CXC Academy Q&A with Alayna – Training Zones


With CXC Academy training plans it is very important to stay within the prescribed training zone for each workout. These training zones each have a very specific role in your training. The length and frequency of these workouts fluctuates throughout the year depending on the emphasis of each training period, all leading to peak performance during your race season.

Let’s talk specifically about Levels 1, 3 and 4, some of the most frequently used speeds.

LEVEL 1 training is mainly used as a warm-up/cool-down speed or as an easy, recovery day speed. You should always keep your heart rate within your easy Level 1 zone. This is generally under 130 bpm. Individual heart rate zones can be determined through physiological testing.

LEVEL 3 training can also be referred to as anaerobic threshold training. These intervals are longer and should be conducted at a lower heart rate and speed than level four intervals. Think of these as your ski marathon pace; an effort that is sustainable over 2 hours. When skiing level three intervals, we look for a nice consistent heart rate with no spikes in effort or intensity.

LEVEL 4 training consists of shorter, more intense intervals than level three training. This is your 5-15km race pace. You should ski all terrain just as you would in a race, powering over the tops of hills and transitioning smoothly and powerfully through different techniques.

Make sure that you stay true to each training zone while conducting a workout. It is easy to ski out of your training level to keep up with friends or get in a hard workout. Each level has a role and it is important to stick to the plan.


Alayna Sonnesyn, a CXC native who now skis for the Stratton Mountain School T2 Elite Team, will be advising through a series of videos covering general training advisory, ski technique and user Q&As. Sonnesyn grew up in Minnesota and was cross country skiing by age three. She grew up racing in the Minnesota High School League and in CXC programs, winning a national junior title and skiing on scholarship for the University of Vermont. Her breakthrough race came at this year’s Slumberland American Birkebeiner where she took her first major win.

Throughout her ski career she has been a leader, including team captain for UVM. She has also dedicated herself to giving back to her sport, volunteering an guest coaching for Special Olympics, Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont and the Minnesota Youth Ski League. She received multiple honors from UVM in her senior year of 2018.

The Need To Do Long Level 1-2 Workouts

Q: We hear so much about the need to do long level 1-2 workouts to build an aerobic base. But like a lot of masters, I have been training/racing for decades and wonder if this training approach is needed, since my aerobic base seems to be pretty well established. And recovery seems to be more difficult every year. Should folks like me focus on shorter, high intensity workouts to maintain speed instead?

A: It all depends on when you want to end your days of racing.

When I was in college my housemate, Erik, had done 10 years of proper training at the highest level starting as a youngster. He was a National team skier for Canada and originally from Norway. For his senior year, and last winter of ski racing, he needed to spend most of his time on his engineering classes and not on training. So he focused on only intervals, speed and pace workouts. While I would go out for 1-3 hours each day, he would go hammer for 45 minutes 3 days a week. By midwinter he gained weight, and looked fat and “out of shape.” But even 10 kg above his best weight with no LSD in 6-8 months he could go out and kill me (and most everyone else) in every race. He could not maintain this interval only training for years but it did serve him well for 1 winter.

If this is your last winter of racing, yes you can likely skip LSD’s and just do intensity. But if you want to race for many more years you need to keep your LSD’s but also focus on intervals and intensity. Most Master skiers or runners do not do enough intensity and do to much Level 3 (sort of hard) every day.

If I were training to race, which I am not, I would do my LSD Sunday, take Monday off, do hardest interval session’s Tuesday night when you should be your most rested. Do easy circuit/strength Wednesday, speed session of some sort Thursday, easy Friday, race/pace ever other Saturday. Yes you can (should?) get a very detailed plan with daily and weekly and monthly advances. But this basic guide can serve you well. Focus one LSD and 2 very hard efforts each week and just use the other days for recovery.

– Andy @ SkiPost

About SkiPost

Cross-Country skiing’s community lodge. Where knowledge and stories are shared. The goal of SkiPost is to make the sport of Cross-Country skiing easier and more enjoyable for all who choose to participate. If you have questions on Cross-Country Skiing email us and visit

Enjoy Winter,
Andrew Gerlach
Director/Editor- SkiPost

Components of Endurance Training for Skiers

Endurance training can be divided into four areas: Basic, Speed, Anaerobic and Endurance-Strength.

