The 2018 Cross Country Skiing Masters World Championship in Minneapolis has come and gone and I have not posted much in the run-up to this series of “A” races for Team Bumble Bee. This is because we were focused on the training, broadening our exposure to current World Cup-level training approaches (more on that later), doing “B” and “C” races, and traveling.
The winter in Sun Valley has seen historically low snow (lowest December, January and February snow in over 15 years) and this has necessitated that we actually drive (!) to go skiing. We live right on the ski trails in town and in a typical winter we walk about 100 m to groomed track starting sometime in early December and ending sometime in late March. Unfortunately this entire 40 km trail system did not open until 4 March this year after we (finally) got a 24″ snow dump in town on 2-3 March. This means that starting on 8 November we spent 100% of our training time about a 20 minute drive “up the hill” on the Harriman Trail and at Galena Lodge thereby adding about an hour a day to the time spent training. Normally we would have been on the Harriman and at Galena about 65-75% of our training time. In retrospect, this reliance on the higher ground has been very productive since we were training at a higher altitude (at about 7000-7500 ft (2100-2300 m) vs. about 6000 ft (1800 m)), on much hillier terrain, with more challenging downhills, and with a better selection of interval terrain types. This all added up to a nicely incremented larger training stress from past years. It took some adaptation, but we were able to successfully accommodate the additional altitude stress even with a focus on LT and VO2max intervals. We noted that sleep naturally extended from about 8-9 h per night to 9-10 h per night with a 45-60 min nap in the afternoon on interval and OD days. The calculated recovery time provided by our FirstBeat-driven Garmin watches was about the same for equivalent workouts from past years although Bumble saw a noticeable decrease of about 2-3 h in calculated recovery time. This could be due to enhanced aerobic fitness given an increased volume of base work throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 2017. Bee did less of the low intensity volume- and more of the high adrenaline, white knuckle, gritted teeth, class IV-V whitewater kayaking.
Tucks, turns, and tenacity
The competitive mantra for this season has been “tucks, turns, and tenacity”.
Tucks: After looking into the literature it was surprising to learn that a cross country skier in a tuck is 3-4 times more aerodynamic than a standing equivalent. This is huge and brings home the reality that, for racing, whenever you can you should be in a tuck. So our tuck frequency was maximized in all training (and racing, of course) and tuck stance was refined to allow for comfortable and efficient tucks for long durations. Holding a proper tuck can have a significant effect on the comfort of your quads and hamstrings and if one does not train this ability it will be deficient in races.
Turns: After being dusted on the downhills at WMC in Klosters last year, a primary focus for this season has been improvement in downhill skills and speed development/maintenance on downhills. Team Bumble Bee spent at least 2-3 sessions per week where downhill skills were repeatedly challenged and practiced. This did not transpire without incidence as Bumble ended up in the “salad bar” on numerous occasions and earned a new nickname: “Fireball”! Fortunately no trees were involved.
Tenacity: This is the mental side of pushing during a race or an interval and is essential to staying in contact with the lead group, making a break away from a group or individual, and bringing it all to the line in a sprint finish. Tenacity is something that Team Bumble Bee has always been good at but it never hurts to get better. So we focused on challenging tenacity during intervals and in races. The carryover of mental state from intervals to racing is quite transparent.
I published my training plan for the 2017-2018 year in an earlier post and basically stuck to it. This plan included a similar “block periodization” approach in the summer and fall and then transitioning to a traditional mixed periodization during the race season (late December through March). The plan is shown below:
There were a few deviations (shown graphically and discussed later): I modified the second VO2max block from 2 weeks to 3 weeks and lengthened the subsequent LT block from 4 weeks to 5 weeks. I also lengthened the third VO2max block from two weeks to four weeks shortened the last LT block to 2 weeks and replaced the last two weeks with VO2max work. I am finding that the increased VO2max stress has very positive effects on the quality and level of the LT blocks. The VO2 max work before the last block of LT made the subsequent LT work surprisingly easy and that is why I switched the last two weeks to VO2 max. Even though the “theory” is that as one approaches the race season the LT work should be dominant (since this is race pace effort), increasing the VO2max work has made the LT work even more productive- at least within the bounds of the timeframes utilized here. So more VO2max work overall and also an intense VO2max block leading into the race season to prepare for the LT race pace efforts.
