Last time I wrote about levels one and two, so you might expect I would move on to level three for my next article. But in fact I am presenting the levels in the order I recommend introducing them as you move through your training season (or year, if you are training for skiing year round).
First, I need to clearly define what I mean by level five. This is probably the level that is defined in the largest number of ways. I do not mean to suggest that anyone else is wrong, but I think that defining level five as a pace you can maintain for five to six minutes is a good definition. This means that level five is not the pure sprint training Andy Newell wrote about in a recent Master Skier article (this scheme would define those as level 6 and 7 – but I will let someone who knows more about sprinting sort that out). It is not level four intervals that are made harder or longer; indeed it is not “go-till-you-puke” intervals of any length (these would be categorized as “tolerance intervals” and I will write a bit about them with level four).
The goal of level five training defined this way is mostly neuromuscular. By training at a pace somewhat faster than race pace, but where you can still work for some time with consistent technique, you improve your efficiency at and above race pace. For runners, this mostly builds psychological and physiological comfort with a fast pace and thus increases comfort at race pace as well. For skiers, there is the added benefit that technical flaws tend to get magnified when you ski above race pace. This means that level five repetitions provide an excellent opportunity to take video – to watch either between efforts or after the session is over. In fact, much of the most helpful video analysis I have done has been when I have been doing very fast efforts.
Since the goal of level five is to learn to ski more effectively at high speed, there should not be a lot of focus on acceleration (depending on your goals there may be a place to train acceleration – but not during the training I am describing). You should gradually accelerate into level five pace, perhaps using a slight downhill to help get you up to speed. Regardless, the acceleration phase should not be taxing; it should also not be thought of as part of the level five repetition (so don’t start your watch till you are near full speed).
Repetitions of 30 seconds to two minutes work best. My experience is that a pace that feels good for 30 seconds, starts to hurt at 60 seconds, and that falls off just a tiny bit by two minutes is perfect. Recovery should be two to three times as long as the effort, and even longer at altitude. Total time of the efforts should be around 10-15 minutes, and only one or two efforts should be longer than 90 seconds.
Or maybe the above paragraph doesn’t quite apply to you. Still, since it can be hard to judge how fast you are going relative to race pace when on skis (or rollerskis) some sort of guidance is critical. The danger with any really fast training is that it becomes not just about going fast but about going hard. These workouts should leave you tired – certainly aware that you have pushed yourself – but you should finish the last effort at the same pace as the first and feel like you could do a couple more. Maybe you should even that you want to do a couple more, since this is at a pace that makes you feel fast and strong. If you can monitor blood lactate, it should not rise too high during repetitions and should drop fairly low during recovery.
You might notices that I haven’t used the word “interval.” This is because unlike level four training, where it is important to carefully control the amount of recovery, your focus here is on keeping consistent pace. If you need to increase the recovery to achieve that, go ahead. (If you have to massively extend the recovery though, you might want to accept that you are going too fast, call it a day, and try a slightly slower pace in a few days).
Most importantly: get out then and go level five. You can work in this zone from the start of spring on. Indeed, if you can get on snow and on rollerskis in the same week doing back-to-back level five sessions can help your transition to dryland. Certainly you want to use some caution, and the further you are from competition season the more important it is to err of the side of going a little too easy. But structured time going fast, especially if it sometimes incorporates video for technique feedback, is one of the easiest, least risky, and most fun ways to improve your racing performance.