Contributing Editor for The Master Skier
Pete Vordenberg is the head coach of the US Cross-Country Ski Team. He is a two time Olympian and NCAA Champion.
You get what you pay for. If you work steadily on something you can achieve it. This is one of the most striking things the US Ski Team has observed time and again through our experience racing, training and physiological testing.
One good example of this is our emphasis on qualification times in the sprint. We had a young sprint team that showed talent. We struggled however to qualify for the rounds in World Cup sprint races. So we decided to focus entirely on our sprint qualifying.
In a matter of years (which I consider a short period of time) we went from seldom even qualifying for the sprint rounds to having three skiers ranked in the top 20 in the world. More telling though is how fast they qualify. Andy Newell is currently ranked the fastest qualifier in the world.
Beyond this we notice specific physiologic gains are made by targeting them and working specifically on them. One thing we targeted in our attempt to become faster at sprinting was our low-end aerobic base. Focusing on our endurance may seem a backward approach to getting faster, but it isn't.
Our skiers were not recovering well from their fast and hard workouts and were therefore not able to do enough of them per week. We had the skiers maintain a very easy pace in their distance workouts. They soon were skiing faster at the same easy pace.
In their treadmill test, they could easily ski with a lactate of under 1mmol for the first three to four stages where before they couldn't ski for one stage at under 1mmol. We also found they recovered much faster between each interval and after each interval workout. Soon we were able to do many fast workouts per week without tiring. They got faster!
Our next target is of course to ski fast through all the sprint rounds. Therefore our workouts have come to target this.
The sprint team is quite focused on specific intervals that are aimed at yielding specific gains. They work within a fairly narrow lactate (intensity) range for each interval.
They do sets of intervals at 4mmol. They do intervals at 6 to 8mmol. They do intervals at 8 to 10mmol. They do intervals of 30seconds, 60 and 90 seconds as well as intervals at 4 to 6minutes. Each session has a very specific progression through the year.
In testing we see objectively measured gains made at these specific intensities and in races we observe subjectively these same gains. As importantly we see where we have failed to make gains. Generally we fail to make gains where we have not put enough focus.
While we have many tools to measure our athletes, including a staff of coaches and physiologists loaded with the tools of the trade - the less-supported athlete has at their command the most powerful tool available to any coach or athlete. That is the ability to honestly appraise their fitness and act accordingly.
I would like to describe two types of intervals that a reader could add to their repertoire of workouts. The title of this article is Specific vs. wave or natural intervals.
Whereas specific intervals are performed at a very specific pace and aim at a very specific outcome, wave intervals aim to accomplish more things at once. In that way they are aimed specifically at the range of fitness requirements of a cross-country ski race. We use both sorts of intervals based on individual needs.
Wave intervals are performed as a series of waves within a steady effort. After a warm up the skier sets out at a sub-threshold pace and over five minutes builds to a threshold (comfortably hard) pace. From this steady pace the skier attacks certain parts of the course.
You can chose whichever sort of terrain you deem to be your weakness. The duration and speed of these attacks should also target your weakness - faster and shorter or slower and longer.
The key is to be able to return to the steady workload and recover from the faster wave within the workout. To do this you have to make sure the steady workload is not too fast and also that the time between waves is adequate. As with any workout type you build up as you improve.
This sort of workout is more true to a cross-country ski race and is therefore very beneficial. However, the more specific type of workout does enable you to truly attack specific aspects of fitness.
Here is a specific workout that I think will apply to a large number of master skiers. Skiers who deem themselves endurance oriented, but too slow can do intervals of 30 seconds at their perceived goal pace. This means the challenge comes from the pace of the interval rather than the duration of the interval.
These intervals will not work if there is not enough difference between the skiers x normal race pace and the interval pace. It will also not work if the difference in pace is too great. You are not working on a sprint you are working toward a faster realistic race pace.
The other key is recovery between intervals. If recovery is too short you will not be able to achieve this new pace enough times because you get too tired. We work up to about 40 repetitions of 30 seconds. That is a lot of intervals, especially if they are either too fast or if you don't get enough rest between them. A good starting point is 5 x 30 seconds. Rest between intervals should be long enough to get you back down to your easy skiing heart-rate (level 1) plus 4 minutes (so around 5 or 6 minutes total). As you improve, add repetitions and subtract recovery time so that eventually you are doing 20+ repetitions with recovery down to your easy skiing heart rate plus 2 minutes (a total of 3 or so minutes).
These are two types of intervals you can apply to your skiing. The keys are being honest with yourself so you can figure out what you need to work on and then being disciplined enough to actually work at it long enough to see some adaptation to the work.
Remember you get what you pay for, so if you want something specific you need to pay for that specific thing. In a general sense this is a good lesson for youth athletes. If you want to become a fast cross-country ski racer you have to do a lot of specific cross-country ski training. Simple!
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