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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

What a Season Opener!

Ingvild Flugstad Østberg won the 10-kilometer season opener at Beitostølen on Friday, and was third in the 10-kilometer skate race on Saturday. Photo: Geir Olsen
Ingvild Flugstad Østberg won the 10-kilometer season opener at Beitostølen on Friday, and was third in the 10-kilometer skate race on Saturday. Photo: Geir Olsen

Ingvild Flugstad Østberg won the 10-kilometer season opener at Beitostølen on Friday, and was third in the 10-kilometer skate race on Saturday. Photo: Geir Olsen

Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg turned the national season opener at Beitostølen into their podium party, Pål Golberg and Simen Sveen both delivered podiums at Beitostølen, and Krista Pärmakoski won in Finland.

Ingvild Flugstad Østberg opened her 2017 season by winning the 10-kilometer classic race at Beitostølen on Friday, with Heidi Weng in second place. 13 seconds separated the two Madshus racers, but the duo had a minute gap down to third place.

“I’m almost surprised that I did so well in the first race. I have felt good in training all summer and fall, but the last week felt a little harder. But I felt like I skied well, and it was fun to win the first race,” Østberg said after the victory.

On Saturday, Weng posted another second place in the 10-kilometer skate race, with Østberg in third place.

“This is my best season opener at Beitostølen ever. I don’t usually ski very fast in the first events, so it’s fun to do well here,” Weng said.

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Heidi Weng was 2nd in the 10-kilometer skate race at Beitostølen (NOR) on Saturday. Photo: Geir Olsen

Heidi Weng was 2nd in the 10-kilometer skate race at Beitostølen (NOR) on Saturday. Photo: Geir Olsen

Additionally, Madshus racer Simen Andreas Sveen was third in the men’s 15-kilometer skate race on Saturday. The 29-year-old is currently pursuing his racing career outside the Norwegian national team, and needed to ski well at Beitostølen in order to be considered for World Cup events later this season.

“I hope I will have a chance to ski the World Cup mini tour at Lillehammer in two weeks, and that I ski well enough there to be selected for the World Cup in Davos the following week. I have two main goals for the season, and those are the 30-kilometer skate at the World Cup in Davos, and the 50-kilometer skate at the World Championships in Lahti later this winter, so I really needed to post some good results here this weekend,” Sveen says.

Finally, on Sunday, Pål Golberg hauled in to second place in the skate sprint. Golberg is aiming for a spot on the Norwegian World Cup team for the mini tour in Lillehammer the first week in December. Performing well on home turf in Lillehammer is an important application for a chance to represent Norway at the Lahti (FIN) Championships in February. Accordingly, racing well at the Beitostølen season opener was crucial in order to keep those doors open, now that Golberg is racing outside the core of the Norwegian national team and has to qualify for the individual events.

Also this weekend, Madshus racer Krista Pärmakoski (FIN) won the women’s 10-kilometer classic race in Rovaniemi (FIN) on Sunday. She was second in the skate sprint on Saturday.

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Simen Sveen was third in the 15-kilometer skate race at Beitostølen. Photo: Geir Olsen

Simen Sveen was third in the 15-kilometer skate race at Beitostølen. Photo: Geir Olsen

The 2017 FIS cross-country World Cup opens in Ruka (FIN) this coming weekend and consists of with 12 rounds including Tour de Ski and two mini tours. Additionally, the 2017 FIS Nordic World Championships are held in Lahti (FIN) from February 22 to March 5.

2017 FIS World Cup Schedule
Nov 26-27: Ruka (FIN)
Dec 2-4: Lillehammer (NOR) mini tour
Dec 10-11: Davos (SUI)
Dec 17-18: La Clusaz (FRA)
Dec 31-Jan 8: Tour de Ski
Jan 14-15: Toblach (ITA)
Jan 21-22: Ulricehamn (SWE)
Jan 28-29: Falun (SWE)
Feb 3-5: PyeongChang (KOR)
Feb 18-19: Otepää (EST)
March 8: Drammen (NOR)
March 11-12: Oslo (NOR)
March 16-19: Tyumen (RUS) mini tour

Back on the Podium

Heidi Weng at the 7.5km uphill skate race Lysebotn Opp on Thursday, where she was second. Photo: Blink2016
Heidi Weng at the 7.5km uphill skate race Lysebotn Opp on Thursday, where she was second. Photo: Blink2016

Heidi Weng at the 7.5km uphill skate race Lysebotn Opp on Thursday, where she was second. Photo: Blink2016

Madshus racers collected five podium finishes at the 2016 Blink Summer Ski Festival in Sandnes (NOR).

On Thursday July 28, Heidi Weng (NOR) pulled into second place in the brutal 7.5-kilometer uphill skate roller ski race Lysebotn Opp. In the men’s race, Madshus racer Simen Andreas Sveen (NOR) was third. Both men and women raced the same distance.

In the men’s 15km skate mass start on Friday, July 29, Pål Golberg (NOR) was third, only a tenth of a second behind second place and less than a second from first place.

Finally, in the women’s biathlon sprint finals on Saturday July 30, Anaïs Bescond (FRA) was second and Marthe Olsbu (NOR) was third.

Complete results all events 

However, the 2016 Blink Summer Ski Festival opened on Wednesday July 27 with the inaugural Blink Classic roller ski marathon in Sandnes where Madshus marathon racer Stian Hoelgaard (NOR) was just one second from the podium. The 62km classic roller ski race was the first event in a brand new international roller ski series. The next event in the 3-race series is Alliansloppet in Sweden August 19-21.

The 2016 edition of the annual summer roller ski festival in Sandnes event attracted over 1,200 skiers and biathletes from more than 20 nations to compete in a variety of roller ski events over the course of four days. Read more about the 2016 Blink Summer Ski Festival.

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