Monday, November 5, 2012

Qualitative training

As noticed before, I'm not a certified coach nor a personal trainer so take this advice at your own risk.

It is a known fact for people who train a lot, that is easier for a person that has never ran a marathon to become fit for that marathon than for somebody that is fit to improve his or her time on the same marathon. And there is a simple explanation for that. We are used to keep a certain routine, and since most of us train on our own, we follow things that have worked for us before. We have a training plan and we tend to stick to it. That plan gives us results, it works and works and works. Except when you reach a plateau in your condition and you stop improving. Training is and act of faith. We don't know the results until we prove ourselves, but in order to test that we need to train first. So, we believe in our training plan and because of that we stick to something known. And that's when we get stuck on the same things and we do not improve our times.

There are signs that tell us when it is time to introduce variations in our training. One of them is when it gets hard to reach a very high heart rate. You might be running fast and long, and yet your heart rate stays under control. You might be spinning like a madman and yet your heart rate stays under control, unless you start using ridiculous loads, which most likely are going to lead to injuries or overload. And then the season will be over before you know it. So what to do? That is when qualitative training comes to rescue. We are usually so focused on heart rate and interval duration that we forget to listen to our body. Not everybody was born to be a super athlete. Most of us are never going to be in the Olympics, so it is unreasonable to think that we will manage that level of training (specially when there is the job thing and the family thing thrown in the mixture). Training is not only following the hard facts, there is a lot of soft facts that will help you improve. Today I want to talk about the "Rate of Perceived Exertion" or RPE. RPE is just a scale that scores the level of training based on how hard the exercise feels on the body, not on your pulse. You can of course keep track of certain thresholds by correlating RPE with your pulse, but the point is that RPE is about how you feel the exercise. The most common RPE scale goes from 1 to 10, where 1 is a very light walk and 10 is something that cannot be hold for very long. Using RPE you can graduate the level of your training. Specially at this time of the year when most people start to feel panic because they realize that no matter what, their heart rate does not go up as it used to be, or because they just keep running and they do not drink all the water in the bottle as they used to (congratulations, you have reached a good level of fitness btw).

With this I want to say, that now it is time to focus on the feeling. After all, when the big day comes, it does not matter if your pulse was above or below your average. It is the time after crossing the finish line that really matters (and of course the fact that you crossed the line by your own means). At this time of the year is when you should start focusing on finding the "right" tempo, the tempo at which you feel that you can keep going the whole distance of your event. You are fit by now, so now the fine tuning starts.

How to do it? Well, start by having more sessions with long intervals and short periods of recovery. My favourite are 12 minutes work and 3 minutes recovery. Try to make sure that during those 12 minutes you reach the level where it is both comfortable to be in yet still challenging. You will probably reach that level without reaching and incredible high pulse and that is okay. Throw in at least one session of really hard intervals. Usually short ones, such as one minute really hard work and one minute relaxation. I have my personal favorite which is to run for one kilometer using poles and as fast as I can uphill, and then having a three minutes rest. The key point here is to find a level where you really feel challenged. It might be that you reach a very high pulse or you might not, however it is the feeling that matters.

You should still keep track of your pulse, but use it as an afterthought and not as the driving force behind your training.

Remember, now it is time to find the tempo that will make you a winner. And that is something that you do by finding something that "feels" right, not something that your heart rate monitor tells you that is right.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kangaroo Hoppet

We are in Australia because I wanted to participate in the kangaroo hoppet ski race. I will write another entry regarding my impressions about Australia, this one is focused on the race. The race is hosted at the lovely little town called Falls Creek. The town is at 1600 meters over sea level. The race starts at a place called nordic bowl and ends on the same place. Since it is a race in the mountains, conditions are fairly unpredictable. This year they shortened the race from 42 to 30 kilometers because of the weather conditions. The course changes every year to make the best out of the snow and the prevailing weather. This year was windy, very windy and the race was extra hard because of that. If you decide to come here you need to be prepared for everything. We decided to hire skis instead of bringing ours. I got zero skis because the temperature was going to be around zero degrees. It turns out that it was icy, so Ihad no grip. Tip: the only ones that hire decent racing equipment are 200 kilometers away, so you need to order in advance and they will deliver to your hotel. They are called wodonga snowgum. All in all it was a nice experience, and I recommend it.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Apology of the NULL pointer