Basic endurance training is for improving aerobic capacity and impact tolerance. Such sessions occur at 60-75% maximal heart rate (or, Level 1), depending on the skier’s experience and level. At least one long basic endurance session should be included in your weekly schedule. Basic endurance training should increase gradually throughout the basic endurance period.

Speed sessions are slightly faster than basic endurance training (Level 3/4), and are accomplished in interval format. Heart-rate levels during speed training should be around 75-85% maximum heart rate. Interval sessions can total 21-60 minutes. Each interval can be between 7-12 minutes. During speed training, breathing is accelerated, but only during anaerobic endurance training does breathing rhythm peak. Developing speed is important when training for a marathon, since part of the marathon is actually skiing at speed training pace. Include 1 or 2 speed sessions in your weekly schedule, depending on the time of year.

Interval training is a good choice when you first start working on speed, since it’s easier to keep up a good pace during short repeats and exertion levels are not too high. As you progress, you can add even-paced sessions to your schedule. Cut back on speed training during transition and tapering, when you replace some of the hard sessions with actual racing.

Anaerobic endurance training is generally very hard interval work, aimed at maximizing racing performance and oxygen uptake capacity. To make sure lactic acid levels remain at a manageable level, ski at just below full speed, in other words at 90-95% maximum heart rate, or, Level 4. Each of these intervals typically last 4-6 minutes. Anaerobic endurance training increases as the calendar approaches ski-race season.

For a goal-oriented active skier, including anaerobic endurance training 2-3 times a month is advisable. When tapering, training includes anaerobic endurance and speed work, as well as basic endurance and recovery.

For an active skier, sprint training is fast-paced interval training at 90-100% maximum heart rate. Repeats last 30-90 seconds. Recover for around 5 minutes. Do sprint work during transition and tapering periods. Training frequency is at about 4 times/month.

Endurance-strength is considered another category of endurance training. This type of training is typically done on roller skis during a “specific-strength” workout. These workouts incorporate repetitions between 150-250 meters each along a gradual uphill. There are three main specific strength exercises; double-pole, core-only and single-stick. Double pole is regular double poling, core-only is when the body is propelled by the initial crunch of the arms and torso without a follow-through of the arms and the single-stick is when a skier executes diagonal-stride arms while keeping the legs stationary so that all of the work comes from the upper body. For each exercise there are between 5-12 repetitions, depending on the time of year.

How to Peak for Racing for Beginners

by Karmen M. Whitham, CXC Skiing

My suggestion for any relatively new cross-country ski racer is to build the endurance foundation first, with A LOT of true level 1 volume. The time to do this is in the spring and summer and then come back to it for a short period after the fall intensity block. This allows you to put in major hours on snow and absorb the work you’ve just put in from your intensity training. Paying attention to the aerobic foundation is paramount at the beginning of your skiing career because it builds a foundation of fitness that acts as a spring board for anaerobic training. It’s the difference between building a house with a cement basement “foundation” vs. just sticking some plywood and drywall into the dirt. You’ve got to have something to keep you strong and stable.


There is a caveat of losing speed however. Therefore, it is advised that you add simple speeds (fartlek) to your distance workouts. For junior athletes I like to surprise them with 15-30 second sprints during distance or over-distance workouts. I like this method because it also creates playful competition which reminds us why we love to mess around on skis in the first place. Alternatively, you can strategically plan sprints into distance workouts, for example, add 5×30 second speeds (take a minute between each to get the heart rate back to level 1) in the middle of a 2- hour ski or run.

If you keep distance workouts (with speeds) as the foundation of your training (4-6x a week) and add level 3 and level 4 workouts 2-3 times a week, you should not jeopardize your endurance capacity. In training blocks where level 3 and 4 are the primary focus, make sure you are still doing one over-distance workout per week. These workouts are designed to be at true level 1 in order to build mitochondria for oxygen transportation thus maintaining your aerobic fitness.

As for sprint workouts that are effective, I’m a big fan of “mock-sprint days” where you have a qualifier, and three more sprints after that with about 5-minutes of active recovery between them. Not only does this help build anaerobic fitness it also sets an environment for mental preparedness that will get the athlete ready for sprint competitions. Otherwise 1-km relays, time-based ladders, and distance based ladders are other ways to construct sprint, level 4 and level 3 intervals to promote anaerobic capabilities.

