Ski training with Andy Keller and Charlie Dee
CD: I’ve transitioned from exclusively biking to roller skiing more often, Andy, building up my endurance training to three hours, and I’ve been mixing in the specific strength training we talked about last month. Now I’m champing at the bit to add intensity, so I’ll be ready when the snow flies.
AK: Good. Building time on skis while keeping your heart rate down and muscles relaxed has given you that aerobic base you need before tackling intense speed training.
CD: Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve always kept my heart rate down. I have no idea how people can ski on long or steep hills and keep their heart rates in Level 1.
AK: Don’t be a slave to your heart rate monitor. If you’re building endurance and not spiking your heart rate so high that you’re breathing heavily and unable to talk, then you’re developing an aerobic base.
Remember, your body has two primary kinds of fuel: glycogen (stored carbohydrates) and stored body fat. The reason for Long Steady Days (LSD) training is to accustom your body to using body fat because everybody has a lot more of that than glycogen.
HEART RATE ZONE LEVELS
(Percentage of Maximum Heart Rate)
(NOTE: Percentages are guidelines only; perceived exertion also valid)
USE HR ZONES AS TOOL, NOT DOGMA
CD: OK, so building my base fitness has prepared me for more intense training. I’ve eaten my vegetables; I’m ready for meat. What kind of intensity should I add now, and what should be the balance between intensity, endurance and strength training?
AK: Sorry, but here’s more broccoli. We need to clarify some terminology to make this as simple as possible. Heart rate zones (L1-L5) based on a percentage of a person’s maximum heart rate have become the common measure of exertion used to plan training [see Table 1].
CD: Actually I love broccoli, grow my own, but I’ve always been frustrated by my experience not matching published heart rate zones. For example, when I warm up or go for a long ski, I never stay in L1. In fact, I can’t even stay in L2 if there are any hills, yet people talk and write about two-three-hour L1 skis! Are they going downhill the whole time?
AK: Here’s the deal. HR zones are just one measure of exertion, but it’s the most convenient one because heart-rate monitors have become fairly inexpensive and commonplace. Perceived exertion is equally valid, but because it’s more subjective, people often discount it. The truly accurate measures are Lactate Profile tests or VO2 Max tests like we do at CXC’s training center in Madison, where you ski on a treadmill with a mask on your face to measure oxygen usage.
Keep in mind that just like snowflakes, no two people are alike. You say the highest you’ve seen your heart rate the past three years has been 173, Charlie. Since you haven’t been tested, we’ll treat that as your Maximum Heart Rate. First, that’s 22 beats above the formula that is often printed (Max = 220 – age), so endurance athletes can throw that formula out the window.
CD: Good. I’m diseased according to that measure. How about L1? Following the percentages for the zone levels in the accompanying box, my L1 zone would be 104-120, but when I warm up or cool down, my heart rate is always above 120!
AK: That’s the point I want to make: percentages are just guidelines. You train often enough and pay close enough attention to reasonably conclude that your zone 1 starts at 126 beats or so. Accordingly, one of your zones, either 1 or 2, will be less than 10 percentage points in range. That’s just fine. Also, until you get tested, your maximum HR that zones are based on is merely an estimate.
CD: Well, it’s a relief that I don’t have to treat the percentages as sacred. I guess it’s time I get an actual test.
TYPES OF TRAINING:
HI – Highest Intensity: Quality maximum effort, short, average heart rate L4; example 4 x 4:00 with 4:00 recovery between. Hill repeats perfect for this.
LT – Lactate Threshold (intensity): Less intense than HI, 6:00-20:00 long with 25% recovery; for example, 4 x 8:00 with 2:00 recovery; average L3.
TT – Time Trials (intensity): race-like intensity, 20:00 or longer, used to measure progress or prep for race.
LSD – Long Steady Day: building aerobic base, easy pace, even with hills, L1 avg.
SS – Specific Strength: Weight room, dry-land or skis; for example, no pole skiing, and pole-only drills (see October, 2016, Silent Sports). Drills can be mixed with relaxed, technique-focused ski.
CATEGORIES OF INTENSITY
AK: When your body is ready for intensity training, it’s best to think about three basic categories of workouts: Highest Intensity (HI), Lactate Threshold (LT), and Time Trials (TT) [see Table 2].
CD: So how do I mix endurance sessions (LSD) with these three?
AK: Every skier who wants to become a faster racer needs to have a plan, keep a training log, and then, through trial, error and documentation, discover the best mix for him or her. The general breakdown we shoot for with our CXC Elite Team is 80% at LSD, 10% intensity and 10% strength training.
CD: Hold it. I call BS on that for master skiers, Andy. I’ve heard that 80% figure for years now, but its source was testing the Norwegian national team: professional skiers, the best in the world, young guys! The year I tried it, I had my worst race results ever. I’ve talked to other older racers, and don’t know anybody skiing 2-5 times a week who has the luxury of 80% of their training being LSD except at the very beginning of their training year.
AK: If you had let me finish, Charlie, I essentially agree with you. Joe Friel in his book, Fast After 50, says about your generation, “The most effective way to improve or even maintain aerobic capacity is by doing high intensity workouts.” As we age, our maximum heart rate goes down.
Racers who train year-round like you never totally lose their base. So working a higher percentage, say 50% intensity training with L3-L4 averages, is just fine for masters as long as you’re conscious of the physiological dangers if you overdo it.
CD: So let’s get a plan. Skiers in November are like colts in the spring.