Almost a year ago I was working for Nokia, and while doing that I wrote a short blog entry that sparked a controversial round of comments. I had forgotten about it until by accident I happened to end up reading that entry again. Here's the link for whoever wants to read it.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

On being in a good shape and training

And there it came the 27th, and there it went! The test was taken and the results were very promising. I'm in better shape than what I thought, although there is room for improvements (isn't always the case?). I also took a "subjective" test, trying to go 15 kilometers in one hour on my skis, and I almost made it. I was short by 40 meters. Given that the tunnel is pretty hard and I had to go six times around it, I'm very satisfied with the results. This is looking very good for next winter. So what comes now? Well, now there will be more focus on interval training although without abandoning my traditional 17.5 kilometers run every friday. What I noticed is that I need to improve my speed, so cruise intervals will be a big part of my training menu.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ski tunnel

Since I had to take one week of vacations I decided to spend it in the little swedish called Torsby. It is right next to the border and there is not much to do, except that they built a ski tunnel and excellent training facilities for people that wants to focus on cross country skiing. I had been here before, mostly in 2010 when I was preparing like crazy for Vasaloppet 2011 (and I got the worst results ever!). This time I'm focusing more on technique than in 2010. My plan is to train two times a day and to take a test on the 27th. The test is called "lactic acid threshold" and it helps to find out the exact moment when your body generates more lactic acid than it can absorb. Side note. Yesterday and today while training I saw Daniel Tynell, who is also training here. I chatted a little with him and he seems to be a very nice person.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Building period

As said before, I'm not a licensed/professional trainer, take this advice at your own risk!

My last post was meant to be an overview of the training season and the key points you need to consider when planning your year. In this post I will go in more details about the building period, which is the period where you "build" your condition.

As mentioned before, the idea of this period is to get used to exercise and to build endurance. It is typical that in this period you train considerably more than in other periods. Not because you stop training after this period, but because in this period most of the trainings should be long and easy. For instance, in my plan I have two over 1 hour runs per week. One is a 12 kilometer run, that goes across the forest and hilly terrain to a train station in between my job and my home, and the other one is running from my current job to my home (app 17.5 kilometers). I also try to include one day of cycling to work, at least once every two weeks, since that gives me and additional three hours of very easy training.

Many people think that long and easy means no variations during the whole exercise. That is not true, you should try to find a terrain that forces you to work harder sometimes and then have long easy periods. I have the advantage that I live right next to the forest and there is a hill chain between my home and my work, so I can just use nature to train. I am one of the lucky ones, but many people live in either too hilly or too flat terrain, so what to do in those cases? The answer is simple, resort to interval training!

The type of intervals you should aim for, is long and easy ones, not short and hard ones. For instance, something that has given me very good results is intervals of 12 minutes in zone three and then 3 minutes of recovery in zone two or even one. You can change the duration but the key to keep in mind is that you work 4 times longer as your recovery period, and your work in in zone three or high zone two. Try to avoid going to zone four, because you will start accumulating lactic acid (yes I know, is not the lactic acid that produces the burning sensation, it is the ionification afterward). This intervals are meant to be long, so going over to zone four early in the process is a bad idea because your body will burn because of the ionification produced by the lactic acid accumulation. This kind of intervals are hard, not only because they require you to work at a pace where you need to make an effort, but also because they are long and the recovery is comparatively short. I rarely do this kind of intervals running, it is hard for me to find a terrain that is easy enough to keep such a pace without going into the higher pulse zones. What I usually do is to use a spinning bicycle at my gym and program my heart rate monitor to keep track of the time for me (it is one of the advantages of the Polar RS800CX, you can program very detailed exercises and let the bookkeeping to the watch while you exercise).

One last thing, intervals are not only time based or pulse zone based. There is something called "natural" intervals, which in essence consists in keeping a pace no matter what the terrain brings to you. This type of interval are a very good addition to any training plan! My advice is to use them after the first month of training and in a terrain that you are already familiar with. Remember, the trick is to keep the pace at all times so if there is a hard uphill, you have to keep going and pray that it will end soon.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


DISCLAIMER: I'm not a licensed/certified personal trainer, take this advice at your own risk!

Since I like to train and I read a lot about training, people usually come to me and ask me questions about how to get in good shape. That's a very ambiguous question and I'll do my best to answer some of the typical things that people ask me about.