A couple of the races in Sun Valley did not happen due to lack of snow (and enthusiasm on the part of the local Nordic community) so Team Bumble Bee inserted a couple of time trials that we treated as races and managed to badger a couple of others to partake in. It ended up being quite a bit of fun and productive for all of those who participated.
detailed training monitoring
In December of 2016 I switched from a home-grown excel spreadsheet that I developed for training monitoring to a Training Peaks (TP) premium account. Now that I have used this system for over a year, I can heartily recommend it for your training log and analysis. Given the automatic training session uploads from my watch and the enhanced and automatic analysis tools, the TP system has made monitoring and adjusting training a very straightforward process. Once you understand and get calibrated to the TP metrics I think you will find it to be a valuable tool in your training.
Presented below is my TP dashboard showing the time period from 1 August 2017 to 9 March 2018. TP calls this the Performance Management Chart or PMC. There is a lot there but it is worth explaining what is shown and how it maps onto the training plan shown above.
What does all of this data mean? Lets start with some definitions:
- Acute Training Load (ATL) (Pink Graph): this is the exponentially weighted average of the last seven days of training load and is an discrete estimate of the fatigue you are carrying at a given time.
- Chronic Training Load (CTL) (Blue Graph): this is the exponentially weighted average of the last 42 days of training load and is an discrete estimate of your level of fitness at given time.
- Training Stress Balance (TSB) (Orange Graph): this is the balance of your training stresses and is equal to the CTL value minus the ATL value. Positive values indicate that you are fit and fresh- and potentially ready to race.
All of these metrics are based on the Training Stress Score (TSS) derived by TP from your workout sessions. These TSS values are calculated from the time series data of pace (for running), power (for cycling), or heart rate R-R (for sports that include significant terrain ascents and descents- such as mountain running and cross country skiing) combined with defined “zones” for your individual cardiovascular capabilities. The default HR zone system utilized for TP is a seven zone system developed by Friel and described in detail in the book Total Heart Rate Training. TP uses TSS algorithms that account for the time one spends in each zone during a workout, so it is important that you have your zones pretty well defined. Based on regular field measurements of lactate threshold (LT)* my zones are as follows:
Cross country skiing (and mountain running) requires the use of heart rate for TSS since the sport involves variable terrain and there is currently no reliable way to measure power at this juncture. TP indicates that HR TSS is the least accurate of all the allowed TSS calculations but I have found it to be sufficiently accurate to allow for precise monitoring and adjustment of training plans. Consistency is king in training and independent of whether or not the accuracy of the TSS is high, the precision of the measurement is quite good and the TP program does exceedingly well at putting accurate metrics on the precise data.
Given the importance of strength training in cross country skiing it is imperative that any training load associated with strength training is captured in the daily TSS calculation and therefor reflected in the derived CTL, ATL, and TSB. It is not possible to accurately estimate strength training TSS from HR R-R time series data during the work session. This because the training stress is highly focused on muscular stress not cardiovascular stress. Scott Johnston (experienced coach and a principal at Uphill Athlete) has, over many years of coaching, developed estimates of TSS for the strength and max strength workouts (and other workouts) that he uses (these workouts are described in detail in the book Training for the New Alpinisim by House and Johnston). Johnston estimates for his general strength and max strength workouts described in the book that the TSS is about 50-70 and 80-90 per hour of workout time (including rest periods), respectively. These are the estimates that I use for input of strength training to TP. I do three max strength sessions per week year round- this is partly because as a 62 y/o I (and anyone over the age of about 45) have reduced testosterone and HGH production and it is a losing battle with maintenance of muscle mass and strength so critically important in cross country skiing. The magnitude of this losing battle can be minimized (or reversed) with a substantial integrated max strength and general strength program. Just be prepared, if you are an oldster like me, that the same progression you had in 3 months as a 20 something will now take in excess of 18 months! That is if you stay clean and do not get some corrupt MD to prescribe “therapeutic” testosterone or some other HGH analog to allow for unfair advantage in competitions. Based on anecdotal accounts and personal experience this cheating is much more rampant in the masters ranks than one might think.
