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.

Epilogue

Our series on Training Planning has attempted to provide basic background material and tools to the aging endurance athlete that will allow for effective personal athletic development for both competitive masters athletes and recreationalists alike.

As we age, many natural physiologic processes are underway that can reduce our ability to perform as well as adversely affect our enjoyment of endurance sport. We hope that we have convinced you that some (and perhaps all) of these “aging” processes can be slowed, stopped, or even reversed with a well-designed training regimen addressed in a consistent manner and with sufficient recovery.

One of the key points made along the way in the series is the importance of the development of one’s aerobic base fitness achieved by long bouts of low intensity training. This “aerobic base” is the foundation upon which all other training is built. Maximal benefit from high intensity training can only be realized when one’s aerobic base is fully developed. There are no shortcuts or “hacks” to the development of an aerobic base. It takes time and lots of it, but the benefits far outweigh the investments, benefits spanning one’s enjoyment of endurance sport to general physical and mental health.

We reviewed the “80/20 rule” for endurance sport intensity distribution and we hope that if there is but one thing that the reader takes away from the series it is — spend 80% of your training time at or below the aerobic threshold and 20% of your training time at and around the lactate threshold. Consistently adhere to this and positive training progression will naturally happen. Your aerobic base will fully develop, you will recover well, and you will succeed in making easy days easy and hard days hard. To paraphrase Micheal Pollan on his recommendations for a healthy diet in his best-selling book, we like to think of training for endurance sport as follows:

Train Consistently, Mostly Low Intensity, Recover Well

We’ve quoted and referenced the work of Stephen Seiler, a sports physiologist and widely published author, on the subject of training intensity distributions for endurance athletes. We end this series with a recent talk by Seiler that reinforces these foundational training principles. Enjoy and share with your community of endurance athletes!

 

 

Training Planning Part VI – Monitoring Training Progress

Training Planning Part VI – Monitoring Training Progress

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

 You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

Don Schlitz, performed and recorded by Kenny Rogers, 1978

 If there is one characteristic of the highly motivated athlete, it is that they can use their minds to push themselves well beyond their body’s ability to absorb and adapt to their training. It’s all too common to read of a talented athlete who is retiring from competition due to over training.

 Having trained and competed at the highest levels, long before the internet and sophisticated online-monitoring systems, it was very easy to deceive oneself.  On more than one occasion, I took myself over that edge – resulting not in the improved results that I had hoped for, but quite the opposite – illness at just the wrong moment, or even worse, being so “over-cooked” that it was impossible to go fast at the 1992 Olympics.

 These life lessons have taught me to be more conservative in my approach to training, to listen more intently to my body’s signals of fatigue, and to “nail my boots to the floor” when I feel over-extended.  Now I tell myself: You gotta ‘know when to hold em; know when to fold em’. The results have been highly favorable.

 The most helpful high-tech tools that we have today are advanced heart rate monitors, online training analysis tools, and heart rate variability apps. These tools can help us safely push to higher levels of training stress, but I would argue they are even more valuable in preventing one from becoming over-extended.

Betsy  

Betsy and Bill Koch at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony in Albertville, France, where Bill was the flag-bearer for the US Olympic Team.

The Importance of Training Monitoring

It is essential to develop a training plan. In an endurance sport, where the amount of invested time in training is substantial, and the risk of over-training is palpable. As we have said previously, one must be especially careful to be efficient with your valuable time. The ramifications of these three interactive factors (time, efficiency, and training load) means that it is essential for the masters skier to have a plan and to execute to that plan in order to progress towards the achievement of their reasonably challenging goal. Providing the basic tools for a masters athlete to develop a well-informed and comprehensive training plan has been the focus of this series of articles.

Of course, training planning and the training itself are an incomplete basis for a comprehensive training regimen. The third part, monitoring, plays a very important role in illuminating day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month progress and serves as the basis for the inevitable, in-process, adjustments all athletes will make to any training plan. Training monitoring (the measurement, quantification, and tracking of training load) is critical for ensuring that you, as a masters skier, are able to maximize the training effect of your limited and valuable training time. Objective monitoring along with realistic personal reflection will also help an athlete avoid the substantial consequences of over-training. This final installment on training planning addresses this subject and makes some recommendations about how one might best go about monitoring training for endurance sport.

The Why, the What, and the How of Training Monitoring

The Why

One might reasonably ask– Why should I monitor my training? It’s a question that needs an answer as the effort to precisely monitor one’s training will not be insignificant and therefore the output needs to be of sufficient value to justify the effort.

Given the complexity of the human body and the additional intricacies associated with training for endurance sport, it is important to monitor one’s progress so that individual programming and modifications can be effectively and efficiently applied. Without an understanding of how well one’s training progression is proceeding, it is impossible to know if a selected training plan is working and/or if there might be possible modifications that would increase effectiveness and efficiency. In addition, training monitoring can yield important early signals of over-training.

Monitoring one’s training can also be a source of motivation and provide a sense of accomplishment as we see our abilities build, our training stimulus absorption increase, and race results improve. With reasonable and aligned expectations, training monitoring provides the needed feedback loop to ensure that one is on the right track and that the time spent in training is being used efficiently.

As we have discussed at length, everyone is different to some degree when it comes to training. “Canned” training programs or coach-driven “boilerplate” are of very limited use as the training plan in these cases is so generalized and not customized to an individual. Additionally, generalized training guidance, although valuable as a framework, is not particularly functional for the aging athlete where our differences become greater the older we get. As a result of this, our specific training needs distribute out onto a wide spectrum of individual training plans, each, to varying degrees, different from the next. This is why we have spent so much “ink” (or perhaps more accurately, pixels) in this series to help the reader develop the basic understanding, tools, and skills that enable anyone to assemble, modify, and execute upon a training program based upon one’s own intimate understanding of their individual physiology and circumstance. It is the rare coach who can accomplish such effective individuality in training plan development and it is therefore incumbent upon each of us, as aging athletes, to play an active role in training planning, including selecting an integrated system for monitoring our own progress.

The What

Although there are numerous ways to monitor one’s training, a primary path is to use some gauge of each training session that reliably tracks the magnitude of training stimulus and then to track this on a weekly basis in a training diary for review and possible modification against the plan that has been put in place. Such “gauging” can be achieved via utilization of Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) that has been discussed early-on in this series. Combined with data on how much time one spends at each RPE in a session, a training stimulus metric can be calculated.

One such metric is called TRIMP (TRaining IMPulse) and has been used by athletes and coaches for decades. TRIMP is the multiplicative value of training intensity and time. Using TRIMP, one estimates the intensity of a session using heart rate time series data and then multiplies this by the time spent in at each intensity during the session.  The intensity values are multiplied by a weighting factor associated with an individual’s lactate threshold intensity – the higher the intensity the higher the weighting of that intensity period in the training session. This approach will yield the “intensity minutes” of a training session and is directly correlated with the magnitude of training stimulus or “load.”

As heart rate monitoring devices became more reliable, easier to use, and cheaper, the TRIMP methodology for training load estimates has become the preferred method utilized by many athletes and coaches. In practice, the calculations use defined heart rate “zones” associated with the two physiological transitions discussed at length in previous articles: Lactate Threshold (LT) and Aerobic Threshold (AeT). An overwhelming majority of endurance athletes now use heart rate and some sort of TRIMP metric to monitor their daily training load and training progression. We will discuss one TRIMP-type training software platform as an example here.