When you want to start training to get fit, then you should ask yourself "what does getting fit mean?" Do you want to lose some weight? do you want to participate in a sporting event? do you want to be able to hike over the mountains? It is very important that you set yourself a goal, training without goals is very difficult and might lead you nowhere, despite the fact that you train a lot. It is important that you are realistic and set an achievable goal, setting yourself too high of a goal is only going to bring you frustration and might lead to injuries.

So, once you have set yourself a goal it is time to make a plan to achieve it. I am a believer in a system called periodization, which works really well if you have a goal that requires you to perform well during one or more defined events (such as a sports event, or that mountain trip that you and your friends are planning). Periodization works by dividing your training in cycles or periods (hence the name). In the most basic form you will have one periode of training and one period when you will "peak" and be in your top form. It is a good idea to make sure that the period when you "peak" is the same as the time of the event you are preparing for! I advice you to divide the training in three periods:

  • Building
  • Speed / Technique
  • Peak / Topping

Building period

The idea behind this period is to build a base that will allow you to fulfill your goal(s). During this period you will be training endurance and your main focus should be to get your body adjusted to continued exercise. During this period you should focus on long and easy exercises, not on high intensity training. By long I mean usually longer than one hour. By easy I mean in the first two heart rate zones, reaching as far as the third zone. Unless you train on a specialized facilities as a gym, it would be impossible to only train in those zones, but you should keep an eye on your heart rate and if needed you need to lower your pace, for instance by walking that typical hill that you find when you go out for a run.

Speed / Technique period

During this period it is normal that you start focusing more on improving your speed, technique and/or efficiency. It is still important to continue with long and easy exercies but now you will incorporate exercises aimed to help you go faster. You should also spend time training and improving your technique. Even if you are a runner, everybody can learn more about how to run better, lighter and faster! Typical exercises for this period are intervals in both zone 3 and 4, and even zone 5 (to a lesser point). If you are a cross country skier, this is when you will benefit most of using your rollerskis. Take them out for a spin and improve your double poling technique, or even better leave the poles aside and spend time improving your leg technique!

Peak / Topping

This is the last period before the event and during this period you want your body to be in the best possible shape. Many people get afraid and train too much during this period. Training during this period is important, but it is also important to rest and be in top shape for that great event. Basically training on this period should focus on simulating the event you are going to participate and making sure your technique has become top notch. Typical exercises during this period are intervals in all zones and long and easy training sessions.

Building your personal plan

Now that you are familiar with periodization, it is time to start working on your personal plan. Unless you are a full time athlete (in which case you will probably have somebody that will write or help you write your training plan), you don't need to write a full day-by-day/hour-by-hour plan. It is enough to define when you are going to begin and finish your cycles and what kind of exercises you will be doing (i.e. creating an exercise bank).

How long does a typical period last? Well, that depends on the type of event you are preparing for. For instance, cross country ski is a winter activity, so the peak season is basically January, February and a little bit of March. That means you have the rest of the year to use for building and speed.

The typical question people ask me is, how much do I need to train? I know of several people that train like crazy and get frustrated because they do not get the results they want (I have been in that lot too!) It is hard to give a definite answer for that, it depends on your current fitness, your goal and how much time you can use for training. During 2010 I trained as crazy and during my main event in 2011 (Vasaloppet) I got my worst time ever. During 2011 I decided to train less, so I only trained 3 times a week. In the 2012 edition of Vasaloppet I improved my time by 40 minutes! So don't despair, more training does not necessarily mean better results. Given that I am in general good shape, I decided to increase my training from 3 to 5 times a week during 2012. Now, this increase does not mean that I am doing something wild. It is a very precise and calculated operation. I decided to use our typical sunday walk as training, so now I walk in the forest with poles (it is incredible how good training that is!) and I added a very relaxed running session.

My advice to you is to be realistic. If you are not used to have a training schedule, then do not think that you will make 5 training sessions per week. It is much better to start with few sessions and be able to follow your plan than try to start big and fail. If you haven't trained before, then I would recommend you to start slow (and of course, a visit to the doctor before starting the training is a very good idea!). Two to three sessions per week will be more than enough. Training does not need to be complicated, is it possible for you to bike to work? Then do it once a week. Is it possible to walk to work? Then start doing it! You don't need to run to be training. A good thirty minutes walk is a very good start for anybody wanting to be in shape.

If you are used to training, then you can start experimenting with increasing your load. I like to measure my training load by the number of hours I train per week. Last year I was averaging 5 hours per week, and this season I increased it to 8 (sometimes 9 depending on how long I walk on sundays).

