Secrets of Low Intensity Training

First things first: what sort of people are Training Tips aimed at? Certainly not at the elite racers or hardcore, dedicated amateurs, many of whom train over ten hours a week – and spend another ten reading specialized literature on endurance training.

On the other hand, we don’t really expect to catch the attention of people who are 100% recreational and wouldn’t even consider training for any ski race, let alone marathons.
That leaves us with those in the middle – those willing and able to put some effort into to improving their physical form and, eventually, getting rewarded for it. Let’s (very loosely) define them as people who would consider training 5-6 hours a week without knowing how to start, or have already started and are feeling discouraged by the lack of progress . If either of those cases describe your situation, we hope you find something useful for yourself here.
The training process in cross country skiing might appear surreally complicated if you try to follow the training of elite skiers: Heart Rate Deflection Point, VO2 max, Ventilatory Anaerobic Threshold, Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation, etc. etc.

Denis Kabanen preparing for the start of La Sgambeda race in Livigno

Here, we will try to walk the tight line between sounding too simplistic and overburdening you with a ton of detail only the professionals would need – or understand.

First, we’ll talk about the low-intensity training for longer ski races – anything from 20 kilometers all the way to marathons and extra-marathons (like the 90 km. long Vasaloppet)
What you need:
A heart rate measuring device. Fairly accurate devices are sold on practically every corner – it’s your personal choice to fork over $500+ on the latest Garmin or Polar model, or to just go with a generic brand from your local Aldi or Walmart. These devices come in two shapes: wrist-pulse measuring and chest-pulse measuring. Although wrist-pulse measuring ones are getting better every year, the older chest strap is still the king.

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Can you start training without a pulsemeter? Yes, just like you don’t need to have a GPS in your car. It’s useful when you’re in an unfamiliar place, but once you’ve learned your way around, you likely won’t need a GPS. It’s the same with a pulsemeter: once you’ve learned to listen and correctly interpret your body signals, you might forgo it (again, elite racers are an exception; they compete for every second and their trainers/doctors want to monitor them at all times).
Why is a pulsemeter important? Because it’s cool to watch digits jump when you accelerate. First and foremost, you want to use it to find out your Aerobic (AeT) and Anaerobic (AnT) thresholds.

We’ll try to both save your time and treat you as grown-ups here, so if you just happen to forget what those are (and who doesn’t, occasionally?), please, google something like “How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor to Find Out Your Thresholds” – you’ll find some excellent explanations out there.

Can one find out his/her AeT and AnT some other way? Absolutely. Top sportsmen regularly undergo functional diagnostics at a special lab. That gives a far more precise picture of the state of one’s cardiovascular and muscular systems. That said, best of luck trying to get an appointment if you’re not an elite skier!

Denis Kabanen instructing a trainee before the Marcialonga race

…Long pause here, waiting while you went and bought a pulse measuring device and found out heart rate zones, corresponding to your very personal AeT and AnT. You do need to do it, because, well, for one thing next time you’re at the starting block of some mass race your neighbour might casually ask (and people do!) “What’s your AnT?”. More importantly, you need to keep them in mind when start actually talking about the training regimen. Remember that AeT and AnT are not set in stone – quite the contrary. To put it very simple, the whole point of endurance training is to raise your AeT. On the other hand, AeT and AnT values tend to be somewhat different during different activities – ATs tend to be higher in running compared to biking, for instance.

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Train low intensity. At least once (better still, twice) a week get yourself on the snow (or rollerski/bike/running shoes) and aim to train strictly between your newly found AeT and AnT. Going slower than your AeT means you’re simply not exercising enough. Going faster than your AnT will get you very tired, very quickly. Putting too much intensity into long distance/marathon preparations is one of the most common mistakes and is decidedly old school. Even the elite marathoners now train slow. For instance, one of the leaders of Ski Classics, Norwegian Anders Nygaard, told us that he does 10 repetitions, 8 minutes each, on that pulse with a minute of the rest in between.
The pulsemeter is not a perfect measuring device (that’s why top skiers increasingly talk Watts instead of heartbeats per minute – but let’s forget about that for a second, as measuring output in Watts on the go is still rather complicated). The best device for measuring the effectiveness of training is your own body. Burning sensations, muscles feeling numb, feeling the pulse beat in your temples, very hard breathing – those all the signs that you’re training wrong (or beyond your AnT).
More often than not you’ll be getting all those warning signs when you climb up hills. Stop, take a breath, “change gears”. Even if the climb is relatively short, 60-90 seconds, do not imagine yourself competing with Ustyugov and Sundby at the last World Championship – instead, imagine that the climb is a kilometer long. That should slow you down.
You just learned about AnT (AeT)? Bear in mind, that on the uphills readouts of your new pulsemeter are the most deceiving, on the contrary, your current heart rate is important after you climbed that hill: if your pulse rate is quickly quickly going down, all is good, you were going at the right tempo for your current level of fitness. If, however, you can’t catch your breath for a long time and the pulse is stubbornly refusing to go down, that’s the first sign that you overdid it on the uphill climb. Your muscles are full of lactic acid and you generally feel very miserable.
Lactic acid is not your friend, and is not a sign that you’re on the the right track in your training – quite the contrary. If you ignore the signs, and keep on pushing several training sessions in a row, your body would feel like it had a particularly nasty bout of cold and you promptly made a major step back in your fitness level.
Now, that we explained (hopefully) what you should and shouldn’t do, remember this: have a training plan in your head and do not change it halfway into the session. If you have decided (or your trainer told you) to go slow-but-long today – stick to the plan, go slow and long, do not suddenly decide to accelerate even if you happen to feel great today – that should be left for another day and another training plan. Of which more later. Stay tuned

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Finish of the Engadin race
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(Denis Kabanen instructing a trainee before Marcialonga)