The How

The task, once an athlete has developed a reliable training measurement and metric system (e.g. TRIMP), is to track training in a journal or log of some sort and to monitor these data for comparison with the training plan and to adjust as needed. The training plan will have a series of progressions through the Base, Build, and Peak periods as well as invoke planned Recovery periods. The key here is to ensure that the progressions are challenging enough to elicit positive gains without being overly-taxing, and that the recovery periods are adhered to. Accomplishing this is something that an athlete will develop a “feel” for over time via experience and with assessments of the degree of recovery after significant training loads. This daily moniyoring allows an athlete to become “calibrated” to their specific, individual, realtionship between the actual training load we experience and the calculated training load metrics.

The tracking of training can be done in a number of ways, the simplest being pencil and paper on a printed calendar. This simple method is effective and, until recent years, was common among athletes of all levels. However, in the past decade numerous software platforms have emerged that have simplified the process of tracking training load, and training progressions. It is now relatively straightforward, and, in some cases, automatic to record one’s training. We highly recommend that you consider using one of the available platforms for your personal training log.

One such training tracking platform specifically aimed toward endurance athletes is Training Peaks (TP). We make extensive use of TP for all of our training tracking and monitoring. We will use TP to demonstrate how one goes about utilizing this type of software for effective training monitoring for cross country skiing.

Training Monitoring – An Essential Tool for Getting the Most Out of Your Training

As we all know, finding the time to train is difficult for masters athletes who typically have many competing responsibilities. Being efficient with that limited training time is fundamental to making progress against one’s goals. Training monitoring will provide the tools for being as efficient as one can be.

As one becomes more in tune with one’s own qualitative and quantitative response signals, one will know when to push a little harder and more importantly when to back off – before becoming overextended.

Summary

We hope that, with this series of articles on Training Planning, the reader has an increased appreciation of the importance of training planning along with the necessary tools for both developing one’s own training plan and successfully executing upon the plan.  Having a training plan, a system for recording training against the plan, a method to quantify the training, and the knowledge to adjust the plan as needed, are all what will allow an athlete to make the most of their training, independent of how much time one has.

Using the material in this series can enables an athlete to develop reasonable and attainable goals and to put in place a training methodology and associated specific training periodicity to provide a path to success. Our aim at the outset has been to provide all of the tools needed to help you, the masters skier, meet (or exceed) those goals you set out at the beginning of the training season. Those goals you were “Brave Enough” to have!

For a more extensive and detailed treatment of the process of training monitoring with a heart rate monitor and Training Peaks software please see our complete article “Training Planning for Endurance Sport — a Detailed Look”.

Training Planning Part V – Developing a Plan

Training Planning Part V – Developing a Plan

By Betsy and Bob Youngman

In Parts I-IV of this series on training planning we reviewed:

  1. Time horizons, setting goals, and plan structure
  2. Understanding the elements of endurance training
  3. Training Intensities
  4. Strength training for cross country skiing

We now bring these four elements together to begin the process of developing a personal training plan for the year and race season.

Note: Also available is a slide deck ( here) for a Training Planning Presentation for masters skiers that Betsy did a couple of years ago.

The Big “C” and the Capital “R”

As expressed at the outset of this series of articles, there is a single underlying fundamental principle that will define an athlete’s progression in any sport (and particularly in endurance sport) – making consistency and recovery the number one priority. Without consistent training stimuli and associated recovery, training progress will be slow or nonexistent and, in some cases, regression can occur. There are many aspects of life that compete for the available time of a masters skier. It can be very difficult to set aside sufficient time to devote to training and consistency and recovery can quickly “go out the window.” This is where having a plan becomes so valuable. With a plan, one can incorporate the right training opportunities, in the correct sequence, into a busy schedule and maximize the benefits of whatever amount of time one has for training. Without a plan, training becomes disorganized, helter-skelter, and often doesn’t get completed. Taking the time to put together a training plan will allow the masters athlete to effectively and efficiently manage the precious time they have to train. This, of course, also applies to younger skiers but is of particular importance to masters skiers who typically have more duties than time.

In endurance sport, time is your largest asset. This is because developing a proper endurance base upon which to build a focused training progression takes a lot of time. As we have discussed, developing one’s cardiovascular system and cellular energy production capabilities involves training stimuli consisting of long bouts of low intensity sport-specific exercise. Using this time efficiently is critical and doing so will enable even the most time-strapped skier the ability to progress toward well-developed goals. Having a training plan is the first step in achieving those goals.

Goal Setting and Time Commitments

Putting well-developed goals out there is an intimate part of putting together a training plan. Without goals, one’s purpose and drive will be challenged on a regular basis. In a sport as difficult as cross country skiing, having purpose and drive will allow one to push through the frequent difficult physical and mental aspects of training.

As discussed in Part I, it is extremely important that one develop goals that are reasonable and attainable. One system commonly utilized for developing goals is the “SMART” system – in this approach all goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Keep this concept in mind when you develop your race season and yearly goals.

An important activity that is closely tied to one’s goals is a realistic evaluation of how much time can be devoted to training. One of the most common mistakes made by athletes of any age is over-estimating exactly how much time they will have for training and recovery. This leads to training plans that can never be adhered to and results in disappointment, frustration, and de-motivation. Accurate determination of the time you will have for training will allow for a plan that will efficiently utilize that time toward maximization of progression and will ultimately result in excitement, confidence, and high levels of motivation.

Elements of a Training Plan

Based on the material covered in Parts I-IV, an endurance athlete needs to include five basic elements in a training plan:

  1. Endurance
  2. Intensity
  3. Recovery
  4. Strength
  5. Technique

We will use these elements as the basis for the primary activities in a structured plan. “Which”, “when”, and “how much” is determined by utilizing a concept called periodization.

Periodization

Periodization is a process by which a training year (or other appropriate period) is broken up into sub-units that define a training progression toward a goal race or event. The sequenced sub-units typically used by endurance athletes are, in order of progression:

  • Base
  • Build
  • Peak
  • Race
  • Off-Season

Conceptually this sequence of periods is designed to allow for full aerobic development in the Base period, a Build period (or periods) where increasing amounts of sport-specific intensity are incorporated, a Peak phase where a large volume of high-intensity work is followed by a significant training volume cut (about 50%) in preparation for a goal race, and an Off-Season for full physical and mental recovery. One can design plans utilizing this periodization process for numerous goal races during the race season. A prime example being World Cup athletes who are racing nearly every week in the 14-week World Cup race season. For masters athletes, it is more typical to have a couple of goal races and some less important races in between that can be incorporated into the Build periods as race/workout events.

Base

The Base period is the training period where one develops aerobic base fitness, hence the term, “Base.” This period is typically the first part of a training year plan since all further training is critically dependent upon a well-developed aerobic base. The Base period is further divided into sub-periods – often labeled Base 1, Base 2, etc. or also as Early Base and Late Base. The Base 1 period is where an athlete will spend significant amounts of time at low intensity with the focus being cardiovascular development and aerobic energy production optimization. Very little high-intensity work is done during this period and any high-intensity sessions will likely involve only short duration free-form (or “fartlek”-style) bouts of high-intensity. No structured interval sessions are typically included. This allows for a singular focus on the task at hand: full development of one’s aerobic base. The performance benefits of high-intensity training are significantly negated when performed with a deficient aerobic base and making sure that one has given sufficient time and energy to this important part of training is fundamental to any success later on. Base 2 and Base 3 will incorporate increasing amounts of high intensity leading up to the high-intensity and ski race specific Build period(s).

