Gravel Cycling: A Good Fit for Off-Snow (Dryland) Training for Masters Cross Country Skiers

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

Introduction

Traditional dryland training for cross country skiing athletes includes an emphasis on base aerobic development utilizing running or running-like activities such as aerobic mountain (or hilly) running, aerobic and high intensity interval bounding with poles, and, possibly, high intensity interval track running. Running is a high impact activity and injury is common among all runners. In fact, it has been estimated that among the general runner population, as a group, over 50% are injured at least once during any 12-month period, and this injury rate is even higher for competitive runners. These injuries are primarily due to foot-related, knee-related, and leg-related musculature issues such as Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, patellofemoralsyndrome, iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome, and various types of stress fractures. Given this high injury rate, it is desirable to identify other effective training modalities for cross country skiing that can be used in concert with or as a replacement for running-type modalities when injured. It is also desirable for some athletes, especially those who are more prone to running-related injury, to replace some of their running-based training with alternative modalities that minimize the probability of injury. 

Note: Some running related injuries, particularly Achilles tendonitis and tendonosis, typically involve long healing periods of 8-24 weeks to ensure full recovery. Finding alternative, less stressful, training activities after injury is important to allow for progression.

Roller-skiing is a primary training modality for competitive cross country skiers. For many elite skiers, roller skiing plays a central role in dryland training because it allows for both sport-specific aerobic development and significant technique development due to the favorable similarity between roller skiing and actual on-snow skiing. Roller skiing is also a relatively low-impact activity similar to the low-impact nature of cross country skiing. There are drawbacks to roller skiing, however. Foremost is the difficulty associated with controlling speed and braking on roller skis. The inability to effectively control roller skis in situations that require rapid speed reduction or braking can lead to significant injury. These situations include the very real potential for crashing on pavement due to unexpected road hazards (e.g. cracks, debris, and other perturbations in the road surface), negative interactions with road-going vehicles (autos and trucks), and negative interactions with other users (cyclists and pedestrians). In addition, hilly terrain can be dangerous to traverse due to very high speeds on downhills. The consequences of going down at speed on a hard surface like tarmac are obvious and we have all seen pictures of elite skiers with butts scraped clear of skin and other “road-rash” on arms, legs, and even the face. Then there are the twisted knees, broken wrists, and torn shoulders (typically rotor cuff injuries) that often occur concomitantly with the “road rash.” There have been instances where an elite skier’s roller ski crash has ended their competitive career. So, what’s to like here? 

Firstly, once one becomes proficient on roller skis, the probability of a crash precipitously decreases. This is because athletes develop techniques for crash avoidance and “bail-out” strategies that will minimize the both the number of incidents and the severity of any possible injury. This where grass is your friend. But, even with proper skill development, crashes on roller skis are still very common. One crash can (and often does) take athletes out for 3 weeks or more before they are able to train at the same level again. This can put a big hiccup in anyone’s training plan that can be difficult to recover from. 

Elite competitors essentially have no choice about roller skiing – it is a “must do” training modality for all the reasons noted above. This presents a conundrum for masters skiers – we would like to take advantage of the effectiveness of roller ski training but, due to the fact that many Masters skiers have prior injuries that can be easily re-injured, we need to be cognizant of this diminished physical robustness. In addition, many masters athletes lack the muscular power required to effectively utilize most crash avoidance and “bail out” strategies. As a result, roller skiing is not a primary training modality for the vast majority of masters cross country skiers.

That leaves many masters athletes with just the injury-prone running-type modality for primary aerobic and high intensity interval training. As a result, many masters athletes deal with these running injuries throughout the dryland season and, in some cases, well into the ski season, thereby hampering their training and performance once on snow. The question is: are there other aerobic and high intensity interval training modalities that map well onto the demands of a competitive cross country skier? We think the answer to that question is: Yes! And the training modality that fits very well with cross country skiing is – Gravel Cycling.

Gravel Cycling 

What is gravel cycling? As practiced today, it is cycling on gravel roads and single-track trails with a properly designed drop bar bicycle with clearance for wider tires (~32mm-45mm) than typically used on road bicycles (~ 19mm-28mm). Gravel-specific bikes are also designed to have a slightly longer wheelbase and a “slack” head tube angle (about 71˚), that, combined with other geometry tweaks, leads to a comfortable and stable ride on rough surfaces and twisty single-track. Although having been around since at least the 1970s, gravel cycling has recently emerged as one of the largest growth segments in cycling over the past few years. Many claim that bikes throughout the late 1800s and up to the 1950s were, in fact, gravel bikes since many roads were still gravel/dirt then and bicycles were designed to accommodate such riding. Accordingly, most bicycle races (including the Tour de France) in this time period were primarily raced on gravel and dirt. There is not much that is new here, so why the re-emergence of gravel riding?

The growth of gravel cycling is the result of several factors:

  1. The increasingly dangerous nature of road cycling on paved roads with many vehicles (automobiles and trucks).
  2. The general availability of quality gravel roads throughout the US.
  3. The more adventurous nature of gravel cycling.
  4. The distinctly different “vibe” or “culture” associated with gravel cycling when compared to road cycling. Gravel is more “grassroots and beer” whereas road cycling has become more “elitist and latte.”

As any “roadie” will admit, the frequency with which incidents and “close calls” with vehicles occur on a paved road has significantly increased over the past 30 years. This, combined with the more recent development of “distracted” drivers focused on mobile devices rather than driving, has resulted in increased concern over rider safety and has diminished the enjoyment of cycling on paved roads.

Enter gravel cycling: riding a gravel-specific bike on infrequently used gravel/dirt roads with naturally low speed limits and through scenic and challenging terrain. Sounds like a dream… but it is a reality for many across the US? The preponderance new gravel cyclists and the boom in gravel bike sales in the US (and Europe) argues that this is not a dream but a clear reality. Gravel roads are ubiquitous across the US and, in general, these roads are well maintained; or at least maintained enough for a gravel bike. This gives gravel cyclists a large variety of routes to ride and train on that can include challenging rolling and very hilly terrain. The options for route development are significant and can be designed to suit just about any need anywhere in the US. Urban residents may need to drive (or ride) out to the outer reaches of their respective cities, but they will typically find suitable gravel/dirt roads and terrain. In addition, gravel bikes work well on most mountain bike single track – there is nothing like riding “flowy” singletrack on a gravel bike. The efficiency and speed on the ups (and downs with proficient bike handling skills) make for an exhilarating experience compared with even the best hardtail mountain bikes. Another advantage with gravel bikes is that they are well-suited to road riding as well and can be utilized as a road bike with little or no modifications. A well-designed gravel bike can be just as efficient and fast as a road-specific bike when equipped with a set of road-specific wheels and tires. One bike and two sets of wheels will cover the gamut of cycling – road, gravel, and mountain biking. But perhaps the most important aspect of modern gravel bikes is the ability to efficiently utilize paved road sections to “link-up” interesting and challenging gravel routes. Paved road sections on a mountain bike are arduous and unenjoyable. The road-like performance of gravel bikes makes the paved road sections on an epic “link-up” much more enjoyable and accessible. 

Gravel cycling allows for efficient cycling on the plentiful dirt, gravel, and abandoned roads throughout the US. Getting off the bike to navigate obstacles and rough terrain is a frequent occurrence and one that utilizes upper body, core, and balance capacities.

As it concerns the utilization of gravel cycling for training for cross country skiing, there are several questions to be answered: Can gravel cycling be an effective training modality for cross country dryland training? Can gravel cycling replace or partially replace running modalities in structured training programs? Are gravel cycling training stimuli sufficiently similar to traditional training stimuli elicited by properly designed roller skiing and running? We assert that the answer to these questions is a resounding YES! We outline why below.

Why Gravel Cycling is a Good Replacement for Traditional Cross Country Skiing Dryland Training Modalities

One of the primary uses of running and roller skiing for dryland training in cross country skiing is to provide base training and ‘overdistance’ (OD) stimuli that develops one’s cardiovascular system toward capacity and efficiency. Base and OD training are essential elements in development of increased cardiac output, development of vascular systems (particularly capillaries), increased size and density of mitochondria, and increased lactate metabolism.

Note: The term ‘overdistance’ should be used interchangeably (and preferably) with ‘overtime’. Since distance in a training session will be pace dependent, the duration of the session is the variable that an athlete should be tracking.

Cycling is one of the best training modalities for Base and OD training for endurance athletes. The ability of a typical athlete to comfortably ride a bike for long periods of time within a zone 1-2 effort level (or level 1-2 in USSA-speak) far exceeds similar abilities in running or rollerskiing. This is a result of the non-weight bearing, low impact nature of cycling. Putting up consistent 3-5 hour zone 1-2 rides is very sustainable for most masters athletes and is within reach for any athlete who works toward that goal. The longer zone 1-2 (preferably dominated by zone 2 efforts) training allows for substantial cardiac output improvement, mitochondrial growth, and capillary development. This is not the case for running as many masters athletes find it very difficult to run for two hours or more in a consistent manner. As an example, committed elite cycling athletes will log up to 35-40h of on-bike base training per week in preparation for the competitive cycling season. An elite skier or runner will be able to sustainably log a maximum of 25-30h per week utilizing running (and/or roller skiing) – and this can be achieved only by a small portion of athletes due to the increased potential for over-use injuries associated with such large training volumes in high-impact modalities. For time-limited masters athletes, ensuring that injuries are avoided is key to being able to put in the base training needed to support a properly-designed ‘base-build-peak-perform’ training structure. Cycling will help avoid impact-related injuries that can compromise training programs.

Full development of one’s aerobic system is often the missing link for masters athletes. Between inherent time constraints and impact-related training injuries, it is our experience that an overwhelming majority of masters competitors have not devoted sufficient training time to the development of their aerobic systems; this is partly due to limited time but is also due to utilization of high-impact training modes that can lead to injury. As an athlete begins the build phases in a structured program it is critical that base aerobic development be optimized to truly allow for performance gains during the build periods. As a result, those athletes without a well-developed aerobic system will see diminished progress and potentially an inability to fully engage with and complete workouts. Recovery will also be negatively affected. Cycling is a great way to develop an aerobic base without significant musculoskeletal stress. For many masters athletes cycling can provide a direct path to a well-developed aerobic system that will provide the base for all other training. 

There’s nothing like a 3-4h OD ride on a beautiful fall day at peak color into the peaks. This road starts out paved but soon turns to gravel as it ascends into the Pioneer Mountains of Idaho. Multiple individual 100 mile gravel loops are assessable from this road – it’s gravel paradise!

Things to be Aware of When Using Cycling as a Training Mode for Cross Country Skiing

There are three primary concerns with cycling as a replacement activity for running in cross country skiing training:

  1. Adherence to strength training
  2. Lack of cross-country ski-like movement patterns
  3. Body position and associated muscular imbalance

As we have discussed at length previously, strength is the basis for all cross country ski training. A lack of strength is the origin of all technique deficiencies and properly executed modern technique increasingly depends on substantial upper body and core strength. While cycling clearly develops lower body strength systems, upper body and core systems are not challenged. This means that when substituting cycling for running and/or roller skiing in one’s training, additional emphasis needs to be placed upon upper body and core strength development along with ski-like body positioning. Increased sets and/or increased reps in a strength program is one way that can address any deficiency that might come from a training modality dominated by cycling. Again, working with a strength professional is “best practice” for any committed athlete and we encourage you to pursue guidance from a qualified provider.

In the past couple of decades, the cycling community has begun to embrace strength training as an essential element of training, including upper body and core systems. It has been realized that a stronger core and upper body leads to decreased fatigue in long races and superior climbing and sprinting in general. Just as in cross country skiing, cycling strength training is focused on “strength, not show” to ensure that any added lean muscle is fully utilized in sport-specific motions. Emphasis on strength training for the cross country skiing athlete maps very well on to strong, efficient cycling. This is particularly true for gravel cycling where one will spend significant time out of the saddle climbing steep and technical sections that are commonplace on gravel roads and single track.

Running and roller skiing obviously provide skiing-like and skiing motions to allow for sport-specific adaptations and training stimuli. Although cycling does replicate lower body skate push-off and classic kick motions reasonably well, the full-body, coordinated, combination of movement with core and upper body musculature is not well replicated. As a result, although cycling can serve as a base-training activity for aerobic development, a cross country athlete must include bounding, hill bounding, and hiking with poles in their weekly training. Since cycling is such low-impact, these training modalities can be straightforwardly incorporated by including “doubles” in one’s training where, for example, a bounding session is completed in the morning followed by an afternoon or evening bike session. Time constraints may limit the masters athlete, but even regular 30-minute hill bounding sessions can have sufficient training stimulus to allow for progression. The key is to keep these skiing-like motions in your training regimen to ensure optimal development with the enhanced aerobic capacity generated from cycling.

In addition to aerobic (zone 1-2) training, high intensity interval training (HIIT) (zone 4-5) is the other dominate training intensity level for cross country skiing. Development of aerobic and anaerobic capacity, lactate metabolism optimization, development of Type II (fast twitch) muscle fiber, and neuromuscular adaptations are all primary training stimuli that are addressed with HIIT. Utilization of running for HIIT can lead to overuse injuries, just as is the case for base aerobic training. Replacing some of one’s HIIT with on-bike equivalents like hill repeats and sprints is a functional way to minimize injury while still building a strong engine for performance. Threshold and Supra-threshold intervals on a bike are excellent stimuli for aerobic/anaerobic, lactate metabolism, and Type II muscle fiber development. Again, including regular aerobic hill bounding in one’s training will ensure proper neuromuscular and sport-specific motion development.

It also important to ensure that one minimizes the development of a “jumbo shrimp”-like posture that is a natural consequence of regular rides on a drop bar bicycle. Spending more time on the brake hoods in an upright position is common in gravel cycling which typically traverses more steep and rough roads. Additional off-bike work to combat such posture development should be emphasized, particularly if one is doing a lot of OD training on the bike. Focus on posture during strength and plyometric sessions, rollerskiing, bounding, and hiking with poles will go a long way to averting any negative impacts.

Try a Gravel Race

If you are like us, then you enjoy participating in competitive sports outside of cross country skiing. Whether it’s trail running, mountain running, road running, mountain biking, road cycling, whitewater kayaking, or any number of other endurance sports, participation in competitive events can provide a welcome diversion from a focus on skiing as well as providing racing experience and adventure. 

Gravel racing is now highly developed in the US and one can find races in every part of the country with courses ranging from high speed races in undulating terrain to challenging mountain races and everything in between. The low-key “vibe” and scenic routes of gravel racing make these races a great counterpart to the higher focus, short loop, and more intense nature of completive cross country skiing. 

Summary

Hopefully the foregoing has convinced you to consider gravel cycling as a possible replacement for some of your running and/or roller skiing dryland training. Avoiding injury from high-impact training activities like running is important for both training progression and for general enjoyment of the training regimen. This is particularly important for masters athletes with limited time and/or those recovering from injury. Being unable to train for long periods due to injury will amplify the negative impact of an already minimal training plan.

Including gravel cycling in your training can lead to enhanced aerobic development, minimize impact-related injuries, and support of HIIT – these are all great reasons to give gravel cycling serious consideration. 

Performance Decline, Dynapenia, and Why Plyometrics Are Critical for the Aging Athlete

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

Abstract

We have all been witness to our personal athletic performance declines as we age – our 10 km running times creep up, our place at the Birkie slowly sinks, or our perceived “snappiness” in training fades. It’s universal, affecting all athletes to varying degrees, but what is the origin of this decline? 

In the following article, we explore age-associated athletic performance declines and the likely physiological causes. Some have surmised that these performance declines are due to a number of things happening while we age – the three primary ones being reduced VO2 max (aerobic capacity), loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia), and diminished recovery. Our research and personal experience indicate that very little of the performance decline is associated with a reduction in VO2 max or an inability to fully recover after training. We have found that sarcopenia is also playing a minor role but that age-associated muscle composition changes are the most likely primary cause for observed performance declines. Specifically, we find that preferential loss of Type II muscle and resultant peak power reduction (a.k.a. dynapenia) is the physiological process that is most consistent with observed age-associated athletic performance declines. 

Based on the impacts of dynapenia on power generation, we suggest approaches for any athlete to slow down, stop, or potentially reverse sport-specific declining power. In addition to year-round strength training, central to this approach is the year-round integration of plyometric exercises into one’s training program.

Introduction

There are lots of things going on as we age – both physical and mental. On the physical side, an aging athlete will see a steady decline in performance, sometimes even with about the same training stimuli as when younger. Some will have diminished recovery, some will see significant reductions in VO2 max, some will experience increased injury rates, while others may perceive decreased power generation. On the mental side, an aging athlete will likely be dealing with a large spectrum of demands including a career, family, and other “big life” pressures. Often performance declines are a combination of these physical and mental changes. Even the best athletes will see their performance decline, although perhaps at a slower rate than for the other 99.5%. It is clear that there is something fundamental happening as we age that inhibits our abilities to perform in athletic events.

It has been proposed that the combined effects of reductions in VO2 max, diminished recovery, and loss of lean muscle mass (sarcopenia) are responsible for the bulk of observed performance declines in masters athletes. 

Recently we covered the subject of diminished recovery in aging athletes,

and found that, although many masters athletes find diminished recovery, it likely has origins in high-stress levels outside of training. There is currently no well-documented physiological process that can explain the observed diminished recovery that many aging athletes feel. There are also masters athletes, however, that do not experience diminished recovery, and often, when investigated, it is found that these athletes appear to have managed to control (minimize) the levels of secondary physiologic stress (emotional & intellectual), that can make significant contributions to one’s overall ability to recover from the primary physiologic stress of structured training. Clearly, the “net stress” any athlete is experiencing will have effects on one’s ability to recover from training and grow as an athlete and, ultimately control one’s ability to approach performance limits. But even with “optimized” stress management, an aging athlete will experience performance declines.

Declines in VO2 max have been proposed as a primary reason for observed performance declines, however, a critical look at the literature on this subject reveals that data to support this supposition is weak at best. Our experience is that, for athletes that engage with structured training that includes proper doses of high-intensity intervals, age-associated VO2 max declines from peak values as a young athlete (20-30 years of age) can be very small (5-10%) well into the 60+ years of age range. This magnitude of reduction is much smaller than the 1% per year (starting at age 30) that is often quoted. Although reduced VO2 max is likely playing a role in performance declines, it is not the controlling factor. For instance, a range of 5-10% difference in VO2 max is represented within the top 10 at every World Cup race, yet it is not controlling the winner of the race – the athlete with the highest VO2 max is not always the winner. The same holds true for masters competitors. An upcoming article will address this topic more fully.

