The Pain Cave


I’m hunched over my bike, pouring sweat, and the Russians are yelling at me.

“Come on Sean, you’re doing well, you’re almost done!” shouts Egor. He’s standing right next to me, but I can’t see him — oxygen deprivation has started to close down my field of vision. Plus, it’s taking all my concentration to keep biting down on this hose that’s measuring every breath I take.

Yuriy leans over his shoulder, keeping a close eye on the screen that shows my wattage, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. “Good, good, good,” he mutters. “C’mon, c’mon!”

A few seconds later, as “469 watts” flashes on the screen in front of me, I can’t do it anymore. I yank the hose out of my mouth, I stop pedaling, and I’m done.

I’ve finished my VO2 max test.

Yuriy Gusev and Egor Akimov are coaches at the Central Cross Country Skiing (CXC), a training center and performance lab on the south side founded a number of years ago to bring science-based testing and training to endurance sports. Today, they’re testing my maximal oxygen consumption, known as VO2 max. It’s a measure of how efficiently your body can take in oxygen, which feeds your muscles. Some consider it to be the ultimate measure of fitness.

Your VO2 number is measured in milliliters per minute, proportional to your bodyweight, in kilograms. Your VO2 is some mix of genetics and training — working out can push your number higher, but your genes set the upper limit.

Top-level endurance athletes can put up impossibly high numbers in these tests. Lance Armstrong’s VO2 max was rumored to be 85. Nordic skiing legend Bjørn Dæhlie recorded a 96. The all-time record is 97.5, hit by cyclist Oskar Svendsen. Yuriy says he’s got a junior competitive skier who put up an 84.

I will not be putting up numbers like that. I’m a 30-year-old competitive-ish cyclist who has been known to skip workouts to have a beer and watch TV. Still… I want to know how I stack up.

The test itself is straightforward — you get on the bike trainer, start pedaling, and it increases resistance bit by bit until you can’t push the pedals. Meanwhile, you’re strapped to a heart rate monitor and stuffed with a tube in your mouth so a machine can monitor how much oxygen is in your every breath.

Because the test starts the resistance so low, it’s easy to begin with false confidence. A hundred watts is a breeze, and each increase in power feels so minor that, for a few minutes, I can’t help but think, “Yeah, I’m gonna blow the doors off of this thing.”

That feeling quickly fades.

By the time I hit 300 watts, I’m starting to feel the burn. By 350 watts, the sweat is stinging my eyes and I’m drooling. We tick up past 400 watts, and I’m wondering if the tube will suffocate me. By 420 watts, I’m certain it will. I’m deep in the pain cave.

I pull the plug at 469 watts and collapse on the ground, chest heaving. For a few minutes, all I can do is whisper “holy shit” over and over again.

A few days later, I sit down with Yuriy to go over my results. My VO2 max is 58 — pretty good for an amateur. An average for an untrained man my age is around 40 ml/kg/min. So, I’m stoked.

Yuriy is happy, but with caveats. “If you were training for the Olympics, we’d have a problem,” he laughs.

He walks me through the graphs and charts on the page, and sketches out for me what a sample training plan might look like to increase my numbers. For his real athletes, he constantly revisits the numbers in this report, using these baselines to tweak training, diet and recovery.

“You should do a VO2 test maybe four times a year,” Yuriy says. “To see if your training is working, and learn more about how your body works. Are you up for another one in a few months?” he says, with a grin.

I think back to those moments after the test, gasping like a fish and making a sweat angel on the floor of the gym. I hesitate for a second.

“Sure,” I tell Yuriy. “Sounds like fun.”

78.6: Highest VO2 max recorded by a woman — Joan Benoit, gold medalist in the marathon, at the 1984 Olympics.

Nordic skiers: The athletes most likely to have stunning VO2 max scores. Cyclists, distance runners, and rowers also tend to have very high max scores.

$150: Cost of a VO2 max test and analysis at CXC.

10’ x 12’: Size of CXC’s gargantuan skiing treadmill, if you want to do this horror show of a test on rollerskis.

