Lessons in risk taking, to the “maks”

Maks doing pull ups.

Photo: Johanna Lier / Faster Skier
Maks Zechel doing pull ups: “the most popular Norwegian strength exercise.”

Maks Zechel
Faster Skier

On a cold, foggy Norwegian ski slope at the end of August, my teammates and I were about to tackle 6 x 6 minute Zone 4 bounding intervals. In Norway, bounding with poles is called elghufs, or “moose hooves.” I had never done a bounding workout of this duration and intensity. Despite this, I decided to take a risk and stick with the best runner on the team. I stuck with him from the first interval and stayed with him as he threw in big surges on the plateaus between climbs. He added these surges because he is trying to get better at working the flat sections of ski races in the winter, which happens to be one of my goals as well. We did the whole workout together, and I stayed with him until he got away on a downhill and a steep climb at the end. I took a risk in a workout, not caring if I blew up halfway through, and it allowed me to train at a higher intensity than I would have thought possible.

A few days later, I returned to the ski tunnel in Torsby, Sweden, for a long-weekend training camp with Team Asker. In the tunnel I confront a fear of mine developed over a few years of poor performances in classic races: I dread the feeling of my grip giving way while striding up a hill. I am determined to become a better classic skier, so I work hard at anything that I believe will make me better: bounding intervals, core, double poling, hours of video technique work, and skiing without poles. If I can ski up a hill legs only, then surely I can do it with poles in a race, right?

On our first morning in Torsby, we have a distance classic ski in the tunnel. Rather than skiing slowly around the tunnel for a couple of hours, our coach has added some variety to our workout: one lap legs only, one lap with good striding on the hills, and one lap with a short race-pace acceleration. The variety in this workout is important in early season skiing so that we can take advantage of our short time on snow to train our muscle memory to ski properly, getting rid of lazy habits developed while rollerskiing.

On my legs-only loops, I decide to take a risk. Instead of pressuring myself to make it up the entire hill, I ski as dynamically as I can, focusing on full commitment to each ski and compressing the wax pocket as if I had perfect grip. Although frustrating, I know that it is better for my development to ski properly up half the hill than to shuffle up the entire thing. A few times I am rewarded with making it to the top, and other times I almost face plant spectacularly in front of the Norwegian junior national team coach.

While training in Torsby, we were lucky enough to be there at the same time as the Norwegian junior national team and national recruit team (a step below the national senior team), as well as Anders Gløersen, Charlotte Kalla, Stina Nilsson, and Hanna Falk. I watched some of the members of the recruit team doing offset sprints, and it was the fastest I have ever seen someone sprint on skis in real life. Rather than being intimidated, I felt almost relieved to watch some of my idols skiing this fast. The mystery was gone; this is how fast you have to ski to be great—simple as that. Now I could spend the entire weekend shadowing some of the best skiers in the world.

On our first day in Torsby I had the opportunity to do two things for the first time in my life: rollerski on a treadmill and take a VO2 max test (maximum rate of oxygen consumption). Naturally, because of my name, I prefer to say it in Norwegian: VO2 maks.

After an initial stumble on the treadmill, I found it quite easy. Before the test started, I warmed up on a few different gradients and speeds, unable to stop smiling at myself in the large mirror in front of me. Here I was, rollerskiing in the same laboratory that has tested countless World Cup skiers!

The test began at a gradient of 10 percent and speed of 10 kilometers per hour, with the gradient increasing every minute until it reached 18 percent. This felt remarkably steep. From then on the gradient remained the same, but every 30 seconds the speed increased. During testing there is a harness around your waist so that you don’t fall off the treadmill, a heart rate monitor around your chest, and a mask strapped to your head to measure oxygen consumption. It’s a lot of gear hanging from your body, and your head has to remain relatively steady, but once the test started I found that the pain was an adequate distraction from all of this. My VO2 max result was 74.5 ml/kg. Last year Harald Amundsen, the top skier on the team, reached a VO2 max of 85 ml/kg as an 18-year-old.

Being in a new place, with a new team, and in close proximity to many of the world’s best skiers, there is a lot to take in. In the midst of so many talented and competitive skiers, I am trying to create a learning space for myself, devoid of expectations, so that I can learn without restrictions. When winter finally comes, I hope that I can translate my learning to some fast performances on skis.

Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favorite skier, and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.

This article was originally published on Faster Skier. View the complete post at fasterskier.com/fsarticle/closing-gap-lessons-risk-taking-vo2-maks-testing.

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