Wednesday Workout: Making Connections for a Focused Fall

Steven McCarthySeptember 25, 2013
Stefan Hajdukovich (front, University of Alaska Fairbanks/ NSCF-FXC), Vanya Rybkin (Williams/ NSCF-FXC) and Kyle Hanson (Michigan Tech/ NSCF-FXC) stride up Hatcher Pass on the way home from a summer 2013 training camp in Girdwood, Alaska.
Stefan Hajdukovich (front, University of Alaska Fairbanks/ NSCF-FXC), Jonathon Koenig (NSCF-FXC) and Kyle Hanson (Michigan Tech/ NSCF-FXC) stride up Hatcher Pass near Girdwood, Alaska, on the way home from a summer 2013 training camp. (Photo: Pete Leonard)

Welcome to Wednesday Workout, where we round up training ideas on a weekly basis. This week Pete Leonard, director of skier development for the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks, Alaska (NSCF), and head coach of Fairbanks Cross Country (FXC), the junior racing program of NSCF, explains how to get multiple benefits from a single workout.  

In most training plans, fall training is characterized by a shift to greater specificity as the high intensity work and choice of training activity and terrain seek to more closely mimic the demands placed on the body during winter racing. It is also a time of year when time constraints due to school, daylight, involvement with fall sports or even low volume from an easy week can start to influence what we can or want to fit in during a single training session. This session aims to address a few of these challenges.

In my mind, the key to a good training program is finding the right balance of ingredients. The correct mix depends on the individual athlete(s) and their mix of strengths, the time of year and so forth. One of the ways this sort of session differs from most training sessions is in how people view the individual session. In setting up training programs I often see people look at training sessions as solid blocks, as in one time it is a speed session, once it is distance, once specific strength, once over distance, once spenst, a time trial, general strength, intervals, etc.

Certainly that allows for focus and purpose in a session, which is vital, but sometimes it seems the sessions become too “cookie cutter” — either becoming stale for the athletes or, often due to time constraints, not getting the desired mix of ingredients overall during a training cycle. Frequently, it seems this is influenced a lot by research articles where they purposely control the study in order to come up with conclusive datasets. As coaches or athletes it is easy to forget that sometimes highly effective training sessions that may even more closely mimic the demands of ski racing can be designed by taking the principle outlined in the study and combining a few complementary training areas together in a single training session. To paraphrase Norwegian physiologist Øyvind Sandbakk’s presentation at the 2011 USSA Coaches Symposium, by focusing our training on making ourselves faster skiers, we will develop the capacities that are characteristic of top performers in our sport, but we might not become fast skiers imply by training to develop those capacities alone.

The following is a simple session example that we have used this fall in making connections between different areas of our training that we have been working on through the summer. The last eight words of the previous sentence are important. This session aims to build on work that has been previously done and is too complex for an introductory session. The athletes will simply need a quick refresher on what we’re doing and know the basic steps.

I should also note that it is certainly possible to connect aspects of training in a single session such as speed and spenst, intervals and specific strength, or speed and distance, etc. The only combinations I haven’t tried at this point are high intensity and general strength, overdistance and strength, and over distance and high intensity, but that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some value in these combinations for others. For instance, maybe the latter would be useful for high-level marathon racers who are looking to work on finishing fast at the end of the race.

Sisters Eliza and Marisa Rorabaugh single-sticking along the Parks Highway bikepath in Alaska in 2012.
Sisters Eliza and Marisa Rorabaugh single-sticking along the Parks Highway bikepath in Alaska in 2012. (Photo: Pete Leonard)

Example session:

Activity: Classic rollerskiing with an emphasis on striding.

• Extended Warm-up. A. 5 minutes easy skiing to get the blood flowing. B. A quick mobility routine. C. Specific strength. 30 minutes of single-sticking on rolling terrain, beginning at an easy intensity and potentially ramping up to a threshold/ Level 3 output if the session calls for it. D. Technique and speed. Hot feet and bounding drills on rollerskis, combined with light speed out of the ladder.

• Level 2 distance or steady Level 3 intensity on a 6 kilometer uphill.

• Warm-down. 15-30 minutes easy depending on time constraints.

This particular session is focused on using the whole body in classic striding. It also has components of specific strength and speed.

