Monday, December 12, 2011

Light and Fast Ski Mountaineering: Part Two

Last time, I touched on the gear I use in my attempts to go both faster and farther.  This episode is devoted to general principles of training for those interested in becoming a better endurance athlete and by default a faster ski mountaineer.

Great photo by Matthew Turley of the start at last year's Powder Keg

I'm not going to get into the nit picky details of macro cycles and tapering.  Guys with more patience for those details have already discussed that stuff.  I hope Professor Harder won't skewer me too badly here but this is mostly intended for those that get out and ski a lot but don't really "train".  I will give a quick and dirty on endurance training and then finish with a rant about heart rate monitors.

One's athletic potential is predetermined by genetics.  Getting the most out of that is why we train.  Gains can be made through multiple adaptations to different physiologic stressors.  By training, we target improvements in our oxygen delivery (Cardiac output, capillary density), oxygen uptake (mitochondrial density) as well as our ability to clear lactate.  The maximum capacity to transport and use oxygen during incremental activity is called the VO2 Max and is expressed in ml/kg/min. Improvement in this number reflects gains in fitness.  

More spandex
As mentioned, there are various methods of training that target different parts of our overall aerobic fitness.  Suffice it to say that by training as outlined below, all aspects will be addressed.  However, during certain workouts, it will be obvious which parts of the system are being stressed.  

One last point of anecdotal evidence before moving on...

During the 1970s and 80s, running was hugely popular and high mileage was the name of the game.  A 2:30 marathon was commonplace and US distance runners were somewhat competitive on the world stage.  Then, along come the 90s and the idea that one could get less for more (i.e. Interval training without the mileage - an idea that continues to resurface).  Throughout that decade, US distance running fell off (with a few exceptions, Bob Kennedy most notably).  For the common man, a sub 2:30 became a rare feat and for the elite, even making the finals at the Olympics or world championships was cause for fanfare.  Recently, US distance running has seen a resurgence with multiple sub 13 minute 5Ks and two sub 27 min 10Ks as well as much improved marathoning and showings at the world level.  I believe a major reason for this is an improvement in training with the elite athletes now combining high mileage and very scientific interval type training.  That was a long way of saying there are no shortcuts and to be smart about your training.  That said, here's the dumbed down version...

Sherpa's Simple System: (adapted from years on the track, experiments on skis, and from stealing bits and pieces from those faster than me)

Training is slow adaptation to physiologic stress.  How you stress the system is important.  First and foremost, sport specificity matters.  If you are a skier.  Much of your training time will have to be spent skinning up hill to gain maximum benefit for that discipline.  The same applies to runners, cyclists, etc.  That much should be obvious. Of course there is some crossover but the core of one's "body of work" should be specific to train efficiency so one can make the most out of their fitness.

That out of the way, a general week of training (assuming one has a decent aerobic base) should approximate the following (give or take a hard day for an easy day):

Easy day
Hard day
Easy day
Hard day
Easy day
Long day
Rest day

Then repeat...

With an easy day potentially substituted as a rest day.  That seems simple enough, but the details get confusing.  They should be determined by the end goal, be it a running speed attempt at the Grand Teton, a ski mountaineering race (typically 2-3 hours over 5-7K vert), or something on either end of the spectrum such as a 5K road race versus a 100 mile run.

Here are my top 10 hints...

1. The easy days should be conversational.  They should feel easy... like you could go all day.

2. The hard days should be hard but I feel most hard days should conclude feeling like there just a little left.

3. Long should be overdistance for your event.  This applies to shorter races/goals and obviously not to some of the longer running races.  Examples would be a steady 10,000 vert if the goal is a 5000-7000 ft skimo race or a 20 mile run in the mountains if the goal is to run the Grand.

4. The hard days should be a balance between intensity and threshold work (to work different aspects of the aerobic system), again with the end goal in mind.  For short skimo races, 4-6 minute intervals x 4-8  above lactate threshold would be a good intense day and then 4x20 minutes at threshold would be a good longer hard day.  Others include 30 sec on and 30 sec off x sets of 20 minutes, 4-6 x 1000 vert, a fartlek (10, 7, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 min hard with equal rest), or race simulation on a course of your choosing.