With all those definitions and estimates understood, let’s go back to the Performance Management Chart (PMC) and see how the training plan and the associated block periodization is reflected in the TP metrics. Presented below is an annotated version of the PMC from 1 August through 9 March showing where the various training blocks and races (or time trials) occurred.
The periodization is essentially “textbook” with interval stress through the summer and fall followed by a final highest volume and highest intensity push in the 6 weeks before the race season, then a reduction in volume by about 50% ending with a two week “peaking” period of every-other-day intervals and then 7 days of easy skiing leading into the first “A” race at World Masters. This was followed by a “B” race, another (mini) build-up, a volume cut, an every-other-day interval peaking program, and, finally, easy skiing leading into the second “A” race at the West Yellowstone Rendezvous. The training is shown diagrammatically in the annotated PMC below along with a graph of weekly training hours throughout the training period:
Training volume was targeted at 14-18h per week depending on the weekly focus and training block type. This resulted in volume for the 32 week period having a low of about 11.5h and a high of about 22h as shown in the graph at the bottom of the PMC.
One thing to note is that there is not any significant variation in CTL (“fitness”) but there is in both ATL (“fatigue”) and TSB (“form”). This is because of the 42 day exponential weighting in CTL compared to the 7 day weighting in ATL- changes in CTL are “buffered” by the preceding 41 days of training load.
Although CTL is a good metric for fitness and values above 100 are considered to be expert to elite level, once one is above about 100 CTL on a consistent, long-term, basis, the most informative data for monitoring training progression are ATL and TSB. These metrics respond quicker to changes in the training and they allow for help in determining whether you are ready to race and therefore can add to confidence going into an event. For instance in the example above you can see that ATL and TSB go through maxima and minima (ATL of 152 and TSB of -27, respectively) coincident with a CTL maximum at 130 at the end of the final build block. Prior to the first “A” race (World Masters), the program we followed prescribes a volume cut and then a peaking program of every-other-day intervals for 10 days to 2 weeks followed by 7 days of easy skiing/travel. What this does is allow for full absorption of the final build work by decreasing the stress-to-rest ratio whilst still maintaining intensity work. As a result, just prior to the “A” race (World Masters), ATL goes to a minimum value of 80 and TSB goes to a maximum value of +34 while CTL is diminished only slightly to 118. This is “fit and fresh” and is the state one wants to be in at the start line of an “A” race.
There are other ways to achieve a “fit and fresh” condition but Team Bumble Bee has been using the “volume cut and peaking program after final build” successfully since the pleistocene when we were pink-lunged youngsters competing at the elite level. Well, it also works with old scarred and polluted lungs and tickers that can only get to 85% of previous capacity. It works for us and were sticking with it! TP does a nice job of graphically displaying how the program works and, if things don’t go right, when it is not working.
world masters championship
The World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championships was held from 19-26 January in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA and was the main focus race series for the season. The championships have three individual races (for M07 these are 15 km, 10 km, and 30 km and the same for Bee’s F06 group) and a relay (if chosen by the USA Race Director). One can choose technique (free or classic) for each race as well as do both techniques for a single distance, but only three individual races can be selected.
I waited until the last minute to sign up for any races because I wanted to see which races would have the best competition. For some reason none of the top international free-technique (skating) skiers in the M07 decided to come to Minneapolis. However, on the classic side many of the top international skiers did sign up. So, given that the primary purpose of these races is to challenge oneself against the best in the world, I chose to compete only in classic races where the competition would be at the highest level. There is no sense in racing against a diminished field in the skate races as even a victory would be hollow since there would be considerable doubt as to how one might have fared against the best international skate skiers- almost all of whom did not come. So my schedule had the 15 km classic on Saturday, 20 January, the 10 km classic on Monday, 22 January, the M07 relay on Wednesday 24 January, and the 30 km classic on Thursday, 25 January. All of the top M07 classic skiers in attendance also chose these races.