Sarcopenia, although a large issue with the general population, is significantly less prevalent and occurs to a lesser degree in the masters athlete population in general. It is a very small factor for those athletes who incorporate year-round strength training in their training programs and therefore sarcopenia is not a primary cause of performance declines in these masters athletes.

The question then is: What are the causes of our diminished and decaying ability to perform as well as we did when younger? As will be expanded upon below, one singularly and extremely important factor is obvious: a decline in the ability to generate power. Power is the generation of force over distance (a.k.a. work) per unit time – simply, high power is a high force in short periods. As will be discussed here, power generation is critically important in all sports and plays a central role in cross country skiing. Each classic stride, double pole, and V1 or V2 push-off is entirely dependent upon one’s ability to generate power – exerting high forces over a short period of time, e.g. exerting high force during the milliseconds-length periods of time during classic kicking, skating push-off, and double poling. Because of this reality, a focus on power generation is a primary part of all developing and elite athlete’s training. However, it is safe to say that, by and large, power generation is not a common focus for masters skiers. As a result, power-focused training modes represent fertile ground for improvement for masters skiers. We hope that after reading this article you will have an increased appreciation for the importance of power development in your skiing and that you might consider adding power-building exercises into your training regimen. We are convinced that, if you do, you will see increased performance, efficiency, and enjoyment.

Performance Declines in Aging Athletes

Performance declines in aging athletes are well documented and have been analyzed by many authors over the past few decades. From a general perspective, these studies show masters age-group world records declining in an exponential fashion as a function of increasing age. The figure below shows the performance decline for long-distance track running events, where the data are normalized to the overall world record for the respective event. As can be seen from the graph, the world record 60-year-old athlete is about 25% slower than the overall world record holder in these events. This is a convenient factor to have in mind as it allows for comparison to elite-level performance for a masters athlete when in a race that includes elite-level athletes. Although there is no reliable way to collect comparable record times over specific distances in cross country skiing (due to the large influence of snow conditions and equipment choices), these track events (and the marathon) are likely the closest analog to the types of performance declines observed in cross country skiing.

Fractional performance declines as a function of age for track running events. Data are masters world records normalized to the overall world record for the respective events. Taken from “Age-Associated Power Decline from Running, Jumping, and Throwing Male Masters World Records”, P. Gava, et al., Experimental Aging Research, 41: 115–135, 2015.

When modeled, declines in track running events (as well as in many other sports), are found to exhibit exponential behavior leading to significant fall-off around 80 years of age. The figure below shows male and female performance declines indexed to the 30-year-old world record for a number of sports including non-endurance sports like weightlifting.

Male and female Masters fractional performance declines for a number of sports indexed to world record performances at 30 years of age (not the overall world record). All events within each sport are grouped for each age. Taken from: “Aging Performance for Masters Records in Athletics, Swimming, Rowing, Cycling, Triathlon, and Weightlifting, Experimental Aging Research, 36: 453–477, 2010.

The uniform observation of exponential decay in world-record performances in sports as different as running and weightlifting is indicative of a universal underlying physiological mechanism that is controlling the performance of masters athletes in all sports. This applies to aerobic and anaerobic-centric sports alike. The single aspect that all such sports have in common is peak power development and application of this generated power to the sports-specific movement. Although an Olympic lift takes place over a time frame of milliseconds to seconds and is highly anaerobic, the same peak power development occurs in cross country skiing in milliseconds on every stride or push-off and involves not just anaerobic energy systems but aerobic energy systems as well.

The peak power magnitude is different in each sport, with the anaerobic-centric sports exhibiting much higher peak power, but the common attribute of successful masters athletes in all of these sports is peak power development, not just aerobic capacity or anaerobic energy production. It is also important to point out that peak power development is directly correlated with average power output. As such it seems reasonable to posit that the reason we see performance declines as we age is due to a compromised ability to develop peak power, independent of what sport we actively engage with – be it a power-focused sport like weightlifting or an aerobic-focused sport like running, cycling, or cross country skiing. We’ll examine what it takes to develop one’s peak power capacity below, but a primary element in power development is shortening the time it takes to apply high forces, i.e. the ability to make rapid movements is central to peak power development. 

It is commonly observed in masters athletes who train for cross country skiing, that strength training does not play the central role that it should. As well, peak power development plays an even smaller role in a typical masters athlete’s training regimen. As will be discussed below, these two elements of training are the key training modes that will enable a masters skier to progress and to break through performance barriers that one might previously have thought to be unachievable.

Dynapenia and the Aging Athlete

Dynapenia is the loss of muscular strength and power as a function of age and appears to affect everyone to some degree. The following article provides a comprehensive summary of the disease and current understanding of origins and treatments:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22469110/

Separate from sarcopenia (loss of lean muscle mass with age), dynapenia is a loss in the ability of muscle tissue to generate power. Power development is critical in the conduct of everyday activities like walking, getting up, and other functional movements requiring force generation in short time periods. It is a very important subject of study as dynapenia is likely the cause of the inability of many older individuals to perform regular functions critical to an active and healthy life. The ability to physically get up out of a chair or bed requires certain minimum levels of muscular strength and power development (force per unit time). It is found that virtually all aging individuals who have been studied utilizing both cross-sectional and longitudinal protocols, exhibit significant levels of decreased muscular strength and power. As a result, many aging individuals will require assistance in conducting normal daily movement functions such as getting up, walking, or preparing meals. It had been originally proposed that sarcopenia was the primary cause of the observed movement deficiencies. However, data do not support this theory as observed decreases in muscle strength and power are not well correlated with muscle mass loss. Therefore, dynapenia has become a primary focus of research into the causes of age-associated functional movement decreases.

The mechanisms leading to dynapenia are not fully established, however, it is clear that the likely primary causes are two-fold: neuromuscular deficiencies and skeletal muscle structural changes. Studies have shown (and are nicely summarized in this review article)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3571692/

that there exists significant evidence for decreasing neuromuscular excitation of motor units (voluntary muscle activation) in aging populations. As well, age-associated increases of adipose tissue (fat) incorporation within muscle and structural muscle fiber changes including decreased Type II (fast-twitch) fiber numbers and size are consistently observed.

The above-referenced studies were conducted on broad populations of aging individuals that clearly do not contain many (or, possibly, any) masters athletes and therefore are most indicative of a relatively sedentary aging population. Data for active, competitive masters athletes could offer significant insight into the causes of and, potentially, treatments for dynapenia and we look forward to any such studies.

As outlined above, we do know that all athletes exhibit declines in performance with age in both endurance and power sports. In addition, the primary similarity between these diverse sports is the development of peak power and the application of this power to sport-specific movements. Therefore, it is clear that dynapenia is a likely primary contributor to the observed age-associated performance decline in sport. Realization of the detrimental effects of dynapenia on the performance of an aging athlete forms the basis for approaches to minimize the magnitude of performance loss as we age. The remainder of this article will address approaches that minimize loss.

Physiological Origins of Dynapenia

As described above, there are currently two proposed primary physiological origins to age-associated dynapenia: neuromuscular deficiencies and skeletal muscle structural changes (specifically, preferential loss of Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fiber). 

Even in the absence of any neurological disease, neuromuscular deficiencies related to muscle strength and power, are observed in many aging populations. This is primarily attributed to disuse, i.e. a general lack of engagement with physical activity and specifically with activity challenges that target strength and power development. As will be discussed below, neuromuscular deficiencies can be straightforwardly addressed with properly designed progressive strength programs that can lead to significant improvements in neuromuscular function. Such strength programs are highly effective treatment pathways for those exhibiting dynapenia (and sarcopenia).

A significant body of evidence also exists that indicates that, as we age, while our Type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers can, with proper training, maintain their number and size, our Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers reduce in both number and size:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23425621/

Preferential loss of Type II muscle has direct impacts on strength and power since our Type II muscle is the primary muscle fiber type utilized in any motion that involves rapid high force generation. These motions include significant portions of our daily activities like getting up out of a chair, climbing stairs, and lifting objects. Of course, all sports involve rapid high force (i.e. high power) generation to varying degrees, and therefore any reduction in Type II muscle fiber number or size will adversely affect performance in sport. Here again, properly designed progressive strength and power programs can slow down such type II muscle loss and, in some cases, lead to Type II muscle growth (hypertrophy). With Type II muscle, the “use it or lose it” paradigm is central and plays a controlling role. We suggest here that the age-associated decline in Type II muscle is the primary cause of the performance declines summarized above.

The inclusion of regular strength and power exercise programs into our routines can significantly reduce the adverse effects of dynapenia (and sarcopenia) and lead to much more active lifestyles. For the masters athlete, similar (but more challenging) strength and power development programs will lead to increased performance in sport. There is no denying that progressive strength programs play a central role in sustainable active lifestyles for the general population and are critical for excellence in sports performance for masters athletes and recreational participants alike.

The Importance of Neuromuscular Stimuli and Associated Strength Programs for the Aging Athlete

In the recent review article referenced above:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4849483/

the authors outline evidence supporting the assertion that neuromuscular deficiencies play a central role in the development and advancement of dynapenia in aging populations. This is primarily found to be due to a lack of engagement with challenging physical exercise within these populations. However, even among those individuals who regularly partake in vigorous exercise, declines, albeit of lower magnitude, are observed. This indicates that even regular engagement in sport is not sufficient to diminish the effects of dynapenia. The performance declines in world records as a function of age summarized above further support the notion that even the best aging athletes are subject to the ravages of dynapenia. A portion of the observed decline among these elite masters athletes is likely due to non-optimized training programs, some of which do not emphasize or even include, progressive general and sport-specific strength and power training. Realization of the positive (and essential) effects of strength training on one’s performance in masters sports events is slowly gaining traction across the world and, as a result, we expect that significant increases in masters performance will be observed in the coming decade.

Strength training (also known as resistance exercise training (RET)), has been shown to be highly effective in slowing down and, in some cases, reversing the effects of sarcopenia and dynapenia. In their review, Law, et al. document the substantial evidence of the efficacy of including progressive strength programs as a fundamental aspect of the lifestyle of a healthy aging human. Significant improvements in strength and power along with associated increases in physical function and activity level are direct outcomes of such strength programs. 

As cross country skiing athletes, we know very well the importance of strength and power for success. The inclusion of general and sport-specific strength training in any training program has been emphasized by us as critical to advancing as a cross country skier (or as a runner, a cyclist, etc.). One of the central operating mechanisms in the utility of RET in increases in strength and power is neuromuscular in origin. In order for one to efficiently activate and fire muscle fibers, neuromuscular pathways, known as myelination, must be established and consistently utilized in repetitive exercises. Such repetitive work is also called “deep practice” and is thought to be fundamental to excellence in sport and other endeavors. The following video provides more background on myelination:

As we have reviewed previously, repeated activation of muscle fibers in a fashion exactly like (or similar to) those that we use in our sport is critical to becoming efficient in producing such sport-specific movements. The associated myelination that occurs during this practice will “hardwire” your muscular system to produce efficient motions. For example, try our “Herringbone Hell” workout:

One will quickly see how effective “deep practice” (and the associated myelination) is in taking your skill level to new heights. As Daniel Coyle, the author of the book “The Talent Code,” says in response to the old adage “Practice makes perfect” – it should be: “Practice makes myelin and myelin makes perfect.” The importance of challenging, repeated, practice of the fundamental movements in one’s sport should not be underestimated.

Plyometrics and Power Development

Skill is not the only thing that is developed when engaging with “deep practice” – power development is also improved. This is because the two are intimately linked since the skill (firing muscles in the correct order, over the correct time periods, and in the correct position) will produce the highest force generation in the shortest time period relevant to the motion. Being able to produce the highest force is the first step in further developing one’s power in sport-specific movements. Without skill, any further power development can be wasted in inefficient application to movement. Skill and power are inexorably tied together and must be developed together. Plyometric exercises (repeated dynamic and explosive sport-specific motions) are, far and away, the best modality to effectively develop both skill and power in a controlled and progressive manner. These exercises address both neuromuscular development and type II muscle growth stimulus that are critical to performance excellence as a masters skier.

In addition to reduced or minimal strength training as compared to younger and elite athletes, masters athletes also tend to not include plyometrics in their training programs. Plyometrics are a fundamental part of training for elite athletes in all sports, and particularly for cross country skiers. The development of increased power in sport-specific movements requires not just RET, but rapid sport-specific and challenging plyometric exercises that assist in myelination and develop one’s ability to efficiently generate high levels of specific power. 

What is Plyometrics?

Plyometrics are strength exercises aimed at the development of instantaneous power in highly dynamic movements. Plyometric exercises are typified by the “box jump” where one jumps up onto a box in one two-legged or one-legged leap. This requires the development of high power (high work (force X distance) over a short duration) in order to enable one to lift their body weight up some distance into the air and onto the box. Because of the short (millisecond) timeframe over which work is conducted, these exercises elicit the recruitment of primarily Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. The development of such high power capacities is important in many of the fundamental movements in cross country skiing such as “kick” in classic skiing, “push-off” in freestyle, and classic double poling. In addition to the use and development of Type II fibers, the “stabilizer” muscle systems are also developed. These small muscle groups are the origin of good balance and are essential in proper skiing technique and skiing economy.

https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/a-z/what-is-plyometrics

The neuromuscular adaptations (myelination) associated with the specific movements while engaging with plyometrics are critical to development of efficient movement. This is why it is important to design exercises that replicate or mimic the motions and balance that are utilized in cross country skiing. Studies have shown that incorporation of regular plyometric sessions results in increased economy in distance running:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12627298/

The utilization of plyometrics for training has long been applied in cross country skiing since the same types of movement and application of impulse forces is occurring. Although more difficult to measure analytically, skiing economy is observed to increase when athletes include consistent plyometric training in their programs. 

The neuromuscular adaptations from plyometric exercises enable high instantaneous power and associated coordinated timing that lead to very efficient power delivery on snow and therefore positively affect skiing efficiency. The associated Type II muscle growth stimulus inherent in engaging with plyometric exercises provides the ability for an athlete to take full advantage of these neuromuscular adaptations and maximize power production.

As a result of these adaptations, properly designed plyometric exercises provide a “triple whammy” training stimulus (strength/power development, balance development, and economy development) that, on a minute-for-minute comparison with other training modes, is a very efficient spend of training time.

Plyometrics for Masters Skiers

The concept that a masters athlete would actively engage with rapid, explosive, and challenging exercises on a regular basis has been dismissed by many masters coaches and athletes as “inappropriate”, “too risky”, “too challenging”, or “asking for injury”. Such admonitions have lead to a situation where an overwhelming majority of masters skiers do not include plyometrics in their training programs even though these exercises represent one the most important and efficient elements of training for competitive cross country skiing. 

Arguments against the inclusion of plyometrics in training programs for masters skiers include concerns over high connective tissue stress, over-reaching, and potential for falls (or other missteps), each of which could lead to injury. Although these are all valid concerns, it is straightforward to design and execute upon plyometric exercise programs that minimize the potential for occurrence of any of these concerns. Rather than setting aside the entire concept of utilizing plyometrics for masters athletes, we suggest that it will be most productive if an athlete were to include such exercises in a progressive way under the supervision of a strength and conditioning professional. The key part of this approach is to be progressive and to not proceed with increased intensity and volume at too fast a rate. This is true for any strength program but is critical for plyometric programs due to the high muscle and joint stress typically experienced during the execution of the exercises. 

Our experience is that the inclusion of a rigorous plyometric exercise program along with aerobic and strength training is very approachable for the vast majority of masters athletes. The benefits of the targeted development of power, balance, and efficiency in sport-specific motions provided by plyometrics will be obvious even after just four weeks of execution upon a well-designed progressive program. We highly recommend considering the addition of plyometrics to one’s weekly training but to do so with the assistance of a strength and conditioning professional familiar with the implementation of plyometrics.

An early season (October 11) 4” snowstorm doesn’t deter the masters athletes in Betsy’s and EJ’s Fall Dryland training group here in Sun Valley. Uphill bounding with poles, shown here, is an excellent, relatively low impact, sport-specific plyometric exercise with big benefits for fitness, power, and technique. It’s also dog-friendly!

Plyometric exercises that are typically used for cross country ski training include box jumps, single and two-legged hops, hill bounding with or without poles, “skiers lunge”, and “lunge-ups” among many others. A good resource is the book High Powered Plyometrics:

https://www.amazon.com/Highpowered-Plyometrics-James-C-Radcliffe/dp/1450498132/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1634143337&sr=8-7

We have provided examples of plyometric exercises for master skiers previously and we include links below to three short videos that we put together outlining two such exercises. There are many others and they can all be approached in a progressive and safe manner. 

Plyometrics Introduction, “Box” Jumps and “Hops”:

Summary

The observed performance declines in athletic performance as a function of age have a common origin, independent of the specific sport. The common origin is age-associated decreased power development in sport-specific motions. Such loss of muscular power is called dynapenia and is a disease that appears to affect everyone to some degree. 

It has been found that dynapenia is likely caused by age-associated neuromuscular deficiencies and preferential loss of Type II muscle. Studies have shown that engagement with structured resistance exercise training (a.k.a. strength training) is central to slowing down, stopping, or possibly reversing the detrimental effects of the disease. 

For the masters athlete, the inclusion of plyometric exercises into one’s training program provides targeted, highly functional training stimuli that directly address the primary causes of dynapenia and the associated declines in athletic performance. The use of progressive, properly designed, plyometric exercises will lead to increases in athletic performance, including more powerful sport-specific motions, superior balance, and increased economy. Additionally, these exercises will help with injury prevention and general physical durability.

We highly recommend including plyometrics into your regular training – not just for sport, but for your active life!

The Myth of Diminished Recovery for the Aging Athlete

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

As aging athletes we often hear that, as we age, our recovery from training and racing is diminished and that this lack of recovery accelerates with age. In fact, we have espoused this same mantra here on this site and elsewhere when interacting with masters athletes. But there was always something unsettling to us about that: neither of us actually felt that “diminished” recovery, even now that we are well into our 60’s. Our recovery from training and racing is similar to that when we were young, pink-lunged elite endurance athletes aspiring to excellence at national and international races. Why is it that we feel this way and why is our recovery essentially unchanged with age? And why is this in such contrast to many of the published articles on the topic, the recommendations of “experts,” and the personal observations of many masters athletes?

