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No Regrets Part 5

Start with No Regrets Part 1 and find your way through as needed.

I’m actually going to accelerate things as this is getting long; I could detail what happened for every year of the 5.5 I skated but it’s really not relevant except in overview.  I’m going to be updating every day this week until Thursday to keep each post shorter and try to cover everything.  Yeah, I know, I’m wordy.  It’s worth it.

I’d note that it became abundantly clear that my original plan of only 1.5 years in SLC (I had planned to stay through Torino trials and that was it) was little more than an amusing pipe dream; I was no Chad.  That came and went before I’d even learned to skate.  But since I still had doing something I needed to accomplish and nothing else going on, I signed on for the next 4 year cycle.  So I’ll be talking about 5.5 years for the rest of this series.

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Fixing My Technique

I knew that I’d have to rebuild my technique from the ground up to get anywhere in the sport.  And that was a problem.  With nearly a decade of doing it wrong, my body had a lot of patterns ingrained and they were all wrong. I’ve fixed people’s technique in the weight room and it takes endless, endless repetition and practice.  And the body always wants to revert to old habits when you’re tired, stressed or trying to go all out.

I do NOT want to make it sound like I’m blaming my coach for the end result but, quite factually, if there was one place I really disagree with what he does/did it’s that he let me race and do speedwork with poor technique.  I feel that I could have learned technique faster had I just done drills for 2 years (of course, initially, Rex was under the impression that I was there for 1.5 years until Torino and then done).  Every time I raced, every time I tried to go fast I just reverted to old habits and locked them in deeper.  But that’s water under the bridge.

Rex is a technical perfectionist and I am the same when it comes to learning.  As I realized how bad my technique was, we started to rebuild it from scratch.  I asked endless endless questions, he gave endless explanations and demonstrations and I did more drills than I care to think about.

On-ice, off-ice, I was always doing drills.  I’d be in line at the post office or grocery store and be practicing dry skating or crossover mechanics.  I didn’t care what people thought, I needed as many repetitions as I could get to fix this.  Every repetition I did correctly was one more away from doing it badly for years.

Let me tell you how insane I was about this, I mentioned this weird concept of internal rotation that happens when you skate.  Well, due to years of high-bar squatting, my position of strength was with hips turned out into external rotation and toes out.  Not only did I not squat during my training (many skaters can’t translate the flat backed, toes out of squatting to the round backed toes in of skating), I would walk on the treadmill with my legs internally rotated for an hour multiples times per week my first season.  It not only helped with body comp but taught my body to be comfortable and generate force with the hips in internal rotation.  Yes, I am psychotic.

Every time I’d get something locked down, Rex would give me something more difficult to do.  It kept my ego in check by giving me something new to suck at every time I thought I had things figured out.  More seriously, it kept me on the high edge of the learning curve.  As I talked about in Becoming an Expert-Deliberate Practice, always working a little bit past what you can do comfortably is what keeps you progressing.  I’d learn something new, figure something out, and he’d give me the next step.

In that aspect of skating, Rex is a virtuoso.  He knows exactly when to show you the next skill, the next piece of this horrible puzzle called speedskating.  But better than that he knows how to teach, explain and demonstrate each step.  And the next one and the next one.  He had a technical ideal, built over 3 decades of obsession, that he was moving me towards little by little.

It didn’t help that many parts of skating are like this: to do part A correctly you have to be able to do part B.  But to do part B correctly you have to be able to do Part A in the first place (and you’re doing this while doing a half-dozen other things at the same time).  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever learned to do in my life.

People who knew skating would watch video of me and go “It looks like you are thinking about skating instead of just skating.”  Yup.  I’d be in a lap thinking about a half-dozen cues all at once and it made me skate like a robot.  It looked horrid and felt worse.

Mind you that this process occurred over 5.5 years, I’m making it sound like it was quick but it was not.  There were endless setbacks.  I’d learn something, figure it out, then lose it for 3 weeks and revert to old habits.  Then it would come back and stay.  It was never ending but this is where my particular brand of obsessive psychosis comes in handy: I can focus for years at a time on stuff that’s important to me.  I don’t get bored.  In this regard, Rex was the perfect teacher, and I was the perfect student.

