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Interval Training: Let race-day terrain be your guide

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With long gasping breaths and lungs tinged with the metallic taste of a brutal effort, another interval set is done. The biggest hill in the trail system has been tamed by you and your skis a half dozen times now, and you can rest easy with a job well-done as you prepare for upcoming races.

[Photo] Liam John

Intervals are one of the best ways to get ready for competition. They help develop your aerobic capacity to become more efficient and powerful. They fine-tune technique at higher speeds, helping you get more out of every stride and pole plant. By challenging yourself with intervals, you also develop a mental sharpness that can help you push through the pain that is inevitable on race day.

One way to add even more benefit to your intervals is to tailor their length, duration and especially terrain to match a few specific goals. Nordic ski races range from short 1.5km sprints to 50km marathon events. And your race season may run this gamut. Adding to this spectrum, courses for any distance can feature imposing climbs or terrain as flat as a hockey rink.

Although the weather and temperature may vary, a 3000m track and field runner will always know the type of racecourse they’re going to get. The loop will be flat, there will be 7.5 laps, and the turns will all be to the left. That kind of consistency isn’t available to Nordic skiers, and therefore it’s beneficial to vary your interval training to match what you may encounter during your next race.

Doing intervals up a long hill will do wonders for your aerobic system, but if the next course you will be racing on is primarily flat you’ll probably spend most of your time double poling, or using the V2 or V2-alternate technique in skating. It’s worth tailoring intervals to mimic that type of effort so that you can identify your strengths and weaknesses, and get your body familiar with pushing hard through gradual terrain and more gentle elevation profiles. Take some time to think about your next race, the kind of ups and downs it features, and identify trails or loops during training that best mimic some of what you’ll be up against.

This concept can be extrapolated to the general profile of a course itself. If you are racing on a loop that primarily heads down to a low point before a longer climb back to the finish, try setting up your intervals so that the first few incorporate a net downhill before switching to an overall climb to finish the set. The same principle applies to racecourses that have an opposite layout. Work your way uphill for the first few intervals, and then practice your downhill skills and technique with the same effort and intensity as your uphill work.

If you’re racing close to home, it’s not a bad idea to make an early visit to the race site and try to structure some intervals on the racecourse itself. Home course advantage can go a long way, especially on a course that features tricky transitions or fast and challenging downhills.

There is an additional benefit to a detailed approach to intervals, and it has nothing to do with your lungs, your equipment or your wax. Having prepared by matching your intervals to your races gives you a mental edge and confidence that is hard to quantify but easy to appreciate. Putting in specific work to conquer steep hills on an interval-training day, for example, gives you a great boost when it comes to digging deep and tackling some equally tough hills in the middle of a race. The power of visualization can go a long way during a stressful event like a ski race, so having done your homework before you’re on the start line is a great way to prepare your mind.

Don’t just treat intervals as another opportunity to go fast and dig deep: plan ahead, and lay out your hardest workouts with goals in mind so that you can make the most of them on race day.

Adam Terko is the head coach of Vermont’s Mansfield Nordic Club and has been skiing competitively (and writing about it) since before Fischer skis had holes in their tips. He’s also the technical editor of Cross Country Skier and writes the how-to column “Back Shop” in each issue.

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