Not having fully investigated the body of research on this topic, we thought it worthwhile to take a look and critically analyze the available data and the concepts being put forth that support diminished recovery in aging athletes. What we found is, (and as is often the case in the field of experimental physiology) very weak data and many unfounded conclusions – some that have been promulgated through the years and that have led to the current general acceptance of diminished recovery in aging athletes. What we also found was significant, strong, data that the sub-population of aging athletes (and even just physically active aging populations) show no evidence for diminished physiologic recovery in response to training stimuli.

Betsy, age 59, charges a hill in the scramble leg in the relay at World Masters 2018 – setting the pace for competitors 20-30 years her junior.

In the remainder of this article we will critically review the work on this topic, provide some guidance on how to interpret the available data, and suggest some preliminary alternative hypotheses that are in alignment with the reality of a very diminished “diminished recovery” paradigm for aging athletes. But first, a few thoughts about stress.

stress is stress, no matter the origin

Stress is critical to development, whether it be physiological, emotional, or intellectual in origin. The response of the human body to these stressors allows for adaptations that typically lead to incremental increases in physical ability, emotional resilience, and enhanced thought platforms, respectively. However, these adaptations will only occur if the challenge presented by the stress is less than some critical value defining physical, emotional, or intellectual breakdown for the individual and, importantly, that we allow for recovery from the substantial work required to accommodate the applied stressors. One must also ensure that further stress, applied later, can be similarly accommodated. This leads to the well-known simple equation:

STRESS + REST = GROWTH

Generally, motivated athletes are very good at applying physiologic stress. We enjoy the challenge of the workout and the physical and mental satisfaction of completing a training session and building our abilities towards a goal.

What many athletes are not good at is ensuring sufficient rest in advance of planned workout sessions. Other elements of our lives often interfere with necessary rest and limit our capacity to fully recover prior to the next scheduled training session. In addition, the “more is better” mindset can invade our psyche and athletes can slowly (but surely will) follow a path to serial over-reaching and the associated negative consequences (increased tiredness, depressed heart rates, irritability, “bad” workouts, and eventually breakdown). Extreme cases of this lead to over-training and, often, the end of athletic careers. The importance of rest can not be overemphasized.

Getting back to stress, it’s important to point out that stress is stress, no matter the origin. Although, as athletes, we focus on physiological stress (our workout sessions), we also must be cognizant of any other stressors in our lives, be it emotional, intellectual, societal (e.g. family and friends), or atmospheric (e.g. weather and air quality). Some of these stressors can lead to increased secretion of “stress hormones” like epinephrine and cortisol that, when chronic, produce secondary physiologic stress which is in addition to any primary physiologic stress from the training load. Such chronic stresses keep what is known as the “HPA axis” persistently active at a low levels. The “HPA axis” is the system consisting of the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands that work together to signal the body to produce both epinephrine and cortisol in “fight or flight” situations.

All of these stressors – training load, emotional load, intellectual load, and other things that add stress to our lives – add together and lead to a net total stress that must be accommodated by appropriate rest in order for growth to occur.

stress in young vs. masters athletes

When thinking about the typical life of a young, committed, athlete, it is clear that indirect (secondary) physiological stressors are limited when compared to a typical masters athlete. Such young athletes will often have focused their lives on athletic goals as the primary driver of their existence and therefore have limited most extramural activities to very minimal levels. This naturally results in lower levels of net total stress that will help allow an athlete the capacity to engage in challenging training regimens and ensure full recovery between training sessions and therefore maximize one’s growth potential. (Note: indirect (secondary) physiological stress can be significant for some young athletes depending on their individual situation: funding concerns, significant travel, family objections, etc. and this often plays a role in success.)

The situation for the typical masters athlete is quite different. Usually a full-time job is occupying a large fraction of available time and can bring with it significant emotional, intellectual, societal, and physical stress, all of which can lead to secondary physiologic stress. In addition, many masters athletes have active (and often growing) families that add significant additional stress and time constraints to their lives. And, importantly, motivational drivers typically change for masters athletes from a primary (almost singular) focus on athletic performance to a larger spectrum of drivers associated with other important elements of a masters athlete’s life, such as career advancement, parenting, and hobbies, among others.

The “bigger” your life, the “bigger” the stress. Professional athletes are acutely aware of this and often become “monastic” about their training and recovery, with extremely limited outside interests and activities. Most masters athletes do not have (nor do many want) this level of singular focus and will therefore need to deal with all of the consequences of an active “big” life that comes with a career, a family, and athletic pursuit. The additional (secondary physiologic) stress for masters athletes is important to consider when comparing younger athletes to masters athletes. A masters athlete will typically have a much larger “baseline” stress level relative to a younger, committed athlete or professional. This “baseline” (secondary physiological) stress is additive to any further primary physiologic stress from training. Therefore a masters athlete will likely need more rest than a younger athlete for an equivalent training session load. 

This is the origin of the “myth” of diminished recovery for aging athletes. As will be discussed below, published studies and data support that there are only very small differences in physiologic recovery from training stimuli between young and old athletes. The real difference in our opinion,  and the difference that many masters athletes feel, lies in the secondary physiologic stress that a typical aging athlete experiences. This is true for a “typical” aging athlete, but not for all aging athletes.

Bob finishing a challenging 6 X 8 min threshold hill repeat workout leading into a taper for World Masters. With an average of 16h+ of training per week throughout the year including two interval, three strength, and three plyometric sessions per week, a near-elite-level of training is fully supportable by a 65 year old. Aging athletes may not be as fast, but we can train nearly as hard as elite skiers and still recover and improve. Not all masters skiers can (or want to) train at this level, but if you do, be sure to work with a coach to ensure you don’t over-do it.

What this means is that, with a lifestyle situation that minimizes the net total stress in one’s life, some masters athletes could be able to execute upon and recover from even elite-level endurance training. A masters athlete will never become as fast as the elite athletes (the reason for this is the subject of a separate forthcoming article), but one could potentially train in a similar manner and therefore see the same relative level of increases in endurance, race pace, and skill. So don’t let a bunch of unfounded “folklore” prevent you from aspiring to challenging training and racing experiences. You will likely have to make some changes to your life environment, but if athletic performance is an important part of your life then the sacrifice of targeted reductions in “big” life activities will be worth the effort and lead to accomplishment, reward, and satisfaction. These “life reductions” typically become much more feasible as one ‘ages-out’ of the high-time and emotional commitment years during child-rearing and career-building. This is when an aging athlete will have much more flexibility to “rearrange” aspects of their lives as careers and other responsibilities can naturally evolve to a less structured and driven environment. This is also a great time, if one is so inclined, to consider putting additional focus on one’s athletic pursuits. Engaging with a coach is recommended to ensure that proper progressive cardio, strength, and plyometric load increases are adhered to.

Note: One of the distinguishing characteristics of professional/elite endurance athletes is the ability to functionally absorb prodigious amounts of training. Not all aspiring athletes will have this ability and pursuit of elite-level training regimens as a masters athlete could be a recipe for over-training and disappointment. It is best to work with an experienced coach and develop a personal training program that is well recorded and monitored. Approaching elite-level training volumes and intensity is, obviously, extremely challenging and will be possible only for a small fraction of aging athletes, just as such training levels are possible only for a small fraction of young athletes.

The “science” of recovery for aging athletes

One of the basic concepts put forth in attempts to explain observed diminished recovery in aging athletes is something called “anabolic resistance.” Muscle remodeling (building/repair of muscle) is controlled by the dynamic balance between muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS). “Anabolic resistance” is proposed as a physiologic process by which an aging individual exhibits reduced muscle protein synthesis (MPS) per unit of physical activity and/or nutrition (primarily protein) intake.  The imbalance in MPB and MPS can yield both positive and  negative net protein balance (NPB). In response to training stimuli, positive values of NPB lead to muscle building and repair whereas negative values will result in loss of muscle and deficient muscle repair. The concept of “anabolic resistance” is based on the assertion that, as one ages, the native ability of the body to respond to physical activity and complimentary nutrition intake to produce new/repaired muscle tissue is reduced. For the aging athlete, this means that for the same training stimulus, a smaller amount of muscle mass (relative to a younger individual) will be evident and, importantly, less muscle repair will be experienced. With a lack of muscle repair, an athlete will potentially not fully recover from a training stimulus before the next scheduled session and this is what has been proposed as the basis for an aging athlete’s reported “diminished” physiologic recovery. But do the data support this thesis?

The answer to the question above is NO. For athletes, and anyone who habitually exercises on a regular (approximately daily) basis, the data clearly show no difference in MPS between old and young subjects provided sufficient nutrition is habitually consumed. One of the issues with the research in this area is that the populations of subjects that have been studied are not representative of aging athletes, competitive masters athletes, and, importantly, not representative of “elite-level” masters athletes. Given data on aging athletes (and not general populations of aging individuals) it is found that there exists significant overlap between young and old subjects in many factors that are known to be indicative of whole body function (e.g. VO2max) and therefore MPS and positive NPB. Additional studies in this area where properly selected subjects that represent committed masters athletes that regularly compete at a high level are needed, however, currently available data indicate that physiologic recovery from properly dosed training stimuli are not generally compromised in aging athletes. Other processes may be affecting the overall response of these athletes to training, but the fundamental process of MPS/muscle repair is not significantly diminished*. 

There are data that suggest, in sports that induce muscle damage (e.g. running or other high-impact sports), that muscle damage recovery is slower in masters athletes than that observed in younger athletes. As is usual, the studied population sizes are small and often do not include “elite-level” masters. It is proposed in these studies that the observed diminished MPS rate is insufficient for masters athletes to fully recover prior to subsequent training sessions in these high-impact sports.

Cross country skiing, for example, has historically been considered a low-impact sport, and it is low impact for the lower body muscle groups. However, the increased use of double poling in classic skiing, as well as the development of poling technique and dependence thereon in freestyle skiing, has changed this, at least for the upper body musculature. Modern double poling technique in skiing on groomed snow and roller skiing on pavement is clearly a high impact activity. We can attest to there being no issue with upper body muscle recovery rates in our skiing and roller skiing even when we (often) do double pole-specific interval and endurance workouts and after classic races and time trials where we have double-poled the entire race on hilly terrain (including World Cup homologized courses). We have similar results with trail and mountain running (and the associated lower body muscle groups), an activity that is dominant in our “dryland” training for cross country skiing. So our experience stands separate from the studies noted above and, based on interactions with other masters athletes, we expect this to be true for at least some (as yet undefined) sub-population of masters  athletes. Large longitudinal studies of postprandial MPS are needed to further understand the variation in MPS as a function of age across the masters athlete population (including “elite-level” masters). The small cross-sectional studies of MPS in masters athletes that are currently available do not provide sufficient statistical power for any sort of meaningful conclusive statements for such effect sizes. Our personal observations and input from other masters athletes indicates to us that it is likely that the “diminished” recovery reported in numerous studies of masters athletes is a result of the selected population in the studies and cannot be uniformly applied across the entire masters athlete population, and particularly not for “elite-level” masters athletes.

*Note: There are studies that suggest that type II MPS is compromised in aging populations. This important observation will be addressed in a separate forthcoming article about power and speed declines in masters athletes.

Again, stress is stress

So why do so many aging athletes claim that they “just cannot recover like they used to” or that they cannot support structured training volumes similar to when they were young? We propose that this response is due to secondary physiologic stress; those stresses described above that, although negatively impactful on overall response to training stimuli, are not due to a diminished physiologic process but rather are due to other lifestyle realities (full-time job, family responsibility, mental/emotional issues, etc.) that can lead to non-optimal or even low-quality sleep as well as other parasympathetic system deficiencies. Dealing with these additional stresses places a greater burden on one’s ability to fully recover from training because the “baseline stress” level is high and the training stress/recovery required to successfully compete at a high level is not achievable or results in chronic over-reaching (and eventually over-training). No one can support chronic over-reaching and perform well at events. 

Addressing one’s lifestyle in the context of athletic goals is a very important process for an aging athlete to attend to, particularly if one wishes to perform at high levels of achievement nationally and internationally. Just as the younger skier is making difficult choices on what lifestyle activities are appropriate or sustainable given certain athletic goals, the master skier must also make such difficult choices and sacrifices to optimize training and maximize performance at events. 

goal alignment with life and physiologic stresses

Approaching your athletic goals within a process that accounts for the reality of your chosen lifestyle will lead to an achievement level that is well-aligned to what you can actually do, not necessarily what you could potentially do. Unfortunately, many aging athletes have goals that are just not consistent with their other lifestyle choices and this will clearly lead to disappointment. This also applies to young athletes as well.

An assessment of your lifestyle realities (e.g. job, family, etc.) along with addressing and reducing those aspects that lead to high “baseline” stress will allow you, as a masters athlete, to minimize the net total stress that you experience and therefore optimize your training and recovery for the achievement of whatever your well-aligned athletic goals may be. The realization that one’s “lack of recovery” is not an inevitable product of aging, but is something that we have significant control over is the first step toward achieving athletic success as a competitive masters athlete, however you choose define it.

Train well, be well!

 

 

Finding Opportunity in an Up-Ended Ski Season

With the competitive race season being very much diminished or canceled, the current situation presents a difficult environment for the competitive masters skier. Normally at this point in the season, one is focusing on one or two ‘key’ races along with a number of other races scheduled to assist with preparations for the ‘A’ races. But not this year – many races have been canceled or changed to a ‘virtual’ format and many skiers are casting about on what to do, skiing-wise, to fill the void. We too have been figuring out what might be productive and enjoyable substitute activities and foci for the 2020-2021 ski season and we present some of our ideas here.

One overarching approach is to look at those elements of skiing and ski racing that require long-term focus for improvement. Two of these are technique development and strength training. Outside of the training focus, another new direction is to devote some time to your local ski community and “give back” some of the support and guidance that we have all received from our respective ski communities. Although this article is aimed toward the masters skier, the ideas presented here are broadly applicable.

The Season of Technique

One of the elements of cross country ski training that gets less attention than it should is technique development. Many master athletes will favor getting in their interval or aerobic development training sessions over spending quality time working on technique deficiencies. With the lack of competition opportunities, 2021 is a great year to focus on those technique areas where a skier needs improvement. Without an upcoming race, the need for peaking and tapering essentially goes away and interval sessions can be ‘downsized’ (but not removed!). This will leave a substantive amount of time and energy for technique development; and time is what it takes since proper technique development requires significant quantities of neuromuscular stimulus and the associated myelination (wiring) that will make efficient technique ‘automatic.’

An athlete can approach technique development in a number of ways. First is to engage with an experienced local ski coach who can conduct a thorough assessment of one’s technique and provide guidance on what needs attention and how to work on these issues. The savings garnered from not traveling to race venues can be redirected to this activity.

Second, employ a ‘do-it-yourself’ approach. Technique analysis is best accomplished with video and masters skiers do far too little video analysis of their technique. One of the reasons that some of the youngsters you see out on the trail have such good technique is that they are not only getting direct, nearly-daily, coaching (as above) but they are also getting copious amounts of video feedback to help them hone in on the many nuances associated with the best cross country ski technique. Although one could employ a coach to do this (at a relatively high cost), we have found that having your own video set-up is very effective and efficient. It just takes the commitment to setting aside the time to do the video sessions.

Setting up your own video system is very straightforward – all you need is your phone, a tripod (as little as about $15 on Amazon), a ‘phone bracket’ for the tripod (most tripods come with these now), a remote for your phone (many tripods come with these now), and a ski trail (preferably groomed). Set up your video system in an appropriate place and ski by while taking video. You will be surprised at how ‘bad’ you look! Once you get over that disappointment, you can begin to work on ‘fixing’ some of the most obvious technique issues and document your progress along the way. It is very productive to closely watch and analyze any video footage from the World Cups that you can find – there is a lot available on YouTube and other ‘channels.’ One effective tool is to put the World Cup YouTube frame up in one window on your computer and arrange the window from your video session alongside. Direct comparisons are a great way to see where your technique is lacking. Use this feedback loop along with additional video sessions to make targeted improvements in your technique – you’ll be pleased as to how instructive and effective it can be.

Bob setting up a tripod and phone for video capture along the trail.

Note: This sample video was panned by Betsy to gain more footage. The field of view of most phones/cameras will normally be sufficient to obtain sufficient  and reliable technique video footage without panning so it is not essential to have a ‘partner’ helping.

Combining both of these approaches will lead to the best improvements – i.e. get some coaching and use that information to help you set-up and analyze your video sessions. As masters skiers, we generally don’t have coaching all the time and it is important to have tools that will allow one to develop a ‘feel’ for good technique on snow. Once you have this ‘feel’ it is straightforward to execute upon an iterative improvement process to fine-tune technique nuances every time you ski.

Let the 2021 ski season be one where you make significant strides in technique development (pun intended). As you become more powerful and efficient your racing will improve and your enjoyment of the sport will increase significantly!

The year of strength

Strength, as we have indicated in numerous articles, is the foundation of good cross country skiing technique. Without requisite specific strength capacities, it is impossible to properly execute upon efficient, powerful cross country skiing. But not only is such specific strength capacity development one of the most commonly deficient aspects of training for the masters skier, it is also a very long-term process and requires an integrated multi-year development program to even begin to approach one’s potential. Although aspects of muscle endurance are well accommodated within a “normal” structured training and racing program, the race season necessarily de-emphasizes any further development of power and max strength – two key elements in strength development for cross country skiing.

Strength exercises should reflect the types of loading that an athlete will experience in their sport. Straight pull-ups, although a good place to start, are not as directly translatable to cross country skiing as is the L-sit pull-up shown here. Engaging the core, coincident with the upper body in this exercise replicates similar loading as in proper double poling and V1 and V2 poling. Other than for max strength with added resistance weight, the straight pull-up is only a partial replication – use the L-sit pull-up instead and you will reap significantly increased benefits on snow.

In a ‘normal’ year a well-designed training program will have periodized strength elements. Typically, after a month or so of recovery at the end of the prior racing season (often this is the month of April), strength training begins anew and follows a ‘build- recovery-build’ structure through about late November when an athlete will transition to a ‘maintenance’ strength protocol. Given that the competitive season this year is diminished or entirely absent, it is a potentially good time to engage with an increased strength focus this season. This means that one can include at least one more 3-4 week ‘build’ period in a training program (January or February). Given that, typically, a committed athlete will have about three ‘build’ strength periods in a given year, this will allow for a 33% increase in the strength-building segment of the current year program. The resulting improvements on-snow will be obvious and enjoyable! Include two additional ‘builds’ (January or February and March or April) and you have increased your focus on strength-building by 66% providing even further benefits across the board from technique improvements, power development, skiing efficiency, and injury prevention. It’s another great way to make the best of the current situation.

