The chance of any plan going according to plan is zero. But the chance of arriving at an unknown destination without a map is also zero. Reality unfolds somewhere in the middle.
For the 2018/2019 season, I did an analysis of where I’m at and what I need to work on. By using that brainstorm as a rough guide–and with some luck, flexibility, and course correction over the next six months–I should get to where I want to go with the least amount of detours and dead ends.
The SWOT Analysis
Several years ago, I learned about SWOT analyses from a business colleague. I thought that doing a SWOT analysis would be a good way to start my training plan.
So I gave a lot of thought to my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The rest of this post details what I came up with.
What are my strengths?
These are areas that I need to maintain and capitalize on.
- Strong finisher; fast transitions; can move fast in exposed, technical terrain; good at pacing; patient; flexible schedule, extensive training knowledge; have a world-class advisor; high anaerobic capacity
What are my weaknesses?
These will be key areas to focus on and strengthen.
- Slow starter; negative when too anaerobic; lose time on downhills; heavy upper body; prone to grinding away; rare to branch out; weak legs relative to heart and lungs
What opportunities do I have?
- Improve start speed; increase pain tolerance; atrophy upper body; take more calculated risks; make intensity more specific; make training modes more specific; increase volume; add more altitude.
What threats am I facing?
- Immunity (exposed to school-age children); occasional severe life stress (1-2x per year); injury (occasional hip and knee pain); too much travel
Incorporating SWOT into the plan
As detailed above, I have a bunch of changes that I want to make to my training. Everything comes back to climbing and descending faster with less effort, but another factor is to make my training healthier. The healthier it is, the more consistent it’ll be. The more consistent it is, the more effective it can be.
Save strengths for in-season
Strengths are areas that I can use later. For training, I need to make sure that I maintain them. The temptation is to focus on them because it’ll feel good and be gratifying. But strengths are not where the low-hanging fruit lies in a training season.
Have more fun
I have a bad habit of grinding away, making my time as jam-packed and efficient as possible. As a result, my training gets rigid and stagnates. This year I’ve freed up my schedule to allow for more flexibility. It’ll allow for a wider variety of objectives, and it should help to keep things fresh.
Another component is music. I’ve never listened to music when training because I value the quiet time in my head. It allows for a lot of thinking, and a lot of my writing ideas come from it.
But once workouts get long in the tooth, the thinking stops and so does the fun. The other day, I stopped and put my headphones in. It made a huge difference, and I finished the session with more energy than I would have.
Over the season, that’ll pay big dividends in speedier recoveries and ongoing motivation. It’s like a sonic carrot on the end of a wired stick.
- Deals with: Weaknesses (negative when fatigued, prone to grinding away, rare to branch out); Opportunities (take more calculated risks)
Be more social
Being more social is another way to have more fun, but it warrants its own section. Training needs are rarely shared between athletes. And the mindset of you-do-your-workout-I’ll-do-mine is nonexistent among non-athletes. So structured endurance training is often solitary. That solitude can be a heavy burden at times. (It makes me appreciate my years climbing, where the partnership is an inherent benefit.)
To lessen the load, I’m going to make my training more social. Key workouts will be specific, but there’s no reason that easy days can’t be less structured. I suspect that the social element will also speed up the recovery process.
- Deals with: Weaknesses (negative when fatigued, prone to grinding away, rare to branch out); Opportunities (flexible schedule, take more calculated risks)
Take more rest
Loosening up my schedule a bit also allows for more downtime. I’m planning on at least one mandatory rest day per week. That one rest day allows for almost two months off per year with zero fitness losses. Quite the opposite actually, because rest and recovery days are when we get stronger.
Also, I’m going to stop using an alarm clock and take a lot of naps. My dog is on this program, and it seems to work well for her!
- Deals with: Opportunities (flexible schedule); Threats (immunity, stress)
Be more specific
Last year, I bought some used roller skis. I didn’t notice that the roller skis I bought didn’t track straight and needed all new wheels. The boots I bought were too big. And roller skiing on any sort of downhill is terrifying. I was intimidated, so I avoided it.
When ski season came around last winter, I had to get used to having skis on my feet. I could feel the extra drag. My skimo skis are the lightest possible, but they’re still heavier than running shoes. It took me a few weeks to adjust.
My time on any type of ski was only 26% of my total training time last year. This year, I’d like to make it 50%.
I got a close-out deal on some new entry-level roller skis, and I bought some smaller boots. I should hire someone for some roller skiing lessons as well.
Many people would say that roller skiing contradicts the first thing in this list: Have more fun. By the end of the summer, I may agree. But learning how to glide a roller ski is pretty challenging when you’re used to a wide, flat skimo ski. The technical challenge is fun. And if I can trade roller ski hours for downhill running, it’s already a win.
