Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series proposed by Maks Zechel, a 20-year-old Canadian cross-country skier embarking on his first season training abroad. In August, he made the big move to Norway, where he’ll be training and racing with Team Asker for the entire winter. Through these updates, Maks hopes to share his personal “observations, stories and lessons learned” to help close the gap between North American and Scandinavian nordic skiing. Previous posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 , 8, and 9 .
“Starting in 30 seconds!”
“What??” exclaim a handful of skiers with their one-piece racing suits still tied around their waists. The gathering of 15-20 skiers, chatting while changing out of their warm-ups, transforms into a sudden scramble as everyone rushes to strap on poles, kick snow out of boots, and slap bindings closed. A couple of stragglers stumble out of the knee-deep snow under the trees after a last-minute pee – once the one-piece is zipped up, you’re pretty trapped.
I pull on my gloves as fast as I can, almost falling backwards into a snowbank, and send speedy thoughts to the satellites still trying to connect to my watch.
“Ten seconds!” our coach warns.
“Just give me a few extra seconds! My watch isn’t set up yet!” someone frantically yells back.
The mix of girls and guys, aged 16-24, shuffle around awkwardly in their white and blue Team Asker racing suits, trying to self-seed before the interval workout starts. A three-time World Junior champion stands at the front. Juniors and seniors struggling to crack the top 100-200 at Norwegian Cups mix in with those who push some of the best World Cup skiers in races. Resumes are out the window; the only determination of who will lead each interval is who is skiing the fastest, and that might be anyone today.
The trail is really only wide enough for one skate skier and perhaps a desperate pass in the classic tracks. If you want to get by during the intervals, it will have to be done tactically; maybe on the inside of a corner, after an extra push into a downhill, or swinging into an uphill. The depth of talent in the group is incredible, and from multiple team workouts per week, you learn to go fast no matter how crowded the course, how unsuitable the terrain, or how frustrating the conditions. The best ski the best, the conditions irrelevant, and “I struggle in soft snow” is no valid reason for skiing slowly.
Tonight’s session: 5 x 12-minute anaerobic threshold intervals, sometimes known as Zone 3 or Level 3, with a 2-minute rest in between. The effort is to be controlled, with good progression from interval to interval. Tonight it is especially important to progress well throughout the workout, as most of us are just coming off of a hard race weekend, and we want to be conscious of how well our bodies are recovering.
“En, to, tre…jaaaaaaa!”
Everyone sprints down the first hill, some still rushing to get their poles on, as we leave the umbrella of light cast by a “10-second sprint marker” (known by some as a light post) and descend into the darkness below.
The course is rolling, with many turns, short-aggressive and long-gradual hills, and extended stair-like climbs with plateaus and steep pitches. It’s a course of transitions that leaves you scrambling to catch up if you are caught sleeping. It is definitely not a FIS-homologated race course, but it is the primary training location for multiple world-class skiers.
We wind our way through the woods, following a loop that criss-crosses and “figure eights” its way around a lit trail system. Sometimes we leave the light for awhile, and we ski blindly until our eyes adjust to the blues and blacks of moonlight. It has been a fantastic winter in Norway, and the snow is deliciously fresh.
The skiers in front are symmetrical in all their movements, producing perfect, even kicks. Upper bodies remain stable and quiet, virtually unmoving. Every action is patient; gliding on a ski, relaxed, they take their time as they set up the positions required to attain the maximum amount of power from each movement.
The power-phase only happens once the angles are in all the right places, falling with relaxed power onto quivering poles. It doesn’t matter that the snow is loose and shifting, or that pole tips sink well below the surface; in soft snow, every action must be all the more calculated in order to translate energy into movement up the trail.
