09 March, 2011

Inside The Pain Cave: Politics and Finding Coaches

(Photo Above:  William Bon Mardion in the Relay during the World Championships 2011)  This article on Inside The Pain Cave, I had the chance to Interview Jean Phillipe Biechy, a Skimo specific coach from France, while racing the World Championships in Italy.  What followed from the rest of the week, while talking to coaches, officials, and other racers was discovering more background information on how the rest of the Ski Mountaineering Racing community operates on an International level.  A note, this is a long article, with a lot of info and does cover a very small portion of the politics and reasoning behind secretive training information.
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Ski Mountaineering Racing is becoming a strong and rapidly building sport, with a large amount of amateur enthousiasts, as well as National Federations consisting of elite athletes participating in the sport.  Overall, on the International stage, there is a push for an even more professional and scientific way for countries to improve their ranking on the World Cup.  Every athlete is looking for that "edge," but also each country is looking for it as well.  That being said, information is closely guarded, and secretive (as it can be with any sport).  The information exchange does have its problems when it comes to countries who do not have the sport specific coaching it requires to step up into the top five, and we continue to see the same countries dominating the top of the world cup (Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain, Germany).

While researching and interviewing people, for another "Inside The Pain Cave" article, I discovered more about this problem and the politics that surround it.  To understand some of the reasoning behind the close guarding and secrecy of information, further information about the Olympics is required.

The International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) is working, in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), to set Skimo racing as an Olympic Sport.  Currently, on the World Cup Circuit, the top three favourites are Italy, France, and Switzerland (Spain being another contendor to take note of).  These countries are very aware of the situation, and are preparing as if this is a definite Olympic sport, thus keeping their training plans hidden away from rival countries, which if given the amount of time away to potential Olympic plans (2018) could be serious contendors for the Olympic Medals not to mention the World Cup podiums between now and then.  (Photo Below:  Women's Senior Vertical Race, World Championships 2011 Italy)

This secrecy and guarding of information is available, but financially, hard to access.  Since Skimo's popularity has risen, seing International countries competing from Europe, North America, South America, New Zealand, Asia, Russia, etc, there has been coaches and research developing for years.  Those who have been extremely passionate about the sport have gotten more and more into improving results, developing sport specific speed training models, and that of not only individual athletes but Countries.

Junior programs, much like downhill alpine racing and cross country skiing, have been created in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, etc to ensure faster and high end athletes for future racing generations on the World Cup stage and potential Olympic platforms.  The bar has been getting higher and higher every year.  So the real question is, how are countries who don't have Junior programs and sport specific coaching able contend with these giants?

This is where sponsorship and outside funding is requried, to fuel these teams, as now teams are able to hire Skimo specific coaches.  Their training loads, in relation to work as well, greatly vary creating a more complex model to coach from as well.  I recently have been in contact in Jean Phillipe Biechy, a Skimo specialist coach, out of France.  Jean Phillipe is a driving force behind finding what works and what doesn't, and has some fantastic points and ways of thinking about training, which are needed in the competive setting Skimo racing is in.

While racing in the Ski Mountaineering World Championships, I got a chance to ask him some questions on coaching, and what he has to offer.  Like any coach Jean Phillipe does charge a price, but he is devoted to coaching Skimo racers only, and is excited to see North American's and other countries stepping up to bat against the Italians, French and Swiss.  What we are now seeing, and what Jean Phillipe is offering, is a way to contend the same way the current leaders of the Skimo world are and to take the level of racing higher for when the Olympics do come into the picture.  Coaches offering specific training at this level, are few and far between, but are essential.  They are appearing all over Europe, and are something we as racers need to look into, to shift the podiums placements on the World Cup Stage.

However, we as racers spend most of our money travelling race to race, pay race fees, food, accomodation, gear, and have to work to support ourselves and families.  Fees for Skimo specific coaching are pricey, and can be difficult to afford while taking federation and racing fees into mind.  So with all these external factors, how are racers able to afford such a high cost?  The answer is within the National Skimo Federations of each country in order to cover the cost.  However, if looking deeper into the problem, there are usually two options for programming athletes can choose from.  The first is a 32 week program that has a 3 week buffer period allowing for life, sickness/recovery, and other things to get in the way allowing for adjustments.  Or, a second option a 22 week program that has no buffer, and must be done perfectly, if not the podium is lost.  As you can guess the 22 week program costs less, which is exactly what National Federations prefer to pay for.