Giving Back in 2021

Without a race season, it may be an opportune time to turn your focus from racing to giving back to your local Nordic community.  While still able to train on our phenomenal trail system here is Sun Valley, we won’t be racing or traveling in the near future, which gives us more time for helping the local ski community. We are grateful to have had the many opportunities to enjoy Nordic skiing, and as we all know it is the perfect sport for athletes of all ages.

We encourage all racers to take a step back this season and look for ways to help others enjoy the sport we love. Not only is it rewarding to teach others, the process of distilling and explaining something often helps one to improve one’s own knowledge and skills.  Each community is unique, therefore the opportunities to inspire will vary by locale and each individual’s attributes.  Just imagine the power of the movement if everyone just did one small thing.

Some of the ways one can give back this season:

  • Teach others – from friends to younger or older athletes reach out and lend a hand
  • Share your favorite drills and workouts with others
  • Give a wax clinic – show others all the wonders of waxing and fast skis
  • Help with organizing a virtual event or time trial
  • Be friendly on the trails – a smile or a wave can make someone’s day
  • Make it a point to stop and chat with the ‘elder’ skiers (distanced of  course) – you’ll be surprised how important it is to them!
  • Donate your lightly used gear and clothing
  • Pick up trash or litter left by others
  • Bake or cook a treat for someone

Betsy giving a kick waxing clinic in mid-December 2020 with full COVID compliance – outdoors, distanced, and masks. Key message: keep it simple  use binder!

Well, these are a few ideas for making the best of the COVID-altered state that we all find ourselves in. We’re certain that there are many others and we encourage everyone to take advantage of this time to do something productive and enjoyable in ways that will help you as both an athlete and as a person.

Encouraging Thoughts for Masters Skiers – Revert to Specificity

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

Introduction

In this time of pandemic many athletes are confronted with significant uncertainty across all aspects of their lives. For the athlete, this can lead to challenges with motivation, particularly when the upcoming competitive season is potentially not going to happen. Combine this with the reality that training for cross country skiing is a year-round endeavor where a majority of training happens off snow, and some of the fundamental, longer-term, aspects of our motivational drive begin to be eroded. Putting in the long hours of aerobic base building, maintaining focus for critical high intensity work, and attending to identified weaknesses are all more difficult to do when there are diminished long-term goals, or worse yet, goals that no longer exist. As we have discussed in a prior article on time horizons, setting goals, and training plan structure, having short and long-term goals and a plan on how one is going to achieve these goals is fundamental to athletic success, be it achieving a personal goal or a competitive goal. These goals are also fundamental to the derived motivation that one develops with commitment. When previously made long-term goals become uncertain, our motivation will naturally wane. Many elite summer athletes are currently dealing with this now that the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed a year.  We are dealing with this as well because the 2021 World Masters Cross Country Ski Championships in Canmore,  AB Canada are uncertain at this point. These annual “World Cup”- style international races represent the most competitive age-group opportunities for a masters athlete. The series provides four races (including a relay) in ten days and makes for a great experience for a competitive ski racer.  Without the World Masters Championships, a big part of our motivation is impacted.  Add to this the fact that, at this juncture, all domestic races are uncertain and one may find their motivation to train substantially affected. 

We also need to appreciate the direct and subliminal stress of dealing with the COVID-19 restrictions on physical and social interactions and the reality that, depending on the person, heightened “real-life” stress can have significant negative impact on energy levels, recovery, and sleep.

But, as is often the case, such challenges can also be viewed in a different, more favorable, light. Yes, cross country ski competitions are potentially off-the-table for the 2020-2021 season, but there are  other goals and objectives that can substitute for racing, particularly for the masters skier.  Suggestions for modified and/or alternative goals and objectives are reviewed here.

Revert to Specificity

We could go on at length about how to stay motivated under the current (pandemic) circumstances. That is an important thing to attend to and something we will have a separate article about. However, here we speak to the operational side of the issue, i.e. what can a masters athlete do with diminished motivation and still make progress. This is an approach that looks to identify those aspects of training where we will derive the maximum on-snow benefit and thereby make the most of what motivation we still have. Our shared experience during this sort of situation is to revert to specificity. By this we mean to adjust one’s training program to emphasize sport-specific activities and to move away from activities that are less directly translatable to on-snow performance (while still maintaining “fun factor” cross training activities like white water kayaking!). This approach is one that is successfully used when one has less time to train, while coming back from sickness, or in the later stages of injury recovery. It can also be used when motivation is lower. Such sport-specific activities have a “bigger bang for the buck” for the time invested and, with lowered motivation, less time training is likely a given. We’ll take what motivation we have and optimize it for the largest gains possible! Certainly, this is no replacement for a full, multi-faceted, integrated training program, but at least we can make some clear improvements in important areas that might otherwise not see as much focus in our regular programs.

Additionally, for the masters skier, we tend to not put as much emphasis on sport-specific training activities as we likely should. Doing so requires identifying weaknesses and putting together a plan of sport-specific exercises that address these weaknesses. More typically we “live with the inadequacies” because we would rather ski or mountain bike or go running and “maintain our aerobic base” or for some such other reason. Here we take a negative influence (diminished motivation) and turn it on it’s head to produce long-term improvements that we can take advantage of once our motivation (and the current world situation) returns to whatever “normal” will be in the future.

Revert to Specificity — What is it exactly?

Specificity is engaging in exercises that are specific to your sport. For cross country skiing this includes properly designed max strength/general strength exercises, plyometrics, double pole roller skiing, and bounding with poles, among others. Since we are planning to utilize these exercises to make personal sport-specific improvements the specificity needs to be specific to you. This involves assessment of your weaknesses and is best done with an experienced coach and, often, video analysis of dynamic movements. Don’t be shy – contact your local cross country ski coach and ask if they might be able to help you with this assessment (along with some remuneration) and design a set of sport-specific exercises to help you address any weaknesses that have been identified. Alternatively, a qualified Physical Therapist (PT) familiar with cross country skiing movements can make assessments and provide direction on appropriate exercises and progressions.

For us, assessments have identified a couple of primary weaknesses; for example we are working on: engaging and developing Type-II muscle, improvements in double pole motion, single-leg balance, and classic kick timing. We’ve adjusted training programs to emphasize exercises that address these weaknesses. To accomplish this we will include a higher proportion of plyometrics, video feedback during double pole roller ski sessions, single-leg Bosu ball balance drills, and single-leg plyometric uphill hops. By focussing on these identified weaknesses, whilst not as “fun” as other training modes, we expect to see significant on-snow performance improvements. These sport and person-specific training foci are not time-intensive but they do require commitment and consistency. However, it is much easier to find 30 minutes and sufficient motivation to do these exercises than to find 2 hours and significant motivation for an aerobic run, roller ski, or mountain bike. The “bang for the buck” in invested time and motivation is much greater for the sport-specific exercises.

Some General Examples of Sport-Specific Exercise for Masters Skiers

There are some general approaches to making one’s training more sport-specific. For cross country skiing these include:

Hill Bounding With Poles: There is an old adage in dryland cross country ski training – “whatever you do, do it with poles.”  The idea is that the use of poles is central to all skiing motions and the extent to which one engages with poles in their training will have a large effect on skiing performance.  To this end we highly recommend that athletes use their poles whenever they hike, run, or do uphill intervals.  The added upper body and core engagement with the striding movement is adding not just strength development but also upper body muscular endurance (from long hikes or trail runs) and substantial neuromuscular adaptations that will translate directly to on-snow performance. We do all hikes with poles and, increasingly through the summer, include poles with run workouts. In all cases utilizing proper bounding technique, and when the trail gets too narrow, either lifting the poles horizontal or taking them off and carrying them. With the introduction of significant intensity in August, we do all intensity sessions as uphill hill bounding with poles. By October all aerobic and interval training is completed with poles for the remainder of the dryland season. The consistent engagement with poles in dryland is, of course, naturally included if roller skiing plays a large role in your training.

Betsy beating out a thunderstorm at the end of a 6 X 8 min on 4 min rest LT bounding session up Baldy in Sun Valley. Using poles whenever you can is a good way to ensure a connection with the full body motions in skiing, even while training on dryland.

Plyometrics: We have spoken about the importance of plyometrics in previous articles, but here we stress that, for the masters skier, plyometrics represent one of the “biggest bangs for the buck” of training time relative to performance impact. There are few opportunities to truly and effectively engage one’s type 2 muscle mass and plyometrics are far and away the best approach. A consistent diet of two to three 30-minute cross country ski-specific plyometric sessions per week throughout the dryland season will yield substantive on-snow performance impact.  Although older skiers will often have some level of compromised connective tissue (which will alter how one does plyometrics), working with a strength training professional should allow for a safe and effective program of plyometrics for almost any skier. 

Bob demonstrates “box jumps for old people” using a bosu ball and turf to minimize impact force rates (impulse). The damaging thing is often not the peak force but the rate at which this force is attained. High rates = high damage due to the significant strain rate sensitivity of human tissue and bone structures. Using softer surfaces generally reduces strain rates to tolerable levels, depending upon individual issues. Always work with a strength professional when including plyometrics into your training regimen.

Double Pole Roller Skiing: Although we include significant roller skiing in our training programs, we realize the risk associated with this activity.  There is no question that roller skiing is one of the most dangerous training modes for cross country skiers and this is magnified for masters skiers where long-term injury risk is heightened due to connective tissue issues and overall lower impact compliance should one crash. However, there is one mode of roller skiing that is much less risky than all others: double pole roller skiing on a generally controlled gentle (1.5-2% grade) slope. It is relatively easy to control roller skis on such gentle slopes and this level of grade is challenging enough to allow for a very good aerobic or interval workout. Doing this roller skiing on a 2-3 km loop or an out and back on a section of road or path that is fairly controlled (i.e. low traffic and smooth surface) will minimize the not insignificant risk associated with roller skiing.  One can also add a weight vest or speed reducers and turn a 2% slope into the equivalent of a 3%-5% slope for additional challenge and for progressions (just make sure any added weight does not affect your technique). Of all the roller skiing modes, double pole roller skiing is the most similar to being on snow. In fact, on the right roller skis, double pole roller skiing can be exactly like being on snow. This is not so for classic stride roller skiing where the “perfect” kick you get from ratcheted roller skis has been known to derail many athletes once they get on snow. Freestyle roller skiing across varied terrain serves as a good source for developing and maintaining neuromuscular adaptations specific to on-snow skiing but comes with the all of the risks of being out on roads with vehicles in often uncontrolled conditions (varied surface conditions, speeding vehicles, texting drivers, etc.). Add to this the advantage that double pole technique cuts across all important cross country skiing techniques and improvements in double poling capacity will positively impact all skiing, classic and freestyle.

Note: there are other approaches to making rollerskiing less risky and we will have an upcoming video that addresses this.

Max Strength/General Strength Exercises: As we have also written about in prior articles, Max strength/General strength programs should already being playing a central role in one’s training. This is of primary importance for the masters skier, where muscle loss is the number one performance limiter. Doing this training in a sport-specific fashion is highly productive and will yield big results once the athlete is on snow. Putting emphasis on strength training when motivation is lower is a successful approach many athletes have taken advantage of. Again, for the time spent training, strength training (including plyometerics) represents one the highest “time invested-to-results achieved” benefits for the cross country skier. Operationally, this means that if training is adversely affected by available time or motivation to do the work, strength training should be the last to be affected. Under adverse conditions in the dryland season, it is best to prioritize strength above all other training modes for the masters skier. Working with a strength professional to design an effective and sport-specific strength program (that includes progressions) is a critically important part of any training program. Since each athlete brings different levels of strength into a training regimen, no specific recommendations can be given, but we have provided general approaches for the masters skier in our recent article “Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete – Reprise.” It is most functional to utilize max strength and general strength exercises that map well onto the motions used in cross country skiing. Engaging in strength exercises that focus on motions separate from cross country skiing will have limited impact and could lead to regression. Also, in this time of pandemic, having a home gym option is very advantageous from both health perspectives (limited exposure to viruses) and a motivational perspective. It’s a lot easier to conjure up the motivation to go to your home gym than it is to gather everything you need and commute to a commercial gym that may be crowded or have limited hours of operation. Since being a successful masters athlete involves taking advantage of the limited time we have available for training, the home gym can play a big part in advancing one’s fitness.  Your home gym is always open, involves no commute, is never crowded, and can be tailored to those exercises relevant to cross country skiing. A win on all fronts!

Bob doing a “double pole squat” as part of a regular max strength/general strength session. A quality strength session can be efficiently completed in 45-75 minutes, provides a very important training stimulus, and, for masters skiers, slows down or eliminates inherent muscle loss (sarcopenia).

Summary

Although the current world situation is presenting challenges to the motivation of all skiers, these challenges are heightened for the masters skier who already has limited time and, often, more “life stress.” A re-assessment of one’s training plan with these challenges in mind has become essential to ensure progression. We suggest that reverting to specificity is a reliable approach to accommodating reduced levels of motivation and increased life stress. Replacing racing goals with sport-specific development goals based on an assessment of individual weaknesses can go a long way to allow for steady improvements that will have significant impact once we get back to whatever “normal” ends up being.

Double Poling and V1 – A Path to a More Powerful V1 for Masters Skiers

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

Introduction

In nordic skiing, one of the most-used freestyle techniques is the V1, and yet V1 technique is a weakness for many skiers and for masters skiers in particular. We’ll get to the reasons for this below, but the importance of a powerful, high turnover V1 cannot be underestimated. Many masters skiers use V1 for substantial portions of races, most (if not all) hills, and for recovery after surges. In fact, some masters skiers use V1 exclusively in racing and training, except for some flats and gradual downhills. However, when observing races and training one will see a high proportion of deficient technique among masters skiers engaging in V1. A skier will be well served to concentrate on developing an efficient and powerful V1, particularly masters skiers where this technique is often utilized.

As one progresses into developing as a competitive cross country skier, there are aspects that continue to stand out as being of primary importance. Those that are well-recognized are aerobic capacity (VO2max), skiing efficiency, and full-body strength. What is not well-recognized is the overarching importance and impact of a strong, efficient double poling capacity.

The double pole technique cuts across all important techniques in cross country skiing. Strong, powerful, and efficient double poling technique is critical in classic skiing, V1, and V2. We’ll cover how double poling motions are essential in proper V1 technique here and refer the reader to full coverage over all techniques in an article we published recently that addresses why double poling is the most important competency in competitive cross country skiing. 

Note: We use the “on arm” and “off arm” convention for descriptions of V1 technique. Other commonly used terms include “hang pole” and “push pole”, respectively.

Double Pole and V1

If there is one technique that has been muddled by coaches, teachers, and competitors, it is the V1 technique. Our observations have been that coaches and teachers often instruct skiers to bring the secondary or “off arm” across the body and in front of the torso for poling. This position severely limits the ability to develop power from the “off arm” and therefore limits the ability of the skier to take advantage of a strong upper body and core during the V1 motion. As a result skiers are both less efficient and less powerful – a double whammy of deficiency.

Proper V1 technique involves a poling motion that is similar to a classic double pole, where the torso is squared to the direction of travel and the poles are synchronously planted with equal weighting. The same 90-degree arm lock and a very similar follow through (hands going directly back and no further than the hips) are also required. Planting the “off arm” pole at a shallow angle to the deck surface due to bringing the “off arm” across the body, siphons away potential forward motion power by allowing for significant lateral force vectors that develop braking forces which can be significant. These lateral force vectors also move the body sideways and therefore further decrease the efficiency of the ski stroke. Elimination or minimization of these lateral force vectors is important and easily attained by developing and using a more “classic-style” double poling technique accommodated within the V1 stroke. Utilizing this poling motion requires high upper body and core-specific strength that enables support of high force generation from the ”off arm” with a high, shoulder-width, hand position and a more vertical pole plant. Weaker skiers will find doing this difficult and tiring. It’s all too “easy” to bring that “off arm” across the torso and throw it out sideways with a shallow pole plant and, therefore, compromise forward-motion power development. This “error” is seen throughout the spectrum of skiers including World Cup champions as detailed below.

As in all cross country skiing technique, video is the only reliable way to analyze such highly dynamic, multi-limbed motions. In the following video from the 2018/19 Tour de Ski Stage 5 in Oberstdorf starting at about 11:15 Ustiugov and Klaebo climb a hill using V1. Ustiugov has near-perfect technique but Klaebo shows some deficiency. Because they are skiing in-synch (i.e. at the same poling rate and same approximate body position) for substantial periods, the differences are obvious. Note that in Ustiugov the “off arm” never moves inward beyond the shoulder and that the pole plant and actuation is very much like the double pole with a just a minor adjustment due to the body position being shifted off-center and toward the primary or “on arm” and leg. This body position gives a slight angle to the “off arm” pole plant that would otherwise be vertical in a proper double pole, but other than that, the poling motion is a double pole. And that is what it feels like when properly executed- a double pole. In this portion of the video Klaebo shows weakness in his V1 here as one can clearly see that he brings his “off arm” low and further inward than Ustiugov and proceeds to throw his arm out more laterally rather than parallel to the direction of travel. As a result, potential power development is compromised. Just goes to show how anyone can improve! Further on, one can see proper technique in Bolshunov as he comes through just after Ustiugov and Klaebo at about 12:15 where his “off arm” is consistently brought up high, at shoulder-width, and planted nearly vertical and in concert with the “on arm” in a strong and efficient double pole action in V1.

Here are some annotated stills from the video:

Ustiugov and Klaebo skiing in-synch in V1 showing the substantial difference in technique with Ustiugov demonstrating a much more powerful “high hand” position and vertical pole plant. The skiers are in-synch meaning that they are at the same tempo and the same point in the motion but with very different body and pole positions. Note the time stamp and watch the video where the differences will be even more obvious than in this still.

Bolshunov showing near-perfect V1 technique with a “high hand” position on the “off arm” and the associated near-vertical pole plant and squared-up forward facing body position. The”off” arm never comes further inward than shoulder-width and his torso never twists. Again, note the time stamp and watch the video.

Less developed (and muscularly weaker) skiers will bring their “off arm” well across the torso (and often nearly to centerline) in an effort to leverage some power off of a weaker upper body and core strength base that is insufficient to hold and actuate the arm further out where higher power and greater efficiency will be generated. This lateral arm movement also leads to energy-wasting twisting of the torso that adds nothing to forward motion.