Build

As noted earlier, the “build” periods are when an athlete begins developing race-specific abilities that, for cross country skiing, include significant doses of high-intensity training. In racing, one’s performance will be significantly determined by pace at lactate threshold. Therefore the Build periods will be focused on full development of the cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and neuromuscular systems that will define the pace at lactate threshold. Increases in lactate threshold intensity (heart rate) and movement economy are the main outputs of the build periods.

Peak

When approaching a goal race or event it is important that one arrive at the start line fast, fit, and fresh to ensure the best possible performance. This is accomplished with a Peak period just prior to the event. In this period a high volume of high-intensity work is followed by a substantial cut in total training volume. This process maximizes training stimulus on top of a very large base that was developed through the build periods. Such maximization is best absorbed and preserved with full and complete recovery by reducing the total volume of training by about half (or more) in the later part of the period. Although high-intensity work is not eliminated in the later part of the Peak period, it is limited to short, neuromuscular-focused sessions such as “speeds” (high-intensity bursts for 1 minute or less) or technique-specific workouts like multiple repeats of herringbone up steep hills for about 45 seconds or less. In the last week before the goal race, rest is the highest priority along with doing everything possible to ensure stress-free travel to the race venue.

Off-Season

At the end of the race season an athlete is likely to be in a state of physical and mental distress. Not exhausted but very much ready for some rest and relaxation and, for many, ready to do something different. Some athletes will go on a vacation to some warm and sunny locale others will transition to another sport (like trail running, cycling, mountain biking, or whitewater kayaking) for recreation or, eventual, competition. The Off-Season is a critical part of any training plan and should be panned just as all the other periods are.

Training periodization is a proven successful process for all endurance athletes. Taking the time to plan out a training year to include all of the period types in the appropriate sequence is fundamental to one’s ultimate race (or event) performance.

Training Cycles – Macro, Meso, and Micro

Yearly training plans contain three levels of detail that are defined by what are referred to as “training cycles.” At the highest-level is the macrocycyle which is typically the entire training year and is made up of the periods described above. In the macrocycle, the base, build, peak, and off-season are scheduled as “blocks” in a sequence that allows for appropriate development. The macrocycle is also often called the Annual Training Plan (ATP). The mesocycyle is all about exactly what one does within each of the macrocycle “blocks.” Here period-specific training goals are defined and specific training is designed to achieve these goals. The microcycle is the detailed, day-to-day, training that one engages in and includes what is to be completed on each training day within the mesocycyle.

Developing a training plan requires that the athlete address each of these training cycle levels in a coordinated and progressive way to ensure a successful race season. All of these aspects – long-term goals, mid-term training structure, and near-term weekly and daily training – combine to form the entire “big picture” and define your path to personal excellence.

But it all starts with setting those goals, the process for doing so that we will now discuss.

Self-Evaluation

Setting reasonable, attainable, and challenging goals is no easy task. It requires significant self-evaluation – analysis of one’s weaknesses, accurate estimation of the amount of time one will have for training, and, most importantly, a motivated mindset. So often athletes will set out goals that are unattainable given the constraints of time, movement economy, strength, and cardiovascular fitness. In such cases, many will find their motivation waning with the realization that their stated goals are out of reach and that there is just not enough time to be able to train and meet the goals. It is much more functional to set forward goals that are in alignment with the time you have to devote to training, the state of your technique development, and the level of strength and cardiovascular fitness you expect to achieve with a structured training program. Such “aligned” goals will be achievable, significant, and motivating. We suggest using the SMART-system described above. Spending time developing your goals is the essential starting point for training planning.

Exactly how one does their self-evaluation is very individual, as different personality types will respond to critical evaluation in very different ways. The important aspect to keep in mind while conducting a self-evaluation is to be positive. As we look toward our weaknesses we tend to dwell on these and ignore the many strengths that we already have. It is best to view a self-evaluation with a mindset of “building upon strengths” by addressing weaknesses rather than a mindset of “eliminating weaknesses” to develop strengths. The reason is that all improvements are incremental and “eliminating a weakness” is not attainable in the near-term. One can methodically chip away at turning a weakness into a strength but it will not happen quickly and it is best to view these incremental improvements as “building upon a strength.” For instance, one may have excellent kick timing and weighting in classic but with a glide phase that is not optimized – it is better to view this work as building upon the strengths (kick timing and weighting) than to dwell on the non-optimal glide. The kick timing and weighting will set one up to excel at glide and it is important to take advantage of this. Mindset plays a major role in any improvement process.

Typical Training Cycle Periods for Endurance Athletes

We discussed previously a typical annual progression based on a Lydiard-type training protocol. Lydiard’s mantra of “the bigger the base, the higher the peak” guides the yearly time distribution. Although every athlete is different, has different demands on their time, and may live in very different climates, a general starting point for developing an Annual Training Plan (ATP) is summarized below:

  • 12-20 week endurance base (the “big base”)
  • 8-10 week sport specific period
  • 4-6 week race specific prep period
  • 10-12 week “race season” composed of:
    • repeated race prep (“the higher peak”)
    • between-race rest
    • aerobic maintenance
    • strength maintenance
  • 4 week “season recovery” and recreation period

If we assume that the cross country ski season ends in mid-to-late March, then we have, using this periodization guideline:

  • April: season recovery
  • May – June – July: Aerobic base development
  • August – September – October: Sport-specific training
  • November – Mid-December: Race-specific training
  • Mid-December – March: Race season

We’ll use these periods for demonstrating how to go about putting an ATP together realizing that the reader may make some adjustments accordingly.

A Simplified Training Plan Development Process

Given all of the training plan elements described above, it can be a bit intimidating for a skier to develop a realistic ATP that can be adhered to throughout the year. We have found that it is functional to break the year up into quarters (3 month periods) that roughly define the major periods in a training plan. This approach is as follows:

  • Q1: Recovery and Base 1 – 4 weeks Recovery, 8 weeks Base 1 –April-May-June
  • Q2: Base 2&3 – 12 weeks – July-August-September
  • Q3: Build 1-3 – 12 weeks – October-November-December
  • Q4: Race Season including Peak(s) and Goal Race(s) – 12 weeks – January-February-March

Using this quarterly system will allow the athlete to understand and focus on the particular training element that is being emphasized in each period. In Q1 full recovery and then aerobic base development is the focus, Q2 continues aerobic base development with increasing density of intensity throughout the period, Q3 continues the intensity density but increases the dose while maintaining aerobic base, and Q4 builds on the large training base to peak for a goal race.