Federations do have another option in order to bring down costs, allow for more time, and get results; hire your own National Coach.  This works really well, we see it on the International Cross Country Skiing circuit, as well as Downhill skiing.  However, some problems can occur with the process.  Coaches can be paid extra based on athletes results, that can cause them to push their athletes too hard and blow up, but can be replaced by the larger talent pool the Junior prorgams provide.  Essentially this is a lineup of disposable athletes, to provide podiums for whichever Nation who decides to employ this method.  Smaller Nations, with a smaller talent pool, do have the advantage of a smarter and more dialed training program to ensure athletes don't blow up.  Not every Federation has this problem, but it does exist, in the world of professional sports.
(Photo Above:  United States Skimo Team, World Championships Italy, courtesy of La Sportiva)
But what about Federation's with minimal funding?  These problems aren't even an issue, as Coaches aren't paid, and individual athletes tend to pay for their own coaching.  Countries like Canada and the United States, both have a governing body, but no leadership on the same level as many of the European teams.  Coaching is required to take these teams to a higher level, and give them an edge over the competition, which requires funding.  Only then will these countries be able to pay for Coach's, research, training camps, etc.

Funding can come from two sources.  A private investor, a company or person who would be interested in supporting a Team, with a fair amount of capital to allow racers some time off work and/or the ability to cover the growing list of costs racing provides.  The second is government funding.  Government funding first requires three things, before it can be allocated to a National Federation, and those are:  Licensed Racers/Coaches, Results, and for it to be an Olympic Sport.  Here's where the catch 22 cycle continues.

How are National Federations able to provide high end results against Teams which do have proper funding allowing them more time to train, coaching, camps, and a specific program to help build athletes?  Countries with a smaller talent pool, who are promising (even contendors for podium placements with training) but don't have these resources, grow really slowly and have the potential for athletes giving up on the sport as they cannot afford paying for all the associated capital that racing costs.  At which point when racers can't afford to pay for their passion, they are forced to either quit the sport, or downgrade their investment and time to it.  This affects not only their individual results but their countries overall ranking and involvment in the sport.  Now since skimo racing is to become an Olympic sport, how can it be considered an International sport when only a few countries are so dedicated to it, and others need a few years to catch up (and only if their National Federations would help with the costs).

Is there a solution, that will help the progress of the sport both in development to an Olympic level and athletically?  The answer is yes.  Countries that do have well-developed ski mountaineering programs, and are leading the top five, need to share their knowledge in both training and federation development to countries which don't have such knowledge now.  This does create some competition for them, but it is necessary for the growth of the sport to reach an Olympic level, but also to ensure those developing Nations are still their when the International Olympic Commity make their final decision.  That competition also allows the sport to grow as a whole, creating stronger and faster athletes, internationally as well as on a National level.

Another factor which must be looked at is funding.  Funding is always difficult, as every country deserves an equal share for one reason or another.  But developing Nations need a boost to help their athletes get to races, train, and build as a country.  With results, and increasing popularity, they will find it much easier to find funding for their Federation both privately and from government sources.  The ISMF, can help provide that small boost.  However, the constant shift of money can be difficult for other programs, races and countries, so it's allocation of resources is hard for anyone to think about without affecting other aspects.

The growth of the sport is complex, requiring many different sources of capital, and different levels of involvment.  No sport is perfect, nor is it's programming, but for those who truly love the sport changes need to be made.  For North American's, training hard, and dedication is paramount in order to acheive results and gain recognition to help fund the Canadian and United States Federations.  Racers are literally racing for the sport's growth, and for the Federations.
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The path which racers and coaches are headed as a result of growth in the sports training specificity can be seen with Jean Phillipe Biechy.  If Federations gain funding, the sport grows, allowing for coache's to be hired there are many benefits.  Jean Phillipe Biechy, is a skimo specific coach.  He only trains ski mountaineering racers, no one else.  What he can offer is something that can build athletes to a high end level, and really see results, a benefit for the countries supporting said athlete and more.

I had a chance to ask him some questions while in Italy, and found not only good training advice, but useful information in regards to the sports development and the path which coaches and racers are headed.

Full Name 
I'm Jean Philippe Biechy, I'm 44 years old, I am French, I live 75 kms east of Paris and works at INSEP PARIS (Institut National du Sport, Expertise and Performance) as a trainer in charge of training elite athletes.  (Photo Right:  Yannick Buffet (FR) and Coach Jean Philippe Biechy)

Jean-Phillipe, how did you get into coaching? 
It was a long path, so I am enclosing my background experience and training (Physical and mental preparation). So you can see my graduation and experience in top level sport as a coach and mental preparation.