For reference, and more typically observed V1 technique, the following video is from the Craftsbury “opener” race in November 2017 that nicely documents many of the improper V1 technique details discussed above. For example, starting at about 0:25 you will see a young skier in V1 going up a hill and bringing his arm low and fully across his torso, substantially compromising power development and efficiency. This is very much what is typically seen in athletes at this level – something that with strength development, neuromuscular drills, and technique tweaks can be transformed into a powerful and efficient V1. There are many other examples in this video showing all of the degrees of deficient V1 right down to the “off” arm essentially being an “accessory” that is not even used for propulsion.

There are a few examples of good technique as well (a couple of the skiers starting at about 1:30 on a steep hill) but still exhibit opportunities for strength and hand position development and therefore a more powerful “off arm” contribution. Clearly, the fastest skiers are those who bring the “off” arm up high and only to the shoulder joint and not further toward centerline. Doing this requires high specific and max strength in the core and upper body.

How to Develop an “Off Arm” High Hand Position in V1

As mentioned above, the ability to maintain a high, shoulder-width, hand position on the “off arm” in V1 is a direct result of high levels of upper body and core-specific strength. Holding significant fractions of body weight in this extended arm position is difficult and requires specific strength from the wrist down through the core and to the foot. In addition, since one’s body weight is slightly shifted off center toward the “on arm”, it is even more difficult to hold the proper position to allow for maximum force generation from the “off” side. Here we review a few strength exercises and ski drills that will help a skier develop a higher “off arm” hand position and the associated strength and neuromuscular adaptations.

Strength Exercises

An efficient and powerful V1 motion is predicated upon an athlete having a fully developed/optimized upper body musculature along with utilization of proper double poling technique. Double poling-specific upper body and core strength training is, as we have noted numerous times in previous articles, key to development of competitive double poling. Deficiencies in upper body and core double poling-specific strength training protocols will lead to lower weight-adjusted power development (ratio of developed power to weight) not only in double poling but in V1 freestyale as discussed above. This reality serves to emphasize the importance of strength training for any competitive athlete, whether they be an elite or a masters competitor.

The prevalence of non-optimized V1 technique (typically due to a “low” hand position on the “off arm”) among masters skiers is likely due to strength deficiencies. We have addressed strength training for maters athletes in a prior article but provide here a few suggested max strength and general strength exercises that will help develop the specific-strength needed for proper V1. 

Since in V1 we are attempting to develop an ability to reach relatively high with the hand on the “off arm”, exercises that replicate this motion will map well onto improved V1. Exercises that emphasize this include weighted pull-ups, garhammers, L-sit pull-ups, and “double pole” squats. In each of these exercises the hand starts high and requires support of substantial fractions of body weight through a poling-like motion. The garhammers, L-sit pull-ups, and “double pole” squats also involve dynamic movement of the core in a way not dissimilar to what one will do in the V1 poling motion. Integrating these exercises into your strength program will enable proper V1 technique (including a high hand position on the “off arm”) and substantial associated increases in power development.

Ski Drills

In addition to specific strength development, neuromuscular adaptations that “wire” poling motions are very important. The purpose here is to engage with drills that will help make a “high” hand position on the “off arm” automatic with little to no active thought. As we have discussed previously in an article on herringbone, the process of making a motion “automatic” is called myelination and can only be achieved with repeated drills, preferably on skis or roller skis. 

We find two ski drills to be quite functional for helping a skier achieve a “high” “off arm” hand position in V1:

“Fives”: Find a flat-to-gentle upslope trail or road section and repetitively do a sequence of five V1 left side, five double pole strokes, and five V1 right side. This can be done continuously for 5-10 minutes or for up to 30 minutes in appropriate terrain (flat-ish loops work best). The drill reinforces the “double pole”-nature of V1 poling by reminding the skier on every other stroke what a true double pole feels like and then immediately going into a V1 stroke and trying to maintain the same high, shoulder-width, hand position utilized in the double pole. This drill will naturally develop one’s sense of what a high V1 “off arm” hand position should feel like and allow for individuals to identify cues for ensuring that the “off arm” hand stays consistently high.  Another output of this drill helps skiers develop both a left and right side V1. Many skiers tend to favor one side over the other. This is not desirable as in certain terrain conditions, like a transversely sloped trail, the “on arm” should be on the down slope side. If a skier only has, say, a right V1 and the down slope is to the left, a V1 with the right “on arm” will be compromised because the skier will be reaching higher up the slope, making poling on that side more difficult. 

“Single Pole V1”: Again, find a flat-to-gentle upslope trail or road section and repetitively do a few V1 (right or left) strokes followed by a few V1 strokes with just the “on arm” pole, then a few strokes with just the “off arm” pole, and then back to a full “double pole” V1. 5-10 minutes of duration will supply a significant neuromuscular stimulus. This drill is designed to demonstrate how important the “off arm” poling is to a powerful V1. Many skiers perceive that most, if not all, poling power is coming from the “on arm” poling. Running through this drill will quickly demonstrate how much poling power one can get from the “off arm”, particularly with a “high”, shoulder-width, hand position. The same applies to leg push-off in V1 as is nicely addressed by NTS here. 

Turnover is also very important in V1, particularly on steep hills. We will address this aspect in another article but a strong and high “off arm” hand position is the first and most critical part of perfecting your V1. Increased competence in that ability will be a direct result of specific strength training and some simple on-ski drills.

Summary

We have reviewed the importance of a well-developed double poling capacity in V1. Given the preponderance of the use of V1 by many masters skiers, it is important that masters skiers focus on developing their double poling capacity. WE have outlined some specific-strength and ski drills that can be used to address an individual skier’s weaknesses. 

More generally, the double poling motion and associated muscle groups, particularly the upper body and core musculature, play a central role in virtually all important cross country skiing techniques, both classic and freestyle. Given the broad applicability of a well-developed double poling capacity, it is important for competitive cross country skiers to place significant emphasis on those aspects of training that will most substantially improve one’s double pole capacity. These training aspects include significant, challenging, upper body and core strength protocols in combination with double pole technique refinements. Such training aspects are of heightened importance for the masters skier, where continuing (age-related) challenges with muscle loss necessitate a year-round intensive and integrated strength program to ensure that strength levels do not decline. Mapping a strong double pole capacity onto V1 will enable a skier to consistently maintain a high, shoulder-width, “off arm” hand position and a more “double pole”-like poling motion, thereby deriving significantly increased power and pace in V1.

Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete – Reprise

Disclaimer: Strength and cardiovascular training presents inherent risks and hazards, and the content contained herein is not intended in any way to be a substitute for instruction from a certified strength and conditioning professional. Always seek the advice and supervision of a certified strength and conditioning professional before attempting any of the activities, techniques, or skills described herein.

“Strength without flexibility is rigidity; flexibility without strength is instability.”

The quote above is a common Yoga-culture maxim, often repeated by yogis and acolytes alike. It is a true statement and it holds significant relevance for endurance athletes in general and particularly for any aging athlete, whether they be competitive or recreational. The maxim emphasizes the importance of not just strength development but for concurrent development of flexibility (aka, mobility). A rigid and unstable skier is one who will have diminished performance, be susceptible to injury, and will likely not attain full enjoyment of the sport.

Being nimble and stable on skis requires both strength and flexibility. Of course strength and flexibility are attributes that must be actively developed and constantly maintained. This means that strength and flexibility training should be a core part of any skier’s training program.

These elements are even more critical for the aging athlete. With the challenges of natural muscle loss and compromised connective tissue, maintaining strength and flexibility is a very important task. Yet it is commonly observed that many masters skiers do not include integrated strength and flexibility into their training. The following is intended to serve as a basis of the why, the what, the how, and the how much of strength and flexibility training needed for aging athletes, specific to the cross country skier.

Three Areas of Focus

 To attain sufficient (and hopefully increasing) levels of strength and flexibility for cross country skiing, it is important to engage in a multi-mode strength program that challenges the athlete in all relevant movements. These modes consist of the following:

  • Max Strength & General Strength
  • Flexibility/Mobility
  • Plyometrics (Dynamic Sport-specific Coordinated Movements)

We will address each of these below, but first let’s speak to our current situation here in the U.S. and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our training programs.

Timelines for Return to “Normalcy” in the U.S.

 It’s not clear yet what the timeframe will be for a return to a somewhat normal, but clearly changed, social environment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Estimates range from 3 months to 18 months and, based on current information, we are planning on a 4 to 12 month period of very limited social interaction, particularly for any group greater than about 2-4 individuals. What this means is: there will very likely be no competitive endurance sporting events through the summer and fall; there is the possibility of no competitive cross country skiing races in the 2020-2021 season; and that all gyms and other training facilities that attract multiple users at any given time will be closed throughout the summer and, possibly, fall (even if gyms do open you may choose to not go based on health concerns). We hope that such a situation does not come to be, but since training for a sport like cross country skiing is a long-term (many months-to-years) endeavor, it is imperative that we adjust our “normal” training program to accommodate the new restrictions. Although the existence of our upcoming competitive season is in doubt, it will be best to assume that we will be racing in 2020-2021 and that, at this juncture, we go forward with our training as if the season is going to happen.

One of the most important adjustments for a competitive skier will be our response to the impacts of social restrictions on strength training. Access to gyms will be limited or eliminated for months, yet skiers will need to address not only strength maintenance but, as we move through our training programs, strength progressions as well. Many skiers have become accustomed to utilization of extensive commercial gym set-ups and equipment and have developed strength routines and progressions dependent upon such facilities. Given the likelihood of the unavailability of gym facilities throughout the summer (and possibly longer), alternative approaches need to be developed. As outlined previously, we advocate for skiers to set up a home gym to facilitate regular strength sessions where limited time and resources are available, i.e. for the typical masters skier. Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if ever there was time to put the effort into assembling a home gym, now would be that time.

A Simple Home Gym

 Having a simple home gym is an enabler for masters skiers to make strength/flexibility training the necessary centerpiece of their ski training that it should be. A home gym is always open, never crowded, and does not require a commute to get there. Additionally, with a home gym, one can design exercises that best replicate those motions that are fundamental good cross country skiing technique and put them into a strength routine that will build sport-specific strength capacities that will directly impact one’s skiing efficiency and power. This is not to say that similar exercises and set-ups cannot be replicated in a commercial gym, but rather that one can dedicate one’s gym to these set-ups and not need to continually adjust and re-arrange gym equipment that is being used by many others. It’s efficient and it allows for flexibility in designing exercises that perhaps cannot be accommodated at one’s local gym. And, importantly, in this time of pandemic, a home gym is the only way to safely go forward with strength training. We never thought that we would be writing that last sentence but it is the reality, at least for now. Even though some gyms may open up in the next month or so, they could very well be shut down again with possible “second waves” or other circumstances related to the pandemic. We think that the best approach during this time of pandemic is to proactively set-up a functional gym at home.

In a prior article on strength training we provided a short tour of our home gym and outlined some of the essential equipment elements needed for effective, cross country skiing-specific, strength routines. The tour is presented below and serves only as an example of what a home gym might look like, it is not prescriptive and certainly much superior set-ups can be accomplished in the same floor area. The only limits are with one’s imagination.

A home gym in concert with dynamic outdoor exercises utilizing common terrain elements will allow an athlete to fully develop and maintain strength capacities that are essential for powerful and efficient cross country skiing.

The Importance of Strength Training for Aging Athletes

In prior articles we’ve addressed the central importance of strength training as an integral part of any training program for aging athletes. Let’s review the main aspects of why this is the case.

Firstly, the aging human body undergoes many changes and one of the most impactful changes is a continuous drop in certain hormone production rates. Specifically, as we age we experience decreased levels of important hormones that are critical to the production of muscle. These hormones include human growth hormone, insulin-like growth hormone, and testosterone. This means that not only is it difficult to add muscle mass, but our ability to retain existing muscle mass is compromised as well. The process is known as sarcopenia, and it is a major challenge for aging athletes whether they be competitive or recreational. Fortunately, studies have found that an effective way to combat this natural loss of muscle is to embark on a consistent and rigorous strength training program year-round. It is thought that this approach works because such regular strength training stimulates production of the declining hormones mentioned above and allows for retention of existing and (with proper strength programming) addition of new muscle mass that would otherwise not occur. It is important to point out that sarcopenia has no “off” season and the negative impacts of this natural process will proceed without an intervention such as a consistent and rigorous strength training program. Making strength training a central part of your year-round training program is critical not only to maintain current levels of performance, but also to allow for any potential improvements in performance.

Secondly, the same natural muscle loss process will adversely affect our ability to prevent injuries. Strength, flexibility/mobility, and the combination of these that results in dynamic, coordinated body movement is critical to allowing the aging athlete to engage in a highly dynamic sport like cross country skiing with a minimized propensity toward injury. This is because strength and flexibility capacities will provide significant protection from injuries due to mis-steps and mistakes along the trail. Being able to safely support one’s body in unusual and awkward positions is critical to prevent injuries while skiing. No skier makes perfect steps always and it is important to have a “safety net” of strength and flexibility in reserve to ensure that a small slip or attempt to correct an imbalance does not lead to a strained or pulled muscle.

As we have aged and attempted to improve our performances, strength training has become a larger and larger part of our personal training programs. This is partly due to technique developments that rely on significant levels of specific strength (e.g. double poling in classic skiing) but also in response to the natural decline in our muscle-making capacity. Although this works for us and is not generally applicable, we include three specific-strength workouts, daily flexibility sessions, and two-to-three plyometric sessions per week in our year-round training programs. This amounts to an average of between 25% and 30% of our total training time, year-round. Others will have different proportions, but it is a general rule that as one ages, strength and flexibility/mobility should play an increasing role in one’s training program.

Strength & Flexibility – Essential Synergies

 As the quote offered at the outset of this article indicates, the synergy between strength development and capacity for flexibility is the basis for being a powerful, nimble, and stable skier. We highly recommend the book Becoming a Supple Leopard, that thoroughly and exhaustively addresses this subject. We provide a few essential elements of immediate relevance to the masters skier here.

Engaging in a well-designed and challenging strength and flexibility program is a “game changer” for all masters athletes. As a result of the ravages of sarcopenia discussed above, there is no continuing “status quo” in strength for any aging athlete, just a slow decline in performance. But by consistently and thoroughly addressing strength and flexibility year-round, one will find substantial increases in on-snow performance, less injury, and a lot more enjoyment of our sport. We encourage the reader to work with a strength professional to help guide development of and execution upon a well-designed, safe, and effective strength and stability program. In this time of pandemic there are many strength professionals looking for clients since many commercial gyms are closed. It may be an ideal time to find the right professional for you.

Let’s review the three fundamental modes that make up a complete and effective program – Max Strength/General Strength, Flexibility/Mobility, and Plyometrics.

Max Strength & General Strength

 These are exercises aimed at optimized skeletal support, muscular efficiency, strength gains, muscular endurance, and development of our neuromuscular systems to take full advantage of all available motor units. This part of a program should be designed to include exercises that most closely replicate the movements that we make in cross country skiing. Different from exercises intended to develop specific muscle groups (such as that engaged in by weight lifters and body builders) these skiing-specific exercises involve coordinated movements involving many (and, most preferably, all) relevant muscle groups for the motions utilized during skiing. Included in this group are exercises like the Garhammer, pull-ups and weighted pull-ups, L-sit pull-ups, and “double pole” squats, along with many others. Some of these exercises are conducted as “max strength” elements and others as “general strength” elements.

Max strength exercises utilize added weight that will allow the athlete to complete only 1-3 reps or generally about 90-95% of maximum capacity. Here both strength gains and neuromuscular adaptations that train one’s body to recruit all available motor units to complete the exercise are the focus. These exercises are critical for both power development and efficiency. General Strength exercises utilize higher reps and lower (or body) weight to elicit fundamental skeletal muscular support, movement efficiency, and muscular endurance. Included in this group are push-ups, core-rows, split squats, lunges, leg ab/adductors, and pull-downs, among many others. Nordic Team Solutions has extensive coverage of many of these skiing-specific exercises along with excellent videos that demonstrate how to do the exercises correctly.

Progression in strength training is essential to achievement of durable improvements. Including a number of challenging progression periods during the training year is critical. Just like the “base-build-peak” periodization of one’s cardiovascular training, periodizing your strength training by including one or more strength “build” periods during the year is necessary for improvement. This is hypercritical for the masters athlete where sarcopenia will be working counterproductively.

Progressions are programmed, increasing resistance schedules that, when properly designed, allow the athlete to safely and efficiently make durable strength improvements. Typically, a progression will include increasing resistance along with increasing “sets” to achieve a new, higher plateau of strength. It is important to work with a strength professional when actively engaging in progressions as overload and potential injury are possible when a progression is overly aggressive.

It is straightforward to design a training program that incorporates these types of Max Strength and General Strength exercises but it is recommended that, again, engaging with a strength professional will help the athlete to ensure that any program is targeted, safe, and specific to one’s individual needs. We don’t recommend following any “canned” strength plans that might be available. Max strength/General strength is so important in cross country skiing that it is imperative that one spend the time and effort on development of an effective program that includes appropriate progressions.

The timeframe for substantial improvements in strength is about 12-18 months. Shorter-term expectations will lead to disappointment and doubt in one’s program. Although some improvements will be experienced within about 6 months, full development will not come until at least a year of consistent and challenging strength work (including progressions) is completed.

Flexibility/Mobility

As pointed out at the outset, flexibility/mobility are essential elements that will allow one to progress to a powerful and efficient skier. Flexibility/mobility (and the associated stability in athletic motions) has origins in development of all of the relevant “stabilizer” muscle groups — these are the small muscles in and around our joints at the knees, ankles, hips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. Exemplary of the results of well-developed stability is the ability to sequentially stand on one foot, to flex the knee and bend down, to jump up off the ground, and to land solidly on that foot without imbalance. Sounds easy, but it isn’t for most athletes. Effectively and efficiently doing this simple thing depends on the development of hundreds of “stabilizer” muscles in and around the knee, ankle, and hip. Flexibility/mobility exercises are aimed at developing these “stabilizer” systems.

Flexibility/mobility exercises are generally simple, body weight movements that challenge the “stabilizer” muscle groups. These exercises can be completed almost anywhere and can be integrated as a part of one’s regular cardiovascular or strength training or completed as a stand-alone session. Typically such exercises are done at high reps (up to about 100 in a single session) with only body weight. Repeated challenge of stability via specific movements not only develops the muscles but it also elicits neuromuscular adaptations that allow for proper sequential firing of muscles to enable a stable movement. These neuromuscular adaptations are also called myelination and require repeated, high rep stimuli for efficient development. Examples of these exercises include walking lunges (forward, reverse, and lateral), air squats, step-downs, “hinge’ movements, rotational movements, various “agility” movements, and stretches, among many others (see the book Becoming a Supple Leopard, above).