- Deals with: Opportunities (make training modes more specific)
Do more super easy volume
After reading the Marit Bjorgen study, I realized that my easy days were still not easy enough. This is especially true because I’m very fast-twitch. Fast-twitch athletes need even slower recovery paces than their slow-twitch counterparts.
So I decided to find out exactly what pace and heart rate put me at ~1 mM of lactate. It was a very slow pace, but it allows for a lot more volume. And the pace at that ~1 mM heart rate has increased a lot, so it’s no longer painfully slow.
Still, it takes a while for a 1 mM workout to feel like work, so it’s always tempting to go faster. But at 1 mM, the recovery is fast, usually within hours. Thus, I can do a lot more volume at that intensity.
The one who lines up for a race with the biggest base, the most training volume, wins.
~ Rico Elmer
I wish it were as simple as having the biggest base… But the statement does hold true if all else is equal. But all else is never #$%^ing equal, is it?
- Deals with: Opportunities (increase training volume)
Do more Local Muscular Endurance
The weak link in my fitness is my legs. My engine is strong, but my legs have recently been the component that fatigues first.
I’ve also noticed that my heart rates aren’t as high during high-intensity efforts. That could partly be from an increase in cardiac stroke volume. But based on how my legs feel, my legs aren’t strong enough to place a high enough demand on my heart and lungs. My heart and lungs have strengthened, but I’ve left my legs behind.
Yuri Verkhoshansky developed Local Muscular Endurance training (LME). It’s a good way to recruit more fast-twitch muscle fiber and have it work aerobically. Verkhoshansky used a series of weighted jumps to make this happen. My friend Scott Johnston developed something similar using long-duration, weighted, uphill carries.
Because skimo is a high-cadence sport with no heavy loads, I’m going to focus on the weighted jump method. Twelve weeks of LME in the beginning of the training season should do the trick. If I can tolerate it, I may add more closer to race season.
- Deals with: Opportunities (the drive train (my legs) are the weak link)
Do more lactate shuttle training
Before last race season, I experimented with supra-threshold alternations. The first interval is greater than anaerobic threshold. The “recovery” interval is at anaerobic threshold. They’re brutal but very effective.
The theory is that the alternating intensity forces the body to reabsorb more lactate at AnT. After only a few sessions last year, I felt much, much stronger. (Unfortunately, I got derailed shortly thereafter, and I never got back on the program.)
- Deals with: Weaknesses (slow starter); Opportunities (improve start speed; increase pain tolerance)
Do more strength training
I’m an admitted slacker when it comes to strength training. I go through periods of liking the gym and then avoiding it for months. This year I’m planning on at least two strength sessions per week. I’ll do at least one max session and one core.
- Deals with: Opportunities (the drive train (my legs) are the weak link; Threats (injury, occasional hip and knee pain)
Even after all of the above, there are several things that I want to add this year.
Be precise with intensity
Below aerobic threshold, intensity tracks closely with heart rate. But above aerobic threshold, I find heart rate almost useless.
It takes upwards of 30 seconds for heart rate to start to respond to changes in intensity. And it may take tens of minutes for it to match intensity. In many cases, that’s way too long of a feedback cycle to be useful. Nailing high intensity with heart rate feels like throwing darts. I hate throwing darts.
So I bought a treadmill. This year, my intensity work above aerobic threshold (>= 2 mM) is going to be precise and repeatable. (Hill sprints are the exception: Neither heart rate nor speed are necessary to measure at maximal intensities.)
- Deals with: Opportunities (make intensity more specific)
Get up high more often
Another takeaway from the Marit Bjoergen study was her use of altitude. Although not away for long periods of time, altitude training made up 20-25% of her total training time. She did several two-week blocks, living at 7,000′ and training between 5,000′ and 10,000′.
Frequent two-week blocks would be a stretch for me, but I may be able to do more shorter trips. Plus, I live at 5,000′ so I can easily get higher on day trips.
I’m hoping several shorter trips will help. I’d like to make 20-25% of my training above 2,100m (~7,000′).
- Deals with: Opportunities (add more altitude)
I’ve done a bunch of lactate testing in the past, but I had to stop because I didn’t have a proper testing venue. (Public gyms don’t like blood samples on their machines…) Now that I have my own treadmill, I have that option again.
I’m going to test:
- Aerobic and anaerobic capacity every six weeks (AeC and AnC, respectively);
- Peak lactate after sprint workouts;
- ~1′- and ~10′-lactate after LME workouts;
- Mid- and post-workout lactate during lactate shuttle intervals;
- Event-specific Maximum Lactate Steady State (MLSS) tests later in the season.
More testing should keep my training more on-track. It’ll give me ample opportunity to course correct when necessary.
- Deals with: Opportunities (make training more specific)
I am a Bad Stretcher. But at 44, I need to start paying more attention to mobility. Every year I have more and more maintenance to do. (As we get older, does all activity slow until it’s all maintenance? I hope not.)