I am a former elite athlete from Escalade. In the 1990s I was in the French Top 10 (The French National Ski Mountaineering Team) and ranked around 38th place worldwide.

I started climbing 8a from 17/18 years and at that time there was no method, and no writing, on training existed on climbing. So we immediately thought about climbing with a friend on training from other disciplines. The "Training Manual" by Yurgens Weineck quickly became my favorite book (It's still intact and still, even after 22 years, of use as my "holy book", not kidding! But it's still an excellent book!).

At that time, I immediately questioned the training load, why does one exercise for a particular time and why must 2 sessions of strength be at seperate times instead of one large session etc.  I also reflected on the aspects of mental preparation and I am directed to Sophrology very quickly. Anyway, all sort of questions arise when one wants a return and results from training, so as not to waste time and therefore his/her motivation.

When I finished high level climbing, I converted the ½ Ironman and Ironman triathlon, where I had some results in honorable master category (age group) winning a 3rd place France championship in my class, then a 15th World Championship Long Distance.  This experience has reinforced my thinking on this idea driving my thought process, because the volume of triathlon training can quickly become time consuming, inhumane, and ineffective and therefore not challenging.  Many triathletes, like other endurance athletes, calculate their training load on the number of hours spent or the number of kilometers traveled.  Upon reflection, I realized this does absolutely nothing, in fact the same 180 km bike would not be similar to one with a headwind or back for example, same as with temperatures in July around 20 degrees or 40 degrees.

So I reflected on different models for quantifying the training load and arrived at a training protocol to achieve its maximum potential on Race-Day (which was used to achieve some results in my Triathlon but mainly to get the results of international climbers skiers I coach) without risk of being over-trained.

There are 4/5 years I have reviewed as the National Technical Director of my federation (Federation of French Mountaineering and Climbing) and the latter was interested in my research on the type of training disciplines "endurance" and on my protocol for the quantification of training load. He then offered to lead some athletes from the Ski Mountaineering Team in France, I accepted. My status in my federation is "Physical and Mental Preparation Coach," I do not hold my position, but am an outside consultant (so I can work for any other athletes) and I'm not the French National Team Coach.  My job is to manage the physical and mental programming from February to May, for the athletes of the French team and after the season.

Any Coaching/Career highlights ?
As physical and mental preparation of certain team skiers from France Ski Mountaineering I got fairly quickly, thanks ork done by my players and our mutual trade, a number of national and international victories.
My athletes have achieved the last 4 seasons championships in France:
-  6 Degrees of France Champion
-  5 Silver medals
-  2 Bronze Medals

International level:
-  2 Gold medals at the European Championships 2009: Yannick Buffet is 1st and 1st to the individual and combined.
-  A Silver medal at the European Championships 2009: Tony Sbalbi is 2nd:Vertical Race
-  A Bronze medal at the European Championships 2009: Yannick Buffet is 3rd: Vertical race.
-  A Silver Medal in the World Championships 2011:  Yannick Buffet is 2nd: Vertical Race.
-  A Bronze Medal in the World Championships 2011:  Yannick Buffet is 3nd: Individual Race.

(Photo Left: Yannick Buffet, European Championships 2009) These results come from individual workouts for each of my athletes. My path as a coach directs me to prioritize work on the overall analysis of the sport.  During the development of different capabilities, corresponding to the determinants of performance, the individual monitoring of the athlete is to be taken into account. You need to have an analytical approach but eventually encompassing all aspects.

What do you think is the most important aspect of uphill training athletes should concentrate on? 
The athletes in ski mountaineering racing are top athletes, and are amateur professionals.  I mean, they are true professionals in terms of their physical preparation in terms of time to train but they are amateurs because they are not participating in their sport for a living.  Most of them have a job to fill the family pot and make a living.  For some, this work is very penalizing in terms of their training load due to very physically jobs such as ski instructors, mountain guides, lift mechanics, etc. We must therefore constantly regulate the balance between their internal training load and external load such as their schedules and obligations (work, family, etc..). The challenge now is to insert their performance sport goals into their life goals. In my opinion the management of this balance in perpetual imbalance is the key to their successful performance. This requires a highly personalized coach who is available, and ready to make a large time investment in training, especially with the small number of athletes. I think that without taking into account the overall balance of the athlete no training whatsoever can be effective.  The athlete must be at the center of his own performance.