I’d note, to break up the dense blocks of text that I did finally get it.  Rex had told me early on that only three skaters of his had ever become technically perfect in terms of meeting his ideal of technique.  I told him I’d be the fourth and while I never corrected a few minor technique issues (you can see me toe out my right skate a bit in the corner), I did ultimately get it.  This may also make some of the text descriptions I gave in Part 4 make a little more sense, you can see the weight shift on the straightaway, the carve of the skate as I push out and into internal rotation, the crossover.  And my butt.

This is video of me (in the black suit) skating with a teammate who joined us later, Jamaal.  This is an easy 800m or something with a guy with a helmet cam following us, probably about 24 mph or so.   It took me over 5.5 years but I learned to skate with technique that would hold up anywhere in the world.

A Primer on Speedskating Training: Summer Training

But it was a slow process and while this was all going on, I was handling a training load that was literally 10 times what I’d done in my 20’s.  On average, we did 8 training units per week across 4 days (with 3 days off) and probably 18-20 hours per week.  And it wasn’t easy training.    I won’t have space to detail how speedskaters train in detail (if readers are interested, let me know and I’ll write something up), I’ll simply say that it’s one of the most unique sports out there in a lot of ways.

For example, for the first 20 weeks of the year, you don’t generally touch the ice.  Instead it’s off-ice training.  We did inline skating in a parking lot on a track we set up, gruelling dryland (skate imitations for both technique and conditioning), weights and the bike. There was also jumping and something called turncable, an exercise that skaters use to mimick skating mechanics off the ice.  I couldn’t find the picture I wanted but this more or less shows how it’s done.

The dude in red is holding a band (the one we used was made out of rubber tubing to give more extension) while the skater does crossovers; the band lets her lean into it (on the ice centrifugal force plays that role) and you can practice crossovers.  The guy in the black track suit is the head coach; he’s mainly yelling.

I know these people
I know these people

My coach was awful to us and would just keep pushing the distance covered up.  He figured that if you could turn cable for a couple of minutes, a race would be easy.  And we were supposed to do it all at sprint depth.   At one point I covered the entire 100m of the track doing this and my technique was perfect on it at the end.  Still didn’t help me on the ice.

We used inline for technical and conditioning work.  As long as you recognize a few differences, you can learn the same things on wheels as on the ice.  If anything, here I had a slight advantage, being on wheels was like walking for me and I was more comfortable on inlines than one the ice.  I made huge technical improvements there because I didn’t have 20% of my brain going “Oh crap, ice, slippery, ice, slippery, pads, ice, slippery, oh crap.”  I could put 100% of it to skating.

Dryland is a hellish workout alternating periods of 1-5 minutes of skating imitations (various drills that skaters came up with to keep from going insane in the 6 months they used to not have ice) with the bike or jogging.  At one point I did a solid hour alternating sets of 4 minutes in the skating position in some form or another with 1 minute easy on the bike. Good times.

There is also an explosive variant we did sometimes where you do 30 repetitions of explosive drills (dry-skating or the horror of crossbacks, a corner drill I’d have to video to show you what it is) with 20 seconds all out on the bike.   And you do that for about 8 minutes straight pegging your HR at around 180.  More good times.

Here I dominated in training, I perfected my technique over several years on every drill and could out dryland just about anybody.  When they have the dryland Olympics, I’ll medal.  Sadly, it didn’t help me on the ice any more than anything else did.  Chad’s dryland technique is actually awful to watch.  But he can skate like a maniac.

I mentioned having disagreements with some of my coach’s ideas about conditioning.  Mind you, the first year I shut up and swept dojo.  I didn’t know enough at that point to have an opinion on the matter.  He was the expert and I did it his way because I wouldn’t have hired him if I knew what in the hell I was doing.  I’ll rant about this particular peeve of mine in a later article.

But with each year, I would modify his program as I got my head wrapped around the sport, both on the bike and in the weight room.  I’d make suggestions about on-ice training from time to time but there he was the master and I was supposed to sweep dojo.  Which I did, mostly.

As I came to realize that I was overstrong for where my technique was, I would start to focus less in the weight room.  If anything, going heavy all the time was hurting my progress even if I loved pushing big weights; I was too sore and stiff to skate or train effectively.  So I started cutting it back and cutting it back.  I did not enjoy this.

One year I skipped weights entirely. That didn’t work so they came back in at essentially maintenance loads for the remaining 1.5 years of my career.  But doing 30 minutes of maintenance work twice per week for a year on a bunch of basic exercises is not my idea of fun.  The part of lifting that I had loved when I pursued it previously was gone.

