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The Inside Story: Altitude Training

Simen Sveen roller skiing in the Italian Alps during his September altitude training camp. Photo: Inge Sveen

What do elite skiers do on the glaciers? How do they do it – and why?

Simen Sveen roller skiing in the Italian Alps during his September altitude training camp. Photo: Inge Sveen

Simen Sveen roller skiing in the Italian Alps during his September altitude training camp. Photo: Inge Sveen

“When done right, altitude training can improve fitness and increase your VO2max. If you miss, altitude training can wreck your season or even your career, says Simen Andreas Sveen.

This season the Madshus World Cup skier is aiming for the 15-kilometer skate and the 30-kilometer skiathlon at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Sveen has been using altitude training successfully for almost a decade, and is also almost finished with medical school at the university of Oslo, giving him an academic approach to the practice. He explains that the key to physiological gains from altitude training is careful planning and diligence at high elevations.

Typically, the 29-year-old Norwegian will do three altitude camps in preparation for the season, each lasting three weeks. He just completed the first of this season’s camps, which was at Seiser Alm in the Italian Alps at about 2000 meters above sea level. During this camp, Sveen was doing only dryland training such as roller skiing and running at elevations ranging from 1900 meters to 2900 meters above sea level. The next camp, which will be in Livigno, Italy, in October, will be on skis and focused on race-season preparations for the FIS season opener in Beitostølen (NOR). Finally, Sveen typically has one last altitude camp in December, aimed at sharpening fitness and honing skills for the meat of the race season.

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Ramsau; Austria, is one of the best known summer skiing destinations. Photo: Team Sjusjøen

For his second and third altitude camp, Simen Sveen travels to the glaciers in the Alps. Photo: Team Sjusjøen

Why are the camps three weeks long?
“Research and testing indicate that three weeks is ideal in terms of physiological gains in terms of higher levels of hemoglobin and better VO2max. Several studies also show significantly better effect after three weeks compared to two weeks, and that has been my personal experience as well.”

What do you do before, during and after these camps?
“For the period leading up to an altitude camp, I often include more and harder intensity workouts, because you can’t do as hard of intensity at altitude,” Sveen says.

“During the camp, I am very careful to keep the speed down on all my workouts. At altitude, your heart rate will go higher than at the same speed at sea level. So, to be sure I’m training at the correct intensity, I also do lactate testing during the workouts at altitude, especially the first week. It’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking you are going easy just because you go slower. But you have to be hard on yourself and only add volume and intensity very gradually at altitude. Even for my intensity sessions at altitude, I rarely exceed sub-threshold heart rates, because recovering from hard efforts takes so much longer at altitude. If the workouts are too hard, it’s difficult to complete the volume I have planned for the camp, simply because I wouldn’t recover fast enough to do them all. The last couple of days at altitude, I’m also careful to lower the volume and the intensity so that I return home fresh and ready to resume my regular training program as soon as possible,” he says.

“Once I get back home, I take at least one day off and then gradually work back to my regular program. However, a speed session is one of the first things I do when I get back to sea level. After so long at altitude where the focus is on long, slow distance, it’s useful to kick your body back into moving faster. After that, and if my body responds well to training, I start introducing intensity again. I often start with a few sub-threshold intervals and then I pick up the intensity as I feel ready for harder efforts.

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Simen Sveen makes sure he switches up between both classic and skate technique, as well as other training methods also when training at altitude. Photo: Petter Hagen

Simen Sveen makes sure he switches up between both classic and skate technique, as well as other training methods also when training at altitude. Photo: Petter Hagen

What do you absolutely NOT do at altitude?
“Altitude training can improve your fitness or, at worst, break your career. Everything takes a bigger toll on your body at altitude, which is particularly evident for intensity. It takes a lot longer to recover from hard workouts at altitude than for a similar workout at sea level. If you don’t do things just right, you risk not only wrecking your season, but your entire career. Accordingly, I am diligent about sticking to my training plan when I’m at altitude. Even if the weather is perfect and you are super motivated, there is a reason why the program is designed the way it is. If you add 20-30 minutes to each easy distance workout, it really adds up over three weeks, and it can be the difference between coming home with better fitness or coming home worn out and overtrained. That’s why I’m also careful to listen to my body when I’m at altitude, and I never do MORE than what the plan calls for.”