It is here where you see the value of having reliable and operative tools to accurately measure the burden of their training. The direct impact of the latter on the body of the athlete, is then measured, and thus allows to control the imbalance desired (training stimuli) addressing how best to possible identify the capacity of adaptability the human body has so that overtraining is avoided.

Otherwise in terms of training methodology, the important points are:
1.  Technical Aspects: Transitions (uphill/downhill, bootpack, crampons), and descent techniques.
2.  Training Load is one thing we need to look at.  This is the specific information we collect from physical training in nature, such as uneven/uncertain terrain, different competition environments (course, track, ascents, snow conditions, weather, etc), and how athletes react to training off-track or in a non-controled environment.

The majority of training racers should concentrate on is aerobic training.  Strategy and experimenting with sprinting, is also important, to concentrate on.

What kind of strength training do you program for your athletes?
Very regularly, if not all the time, I change their training 2 to 3 times per week the same week. This change is focused on training loads to achieve in the week. It is the same for the annual planning where constant changes are made. Nothing is frozen in my programming, everything is questioned based on monitoring of individual athletes, their feelings and availability of training. Once again I take into account the entire system's performance and drive, training the core of the athlete, the rest revolves around and adapts to the demands of the core.  This follow-up (almost daily) with ergonomic changes (ease of scheduling and individual coaching) required, seems unrealistic, but  high-level performance requires this, regardless of the discipline.

In North America, there is a lot of interest in programs such as Crossfit, and strength programs, how important do you think these are to Skimo racers?  Is there a downside, or any pitfalls that skimo athletes can run into with these programs?
To be honest I don't know these training programs, as based on endurance, and the strength offered in this style. I find it very interesting because they use a circuit training method very similiar to one that I use regularly according to the athletes ability to access gyms with the right equiment.

Developing different muscle groups in a diverse way, but also different training load capacities in this form of "military" work can be positive for several reasons:
1.  No risk of imbalance in the body-muscle, the body is developed in a whole manner which avoids any risk of injury. So there is no scarring to the body later in life, and something to draw from both physically and mentally after that phase in the athletes life is done and he/she moves on to something else.
2.  It helps maintain motivation, and therefore the investment, by the variety of exercises to be done, with sessions continuously changing.
3.  Strength training as a group or team can help keep the session fun.
4.  Ability to work with various training loads depending on the intensity ratio given, in terms of exercise time and recovery time or in terms of weight/power to achieve the ratio.
5.  A strong mental approach which I find interesting, although it will cause a fairly significant mental fatigue, which eventually may harm the drive to train.

I think we must be very attentive to the practice of this type of training because some risks are:
1.  Very high stress training loads due to the type of target intensity.  Which may cause the training loads to be be very difficult to measure. So the danger is not to allowing enough recovery time, which is important to the body, between sessions of crossfit.
2.  Too much stress for an unprepared athlete.  It seems that the "ladder" exercise intensities takes on its meaning, escalating harder and harder. The overhead can quickly become traumatic and not provide for the purpose of training sought.
3.  It is the same type exercises in powerlifting where learning proper movements are required (technical gestures such as "squat" into "clean and jerk, bench press, etc.). If not learned to do so properly, injury is for sure!
4.  You need a coach to manage and/or stop an athlete putting himself in danger of exceeding oneself too much. High intensity or all out efforts should be kept for big events and in some workouts and not daily!
5.  The strong mental demands required by the high intensities may lead the athlete to a mental fatigue resulting in a loss of motivation and a state of overtraining.  So there is a substantial risk of physical and mental overtraining if Crossfit is not programmed and controlled properly.

I share the idea of development of certain physical, mental, technical support like training with a wide variety of sports, especially in a discipline such as downhill skiing (activity where the body and mind must adapt to external natural constraints, which requires great flexibility on the part of the athlete). We must therefore look for a specific kind of versatility.

In your opinion, what can be the difficulties athletes face with training, and what do you like your athletes to do in order to recover properly?
It is clear that today the struggles with training, is the availability of training athletes, regardless of the disciplines concerned with top performance.

The main problem lies in the fact that our Ski Mountaineering athletes do not have enough time to devote to training and recovery models.  More often the main problem is that human and material resources are far from optimum.  A few athletes have opportunities to utilize various training resources (gym, swimming pool, track and field, mountains, etc) for the simple reason that they live in remote valleys of each others and must sometimes make long journeys to use proper training equipment.  Added to this is their work and family obligations, which for many of them are quite restrictive in terms of time (time consuming) or general fatigue.

What is needed is an approach to training taking into account these external factors. For this reason, my thinking is based on continuous training load to be applied to each of my athletes. This charge is determined using binding constraints and impaired recovery from each. Training loads and are individualized daily.

