The third-annual North American Women’s Training Alliance (NAWTA) camp began this week in Anchorage, Alaska, and on Tuesday morning they completed a threshold workout that ended with a lot of high-fives in the van and left U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Matt Whitcomb pretty happy.
“Today’s threshold workout was the best threshold workout I’ve seen out of this group of women since I’ve been working with the team,” he said on the phone, as the group began their afternoon strength session.
Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen & Co., are joined at this camp by Alaska Pacific University skiers, National Training Group athletes, and decorated Norwegian Astrid Jacobsen, Switzerland’s Bettina Gruber and Canada’s Chandra Crawford. The workout is one that Whitcomb and APU head coach Erik Flora have repeated over the last few years in order to work specifically on high-speed skiing in the middle of a threshold session.
The keys to accomplishing this goal are two-fold: the choice of terrain, and the presence of a group to ski with. It was his team’s skilled pack skiing that Whitcomb thinks set Tuesday’s session apart from the rest, but the rolling hills are a critical ingredient to the goal of the entire workout.
“It’s not so much emphasizing going harder, it just emphasizes patterning your muscles, neurally, to fire faster,” Whitcomb explains. “I think a lot of times, certainly my tendency as been to prescribe intervals that are a bit too slow. We might be nailing the percentage of your max heart rate and the proper lactate right on the money, but the pace is just too slow — you’re going uphill, uphill, uphill, and a lot of times when we find hard terrain we go hit intervals there.”
To encourage speed variation while staying within threshold, the workout should be done on a stretch of pavement that includes gradual uphills, flats and gradual downhills, which “systematically [builds] some pace development intervals into your session,” Whitcomb says.
“It doesn’t need to be incredibly hard — today was roughly threshold and above during bursts of speed — but it was about the terrain that helped push the pace for us.”
- 20-30 minute warm up*
- 4-6 x 7-10 minute L3 intervals (3 minutes rest) on fast terrain that incorporates gradual uphills, flats and gradual downhills. Most interval sessions use hard and grinding terrain, great for building capacity but not so great for higher pace development. The key to this workout is in the choice of terrain.
- 20-30 minute cool down*
*Do a warm up and cool down that allows you to focus on the intervals. “Sometimes a mistake can be made where people are going after volume in addition to high intensity on interval days,” Whitcomb says.
Don’t do try to multi-task for this workout. “Warm up only the minimum that your body requires,” he continued. “You want to make sure your muscles are ready to go, and build into the intervals if you have to — you don’t want to pull any muscles or get injured — but a 45 minute warm up is too long, as is a 45 minute cool down. Keep them concise and focus more on the on-time.”
Every two to three weeks in the summer, with increasing frequency to every 10 days as fall approaches. “A workout like this is in addition to L4 intervals, time trials, speeds, ODs,” Whitcomb said. “It’s just another small component, another ingredient to throw in the bag and mix it up.”
- Shorter recovery time as the season goes on, or longer recovery when at altitude — “just to make sure the on-time is what’s being emphasized,” Whitcomb says.
- Pre-determined sprint preems that accomplishes a similar break from straight threshold, forcing athletes to go from threshold, into race pace, then back into threshold when they cross certain preem markers in the interval.
On Tuesday, the women did this session on a stretch of bike path in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park. They chose a section of rolling terrain that was about 7-10 minutes long going either way. The group started their first interval in one direction, which took about nine minutes, took their three-minute recovery, and then skied back the other way to the start, which took about seven minutes.
From a coaching perspective, this workout shows Whitcomb things that don’t surface in regular threshold intervals.
“I think when we started doing this it taught us that the speed didn’t really change as much as we thought it would when the terrain asked for higher speed,” he said. “You try and go faster and your muscles simply didn’t want to move faster. It wasn’t a matter of being at your max heart rate, people were well within threshold, but they just didn’t want to fire those muscles faster. But the body fortunately adapts pretty quickly to a group session like this and you see pretty notable progress in your speed in just a few weeks.”
Whitcomb’s footage from Tuesday’s session.
So what made Whitcomb call Tuesday’s workout, in particular, the best threshold session he’s ever seen from his team?
In addition to their raw speed — “they were really flying” — Whitcomb noticed they skied better together within the pack than they have before.
“Everyone spent some time leading, some time sandwiched cycling in the spin wash in the middle of the pack, and it was really unlike this group perhaps in the past — you know, you establish a pecking order and somebody’s out there hammering off the front all day, maybe somebody switches out if they get tired, somebody is flying off the back all day because they’re struggling,” he said.
“And today instead it was much more this series of incessant attacks at the front where you’d recover a little bit, spend some time in threshold in the pack, and then you’d work your way to the front and use your good feelings and your recovered state to push the pack and pull everybody along at a faster rate. It looked more like watching a cycling race today, to be honest, and that’s kind of a new thing particularly in girls skiing, I think. The mass starts [sometimes] just getting strung out from 100 m into the race, and I think we’re moving in the direction of more pack skiing. And as we can improve our skills within the pack were going to be better suited for those days when the women’s pack does stay together.”