For a long time, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess has known he was fast. He won a junior national championship in the sprint, won carnival races while representing Dartmouth College, qualified for a World Cup in Canada, and then transitioned into being a full-time, post-collegiate racer.
But it wasn’t until this past January that the Bend Endurance Academy racer had his breakthrough, finishing fifth in the freestyle sprint at U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine.
While Blackhorse-von Jess undeniably has natural speed – before that he had once qualified third in a Nationals sprint – he said that it’s fitness and tactics that determine a skier’s ultimate placing in sprint heats.
“To be perfectly honest, pure speed is totally a function of fitness,” he told FasterSkier in an interview. “I mean, either you have it or you don’t, but if you make it through four rounds and you’re coming into the last 100 meters, if you don’t have fitness you’ve already blown your speed reserves so it doesn’t matter how ‘fast’ you are.”
To work on speed, fitness, and tactics all at once, Blackhorse-von Jess and his teammates travel to sea level (Bend is situated above 3,000 feet) for training camps and do a specific interval workout several times a year.
“It’s actually a pretty cool workout,” he said.
As in any speed workout, he said that a good warmup was essential. The Bend Endurance Academy does a five-minute block of level three (threshold) work as an “indian run”, with the last skier periodically sprinting as hard as they can to get to the front. Then, it’s on to the real workout.
“We do three minutes with equal rest, and probably seven or eight of them, depending on how many you can make it through.
“The first minute is fast, and it kind of depends on how big the group is, and how talented the members of the group are, what the gamesmanship is. Pretty much you ski for a minute or two, hard, to get into it, and then at some point somebody jumps as hard as they can, because you have to break the draft if you’re going to get away. Then once somebody jumps… it’s the obligation of the rest of the group to then get back on and jump again and win each interval.”
The result is more or less a series of sprint races, with athletes competing for the victory in each bout. For the best sprinters, the workout is an opportunity to practice gamesmanship in scenarios that mimic a real sprint race. But different athletes respond to the workout in different ways.
“If you’re not as strong, then you come out of the draft and that’s basically it, you just go as hard as you can for the rest of the interval,” Blackhorse-von Jess explained.
He said that he’s done the workout with as many as five or six athletes, but was recently impressed with how well it worked as a three-person game.
While the team works on intensity throughout the year, this particular workout is reserved for sea-level training blocks once or twice during the season. Blackhorse-von Jess had just finished a training camp on the coast when he talked to FasterSkier.
“We only do [this workout] when we’re at sea level,” he explained. “At elevation, there’s just not enough speed involved for the drafting to make any difference. Obviously fitness makes a much bigger difference. But in this workout, nobody cares about heart rate. You just go as hard as you can.”