Two weeks ago for the first installment of our “Pro Workout” series, we featured a high speed session with Olympic sprinter Simi Hamilton. This time around we literally shift gears, talking with Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) two-time Olympian and distance stalwart James Southam.
With three trips to World Championships in addition to his Olympic appearances, Southam is entering the final year of a strong career that also includes multiple National Championship titles.
For the last several years, Southam has held the distinction of being the second-fastest distance skier in the US, behind only Kris Freeman. Thus, it was only fitting that he described a long level 3 intensity workout designed to increase efficiency for the longer races that he excels at.
The workout itself is simple enough: three or four level 3+ intervals up the Potter Valley Road in Anchorage, a three-kilometer climb at a seven percent grade with views over the Cook Inlet.
The workout begins at level 3, but by the end, if he is feeling good, Southam will crank it up, allowing him to experience “some of those feelings you get at the end of a long hard race”—sensations that can be difficult to simulate in the summertime.
The intervals average around 13 minutes each, but generally, the first repetition is nearly a minute slower than the last one. Southam aims to take off 15-20 seconds each time up the hill, and usually chooses to classic ski.
“It is a pretty steep hill. Some sections I’ll stride, but most of it, 75 percent, I’ll kick double pole,” Southam said, also noting that the grade conveniently backs off around switchbacks, allowing for a safe ski down between intervals.
The purpose of the workout, Southam says, is to build the strength and efficiency needed to maintain technique for an hour of hard work, so that “at the end of the 30k’s and 50k’s, your body knows how to handle it.”
But while the goal is for the last interval to be fastest, the session is not so much about simulating race pacing.
“It is not a real race simulation, just a steady grind,” Southam explained. “Really, it is just to go as effectively fast as possible over the workout, for the effort.” Or simply put, maximizing speed at the steady level 3+ pace: efficiency.
For Southam, there is the added benefit of repeating the workout dozens of times over the years. “I know at the different lampposts and sewer drains what my times should be, and so it a really good marker for where I am at.”
His times for each interval have steadily decreased, and are now at the point where they are not much slower than full race effort—a comparison made possible by an APU time trial that finishes up the same road.
As for company, Southam goes both ways. When he is feeling good, he’ll choose to battle with other people, but when he is not in top form, Southam will ski solo.
Regardless of who comes along, though, the workout pays dividends.
“Getting something long and hard like this is extremely valuable for a distance racer,” Southam said.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.