The objective for the warm-up is to set the tone for the session, tuning up the body and mind for what is coming. Most of the times and durations of this example are dependent on how long it takes us to get a spot that is well-suited for the next phase of the session.

We start with an easy 5 minute ski from our meeting point to the end of a bike path. There, we do a simple routine we all know: a few mobility drills such as overhead squats and a variety of lunges.

The next phase of the session I consider to be part of the warm-up, but also hits on specific strength. We received some strong feedback that this is an aspect where our club’s athletes could improve, so we have been looking for ways to keep on developing our strength in single-sticking. This is an added challenge in the fall, with the inclusion of more frequent interval training during the week, greater time constraints for the athletes, and a shift to a focus more on short and fast double poling in our repetition-based specific strength work.

The bike path we use happens to take about 30 minutes of single sticking to arrive at a parking lot near the base of one of our favorite climbs that is good for striding rollerski drills. The focus for the whole session is on reinforcing good mechanics, so if an athlete is not up to 30 minutes of single-sticking with good body position and full range of motion in the arms due to an injury or being new to rollerskiing, then we adapt this portion and perhaps just have them single stick for 15 minutes or three periods of five minutes. If you do not have this set-up in your area, a good alternative could be to do repetition based work of say 5 or 10 by 50-200 meters on a nearby uphill.

If we repeat this session, we may have the athletes ramp up the intensity of their single sticking effort with a crescendo from Level 1 to Level 2 to Level 3, every ten minutes over the course of the 30 minute effort, to make it more challenging and further challenge their specific strength.

After tuning up the upper body, it is time to make sure the lower body is ready for the heart of the session. For this, we often use the hot feet and ladder drills (or a variation of them) that are part of the USSA Level 100 technique clinics. This helps to tune in the athlete’s dynamic balance and coordination for a sharp kick and limits the concern of developing sloppy technique, or a “late kick,” by kicking against the ratchet on rollerskis.

Riley Troyer (NSCF-FXC) strides up Old Nenana Highway in Fairbanks, Alaska, during an uphill time trial in 2012.
Riley Troyer (NSCF-FXC) strides up Old Nenana Highway in Fairbanks, Alaska, during an uphill time trial in 2012. (Photo: Pete Leonard)

Now we are ready for the climax of the session — what everything else has been building up to. We happen to have a favorite 6 k uphill that has a good pitch for sustained classical striding, but really any terrain that has some adequate inclines for striding can be used with this session. In fact, rolling terrain might be more appropriate and more specific to racing demands when we move closer to the season. However, for now it’s September, and an effort in sustained uphill terrain to develop efficiency is still our goal.

Similarly, we have done a number of longer Level 3 interval (as opposed to sustained) sessions to build up our tolerance for Level 3 work over the course of the summer, so the athletes should be able to maintain high quality for the duration of the effort. If time allows, and the athletes are up for it, we might also add on another half or full trip up the hill to complete the session.

If the session is performed with a focus more on base endurance development, we would typically perform the climb at Level 2, with the hope that letting the lid off the intensity a bit will allow them to perform higher quality motions than if we did it at Level 1.

Technique-wise our goal is simply to put together the previous pieces of the session — using the upper body effectively and making sure we are on top of our skis to kick sharply and effectively. This is the most important time to be laying down good neural patterning, so technique is vital.

Once the uphill work is complete, a 15-30 minute warm-down will finish the session.

I find with junior athletes drawing these very direct connections in training really helps them to understand the purpose of all of their training sessions and develop a better understanding and feel for the technical aspects of the training they are doing. Also, by stepping back and drawing different connections in different manners, sometimes it helps a technique piece “click” for an athlete.

The options for making connections are fairly limitless and a little creativity can go a long way to not only solving the puzzle of limited training time, but to spice up training and keep the training process moving in the right direction.

Steven McCarthy

Steven McCarthy discovered a passion for sportswriting in the classrooms of the University of Maine school of journalism. He earned his Bachelor's degree in 2010, while complementing his studies covering two years of UMaine sports and summer college baseball on Cape Cod. He resides in southern Maine and works in a private school for kids with autism. In his spare time he's training for his next marathon (running or skiing) or coaching at a local high school.

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