Moving on to a finer level of detail, it is also very functional to develop a weekly pattern or habit that will provide structure and assist in enabling consistent training and recovery. The Power of Habit is well documented and we suggest that a weekly “habit” of training elements is very helpful in successful completion of a training plan. As an example, our weekly “habit” is as follows:

  • Monday: aerobic ski/run/bike (AM) and strength (AM) and active recovery (PM)
  • Tuesday: Supra-threshold intensity (AM) and plyometrics (PM) and active recovery (PM)
  • Wednesday: aerobic long ski/run/bike (AM) and active recovery (PM)
  • Thursday: aerobic ski/run/bike (AM) and strength (AM) and active recovery (PM)
  • Friday: Threshold intensity (AM) and plyometrics (PM) and active recovery (PM)
  • Saturday: aerobic ski/run/bike (AM) and strength (AM) and active recovery (PM)
  • Sunday: aerobic very long ski/run/bike (AM-PM)

The daily focus is shown in bold, meaning that if any training adjustments need to be made, this training element is to be the highest priority. We find that having a pattern ingrained into our daily lifestyle allows for less stress about what type of training we are going to do and when we are going to do it. Exactly what we do on a given day is a function of the time of year but the “type” of training does not change. Of course adjustments are inevitable, but sticking to a routine will help get the training accomplished on a weekly timeframe.

With these two simplifying approaches we can now move on to assembling an ATP and a detailed weekly schedule for the training year.

A Simple Seven-Step Process for Plan Development

We present here a simple seven-step process whereby any athlete can develop both an ATP and a detailed weekly training plan to achieve their goals. But it all starts with the goal or goals.

Step 1

To initiate the planning process it is necessary to make a rectilinear grid that will allow for months, weeks, and days to be sequentially distributed across the horizontal dimension with the training elements distributed in the vertical dimension. This can be accomplished with pencil and paper (as Betsy prefers) or by utilizing any spreadsheet program such as Excel or Numbers (as Bob prefers). A sample, utilizing Excel is shown below:

Here the plan is shown starting on 1 April with the 4-week Season Recovery followed by the 8-week Base 1 period.

It is most common to use a 7-day “week” basis for training plans and this is what is done above where the weeks appear across the top of the plan along with the months and the days. Along the vertical column we have the Phase Type (Base, Build, etc.), Week Type (Base, Volume, Intensity, Recovery), the types of training to be completed (Endurance, Threshold, etc.), the Phase Priority (usually the same as Phase Type), the Total Hours for the week, the Intensity Minutes (explained below), Strength Training, Technique Focus, and Equipment Preparation. Planning each of these elements throughout the training year and keeping track of them is very important.

Step 2

Along the vertical dimension we have rows of the various planning elements. The first is the “race” category as this is where the planning starts.

Identify your goal races or events and put them on the timeline. We will later work back from these dates to adjust the training periods to synchronize. We’ll use the Birkie as a prototypical goal race on 22 February for this example going forward.

Step 3

Place your periods (Base, Build, etc.) across the timeline in whatever length is appropriate for your training. We give a suggested timeline above but that should be considered as just a suggested periodization or a starting point for those new to plan development.

Based on analysis of how much time you will have to train, place estimates of weekly training hours across in the “total hours” line. Utilize a protocol for a building of total training hours through Base 1 with recovery weeks every fourth week. Then fill-in the “week type” and color code the week blocks with the “phase priority” (Endurance, Threshold, etc.) where the priority is the focus for the week. One will continue to do all types of training, but one or two types will become the priority for that particular week.

As discussed in detail previously, intensity is a constant activity for aging endurance athletes and an estimate of the number of “intensity minutes” is marked down in that row. Intensity minutes are the total minutes of intensity work (total interval session time, including rest periods but excluding warm-up and cool down). The “intensity minutes” metric is the 20% of the 80/20 rule for endurance training. These values should be between 10-25% of the total training hours for the week, depending on which period the athlete is in. Similarly and as also previously discussed, strength is a constant activity as well and strength is shown as either maintenance or as a “build” (where strength progression is being completed). These planning inputs are shown below for a prototypcal athlete with an estimated 8 hours of training per week:

The important things to note are the increasing hours through the Base 1 and Base 2 periods and the increasing proportions of intensity through the Base periods. This is called “progression” and is one of the most difficult things to get right. Each athlete is different and each has a different ability to absorb increasing training stress. This needs to be monitored closely to ensure that one does not become overly fatigued and begin a path toward overtraining. This is where an experienced coach can be very valuable.

Step 4

Continue building up the timeline through Base 3 and then program Build 1-3. For the build periods we are looking to switch the primary focus from aerobic base development to more race-specific training adaptations like increasing lactate threshold heart rate and increasing pace at lactate threshold. This is typically done by making threshold and supra-threshold workouts the phase priority in a progressive fashion with changes in both workout dose and density. Dose is “how much” and density is “how often”. We recommend two intensity workouts per week year round so the progression here is primarily in dose. An example is shown below for a hypothetical Build 1-3:

Step 5

Typically the Base and Build periods are not greatly affected by the timing of goal race unless the goal race is early in the season. In the example here for the goal race being the Birkie (February 22), the Base and Build outlined above will be unaffected but we now need to work our way back from the goal race to program the 8-9 week period from the end of Build 3 to the race. We start with the Peak program leading into the Birkie. Although there are many different approaches to peaking, a common program includes two weeks of a high volume of threshold/supra-threshold focus followed by a substantial cut in total training volume with the only intensity being “speeds” (short 30-45s bursts of all-out efforts) at relatively high reps (3 X 10-15 reps per session). In our program this means two weeks of every other day intervals (a mix of threshold and supra threshold) and then a 50-60% cut in total training volume the week prior to the race with “speeds” every other day. Low levels of “life stress” and high levels of quality sleep are also prioritized. Here an example of a Peak program with the Birkie as the goal race:

Step 6

Now that we have accounted for the Peak program, we have 6 weeks of training from the end of Build 3 until the Peak to plan. Most skiers will have a number of less important races in this Race Season period that will serve as “sharpening” and “race practice” for the goal race. Since such races are highly individual, we’ll put one secondary race in this hypothetical training plan as an example. This will be a race where the athlete “trains through” the race where there is no separate Peak program as is typical for such secondary races. However taking a day or two of very low volume and/or rest in the days prior to the race is advised for best performance. Here is the training plan with the secondary race inserted and the training weeks programmed to allow for high performance and to not adversely affect the program leading up to the goal race (the Birkie):

Note that a large volume of Threshold work is scheduled in the four weeks prior to the goal race. This is to ensure that the athlete has maximized their capacity to maintain threshold intensity (race-level intensity/race pace).

Step 7

Develop a season-long progression of technique issues needing attention and place these in the “technique” row on the plan. These should be a part of the output from the Self-Evaluation outlined above. Planning and scheduling a focus on these issues will help ensure that they are attended to and should allow, along with strength and cardiovascular improvements, a path toward more efficient and enjoyable skiing.

Having programmed a secondary race and a goal race, the hypothetical athlete in this example may have one or more races or adventures on their schedule after the goal race. Using the approach outline here, it is straightforward to now program the rest of the season through about the end of March when some much deserved rest and relaxation will be in order.

Summary

We have reviewed the fundamental elements of endurance training and provided examples of how these elements are included in an Annual Train Plan (ATP). Suggestions for structuring both the macrocycle and the mesocycles have been offered and utilized to develop a hypothetical training program for a goal race using the Birkie as an example. Utilization of readily available spreadsheet programs can assist in structuring and formatting an ATP.

With the tools and concepts provided in this and previous articles in this series, we are hopeful that the reader will be able to assemble a training plan that works for their individual lifestyle and abilities. Understanding the elements of endurance training – the “why” and the “when” – should enable the reader to effectively modify their training plan as the inevitable “bumps in the road” come along and make adherence to the plan difficult or impossible. A plan is a plan – and not something to be enslaved to. All plans change; one just needs to be positioned to be able to intelligently and effectively change plans and this is what this series of articles is intended to provide the reader.