Fitting stability/mobility work into the busy schedule of a masters skier is a challenge and it is best to be creative with how to incorporate such exercises into one’s routine. Betsy combines her daily morning walk with our Labrador, Olive, with a series of flexibility/mobility exercises along the way. This is an efficient approach that makes good use of limited time and provides an environment that helps ensure that the work is consistently engaged in. Many will start a flexibility/mobility program only to find it fades away; combining a regular activity with flexibility/mobility exercises is one way to help with consistency. Here is a short video of Betsy on her dog walk doing a series of exercises she finds useful. Note: this video is of an actual old person and, when compared to similar exercises being done by young athletes, demonstrates the challenges we face as aging athletes when it comes to flexibility/mobility. We bend less, we step shorter, and we jump lower. The important thing is to do these types of exercises on a regular basis to limit the natural tendency we all have to become rigid and unstable. As evidenced in the video, Betsy also includes some general strength and plyometric exercises in her daily “flexibility” routine. These can be included on an as-needed basis, in cases where time will be limited (later in the day or during the week) to engage in a dedicated Max strength/general strength or plyometric session.

The timeframe for substantial improvements in flexibility/mobility are in the 3-6 month timeframe. This relatively short timeframe is because the muscle groups involved are smaller and therefore can develop more quickly than the larger muscle groups. It is also relatively easier to challenge the stabilizer systems in a progressive way and these stimuli can be engaged in on a daily basis. A daily stimulus is the quickest way to improvements, however as few as 3 sessions per week is also very functional.

Plyometrics (for old people)

 Plyometrics are strength exercises aimed at development of instantaneous power in highly dynamic movements. Plyometric exercises are typified by the “box jump” where one jumps up onto a box in one two-legged leap. This requires the development of high power (high work (force X distance) over a short duration) in order to enable one to lift their bodyweight up some distance into the air and onto the box. Because of the short timeframe over which work is conducted, these exercises elicit recruitment of primarily type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers. Development of such high power capacities is important in many of the fundamental movements in cross country skiing such as “kick” in classic skiing, “push-off” in freestyle, and classic double poling. In addition to the use and strengthening of type 2 fibers, the “stabilizer” muscle systems are developed. These small muscle groups are the origin of good balance and are essential in proper skiing technique and skiing economy.

Also, with plyometric exercises, neuromuscular adaptations (myelination) associated with the specific movements occurs. This is why it is important to design exercises that replicate or mimic the motions that are utilized in cross country skiing. Studies have shown that incorporation of regular plyometric sessions results in increased economy in distance running. Utilization of plyometrics for training has long been applied in cross country skiing since the same types of movement and application of impulse forces is occurring. Although more difficult to measure analytically, skiing economy is observed to increase when athletes include consistent plyometric training in their programs. The neuromuscular adaptations that provide high instantaneous power and associated coordinated timing lead to very efficient power delivery on snow and therefore positively affect skiing efficiency.

As a result of these adaptations, properly designed plyometric exercises provide a “triple whammy” training stimulus that, on a minute-for-minute comparison with other training modes, is a very efficient spend of training time.

Aging athletes tend to gravitate away from such dynamic, high impact exercises such as plyometrics. With compromised connective tissue that is not as pliable as it once was and, often, a lack of integrated strength work, many older athletes find the risk to be greater than the reward. However with well-designed and monitored progressions utilizing the skill of a strength professional, many older athletes can successfully incorporate plyometrics into their strength programs and reap the benefits noted above. After a sustained period away from plyometrics, we have found re-introduction of this modality into our training programs have yielded astounding results on snow. We provide an introductory video on plyometrics here:

In the videos below two plyometric exercises are demonstrated that give examples of how such exercises can be designed to have direct mapping onto motions utilized in cross country skiing. The first exercise is a modified “box jump” that uses a hemispherical bosu ball as a central landing point to minimize the impact forces when jumping and landing. Doing this exercise on a soft surface (like turf or a padded foam surface) further helps minimize impact forces for those who have issues with tendons and connective tissue (cartilage). This exercise develops the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus max along with hip flexors and many of the stabilizer groups around the ankles, knees, and hips. The forward leap replicates a double pole motion and the sideways leaps engage many of the same muscle groups in a way similar as one does in freestyle V1 and V2. Advanced versions of this exercise include increasing the height of the bosu ball and progressing toward fewer reps but using just one leg. One “round” of the cross pattern (over and back) gives 12 jumps and 5 repeats of that gives 60 jumps. Progression to 5 sets of the 5 repeats yields 300 jumps and a very good training stimulus.

The second exercise involves leaps, first with both legs and then, sequentially with each leg alone. The effort should be focused on leap length, not height since this motion is most aligned with those during skiing. Just as with the “box” jump this exercise develops the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus max along with hip flexors and many of the stabilizer groups around the ankles, knees, and hips. The two legged leap replicates the lower body portion of double pole motion and the single leg leaps replicate the timing and force generation needed for efficient and powerful classic “kick” and freestyle “push-off.”  Progressions include starting with flat terrain and then moving to increasing degrees of slope up a hill. Five to ten repeats of the three variants (two single leg, one both legs) makes a “set” and then work toward 5-10 “sets.” The single leg leaps in this exercise will elicit dramatic increases in development of the stabilizer groups and result in large improvement in balance and stability on snow as well as increased control on challenging downhills. Note: Again, this video shows an actual old person and demonstrates some of the deficiencies that will develop as we age. When younger, the box would be much higher and the jumps would be much longer. But in the absence of doing these plyometrics, capacities would be even more compromised and both power and efficiency on snow would be significantly lower.

In all plyometrics one should progress toward rep rates that mimic those in cross country skiing. So as you hop up a shallow hill on one leg, consider increasing your rep rate to something similar to the rate at which you will be “kicking” in classic, “pushing off” in freestyle, or double poling in classic (typically 30-90 rpm). This is essential in developing the proper timing sequences for muscle firing into the myelination that will naturally occur.

It is important to point out that plyometrics are advanced exercises and should be completed under the supervision of a strength professional familiar with this exercise type. Some masters skiers will have difficulty completing plyometrics but with proper design and supervision, many will be able to incorporate these into their strength programs.

The timeframe for improvements with plyometrics are in the 3-6 month range, again, because much of the challenge here is aimed toward the smaller stabilizer muscle groups that can quickly develop and yield significant results in a short time. The development of the larger muscle groups is longer term, but all developments will befit from the significant neuromuscular “wiring” (myelination) that will pay big dividends on snow.

We suggest starting with one plyometric session per week and progressing toward three sessions per week. A well-planned and designed session will take about 30 minutes and therefore should generally allow enough schedule flexibility to ensure consistency. As with the flexibility/mobility modality, combining a plyometric session with some other activity can be a functional atmosphere to excel. Bob combines 3-per-week plyometric sessions with a daily active recovery session where the active recovery serves as the warm-up. Betsy incorporates much of her plyometrics into flexibility sessions as seen in the video above. Creativity is the operative word when trying to accommodate these specific-strength sessions.

Strength Training – How Much?

This question, of course, always comes up. And the answer is “it depends” and “it will change.” We advocate for year-round strength training since, as noted above, sarcopenia has no “off season.” But further, your strength goals should be a function of what you want to get from skiing, be it for increased fitness, increased performance in a competitive setting, or the simple pleasure of moving fast and smooth through the forest. And these goals will change as we progress through our lives with life’s many other aspects playing bigger or lesser roles along the way. But fundamental to all good skiing is strength and without it, one’s skiing, and therefore one’s enjoyment of skiing, will be compromised.

For athletes with expectations for moderate improvements a single Max Strength/General Strength session per week may suffice. However, for anyone with goals that include being competitive in their respective age groups in regional/national races, two sessions per week is a minimum. Your fellow competitors will likely be doing at least this level of strength training and you will too if you expect to be competitive. At the highest levels, at events like the World Masters Championships, three sessions per week will be optimal. The three session protocol allows for much faster progressions and will allow an athlete to approach “plateau” strength levels quicker. These “plateaus” represent significant increases in strength and associated on-snow performance. More than three sessions per week will be adverse as one’s body can only accommodate so much stimulus before over-training and injury susceptibility begin to have significant negative effects.

Flexibility/mobility can be as frequent as daily but many may have difficulty getting this amount of work into their schedules. A three session per week protocol will suffice to elicit significant development but it will likely not be optimal. The flexibility portion of the strength equation outlined at the outset is critical to becoming a nimble, powerful, and efficient skier and a daily regimen is recommended for those who have the time.

Similar to the Max Strength/General Strength modality, plyometrics are most effective at two sessions per week with advanced athletes moving toward three sessions per week. Here is an example of a typical week of strength training for a committed athlete to be completed in addition to cardiovascular training elements:

At the high end, this schedule amounts to about 7h of strength training per week and at the low end, 4-5h of strength training per week. This can be scaled back according to fitness objectives and time constraints. It is important, however, to realize how central strength training is for the aging endurance athlete (and for cross country skiers in particular) and to allocate sufficient time in your training to include all the necessary strength elements with large enough stimuli to allow for progression. Once you are on snow you will be glad that you did.

Strength Training for Aging Athletes – the Key to Increased Performance and Comfort on Skis

 Although the above statement is generally true for skiers of all ages, it is critical for the aging skier. With the strength challenges that we face from natural processes like sarcopenia as well as challenges due to limited available time to devote to strength training, the aging skier typically experiences a general decline in performance and enjoyment of skiing. With a bit of focus, creativity, and shifts of priority, performance declines can be reversed and enjoyment significantly increased. And for those who dedicate themselves to a broad-based compliment of year-round strength training modalities, performances never thought possible become real — even with limited time on snow.

Make strength training a central part of your ski training program and the performance benefits will be plentiful, injury will become rare, and your enjoyment will increase. And after all is said and done, enjoyment (at whatever level) is the point!

Herringbone Hell – How to Turn a Weakness into a Strength

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

You cannot get good at something you do not practice. In cross country skiing one of the primary skills that is seldom practiced at full speed is the herringbone. Yet an efficient herringbone is a critical skill for classic races that have steep hill sections.

Herringbone skill deficiencies are observed across the spectrum of the skier population from recreational beginners all the way up to World Cup skiers. For a competitive masters skier who participates in classic races regularly, it is not uncommon to get caught behind a group of otherwise accomplished skiers on a steep herringbone hill, where the group is moving at a snails pace up these usually short sections. Adding to this severe pace reduction is the fact that, due to a high degree of technique inefficiency, many of these athletes are out of breath or “gassed” at the top of the hill and then have difficulty getting back up to race pace. It is clear that these skiers have not fully developed their herringbone skills, yet herringbone sections can play an important role in some races.

It is also important to point out that snow conditions can make an otherwise stride-able hill or DP hill section into a long herringbone. A recent example that we experienced was on the largest climb on the “B” loop at the 2019 World Masters Championship in Beitostolen, Norway. In the 30km/45km classic race, more than 12 inches of snow fell overnight and although the grooming team did an outstanding job at getting the tracks ready for the race, the course was still soft. Unfortunately, given the amount and type of snow that fell there was no way that, even utilizing multiple passes with the Pisten Bullies, the significantly soft skiing conditions could be avoided.. Therefore, what occurred during the race was that the normally stride-able, 0.5km, 12% grade “B” Loop climb became a 0.5km herringbone, even for the best skiers. Between the soft conditions, the punchy pole track, and the numerous skiers on the loop, the deck turned to “mashed potatoes” while most of the track was obliterated by skiers herringboning over the track. The result was a “death march” of skiers slowly making their way up this section of the course. Early on a few skiers with proficient herringbone skill were able to slip by on the margins in a fast, efficient, narrow herringbone or a “Klaebo Klomp.” But the overwhelming majority of skiers in the race were unprepared for this (or any) herringbone. For those skiers with sufficient herringbone skills, this situation presented the opportunity to catch, pass, or put significant time on other competitors. For those without such herringbone skills, what was a three-minute stride-able climb became a four to five-minute slog and exhaustion at the top.

With an efficient herringbone this climb might take about 30 seconds longer when compared to striding and so for those without sufficient skill, several minutes were “lost” – minutes which typically represent the difference between a podium and a top-10 finish for a masters competitor. For younger skiers in more competitive fields, the lost time could mean the difference between a top 10 and a mid-pack finish. This is why we argue that it is important to be skilled in herrigngbone and to be prepared to efficiently attack herringbone sections in cross country ski races.

A portion of the climb on the “B” Loop at the 2019 Masters World Championships in Beitostolen, Norway. With over 12 inches of snow the night before, this stride-able climb became “Herringbone Hell” during the 30km/45km classic race where many racers were challenged due to deficient herringbone skills. Seen here the next day after the snow had set-up and groomed for the 30km/45km freestyle races. An efficient herringbone on this climb was worth minutes in the classic race.

Such transformation of normally stride-able hills into herringbone hills is not limited to instances where a lot of snow has fallen. The thousands of skiers who participate in the Birkie classic race know all too well how “beat up” a trail can get after a just couple hundred skiers have moved across that rolling terrain. And once the classic and freestyle courses merge at OO, things often deteriorate further. At the Birkie, hills that one would typically stride then necessitate herringbone for many of the later competitors. Having an efficient herringbone in your quiver of skills is very important.

We will not provide guidance on specific technique pedagogy as this will be best delivered via an experienced, up-to-date cross country ski instructor or coach. There is much technique material at Nordic Team Solutions (where a membership is well worth the cost) as well as on the web. However, here we describe an intensity session that, in addition to being a great cardiovascular workout, serves as a very functional tool for development of efficient herringbone technique.

The Workout – “Herringbone Hell”

 A primary part of the skill base needed for an efficient herringbone is neuromuscular in origin. As in any coordinated movement of multiple limbs, the body responds in unique ways to repeated bouts of movement requiring such coordinated movements. This is because the mind will use the naturally occurring pattern recognition abilities present in all humans. As one repeats a complicated, multi-limb movement such as a herringbone, the mind “wires” this movement pattern into an efficient muscular firing sequence that eventually becomes “wired-in” when practiced enough. The biophysical process is called myelination and is an important part of any coordinated movement.

But myelination will not occur without repeated bouts of specific movements. The first step to an efficient herringbone is practice, i.e. bouts of herringbone repeats up steep hills.

“To sum up: it’s time to rewrite the maxim that practice makes perfect. The truth is, practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect”.
Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code

We have found the following workout to be very effective in rapid development of herringbone skills. The workout combines neuromuscular and technique development with an intensity session aimed at eliciting speed development and increased turnover.

Start with a 20-30 minute warm-up of easy skiing while locating one or more “herringbone hills.These are hills that would be difficult to impossible to stride efficiently. Such hills are usually 15-20% grade, although, as noted above, snow conditions can play a role. We prefer using three different hills to break up the monotony and to expose us to different hill “characters.”  Once warmed up, begin the following sequence:

  • total of 15 X 45s herringbone hill repeats at L4 (Supra-Threshold)
  • 3 sets of 5 repeats with full recovery between efforts and five minutes rest between sets
  • cool down for at least 30 minutes

Rep number 8 of 15 in the “Herringbone Hell” workout… technique is coming and effort is high!

It’s a tough, but enjoyable, session because you will quickly see improvement in your herringbone – just with a single session. We call it “Herringbone Hell”, but with skill development it will become “Herringbone Heaven!” Add this workout to your selection of regular intensity sessions, and you will soon find herringbone to be an asset and not a liability. And, at your next race, you may find yourself out on the margins of the track actively passing your competitors!

Why Double Poling is the Most Important Competency in Competitive Cross Country Skiing

By Betsy and Bob Youngman

Note: this is the first in a series of articles on cross country skiing technique aimed at pointing out specific aspects of some cross country skiing techniques where we see many masters skiers being challenged — either in positioning, strength, or, most often, both. The articles are intended to be informational and observational, not instructional and we encourage skiers to engage with an experienced ski instructor for further guidance in technique development. As we have indicated in the past, good cross country skiing technique starts with strength. Without sufficient strength, attaining proper body position is difficult or impossible, the ability to hold one’s body weight in required dynamic conditions is compromised, and associated power development will not happen. It is important to make strength training a central part of your ski training and seek out the guidance of a strength professional to assist with proper general and specific strength development.

introduction

As one progresses into developing as a competitive cross country skier, there are aspects that continue to stand out as being of primary importance. Those that are well-recognized are aerobic capacity (VO2max), skiing efficiency, and full-body strength. What is not well-recognized, at least from what has been published as it concerns training for cross country skiing, is the overarching importance and impact of a strong, efficient double poling capacity.

As we have explained in a prior article, the double pole technique cuts across all important techniques in cross country skiing. Strong, powerful, and efficient double poling technique is critical in classic skiing, V1, and V2. But there is also evidence to support a view that double poling is cardiovascularly efficient when compared to classic striding and that this efficiency should carry over to the freestyle techniques. We’ll cover the cardiovascular aspects later in this post but first let’s review why double poling competency is so important in skiing speed and efficiency.

Double pole and classic skiing

The poling motion and power delivery of double poling is obviously critical in classic skiing where, with refined technique and optimized upper body, core, and lower body strength, it is not uncommon for elite and top age-group competitors to double pole entire races. It is also not uncommon that such double poling athletes win races, even on hilly, difficult courses. The FIS has tried to mitigate the impact of this on classic (striding) technique by limiting pole length to 83% of body height (with boots on) and instituting “technique zones” within races where double poling is not allowed and one must stride or herringbone. At best, these measures are an artifice that will only hinder the sport and detract from innovation and progress. Other sports that have done this sort of thing inevitably lead the sport into a small niche position and a non-growth environment. Classic cross country skiing will only be further reduced in popularity as a result. But even with this lamentable situation, a strong, efficient double pole in classic skiing is still a critical competency.

One finds that with equipment and technique improvements over the past decade, the double pole has become the “go-to” technique for much of any classic race. This is because competitors have found that they are faster and more efficient double poling than when striding the same terrain- terrain that can include significant hills.