The races were held within the city limits of Minneapolis (a major metro area with 3.5 million residents in the city and suburbs) at the Thomas Wirth City Park. The local Loppet Foundation was the organizer of the events and planned to have the races on 7.5 km, 10 km, and 15 km loops within the park. Given the decades-old issues with sufficient snow in Minneapolis, the City and the Loppet Foundation have installed snow making facilities over about 7.5 km of trails in the park. This was good thing because, as expected, Minneapolis did not get sufficient natural snow to be able to hold the races. Instead the races were held on a 6.5 km loop of man-made snow. The organizers called this a 7.5 km loop, but my Garmin and many others that I checked with had the distance at 6.5-6.7 km. So the 15 km and 10 km races actually 13 km and 6.5 km. For the 4 X 5 km relay the race distance was closer to 5 km at about 4.7 km using parts of the 6.5 km man-made snow loop. For the 30 km race, a snow storm arrived on Tuesday and allowed the organizers to set track onto the 15 km course loop (which also measured short at 13.8 km).
Unfortunately, the Loppet Foundation had hoped to have finished building a large new lodge building at the start/finish but the building was clearly way behind schedule and was an active construction site throughout the championships. As a result, the facilities at the start/finish were woefully deficient and detracted from the event. Although some tents were provided, there was no pleasant place to change, store equipment, or wax. There also were no food vendors and the “party” atmosphere that was so delightful at WMC Klosters 2017 was absent. I felt sorry for all of the international competitors and their family and friends coming from so far away to a first world country only to be offered a third-world start/finish venue. Others may have had a different experience as ours is but one view.
The race courses on the other hand were very well laid out and groomed to a high standard. Given the lack of snow, the organizers did a great job of making snow and spreading it out onto a nicely varied 6.5 km loop. There was very little natural snow as could be clearly seen in the woods surrounding some of the loop, but the race course had at least 2-3 feet of snow. Grooming and marking for each race was as good as could be expected and there was a reasonable amount of time to familiarize oneself with the course. It was not until the day before the longer races (Wednesday, 24 January) that the 15 km (actually 13 km) loop was opened. This was due to a snowstorm that put down about 6″ of wet snow on Tuesday. So there was limited opportunity to investigate the middle 5 km of the 15 km loop (the other “10 km” of the 15 km loop used primarily the 6.5 km loop with a bit of added trail with a couple of steep hills that were groomed on Wednesday for inspection), but this was not an issue because the middle 5 km was very flat.
Fortunately, Team Bumble Bee and a small group of other US competitors brought in the Ski Whisperer and Whisperess to handle all testing, ski selection, and waxing. They brilliantly rented two trailers and connected them together using one as a changing/warming room for the athletes and the other for waxing and ski storage. It worked out perfectly!
There was also a very limited warm-up and wax testing area. Everyone ended up breaking the rules and did ski wax testing on the course- there really was no other place to do it. Realizing this limitation for warm-up, we developed a warm-up routine at the very nice gym at the Hyatt which we did just prior to leaving for the 20 min ride to the venue. A Concept 2 rower, a cycling trainer, some pull-ups, garhammers, and box jumps allowed for a reasonable warm-up combined with a few pick-ups prior to the race on the snow.
All lodging was remote from the site and required either a rental car (or personal car) or a tedious 15-20 minute bus ride to and from the venue. The busses were classic (and uncomfortable) American yellow school buses and were supposedly on a 30 minute cycle. This did not work very well the first couple of days, additional busses were added, but then there were other issues on other days. In all, the busses detracted from the experience.
We were in the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Minneapolis which was a nice hotel but was being over-run by the advance people associated with the Super Bowl which was the following week. This created additional inconveniences as the entire hotel lobby area was being redecorated and set up for the Super Bowl as the Hyatt was the base for the entire NFL organization. There was only breakfast service and we were all on our own for lunches and dinners. We tried a number of restaurants but struck out on all but one- and they were very expensive even with medium to low quality food.
