Last weekend's Ski Mountaineering National Championship race at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort turned out to be great opportunity to look at different training regimens and their possible impact on performance. Using a few performance monitoring gadgets (heart rate monitor, chronometer, altimeter), all part of the Suunto T6 computer, I was able to analyze data from two successive races one year apart on nearly identical courses.Different courses
I say "nearly" because this year's lean snow pack required slight course deviations making the course just a tic longer with identical vertical. Times were similar. Even though there were some changes, a couple of key sections of the course were identical allowing for some interesting comparisons.
The first is the initial climb from the base to a cat track approximately 1,500 vertical feet up a groomer. The second was the long downhill from the top of the ski area to the Union Pass cat track at the bottom. More on these later.
Most revealing is the data generated by Movescount, Suunto's proprietary internet-based performance monitoring software. As you can see, it generates some sexy graphics that create a visual representation of the days' efforts. Time spent in each "zone" is represented. The data is thought-provoking.
Now, before I start blathering on about the information here, I want to make a disclaimer. Only two races are represented here and only two performances. From a statistical standpoint, the observations are worthless. I'm still going to make them. Scientists refer to this kind of data as "trends". More data points and more races are needed to say anything meaningful from a classical research standpoint. But who cares? Let's just talk about it and see what turns up.
Off the line
First, let's look at the initial drag race off the start. Last year, I remember not feeling so hot. As you can see from the HR data, I was at threshold for most of the climb. Right where I wanted to be. But I decided in my post-race analysis that my effort was too high to be sustainable later in the race. With this in mind, I hit out last Saturday confident that I could be at threshold but weary of letting it sneak up too high. Careful or not, both HR graphs are similar for the first pitch.
What caught me off guard, however, was the time difference between the two efforts - 4:30. That's nearly 20%. Okay, that's a lot. What's up with that? Was I really that slow or feeling that poorly last year? Perhaps. So, what was different? Well, too many things to, once again, say anything meaningful but that's not going to stop me.
First of all, training. I was WAY better prepared for this race this year than last. I was thinking about the event all summer. I ran instead of riding my bike which I'm convinced translates better to skimo performance. By running, I was training at threshold and sub threshold way more than I typically do on a road bike. This built a depth of fitness I have not seen before. From a neurological, sport-specificity standpoint, running is considerable more similar to skiing than cycling.
Second, I swallowed my fear and did the long interval work I knew I needed to go faster. Let's face it, 30 second efforts are easy to do. Three minute efforts are pretty easy, too. Ten to 30 minute threshold efforts suck. That's why people avoid them. I committed myself to stepping up and getting them done this year. I did some shorter ones too but made sure the long ones were done every week.
Next is gear. After 5 years of participating in these events, I finally coughed up the dough for a pair of real race boots. The truth is, in this sport gear matters. There is no getting around the performance benefit of less weight on your feet. My new Dynafit EVO race boots are sweet. They might not be as sexy as something full carbon but they work great and cost less.
I also dropped some weight from my skis, losing 80 grams from each ski with my purchase of a pair of Sportiva RSR race sticks. I mounted them with my favorite Plum 145 Race bindings. All told, I cleaved over 2 pounds from my set-up. That is some serious heft to lose. Adding it all up, a 20% improvement in performance in the first 20 minutes of the race is exciting.
Some other observations during this section:
One of the harder things for this aging athlete to come to terms with is getting beat by girls. I'll admit it. But it happens. Female endurance athletes are simply getting more and more badass nowadays. The talent is finding it's way into various sports and these gals are emasculating men left and right. It's pretty awesome, really, but it still requires an ego check, for sure.
This year, I was passed by two women at about the same point as last year. They were different women this time but it still had me questioning my pace. And, just like last year, I pulled ahead on the flatter cat track. I was quicker on the downhills. A young Catalonian female racer was my main foe all day. Her skinning technique was impeccable. But on the last climb, she was no where to be found. Instead, perennial favorite Sari Anderson appeared out of no where and nearly reeled me in. I probably enjoyed a 20 second advantage at the last skin rip. Phew. It was close. She had me looking uphill all the way down. Nice effort, Sari, 2012 National Skimo Champion.
I also stayed in the top 15 all the way up. That was new territory for me. Some of the usual suspects that typically torture me on climbs were no where to be seen. That was encouraging.
I was faster on many of the downhills compared to those skiing near me. My legs were never flamed. I remain convinced that the work done under the squat rack in the gym gives me a distinct advantage during the descents. I'm not a great technical skier but I'm not a weak one, either. The descents take their toll on everyone. Cramping is common during these longer races. Gaining some additional quad and hip strength will make you harder to kill when it matters. Of course, getting endurance athletes into the gym is nearly impossible.
I didn't ski down as cleanly as I'd have liked. The usual hip checks in the tight bumps were infrequent but I crashed once on the flats below Central Chute, hitting an ice chunk and shooting into the sugar on the side of the run. That was a time suck. I also strayed too far North on Sublet Ridge and ended up motionless in some rotten mank before getting out of the weeds and onto better snow. I think there were at least two placings up for grabs there that I potentially lost due to my descending errors.
There are a few things to say after looking at my HR zone breakdown for the day. Last year, I started with a bang, shot my wad, and generally faded all the way to the end. This year, I felt like that was happening again in the middle of the race. This dip can be clearly seen on the HR graph. As I scurried along I started wondering if it was an altitude effect. Or was it an energy issue? This time, I was more cognizant of feeding early. Can't say I noticed much difference during the bulk of the race.
But on the last climb, where I struggled so much last year, I got a nice surprise from my monitor. I looked down and saw 160 bpm. Apparently, there was still some nitro left in the tank. Good thing. I reeled in and passed two skiers on this section. Perhaps if I'd not been such a punter on the big downhill I would've battled two more.
Even more interesting is the time spent at threshold. I was able to get out of Z3 and into Z4 for an additional 50 minutes, or so, this year. There are any number of reasons for this sustained output. I can't exactly remember my recovery state going into last year's race. Being depleted, however, will certainly drive intensity level down early as substrate utilization favors fatty acid metabolism. Last week I had nearly no training for 4 days leading up to the event. This was preceded by a big micro cycle hit of 18 hours in 3 days spent entertaining an out-of-town visitor and some fresh snow. Not the best run up to a target event but I wanted to show Tyler a good time.
Less tangible is the impact of training intensity and volume on event substrate utilization. People smarter than me can probably comment more accurately on this. But the idea here is to be able to burn less carbohydrate/more fatty acid at higher workloads, thereby sparing the "nitro fuel" for top-end efforts. The fact that I was able to spend nearly 2 hours in Z4 suggests something like this was taking place, particularly in light of my dismal attempts 12 months prior.
The guys at Restwise suggest that some of this improved performance is due to a year-long shift in programming. More time spent in Z1-2 bolsters the aerobic machinery in ways that better prepare me for these events. Tweeking training for a few months cannot compare to the impact of multi-seasonal commitment to intelligent training. They insist that I'm just now starting to harvest the fruit from this adjustment.
There are a few more events on tap this season. Some of them are shorter. It'll be interesting to see if I can sustain a higher output through the duration of a 2 hour event while not having to worry about saving something. The Jackson race is a bit of an outlier. Three hours is a tough distance. I'm typically better in the 4 to 6 hour range where pacing and nutrition are far more important. Those are on the menu, too. We'll see. - Brian