AK: Some skiers. Remember, not all master skiers are as obsessed as you are, Charlie. Those who have been exercising during the summer and early fall rather than training need to build up their base fitness by running, biking or roller skiing for progressively longer distances before adding intensity.
CD: Good reminder. The same goes for obsessive types recovering from injuries or returning from vacations.
PLAN, LOG, ADJUST
AK: Start the season with a plan based on your strengths and weaknesses. Keep a log where you chart your subjective feelings as well as data, and be willing to adjust as you go. There’s no one-size-fits-all training standard.
CD: Adjusting is often forced onto skiers: if we get rain when fallen leaves are on the road, I’m not getting anywhere near my roller skis – it’s just too dangerous.
AK: Sure. Here’s a plan involving four workouts per week on roller skis in November, leaving plenty of time for recovery, even if it’s active recovery like a bike ride or jog.
One day will be LSD training: two hours or more at a relaxed pace where you’re capable of carrying on a conversation most of the time, or as Olympian Brian Gregg says, simply breathing through your nose.
Then two days will be for intensity training. In October, we like to do more LT than HI; then, in November, we shift the emphasis to more HI because our bodies are better prepared to work in that Level 4 zone, the zone we race in for distances shorter than marathons.
But be careful: never do two days in a row of intensity and don’t do intensity training the day after your LSD workout. We want to come into these intensity sessions as rested as possible, because they are most important for master skiers.
The fourth workout will be at a relaxed pace, focusing on technique, throwing in specific strength drills that we detailed last month, such as double-pole only and no-pole skiing.
USE TRAINING BLOCKS
CD: Should I do the same mix every week?
AK: Absolutely not. Look at the races you want to do this winter. Then set up a training schedule based on blocks. You can use either three- or four-week blocks where you consciously build the intensity in the first two-three weeks, and then the third or fourth back off, take extra recovery days and do only one intensity session.
SAMPLE 4-WEEK BLOCK (NOVEMBER)
Four training sessions for each week. Intersperse three rest or active recovery days each week.
WK 1: LT (4 x 6 min.); LSD 2:00; LT (4 x 6 min.); SS w/ 1 hr. relaxed ski.
WK 2: LT (4 x 8 min.); LSD 2:30; HI (4 x 3 min.); SS w/1:15 relaxed ski.
WK 3: LT (4 x 6 min); LSD 2:45; SS w/1:30 relaxed ski; TT 30 min.
WK 4: 1 hr. relaxed ski; LSD 2:00; SS w/1:30 relaxed ski; LT (4 x 8:00)
CD: Looking at the sample four-week block [see Table 3], it appears that I should build up for three weeks in both intensity and volume, culminating in a TT, and then in the fourth week, I would recover with less intensity and volume.
AK: Right. There are two buildups: the one you mention in the individual block, and the buildup from block to block. So, in the second four-week block, you would add overall volume and intensity, building up to a 45 minute TT and a 3:15 LSD in Week Three. You would also substitute a second HI session in Week Two for the LT workout.
Two things to keep in mind: do all three types of intensity training each block, and do not do HI in the same week you do your TT.
CD: Should I take this plan onto snow, Andy?
AK: Certainly. Carry your plan into December and snow. But master skiers are not professional skiers. With climate change affecting available snow, work schedules and family obligations, your plan will need constant adjustment. The key is to be aware that you can’t do high volume, high intensity forever without recovery. And if you miss one day or one week, say because of a cold, don’t freak out; simply adjust your plan.
CD: It sounds like everyone should download Randy Newman’s song, “Roll With the Punches.” By “build intensity” during the block, you mean do more HI intervals or longer LT ones, or in the third week of a four-week block, throw in a 10K time trial?
ADJUST TO ELEVATION
AK: Exactly. Even when you get into race season, you still do all three kinds of intensity, just in different mixes. You want to keep pushing to ski faster for the same distance or increase the distance during the building weeks, then give your body a break through active recovery.
I can’t stress enough that your plan is just a guide, not a dogma. Say you go to West Yellowstone or Silver Star for early-season skiing. Because you’ll be at increased elevation, forget about intensity training unless you’re there long enough for your body to adjust. Be happy with building volume and focusing on technique.
CD: That means when I drive to Ironwood or Calumet for a four-day weekend early in the season, I should pretend to be a mature adult and drop my HI for that week, since by skiing every day my overall volume will be so much higher.
AK: Yes, do just one LT session. Later in December or January, you won’t need to be so careful. Another point to make about LT training is that it may seem counter-intuitive not to bust an interval as hard as possible.
But there are three goals with LT: 1. Maintaining quality technique for the whole interval; 2. Getting your body comfortable going fast without triggering the lactate in your muscles that makes you feel so tired; and 3. Pushing the limits of when your body releases lactate.
CD: Does that means my actual zones might change during the season?
AK: Yes, but, again, don’t let the zones or the numbers control you. Ask yourself how you felt during the training, put that in your log, and adjust to it.
CD: When I did my first LT training of 5 x 8:00 intervals, during the first four my technique felt solid, and I was in control of my pace, but on the fifth, I flailed a bit, skied much slower and wasn’t as balanced.
AK: This tells you that the next time you do that workout, just do 4 x 8:00. The fifth one did nothing but deteriorate your body.
CD: Thanks for not saying, “add to the deterioration of your aging body,” which is actually closer to the truth.
AK: Sometimes, it’s kinder for a coach to shade the truth.
If you have any Nordic skiing topics you’d like Andy and Charlie to address, please email email@example.com.