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Is it possible to race yourself into shape?

Sedrun, Switzerland, in January 2016. This was one of just two non-racing instances where I have gotten to go skiing since the Swiss Loppet series kicked off.

Sedrun, Switzerland, in January 2016. This was one of just three non-racing instances where I have gotten to go skiing on snow since the Swiss Loppet series kicked off.

Sometime partway through 2015, I made a goal of competing in the Swiss Loppet series this winter. It is a 10-race series of half- and full marathons, almost exclusively skating, in different places around Switzerland. I reasoned that it would be fun to compete, I could probably do decently well in some of the races, and plus I’d get to tour the different cross-country ski areas of the country.

The first race was in Campra, Ticino, in early January. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the race was fairly small and a ton of fun. I finished fourth and set my sights on getting a podium by the time the season ended. (No luck yet…)

Part of that race was figuring out exactly what I was doing. I haven’t raced a ton of 20k’s or 25k’s in my life, and in fact I had only raced four or fewer times each year since I left Craftsbury in 2011. Some parts of racing you never lose: when I put on a bib I can focus and push harder than I can ever make myself go while training (maybe partly because I train alone). I’m a competitive person! And it’s so much fun to be around other people, trying to pick your line and carry your momentum so that you can use what fitness and power you have in the best way possible.

Other parts, like how to pace a longer race and when to listen to your body crashing instead of just pushing though, I was nervous that I might screw up.

But in Campra things had gone pretty smoothly.

The three ladies in front of me lived in places with snow and ski trails. I live in Zurich with no snow and no ski trails. In December I had raced La Sgambeda, where there was actually basically no skiing to be had, then gone to a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland (where there was also no skiing to be had), and then home to New Hampshire (where there was also no skiing to be had). I had very little time on snow, so I was just glad that I felt relatively coordinated and didn’t rip over myself.

The other three ladies also seemed like they might train quite a bit more professionally than I do. By that I mean, following a plan. Compared to an average person, I think I’m in okay shape. I run fairly regularly during the week and during the summer and fall I loved going on long running and hiking adventures in the Alps. But I don’t do a ton of intervals because they are the hardest thing to motivate myself to do by myself. When you train on your own, you end up doing the training you like, for better (in terms of happiness) or for worse (in terms of race prep).

Anyway, back in Campra, I told myself a story: that as the races went on, I was going to get faster. The intensity that I didn’t do during the summer (much) was coming now in the form of races. And my on-snow time was coming in those races too. I would start feeling better and more competitive as the season went on; the races would start feeling easier. Racing 20 kilometers hard every weekend has got to do something for your fitness.

I’m not sure if that was a legitimate thing to tell myself or not, physiologically speaking, but I think it was a good move mentally. The next few weeks I went into my races confident that they would start feeling smoother. I didn’t worry so much.

Then came a race in Sedrun which went in the opposite direction. The picture at the top shows sun on Saturday. On Sunday it was snowing like… whoa. My skis started off okay and then got slower and slower and slower. I had made a bad choice, probably not in terms of wax but in terms of structure. By the end, old guys were coming up behind me with so much more speed on the downhills that instead of pushing my pole basket forward, they had to just put a hand on my back and push me forward. I was WAY off the pace of those top ladies.

It was frustrating, probably more so because the weather had been so bad and it was a relatively miserable way to spend an hour and a half. I began wondering: what if I was doing the opposite of racing myself into shape? What if I just simply hadn’t done the training needed to race a Loppet every consecutive weekend, and now I was getting more and more tired?

With one more race under my belt, a fourth-place effort in Kandersteg where I was again just off the podium but felt pretty good, maybe I have a little more perspective. Or maybe it’s just time, and that directly after every tough race you always start questioning everything.

I’m not sure if I’m getting faster, but I think the races might, in general, be getting easier for me. So I’m really not sure if racing yourself into shape is a thing. Or maybe it is a thing, but I’m held back by other things like the fact that with my two jobs I can’t ever get on snow during the week or ski in between races.

The couch-to-5k phenomenon suggests yes: if you’re not in great shape and sign up for, say, a weekly 5k running series, you are doing to be demolishing your initial times by the time you’ve done five or six of them.

But if you’re in moderate shape and just not in race shape? Is there anything to be done, other than suck it up and actually train like a real athlete?

I have two more races to go, so I guess we’ll see.

Swiss baked goods you win as prizes, ranked.

This weekend I went to Rothenthurm for a 22.5k skate loppet. Rothenthurm is quite close to Zurich and probably one of the lowest-elevation places you’ll ever race in Switzerland. The snow was not fantastic – it’s basically a moor or fen of some sort, so there’s a lot of water bubbling up. This turned into yellowish ice which was in some parts covered in a thin dusting of snow, and in others not. In a few of the drier spots there was grass poking through, or gravel dragged up by the groomer. The ice did make it fast though – the race was over before I knew it, which was very okay! I saw a lot of crashes in this race which were caused by peoples’ skis slipping out from under them on the ice as they pushed off one leg. It happens so fast and all of a sudden…

Ladies get no respect.