At the end of the season, I make sure my athletes take a full rest (no training) from 15 days to 1 month depending on the individual, to plan for the next coming season.  The purpose of this rest is to allow the body to recover as a whole, and recharge the 'mental batteries,' after a competitive season that lasts more than five months (December to April).  They will the resume training slowly, with more free (flexible) training sessions, which are built more through early summer when the preperation for the real goals such as the European and World Championships begins.  The progressive development of their training and scheduling is then plannedd and carried out over the weeks of training, for a 32 week performance program.

To ensure a gradual preperation to these events, I plan my schedule spreading it out over 7-8 months before major championships, to account for things such as work, family obligations, illness, and injuries.  As the season progresses I plan to get more specific over the coming weeks.  By mid-November and late-November, depending on weather, I make sure to have athletes on their skis as soon as there is snow.
For athletes with a large amount of potential, and restraints, the first problem to manage is recovery.  Recovery management must take into account the recovery time between sessions, active or passive recovery, mulitple days of regenerative recovery, and accounting for the efforts made while working (eg, mountain guiding, physical labour, etc.).  Given the level of performances being achieved, we will have coaches that are able to control rapid recovery models, as well as the development of physical skills such as technique coaches.

While racing in the World Championships, we talked to athletes from many different National Teams about their training regimes, some did a large portion of intervals, some did more steeper vertical.  What, in your opinion, is the best training for speed?
Although I conducted a study on the training load analysis of the Individual, Team, and Vertical Race's, I can not, alas, out of respect for my athlets, disclose such information.  What I can tell you is that Interval training is a very good support for speed.  The difficulty, once again, lies in the strength training loads of these intervals: time and intensity effort, recovery time, active or passive recovery, recovery time between sessions, etc..

What are some of the technique drills which you think are the most important for racers to practice?
The current level of ski mountaineering racing is very high, and the performance between top-level athletes will increase more and more.  In fact, I find that there is some similarities with triathlon where the level of performance has improved enormously over the past five years.

We must develop all the determining aspects of performance, one of them is using gear, but not forgetting to use strategy decided on before the event and tactics strategy changed during the event.  In terms of pure technique it seems to me that the following are needed:
-  Transitions in poor conditions (snow, ice, heavy snow, weather, etc.) when changing hardware (crampons, skins, attaching skis to your back for bootpacks, etc..) is to optimize the image of those made in triathlon. Indeed, a gain or loss of significant time is in the transitions. For example at the last championships in France, there were 14 transitions, if an athlete loses 5 seconds on every transition, in the end he loses 1mn10 total, which will be difficult to recover on a climb or descent.
-  All the techniques and skills associated with downhill skiing (proprioception and equilibration).  Athletes today, compete on the ascent (large aerobic capacity), but also and more so on the downhill portion of the courses.  Racers who do not have a descent technique enabling major risk-taking moves, can choose to move towards events such as the Vertical Race and Sprint.

(Video Above:  Tony Sbalbi, Yannick Buffet in the European Championship Vertical Race) Although our discipline is dominated by training loads is necessary not to forget the technical and tactical aspects.  It is probably in these areas that will be played in tomorrow's victories.

What are some of the mistakes athletes are making while training, and or planning their training schedules ? 
Mistakes are inevitable, that's why we are human and for which we find an interest in practicing a sport.  Nothing is settled in advance. The role of the athlete and the coach is to minimize the number of errors to maximize the potential of sport, and to finally exploit them during the competition.  That being said, some of them can be avoided.

The first is the very culture of discipline, based on having fun and enjoying yourself.  The notion of pleasure is strongly rooted in our sport and that's good.  But today the level of performance is so high, that it requires a certain rigor, in the approach to training.  So the first risk is not to train with this notion, as athletes who love the sport, may eventually train with the same feeling of going to work and the negative connotation that it represents.  So the first mistake is to forget that the pleasure of training should be present all the time, to keep motivation high.

The second mistake is to train alone without being accompanied with someone to overlook programming.  All athletes who believe they are "immortal" by thinking, "I am superior to others since I'm here to beat them so I have to cash training loads much higher."  So the lack of an objective viewpoint made by a coach may bring one athlete training at an end.  This is an irreversible error:  wrong choice of training development, the training load, organization and scheduling of performance development, etc..
In my opinion the main errors athletes have are:
-  Believe they "immortal" in regards to training loads.
-  Risk of overtraining
-  Loss of motivation loss of pleasure to the skis for training
-  Lack an objective viewpoint in regards to training

The top level training management in ski mountaineering is a must if you want to get high performance to meet the expectations of the IOC.

