Happy New Year! And here’s to a new entry to the blog – rather than an update from myself, this is a post written by Steve Scoles. Steve and I connected in Winnipeg this past summer at the Canada Summer Games – he was commentating for the mountain bike events I was competing in. And it was the craziest thing; to meet someone new, but so connected to the ski world I’d just stepped away from, in the midst of what felt like a completely different adventure. After talking more and learning Steve’s story, and how I had unknowingly inspired change in his life, through sharing stories of my own sporting endeavours, I really felt my heart smiling at how incredibly small and intertwined the world seems sometimes.
In any case, I feel truly privileged to have been part (albeit unknowingly) of Steve’s remarkable accomplishments and am continually inspired by him, and so many other people I know who are constantly striving to do better, and become better versions of themselves. I hope you enjoy this post, it may seem like a crazy story, but hey – if you let your mind believe… There is also a great summary of the facts behind Steve’s double poling progress and success near the end of the post.
How Jenn’s Broken Leg Three Years Ago Helped Me Win the Vasaloppet
Thanks to Jenn for letting me onto her blog to tell a story about how her blog helped me win Vasaloppet this year (the USA version of the Vasaloppet that is).
The story starts exactly three years ago this week when Jenn broke her leg before a ski race in Rossland. Remember this …
I had just started reading Jenn’s blog (after it was recommended to me by Pauline Nadlersmith) when the broken leg above happened. After seeing how Jenn was persevering under adversity, the next photograph really piqued my interest. Jenn was training almost exclusively on a ski-erg double pole machine during her recovery.
Now why did that pique my interest? Well. for two reasons. First, I was aware that ski-ergs (and rowing ergs) measured power output. Second, I have been an avid follower of cycling (and cycling training) for many years and saw how power-based training approaches had completely revolutionized cycling training. While ski-ergs do measure power, I wondered if using them would really transfer to double-pole power on snow. Like many skiers, I was skeptical that they would materially make you stronger at double-poling. (In fact, Canadian skier Devon Kershaw once tweeted that he would never use a double pole machine – strength training or real skiing was the way to improve double-poling – we’ll come back to this later.)
I knew Jenn was gunning for the Canada Winter Games that were just a couple of months later and remember thinking “Well, this will be an interesting test of the ski-ergs ability to train for skiing”.
While this question was in the back of my mind, I got busy with my own ski-racing (racing the big loppets in the mid-west US). Although double-poling was my strength, and something I did a lot of, I was barely above average at it. The USA Vasaloppet (held in Mora, Minnesota) that year was held on a lake due to low snow and in a small field I got my best result ever at 9th place. Not bad, but it was a smaller field than the previous year when I got 13th. This race has a lot of flat sections so double-poling was a key part of success in it.
As ski-racing season was drawing to a close, I turned my attention to getting caught up in my ski reading and checked out Jenn’s blog eager to see how her season went. Seeing the posting on Canada Games, I was keen to see how she did. Here was this test of the ski-erg that I was waiting for. The picture I then saw was quickly etched into my memory. The picture was the result of the qualifier for the classic sprint race in Prince George. (Important to note, Jenn had only been on real skis for a few weeks leading up to the games, but had otherwise been training on the ski-erg).
Take a moment to look at and absorb that time gap between first and second — Jenn had won the qualifier by more than 10 seconds! To put more perspective on that, the next 10 second gap included 10 athletes! An absolutely stunning result.
While there are a lot of factors at play in any race result, this was pretty decent evidence that ski-erg training would relate to on-snow double-pole power. My question had been answered – ski-erg training does work. Now, I had to try it for myself.
In another weird (and wonderful coincidence, the university gym near my house added two new ski-ergs a week before I saw this. (I found out a year later that, completely independent of me, a skier in my club knew the buyer for the gym and wrote them a letter suggesting they buy some of these machines!)
As part of this experiment of training on the ski-erg, I talked to a couple of top cycling/triathlon coach that I knew on how to use power in a training plan. Although I was aware of how cycling training was changing because of how power was providing instant feedback to athletes and coaches, I definitely had my eyes opened to how different cycling training was to traditional heart rate based cross-country ski training.