1920s: When British physiologist A.V. Hill developed the concept of maximal oxygen consumption, though the tests we use to measure it today didn’t come around until the 1960s.

Experiencing HALO Neuroscience Through a Coach’s Eye

By Eliska Albrigtsen, CXC Team Head Coach (former World Cup competitor and 2011 NCAA champion)

When I joined the CXC Skiing coaches’ team this spring, I was very excited about all the different exercise tools the Center of Excellence in Madison has to offer to athletes and their coaches. Having a background in human physiology and biomechanics, most of these “toys” were well known to me, however, there was one exception that attracted me, HALO Sport.


Eliska Albrigtsen (CXC Center of Excellence)

HALO Sport
is a headphones like device that improves your performance by enhancing neuroplasticity of your brain via transcranial stimulation. Uh, what a heavy sentence! Although it sounds very complicated, the setup is actually quite simple. Do you remember the time, when you were much younger and learning was so easy? That was thanks to your neuroplasticity. Neurons – the strings running through your body, sending information back and forth between your brain and body parts – were somewhat fresher and therefore more plastic, more moldable to support your body and brain in mastering new skills. As our movement patterns solidify with age, our brains tend to become solid, less plastic, as well. This is the point where HALO Sport comes into action with its gentle electrical stimulus to our heads. As I mentioned above, HALO looks like headphones, not earbuds, but a nice big pair of headphones with a big arch going from one ear to the other. When I also tell you that that is where the motor cortex, the center of the brain that processes movement, is located, it should begin to make sense.

HALO uses the arch to plant three 1.5 by 2 inches plates containing 24 soft spikes each that stimulate your motor cortex by sending very gentle electrical vibrations through your cranium, the part of the skull that encloses your brain. This stimulation amplifies the natural amount of electrical impulses in the motor cortex and therefore enhances the plasticity of the brain.


Nichole Bathe (2017 U23 World Championships Team members) training with Halo at the CXC Center of Excellence.


When I learned about this process, my next step as a curious coach was obvious. I had to try this! At that moment, I was working with British National Ski Team athlete Nichole Bathe, who, due to her tendency for straight leg positioning, which is common in women athletes, developed a negative habit of skiing with “stiff legs.” This habit hindered her ability to lean forward to bring her hips over her toes, in all ski techniques. My decision was brisk and we scheduled Nichole’s HALO Sport sessions over the next two weeks.

HALO Sport is powered through their app that runs for 20 minutes and allows you to increase and decrease the electrical stimulus according to your comfort. The twenty minute period is the only time required to wear the headphones to obtain the stimulation, and it is also the most sensitive period for motor changes. However, the brain is powered by these twenty minutes for another hour after you take the headphones off. Therefore, I planned Nichole’s workout to start with 20 minutes of technique skills, in a controlled environment, with mirrors for a feedback, followed by her classic or skate rollerskiing session, to support her effort to improve her technique with freshly acquired skills from the twenty minutes of drills. We started with simple balancing exercises, such as a one legged stand in classic and skate style, and in just two days I could see and Nichole could feel the progress. Instead of a shaky quadriceps being in a new uncomfortable position, there was a confident calm muscle knowing exactly where to be placed. Nichole herself had to admit that it suddenly became quite effortless. We did not waste any time and added a new challenge into Nichole’s routine, a quick body mass transfer into a gliding position onto one leg. Soon enough, three days later, the task was simple to accomplish. I went on and challenged her to perform the drills on an uneven surface by standing on a half-cylinder that rocks side to side, similarly as Nordic skis do. In the next three days, Nichole mastered that challenge as well.

I have to admit that it was a great mental satisfaction for her as an athlete. Being able to accomplish a task that your coach keeps repeating throughout your whole ski career in just a couple of days feels pretty amazing. Towards the end of our fourteen day HALO Sport period, we really went for it and made Nichole perform all the balancing exercises also standing on rollerskis. Those of you who have tried to stand on the less comfortable sisters of Nordic skis, can maybe imagine how challenging it is to stand on one leg only, in perfect gliding position, while motionless. It does require pristine style that is accomplished only through supreme balance, muscle memory, and strength. While following these drills with an hour of rollerskiing, Nichole was able to increase her explosiveness as well, leaving her with a year’s worth of work accomplished in just two weeks.


