As indicated in the first post in this series, in this second post I will describe the training plan structure that I have put in place to prepare for the Klosters Masters World Cup Cross Country Skiing Championships in March of 2017.
Just to review some of the content of the first post, first and foremost, the training plan is constructed around a few guiding principles and an overarching training “philosophy”. The fundamental base of the training approach is consistency and recovery (the Big “C” and the Capital “R”) since without such a base, it really does not matter what else one does, your preparation will be compromised. Training rule #1 is strive for consistency even if the session might be compromised and strive for recovery even if you end up “over-recovered”. It is best to at least do some work and to do such work in a recovered state. Skipping scheduled training sessions or pushing through training sessions whilst not recovered end up having non-linear regressive impact on your overall training progress. Just like building an investment account where every little ends up being a lot, in athletic training every little adds up to much more than the arithmetic sum due to non-linear compounded training progress.
The second input to the training plan is to accommodate the unique needs of an older (50+) competitive cross country skiing athlete. These areas of focus (the “Big 3”) are to increase muscle mass (or at least stop or minimize loss of muscle), to increase aerobic capacity (VO2 max) (or at least to stop or minimize loss of aerobic capacity), and to reduce body fat (or at least to stop or minimize increases in body fat).
The third input to the training program is to develop a Lydiard-like periodized structure incorporating the concepts of “block periodization” (BP).
Training Plan Macrostructure (aka Annual Training Plan (ATP))
The overall training plan structure based on a 12 month cycle starting 4 July 2016 through March 2017 is depicted below in graphical form.
As you can see, the overall structure begins with a 9 week endurance block followed by a 4 week VO2 max block, a 3 week LT block, a 4 week VO2 max Peak block, and a final 4 week LT block just prior to the 10 week race season. Also shown are proposed recovery weeks, some of the planned races (others TBD), the strength plan, technique development, and equipment preparation. The Mesostructure section below will explain the reasoning behind this overall structure for the cardio portion of the plan. Strength, technique, and equipment plans will be covered in separate posts.
Training plan mesostructure
Each block in the the training plan has a physiological and logistical basis. Endurance training, although necessary for an older athlete is pretty much secondary in the overall build-up to the race season as explained below. Of primary importance are the VO2 max and LT blocks and the associated abilities/energy systems that will play a fundamental role in optimal racing condition.
In my case, the endurance preparation is actually quite a bit longer than depicted as I started training in mid-March for two ultra running races in June. Since I was just coming off of the ski racing season I had a fully developed LT ability/energy system after a 2-per-week LT/VO2 max interval session diet from October-early March along with 6 races mixed in. So I started the ultra running training in mid-March with endurance-level (L1-L2/low L3) efforts gradually leading to twice weekly 4 hour mountain runs with reasonable vert (5000 ft / 1200 m) over a 10 week period with a 2 week LT block in the middle (about mid-April). This fed into a two week taper, a 60 km mountain race on 4 June, a week of recovery-level running, then a 1 week taper and finally a 50 km mountain race on 18 June. I was a bit fried given the 5-8 hour race efforts just two weeks apart. I took an extra long recovery until 4 July and have now started a new endurance block depicted above. So my endurance base is substantial, others may not have such an endurance base to work from and would need to have a longer endurance block to establish a sufficient endurance base for maximizing the VO2 max and LT blocks that follow. The other point here about endurance is that older (50+) athletes who have been in competitive endurance sport continuously for a long time will not get much gain in endurance nor will such athletes loose much endurance ability by taking some time away from endurance focused training. This is because all of those years of training and developing endurance pay off later in life in the form of highly developed musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular, and economy systems that do not decay much with time. Just as Friel points out in “Fast After 50”, although something you need to maintain, endurance is one element that you do not have to put much focus on as an older athlete. The “Big 3” (muscle loss, decreased aerobic capacity, and increased body fat) are where you should put your main foci. In my case with continuous endurance training and racing for over 40 years, I am not going to have a lot of endurance gain for the time spent doing the training, however, gains in aerobic capacity and muscle gain can be substantial and they can play a big part in successful cross country ski racing. In particular, as will be covered in detail in the next post, strength development and associated muscle synchrony for increased skiing power are critical for improvement and will be a big priority going forward. Upper-body and core strength are increasing as dominant elements in the sport of cross country skiing as has been witnessed this past year on the World Cup and elsewhere.
After the 9 week endurance block I have a 4 week VO2 max block the purpose of which is to develop VO2 max on an upward progression through the fall interspersed with substantial LT blocks. This development of VO2 max is early in the training plan because in cross country ski racing most races are raced at or around the lactate threshold level (high L4-L5a-b) and having a highly developed aerobic capacity will enable maximum gain in the LT blocks- the most race-specific training blocks. So in the training plan you see a VO2 max block followed by a shorter LT block and then a 4 week VO2 max block to work toward a peak in VO2 max leading into a critical 6 week LT block. I am looking forward to seeing what transpires as my measured VO2 max as a young competitive road cyclist was in the low 80’s. My Garmin 920 watch has a VO2 max estimator* that tells me my VO2 max is now about 72- a figure that I think is way too high- but at least I have a baseline of VO2 max estimation from a traditional periodization protocol to compare with what happens with this block periodization.