To train to be a cross-country skier means you are creating fitness in every aspect of human performance. You should think of training as an interplay between strengthening the aerobic and anaerobic systems as opposed to training either exclusively. That said, you may shift your attention to simply emphasize one system over the other, to coincide with the goal of your respective training period.

Heart Rates and Sr. Athletes

Q: I have used the Age + Fitness level based formula (Karvonen formula), but feel the numbers don’t add up. How do you find your true max heart rate?

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A: As you have seen, all the methods you have used using age can be very different than the max heart rates we can actually hit at a certain age.

We use VO2 Max tests and Lactate curve tests to establish zones. Each one of those can give you a picture of what the body is doing at a given heart rate.

Now that you have a heart rate monitor, you can establish quickly (in most Level 4 workouts) what your true max heart rate is. A lot of times running, bounding, and skating workouts will give us higher max heart rates. Double poling tends to not get us to our max heart rate, as it is a movement that uses a small amount of muscle groups. In these Level 4 workouts, see what your heart rate gets to on the last couple intervals. Usually this will be at or within 5 beats of our max. Once you have established this max you can use the percentages of max to establish your zones.

I use these as starting points for zones:

Zone 1: 60-70% of Max
Zone 2: 70-80%
Zone 3: 80-90%
Zone 4: 90-95%
Zone 5: 95-100%

After establishing an estimated actual max, the numbers you are actually hitting while out training will start to make more sense than the supposed zones that you have used while using the formulas that include age.

It also should be noted that when somebody does not have a developed aerobic system (Level 1) their HR’s tend to be higher for that Level 1. As athletes do more easy distance training with being strict in keeping HR low, they will start to see their HR drop in these workouts. They will be able to hold a higher pace at the same HR’s as before.

Hopefully this helps and good luck with training going forward.

Related Topis: Level 1, Heart Rate, VO2 Max


Should Level 1 Intensity Feel Slow?

This is a common problem that I see in some of the athletes I work with. They feel the same way about the pace of these Level 1 workouts that they are trying to fit within a certain HR range.

You could try to factor in your Resting heart rate to your zones. The Karvonen method is used to sometimes give a more accurate representation of your zones.


Target Heart Rate = ((max HR − resting HR) × %Intensity) + resting HR example

I would also suggest a couple workouts to do.

The main one that I like doing for a workout over 2 hours is one that you switch off running and hiking/ski walking every 15 minutes. This will let you run at the pace you find appropriate but might be slightly higher in heart rate than your estimated Level 1 is. With the hiking/ski walking your overall heart rate of the workout will hopefully end up in your ideal range. If you do this workout for a period of time you’ll hopefully see your heart rates begin to drop.

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The other simple option that is good this time of year is just to go hike. Long sustained hiking whether it be up a mountain or through the woods can be very beneficial.

by Andy Keller, CXC Team Head Coach

Reorganizing Training While Doing Glacier Hikes

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Image Courtesy: National Nordic Ski Foundation

Q: I am doing day hikes in Glacier for 7 days; hiking for 4-6 hours most days with some rest day(s). I can not see I will able to maintain Level 1 rate all day and would have to drop the HR. How do I view this 7 day period and how should I organize my activity to maintain or advance my training.

A: We don’t believe you have to really plan out what exactly your 7 day week of “training” will be like. Hiking is a great workout as it is a long sustained effort that will have you floating between almost all of the training levels at some point. Most of the time will be spent in Level 1 but there are times that you may get up to even Level 4.

That being said we would just suggest you keep yourself aware of how you are feeling day to day. If one or more hikes begin to take a toll on your body and you start to feel overly fatigued or even come down with an acute overuse injury, those are types of things that could have a negative effect on your training going forward.

As a whole, this hiking trip will probably do great things to your general fitness with being out there for 4-6 hours each day. Taking 1 to 2 days off of the super long hikes may be a smart idea to give the body a chance to rest. As well as assessing yourself and feeling after coming back into the plan the following week. It may be smart to swap a few workouts around and start the week off with a Monday rest day and Tuesday as an easy distance day.

Enjoy your trip and we hope it goes well!