I’m more consistent if I record what I’m doing. It helps with stretching as well. Like The Seinfeld Strategy, it’s motivating to see my stretching volume inch upward.
- Deals with: Threats (injury, occasional hip and knee pain)
Hire a nutritionist
I climbed a lot from 1996 to 2009. My weight varied from 150 to 165 pounds. I was heavier when mixed and alpine climbing, and lighter for competitions.
After five years of endurance training, I’ve “rearranged the furniture” a bit, but I still have a heavier torso than the skimo racers on the podium. I don’t have the natural ability to podium, but I may be able to get closer if I can get lighter.
But getting lighter is a waste if my health suffers. A nutritionist could help.
- Deals with: Weaknesses (heavy upper body); Threats (illness, stress, injury)
How am I going to structure it?
My training season is in phases, inspired by the methods of Renato Canova. A Canova macrocycle consists of six phases:
Transition (4 weeks)
- Goal: Rest and relaxation followed by an easy bridge back into the training routine.
- Focus: Fun. Volume. Gain. Slowly.
- Content: Playing in the mountains, climbing, and skiing. Disconnecting from Training Peaks. Trying some fast ascents, fast traverses. Some general strength, circuits, a few max workouts. No intense endurance training.
Introduction (4 weeks)
- Goal: Easing back into training with extreme polarization (it’s either super easy or super hard).
- Focus: Similar to Transition
- Content: Adding one or two sprint workouts per week. Keep endurance training paces under 80% of aerobic threshold (<= 2 mM)
Fundamental (12 weeks)
- Goal: Training is still quite polarized. The focus is on extending endurance sessions and developing speed.
- Focus: Back to work, but keep it fun. The easy endurance days can still be social and recreational.
- Content: Local Muscular Endurance (LME) once or twice a week, depending on recovery. One jump session and perhaps one carry session. Start conservatively. Endurance paces at <=95% AeT (-10), but not longer than 60-75′. Sprints once a week if tolerated alongside LME. Add some high-end 30-30s in the last two weeks.
- Races: Possibly two VKs.
“We increase the distance and the global volume.”
Special (12 weeks)
- Goal: Training starts to move toward race pace. Endurance sessions are sped up; speed work is slowed and lengthened.
- Focus: Faster endurance. Longer speed work.
- Content: Endurance paces move up to <=97% AeT (-5), but not longer than 60-75′. Slower paces can be longer. More 30-30s in the first four weeks, then moving into MLSS alternations for the last eight weeks. Max strength work. Schedule a mental refresh trip toward the end of this phase.
- Races: Possibly two VKs.
“We maintain the distance and the volume and increase the speed.”
Specific (8 weeks)
- Goal: Event-specific training. Both endurance and speed end the phase at race pace. Endurance from below; speed from above.
- Focus: The final funnel
- Content: Slower and longer intervals at ~AnT progressing down to skimo race pace. Longer sessions at AeT, progressing up to skimo race pace. Progressive workouts starting below AeT, finishing at ~AnT. Strength is max and maintenance.
- Races: Includes one skimo race in week 5 which will be a good readiness test.
Competitive (12 weeks)
- Goal: Racing begins. My goal this year is to stay as fresh as possible throughout the season. That’ll demand a lot of easy volume to counteract the deleterious effects of racing.
- Focus: Stay fresh.
- Content: Limit aerobic deterioration. The season could have eight races, but racing all would be too many. Season ranking is based on the best four. (Is it still? This seems to change often…) Lake Louise is worth more points than the rest.
“There’s not a lot you can do to make someone faster before a race, but there’s a lot you can do to make them slower.”
Here’s the template that I use to schedule the workout progressions within each phase.
Where am I now?
This is the seventh week of my Fundamental phase. In this phase, I started introducing the higher intensity components. The Transition and Introduction phases included a speed traverse and a lot of loose, unstructured training.
So far it’s gone well. Both my max lifts and average weekly volume are high. Peak lactate after sprints is less than last year (which was a record year), but that may be due to a higher aerobic capacity. My easy runs are at unusually low heart rates, and the ~1 mM training seems to be paying off. I’m recovering quickly after each day of training.
I’ve finished three lactate tests so far. I was concerned about elevated lactate levels at low heart rates in the second test, but I was able to reverse that by the third. The key was to slow anaerobic development and increase the pace of aerobic work.
For the rest of the Fundamental phase, I’m going to focus on Local Muscular Endurance and increasing the pace of my aerobic capacity workouts. That should gradually improve my lactate curve by strengthening aerobic capacity and slightly weakening anaerobic capacity. If successful, my curve will continue to move down and right. If that happens as planned, the gap between my aerobic threshold and anaerobic threshold will narrow as well.