This increased speed and efficiency has roots in refined technique approaches where the arms are locked into an approximate 90 degree position bringing the poles much nearer to the body centerline and then utilizing this position with a strong upper body, core, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and ankles to deliver power to the snow in a synchronous dynamic fashion. The technique involves a relatively high frequency “piston-like” motion of the entire body up and down around poles that have been brought close to the body and at shoulder width. At the point of planting, with hips up and forward, the poles, hands, and feet form a slightly slanted forward rectilinear box with the snow surface. This “box” of tension is maintained throughout the poling motion and ends with a relatively short follow through that is necessary to maintain proper cadence for efficient propulsion.  The follow through should not go beyond the hips except in downhill accelerations. Stiff, very light poles have helped enable this new poling technique by providing efficient power transfer as well as lower energy costs associated with moving the poles between strokes. Much of the efficiency associated with the new double poling technique is due to three primary aspects:

  1. significantly less total body and pole movement compared to older techniques
  2. that nearly the entire body weight is planted along the axis of the pole
  3. that all movement is essentially in the forward direction (or directly leveraged (vectored) toward forward motion)

The dynamics of cross country skiing techniques are best viewed in video and presented here are two videos showing how different the modern double pole is relative to what was practiced until about the early-to-mid-2000’s. The video below is NRK coverage of the 15 km from the 1982 World Championships in Olso. Many of the well-known names from the period are present- Bra (NOR)(who wins), Svan (SWE),  Wassberg (SWE), Koch (USA), Mieto (FIN), Mikklespas (NOR), Kirvesniemi (FIN), Zavialov (SOV), Burlakov (SOV), and more. At about 1:18:00 you will see Bra’s finish and a good demonstration of what was considered proper double pole technique back then. One’s back hurts just watching — the stress placed on the lower back is scary. The fully extended arms, pole plant well in front of the feet, straight “stick” legs, hips down and back, and the wasteful highly extended follow through are all anathema today.

Compare this to what is done today and you will see the substantial transformation of double pole technique. This second video comes from 2018/2019 Tour de Ski stage 4 at Obersdorf. Just watching the start (at about 7:00 and again at 9:30) the differences are clear.

With these newer techniques there is now so much more power from every stroke and this higher power comes with higher efficiency as well. Much of this increased power and efficiency comes from advances in technique, but along with the technique developments there been substantial changes in strength training- strength training that has enabled the technique developments. The two go hand-in-hand and anyone expecting to try to replicate what one sees in the video above (for example) must have the requisite specific strength qualities required by the technique. As a result strength training has become (over the past decade or so) a primary focus of any competitive cross country skier’s training program. Specific strength requirements are often the missing link for both developing young skiers and masters skiers alike who are seeking to be competitive. The importance of general, specific, and maximum strength training cannot be overemphasized.

double pole and V2

The poling motion in V2 is very much like that utilized for double pole in classic skiing with the exception that the high frequency “piston-like” motion exerting power transfer to both legs is exchanged for a lower frequency slightly lower dynamic range motion with power transfer occurring when gliding on one leg. The poles tend to be a bit further from the body centerline when compared to classic, but the mechanics of the poling motion are essentially the same and utilize the same major muscle groups in very much the same sort of synchrony. In fact many competitive skiers utilize their classic double pole technique development to improve their V2 power delivery in a very direct way. If you have a powerful, efficient classic double pole then you will be able to map this on to your V2 poling transparently since the same “lock and load” arm position and dynamic power production via upper body, core, and lower body musculature is utilized in both techniques. If you have a good classic double pole you will likely have a powerful, long glide, V2 as well.

In the following video from the 2018/19 Tour de Ski Stage 7 (Alpe Cermise climb) starting at about 16:45 the skiers come by mostly individually on their way to the climb across level ground. This terrain offers a good view of proper V2 technique and nicely demonstrates the similarity of proper classic technique double poling and proper V2 poling.

double pole and V1

If there is one technique that has been muddled by coaches, teachers, and competitors, it is the V1 technique. Observations have shown that coaches and teachers will instruct skiers to bring the “off arm” across the body and in front of the torso for poling. This position severely limits the ability to develop power from the “off arm” and therefore limits the ability of the skier to take advantage of a strong upper body and core  during the V1 motion. As a result skiers are less efficient and less powerful- a double whammy of deficiency.

Proper V1 technique involves a poling motion that is similar to a classic double pole, where the torso is squared to the direction of travel and the poles are synchronously planted with equal weighting. The same 90 degree arm lock and a very similar followthrough are also required. Planting the “off arm” pole at a large angle to the deck surface due to bringing the “off arm” across the body siphons away potential forward motion power by allowing for significant transverse force vectors that develop braking forces that can be significant. These transverse force vectors also move the body sideways and therefore further decrease the efficiency of the ski stroke. Elimination or minimization of these transverse force vectors is important and easily attained by developing and using a more “classic-style” double poling technique accommodated within the V1 stroke.

In the following video from the 2018/19 Tour de Ski Stage 5 in Oberstdorf starting at about 11:15 Ustiugov and Klaebo climb a hill using V1 and demonstrate proper technique. Note that in Ustiugov the “off arm” never crosses the torso beyond the shoulder and that the pole plant and actuation is very much like the double pole with a just a minor adjustment due to the body position being over the opposite leg. This body position gives a slight angle to the “off arm” pole plant that would otherwise be vertical in a proper double pole, but other than that the poling motion is a double pole. And that is what it feels like when properly executed- a double pole. Klaebo actually shows a bit of weakness in his V1 here as one can clearly see that he brings his off arm low and further across than Utiugov and therefore the potential power development is compromised. Just goes to show how anyone can improve! One can see proper technique in Bolshunov as he comes through just after Ustiugov and Klaebo at about 12:15 where his “off arm” is consistently brought up high and planted in concert with the “on arm” in a strong and efficient double pole action in V1.

 

Less developed (and muscularly weaker) skiers will bring their “off arm” well across the torso (and often nearly to centerline) in an effort to leverage some power off of a weaker upper body and core strength base that is insufficient to hold and actuate the arm further out where higher power and greater efficiency will be generated.

For reference the following video is from the Craftsbury “opener” race in November 2017 that nicely documents many of the improper V1 technique details discussed above. For example, starting at about 0:25 you will see a young skier in V1 going up a hill and bringing his arm low and fully across his torso, substantially compromising power development and efficiency. This is very much what is typically seen in athletes at this level- something that with strength development and technique tweaks can be transformed into a powerful and efficient V1. There are many other examples in this video showing all of the degrees of deficient V1 right down to the “off” arm essentially being an “accessory” that is not even used for propulsion.

There are a few examples of good technique as well (a couple of the skiers starting at about 1:30 on a steep hill) but still exhibit opportunities for strength development and therefore a more powerful “off arm” stroke. Clearly, the fastest skiers are those who bring the “off” arm up high and only to the shoulder joint and not further toward centerline. Doing this requires high specific and max strength.

double pole and Physiological Efficiency

In addition to the obvious kinematical physics-based advantages to power development with proper double poling in classic and freestyle skiing, there is also evidence that there exist physiological advantages associated with double poling as well. This is of particular importance in classic skiing where it has been proven that double poling can be faster and more efficient than striding  and kick-double pole in many instances on varied terrain and, in fact, for entire races with significant hills.

We have addressed the reality of the importance of strength in proper double pole technique and associated power development in a prior article and referred to published research papers that attempt to document this with data and analysis. But, as a skier, it does not take a study (or studies) to convince oneself that strength (particularly upper body and core strength) is playing a dominant role in power development with double poling. A six-to-twelve month intensive strength program aimed at general and specific strength for double poling will yield remarkable results. Combined with a good dose of upper body muscular endurance work, a skier will find their skiing speed and efficiency, independent of technique, to be substantially enhanced. Those who have gone about this process of strength development and technique refinement will have noticed that they “feel” more efficient whilst double poling in classic, that they can carry a V2 further up steep hills, and they can V2 for longer on varied terrain. In fact, for strong skiers, in classic, the double pole can be a recovery tool during races on flats (and varied terrain) after extended long climbs requiring striding. We find, and others have similarly noted, that as our fellow competitors are striding along at race pace on varied terrain after hills, a strong skier can double pole such sections at high efficiency at reduced heart rates and concomitant lower stress. The question is why this is the case?

At this point there does not appear to be a readily available answer, yet there are some hints in some recent studies. One source of insight is in a recent masters thesis (Monahan, 2016). In this study of 10 National-level Finish cross country skiers (5 male, 5 female), blood lactate and heart rate were monitored at aerobic threshold and anaerobic threshold (lactate threshold) during four different cross country skiing techniques (diagonal stride, double poling, V2 skating, and V1 skating) and nordic walking. The author found that heart rate during double poling at both aerobic and anaerobic thresholds was significantly lower than for the other skiing techniques and for nordic walking. It was suggested that these lower threshold heart rates  during double poling is due to a lower capacity of upper body musculature to process lactate when compared to full-body techniques such as diagonal stride and V1 and V2 skating where the lower body muscle groups play a significant role. This lower lactate processing capacity means that lactate begins to accumulate at lower heart rates and since the thresholds are defined by blood lactate values, a concomitant lower heart rate will be observed at the thresholds for double poling. Reference is made to studies that have provided data that is indicative of superior oxidative capacity of lower body musculature compared with upper body musculature to support this argument.

A very important result from this study shows that male subjects (when compared to female subjects) were found  to exhibit less difference between double pole and the other skiing techniques in heart rate at threshold(s) . It is argued that this could be because of technique differences between the male population and the female population where the male subjects utilized significantly more lower body musculature during double poling and therefore exhibited higher heart rates at threshold(s). It is further argued that the generally larger upper body muscle mass in the male subjects could also be playing a role since additional muscle mass will be involved in double poling and therefore, this endurance-adapted muscle mass will provide additional processing of produced lactate.

It is not unreasonable to posit, should an athlete fully develop and optimize upper body and core muscle mass in concert with proper double poling technique (including a significant contribution from lower body muscle group involvement) that a higher aerobic capacity for double poling will obtain. Although it is impossible to know how fully developed or optimized the study subjects upper body mass is and/or whether the subjects utilized proper double poling techniques that include significant lower body contributions to propulsion, it is possible that deficiencies were extant in the studied population and therefore the data reflect non-optimized double poling capacity. Under-developed double poling capacity could lead to the observed lower heart rates at threshold(s). We know from personal experience that it is straightforward to hold the same threshold-level heart rates whilst double poling that we do when utilizing other techniques for both aerobic and anaerobic (lactate) thresholds. We have also heard this from other athletes who have focussed on double poling and strength development. It is hypothesized here that much of the perception that double poling is not as cardio-vascularly efficient as diagonal striding, is not supported by the experience of those who have focussed on developing a strong and powerful double poling capacity.

We note, based on experience, that when double poling entire races (utilizing proper double poling technique that includes significant contributions from lower body muscle systems) the first muscle group to exhibit fatigue is the lower body group (hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes) — not the upper body group. It’s seems, based on this experience, that for those with fully developed/optimized upper body musculature, the upper body muscle group is not the limiter for double poling speed and efficiency.

It is also important to point to the clear objective evidence (as supported by the many distance races being won by athletes (from World Cup-level to competitive masters-level) who double poled entire races) for double poling being a faster and more cardiovascularly efficient technique in certain snow conditions as well as in certain terrain when compared to diagonal striding. This, along with the significant anecdotal observations (by many athletes that have focussed on double poling, including us) that one can easily keep pace (on all but the steepest stride-able hills) in races with fellow competitors who are diagonal striding, indicates that double poling can be a preferred technique for many races, even for masters competitors. However, this will be the case only for those athletes who have made double poling a priority in training.

This developed technique preference is predicated upon an athlete having a fully developed/optimized upper body musculature and utilization of proper double poling technique. Double poling-specific upper body and core strength training is, as we have noted numerous times in previous articles, key to development of competitive double poling capacity. Deficiencies in upper body double poling-specific strength training protocols will lead to lower weight-adjusted power development (ratio of developed power to weight) not only in double poling but across the spectrum of cross country skiing techniques given the central role that the double poling motion and upper body muscle development plays in diagonal stride and both V2 and V1 skating as discussed above. This reality serves to emphasize the importance of strength training for any competitive athlete, whether they be an elite or a masters competitor.

Special considerations for masters athletes

As we have noted previously and reiterate here — strength training is critical for masters athletes. This because of the general loss of muscle (aka sarcopenia) that an aging athlete will experience in the absence of challenging general and specific strength training. It is highlighted above that such strength training is important even for those younger athletes who are not subject to the ravages of sarcopenia and that the training is particularly important for development of strong, powerful, and efficient double poling motions across the skiing techniques. This means that, for a masters competitor, strength training is at the top of the list for priorities in designing a successful training program. The good news is that proper strength training does not take a lot of time per week. It does require consistency and progression in a year-round program — Sarcopenia knows no “season.” Full development will typically not be observed for 12-18 months for those 50+ years of age and these improvements can only be maintained with continued year-round consistency and periodized progressions. The bottom line is that strength training should be a masters athlete’s number one priority particularly for skiers who already have a well-developed aerobic capacity.

Strength training (both general and specific) does not currently play the central role that it should for the masters athlete. In our personal interactions with masters skiers looking for training guidance, our first evaluations are not on skis or roller skis, it’s in the gym where we run the athlete through a series of basic exercises to determine strength levels and areas of weakness. We build from there because strength is the foundation of good cross country skiing technique.

One final note: A very important part of including integrated strength sessions in one’s training program is for injury prevention. Properly designed general and specific strength programs will facilitate a skeletal-muscular “support system” that kicks into action when things go wrong. How many times have you heard a fellow athlete say “all I did was slip while striding and I pulled a hamstring”? Well, that athlete likely has some substantial strength deficiencies that allowed for supra-maximal loading of their hamstring during the “slip.” With a properly designed program and sufficient dose, general and specific strength development will eliminate or, at least, minimize such “unexplainable” injuries. No athlete makes perfect steps always; strength training is critical to ensure that those mis-steps don’t lead to injury.

Summary

We have reviewed the importance of a well-developed double poling capacity in competitive cross country skiing. The double poling motion and the associated muscle groups, particularly the upper body and core musculature, play a central role in virtually all important cross country skiing techniques, both classic and freestyle. Given the broad applicability of a well-developed double poling capacity, it is important for competitive cross country skiers to place significant emphasis on those aspects of training that will most substantially improve one’s double pole capacity. These training aspects include significant, challenging, upper body and core strength protocols in combination with double pole technique refinements. Such training aspects are of heightened importance for the masters skier, where continuing (age-related) challenges with muscle loss necessitate a year-round intensive and integrated strength program to ensure that strength levels do not decline.

 

 

 

 

Monitoring Training for Endurance Sport – A Detailed Look

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

In Part VI of our Training Planning Series, we addressed the importance of putting in place a system for monitoring training progress along with the What, Why, and How of any such activity. As discussed, a well-designed monitoring system will allow an athlete to determine their state of fitness, make data-based decisions on training plan modifications, and to be able to follow the effects of changes in one’s training. Every athlete is different and “standard” measures of fitness and “standard” modifications to training are of only limited value. Therefore it is imperative that an athlete develop a reliable method to conduct individual-specific training progress, reflection, and modifications. This is the sort of service that a dedicated, well-informed, and experienced coach can provide. Our experience is that such coaches are few and far between and that the general guidance that is typically provided by many self-proclaimed “coaches” is not sufficient for a masters athlete to get the most from their limited training time. We assert that it is well worth the (not insubstantial) effort for a masters athlete to become informed about endurance training theory and practice and to be able to self-coach and/or play an active role with the guidance of a personal coach. This is what our Training Planning series has been aimed at providing. This article is a detailed look at one method for training monitoring that utilizes a system of tools and techniques that are readily available to anyone.

Note 1: Although this article is focussed upon competitive cross country skiing as a specific example of training monitoring application, the approach, tools, and process are applicable to all endurance sport endeavors, whether they be competitive or recreational. However, as we continue to reiterate, no specific training guidance is offered at this website. We assert that all athletes are individuals and each should seek out guidance from an experienced coach or other qualified professional. 

Note 2: We have no connection (financial or in any other way) to either Training Peaks or Garmin and what we describe here is that which we have found to be an effective and insightful way to monitor training for endurance sport.

Heart Rate — the Only Reliable Way to Monitor Your Training

As we have discussed previously, the utilization of heart rate time series data for training monitoring is, in our experience, the only reliable, repeatable, and convenient method currently available. The use of “rating of perceived exertion” (RPE) for training monitoring is difficult, inconsistent, and subject to a high degree of variability. Although useful as a back-up when one forgets their watch and/or heart rate strap, RPE does not form a reliable basis for training monitoring. As early adopters of heart rate-based training monitoring (we have used heart rate for training monitoring since the about 1980), we now have over 40 years of experience with many generations of devices and technology. Having tried other approaches, including RPE, we assert that there currently is no better way to monitor one’s training than with heart rate time series data and analysis. Combined with automatic uploading and analysis of training sessions, heart rate-based training monitoring represents the state-of-the-art for endurance sport.

Marit Bjorgen, the most successful cross country skier in history winning a roller ski race in 2017. Note the heart rate chest strap and watch. Marit utilized heart rate-based training methods throughout her long career. This is documented in a peer-reviewed paper that analyzes the entirety of her training logs from 2000-2017.

Andy Newell (US Ski Team) and some Norwegian skiers training in Norway. Note the preponderance of heart rate monitors being used by these professional athletes. There is essentially universal adoption of heart rate training in the sport of cross country skiing – from professional to competitive masters. Recreational skiers will also find utility in using heart rate for their training. Photo credit : Andy Newell

TRIMP and Heart Rate Monitoring

What we want to measure in our training is the combination of time and intensity, also known as TRIMP (TRIMP was discussed in Part VI of our Training Planning Series). Time is easily, accurately, and precisely measured. Training intensity is more difficult to quantify. Prior to the advent of compact, wireless heart rate monitors in the late 70’s and early 80’s, athletes would utilize some sort of “rating of perceived exertion” (RPE) scale for qualitative assessment of intensity during training. The most common scale is the Borg scale with 20 levels of intensity (although starting at level 6 for standing around). Procedurally, one would ascribe a “Borg” intensity with their training session time (or various intensities for a training session with distinct high-intensity and low-intensity periods, i.e. interval training) and calculate a TRIMP metric. This metric can be structured into a training plan and training sessions can be designed to elicit and (hopefully) reliably measure total training stress and the associated proportions of low, medium, and high intensity. Although better than a “free-form” approach of daily “training on feel”, the RPE-based TRIMP method is fraught with significant perceptual difficulties. Making consistent evaluations of RPE and noting the duration of each RPE period during a training session are both difficult to do in any reliable way. In addition, the precision of individual-RPE as a fundamental measure of training intensity is notably deficient and exhibits low replicability. Heart  rate measurements on the other hand are highly precise and are found to be consistent from day-to-day in training (with a few exceptions noted below). Utilization of these heart rate time series data in concert with defined heart rate “intensity zones”, has made precise recording and analysis of training sessions straightforward.