Being in an urban area for the WMC was not a pleasant experience and did little, if anything, to enhance the experience. We are hopeful that the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Association (WMCCSA) never puts a championship in such a venue in the future. Stick to ski resorts and walkable or ski-in ski-out venues that actually have reliable snow.
double pole derby?
I noted in an earlier post that, based on analysis of the course profiles, that the races at Minneapolis may end up being “double pole derbies”. Upon arrival I was questioning this conclusion as there were a couple of steep hills that appeared to be strideable but a bit inefficient for double poling. As a result I kick waxed the first two races (15 km and 10 km). However, after discussions with, and encouragement from, the Ski Whisperer, I decided to embrace the challenge and double pole the classic relay leg for the US M07 team and also double pole the 30 km race. In retrospect I should have double poled all of the races as my original analysis was correct- the courses were very much double polable for competitive skiers. No one else in the M07 double poled but a couple of the podium winners in M06, M05, and M04 double poled numerous races- short and long.
As I have said before, double poling is the future of the classic technique as long as organizers do not put together challenging courses with real “A” climbs of sufficient length. Unfortunately, the WMCCSA are boxed in with adopted standards for “A” climbs that should allow for any WMC course to be competitively double poled by the top athletes at the championships.
I am not going to go through a detailed accounting of the races but just give a summary and some reflective thoughts. We arrived at the start lines fresh, fit, and rested with about as thorough a preparation as could be accomplished- our expectations were high.
Bee, again, dominated the F06 winning all races by minutes and even lead the US F03 relay team to a gold and the overall best time, independent of age. It is unfortunate that the competition is not sufficient to challenge Bee and we hope that at WMC 2019 in Beitostolen, Norway some good competition shows up.
Bumble took it up a notch this year. At Klosters, I was usually in the mid-teens in placings. Even with an equivalently deep field at the front, I was 9th (15 km), 7th (10 km), 5th (30 km), and lead the US M07 team to a silver medal in the relay. Percent back improved and I now find myself in the lead group for much of the races. At Klosters I would get spit out the back after the first challenging downhill and struggle to make it back to the lead group. Now, with better (although far from perfect) downhill skills I can take advantage of the engine and stick with the lead group (or lead the lead group) on the downhills and end up much closer to the winners. Given the additional work I have done on downhill skills since the WMC, I expect that this will no longer be holding me back and I can go into the races at Beitostolen with confidence.
In each race, going out of the start my double pole was superior to any of the other competitors in M07 as I lead the group through the first 2 km (including the first “B” climb) and then to the first steeper (“A”) climb (only double poling) and then took a place in the lead group that had formed. As noted above, after the first two races (15 km classic (actually 13 km) and 10 km classic (actually 6.5 km) where I kick waxed and did some striding, my performance at the starts gave me the confidence, along with encouragement from the Ski Whisperer and Whisperess, to double pole the 5 km classic leg of the relay and the 30 km classic race (actually 23 km) on skate skis with skate boots. Reiterating what was stated above, in retrospect I should have double poled all of the events as the conditions were favorable to give an advantage to double poling (i.e. firm, icy tracks and a less firm and slower deck). In fact in the 15 km race, it was a disadvantage to be waxed for kick as we were on klister and there was powder on the sides of the track. This took me down twice when I wondered over to the edge on a couple of downhills and the klister caught- my only crashes of the race series. If I were on the skate skis I likely would not have gone down and placed significantly higher- lesson learned.
My primary focus for the WMC was the 30 km classic race. After wrapping my head around double poling the event, I committed to either leading or staying in the lead group. After the same start sequence above, I continued to the lead at the 2.5 km mark and our group formed into five skiers- two Italians, a Norwegian, a Canadian, and me. We went 3 minutes off the front by the 7 km mark.