Coming Up

In Part VI, now that a training plan has been established, we will review the important subject of how to monitor training progress.

Training Planning Part IV – Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete

Training Planning Part IV – Strength Training for the Aging Endurance Athlete

By Betsy and Bob Youngman

Strength training for endurance sport in general, and particularly for cross country skiing, is of critical importance for any athlete that wants to perform at a high level. The development and maintenance of excellent technique, increases in power, fast-start capacity, sprinting ability, double pole excellence, and many other important aspects of cross country ski racing are all highly dependent on execution of a well-designed strength training program. For the aging athlete, strength training becomes even more critical due to natural physiologic processes that lead to muscle loss – a process called sarcopenia. In fact, muscle loss is one of the “Big Three” performance limiters for masters athletes. Yet the singular activity that typically takes a back seat in a masters competitor’s training program is strength training. Strength training should be central to a training program- year round. Based on personal experience and interaction with many masters athletes, we assert that strength training is of primary importance for aging cross country skiers. If there is a single most important aspect of training for aging athletes, it is sport-specific strength training. This is where the largest gains are to be made and where the impacts of these gains on endurance, technique, economy, injury prevention, and race performance are greatest. Here is a short video with some introductory comments on the series of videos provided below:

As in any training program, and particularly with high-intensity workouts and strength programs, one should be very careful about what one does as individual needs and abilities are unique. This is where the guidance of a professional is valuable. What is described here is what works for us and we do not recommend any of these workouts or test protocols for anyone; the intent is to outline some examples — not offer a prescription or recommendation. Think descriptive not prescriptive.

Strength Training – The Foundation of Good Cross Country Skiing Technique

In the sport of cross country skiing, it is impossible to have good (let alone excellent) technique with out requisite upper-body and core strength. Collapsing cores and flailing arms prevent proper body position, reduce developed power, and lead to highly diminished efficiency in any cross country skiing technique- classic and skate. It is commonplace to see skiers who are spending significant time and money in clinics and individual lessons with “experts” to improve their technique when their lack of upper-body and core strength prevents them from making any improvements. When teaching in a one-on-one environment, we first evaluate where the skier is from a strength perspective by skiing with and watching them through 3-5 km with hills. It becomes immediately obvious if there are any strength issues, and, in our experience, for an overwhelming majority there are significant strength deficiencies. Any technique teaching in such instances is of limited value to the skier. Rather, we suggest that the skier embark on an intensive strength program and then resume lessons thereafter. Repetition of technique drills with insufficient upper-body and core strength only leads to increasingly bad technique whereas the same drills performed with well-developed upper-body and core strength allows the skier to “feel” how proper technique results in substantial power and optimal efficiency. This developed “feel” empowers the skier to refine their technique every time they ski, thereby utilizing a power and efficiency feedback loop that is essential for tweaking one’s technique. No coach or teacher can be there all the time and it is critical that one develop this “feel” in order to facilitate continuous improvement. But it all starts with upper-body and core strength.

Synchrony – the Most Important Aspect of Strength Training

When working on strength development for a sport it is important to realize that strength increases are most effective when they translate directly to the whole-body motions involved with the particular sport at hand. This is most efficiently and effectively accomplished when the exercises themselves replicate the positions and timing required in the sport. For cross country skiing this means that strength exercises should involve whole-body motions that connect the upper body muscle group with the lower body muscle group through the core. This is because all motions involved with good cross country skiing technique simultaneously recruit all three of these muscle groups (motor unit systems) and the highest levels of power can only be attained when the full set of necessary muscle groups are used in synchrony. In practical terms, it does not actually matter how strong each individual muscle group is if they cannot act together, in a sychronous way, to translate that strength to delivered power on skis.

Additionally, well-developed muscle group synchrony perhaps has the greatest effect on endurance- yes, endurance. Studies of high-level cross country skiers have shown that time to exhaustion in a double poling exercise can be increased by as much as 100% through a nine-week program of 30 minutes per week of maximum strength training. The operative theory and supporting data behind such improvements is that engagement in a well-designed maximum strength training protocol will allow the athlete to develop the ability to draw upon an increasing pool of motor units that can be routinely accessed during training and competition. It is a neuro-muscular adaptation that gets “wired” into your system (and psyche) and becomes the basis for increases in endurance. This means that strength training is an important aspect of cross country skiing endurance.

Strength exercises that involve whole-body motions that are similar to (or, preferably, exactly like) those in good cross country skiing technique are by far the best exercises to focus on. The neuro-muscular adaptations alone, even with just small strength increases, are sufficiently important that even marginally challenging exercises that map well onto cross country skiing will lead to significant improvements in skiing power and efficiency. Add some challenging weight to the equation and you have a recipe for getting the most out of your aging body.

An excellent source for information on strength training is the book “Training for the New Alpinisim” by Johnston and House. Scott Johnston has been a coach for numerous US Cross Country Skiing Olympians over the past decade. The strength training portions of his book, although pointed toward the demands of alpine climbing, are directly applicable, with minor modifications, to cross country skiing. As indicated in our introductory posts, we highly recommend that you read this book as it is a great guide not only for strength training but also for cardio aspects as well. All of Chapters 4 and 5 and portions of Chapters 7 and 8 are of great value to understanding the physiologic basis for strength training for endurance sport, the types of strength exercises an endurance athlete should be doing, and for guidance in designing a personal strength training program. Johnston, et al. have followed up with another book, “Training for the Uphill Athlete”, that has additional strength training material and, again, this book is a recommended read.

In summary, the two guiding principles for making strength training a core part of your cross country skiing training program are:

  1. Strength training is the foundation of good cross country skiing technique.
  2. Strength training is a fundamental element in cross country skiing endurance.

The Central Importance of Double Poling

As a result of a focus on strength training by World Cup athletes and the many equipment improvements that have taken place over the last decade, double poling has become an increasingly important part of the sport. Efficient and powerful double poling (DP) as seen in World Cup competition is a direct consequence of rigorous, highly challenging strength programs that are currently in place with all of the competitive national teams. As mentioned previously, this focus on strength has resulted in an increasing number of competitors choosing to go waxless and DP entire FIS homologated classic races- sometimes to victory. The same thing is occurring in masters races where, given a suitable course profile, age-group winners have DP’d the entire race. Even as the ravages of sarcopenia are at work, older skiers can improve their DP power and endurance with intensive sport-specific strength training programs.

The double pole motion is the one motion that cuts across both classic and skate technique. The V2 poling motion is essentially a DP, utilizing all of the same muscle groups in the same way with the same timing. Similarly, in V1 the poling motion, when executed correctly, is again a DP motion albeit with a slightly trailing “off” arm. From pure DP to Kick-DP, to V2 and V1, the DP motion and all of the associated muscle group development and timing aspects are similar and therefore the DP motion plays a central, foundational role in cross country skiing. Having a well-developed DP ability is a critical part of skiing well.

Although many lament the potential demise of the classic stride technique, no sport will survive if innovation and progress is squelched. We assert that DP technique is an important part of the future of the sport and that further technique development (both classic and skate) will be partly due to improved DP technique and the associated upper body and core strength that is critical to any powerful and efficient double poling movement. Although their have been many studies on double pole performance, we direct the reader to a recent one that provides background, references, and additional results. All of these data and studies lead to a conclusive position on the central role that DP plays in modern cross country skiing and the importance of strength training, upper body development, and upper body max strength.