Today is one of the first times I’ve figured out how to apply these things to my own skiing technique. A couple of weeks ago, at a Norwegian Cup, I watched Chris Jespersen ski by in a 15-kilometer skate race, in powdery, sand-trap conditions. Jespersen is a fairly big skier, but he came 4th on the day, despite conditions that many would say favour light skiers who can ski at a high tempo. Watching Jespersen ski, I realised it didn’t matter. Whether they weigh 10 or 20 kilograms more than someone else, the best skiers ski the fastest on the day, conditions notwithstanding. Jespersen skied by me in a way that made it seem like he was moving far slower than those around him. He took his time gliding on each ski, setting up his positions, and then he would come down with the same big and powerful motions that I had thought were only possible on rock-solid snow. The only effect the conditions had on the way Jespersen skied, was that he had to focus even more on remaining stable and efficient. Yes, his poles sunk inches deep into the snow, but that did not mean that he could not ski with power, it just meant that he had to keep a much more deliberately strong core to maintain his technique without collapsing.
I take my time tonight, too, pushing my body to hold the technique together, instead of just pushing my effort level. This way it is easier to gauge whether I am going faster or slower from interval to interval; if my technique starts to fall apart, I go slower.
It is important to have some workouts, as a cross country skier, where the goal is to push your body to its maximum, but it is also important to think about moving fast while we are going hard. Sometimes we focus too much on just pushing our pain threshold in intervals, even if we are slogging along in terrible shape. We gain confidence from doing this, because ski racing is f***ing hard.
Sometimes we fear the pain of racing, but if we make ourselves feel it many times a week, it becomes familiar enough that racing seems less daunting. But this can lead us to only think about how an effort feels, and we forget to do the things that will actually make us go fast on snow.
There will be a point in almost every race, when you will have to just gut it out and stumble the last kilometers or meters to the finish line, unable to keep from falling apart anymore. On some days, everyone falls apart, and the race is decided by who can limp the hardest. But we have to train ourselves in workouts to keep that point from occurring too soon. You have to be a fighter to push through the end of a race, but that grit has to be focused on going fast. Undirected effort doesn’t translate to speed on snow.
When training our bodies to go fast in a race, we first have to think about why we are doing specific workouts. If a workout is about pushing Zone 5, going all out, getting your heart rate as high as possible, and trying to ski through limbs flooded with lactic acid, then we have to make sure we are in good enough shape to get our heart rate and lactate levels that high while skiing well. The same goes for max-strength workouts. It is usually pointless to push a maximum effort workout if you can’t produce a maximum effort, because you won’t increase your anaerobic or maximum strength capacity with a submaximal effort.
If you’re doing a Zone 4 workout, an effort focused on increasing your capacity to ski while developing lactate levels that your body cannot fully clear, you should be in good enough shape to be able to ski in Zone 4 for the duration of the workout, without slowing down each interval or having to push a maximum effort to go faster. It is a Zone 4 interval, which means it is not a workout focused on producing a maximum effort. Your goal should be to remain in this zone for as long as possible, until you can’t maintain the pace anymore without getting your heart rate too high. This will let you do many workouts in this zone, perhaps even a few in a week. Races are spent mostly in Zone 4, so it is important that we are able to ski at this pace for as long as possible. Zone 4 workouts have some of the highest fitness dividends of any of the training that we do, however, as soon as the effort becomes uncontrolled, or Zone 5, the purpose of the workout is ruined. You will have tapped into your body’s limited supply of maximal efforts while also limiting the number of quality workouts you could have performed in Zone 4.
You can try to push yourself as hard as possible in every workout, but your window to improve your ability to work in Zone 5 is very small. If you train too much in your maximum heart rate zone, after a quick improvement in fitness, you will start to decrease your capacity to work in that zone, which will prevent you from producing maximal efforts in races. I have had periods during the racing season where I have been so intent on increasing my ability to go “all-out”, to feel comfortable hurting, that I have burned myself out before the important races came about. It is underrated just how important mental energy is when racing. You can’t do everything before a race just to settle your nerves, so you have to remain sure of your abilities and that you will be able to ski to your best on race day. Your chances at success are much greater if your body is fit and your mind is sharp and eager to race.
Tonight we are working in Zone 3, and that means skiing at a Zone 3 heart rate level along with Zone 3 lactate levels. If it feels like a maximum effort, even if my heart rate is in the right zone, then I am not in good enough shape to do intensity. If I am sick, then I am not in good enough shape to do intensity. Think about how you feel, and whether or not you could race close to your potential on that day; if you don’t think you could, then you shouldn’t be doing a hard interval workout, and maybe not even a controlled Zone 3 workout if you are especially tired.