The final pre-race season block is a 6 week LT block to bring LT ability to a near maximum level. In this block I will be working toward about 1 hour in total LT work per LT session. I have regularly completed 3 X 15 minute LT workouts in the past year but I would like to work toward 3 X 20 minute sessions. All of these sessions will be either uphill running at about 10% grade or as bounding sessions up steeper hills with poles. At the beginning and end of this 6 week LT block there will be a LT test to monitor any gains. Having a fully developed LT ability/energy system is critical to going into the race season prepared and confident. The plan is designed around ensuring that this has a high probability of coming to pass.
This race season I hope to be racing approximately every weekend in one form or another (either at a competitive race or in time trails on race courses). Between races will be training sessions focused on fitness maintenance and “sharpening” for individual race-specific “needs”. More on in-season training will be presented in a separate post.
Training plan microstructure
The daily planning is critical to succeeding with any otherwise well-conceived training plan. This day-to-day grind planning and attending to the necessary adjustments is what makes a coach valuable. Having a coach is an advantage that a “lone wolf” athlete does not have. One should, after an evaluation of all aspects of an individual’s situation, consider engaging with an experienced coach. The time commitment alone may justify any cost. Just something to consider.
The types of individual pre-snow training session workouts that are utilized here include activities such as trail running, trail mountain biking (MTB), roller skiing (primarily double pole), mountain hiking and adventuring, hill bounding with poles, uphill running repeats, and on-trail rolling interval runs and tempo runs.
I find that, from a musculo-skeletal perspective, running workouts are best suited to classic technique and that MTB workouts are best suited to skate technique . This is because the whole-body motion in each of these is most similar to a particular technique. For instance typical mountain trail MTB involves significant transient high power application just as is extant in skate technique skiing and mountain trail running involves a more steady and uniform application of a lower level of power as is extant in classic technique skiing. So mixing these types of workouts will allow for a equanimiable progression in musculo-skeletal development and associated cardiovasular support. Likewise for a specialist in, say, classic technique, sticking with running-type workouts might be a prudent path to improvement under circumstances of limited time to train.
This bring us to the question of how much training time. As noted, this is an individual thing and one that cannot be proscribed, particularly for older athletes. For me, I have found that a total training time (including cardio, strength, and technique) of between 15 and 22 hours per week is supportable and successful over the long term. Occasionally I will put in a 28-32 hour week but they are very limited. But everyone is different and one must figure this out for themselves since it is essential to know what is supportable in order to be able to plan.
I will not present any detailed daily training specifics here since any such information needs to be specific to an individual and their respective background, ability, and commitment. I will however point out a system that has worked well for me when it comes to planning daily training- a weekly training cycle that is repeated and becomes habit. For me this has meant a daily training plan that, with a traditional periodization, takes the following format:
Sunday: long run/long ski/roller ski
Wednesday: long run/long ski/roller ski or Tempo ski
The specific workouts are designed around the focus of the periodization cycle. Sessions can be easily adjusted for different foci in the periodization and the Saturday “flex” session is essentially a catch-up if anything goes wrong during the week.
In the case of Block Periodization (BP) here, a similar pattern will be used with the minor adjustment that, for example, within the endurance block the interval sessions will be replaced by “long run/long ski/roller ski” or “long MTB”, depending on what is best for the session goal. Likewise, during the VO2 max and LT blocks the “long run/long ski/roller ski” or “tempo run/tempo ski/roller ski” is replaced by a third weekly interval session. The specific endurance, VO2 max, and LT workouts can be varied to try to minimize any “burnout” associated with repetitive training. For instance, in the endurance block through August much of the training will be accomplished exploring the inner canyons of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. These “hikes”/runs involve a lot of off-piste way-finding up steep mountainsides above treeline for many hours- perfect endurance training for cross country skiing! … and not the least bit repetitive and boring. Similarly, mixing up the VO2 max and LT interval sessions to include some very different locales and terrain will go a long way toward making all of these sessions enjoyable- even though they will be physically tough or even “brutal”.
Strength and technique training
Contemporaneous with the cardiovascular training outlined above are strength training and technique development. As these are very important elements, I will devote separate posts to these subjects. In fact, it is important to point out that the cardio portion of the training plan above will not be sufficient to get one to the starting line as fit and as competitive as one can be- this can only happen if strength and technique are separately, but in concert with the cardiovascular training, developed. So stay tuned.
*The Garmin/FirstBeat VO2 max estimator methodology is documented in this white paper.