A final word regarding the training load. Your body does not improve its fitness just because you train, you also need time to rest. There is a formula that says: fitness = rest - training If you train more than what you rest, then your fitness will not improve. And you might suffer injuries or even worst, become overtrained and lose valuable months because of that.

Another typical question people ask me is regarding equipment. Generally speaking, equipment is very important but you don't need the latest model to be able to train comfortably. If you are on a budget and want to prioritize things, I will say spend the money on a good pair of running shoes. Running is probably the most efficient way of improving your fitness. Good running shoes are essential if you are going to be running. Bad shoes will stress your knees and might lead to serious illness. Do not save money on shoes! If you are not that constrained, I would recommend you to also get a heart rate monitor. You find them in all prices and with all sorts of features. Use your common sense, you don't need to spend thousands in a heart rate monitor. There are several models designed to people that train once or twice a week. Personally I like Polar monitors, but I have heard good comments about Suunto too. I own a Polar RS800CX, which is the recommended model if you are serious about training (it comes with Polar Trainer a wonderful tool to help you plan and monitor your training and progress). Ask your local sports store, they will be able to point you to something that fits your needs and your wallet.

Just as commonly is the question of nutrition, how much should somebody eat and what kind of food? Here there are no universal answers, many swear by the low-carbo diet while some people swear by other methods. I personally have a balanced diet based on carbohydrates. That is based on carbohydrates means that the largest percentage of my food intake is carbohydrates (pasta, bread, rice). That is a balanced diet means that I eat something from all dietary groups on a regular basis. Seldomly I eat something coming from the sports industry, such as energy supplements or such. My only exception to the rule is energy bars when doing very long (over two hours) training, and energy drinks. I recommend you to follow a balanced diet and not spend the whole day eating the last "new" thing available on the market. When training you should always have enough liquid so you can drink and have a small energy bar or similar in case you get hungry. As said, you will only need to eat an energy bar or drink the energy gels (which are extremely high in carbohydrates) when you are exercising over a long period of time.

Finally and to close this post, training should be fun! If you are not having fun while training, then you might be overdoing it. Unless you get paid to train, you should use training as a relaxing session and not as a job.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Engadin skimarathon

It took me a while to write this post and I'll try to be as concise and informative as possible. I participated in the 2012 edition of Engadin Skimarathon in Switzerland. It is hosted in the incredibly beautiful town of St Moritz, although it starts and end on two different towns. The race itself is pretty flat, except for the forest part after St Moritz and the end of the race where there is a bit of ups and downs. Other than saying that the landscape was beautiful and that the train ride to St Moritz is utterly beautiful there is not much to say. It is a fun race and a very good race to mark the end of the season. As a side note, one week before Engadin I did Vasaloppet for the 3rd time. And I'm already registered for next year!

Monday, February 6, 2012

König Ludwig Lauf

This weekend I packed my skies and went all the way to Germany to participate in the ski race König Ludwig. The race is named after a bavarian king who liked to build castles. Wikipedia has more info about him so here is the link.
The landscape is spectacular, surrounded by the alps and in a very nice town called Oberammergau that looks exactly as you might imagine southern Germany.
The race is tougher than it looks. It is relatively flat, although it goes about 200 meters up for the first 22 kilometers. It is not steep, it is just that it looks flat but is not. If you are fit you can probably double pole the whole way. But I didn't manage to do that.
The slope goes across the valley and besides a palace (Linderhoff). After that, there is a little downhill and more flat-not flat terrain. Since the valley is small, there is a loop at around 28 kilometers and you go back for some kilometers. After that is mostly flat to Oberammergau.
I would say that I manage to double pole about 35 kilometers of the 50 kilometers. As a comparison, I manage to double pole 60 out 63 kilometers of Tartu maraton and around 60 kilometers of Vasaloppet.
All in all, the race is beautiful. The landscape overwhelming and the town really nice. Thumbs up for this race!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The 50 kilometers long nightmare (Or how I managed to go 50 kilometers in 6h43m)