This weekend my race was in Lenzerheide. All in all it was a good experience – we raced four loops around the Tour de Ski trails, with one extension and the steepest ‘A’ climb cut out. That turned out to be a good thing, because the first rough part of the race is that it was in the middle of a snowstorm. I can’t complain too much because we have been wishing and begging for snow – the race was actually supposed to be a point-to-point but there wasn’t enough cover, hence the loops of the World Cup course – but it slowed things down considerably. Whereas the weekend before I had felt like I was flying, this weekend not so much. In the slow conditions I guarantee I would have been single-sticking up that ‘A’ climb by the fourth go-round. At least on the long grinding climb out of…

Campra Trip: Attraverso & “College Skiing” in Switzerland

This weekend I went to Campra, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland (Ticino). It was a double deal: a classic 5 k for the Swiss University Games on Saturday, and Campra’s trademark ski marathon, the Attraverso, on Sunday. The first race gave me a chance to see what university skiing is like in Switzerland. Coming from the EISA circuit in the United States, it was quite a difference. And the second race is part of the Swiss Loppet series, a weekly set of mostly 21-25 k races (with a few 42 k’ers) around the country which I plan to participate in this winter. It turns out that Campra is nearly impossible to get to without a car (if you want to go there by public transport, email them at info@campra.ch and they might be able to work something out). So luckily I was able to tag along with the Swiss Academic…

How Your Tour de Ski Race Reports Get Made

Last weekend I headed to Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for the opening three stages of the Tour de Ski. It’s just an easy two hours on the train and bus from Zurich, and I found a great airbnb in town. They were my first races of the season reporting on-the-ground for FasterSkier and I have to admit I’m not sure I was totally prepared. The first day was a sprint, which is basically the most hectic race from a reporting perspective, so I had my work cut out for me. The first step is, of course, watching the race. Usually it’s nice to be out on the course, but in a sprint that’s impractical. The race is so short that if you are out on a hill you can’t get back in time to catch the athletes at the finish line. So I just watched the qualifier from the mixed zone and caught…

The Eastern Cup Experience

I started cross-country skiing in an organized way when I was 15, a sophomore in high school. Before that I had grown up skiing on fishscales, clomping around on the trails behind my grandfather’s house, which were groomed by a devoted local skier (Mike Smith, town hero!) and his snowmobile. We knew that skating existed and every once in a while my mother would try it for ten strides or so, but her skis were classic skis from before skating was even invented and so it wasn’t very practical. As for me, I lived in ignorance. But in high school it became clear that my career as a basketball player wasn’t going anywhere. I joined the ski team because I had run cross-country and many of my friends skied. It seemed logical. Besides joining the high school team I also enrolled with the Ford Sayre club, a local program with a higher racing…

La Sgambeda, la bella vita

Most people don’t decide that the first time they classic ski for the season should be during a long race. I can now confirm: this leads to pain. Much pain. My weekly yoga class on Tuesday? Extra rough this week. I was tempted to do La Sgambeda after Holly Brooks raved about it last year. A ski marathon in Livigno, Italy, La Sgambeda last season served as the opener for both the Swix Ski Classics series and the FIS Marathon Cup; there was a skate race and a classic race, as well as the Ski Classics prologue, all zipping up and down a sunny valley just over the border from Switzerland. How could you not want that? This year things were a bit different. The FIS Worldloppet Cup doesn’t start until January in France, and the (now Visma, not Swix) Ski Classics moved the race one weekend earlier: a 35…

I ♥ mittens, + my Adelboden-to-Kandersteg OD

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autumn alpine adventures

This summer I was on quite a string of trail running/hiking jaunts, accumulating miles of distance and thousands of feet of elevation every weekend. It’s funny how these things go in fits and starts. Work gets crazy and all of a sudden it’s hard for me to put energy into planning weekend trips. Or I prioritize a rollerski instead, and bid the mountains farewell til next week… or the week after… or the one after that, when I spend hours planning where to go only to then look at the forecast and see rain. Plus, to try to fit in so much exercise (let’s not exactly call it “training”, shall we?) I had tried to find routes which were not more than an hour or two’s train ride from Zürich where I live. There’s plenty there, but it led me to start from similar places a few weekends in a row….

how does research make it to this website?

I spend a fair amount of my FasterSkier time (at least when it’s not the race season!) profiling sports science research which I think will be interesting to readers. It’s fun to peruse the literature and sometimes get in touch with the researchers themselves to talk about their process, what inspired their questions, and what they found out. A few times I’ve asked for suggestions from readers about what topics I should cover in these science updates (and if you have suggestions, leave them in the comments or contact me!). A lot of times, it turns out to be hard to find anything on those topics- the research just hasn’t been done, because it might be tricky to find a way to really drill down to the mechanism without getting a lot of confounding factors. So, what questions get asked, and what science gets published? How is it determined what…