If athletes are on a tighter schedule and don't have as much time to train as they would like, what should they be concentrating on?
Currently there are two major schools of thought.  The first is that large volumes of training is needed, making long trips and many hours of training (In the vicinity of 35 hours of training per week).  Whereas the second school of thought, is quality, where the training is more refined and specific (between 15 and 20 hours per week).

The choice is dictated by the requirements of the athlete.  If he/she works 35 to 40 hours per week on a professional level, he/she can hardly train more hours per week than 15/20. In this case, quality finds its place without thinking.  Athletes who have little training time due to work , train primarily with quality.  My personal focus is qualitative work.

But the concern of the Ski Mountaineering today is that some nations are organized in such a way that they allow their athletes to have training as their priority.  This will therefore cause problems for other nations that have different means for their athletes (eg funding, job aids, etc.) and cannot focus solely on training as their priority.

These issues must be organized quickly to provide solutions in terms of availability of training time for their athletes. Otherwise, I fear that some nations will find it difficult to make up the delay in aid, and funding.


  1. Interesting. I think that the way allot of people look at Crossfit is wrong. I have been very actively training this style for some time. I am not currently racing skimo but I am doing more speed climbs, tours and traverses, and I'm looking to do some races next year. A big part of the hole crossfit movement (when its done right) is quality!!! Working out with quality movement and a high level of intensity is very effective at providing results. But like most things one with out the other often ends badly. The nice thing about working out in this style is that the hours needed are much less. I personally know people who have trained for 100km ultras, down to 5k races using the Crossfit/Crossfit endurance model and been very successful. And often only needing 1-2hrs a day for training. That being said I know people who have done more traditional systems of training and been successful. From my own personal view I have seen much better results from Crossfiting then I have from other systems. I mainly feel that this is do to the fact that its something I can easily stick with and fit into my Schedule more or less no matter what, and that I don't have to sacrifice much if anything to be able to keep my training up. For Elite level athletes who have a proven system in place thats working for them, they have no reason to switch or try something new, but I think that the more "average Joe" style competitor should maybe give it a try.

    Since I haven't competed in a race before maybe I dont have much of a right to say this. But i think that for North Americans to catch up to the level of racing in Europe general exposer to the sport is going to be much more important than finding away to got top level coaching for the elite.

    I look forward to doing some races next year. I was hoping to get out to some this spring but unfortunately am heading back to work in the bush earlier than expected this year.

  2. Great comments Boz! From the training I've done this year has been a mix of the old and the new. Crossfit style lifting, but with some light and long sessions as well. There has been lots of long slow distance days, as the old adage goes "you have to train long to race long," but mixed into the program is intervals and race style efforts. Definitely have needed the help of my coach Jen Segger.

    It's great to see all the different training regimes and programs out there, to find the best for what works for each athlete, and how to make it work with the scheduled time you have. Hopefully you make it to some races next year!

  3. the other mantra is, Train slow to be slow.....

  4. Oh boy, I guess we're going to open this whole CrossFit can o' worms again.

    I've been involved in the CF/hybrid training thing for over 5 years now. I still read the CrossFit Journal almost daily. I committed over a year to training that way. I was big, strong and slower uphill. Sure, I could dead lift over twice my body weight and do dozens of pull-ups and all that but being 15 pounds over my racing weight, even at 4% body fat, pulled me backwards in skimo races. It was horrible.

    Boz is typical of the CF converts. They have had a taste of what true, high quality work can deliver. Greg Glassman and his cronies have packaged this kind of work and marketed it to the masses. It's nothing new. This kind of training has been around since the 60's. But Glassman has done a beautiful job in getting it out there. For the usual gym rat who either goes in and does the nearly useless weight training routine while admiring his biceps in the mirror or gets on the machine du jour and reads the Times, the CF style of training will deliver real, generalized fitness that will prepare you for anything. It's been an incredible and laudable phenomenon.

    But for Boz and others to suggest that somehow training for 6-10 hours/week will prepare athletes for world-class endurance competition is laughable. CrossFit Endurance sells this notion. They hang their hat on the fact that their athletes finish competitions with their "best times" or other such meaningless metrics. What happened is that these people stopped their mindless plodding and actually did some hard work. Of course they got faster. Their lives were more manageable, too, because they had more time to do other stuff. They actually recovered.

