here that does a reasonable job at explaining what “block periodization” is as it relates to cross country skiing training as well as providing data that can be interpreted to support the advantages of a “block periodization” protocol.
Traditional Periodization (TP) differs from “Block Periodization” (BP) in that TP mixes the development of abilities and energy systems throughout the training plan. BP has mesocycle structure that is made up of blocks of training that address, primarily, a single ability or energy system. For example while a TP plan might have weekly interval training sessions (in the sport specific training period) that mix a VO2 max session on say, Monday, with a Lactate Threshold (LT) session on Thursday, the BP plan would take a 4-6 week period and focus on VO2 max and then follow that up with a similar (or longer, depending on the sport and the specialization of the athlete) LT “block”. The argument for this being a better approach is that by concentrating on single energy systems or abilities one can wring out every last bit of improvement that would be possible with a given athlete. The other part of a BP program that is appealing is that the macrostructure is tuned to the race season where the block progression starts with the least race-specific work transitioning into the most race-specific work. So for cross country skiing you would likely see a progression that has an endurance block followed by a VO2max block and then finishing with a LT block. This progression makes sense because the endurance base is critical to giving the athlete the ability to handle the difficult VO2 max work and then the LT block provides race-specific preparation since cross country ski races are typically raced at threshold (or just above threshold). Similarly, for mountain trail ultra running an effective progression might have an early season VO2 max block followed by a LT block and finishing with a race-specific endurance block since ultra running races are typically run at endurance-level effort (L2-low L3).
I have been experimenting with BP this running season and have developed enough confidence in the efficacy of the approach that I am proceeding with a BP protocol for the upcoming ski training and racing season. The grapevine indicates that some of the top cross country skiing national teams are adopting, to varying degrees, BP-like training programs. Not that this trend with current elite athletes would necessarily make sense for a 60 year old has-been but, given my personal experience, BP does seem to potentially give enhanced results for the same training commitment. Only time will tell.
I will also note here that Jason Koop and Jim Rutberg in their book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” do a great job of outlining and applying the principles of BP for ultrarunning. It is straightforward to modify their approach to cross country skiing. This is the only current source of a comprehensive guide to BP for endurance sport that I am aware of and I highly recommend that, if you are interested in BP, that you read the book.
I have spoken with two recent US Cross Country Skiing Olympians and they have both experimented with block periodization and both have had issues with going into the long race season energized. The very challenging pre-race season VO2max and LT blocks can, if not properly dosed, lead to diminished returns. Both have returned to traditional mixed periodization. I will be keeping a close eye on this going forward.
In the next post I will present the macrostructure of my training program and outline detailed training plans for the next few months (July-December) using a BP protocol with a Lydiard-like progression.
A few words about “grit” and motivation
Any commitment of substance is based upon individual motivation and some will argue that completion of any challenging commitment will take “grit”. You have probably read articles and commentary on the importance of “grit” in training for and competing in endurance sports. No one actually does a good job of defining what ‘grit” is- even Duckworth in her recent book “Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance” fails to do so. I think this is because grit is a derivative descriptor and not an actual thing. For me “grit” is the actualization of motivation. It is not that one is “gritty” or that “grit” is genetic or that “grit” is learned, but rather that “grit” derives from motivation- either extrinsic motivation or intrinsic motivation or, likely, some combination thereof. The origin of “grittiness” is motivation and motivation is a very complex thing, one that may be the subject of future post. But suffice it to say that we know when we are motivated and we know what motivates us (so long as we are willing to be truthful with ourselves about the subject). The important point here is that motivation is another basic, foundational, part of any training program. Given the commitment needed to succeed in any challenging training regimen, it is well worth while to go about understanding what your motivation is and making sure that first, you are, in fact, motivated, and second, that you are fully behind those reasons that currently motivate you and, third, that these reasons are “durable” (meaning that the reasons are not subject to significant change in the foreseeable future). There will be little value in embarking upon a difficult and challenging training regimen only to find that your motivation is waning or that circumstances have lead to highly diminished motivational support for the daily grind. Be sure you are ready to commit and then commit. None of this is easy and it will always take a high level of commitment and enthusiasm that can only originate in authentic motivation- know yourself so you can freely release the energy needed to attain your goals.