My teammate Emil and I are feeling good tonight, so we do all five intervals. Most others cut the workout after the fourth interval, World Junior champion Harald included.
Nobody is making the decision for you, because only you know yourself best; you take responsibility for your decisions and take ownership of the consequences and benefits of your actions.
Emil and I fly through the muffled silence of pillowed trees and the cold, still air. We approach a steep climb and accelerate into the bottom of it, taking advantage of the last bit of flat terrain to carry speed into the hill. Settling into a controlled pace in the middle of the climb, we are not going especially fast. We know our energy is better spent elsewhere, where gravity and the ability to ski more powerfully will yield higher returns of speed.
We wire into our muscle memory the tricks that will set us up for success in the 50-kilometer individual start skate race at Nationals in a few weeks. Early on in a 50 k, pushing the pace on the flats and getting a high heart rate will hurt us less than pushing the pace on the hills, where our heart rates might remain lower, but lactate levels in our legs will become much higher. It is fairly easy to bring your heart rate back under control, but it is much more difficult to clear lactate out of your limbs when you are at race pace. Each time you go a little over the edge, you are using up some of the limited “matches” at your disposal, and once the matchbook is empty, there is no getting that energy back. So we use our matches where they will have the most impact on the stopwatch.
Our legs stay controlled for most of the hill, skiing smoothly and exacting just enough muscular energy to keep a constant speed. But in an instant, it is time to switch gears. Right before the crest of the hill begins, our legs react, uncomfortably pushing through the muscular barrier that controlled offset has put into our legs, and sprinting over the top. It’s like trying to open up an overtightened jar of pickles – you can’t do it unless you grit your teeth and commit your mind to it. The switch from controlled Zone 3 to skiing into sprint power is difficult, but this is where the race is won. Over the crest, instead of relaxing into the downhill, we ski even more explosively while increasing our tempo. A brief moment to catch our breath while free-skating down the other side, and then back to working the following rolling terrain.
Push into the hill. Control. Explode over the top.
Our attacks over the crests aren’t enough to drive our heart rates out of Zone 3, but they train our muscle memory to react like this instinctively. Efficient, plyometric power is trained in a way that can’t be replicated in the gym. We push our legs to work explosively in the most rewarding places, anaerobic for just a few pushes, so that we will not be left making snow angels on the tracks when the top skiers attack in the next Scandinavian Cup race. And attack they do. On each hill it is all we can do to keep contact as they dynamically “hop offset” over every steep hill for 15 k.
Cross-country skiing in Norway is like a massive research project, in which hundreds of lab rats are all clamouring to participate. With the knowledge that there are hundreds of talented skiers between them and ever having a shot at racing in their country’s colours, the fear of risk-taking and experimentation is taken away. If the difference between you having a mediocre race and having your best race is coming 120th instead of 140th, what is there to lose in trying to keep up with the race winner for 100 meters? What is there to lose in starting a 30 k at your 10 k pace? Norwegian skiers blur the lines between disciplines as they try to unconventionally apply aspects of one to the other.
It all comes down to confidence, but in skiing, confidence takes a more complicated form than we are used to. A confident skier is not necessarily the one who struts to the starting line nonchalantly. They are instead the skier who knows themselves as well as they possibly can. Achieving this requires a certain amount of independence and the courage to try new things, even at the risk of failure. Confidence isn’t just about pushing above your comfort level to stay with a faster skier during an interval, it is also about knowing when not to do intervals at all. The best Norwegian skiers train harder than anyone at the times when they are able to make the most improvements, and then they trust themselves to rest until they are able to come back to training even stronger than before.
Norwegian Word of the Week
Literal translation: hunting start
Meaning: pursuit start, a race where skiers start based off of the finishing times of the previous race; skiers attempt to chase down the skiers ahead of them and close whatever time gap they were beaten with the day before. First skier across the line wins the “pursuit”, culminating two days of racing. It is arguably the most thrilling distance race format as a racer.
About Maks: Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favourite skier and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. He enjoys writing about his experiences. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.