    However, take these same individuals and prepare them conventionally with some thoughtfully applied strength and intensity and they will be even faster. Arthur Lydiard and his ilk have prepared countless Olympic and World champions this way for decades. It's not that others have not tried to do the same with less. It's just they they failed. Their athletes have no medals. In spite of what these new prophets say, there will never be any getting around the 15-30 hours/week required to prepare for elite performance in endurance sports. I'm not talking just participation here.

    Six to ten hours a week is way more manageable than 15-20. Most people just can't do the time. They won't be going to the Olympics, either. I'm psyched that CF Endurance and similar low-volume programs get people "out there". But I'll be damned if some athlete doing randomly applied, high-intensity weight training with a spattering of sport-specific workouts 8-10 hours a week wins anything at the elite level. Never going to happen.

    Matthew Weatherley-White, co-founder of Rest Wise, is fond of pointing out, "…never mind that the fate of nations hangs in the outcome of the men's 4x10k relay at the Nordic World Championships, and that an insane amount of resources have been dedicated to this end." These guys ski and they ski a lot. How can it be any other way?

    Train long to go long. Yep. Train slow to be slow? Not exactly. Train slow (easy) to recover and develop the aerobic machinery so that you can spank the hell out of some quality work outs a couple of times each week. There's a difference.

  5. Love it Brian! Great points, I agree with not opening that can of worms.

    Boz, another great article regarding the importance of "long" is "There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch" on the Gym Jones site, which has been referenced on Ski Theory before. Tons of other great articles with fantastic information.

    The hours count, and I think if 8-10 hours were to actually work in producing countless podium results, every other World Cup skimo racer (and elite endurance athlete) would be on that program too. But more people getting out, as Brian said, stoked worthy! Here's to getting faster!

  6. Brian, you've said it well.

    Alex, thank you for posting the interview.

    One major point in it is this: the more focused, quality work still requires 15-20 hours/week. It's not an easy number to hit while holding down a job.

    When Stephane Brosse was 3x French National Champion, 3x winner of the Pierra Menta, and World Champion his load was 16-18 hours/ week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. He did the long efforts of course, raced, and 2x one-hour interval sessions per week, targeting either AT or MVO2 intensity.

    Female Nordic racers roughly 700-800 hours/year. Petter Northug did 850-875 in 2009-2010. Runners do less, partially because the impact is so destructive. Cyclists, rowers and swimmers do more (ref. Seiler).

    The WC-level longest Nordic race lasts, what, two hours (50km)? The longest "non-fringe" swimming event is the 400m IM, right? That takes 4-5 minutes? The rowing event is 2000m and lasts 6 minutes +/- and the 4000m pursuit on the bike lasts 4 minutes (the German team set a world record in 2000 and rode an average of 18,000 miles [29,000 - 35,000km] to prep for that). Skimo races, including the vertical, last from 40 minutes to six hours (for the PDG or Mezzalama).

    It appears that one of the entry fees for good skimo performance is a high annual training volume. The next is to sustain that volume for several years. Rico Elmer (2004 world champion, single) grew up developing his aerobic base - his family raises sheep, the pastures around Elm start at 1000m elevation and go up from there. Skiing was the norm, being in the Alps with 60 inches of precipitation annually.


    So, even with the vast experience and knowledge of training to develop the energy system that dominates all of the aforementioned sports that exists and has been proven, the "Free Lunch" crowd remains hopeful. I'm sorry but if all you have is 6-8 hours per week you can either be satisfied to simply "participate" in these sports or you can find a sport where those hours are adequate to develop the fitness and technical skill and efficiency needed to do well.

    That "sport" is called Crossfit. Leave it where it belongs.

    Mark Twight

  7. Life collided with me before I really groked the periodised system and CrossFit was a perfect "life fit", and with very limited time (full time job, young family) I was pretty happy with what it let me get away with – which was basically not sucking, but certainly nowhere near winning.

    It's a style of training is hard and fast and fun, and the variety of abilities it yields for "normal people" are certainly impressive (especially for a cyclist who came to it without a single pullup ;). But as Brian said, it's not the ass-kicking it's made out to be for anyone who's pinned a number on before. The hugest lightbulb moment for me was that CrossFit was born into the context of personal training, not competitive preparation.

    I think the CrossFit Endurance guys do themselves and their trainees a huge disservice by not being up front about the compromises of the program. Chris Charmichael lays them all out in the introduction to the high intensity/low volume he pitches to "time crunched" athletes: You can peak two or three times a year, but those peaks are damn short. Your fitness is only good for 8-11 weeks. You'll get enough power to play, but not enough depth to be reckless. And consider yourself pack-fill past the three hour mark.