By the 10 km mark the two Italians and the Norwegian managed a 1min 30 sec advantage after a couple of steep hills, where I fell back a bit. We then entered the flatter part of the 15 km loop. I managed to get nearly all of that back (and put a bunch of time into the Canadian) by the end of this 5 km section when we re-entered the hillier section of the loop and the three leaders were about 100 m ahead. After some hills and twisty trail, I lost sight of the lead three and headed out on the second of the two laps. All was going well until I got to the point where the trail goes out onto the flat section where I was hoping to make up some distance on the leaders as happened on the first lap. But as I descended the hill leading to the flat section the course marshals had closed off the trail and directed me to go directly back onto the inner, hiller, part of the course. It turns out that a train had come and blocked the trail thereby disrupting the event. Hard to believe this could happen but it did and it totally messed up my strategy of gaining back time on the flat section where double poling was much faster than striding. Oh, well!
Although the Canadian was still within about 15-30 seconds of me, I had planned to put a couple minutes into him on the flat section, but now we went immediately into three consecutive hills where striding had a slight advantage. He got close during the last couple of kms and on the final downhill into the stadium he managed to get by me and we sprinted to the finish where I lost out by a second. Bummer! I lost focus coming into the last section of the race and I need to work on that for next season- more on that below.
The WMC races went well for Team Bumble Bee and we continue to enjoy this level of racing with international competitors. We just hope that some competitive F06 women start showing up to challenge Bee. Bumble has significantly improved in downhill skill and has now crossed that line into the ability to competitively double pole anything. With additional strength work and a bit more steady focus during races, better results will be possible.
Focus, finesse, and finishes
The mantra for the 2017-2018 season was “Tucks, Turns, and Tenacity”, moving forward the mantra for 2018-2019 is “Focus, Finesse, and Finishes”.
Focus: I know from my past racing as a youngster at the elite level that fitness is necessary but not sufficient to win races at the highest level. All of those that can win are fit; the winner ends up being he/she who has rock-solid focus throughout a race, constantly looking for advantages, openings, and timing for critical moves. It is not easy and it takes practice and commitment, as well as an open mind to be able to respond to in-race variables. I need to sharpen my focus, make opportunities, and ensure strong responses to any moves by fellow competitors.
Finesse: Not being a life-long skier and only competing in cross country ski races for the last five years, I have been basically clueless about how to handle the trail during a race. This year and in the coming year I am putting an emphasis on being trail-smart and making the most efficient choices during races and in training. Some call this “trail-craft”, e.g. knowing when to be in or out of the track, when to switch tracks, approach arcs in turns, skill in staying in the track at high speeds, and a host of other things. I had reasonable finesse as road cyclist and I expect I should be able to further develop a good sense for cross country skiing as well.
Finishes: All three of the individual WMC races ended in sprint finishes for me. I lost two and won one. I need to change that. Combined with focus, ensuring the best finish is important and makes for a more exciting and satisfying end to a race. So I’ll plan on being a bit more strategic going forward with finishes being top of mind both in strategizing before the race and in the last couple of kms.
The season was definitely a success, the training went well, and the racing was satisfying and fun. We also had the opportunity to train for 10 days in February with a World Cup skier. This helped in preparation for the final “A” race where we had good (Bee) and great (Bumble) races at the Yellowstone Rendezvous. It is nice to end the racing season on a high note.
The training plan going forward includes lots of long (2-4h) aerobic skiing sessions with an emphasis on technique for the remainder of March and then begin a transition to mountain biking and kayaking (Bee) and mountain running (Bumble).
Bee goes into “play” mode with the spring runoffs and the world-class kayaking here in Idaho and Montana whilst Bumble gets ready for a mountain trail running race season from early May through July. So transitioning to longer and longer runs will be important and then to add some interval stress going into the trail races in early May, early June, mid-June, and early July. The rest of July will be endurance (aerobic) training (trail running, hill bounding, and mountain biking) and then we start with a plan similar to the one for 2017-2018 on 1 August. I’ll be updating with a series of posts on “The Road to Beitostolen” for the World Masters Cross Country Skiing Championship in Norway March 4-15, 2019 so stay tuned!
*LT will change as a function of your training load and training distribution so periodic field tests are useful to ensure that your zones are correctly set and therefore that the TP calculation of TSS is consistent.