The most important part of training monitoring is that it be consistent and precise. Precision is knowing that when one measures the same thing over and over, one gets the same value. Accuracy is knowing that the value we measure is correct in the absolute sense. Of course, having both accuracy and precision is most desirable. For endurance training, precision is most important.  Accuracy plays a secondary role provided we are consistent with how we are measuring and calculating training stimulus. The absolute magnitude of a chosen metric is not as important as the precision with which we measure that metric on a day-to-day basis. So long as one’s day-to-day training stimulus metrics are directly comparable, rational guidance can be provided. (This also means that an athlete should not be comparing their training metrics with other athletes as the measured magnitude can be different depending on individual variables and circumstance.)

In the 1960’s and 1970’s heart rate time series data was seen as a possible pathway toward a more quantified approach to measuring training intensity. This is because heart rate is directly proportional to the supply of oxygenated blood to operating muscle groups and the demand for oxygenated blood is a direct measure of the intensity of exercise. Heart rate is only one of two important variables that will determine the amount of blood being pumped to muscles; stroke volume is the other variable. In trained athletes, cardiac stroke volume is found to continuously increase with heart rate and exhibits a generally linear relationship right up to the maximum heart rate. This direct relationship between heart rate, cardiac stroke volume, and volume of blood being pumped is the basis for the utility of heart rate as a measure of training stimulus for those who have a well-developed aerobic system.* Technology developments (e.g. wireless data transmission and reception) in the late 1970’s allowed for the successful design of compact, wearable wireless heart rate monitors. A bit clumsy at first, the technology rapidly developed and heart rate monitors have become commonplace for even recreational athletes. These devices enabled endurance athletes to consistently and precisely monitor their training session intensities and to analyze training sessions for training guidance. It represented a significant step forward in analytical training monitoring for endurance sport and is still considered the state-of-the-art today.

Heart rate time series data also have some issues, the primary ones being the affect of environmental conditions (heat/cold/humidity) and the influence of “life stress.” Generally, one will find that their heart rate is increased for the same perceived effort level while training in hot or hot & humid conditions. This is due to the naturally increased blood flow to the epidermis for purposes of cooling the body. The magnitude of the heart rate increase is individual-specific and is also found to be changeable via acclimation, i.e. the body will naturally respond to the added heat stress and develop a tolerance. For most, an increase of 5-10 beats is typical in hot conditions without acclimation. As one becomes familiar with the use of heart rate and the observed deviations due to environment it is a straightforward process of accommodation for both determining training stress and guiding a particular workout. This comes with personal experience and will be addressed below.

With respect to “life stress” effects on heart rate during training, having awareness of and a reliable indicator for such “stress”  is a very positive, and important, aspect of using heart rate as a training monitor. For example, should one see an elevated heart rate for a given exertion level in typical environmental conditions, it is a “red flag” that something is off — like insufficient recovery, an on-coming sickness, excessive mental stress, or other life pressures. The individually-calibrated heart rate data informs the athlete to adjust accordingly and, hopefully, to avoid increasing the severity of the sickness, to not inappropriately “push through” a workout, or to not begin a spiral into an over-tired state. Again, these are additional examples of the types of critical things that a coach cannot easily evaluate and help with; it is important for an athlete (and an aging athlete in particular) to have a handle on their on-going ability to absorb training in the presence other life stressors. Making timely and strategic adjustments in planned training is at the core of successful training.

A final issue bought up about heart rate monitoring is the fact that heart rate is a lagging metric, i.e. perceived effort can be high  before the heart will fully respond. This is most common at the beginning of high-intensity interval sessions where often in the first few intervals, one will note that heart rate does not reach expected levels until 30 seconds to 1 minute after the interval has started. Here the athlete uses RPE to guide the effort early in the interval and then confirmation is made with the heart rate monitor once the heart has fully responded to the stimulus. If the interval is too short for confirmation, the heart rate data still provides insight since, with experience, one will become calibrated as to how their heart rate responds under such stimuli. Analysis and logging is straightforward as we are looking for consistency and precision, not absolute accuracy.

Although the heart rate measurement part of training monitoring is essentially “commodified” (i.e. there are many equally capable devices available), choosing a heart rate time series data analysis approach that one has confidence in is important. We will discus one such approach here but note that there are numerous other approaches and analysis protocols that are efficacious.

*note: In untrained individuals, stroke volume is found to linearly increase until about 40%-50% of maximum heart rate when it plateaus and becomes independent of heart rate. Heart rate time series data is also useful in this instance since, again, the amount of oxygenated blood being pumped to operating muscles is still proportional to heart rate, albeit with a significant change in the rate of increase at the plateau. Heart rate can be therefore  be utilized as a proxy for total blood being pumped and represents a measure of exercise intensity for such untrained individuals.

Heart Rate Monitors

We have discussed heart rate monitors briefly in a prior article and we will be brief here as well. There are many models of heart rate monitors from numerous manufacturers. These include Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. We currently use Garmin products but make no recommendation here.

The key part of any heart rate monitoring device for cross country skiing is the heart rate monitoring “chest strap” that wirelessly transmits heart rate time series data to the watch component. The “chest strap” monitoring approach is the only one that reliably works for cross country skiers. We (and many others) have found that the wrist-based optical heart rate detection utilized in some models of watches is erratic and not reliable. These models use an optical method for detecting heart rate pulses via light transmission through the epidermis. This methodology requires direct contact between the watch and skin at the wrist. Such contact and measurement is problematic for anything more active than walking.  For cross country skiers there are additional issues with using an optical heart rate detection system because, in ski season, it is generally impossible to obtain good contact between skin at the wrist and the watch due to the layers of clothing that one will typically be using. Most cross country ski athletes utilize a chest strap detector and wrap the heart rate monitor watch over the outer layer of clothing to facilitate visual and functional utility. This cannot be done with an optical detection system that needs to be in close proximity to skin.

Many watches are now GPS-enabled and can provide distance, pace, maps, elevation gain, and other useful data. We recommend watches with GPS capability as these additional data are very useful for training monitoring.

Some heart rate monitors come with additional movement detection capability that utilizes multi-axis accelerometers mounted on the chest strap and within the watch. These models offer metrics such as stride length, cadence, vertical oscillation , ground contact time, and ground contact time balance. Although these metrics were developed primarily for runners, cross country ski athletes can take advantage of these metrics to help develop and refine technique. We will have a separate article on how to use these metrics in cross country skiing.

All major heart rate monitor manufacturers offer web-based downloading of training session files that can then be viewed and analyzed. This is very functional for those athletes that choose to conduct their own analysis without the addition of a separate stand-alone analysis program. The manufacturer website typically allows viewing and limited analysis of the heart rate time series data, and, for GPS-enabled watches, distance/pace, elevation gain/loss, and a map of where your training took place.

Although simple “heart rate only” watches with timing capability can be purchased for as little as about $100, adding GPS and wireless downloading will give the user access to additional important data as well as make day-to-day utilization very convenient. The GPS watches with wireless file transfer start at about $200. We consider this to be a good investment for those who are devoting considerable time to training.

Training Analysis Programs

There are numerous training analysis programs available but we have found the Training Peaks (TP) platform to be the most useful and convenient for the endurance athlete. TP offers a complete suite of heart rate-based training metrics that do a very thorough job of monitoring one’s training. In addition, one can link their watch-manufacturer training account with TP and take advantage of automatic downloading into the TP platform. All of this is done wirelessly and automatically and one needs only to log into their TP account to view training sessions and conduct additional analysis. Other platforms offer similar features but we have found TP to be the most complete and user-friendly.

The TP platform has a “free” level that includes features and analysis that is essentially what is offered in most manufacturers platforms that are also free. However, to conduct proper training monitoring and analysis the “Premium” level is required. This is currently being offered at about $10/mo. and we expect that once you have finished reading this article, you will be convinced that the features and analysis offered by the “Premium” level are well worth the cost.

We will now discuss training monitoring utilizing the TP “Premium” analysis suite and how to apply these to cross country ski training.

detailed training monitoring

The TP platform consists of three fundamental metrics that are derived from a single calculated parameter: Training Stress Score (TSS). The TSS values are based on the TRIMP concept and are calculated from an athlete’s downloaded heart rate time series data. There are three types of TSS that TP can calculate: TSS based on power for cyclists (TSS), TSS based on pace for road runners (rTSS), and TSS based on heart rate (hrTSS) for cross country skiers and mountain athletes where power cannot (currently) be reliably measured and pace is not meaningful. The hrTSS is the least accurate of the three methods but, as noted above, we are most interested in precision, not accuracy and the hrTSS calculation is quite precise. You can select which method you want to use with a drop-down menu on the training session in TP; however, if you choose X-C Skiing as the training session type, TP defaults to the hrTSS calculation. For running sessions you will need to choose hrTSS. For hrTSS, the time series heart rate (HR) data is combined with defined “zones” for your individual cardiovascular capabilities to determine how stressful each training session is by calculating how much time was spent in each of the “zones.” More time spent in higher (more intense) zones means higher stress. As should be clear, longer time in lower zones can yield equivalent TSS to shorter time in higher zones. TP calls this type of TSS calculation hrTSS and it should be used for all training sessions for mountain athletes, including cross country skiing. More detail on this topic is provided below.

Since hrTSS is based on time spent in zones, it is important to ensure that one’s zones are properly set-up. 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. We have recommended a three intensity-level system based on lactate threshold (LT) and aerobic threshold (AeT). The two systems are compatible since the Friel system also uses LT and AeT as key physiological parameters for “zone” setting. In the Brave Enough three intensity-level system, LT is the same as Friel’s “zone 4- zone 5” transition and the Brave Enough AeT is the same as Friel’s “zone 2-zone 3” transition.  A user can start with the default “Friel” zone system by ensuring that the correct LT is being used. We covered how to utilize a field test to determine LT in Part III of the Training Planning Series. From this value of LT, TP will calculate the rest of the Friel zones. Our experience is that, for a well-trained endurance athlete, the TP calculation of AeT (i.e. transition from Friel’s “zone2 -zone 3”) is surprisingly accurate. It will be much less accurate for those that do not have a well developed aerobic base. Shown below is what the “zones” setting page in TP looks like for an athlete with a measured LT of 155 bpm:

Zone stetting page from Training Peaks. Zone calculations are based on measured lactate threshold (LT) and it is important that LT be well characterized for the calculated training metrics to be correct.

To calculate the TP training zones one inputs their LT and selects a type of zone calculation. We suggest starting with the Friel method. There are other available methods in the software but we have found the Friel method to have general utility.

Once you have the zones set in TP all training metrics will be calculated automatically as you download your training files. When using a Garmin HR device there is no option for defining your activity as cross country skiing so it is best to use the “run” setting. Upon downloading into TP, the “run” session will default to a pace-based TSS calculation (rTSS) so you must manually select the hrTSS calculation for your training sessions via the drop-down menu on the session view page (more on this below). However, if you switch the session type to “XC Ski” in TP, TP will change the TSS calculation to hrTSS automatically. The important point here is that one use hrTSS for all cross country skiing activities, dryland bounding sessions, roller skiing, or any running activity that involves elevation gain/loss.

We’ll review the various page views and metrics that TP uses below. Once you understand and get calibrated to the TP metrics we think you will find TP to be a valuable tool for monitoring and adjusting your training.

Training peaks “Session View”, “Analysis View”, and “Calendar View”

Shown below is the “session view” page in TP. The example session is a threshold interval workout on a continuous uphill grade. The session included 6 X 8 minute threshold intervals on 4 minute active rest. Shown in this view are the total time, total distance, average pace, estimated calories (not accurate), elevation gain, calculated hrTSS, intensity factor (not generally applicable for XC skiing),  and elevation loss. Also, there is a “notes” window that allows the athlete to add additional information — here is added the session details and an estimated recovery time calculation provided by the Garmin watch (based on a FirstBeat algorithm).

There is additional information if one scrolls down on this page (below) and includes average and max pace and min, average, and max heart rate. Also, a place to enter post-activity comments is provided.

Clicking the “analyze” button yields the “Analysis View” with a lot of additional information and calculations (shown below). Included are the details on the “Session View” as well as the map of your activity and the discrete time series data for heart rate, pace, cadence, and elevation. Also provided are any split information — here 1 mile splits are programed.

Scrolling the “Analysis View” page down reveals additional information including the discrete information for each split as well as the min, average, and max data for heart rate, pace, cadence, speed, and elevation.

Further scrolling of this page reveals other information, the most important being time in zones. Placing the cursor over the bar in the bar chart will show the total time in zone and the percent of the total session time in zone.

To assist in documenting and guiding your weekly training TP also provides a “calendar view” that shows the week in calendar format with all of the training sessions and notes. Clicking on any session will launch the “session view” for more detailed analysis. At the right TP shows the total weekly training hours, the total TSS, and the various time and distances for the types of training completed. This is the page an athlete will review daily and take stock at the end of the week while developing specific plans for the coming week. An example of a “calendar view” from TP is shown below.

In the TP main menu at the top of all pages is an item called “dashboard”, this will take the user to the primary training guidance tool in the TP platform: the Performance Management Chart (PMC). This is explained below.

training Peaks metrics and the performance MANAGEMENT chart (PMC)

Training Peaks utilizes three metrics to help an athlete monitor and adjust their training and these metrics, as well additional calculated data are shown in TP as the Performance Management Chart (PMC). Presented below is an athlete’s PMC for about one year.

This chart is certainly confusing and complex to the uninitiated so let’s go through what all of this data means. We’ll start with some definitions:

  1. Acute Training Load (ATL) (Pink Graph): this is the exponentially weighted average of the last 7 days of training load (TSS) and is an discrete estimate of the fatigue you are carrying at a given time. Units are TSS/day.
  2. Chronic Training Load (CTL) (Blue Graph): this is the exponentially weighted average of the last 42 days of training load (TSS) and is an discrete estimate of your level of fitness at given time. Units are TSS/day.
  3. Training Stress Balance (TSB) (Orange Graph): this is the balance of your training stresses and is equal to the instantaneous CTL value minus the instantaneous ATL value. Positive values indicate that you are fresher when compared to negative values- and potentially ready to race. Units are TSS/day.

As noted above, each of these metrics are based on the hrTSS derived by TP from your workout sessions. 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 hrTSS is the least accurate of all the allowed TSS calculations but we 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. So long as one’s metrics are precise (i.e. similar day-to-day data will yield the same metric value), one can make reliable comparisons and have confidence in the magnitude of training progressions. With time an athlete will become calibrated to “their” absolute values of TSS (and derived metrics) and will be able to utilize the magnitude of the calculated data to guide training.

The discrete dots are as follows:

  1. Red: daily total TSS value
  2. Light Blue: intensity factor (IF)

The intensity factor is a calculation based on the percentage of threshold power or pace. It is intended to tell the athlete at what percentage of threshold a particular workout was conducted. For cross country skiing there is no power measurement and the pace measurement is highly functional with snow conditions and the terrain that was skied. For these reasons the IF in TP has no meaning for cross country skiers (and other mountain athletes).

Note on strength training and Training Peaks:

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 therefore reflected in the derived CTL, ATL, and TSB values. Also, as an aging athlete, strength training is doubly important because we are in a battle to maintain muscle mass where natural, age-related physiologic processes are compromising our ability to replace lost muscle. Including strength training in one’s program and making sure these sessions are properly accounted for are important for training monitoring.

It is not possible to accurately estimate strength training TSS from HR 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 strength 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 TSS is about 50-70 and 80-90 per hour, respectively, of workout time (including rest periods). These are the estimates that we use for input of strength training to TP. 

With all those definitions and estimates understood, let’s go back to the Performance Management Chart (PMC) and analyze how an athlete’s training will appear utilizing the TP metrics. Presented below is an annotated version of an athlete’s PMC from 1 August through 9 March showing where the various training blocks (from an annual training plan (ATP)) and races (or time trials) occurred during base, build, peak, and race for dryland and the race season with two “A” races (World Masters and a regional classic race), three “B”/”C” races, and three time trials. This athlete followed a “block periodization” program through the spring, summer, and fall and switched to “traditional periodization” during race season.

Annotated PMC showing associated training blocks, periodization, and races (or time trials) for the 2017-2018 season from 1 August to 9 March.

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. In this example, 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. The training is shown diagrammatically in the annotated PMC below along with a graph of weekly training hours throughout the training period:

Annotated PMC showing an athlete’s training progression and race preparation for two “A” races: World Masters (a 4 race series (10 km, 15 km, 30 km, and a relay leg (all classic technique)) in a one week time period and a 25 km classic race (noted by short black vertical lines and the notation “A”). At the bottom of the PMC is the corresponding training volume in weekly hours for the period, analyzed as a function of training week in the period (32 weeks total). Training volume for this athlete was targeted at 14-18h per week depending on the weekly focus with a low of about 11.5h and a high of about 22h. As indicated, the training shown in this graphic was preceded by a 12 week period of endurance training (aerobic fitness development) with 14-18 h per week of mountain running, mountain biking, hill bounding with poles, general strength, and max strength. General and max strength continues throughout the year at three 45-75 min sessions per week for max strength and three or four 30 min sessions per week for general strength.

Training volume for this athlete 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 much less variation in CTL (“fitness”) than that observed for 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 one’s fatigue state and whether one is 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 (around 5 January). Prior to the first “A” race (World Masters), the training program prescribed 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 first “A” race  at World Masters (around 28 January), 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.

Summary

We hope that this review of a method for detailed training monitoring has illustrated the importance and utility of using heart rate monitoring combined with HR-based training stress metrics. Additionally, we have offered an example of training monitoring where a periodized training plan is used to define training progressions toward race goals.

Independent of whether one uses the method(s) described here, we assert that a well-developed training plan used in concert with a detailed monitoring system is essential to achieving racing goals. This approach is critical to success, particularly for aging athletes where time constraints, other life “stresses”, and natural physiologic decline all conspire to detract from an athlete’s ability to achieve those goals. Going about with the work to develop the types of training plans and training monitoring systems described here (and in our Training Planning Series) will go a long way to ensuring success.