For the masters competitor, our experience has shown that the single most important technique and ability improvement that will result in the largest improvements in competition is the DP. Just look at the start of any masters classic race and you will see those competitors that will be winning their respective age groups are leaving the rest of the field behind by efficiently and powerfully double poling away and up to a racing pace and stride (or poling) frequency in a fraction of the time of other competitors. Add to this the fact that the V2 poling motion is essentially a DP motion, and the same thing occurs in skate races. Improve your DP and you will quickly become much more competitive. This is partly due to the fact that so few masters skiers include intensive, DP-specific strength training in their training programs. We will have a separate, more comprehensive, article on DP technique and training for modern cross country skiing.

An uphill double poling interval session- perfect training to enhance your classic (and skate) skiing competitiveness — combined with specific strength training  your DP will improve significantly.

Since a powerful and efficient DP is critically dependent on upper body and core strength, any masters competitor should be prioritizing a strength program specifically aimed at improving DP ability. From improved DP capacity will flow improvements across the spectrum of abilities needed for being competitive in cross country skiing races.

Strength Training for Masters Cross Country Skiers

Let’s revisit the “Big 3” performance limiters for the masters endurance athlete:

  1. loss of muscle
  2. decreased aerobic capacity (VO2max)
  3. increased body fat

Arguments have been previously presented that support the ordinal listing above as most applicable to masters cross country skiing- meaning that the number one issue that we, as masters cross country skiing athletes, need to attend to is loss of muscle. This can only be sufficiently addressed with a well-designed strength training program and a detailed plan for execution. Such a program should ideally be developed with a professional that understands the unique demands of cross country skiing. It is not straightforward to find such an expert in strength training for cross country skiing given the small number of US participants.

But do not let the lack of a strength coach, strength professional, or other “expert” prevent you from developing your own program. The basic concepts are not complex and a reasonable amount of research and experimentation should allow for the development of a safe and effective personal program that one can have confidence in.

Remember that in a strength program, it is important to obtain guidance from strength professionals. All exercises require proper progression to avoid overload and possible injury and this is where the guidance of a professional is valuable. What is described here is what works for us and we do not recommend any of these exercises for anyone; the intent is to outline a strength program example- not a prescription or recommendation.

A Simple Strength Program for Cross Country Skiing

We (Betsy and Bob) disagree on the utility of local gyms for strength training. Betsy likes the quality and variety of equipment available in most gyms whereas Bob finds gyms to be expensive, inconvenient, inflexible, and, due to other users, disruptive of the flow of a workout. As a result of this divergent perspective, we have put together a home-based gym in our garage that is used throughout the year for strength training for cross country skiing. Bob uses the gym exclusively and Betsy comes and goes with a supplemental local gym membership for the variety and the use of a pool for swimming. We describe the home gym here and five key exercises that we do to develop and maintain strength for cross country skiing. These are examples of exercises that we do and, as always, are descriptive not prescriptive. It is important to work with a strength professional when engaging in any strength training program. Here is a short video introduction to strength training for masters cross country skiers:

It is simple to set up a home gym for cross country skiing-specific strength training in either a garage, a basement, or a shed. You do not need a lot of room, just a few simple pieces of equipment and some motivation. A basic operative premise is that any strength exercise should map as closely as possible onto the whole-body movements in cross country skiing. As reviewed above, isolated working of muscle groups, while perhaps required for full development, do not activate the very important neuromuscular adaptations that are key to powerful and efficient cross country skiing and endurance. Synchrony is “King” and your strength program should be designed around ensuring that proper muscle group synchrony is developed.

Setting-up a home gym will provide substantial time efficiencies compared to a gym membership. Time efficiency is an important part of training for the masters athlete given the broad range of other activities and duties that are typical. Your gym is always open, involves no commute, and can be tailored to those exercises relevant to cross country skiing. All of this can be done for a minimal investment. Here is brief video tour of our gym set-up:

Another important aspect of strength training for cross country skiing is the development of maximum strength that will, in time, translate to muscular endurance and power delivery on skis. Here again, synchrony plays a central role and addressing a maximum strength improvement program is one of the largest levers that one has with respect to significantly increased power and endurance on snow. Maximum strength exercises are central to the development of the required neuromuscular adaptations that allow for proper synchrony and that, with training, will be “wired-in” every time a skier plants a pole. The incremental additional power development on each stroke is often what makes the difference in races – both when keeping pace and for surges.

Five Key Strength Exercises for the Aging Cross Country Ski Athlete

The following five key exercises that we have found to be functional for developing good technique, generating high power, and increasing skiing economy. These do not form a complete matrix but rather represent a portion of a core set of exercises that we engage in year-round and that are augmented with many additional exercises*. This group hits all of the basic muscle groups in a way that is specific to cross country skiing; they also do not require much of an investment in equipment. All of the exercises are considered “advanced” and therefore should be conducted only with the guidance of a strength professional.

We review the following:

  • pull-ups and weighted pull-ups (advanced)
  • Garhammers
  • L-sit pull ups
  • “Tuck” squats
  • “Double Pole” squats

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.

  • Pull Ups – a foundational exercise for cross country skiing

Overhand pull-ups are a foundational upper body strength exercise that all cross country skiers should engage in. Without development of the muscles and the neuromuscular coordination needed to perform overhand pull-ups, all poling motions will be compromised and an athlete will never possess good technique, economy, and power.

Beginners will find pull-ups to be daunting, but with proper progression and a few tools most will succeed in becoming quite competent and will find immediate impact on their skiing.

Buy a pull-up bar and mount it your garage/basement/shed.

Buy elastic bands of this type.

If you cannot do a full body-weight overhand pull up, use one of the elastic bands to provide assistance as shown below. The band will reduce the amount of weight needed to be lifted when doing the pull-up – the firmer (higher durometer) the band the higher the reduction in weight. Using the various durometer resistance bands, work toward 10 pull ups and move to a lower assistance (lower durometer) band until you can easily do 10 pull ups without any assistance. It may take some time to achieve this goal, but the increase in performance and technique are well worth the effort. Here is a short video showing the exercise and the technique described above for weight reduction:

More advanced skiers will find significant development by utilizing additional resistance weight.

  • Weighted pull ups – this is a key exercise that, in the right progression, will quickly and safely allow one to attain a maximum strength goal.

Buy a pull up bar and mount it your garage/basement/shed.

