By André Santos
Training for a long distance cross-country ski race is hard work. If you are aiming to race as fast as possible and maybe be on the top of the sport, there are a lot of different questions to think about, just like what to eat, how many hours to train, how to recover and how to train your mind for the pain that you have to suffer, specially at the end of the races. But the most important part of the puzzle is how to structure your training program. Sometimes it may be complicated to structure long sessions, train Vo2Max and the ability to use it. Moreover, skiers have to think about recovery and strenght training, which assist them in avoiding injuries and giving them more power.
That is why the work of sports scientists is, or at least should be, so important for every athlete. From amateur athletes aiming to go fast to pro athletes fighting to be the first crossing the finish line, we all have a lot to benefit from incorporating research insights in our training program. That is why we talked to Dr. Øyvind Sandbakk – Professor and Managing Director of Centre for Elite Sports Research at the Norwegian Universtity of Science and Technology and Head of Research and development at Norwegian Olympic Sports Center – to give us some tips about training for long distance races.
In your opinion, what are the main differences in training for traditional World Cup races and training for long distance races, like Birken or Vasaloppet?
The differences in training reflects the different demands of long-distance races compared to World Cup races. While World Cup races have FIS regulated tracks with varying terrain, containing a mix of relatively short uphill, flat and downhill sections, the long distance races normally are longer and have more steady terrain (e.g. long uphill sections at Birkebeiner or long flat sections at Vasaloppet). In addition, the long distance races are normally longer in duration and the abovementioned races (Birkbeinerennet and Vasaloppet) are in classic technique with large amounts of double poling.
Accordingly, long distance skiers train longer sessions, often prioritized in double poling, in more steady terrain than World Cup skiers, for whom many sessions must be done in more hilly/varied terrain, e.g. roller ski tracks. I also think many long distance skiers train regular intensive sessions or speed sessions at the end of longer sessions to mimic the demands of long distance races that are decided after many hours of skiing. This is less important in World Cup races that are normally 30 km or less (just a few 50 km for men), and World Cup skiers might train more frequently and shorter sessions. Also, strength training would differ slightly and injury prevention might be even more important for long distance races. Elbows and lower back could have problems with long duration double poling sessions.
Do you think that we can use research done with World Cup and apply it in long distance? Or should there be a separate research for that?
Most of it is applicable, but as mentioned above: findings should be translated while keeping the demands of the event in mind. For example, I think physiological testing done in a rested state is less interesting for long distance events. The ability to maintain physiological capacities (e.g. VO2max, skiing efficiency and technique) after long duration of skiing is likely more important, and in the future we should maybe test long distance skiers after 2-3 hours of skiing. Indeed, more research on the demands of long distance races are needed and studies investigating the relationships to laboratory-derived technical and physiological capacities and effects of different types of sport-specific training methods are of high interest in the future.
What are the most important attributes for success in long distance races? Vo2max? Strength?
You need a sufficiently high level of all capacities; however, the ability to have a high VO2peak in double poling, to utilize a high fraction of VO2peak over long duration and good skiing efficiency/economy (and maintain efficiency over long durations) are maybe the most important attributes! Strength should indirectly influence these factors, but it is not a goal in itself.
Some months ago, you were part of a research that compared the two training methods used by Marit Bjørgen (HIIT, high-intensity interval training, blocks vs traditional approach). In your opinion, would the use of HIIT blocks be useful for training for such long distances?
In general, I am not a big fan of defining HIIT blocks. I would rather call them focus areas with more concentrated stimulus. You need to put increased emphasis on some areas to develop them further while maintaining other areas. And there are different ways of building up the season and periodizing this, depending on the athlete’s training history, physiological profile and main aims for the season. As an example: If VO2max development is the main aim, some athletes will get development by increasing from 2 to 3 HIIT stimulus per week over some weeks, others would benefit from increasing it a bit more.
However, the balance between high-volume and HIIT is always important to be aware of. Even athletes with a high HIIT focus have a majority of their training at low intensity. I think each skier needs to chose appropriate training methods to target the individual needs for further development and have progression and variation throughout a career and within each season. And more important than the periodization is the total training load that must be matched with recover to optimize the adaptation and the training quality of HIIT sessions are likely more important than the number of HIIT sessions.
Finally, you provide some useful insights for cross-country skiers. What advise would you give to the thousands of amateur athletes that compete in the Visma Ski Classics races? How many interval sessions a week and what kind of intervals?
I normally recommend 1-2 really good high intensity sessions per week if you train around 5 sessions per week, interspersed with at least one long duration session (around 3 hours) and a strength session. The rest can be shorter low- to moderate intensity sessions of 1-2 hours. Most importantly, the HIIT sessions should be of high quality and relatively demanding so it reflects a bit the demands of the Visma Ski Classics races. Sometimes they can even be performed at the end of longer sessions – just be aware of the longer recovery times needed. Another important aspect is to assure that you get results from training – the output is the most important. Have standard sessions or tests that show that you are getting a good training effect over time.