Contributing Editor for The Master Skier
J.D. Downing is a master skier and coach from Bend, Oregon and is the National Director of American Cross-Country Skiers Association (AXCS).
1.) Going too hard in distance workouts
Virtually every performance skier knows full well about this mistake.
Youíve read the volumes of literature that is available on the importance of doing the vast majority of your distance work at very easy heart rates, typically all or most of the workout in zone one (i.e. basic endurance).
You know that lots of really easy distance is needed to build the foundation for your entire fitness program. You also know that by failing to go really easy you never can go really fast in hard intensity sessions, meaning your most efficient speed ends up being 'no skierís land'.
Even though we all pretty much know this stuff, what youíll find 90% of the time is folks out running, rollerskiing, and especially snow skiing in distance workouts at heart rates mostly in zone two...and sometimes much higher!
- I can hear the whining and groaning as I type this. Something along the lines of 'but if I actually workout with my heart rate in zone one Iíll be crawling'. Anyone that has been in one of my clinics or camps knows my automatic quickie response. DEAL WITH IT.
The extended answer is that you donít have to lock yourself in to only zone one for every minute of distance. Itís very common to have a heart rate 'drift' on uphill sections in which even a disciplined skier sees the heart rate climb out of zone one and slide into zone two. The problem is when this drift becomes habitual to every workout, every hill, and (worse yet) extends past the uphill to other sections of the trail.
An easy rule of thumb is to gauge the amount of zone one based on the length of the workout. For example, a one hour run or ski could be 60/40 zone 1 to 2 without problems. However, a three-hour run/hike or ski should be very nearly 100% zone 1.
Bottomline: The longer you go, the more zone one utilized.
2.) The paradox of heart rates
Letís say you go out for a rollerski, you are fit, you feel fine (maybe you feel really good), but your heart rate is just jumping through the roof. You may also find that your heart rate is out of synch with your respiration and perceived exertion. Meaning, you heart rate says you should be hurting but you arenít really breathing that heard and donít feel gassed at all.
The natural reaction in this situation is to assume that something is wrong with the system. You may think you have an illness coming on; you may have a worry about overdoing things. Now you could be right.
Sometimes a quickly elevating heart rate does indicate those things. But often if there is a 'bug in the machine', the high heart rate will manifest itself in an AM heart rate test or on recovery days.
The interesting thing is that often when you have a rocketing heart rate with a 'good feel' on a normal workout, that can be a tip-off that your body is receptive to training stress...or that it has completed an overcompensation period and may be ready for peak efforts.
When these situations occur during the training year, often the best thing you can do is be disciplined, keep your heart rates in the appropriate zones, and feed your body a healthy dose of hours because it is ready to absorb that load.
If you want to peak, the best thing to do is conserve that 'good feel' and donít waste that window of opportunity to peak your heart rate.
Very conservative volume and short intensity is your best recipe. Conversely, what will often screw folks up is the total opposite of a quickly elevating heart rate.
In this situation a skier will go out for a threshold interval session and they canít get their heart rate up without absolutely killing themselves. Although youíd think the low heart rate would be a good thing, when you cannot get your heart rate to jump even at max effort, this often indicates the system is very tired and/or out of whack.
The tricky thing is knowing when you are at one end of the spectrum or the other. Having a good feel for your body is a big help but it also requires understanding this heart rate paradox exists in the first place.
3.) Handing the zone four eyedropper
One of things that makes me the most nervous when talking about training with athletes is the subject of zone four training.
The funny thing is that the majority of the North American population would just as soon avoid anything involving the discomfort and sheer physical demand of taking a body into an anaerobic state...and keeping it there.
It is something about the beast within a performance XC skier (any age) that fuels the mind and body into a willingness to take on zone four.
Once a certain fitness level is reached, the job of a coach is most often leashing this beast so that zone four work is applied only in the right amounts and periods.
Properly applied, anaerobic work can make you ripping fast. Done the wrong way or in too high a quantity, a season can be ruined in a matter of weeks.
Since training plans differ so much on how much is enough, the most generalized way to avoid a mistake is to accept a few simple rules.
a. Most people can operate for around 6-8 weeks regularly implementing high levels of zone four work. After that optimal time period, performance tends to decline and the skier can quickly be at risk for health problems and the symptoms of overdoing it.
It is for this reason that a coach like myself will call for delaying implementation of zone four intervals as long as possible into the training year.
b. It is easy to forget that nearly every race represents a zone four workout. Thus, if you are racing 2-3 times each month in the winter, you donít have to add much more than 1-2 zone four workouts per month to be considered at a high level of zone four work. Now reread item 'a'.
c. The amount of high level intensity that can be absorbed and that can benefit a given skier is highly individual and is directly impacted by age/training levels. Typically, a younger skier that has many years of tremendously high volume levels will have a greater capacity to increase zone four training. Youíll see this in some World Cup training plans.
The problem for master skiers is that unless you have 8-12 years of 700-800 hours a year in the tank, you have absolutely no basis for comparison.
Maybe you can indeed benefit from a bit more high intensity (or maybe not)...but you have to realize that whatever the design, your plan has to be built around your body and lifestyle. Not some 20-something, full-time elite skier.
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