Without going into all of the details of the approach, the results over the next 11 months were remarkable. Using a power-based approach AND the same amount of hours and intensity as the previous year, I was able to increase my double pole power (using a 20 minute test) from 195 watts to 235 watts. That is a 20% increase in power which I calculated would increase ski speed by about 10%.
A 10% speed improvement equates to about 12 minutes over a two hour race. Even with that improvement in my numbers, I didn’t think it would truly translate that well into actual on-snow results. Also, I didn’t seem to feel any stronger on snow. I quickly found out that it did truly translate. Loppet season saw me beating other racers by 10 minutes or more that I previously had never beaten before. And in the USA Vasaloppet, a race that I was once ecstatic to even finish in the top 20, I managed to take a second place – just losing out in a final sprint.
Another year of training got me another 10 watts on my 20 minute test (getting me up to 245). By the way, 10 watts is imperceptible to most people, but translates into a few minutes over a 2 hour race. Furthermore, I was able to increase my 10 second power by 40 watts. The result: a win (in a sprint) in the classic category of the 2017 USA Vasaloppet! At 45 years of age, I became the oldest ever winner of this race (the previous oldest winner was three years younger and was ex-Olympian Kevin Brochman).
So that was the story of how Jenn Jackson’s blog helped me win the Vasaloppet.
Now there was another unusual twist that made this blog entry happen. I happen to do a lot of ski and bike race announcing (you might know me as the guy who gives skiers at Canmore races nick names). Jenn, as you likely know, has made the switch to mountain bike racing and happened to be at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg, which I was announcing at. It gave me an opportunity to tell Jenn my story and get a picture with some of the prizes she helped me win (I also won a couple of trophy axes at the Bemidji, Minnesota Finlandia).
A final twist to this is that just this past week I got to announce at the incredible Para Nordic world cup in Canmore Alberta. After one of the Russian athletes (actually referred to as Neutral athletes), crushed the men’s sit-ski race, I spoke to the head coach of the team. He told me that they use double-pole machines “every day” as part of their training.
Here are a bunch of things I have learned about applying power-based training for double-poling
- Power (measured in watts) is dramatically better than heart rate monitors at measuring intensities higher than an aerobic level – HR is actually very slow to respond to effort.
- Also, power is measuring your actual sport-specific output as opposed to heart rate which is measuring an internal indicator of effort
- HR is still used in power-based programs for aerobic workouts and also for recovery measurement (as well as sometimes compared to power during long intensity efforts)
- Ski-ergs can be used “to go hard”, but the real advantage is in using those power numbers to carefully gauge workouts and progress
- Once the power numbers (the watts) start to mean something to you, they can be quite addictive. E.g. Can I get that 10 more watts to get over 500 watts on that effort?
- Power-based (i.e. double pole machine) training shouldn’t be abandoned once ski season hits. The instant feedback of power-training and the ability to accurately measure improvements is far too valuable to not be used during the main part of your racing season.
- Sub-maximal (i.e. not VO2 Max) testing on a ski-erg can be done each week to see how your body is recovering from the week’s training.
- You can talk to top triathletes and cyclists all day about power training, but skiers cannot relate to the idea of power at all.
- I have found that almost all skiers reject the idea of double-pole machine training (even though they have no problem doing all sorts of other funny training – weighted pull-ups and skiing on short man-made snow loops for hours on end being just a couple of them)
- You still need to do on-snow technique and intensity training to be at your best for ski racing – about 40% of my intensity and speed training for double-poling was on snow
- Months of ski-erg training didn’t make me feel stronger when I got on snow, but it did indeed make me stronger
- Ski-ergs can also be useful from a convenience perspective in times of bad weather or bad snow conditions and also allowing you to avoid all the time it takes to actually go skiing.
- A couple of things that made training on a ski-erg much more fun are: (1) training with someone else to push each other and to talk to during rest breaks; and (2) watching world cup racing videos as I poled.
Perhaps the biggest thing I have learned from this is that tiny, but measurable, improvements over a long period of time can produce unfathomable progress.
It has been an interesting journey since I started reading Jenn’s blog. Without her blog, I never would have experimented with a whole new way of training and would have not been able to win a race that I could never have dreamed of winning.
Thanks to Jenn for letting me share my story here.