It’s up and it’s down with the Canadian men’s World Cup Team.
Four of its athletes are wrapping up an altitude training camp based out of Livigno, Italy. In separate emails, team veterans Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw elaborated on the details of the camp. They were accompanied by teammates Lenny Valjas and Graeme Killick, and Louis Bouchard and Ivan Babikov split coaching duties.
The camp, perched in the Italian Alps and a ridge away from Switzerland, allows the team to stress the body in an oxygen-depleted environment. Livigno sits at roughly 6,000 feet above sea level.
The team spent a full week in Livigno rollerskiing, running and working on strength — the trifecta of dryland training. Then it was into thin air. From Sept. 1-5, the team spent five days and four nights living at 2,760 meters (9,000 feet) on the Stelvio Pass. They shuttled another 600 meters up to ski on snow while dipping down to the valley lowlands on some afternoons for dryland workouts. The three week camp began on August 24th and ends September 15th.
Kershaw explained that this type of camp has had positive benefits for him historically. “I think altitude camps have been a big reason for my success in the winter seasons over my career,” Kershaw wrote. “The stimulus you get – the load that your body is under while at higher elevations – is just better than what you can get at home (either in Canmore at 1400m or at sea level now in Oslo). To change the stimulus – put your body in different environments that stress your systems a little differently than you do at home, allows you to adapt to those changes and get (hopefully) better!”
Systematically stressing the body with oxygen scarcity, followed by ample recovery in a relatively thick oxygen-rich soup, is a vital part of the Canadians’ build up to the World Cup season.
“I think one random altitude camp wouldn’t do much for preparation but we really try to align 2-3 camps before the season, then 2-3 again with shorter exposure during the season,” Harvey clarified about their altitude-camp methodology. “So after this camp, I will have 3 weeks at home [in Quebec] at sea level, then 3 weeks living at 2400m and training in Park City, then 3 more weeks at home before I go for 10 more days in Davos living at 1600. In the Winter, we will spend Christmas in Davos and spent some time in Livigno too before World Champs, that way we get some links between each altitude exposure and really get to use the benefits of the altitude for a lot of the season.”
Mid-September is an opportune time to gauge fitness. According to Kershaw, his teammates are in impressive form.
“To be honest, I think that Graeme and Lenny have made a BIG step up in this off season,” Kershaw wrote. “They are like different people. Their shape seems all-time best at this time of the year, so I am really excited to see them race this winter. Alex is always at a very, very high level over the last years – so no surprises there as he is strong and it’s been nice to have Ivan here for a couple days now – he flew over for the week we are with the Norwegian team to learn and ask questions with their crew – as he is a new coach. Louis [Bouchard] has been the leader here for the camp and has done an excellent job.”
For Harvey, this is his first full uninterrupted season of training since his iliac artery surgery in April 2015.
“It feels good right now,” Harvey wrote of his fitness coming into the Italy camp. “I’ve been able to start May with normal training, so intervals, strength and distance, which is a bit different than last year where I was only allowed distance training to keep the blood pressure low in the iliac artery.
“I definitely feel stronger in the gym and on the skis,” he added. “This camp is also a good way to compare ourselves with the best in world (ie. the Norwegians). Last Winter we talked about having a camp with them and it worked out perfectly, it’s a good way to monitor where you are in your training especially in a sport like ours where you don’t have lap times like on a track or wattage numbers like on a bike.”
As Harvey alluded to in his email, access to international training partners outside the Canadian Team was one reason for the trip. Most notable of the international teams is Norway and its star Martin Johnsrud Sundby. While approaching the end of his two-month competition ban for improper asthma medication use, Sundby trained with the Canadians.
“We are doing some sessions with the World Cup boss – Sundby – and as expected he is unbelievably strong,” Kershaw wrote. “In level one training there’s not much difference really – we all train the same speed give-or-take (although some sessions he is using a 12lb weight vest), but it’s in the intensity that the level smacks us in the face. We did a level 3 double poling session a couple days ago and he was on another planet dropping everyone else like they were kids. So – not to worry – he looks poised to be dominant again this winter, haha. What we can learn from him is of course his professionalism and also his technique is near flawless – so to be exposed to that and learn has been really cool.”
According to Harvey, Sundby has been a source for training ideas as well as a fitness barometer.
“Martin is actually a pretty chill guy and super easy to talk to,” he wrote. “I’ve been asking him a bunch of questions about his training since 2014 and he’s always open to help out others figure out a better way to train. Of course, not many people can handle the total load he does but it’s nice to be able to pick his brain and get a bit more knowledge. The other big advantage of being able to train with Martin is that you know that if you can follow him on a hard workout, you’re probably in good shape! So that’s nice for confidence!”
Maintaining confidence is like walking a tightrope during the run-up to and during the four-month-long World Cup season. Kershaw noted that younger skiers should understand that altitude training, like the Canadian camp in Italy, should not be emulated without guidance.
“Altitude training is great and can be a real benefit – but only if you know what you are doing and are looking for that last little bit,” Kershaw cautioned. “If you are minutes and minutes behind don’t expect altitude training to turn you into Sundby overnight. It takes good planning and support to train at higher elevations and making sure you are monitoring your energy well is also paramount. Many a skier’s seasons over the years has been destroyed by going crazy training like a beast at altitude – so for those younger skiers reading this and wanting to try something new – just remember to plan, monitor, and execute smartly/well to get the most out of this type of thing. Also – the science shows that there are some athletes that are just plain ‘non-responders’ to altitude too – so you never really know if it’s right for you!”
“Many a skier’s seasons over the years has been destroyed by going crazy training like a beast at altitude – so for those younger skiers reading this and wanting to try something new – just remember to plan, monitor, and execute smartly/well to get the most out of this type of thing.” — Devon Kershaw, Canadian World Cup Team
As for Harvey, he had this lighthearted parting note as he and his Canadian team prepare for their next international camp in October in Park City, Utah, alongside the U.S. Team:
“It’s just really fun for us to get to train with the Norwegian boys and get to know a bit more about our sport! (We’re also excited to get to train with the Yankees soon, Hoff, EBJ, we’re coming!)”
Harvey will be in Park City from October 6th-25th. Kershaw arrives on October 10th and stays until the 26th.
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.