Winter is here! We have snow all over and the ski season has begun. Although it must be said that winter came a little bit late this year, we didn't have snow until well into December.
So, after New year's celebrations (which I spent sick in bed) we packed up our skis and traveled to the Czech Republic to participate in a 50 kilometers race: Jizerska 50.
We have read about it and we have prepared ourselves for a really nice race. Well, racing is a way to say it, I'm not racing to win I just do it because it is fun to participate.
We were keeping an eye to the weather on Bedrichov (the little in the Czech Republic where the race happens) to be sure to bring the proper equipment. All the way up to New year the weather was perfect, around -5C and new snow coming all the time. The week before the race, the temperatures went up to 0 and warmer and there was even rain. If you have ever done cross country skiing you know that those temperatures are the worst case situation because the snow melts and then freezes again but this time as ice.
We left for Prague on Friday 6th and we arrived without problems. We were lucky to meet a couple of acquaintances that gave us a free ride to the place of the race. Unfortunately Mona got sick so she had to spend the rest of the weekend in bed in the hotel. Next day I went to Liberec to pick my starting bib and my time measuring chip and to hear the gossip about the proper waxing for the skis. Once back in the hotel I busied myself preparing my skis for a scary 0C race. On Sunday I followed a group of swedes going to the race and got to the start line in good time to make the final preparations.
A little bit before 9:15 I was on the slopes and that was when I realized that I had no grip at all. I mean, none. My skis just glided without any friction! I had to go my first kilometer fish bone style until I reached a place where people were trying to wax their skis. I managed to get some wax from a guy, and my intention was to get enough grip to go the other 4 kilometers to the first waxing service. Skis rewaxed I was able to go the four kilometers and reach the waxing service. To my surprise the guys at the waxing service asked me if I had wax for my skis. When I told them that I didn't have they told me they didn't have wax either... Dear race organizers, the whole point of a waxing service is to help people with waxing problems, make sure you have wax on the first place.
I continued going with my skis having a weird feeling of having the wrong wax that provided too much grip and no glide at all, but it was better than having no grip at all. Specially since the next 5 kilometers were up hill. Once I reached the top (around 1h30m), I realized that the wax had frozen and I was literally going on top of ice. From the top then it came a long down hill of about 3 kilometers, which was a nightmare because there were no tracks at all. It was pure ice and I had to use a lot of strength to keep my skis on the slope. People were falling left and right and I myself came in close contact with the slopes a couple of times. I managed to get down, but once there my skis were completely useless. I didn't have grip, I didn't have glide and there were still about 35 kilometers to go. By this time I had seen enough people leaving the race, but I decided to keep going because I wanted to get the stamp that will eventually enable me to get the Worldloppet medal and hopefully become the first south american to get such medal.
I tried double poleing, but that didn't work because there were no tracks on the slopes. Dear race organizers, I don't expect that you manage to use the same resources that swedes use for Vasalopet or norwegians for Birkebeiner, but having the machines redoing the tracks a couple of times during the race will simplify things a lot for everybody.
At around 3 hours I eventually got to Smedava. I had heard about it because it is a famous up hill on this race. It is incredibly steep and it is long. So, as you might imagine, having no grip at all this was no fun. I'm not joking when I say that most people took off their skis because they went faster by foot than by skiing (FIS rules say that removing your skis other than to rewax them is forbidden, but I guess at that point people just wanted to survive and being disqualified was not a big concern). Being the one I am, I held on to my skis and climbed the hill using twice as much time as I should have. But I did it following the regulations!
From there on there was some flat terrain on the top and then a long down hill, that again was more than a nightmare. It was just ice, no tracks and a lot of people. By this time we were all tired so people were falling a lot. When I finally reached the end of the down hill, there was yet another up hill (although much milder than the one from Smedava) and the final down to the finish line. By the time I reached the finish line, it was dark and people were getting worried about the people still on the tracks.
All things considered, I learned a lot from this race. Skiing can be a hell if the weather is not right. Not only when is too cold (I've been in races were the temperatures were around -24C), but when is too warm too. I should consider getting myself some Zero skis, which are specially designed for this kind of weather. And of course, next time don't trust the organizers and their waxing services. Take your own wax and equipment!
The odysee didn't stop there. The next day we went to Prague and took our flight back. Our flight was Prague - Munich, Munich - Oslo. The first flight was delayed, so we were stuck at the airport in Prague. When we finally arrived to Munich, _WE_ reached our next plane but our lugagge didn't. Lufthansa said, no problems we'll deliver it to your door. And so they did next day, except that my skis were damaged beyond repair :-( Now I'm waiting for the insurance company to tell me that they are going to pay for my skis before buying new ones. Luckily I had bought new skis as a Xmas present to myself, so it is not that important now.