It didn’t help that everyone I was coaching/training were weight room athletes (three Ol’ers and one strongman).  The thing I was training them exclusively for was the thing I was doing little of.  It killed me to train people for the thing I had used to love when I was doing none of it myself (well, nothing satisfying anyhow).

About year three we’d add short-track in the summer which I’d manage to be even worse at than long-track if you can believe it.  But short-track builds good corners (and makes you want to poop your pants at first) so it was a beneficial addition.  It also helped develop ice feel by at least putting us on the ice more frequently; I wish we’d added it sooner to be honest.

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A Primer on Speedskating Training: Ice Training

After that summer block you get on the ice and try to convert whatever you learned in the summer onto the ice.  Every year I’d have to go through a learning phase switching back and forth from ice to inline and back but it got faster every year (eventually took about 5 minutes).  Inline and ice speedskates handle a bit differently so that’s another learning curve.

Once on the ice, after a brief introduction period, we were basically doing a lot of everything on the ice.  Speed work (sprinting), laps (for endurance), race pace (tempo) work, and lots of other stuff to build the skills needed for racing.  Including starts, something else I was just horrid at.  My coach has been coaching for 27 years and I came up with mistakes on starts he’d never seen before.  Just awesome.  I’d also eventually invent the two-handed down start, something only I do.

And every workout on the ice is HARD.  You actually can’t do a particularly low-intensity speedskating workout on the ice.  If you bend your knees to the right angle, lactate goes up over 4 mmol/l.  You can’t do traditional endurance work at low intensities as per the Methods of Endurance Training series.  A single set of 20 laps (taking perhaps 15 minutes) is grueling and hard to repeat more than once.  Especially when your technique is bad.  You fall apart.

You can’t do true endurance training on the ice for that reason.  Nobody can skate for 1-2 hours straight; ok, maybe the Dutch.  But nobody else does it.  In this respect, skating is also a lot like swimming; the training is all interval based.  You skate a lap or laps, and come in to get feedback and rest.

There’s a lot of sitting around and in a 2 hour ice workout, on a sprint day, you might do 5-10 minutes of actual work (5 lap warm-up, drills, 5 standing starts, 4X400m sprint laps with 10′ rest, 2 lap cool-down).  It’s  real bad for body composition because the cold makes you hungry and you burn squat all calories on the ice. And there’s lots of candy in SLC.

Instead we continued to use cycling for general endurance and weights and jumping and…..It was tough. And the schedule didn’t help.  The Utah Olympic Oval has different ice times but you have to qualify for them.  Only the fastest skaters can skate morning ice from 9-11, the next tier skates from 3-5pm and the club is later than that.

We’d skate the 3-5 pm high performance session but since skating was all important, conditioning always came after that.  So I’d be at the Oval from 2:15 to 5:30 (workout plus warmup/cooldown) and then have to ride the bike or lift weights after that.

I’d try to get an hour or two of rest and a snack but had to train early enough to be able to sleep.  Except Saturday morning when I would have to get up at 6am for either training or time trials/racing.  But would at least get 6 hours before the afternoon workout.

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Inline to Ice: Part 3

I’d note that during this time I completely avoided the one activity that I had originally loved, that got me into this: outdoor inline skating.  We trained on a track in a parking lot as I mentioned above but that was it.   And I never really enjoyed or loved the ice (in the way that my friend Eva does).  This was a task to be overcome, a goal I had to pursue.  I didn’t love it.  In many ways, I hated every minute of it.  Maybe that was part of the problem.

But the skating I’d done for hours every day for years just around town, on my skates, enjoying the activity of skating, I did none of that. I skated on my street skates exactly twice in 5.5 years and would actually come to hate skating a bit.  More accurately, I had forgotten the parts about it that I had originally loved.  Inline skating was now a tool to be used to reach a goal, rather than something I did for enjoyment.

But I couldn’t risk reverting to old habits, the goal was all-important and all-consuming.  I’d have time to have fun after this was over.  During my time in SLC, everything was about having no regrets about what I was doing.  That meant 100% focus on what mattered and 0% on what didn’t.  Skating for fun wasn’t part of the program and could potentially cause harm to my progress.  So I avoided it.  I was there to train and train to the best of my ability.

Of course, you don’t just train to train.  You train to race.

So how did that go?

To be continued in No Regrets Part 6.

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