For much of the U.S. nationals men’s 30-kilometer classic mass start on Jan. 11, Ben Lustgarten of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) seemed very much in control. Never too full-throttle, never too tempered; not a quick-strike performance but a methodical, boa-like squeeze with a sizable result: an off-the-front solo win. A few weekends later, the Vermont native struck again at the Truckee SuperTour. There, Lustgarten revealed his mastery of up-tempo classic sprinting as he won the day.
Before we get to Lustgarten’s ski-imitation workout prescribed by CGRP Head Coach Pepa Miloucheva, here’s a questions-and-response with Lustgarten. FasterSkier reached out to the 24-year-old Lustgarten via email to get his thoughts on how he’s developed and raced with powerful and economical classic skiing.
FasterSkier: Can you describe how you managed to keep such fluid and smooth technique during the 30 k classic at U.S. nationals?
Ben Lustgarten: I focused really hard on skiing smooth and not wasting any energy in the 30km classic. To be honest, I did not feel amazing during my warm up, so I figured I shouldn’t waste any energy during the race until I absolutely needed it. I wanted to feel out the race, and see what people would do. My kick was very good around the whole course, but a bit slick on the first 1/4 mile climb (the track was a bit more glazed there). I focused on transfering my weight completely over each ski, and throwing my foot out in front of me and kicking sharply but smoothly in order to get full purchase from the ski and not wasting energy slipping. I also tried to relax my arms, swing them naturally, which helped to lengthen my stride and combined with throwing my foot forward, getting more glide. The steeper hills I tried to have a good short impulse and also throwing my foot ahead of me and running lightly. Staying light and smooth was key, and I saved a lot of energy for the last two laps.
FS: How might you attribute your consistent classic technique during something like the 30 k classic to the workout you will describe?
BL: I think that ski imitation, or skipping with poles, trains the body to mimic and be able to handle the impulse and load that goes with classic skiing. When I got tired my muscles still remembered and could have a good sharp impulse without even thinking about it. Ski imitation also mimics the timing of classic skiing, so my arms would swing in time with my kick, and there is a glide phase (or when you are in the air skipping). Focusing on staying relaxed really helped keep my skiing consistent. My skis and great kick also kept my skiing consistent. I did not have to alter my technique too much throughout the race because my skis kicked well the whole time. I think my increased endurance, strength, and technique work along with my consistent skis allowed me to keep a solid relaxed technique for the whole 30k. Saving energy through technique allowed for increased energy expenditure for the last 7.5km.
FS: Do you have an internal mantra or a physical cue you use to maintain your classic technique at race pace?
BL: I do not necessarily think too hard during my best races. However, I personally use a lot of positive self talk, especially when things hurt. I tell myself “I can do this,” “I can keep going,” “I can hurt more than this,” “I can go faster,” or “I got this” over and over again. But as for skiing smooth, I just focus on technique and kicking the skis well and getting as much glide as physically possible. Sometimes I think about trying to get even just another few inches more with each glide, which helps keep my technique long and relaxed. Of all of the best races of my life, I usually can’t remember what I was thinking about because I was just so focusing on skiing as fast as possible.
FS: In Truckee, you were exposed as a classic sprinter as well. What are the connecting points between maintaining good classic technique at 30 k pace and sprint pace? And how might this be associated with Pepa’s ski imitation?
BL: We did a speed workout a few days before the sprint including an uphill running speed. The video analysis looked almost comical as I had such incredibly high tempo but wasn’t really moving that fast. Pepa told me to bound as long as possible and stay long, which is what I did in the sprint. I brought the intensity down from 100% to 90% and skied longer and smoother, and I ended up winning the race! I think technique is truly important for speed at sprinting or distance. I probably used about 70% of the energy with a long bound up steep hills in the sprint than going as fast as I could running with high tempo. On skis technique means you ski faster, longer, and more relaxed. More watts does not directly correlate to faster speed in skiing, unlike other sports. Obviously being fit and strong is useful, but applying proper technique with less energy can make you go much faster. I saved a ton of energy during the sprint day just staying relaxed, punching it a few times where I needed some speed, staying long and getting good glide and distance. The ski imitation trains the impulse and timing, on skis the glide phase is longer than skipping, but the impulse is there. The quick second step during a skipping motion is when you kick the ski into the snow, followed by a bound or glide phase. That really helps with classic skiing.
Remember Lustgarten’s ski-imitation workout is a dryland endeavor. Even though it’s full-on winter in most places, keep this workout in your back pocket when you’re thinking about how to improve the classic striding as hard wax morphs to klister morphs to rock skis morphs to rollerskis — it’ll happen.
And here’s a direct disclaimer from Lustgarten to differentiate bounding from ski imitation: “Ski imitation trains endurance and motion good for distance skiing while explosive ski bounding more accurately represents the long bound technique of classic sprinting up steeper hills.”
And what is classic “ski imitation”?
“Classic ski imitation is essentially skipping with poles,” he wrote. “While using short bounding-length poles, the upper body mimics a classic stride rhythm in sync with the skipping motion of the lower body.”
The Workout: Classic-Ski Imitation with Lustgarten
- Throw speeds in maybe every 10 minutes if you feel good, but it’s not mandatory. Mostly, try to maintain good Level 1 distance training.
- Find terrain similar to a ski-race course such at the Craftsbury 5 k race course. Get ready for many laps of ski imitation on a hilly course
- The workout just takes the place of a standard distance workout, usually between 1.5 – 3 hours in the summer and fall, instead of just doing a run or rollerski or bike ride.
- On the hills you can continue to skip or do uphill lunges with good depth to load the muscles more. Lustgarten worked up to skip all the flats and downhills, but because of the demand on the calves from the impulse, some people may want to start with jogging the downhills. Lustgarten also recommends adding in a skate specific version where you jump side to side and use your poles in a V2 style of poling on the uphills — on his 5 k Craftsbury loop, Lustgarten sometimes mixes in 30m of classic imitation followed by 30m V2 imitation.
- Lustgarten explained the workout won’t feel incredibly taxing. But be warned. “A few hours later you will feel more drained than just a bike ride or distance run, similar to the first on-snow ski workouts of the year because it takes more energy. Expect your calves to be sore the next day or two,” Lustgarten added.
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.