Birkie Quest: Training Day #1…or is it Day #366?, Nick Petterssen
Every year it arrives on the calendar – the last weekend in February - the only omnipresent and unyielding athletic commitment in my life: The American Birkebeiner. Many have heard of this event, and for some skiers it represents the same seasonal marker of a peak in training cycles and a yearly goal that looms large in our competitive minds. And for those with no prior knowledge of this seasonal phenomenon, The Birkie, as it's known to most, is North America's largest Nordic ski race. Held in Hayward, Wisconsin, for the past 39 years, the race is an off-shoot of the original Norwegian Birkebeiner. The Birkie celebrates the historic rescue of a young prince over a high mountain range in Norway using the tried and true tools of winter travel - Nordic skis. And while the American version is a bit shorter and does not require the symbolic 3.5 kg backpack (Prince Håkon was a wee-one back in the winter of 1206), it's as close to "epic" as one can get here in non-Nordic-crazed North America.
And what do you know...February 25th just appeared on my three month training horizon. At this point in the year, before the trails are skiable, there is always the panic attack when I see my winter plans roll out in front of me and recognize that I am already behind the curve when it comes to preparation, and the thing that I want to do most to remedy the situation - ski - is not an option (yet). My mind starts imagining all of those highly structured, accurately periodized, Type-A Nordies who have been hill bounding, roller skiing, pole running, and pursuing every other sport-specific drill work in the book. Oh god, I am soooooo behind!
Or am I...???
I have always been a year-round athlete, so the concept of periodization has been a perpetually tricky subject. Read the training books for any given sport and you'll see the 12 month cycle laid out for you clear as day, but what do you do when that second or third sport, complete with its own competitive season, gets in the way of the perfect plan? And on top of that, there is this thing called "life" that compromises any good training plan at every turn.
Enter cross-training. More specifically, enter CrossFit. While I promise to NOT let these blog postings divert to my day job - running a CrossFit gym - I do want to acknowledge that being a year-round athlete has taken on a new meaning. The training approach of CrossFit is one of GPP, or general physical preparedness. Basically it's training to be ready for anything. And that's just what I have been doing ever since the snow left us last March. So when this wave of "I'm behind" panic started coming on this year, I reflected on my last two Birkies and noted that with far less skiing volume each season (a couple of busy winters launching a business) and a steady year-round schedule of high intensity GPP workouts, I have had the BEST two years of my Nordic career, finally achieving a 15-year goal of qualifying for an elite start at the 9,000-person race two years ago, and defending that position last year.
So, in fact it is not Day One of my Birkie Quest. It's day 366. Or is it year three? Or year 42? When you are able to commit yourself to a life that involves regular physical activity, with special attention to a well-rounded approach that trains all areas of fitness - endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy - you never start from nothing. If you think of your fitness level as a non-specific platform, and work regularly to increase the breadth and depth of that platform, goals like having the best Birkie of your life become a matter of just tuning up your sport-specific skills rather than reconstructing everything you lost during the off-season.
And sure, I acknowledge that if I were to dedicate 12 months of my life to a Nordic-centric lifestyle, I would likely place higher at the American Birkebeiner than by taking the GPP approach for nine months out of the year. But let's face it, as an amateur masters-level athlete I do have a life, and I am clearly not vying for a spot on the Norwegian National Team. Training with this new model of year-round, short duration, high intensity, generalized training has opened up countless hours in my schedule to do some of the other really important things in life while not sacrificing my ability to ski the hell out of those glorious 51 kilometers of the Birkie trail each year.
I suspect that many of you with the same seasonal panic attacks might find solace in the fact that you, too, are staying steady with your fitness platform development. Don't shortchange those hours of running, bike riding, swimming, hiking or whatever it is you do in your "off-season." And if you ever find that fitness platform crumbling a bit, or feeling slightly unbalanced, give CrossFit a try (sorry for the shameless plug, but hey... I have to fund my Nordic habit somehow!).
Happy training for YOUR big event!