Wednesday Workout: Steady State Intervals and Speed Shifts with SVSEF PG Coach Tom Smith

Austin CobbSeptember 2, 2015
SVSEF Gold Team member Miles Havlick rounds a cone during an interval. (Photo: Tom Smith)
SVSEF Gold Team member Miles Havlick rounds a cone during an interval. (Photo: Tom Smith)

For this week’s Wednesday Workout, FasterSkier spoke with Tom Smith, the head coach of the post-graduate elite development program for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). On top of coaching full-year post graduates (PGs) in Sun Valley, Idaho, Smith works with college athletes who come there to train during the summer. Smith is originally from Bend, Ore., and skied for the University of Utah before heading to Sun Valley a few years ago.

The workout Smith presented is a highly customizable steady state threshold workout with accelerations he likes to call “speed shifts.” Speed shifts are similar to pickups in that the speed and effort increase for a short period of time. However, for speed shifts, the change is minor compared to pickups, where speed and effect usually change drastically, going from low effort to race pace or even max effort.

“I like to think of it as not an all-out sprint in the middle of L3 [Level 3] intensity, but like a shift in your tempo or power and that you’re testing your competitors and testing your own limits of your lactate threshold,” Smith explained.

As a quick reminder, threshold effort or Level 3 is the pace at which lactic acid is being cleared from muscles at the same rate it is being produced. The general feeling at this effort is fast but in control and at a pace that can be maintained for an hour or two.

Head PG Coach Tom Smith with a bunch of SVSEF athletes in the background. (photo: Tom Smith)
SVSEF post-grad head coach Tom Smith takes a selfie with several SVSEF athletes in the background. (Photo: Tom Smith)

This steady state workout entails going at a consistent threshold effort for 30 to 45 minutes while doing 20-second speed shifts every three to five minutes to push the effort into the upper limits of L3.

Smith leads this workout on rollerskis, though it can be done in any discipline. It’s also very customizable. Depending on the time of year, the focus can be on ensuring that the threshold effort is not exceeded or intentionally going beyond L3 during the speed shifts to work on recovering from an anaerobic effort while continuing to ski at threshold. The total interval time and frequency of the speed shifts can also be changed to make the entire workout easier or harder, depending on what the participant is looking for.

A large component of the workout also comes from the day before. Smith plans a technique-focused, low-effort workout in the same discipline that the continuous threshold workout is going to be in. So if Smith’s athletes will be skating during the continuous threshold workout, they go for an easy skate distance workout the day before while Smith takes a bunch of video. Then they all review the video and each pick out one specific aspect of their technique to work on and come up with a concrete way they can improve it. That night or even the following morning, Smith’s athletes again look at the video to review their technique and really understand what they need to be doing to improve during the threshold workout. This allows the athletes to work on their technique during the interval while simultaneously focusing on a quality effort.

“By accomplishing [technique work] in the session beforehand, the athlete already has that goal in mind of what they want to work on and they know how they are going to actually go about improving it,” Smith said. “You don’t really have to harp on it too much within the intensity session itself as a coach.”

SVSEF Gold Team member Rogan Brown leads Bates College skier Corky Harrer on a classic ski. (photo: Tom Smith)
SVSEF Gold Team member Rogan Brown leads Bates College skier Corky Harrer on a classic ski. (Photo: Tom Smith)

This also gives Smith the opportunity to focus on his athlete’s efforts during the L3 interval. The SVSEF post grads do this workout on a fixed loop, setting up speed shifts on various terrain so they feel what it is like to push the effort during different techniques and at different speeds. It also helps them feel how easy or hard it is to recover from different efforts on the various terrain.

Smith then goes to a location about a minute after a speed shift to test the athletes’ lactate levels. What he hopes to see is their lactate levels around 4 millimoles, which means they are going at a threshold effort and have effectively pushed to the limits of L3 and recovered.

If possible, Smith also wants his athletes to ski in a pack. This gives them an opportunity to practice some mass-start tactics and see how effective an added effort is or is not on various terrain.

“We can put one speed shift on a V2 focused slight up grade, we can put one on a V1 section, we can put one on maybe a tuck-skate downhill section, so it gives you a few different things to think about [and shows], especially in a mass start simulated environment, that there are different opportunities and different places around a course to put in a little bit of an attack,” Smith explained.

Ultimately, he hopes his athletes come away from this workout with technique improvements and a better understanding of and feeling for their L3 zone.

“I think it’s a really good session for the older guys, especially as they transition from older juniors into seniors to really understand where their limits are within their lactate threshold zone and how hard they can really push it before they actually blow themselves up,” he said.

The Workout

The day before:

– On the day before the steady state interval workout, work on technique and find one specific area to focus on for the next day. Having video is really helpful for picking out a major technique area that can be improved!

The day of:

– Warm up for 20 to 30 minutes to prepare the body for a threshold effort.

– Begin the continuous threshold interval. Keep in mind the effort continues for 30 to 45 minutes, so it is best to start at the lower end of L3.

– Every three to five minutes, do a 20 second speed shift. Try and focus specifically on adding a little extra power or slightly increasing tempo. This helps to ensure the effort does not go beyond the L3 limit. Also try and change up the terrain where the speed shifts happen to get plenty of variety in the workout.

– Remember after each speed shift, the effort should remain in L3 and it should drop to the lower end of L3 before the next speed shift brings the effort back up.

– After finishing the steady state interval, warm down for 15 to 30 minutes to wrap up the workout.

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Austin Cobb

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