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The tale of two intensities

Training Tip by Mike Mandli

During a typical week many of us have work, family, or community commitments that require our time and focus. However, once every day, we need to take at least one hour for ourselves. If you want to improve your skiing, what you do with those hours over the course of the week can make you faster and healthier. The best way to use those hours is to vary the intensity and duration of each training session with clear goals within those sessions. In other words, train with intent.

The science and physiology behind training intensity levels and duration is vast. What we know is that if you train at a high intensity level, you will need time to recover. What we also know is that if you increase the duration of the exercise, it also requires time to recover. Even though the new science behind cross-country skiing talks about training blocks of consecutive high intensity sessions, the bottom line is that no matter the kind of stress we place on the athlete, it is always followed by a period of low intensity and recovery so that the body can compensate and become stronger for the next intensity session. A safe guide for masters skiers is that if you have a session of high intensity one day, the following training day should be of lower intensity or rest. If you do an exercise of long duration, the next day should be lower intensity or rest. Therefore, when planning your training week, try to schedule in two rest days. These often are best placed after high intensity or over distance workouts. The caveat is that you still must listen to your body to determine when you go hard again.

Training intensities are different for each athlete and what is Level 1 intensity for one will be a level 3 for another. Therefore, you need to get to know your heart and how it responds to different efforts of exercise. What we do is test athletes under various levels of exercise stress (intensity). Very easy, aerobic exercise with barely breaking a sweat is usually considered to be Level 1 (L1). At this intensity, you can go for a very long time as long as you stay hydrated and fed. Walking, hiking, easy spinning on a bike, easy running, or very easy roller skiing are examples of L1 intensity. For me, that is at a heart rate below 125 beats per minute (BPM). This type of intensity builds endurance, burns fat, and provides the base upon which you can build higher intensity efforts. L1 is often overlooked, but it is one key principle of training noted in the saying, “You must learn to go slow to go fast.” While building endurance and burning fat, it is also an excellent recovery workout after harder intensity sessions or races. One of my coaches called it, “Skiing in the pleasure zone.” We also use these L1 workouts to focus on technique fundamentals. I always use a heart rate monitor for these L1 sessions so that I can keep my intensity low.

Regarding Heart Rates (HR): Outside of being born with a Max VO2 in the nether regions, most elite athletes need to work very hard and smart to accomplish their goals. Within a training week, elite athletes try to improve the systems that burn fat, that strengthen the heart, that increase speed, and that build endurance. One metric that is used to delineate intensity levels is an athlete’s HR. Consequently, a heart rate monitor

is standard equipment for most cross country skiers. You can get your heart rate by taking your pulse with your hand, but it is just more efficient and effective to have an inexpensive monitor to give you immediate bio-feedback while training.

The next most important intensity to have in your training is Level 4 (L4) exercise. In a simple way, this is the intensity close to or at what you would feel when doing a 10K race. It is a hard effort, and, as an example, my HR usually hits about 172 (BPM) in an L4 interval. Remember, everybody is different, so this HR number does not apply generally. The consensus among coaches is that you need to do L1 and L4 efforts to improve your ability to go faster during racing. In a very simplified way, you have to go easy, L1, at certain times and you have to go hard, L4 during other efforts. You might ask, how often do we go easy and when do we go hard?

The simple answer of when to go hard is at least once a week, and preferably twice a week with adequate recovery. Enter the HR monitor again. If your morning resting heart rate is higher than your usual morning resting heart rate, it many times is an indication that you are not fully recovered or that you may be getting sick. If your resting heart rate is 10 – 15 beats or more higher than usual, I suggest you exercise discretion about going hard that day. L1 is more indicated than L4 intensity. With this in mind, sound training involves stress and rest. A typical week might look as follows:

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: Short Level 4 intervals or very short level 5 over speed work.                                                                               Wednesday: Level 1 easy endurance

Thursday: Level 4 longer intervals

Friday: Rest
Saturday: Long Level 3 intervals
Sunday: Level 1 over distance recovery work

While HR is just one measure of how the body is doing, there are numerous other metrics by which we can estimate intensity levels. Perceived Level of Exertion or how hard it feels to you; blood lactate levels; speed fluctuations on a similar course or track; and VO2 Max tests are among a few available. Elite level athletes are poked, prodded, and pushed through many tests that help determine the most accurate and beneficial intensity levels. Once again, this is always different for the individual athlete and the goals of that athlete. For pure sprinters, there will be a lot more time spent doing L5 overspeeds and L4 intervals, whereas distance skiers often focus on L4 and L3 sessions. With this in mind, as weekend warriors, serious loppet skiers, or elite citizen racers, one way to perform better is to go easy, L1, and to go hard, L4, during you weekly training plan.

Ski ya soon, Mike