The U.S. Ski Team’s cross-country athletes finished their final round of pre-season testing last week in Park City, Utah. Athlete blogs currently abound with documentation of skiers pushing themselves to the point of falling off the treadmill in order to collect data on how much they’ve each progressed since their last test. The importance an athlete attaches to his or her test results varies by individual, but in the lab and in training they can help measure fitness and individual year-to-year progress.
For an endurance sport in which performances are measured against a clock, nordic skiing gives its participants relatively few opportunities to measure absolute progress. You can run a personal record on the track know that you’ve never had a better race in your life, but on skis the only improvement marker athletes have to go by is whether they beat people they’ve never beaten before. Skiers of all ages frequently express frustration with the fact that the most concrete feedback available as to whether their training is working depends both on how they ski but also on how everyone else skis on any given day.
Perhaps this is why nordic enthusiasts are so fascinated with physiological testing data of others. Even though they are no substitute for actual results, people still keep track of things like VO2 max records. There’s a reason they don’t hand out medals for setting one, however. Test results say as much about your next race as Peyton Manning’s season passing yards says about whether the Broncos will win on Sunday. They indicate part of how good an athlete you are, but can’t predict the outcome of an actual contest.
This fact, combined with the finicky nature of collecting accurate data in the lab, causes some athletes to place more importance on test results than others. Andy Newell, for example, just completed some of the best treadmill tests of his career last week. The USST has a policy of not disclosing exact data, but speaking qualitatively the American sprinter said his results were highly encouraging.
“I use this data as a sign that the training year has gone to plan and that I’ve done a good job of absorbing the hard training I’ve done in the last few weeks,” Newell said. “It’s always encouraging to have good tests because it confirms that we are getting fitter and stronger and definitely gets me stoked to get the skis on and start racing.”
In his second testing season with the USST, Erik Bjornsen also turned in improved test results.
“My goal this year was to improve my motor and to improve my skating technique. I feel I accomplished both,” Bjornsen wrote in an email. “My goal for the next couple months is to improve power and strength.”
Others athletes and teams don’t set a great deal of store by test results; Canadian National Ski Team head coach Justin Wadsworth doesn’t have any of his men undergo treadmill testing because he thinks he can gauge progress well enough with intervals and time trials.
“Testing, for me, you really need to garner something out of it and to make it worthwhile,” he said last week. “I think a lot of people test just for the sake of testing and I think for our women, we have been trying some new training methods with them and we do want to see what changes are happening, but with the guys [the training] is pretty stable.”
For different reasons, Noah Hoffman took only hemoglobin mass and body composition tests last week and opted out of treadmill and strength testing in Park City. He, too, doesn’t think the data tells him anything he doesn’t already know, but his current training priorities also lie elsewhere at the moment.
“I have chosen not to test because I have never seen results from a testing session that have helped me become a better skier,” Hoffman wrote in an email. “Testing for me, right now, belongs in the same category as altitude manipulation, diet, stretching, specific psychology work, and strength training. They are all important but they do not come close to representing the bulk of my limitations as a ski racer.”
Those limitations, he says, lie mainly in technique, and that’s where Hoffman has decided to spend his most of his time and energy at the moment.
“Technique and energy add up to minutes in a 15 kilometer race. All of the other factors add up to seconds. I hope to reach a point in my career where every factor combines to mean the difference between gold and silver in the Olympics, but right now I’m focusing on the areas that represent the biggest available gains,” he said.
A few other USST athletes didn’t undergo testing for circumstantial reasons last week, such as illness and injury. For those who did participate in testing at the Center of Excellence, data was collected from five major testing categories:
- Body composition and functional movement. This included body fat composition, mobility and flexibility tests. From results, athletes can measure where they are putting muscle mass on and can identify where they might be prone to injury. Body fat tests are helpful to Newell, for one, because “it can be easy to get too thin during some of the hard months of training,” he said. “I try to keep a little bit more body fat during the summer and fall because I think it helps me absorb the training better and helps be build more power. So by using tests like this I can make sure my body is holding up to the training.”
- Strength testing to measure overall power. The team uses force plates to determine whether athletes are building strength and are able to use it quickly in dynamic movements like squat jumps. “We are measuring very small differences but a lot of these tests are good at making sure we are converting out gym workouts into explosive power that can be used on the snow and especially in sprinting,” Newell said.
- Double-pole treadmill test. Athletes measure how long they can hang onto the treadmill and the percentage of their max they can ski at while only double-poling. “If an athlete is only double-poling at 60-70 % of their max it’s a good sign that they need to work on double-poling,” Newell said. “Really good double-polers…can hammer along at a very high heart rate,” at around 90-97 % of their VO2 max. The treadmill is set to a constant speed of about 10 mph for this test, and the grade is increased each minute until the athlete falls of the back. “For me this test takes 14 to 15 minutes so it’s a really hard effort,” Newell said. “I usually get very close to my VO2 max while double-poling and the other day put up a lactic acid reading of 15.4 mmol/L.”
- The VO2 max test. There are many ways to do this one (running, cycling or skiing), and the USST measures it with classic striding. While gathering data on aerobic capacity, the USST also collects lactate profile, heart rate and lung capacity data. As in the double-pole test, the treadmill is set to a constant speed while the grade increases every minute.
- Total hemoglobin mass. During an altitude training block like the national team just underwent in Park City, athletes take a hemoglobin test at the beginning, middle and end of the camp to track the change in total hemoglobin mass, which will change as the athlete adjusts to the thinner air.
Apart from providing feedback on training progress, the USST staff use the results of their athletes’ hemoglobin mass and VO2 max tests to determine when athletes should start living at altitude prior to major high-elevation races like World Championships (Val di Fiemme is just under 4,000 feet) and the Olympics (Sochi’s cross-country and biathlon complex will be around 5,000 feet).
“If we’re looking to enter a championship with the most powerful blood you can arrive with, we need to know how long it takes an athlete to acclimate appropriately, how high they need to be,” said USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb.
The national team has several locations in Europe of varying altitudes that it uses for pre-competition acclimation. “As we head into World Championships, we have some athletes who will live in Davos, Switzerland, to get a little bump before heading to [Val di Fiemme]. Others who don’t respond well to living at altitude will spend time lower in Ramsau, Austria, or Predazzo, Italy, beforehand to have a post-Sochi [World Cup] speed camp instead,” Whitcomb said.
Similarly, altitude acclimation data will help inform preparation for the main event, the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Newell has learned that his body has the same response to living at 5,000 feet as it does to living at 7,000 feet, and this information will help determine where he’ll live leading up to the Games.
The Americans finished the Park City segment of their camp this week; athletes are headed to Canmore on Thursday for a final on-snow segment. The ultimate test of fitness is still the time-trial, and the USST has distance and sprint races scheduled for Frozen Thunder next week.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.