Buy a weight vest and use it to provide increasing resistance as you proceedthrough a progressive program of overhand pull ups. An example of such a program follows. It is taken from Scott Johnston’s book Training for the New Alpinism that we recommended at the outset of this series. He calls it a “Special Max Strength Plan” (page 228) and is shown below. Here is a brief video of the weight vests that we use:

  • 2 sessions per week
  • Adjust the load so that you can only just do the required number of repeats

You will see from the table that the program involves escalating total work with a couple of level weeks to allow your body to catch up to the stimulus. The rest time after each set is needed to allow for best efforts (creatine phosphate regeneration) but it also allows one to include this work in a circuit program of alternating muscle group focus. You will be amazed at how much weight (as measured by percent of body weight) you can load into your weight vest by the end of this sequence. After the terminal session, we maintain this exercise in the circuit program at the 3 sets of 3 reps at the terminal vest weight throughout the race and off-season. The following year we go through the build progression again adding additional weight to a new plateau and then maintain that new, higher, level through the race and off-season. We are now entering the fifth year of using this protocol and we are approaching what appears to be a stiff plateau. You might think that such weighted pull-ups are an upper body intensive exercise but you will find that in order to complete the pull-ups you will be using all the major muscle groups including the core and some leg muscle groups. Force generation in the pull up exercise requires synchronous recruitment from all three major muscle groups in way very similar to what one does in a good double pole motion and this is why this exercise is such a good one for cross country skiers. Here is a short video showing the exercise:

  • Garhammers – some call this exercise a hanging leg lift but it is actually quite different

Going back to the pull-up bar, hang off the bar and bring your legs up flexing at the knees and bringing your knees to your chest and up towards the bar, then fold your legs out parallel  to the ground, hold, and then slowly lower your legs down- this is one rep. I add a slightly less than 90 degree lock-off in the arms to mimic the position of the arms during the power portion of the double poling motion to simulate the full body motion used during cross country skiing. What you will feel in this exercise is very much like what you feel when you are double poling on snow with good technique. Here is short video showing the exercise:

  • L-sit pull-ups – essential core work for double pole

Using the pull-up bar, conduct an overhand pull-up while holding your lower body parallel to the floor. Your body will be in the shape of an “L”. This exercise simulates the double pole upper body motion along with the fully engaged core and leg muscles all while adding body-weight resistance for both muscle development and synchrony. Here is short video showing the exercise:

  • “Tuck” Squats

This is an exercise that uniquely prepares one for the stresses that develop when a skier is in a tuck for extended periods of time, typically on downhills. When in a tuck one has to efficiently support the body in a predominantly static fashion – one of the few instances in cross country skiing where a static posture is taken. To build strength and efficiency for the tuck position, this exercise utilizes hand weights held together in a position that approximates where one’s hands would be while holding poles during a tuck. One then bends into a tuck position and holds the weights for a suitable period of 10 seconds or so and then rises and repeats. This exercise requires significant engagement of the core for support and provides an excellent stimulus for core development. Here is a short video showing the exercise:

  • “Double Pole” Squats

Although traditional squats are a great general strength exercise, adding elements to a squat motion that help replicate what one will do on skis is very advantageous. Here we add a “double pole” element with hand weights to ensure core engagement that is similar to what is done during the double pole motion. Here is short video showing the exercise:

Additional Exercises for General Strength

These are a few other exercises that can easily be done in a home gym (or at any commercial gym) that are highly functional for general strength and balance.

  • Weighted Step-ups– immediately after the weighted pull-up outlined above, while you still have the weight vest on, do a set of step-ups

Buy an adjustable work out step device

With the weight vest on step up onto the platform with one foot and balance (make sure the step is not too tall, otherwise you will be loading your knees in a position that is dissimilar to skiing). Then step down and return both feet to the ground and then step up with the other foot and balance again. Do as many repeats as you see fit. Video is forthcoming.

  • Resistance Band Exercises– for minimal equipment cost one can work upper and lower body muscle groups in a way that recruits the core and simulates cross country skiing-specific body motions

Buy a quiver of resistance bands with a range of elasticity (durometer) and securely mount a robust, properly sized eyelet in a wall at about 12″ above head height and another one about 4″ above ground level. Slip a large carabiner through the eyelet and then slip the elastic part of the resistance band through the gate in the carabiner. Now you can use the resistance bands to do a large variety of exercises. Typical exercises include forward facing pull downs, pull to’s, overhead pull downs, abductor and adductor laterals, among many, many others.  Video is forthcoming.

You can also use the pull-down exercise combined with a tether around the waist anchored to an opposing wall that allows you to lean forward and pull down just as one does in the double pole in skiing (this is illustrated in the Johnston video where they utilize a pulleyed weight stack on guide poles for resistance).  If you have extra money, a TRX strap can also be used for these exercises but realize that you need a lot of room to use a TRX strap properly. If you have even more money (like about $800) the SkiErg by Concept 2 is a very nice cross country skiing-specific exercise machine. I find that you need to employ a tether with the SkiErg to get the proper poling position and muscle recruitment. Nearly all of the National Teams are now using the SkiErg (or something very similar) in circuit training both with and without tethers.

Other elastic band exercises include the use of a simple elastic band loop that wraps around your ankles which you can then do side steps across a given distance or for a specific number of reps.

 

“Real” Terrain Strength Programs

Getting out of the “gym” and onto terra firma and actual cross country skiing-type equipment is critical to translate any strength improvements in the “gym” to the ground or snow. We cover two possible pathways to accomplish this:

  1. Rollerskiing
  2. Hill bounding with poles

Rollerskiing as Strength Training

We know this is not conventional thinking, but our experience leaves no doubt: skate and classic stride roller skiing on varying terrain is of minimal use to the master skier. This is because of numerous factors starting with the inherent danger associated with rollerskiing on pavement. A masters skier just cannot afford to go down on the hard pavement given their typical state of connective tissue and bone density. A good friend of ours (and rheumatologist) once put the life of connective tissue and joints like this- you start out as “jello” as an infant, progress to “rubber” through your teens and into your 20’s, then “leather” through to your 40’s, and finally to “glass” at about 50+. We all know what happens to glass when it hits a hard surface! And diving off the road at 25-30 mph in reaction to some random texting driver is not a situation you want to deal with.  An entire ski season can be ruined just trying to get in some roller skiing in the summer and fall. We think the danger, for many masters skiers, outweighs the reward for skate and stride roller skiing over varied terrain, even with the currently available (and difficult to use) brakes. “Speed reducers” are a viable option and one you might look into. Betsy, having a long history (35 years) with roller skis, is much more comfortable on roller skis than Bob, a neophyte (6 years). Betsy regularly does hill interval workouts (classic and skate) on roller skis but Bob is not confident enough on the downhills to participate and substitutes DP roller skiing in gradual terrain, as discussed below. Know your limits and be very careful while roller skiing; there is inherent risk.

The danger, Ms. Randall says, is the (roller) skis don't come 
with brakes, and skiers can reach 45 miles per hour on them. 
"If you have to stop suddenly, you pretty much have to dive off the road," she says. "That's why you wear a helmet."

Kikkan Randall interview in The Wall Street Journal 23 May 2012 

Another reason not to focus on varied terrain roller skiing is that  without continual coaching it is all too common for athletes to develop technique issues. Stride and skate roller skiing is actually not that similar to on-snow skiing. This is particularly the case for classic striding. Many a skier with good technique has been derailed by too much stride roller skiing with perfect (i.e. not-attainable on-snow) kick only to find that their timing, weighting, and body position have changed for the worse once on snow. It can take some valuable time and effort to get your technique back once you have gone down this rabbit hole.

Finally, rollerskiing, according to long time Sun Valley Ski Educational Foundation (SVEF) head coach Rick Kapala, is the first thing that retiring elite-level athletes stop doing. Why? Because of the danger of injury weighed against the training stimulus and “sort-of” ski-like dynamics favors not roller skiing unless it is critical to your success.