For those who aren't familiar, lactate threshold occurs once one is unable to clear lactate as fast as it is produced and is defined typically as a blood concentration of 4mM (~1 is normal at rest).  Basically, at this point things are starting to go anaerobic and any intensity above threshold cannot be sustained for long.

5. The overall goal is to place as much physiologic stress on the system as one can handle while still deriving benefit and not breaking down.  I think that for most of us (amateur athletes), we are undertrained.  Work, families, life gets in the way.  Try to come up with a way to meet an overall mileage/vertical/hours goal for the week.  It will help keep you honest.

6. Train with partners.  Find people of similar ability (or just a bit faster) and hold each other accountable.  This also makes the days more fun. 

7.  Keep a training log.  Again, it keeps you honest. And, it provides a way to see improvement.  

8.  Constantly find ways to stimulate your training.  By that I mean change up the workouts periodically to avoid stagnation.  Again, the point is to cause a physiologic adaptation to stress. At some point, by doing the same thing over and over, I feel the law of diminishing returns comes into play.   

9.  Find ways to have fun.  For backcountry skiers this should be obvious.  Easy days or long days can be tours to spectacular terrain and can include anything from powder laps to seriously committing skiing.   For me, an example would be skiing the Y Couloir,  Provo Peak, Superior, or any of the thousands of awesome lines in our back yard.  Just keep it conversational.

10.  Train with a goal in mind.  That could be a particular Skimo race like the Powderkeg or a backcountry project like a large traverse or speed ascent.  A good goal should inspire and fuel desire and make the monotonous hours of training easier to swallow.  For most, a few months of the above mentioned training schedule followed by a taper (decrease volume and intensity for ~ one wk) should be sufficient.  To get further gains, see a real coach/exercise physiologist. 

Again, I mean only to provide a basic framework from which one could start to make improvements over the typical, "I ski a lot and am fast" type of training.  Feel free to offer criticism, comments, etc.

And now for a quick rant on HR monitors.  Don't be a slave to them!  There is no such thing as a "bad zone".  All zones have their purpose.  If company X defines four zones from recovery to aerobic to threshold to red line or suprathreshold, those numbers don't apply to every individual.  Max HR varies by age.  HR increases with altitude, dehydration, heat/humidity, and even varies day by day.  So, to say that training between 145-155 bpm is bad is ridiculous.  If that's all one did then they would likely feel overtrained with little benefit.  If one only trained in a lower zone, say from 110-135, they would also lack the benefit derived from those more intense sessions.  Train solely in the threshold and higher zones and you become a sprinter or completely overtrained.

Friends argue that having one more metric to gauge performance and guide training is helpful.  They feel that combining perceived exertion with HR training zones with total volume and daily volume gives the best overall measure of physiologic response to the stress being placed on the system.  I'll agree with that but still maintain that I don't need a HR monitor to tell me I'm going all out.  Nor do I need one to tell me that my "joking around laughing pace" is easy.  If my conversations start to get strained, I'm approaching threshold.

Jason and I were talking (arguing), and after much playing devil's advocate for both sides of the argument we can't see the need.  If anything, we feel that strict adherence to HR monitors and proprietary "training zones" leads to under training.  To quote Brain Mackenzie, a coach with UK athletics, "Heart rate training is particularly inappropriate during interval training."

Boom!  Let's hear the rebuttals to that...

Happy training everyone!


  1. Yo Andy well said. I would argue that while backcountry skiing conversational pace can be much harder than a recovery pace. RPE can be tough to judge while skinning. If fairly well trained you can carry on a very comfortable conversation while cruising along just below threshold. I think it is because of the large muscle mass involved in skinning, much like nordic skiing. Cycling has less muscle mass involved and it is much easier to gauge output based on RPE. Also due to general weight of gear I think there is muscular demand that with general ski touring that does not quantify well by tracking the aerobic demands alone. Easy days ski touring are not as easy as we think? I have never been much for HR monitors but if training is the focus then I think they have a place on recovery days while skiing. It is just to easy to get carried away while having a conversation...
    Just a thought.