Why do we get a positive effect from altitude training?
“This is an area where the experts differ, and there are some who argue that there is no altitude effect. But among those who argue that there is an effect, the theory is that because there is less oxygen in the atmosphere at higher altitude, the body produces more red blood cells in order to increase its ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. Then, when you return to lower elevation, your body has a higher blood volume and can feed your muscles with more oxygen than before the altitude training, and you will feel fitter and faster. On the other hand, there are some experts who argue that if you were as diligent and serious about your training program, sleep, nutrition and recovery at home as you are when you go to altitude, you would experience the same fitness gains without the altitude, although without the increase in hemoglobin levels,” says Sveen, who still believes in the altitude effect.

“Personally, I have tried both, and I feel that I get a significant fitness boost from altitude training. I’ve tested hemoglobin levels/blood volume before and after altitude camps, and my fitness tests also improve after altitude training. But just going to altitude is not enough to see gains. You have to train right and do the right things there. If you plan it right, you will get that light, fast feeling about seven to eight days after returning to lower elevation. That’s the altitude effect, and if you do things right after you get back, you can ride this peak for two to three weeks,” Sveen says.

Simen Sveen points out that even if the scenery and weather is magnificent, it is important to stick to your plan on both volume and intensity. Photo: Inge Sveen

Simen Sveen points out that even if the scenery and weather is magnificent, it is important to stick to your plan on both volume and intensity. Photo: Inge Sveen

Roll with the best

Junior World Champion Marte Mæhlum Johansen (NOR) shares her favorite roller ski workout.

Marte Mæhlum Johansen won the skiathlon at the FIS Junior Nordic World Championships in February. Photo: flyingpointroad.com

Marte Mæhlum Johansen (NOR) won the skiathlon at the FIS Junior Nordic World Championships in February. Photo: flyingpointroad.com

Marte Mæhlum Johansen won the skiathlon at the FIS Junior Nordic World Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah, in February, and is the Norwegian national champion in the 5km skate.

The 20-year-old loves interval sessions at home in Toten, Norway. This is her favorite roller ski workout.

Like most elite skiers, Marte spends a lot of her training volume on roller skis, although she also loves running. In June, she ran the Birkebeiner half marathon trail run for the first time, and won the elite women’s category, a workout that she categorized as an intensity workout sandwiched between finals at school and a training camp in Greece.

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Marte Mæhlum Johansen won the elite category in the BIrkebeiner half marathon trail run in June. Photo: Inge Scheve

Marte Mæhlum Johansen won the elite category in the BIrkebeiner half marathon trail run in June. Photo: Inge Scheve

I love intervals
Marte’s training program consists of a healthy balance of distance and intensity, running and roller skiing, strength, speed and plyomterics. But when Marte gets to pick her favorite workout, it’s medium long roller ski intervals.

“If I have to pick my favorite workout, it’s an intensity session that starts at my door in Toten. I open with a few controlled intervals on my way from home to the roller ski arena at Karidalen. Usually, I do two 10-minute intervals on my way there. Once I get to the venue, I do the rest of my intervals on the ski course, for instance another three times 10 minutes,” Marte says.

Big bang for the buck
Marte explains that this workout covers a lot: You build capacity, technique and tactics, as well as being a very flexible format that allows for endless variations.

“With this workout, I start out working at a moderate intensity on my way to the venue, while the last intervals are done on the ski course and are more like a race. So if I feel good, I often crank up the intensity a bit on the intervals I do at the venue, which makes it feel even more like a race,” Marte says.

“You can also vary this workout in a lot of ways. You can do it classic or skate, and you can increase or decrease the duration of the intervals. I like to start my workouts with longer intervals at a moderate intensity as a part of the warm-up, but often decrease the duration of the intervals later in the workout. And sometimes I make all of the intervals the same duration,” she says, adding that using the venue she gets the added benefit of tactics.