    Life is full of compromise. It's one thing to wish you were a pro and another thing entirely to eschew friends, family, play and the development of other aspects of yourself in pursuit of the podium. Compromise the luxury of being an ammeter. The art is knowing how and where and how much. But to know if the compromise is worth it, you need to know the terms. Friel and Charmichael were up front, Glassman not so much.

  8. Maybe my comments were misread. Nowhere did I claim that Crossfitting would make you an Olympic level athlete. I was trying to say that the "Average Joe" who had a program that she or he could follow is going to be more beneficial than just going out and skiing (biking, climbing whatever you want). Also using Crossfit as a model I believe that you can program for longer domains. Are you going be doing heaps of 3min metcons? No, but if you hang out in the 20min domain most days and extend into the 1hr domains while still keeping intensity high I think that you can be a very competitive recreational athlete. On top of that working your sport specific technical elements is going to be hugely beneficial . I personally have been working my uphill to downhill and downhill to uphill transitions in my living room while watching TV. Im also putting allot of thought into me technique when im out skiing for fun. I think that this is just as important as putting in a few extra miles.

    Is Crossfit the be-all and end-all of sport specific training? NO!! Is it a good way (if programmed properly) to work your overall fitness? I think the answer is YES. Is base training and VO2 max work LDS training (if programmed well) the be-all and end-all of overall fitness training? NO. Is it a good (great/well-proven) system for sport specific training if programmed well? Yes. If you have time restraints and still want to be a competitive amateur athlete can you do a well-programmed (key point) hybrid of the the two? I think so and so do many others.

  9. I think Mark and I have flogged our points enough. But I would like to make one more comment regarding Boz's last entry.

    I think there is significant danger in drawing out CF-style, high intensity met-cons into the one hour range. One of the things that makes CF doable at such high intensities 3 days on, one day off (and I think Glassman would concede this) is that the workouts are short and thus recoverable from. When you change this aspect, I propose that you then risk eliminating this vital aspect and possibly introduce the spectre of over-training or, at least, some insidious, deep fatigue. There is a price to pay for that kind of volume/intensity.

    It's true that some of the CF elite do this kind of program at certain points during the year but these guys are like any other elite athlete and what they do should be taken with a grain of salt. Just sayin'...

  10. Alex,

    Thanks again for doing this interview and sharing it. Would you mind offering some advice to a newby? I did my first skimo race last year in the at rec category and finished 40 minutes behind the winner. It was my first time so I committed huge errors, heavy gear and didnt train very hard for it but had an absolute blast. So, my goal this year is to go for the podium in the same category. I noticed the winner probably had a relatively light setup (15lbs less than me). So, I have knocked my gear down significantly.

    I am doing crossfit 3 times a week and putting in 10 hours into mountain running. When the snow arrives what might you suggest? 10-15 hours of Skimo with a few days of Crossfit? Doing some intervals? Sprints?

    Also, would you go all out and get some used skinny race skis(4lbs) or use would a 5.25Lb bd stigma dynafit binders be just fine?

    Any thoughts would be great. Thanks.

  11. Great question. Sounds like you've got bitten by the racing bug! To get fast, there is no perfect formula, nor is one path right for everyone. But for what most people are doing on the World Cup is running in the summer. They are building their aerobic bases for the winter to support the high intensity training, and ensure they can recover properly for it.

    Strength training is important, but Crossfit is almost a sport in itself (see Mark Twight and Brian Harders comments above.) It is very useful, but needs modification such as lifting heavy and slow not just going all out, for different phases of the training year.

    Adding in some hill workouts, and intervals, once the fall hits is pretty important as well. But remember you need to start working into this, and ensuring you are recovering properly. Once winter hits, be on your skis as much as possible, and tone the crossfit sessions down. Remember recovery is the key to all this. There is tons of info all over the website too, as a quick comment isn't going to describe it all, just a starting point.

    To get a good idea, check out Gym Jones, Get Stronger Go Longer, and other articles on Ski Theory marked Training or Inside The Pain Cave.

    As for you gear, go as light as possible. The amount of energy required to move gear quickly is high, and essential. 100g's here and there may not seem like a lot but it really adds up. I would recommend, Mohair skins x2 (to rotate between climbs).

    Also I would recommend racing the full course, rather than the rec, as you will learn the most there as well as act as training. Any specific questions you can also email me, which is in the About section. Hope that helps.