  2. Why you no believe in pssssy-ence?

  3. I love pssssssy-ence, I agree with Bart when he says easy days ski touring may not be as easy as we think. My question is what's a tour? I just walk up resorts.

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  5. I don't necessarily agree that most are undertrained. I think for many people, they train their asses off, then go to work all day, then probably don't get enough sleep. Then they repeat that, day after day, until they eventually get sick, then keep training through illness because of obsession. And ultimately lose performance due to high cortisol levels from poor sleep and over training, and likely crappy nutrition.

  6. Thanks all for the comments...

    Bart, I agree that there is probably some extra fatigue due to the weight of the gear but using race gear mitigates that. For the actual fun stuff in the backcountry...who cares right? That's the real reason we ski anyway. But someone with good discipline will still take it easy, make it conversational, and not blow themselves up.

    Jared, I am a scientist.

    Derek, I am feeling more and more that you are right after having a baby 2 weeks ago. Although, the volume of training still isn't even comparable to what it should be and I guess that was my point. Work, family, etc cuts into the volume that we are able to handle and it's a fine line to figure out where that balance is without heading down path of overtraining. In an ideal world, we could all do so much more and still recover...

  7. Great post for the normal people (non genetic freaks) that might want to dabble in competitive skimo. I myself typically never build up enough of a base, then add in life, half ass training, then overtraining (read powder dump) and I end up very inconsistent from race to race. Thanks for sharing some ideas, I will no doubt benefit from it.

  8. Yeah, don't worry though, those first two weeks of fatherhood will soon be a distant (painful) memory. I literally thought I was going to die that first two weeks. And soon enough you'll have an awesome 16lb training partner on your back.

    I've been doing "intervals" with my 6 month old on my back this winter with nordic skiing and ski touring. Feel pretty spry when he's not on my back.

    True on the volume thing. With a kid, it is certainly quality vs. quantity. You get pretty efficient at squeezing in whatever you can, when you can. I've really taken a liking to lifting two days a week, because I can do it in my basement when the kid is knapping.

  9. Went back and read this. Still agree with what you've said. However, I disagree with Bart. I'm not sure why he feels RPE is not a worthy metric. To the contrary, it has been flogged in the research and continues to correlate well to metabolic demand/output. It doesn't matter what you're doing or what device is under you, be it skis or bike.

    Now Bart is a freak, of course, but I'm not sure what planet of aliens he resides where they "converse" just below threshold. Respiratory rate goes up with hydrogen ion production. You buffer that shit and blow off CO2. Simple physiology. Most people are breathing hard enough to stop most conversation well below threshold. So, I agree with Andy that if you are truly talking, you are going easy. I also agree with Bart that a HRM is good to have for the poorly disciplined.

  10. Andy, great read for an amateur. It is just what I've been looking for! I seemto have missed the boat on some exercise theory while having kids and getting settled in some jobs and was wondering if you could elaborate on a ffew points. First, easy days. How long are you going? Second, intensity and threshold are terms I seem to find defined as intervals. Is there more to it than that? Third, long days. What pace? Finally, what about weight training? That seems to be a component of many other suggested skimo workouts. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that. Thanks again for a very informative post for the punters!

  11. Great conversation. Here is my take on a HRM. Good to use and learn how to use one. Then forget them unless you are attempting to do something specific. Once you have a clue where you are at by RPE/HR you can burn the match any way you want. But first you need to know how many matches you actually have and just how hot they can burn or how long depending on what you require. HRM can help you understand that relationship easier. As Andy sez..don't be a slave to a HR monitor but everyone here I suspect has had them as a well worn friend at one point or another. It is a courtship I think needs to be encouraged and then made casual. Use the HRM when you want to, not because you have to. Great Series btw. Love to see a update for 2013!