“First, I get to work on technique at a fairly high speed before I get to the venue. Then when I’m on the course, I switch to focus more on tactical elements, such as carrying my speed over the top of the hills, accelerate out of the turns and so on,” Marte says.

Marte Mæhlum Johansen roller skiing. Photo: Selfie

Marte Mæhlum Johansen roller skiing. Photo: Selfie

Pettersen leads the Birkie Triple

Øystein Pettersen enjoyed his first attempt at the Birkebeiner half marathon trail run. Photo: Inge Scheve
Øystein Pettersen enjoyed his first attempt at the Birkebeiner half marathon trail run. Photo: Inge Scheve

Øystein Pettersen enjoyed his first attempt at the Birkebeiner half marathon trail run. Photo: Inge Scheve

Øystein Pettersen (NOR) debuted in the Birkebeiner running race earning himself the overall lead in the Birkebeiner Triple.

The Birkie Triple consists of all three Birkebeiner events: the 54km ski race in March, the half marathon trail run in June and the 84km mountain bike race in August.

Finishing the trail run on June 10 in 1 hour and 16 minutes Madshus marathon racer Pettersen is now ahead by eight minutes.

“I am stoked,” Pettersen said after his first attempt at the Birkebeiner half marathon.

“It was marvelous! I suffered some, I enjoyed myself some, I was fed lefse on the course and people were cheering along the way. I was a great experience,” he said at the finish line while the rain was pouring down.

“This is exactly what the Birkie should be about, and what the Birkie is all about. I hope the weather is even lousier next year, then it will be even better,” he continued.

A rookie at the Birkie half marathon, Pettersen didn’t know what to expect from the course and the competitors, and was excited to clock in at 1:16.

“I had hoped to make 1:20, so 1:16 is amazing for me, he said.

Combined with his performance at the Birkebeiner ski race in March, Pettersen has a cumulative time of 3:42:51 and leads the overall Birkie Triple with an eight-minute margin with only the Birkie Mountain Bike race to go for this season.

Training with the Best

20.02.2016, Lahti, Finland (FIN):
Paal Golberg (NOR) - FIS world cup cross-country, individual sprint, Lahti (FIN). www.nordicfocus.com. © Felgenhauer/NordicFocus. Every downloaded picture is fee-liable.
20.02.2016, Lahti, Finland (FIN): Paal Golberg (NOR) - FIS world cup cross-country, individual sprint, Lahti (FIN). www.nordicfocus.com. © Felgenhauer/NordicFocus. Every downloaded picture is fee-liable.

Pål Golberg (NOR) in the sprint at the World Cup in Lahti (FIN) on Feb. 22, 2016. Photo: Nordic Focus

Pål Golberg (NOR) roller skis through the winter and plays golf as much as he can.

The 26-year-old Norwegian had his international breakthrough at the Lillehammer World Cup in December 2013, when he won the 15km classic race. This year, Golberg did a repeat when he won the opening sprint in the World Cup mini-tour at Lillehammer.

While Lillehammer is home turf for Golberg, who knows the trails like the back of his hand, he says there is nothing special about this venue. It’s simply a matter of racing well.

“There is nothing magic about Lillehammer. I like these trails, I’ve trained a lot here and I know the courses well, but it’s all about nailing the tactics and having the best skis,” Golberg explains.

Furthermore, success at the World Cup level is the result of thousands of training hours over years. Golberg believes in having a plan with every workout, and performing every session with dedication and purpose.

“The most important is to have a plan for every workout. Don’t just go out there to train. You need to know what you’re doing, how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it,” Golberg says.

For him, these training goals vary from making sure he’s staying in specific training zones throughout the workout to more specific technique assignments.

“Sometimes it’s just sticking to a specific heart rate, other times I tell myself that for 10 minutes every hour, I will have 100 percent focus on technique,” he says.

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03.02.2016, Drammen, Norway (NOR): Paal Golberg (NOR) - FIS world cup cross-country, individual sprint, Drammen (NOR). www.nordicfocus.com. © Felgenhauer/NordicFocus. Every downloaded picture is fee-liable.

Pål Golberg (NOR) at the classic World Cup sprint in Drammen, Norway, on March 2, 2016. Photo: Nordic Focus

The secret to better technique
Leading up to this past season, which was one of his best Golberg put extra effort into skate technique.