As argued earlier, the single most important motion in cross country skiing is the double pole. This is because the double pole is the motion that cuts across both classic and skate technique and it is the motion that, due to technique, strength, and equipment developments, has been enabled as a primary motion for many racers. Masters skiers can most advantageously utilize a well developed double pole to increase their speed and competitiveness in both classic and skate races. Combined with a well planned strength program, double pole technique development will have the greatest impact on your skiing. This is why we advocate for double pole roller skiing on gradual terrain.

Contrary to stride and skate roller skiing, double pole rollerskiing is a reliable surrogate of what one does on-snow. Body position, pole planting, timing, and weight shift in double pole rollerskiing is exactly what you will do on-snow and therefore translates well once the season starts. When done for long distances and/or on uphill grades it is a challenging workout. Double pole rollerskiing is also safe so long as you stay away from steep downhill grades. We stick to 1.5-2% grades and have no issues with control on the downhills.

One approach is to find a 2-3 km 1.5-2% grade uphill on a nicely paved road (such roads can often be found in local low-density US subdivisions with very few (or no) cross streets). Then do repeats on this uphill for whatever length workout you have planned. We typically do 45-90 minutes which involves a lot of repeats, something that may be too “boring” for some. Bob, having spent his teens and early 20’s as a competitive tennis player, finds the repetition constructive as it allows one to hone in on the details of the technique and to “feel” the feedback loop that is essential for positive technique development and power generation. Just as hitting 200-300 serves per hour in practicing for tennis is essential to developing a “killer” serve, double poling at 60-90 rpm for 1-1.5 hours is similarly essential for developing a “killer” double pole. The repeats also allow you to measure your progress by using a GPS watch for pace. With some of the newer watches you can also monitor your poling rate, stride length, and ground contact time (stride time). All of these parameters can feed back into helping you develop your double pole technique toward excellence, even without a coach. There are also significant strength and muscular endurance improvements from regular uphill double pole roller skiing that are hard (or impossible) to replicate in the gym.

We will also add a weight vest for additional challenge, something that is becoming more common. Noah Hoffman spotted Sundby one early morning a few years ago before a 30 km Wolrd Cup classic race double poling uphill with a weight vest- not something that I would recommend for a masters skier before competition but something to possibly include in your dryland and on-snow workouts if you are up to it. The key is to ensure that the added weight does not adversely affect your double pole technique. Any weight should be added very progressively and conservatively. With proper use of a weight vest you can straightforwardly turn a 1.5% grade into a 3% or even 5% grade- and stay safe as well. Again, just as with the “gym” workouts, be sure to work with a strength professional for guidance with such resistance training exercises.

Another approach, particularly aimed at muscle synchrony, muscle strength, and muscular endurance, is to find a challenging, long uphill grade and do an uphill-only workout. We have one of these in the Sun Valley area- the climb from Galena Lodge to Galena Pass. This road section was recently repaved and represents a 10 km, 4% grade, 400 m (1300 feet) continuous ascent with a wide, smooth shoulder. This is a challenging higher altitude double pole workout that, at 50-60 minutes duration, takes significant muscle endurance to complete. The altitude ranges from 2250 m (7400 feet) up to 2650 m (8700 feet). Here is the profile:

Galena Climb

Elevation profile for the 10 km 400 meter (4% grade) climb from Galena Lodge to Galena Pass in Idaho. A great double pole workout at steady state or threshold.

We do this workout by taking a vehicle and a bike to the top, leaving the vehicle, riding the bike down, and then roller skiing up to get the vehicle. Repeat as desired.

We find uphill roller skiing, specifically double pole roller skiing, to be a great addition to a strength program and one that also uniquely allows for technique and muscular endurance development as well.

Betsy finishing up on the last curve to Galena Pass mixing in some striding to an otherwise double pole uphill session of 10km and 400 m (1300 feet) elevation gain.

Hill Bounding

Hill bounding, particularly with poles is one of the most effective whole-body exercises you can do as a competitive cross country ski racer. There is much written about hill bounding but the following video by Green Mountain Valley School Coach, Colin Rodgers, is about as thorough in 8 minutes as we could be in about 2000 words, i.e. watch the video- it is a great resource for incorporating hill bounding exercises into your training plan. Colin demonstrates on the same hill that we use extensively starting in September and throughout the fall where we also include longer (20 minute) threshold and supra threshold (VO2 max) workouts up the cat tracks to the top of the mountain (Dollar Mountain). We are fortunate to have this hill (and mountain) right in our back yard about 5 minutes walk from the front door!

Once again the whole-body, cross country skiing-like motions are central to getting the most out of hill bounding. Cardio, strength, endurance and technique come together in these sessions and they should be a regular part of your training plan. This is not strictly a strength activity but can have significant impact.

Volume

How much strength training should one do? It’s a big question and one that is entirely individual. Some general guidelines include doing strength focused sessions twice per week for 45-75 minutes per session, making sure the work is safely progressive, and to be patient with results. Although you may experience significant improvements in the first few months of strength training, additional increases come more gradually. For the masters skier this process is even slower since both human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone (T) levels are waning. It is best to have a longer-term horizon of expectation for strength development- more like 18 months than the  9 month expectation when you were a 20-something.

Daily Stretching – Daily Strength

It should go without mentioning but we will emphasize the importance of post-workout stretching for anyone who is participating in a rigorous and challenging training regimen. This is especially important for masters skiers whose connective tissue is becoming more and more brittle every day.

Another activity that can help not only with strength development but also with balance is a daily lunge matrix. There are a lot of possibilities here but we have found that the simpler the matrix the more likely one is to consistently do this. Once again the lunges should map onto cross country skiing motions as closely as possible. We do 4-5 different lunge types in 10 reps per leg for three sets daily after the primary workout. Although you will feel these lunges in the activated muscle groups, the real challenge becomes balance- in a way very similar to cross country skiing. The important thing here is activation of the smaller stabilizer muscles which are critical to good balance and skiing skill. Here is a lunge matrix from Jay Johnson, a well respected running coach. He describes this as a warm-up matrix but we use it as a stand alone post-workout daily strength/balance routine (with the exception of the backwards side lunge as this exercise bears no similarity to any motion or position that one will be in while cross country skiing).

And a final suggested daily exercise is the simple (though difficult for some) act of putting your socks on (or taking them off) without leaning against something, crossing your leg, or holding on to something. Give it a try and you will discover what balance is all about. Do the same when you put your running shoes on and continue by tying them without stepping down. These are good balance/strength challenges that, again, focus on the smaller stabilizer muscles- and they can naturally and consistently be done on a daily basis.

Summary

Strength training is a critical training component for competitive cross country skiing. It is also important for general enjoyment of the sport for recreational skiers. Technique, power, and economy all flow from sufficient specific-strength capabilities on skis. Therefore strength exercises that closely replicate cross country skiing motions will most positively impact one’s on-snow performance. The aging athlete faces additional challenges due to the natural process of muscle loss with increasing age (sarcopenia). All of this underscores the primary importance of strength training for aging cross country skiers — competitive skiers as well as recreationalists. We hope that we have convinced readers to make sport-specific strength training a core part of their respective training programs.

Coming Up

Utilizing Parts I-IV as the foundational elements, we finally get to the important subject of actual training planning – putting pen to paper (or pixels to display) and developing a robust training plan.

 

*Just as cardiovascular training is periodized (changes in volume and focus dependent on seasonal goals) throughout the year, so is strength training. We will cover much more about periodization in upcoming articles.