“I worked a lot on skating in the fall, because I feel that this is an area where I still have a lot to gain. I feel that my skating is more efficient now, so the effort is paying off,” Golberg says, and happily shares his best training advice for those who want to improve their skating.

“Skating, just like classic skiing, is fundamentally all about balance and coordination. So doing a lot of no-pole skiing and working on gliding as long as you can on one ski fully committed with all of your body weight are good exercises for everyone, whether you are at the World Cup level or just getting into skiing,” Golberg says.

Favorite workout
Golberg has several workouts he likes a lot. In the winter, he loves long distance workouts in the mountains near his home in Gol.

“You can ski really far at Golsfjellet – all the way from Hemsedal to Nesbyen, which is a long ways. Maybe it’s because its home, and I don’t get to be home all that often, but I really think Golsfjellet is quite unique,” he says with passion.

Through the summer and fall, Golberg is fond of moosehoofing and bounding.

“Those moosehufing anf bounding workouts are really good for building capacity and technique at the same time. I put a lot of effort into this during the dryland season,” Golberg says.

Roller skiing in January
And Golberg’s final key to success? Roller skiing – even in the dead of winter!

“I try to do at least one roller ski workout on the treadmill every week, all winter long. My favorite strength session consists of 1-hour uphill double-poling on roller skis on the treadmill, followed by a general strength workout in the gym. The double-poling delivers specific endurance strength, while the weights and core strength works makes it a very well-rounded workout,” Golberg says.

So where does the golf come in? Before focusing 100 percent on skiing, Golberg used to be an active golf player. These days, he plays as often as he can. During the race season, that’s not very often, if at all, but in the summer he likes to get onto the green at least often enough to maintain his skills.

“I’m not sure if the skills are directly transferable to skiing, but golf does require a fair amount of coordination and technique as well,” he says.

“I also like to have something else to think about than just skiing and training, especially during times when things aren’t going as smoothly,” says Golberg, who has put his business degree on hold for a while.

Building a Base

John Kristian Dahl wins Vasaloppet with a 1-second margin in a 29-man bunch sprint. Photo: Ulf Palm/Vasaloppet
John Kristian Dahl (NOR) won Vasaloppet on March 6, then he won the Birkebeinerrennet on March 21, and is one of only 2 racers to win both in the same season. Photo: Ulf Palm

John Kristian Dahl (NOR) won Vasaloppet on March 6, then he won the Birkebeinerrennet on March 21, and is one of only 2 racers to win both in the same season. Photo: Ulf Palm

Maximize your training effort on roller skis.

Vasaloppet and Birkebeiner champion John Kristian Dahl (NOR) shares his training advice on how to get the most out of the time invested, whether your main focus is marathons, sprints or World Cup distance skiing.

Dahl, who won both the Vasaloppet and the Birkebeiner this season, was on the Norwegian national sprint team for years before he switched to marathons with Team United Bakeries three years ago. Dahl explains that the differences in the roller ski workouts for marathon racers and sprint specialists are less than you might expect. The basic training principles are the same regardless of distance.

“Harder workouts are more efficient, no matter what distance you are preparing for, so there are really not much difference in the training,” says the 35-year-old, who won Vasaloppet in his first season on the marathon circuit back in 2014.

The biggest difference between marathon and sprint training is what you do with the roller ski workouts. What you do will be determined by both ambition level and race/distance target, Dahl explains.

“The number of workouts and the number of hours depends to a large extent on how much time you can invest in training, and what your main focus is. But some of your workouts should be in the neighborhood of your estimated race time,” Dahl says.

For most ambitious skiers, about half of their overall training volume will be on roller skis. For the marathon racers, most of that volume is double-poling, both during distance-workouts and intervals.

“We do workouts that last four to five hours and sometimes even more, but its important to build up to this kind of volume gradually,” Dahl says.

“We didn’t jump into these kinds of workouts before we had a solid foundation of both specific strength and endurance. It’s very easy to get overuse injuries. Start by introducing more and more double-poling as you get stronger.”

 

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