Jed Downs (Birkie skier and CXC Masters Team members) working on technique before rollerski workout.


No athlete is perfect and we all need to keep improving every minute of our lives. But does it have to take that long to master a single skill? If you count yourself among one of those athletes who keeps hearing the same thing from your coach over and over, get your hands on a pair of HALO Sport. As a coach, I was pleased with saving my efforts as well as impressed with my athlete’s progress. I want to wish Nichole good luck with her season and thank her for being a subject in my trial with HALO Sport.

I hope this got you interested, if not in trying HALO, then at least in always trying to improve yourself or support others to do the same. Repetition and hard training do bring the fruit. The variable that remains is your time.

To train with CXC contact us at or for more information about clinic and camps visit

CXC’s Center of Excellence Seeks to ‘Study Latest Innovations in the Sport’


A glance into any one of the glass windows lining the east side of Central Cross Country (CXC) Academy’s Center of Excellence building might give the impression of the average athlete gym. But if you step across the front threshold or take a peek at the academy’s 360-degree virtual online tour and sport science page, you’ll find much more than treadmills, stationary bikes and medicine balls.


Located in Madison (WI) the CXC Center of Excellence also houses a 10-by-12-foot rollerski treadmill, SkiErgs, and an in-house-made, power-pole machine. For many, though, equipment is not the most powerful tool in the center. Rather, it’s the center’s capacity to evaluate and educate its members and non-members alike about Nordic skiing.

Currently, the Center of Excellence offers performance evaluations, as well as fitness testing for lactate and VO2max using the oversized treadmill. Recorded and individualized technique coaching sessions on the rollerski treadmill are also available for those willing to pay $150 dollars per hour. To help athletes gain a better understanding of their body within sport, the center is also presently working on developing a biomechanical analysis software.

img_9639The rollerski treadmill at the CXC Academy Center of Excellence

And CXC recently hired a sport development and education director, Egor Akimov, CXC head coach Andy Keller explained on the phone.

“He’s got a bachelor’s and PhD from the Russian State University in physical education and sport, majored in human physiology, and competed over in Russia, and then he served on the Moscow Center of advanced sports technology as the head of the science department,” Keller said. “He’s done a lot of research over in Russia on the biomechanics and things of that nature. He’s leading our center [in Madison], doing a lot of the sessions down there and the technique work.”

According to the CXC Executive and Athletic Director Yuriy Gusev, the Center of Excellence is approximately 90 percent complete. Anyone from CXC club members, to donors, to CXC team members, and the general public, can access the center at no cost. Rollerski treadmill evaluations cost CXC clubs $250 per day, $150 per hour for all others.

“We are finalizing a few more partnerships on the sports science program and equipment but will start performing studies in cross country skiing this coming fall,” Gusev wrote in an email. “Our goal is to have top sports science facility to study latest innovations in the sport, potential application in cross country skiing to improve training, recovery and performance.”



Determinants of Performance

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Vo2 Max. Maximum oxygen uptake (Engine Size – how big is the engine?) This is the ability of the circulatory system to transport oxygen and of the muscular system to extract and use oxygen. Vo2 max is an excellent indicator of aerobic fitness, but a poor predictor of performance within a homogenous group of athletes.

Lactate Threshold. (RPM’s – how high can you race the engine?) Lactate threshold (LT) is the ability to continue using the aerobic system to replenish ATP at high speeds. It is expressed as power output at LT, velocity of LT or percentage of Vo2 max. LT is one of the best predictors of endurance performance.

Economy. (MPG – how many miles per gallon does your engine get?) Economy can be defined as the amount of oxygen that it takes for an individual athlete to go a given speed. More economical athletes will have a lower oxygen cost at a given pace relative to a less economical athlete. This can explain why an athlete with a lower VO2 max can still outperform an athlete with a higher VO2 max. Economy is one of the best predictors of endurance performance.

Strength. Strength is defined as the maximum force that can be produced in one all out effort. Muscular endurance is related to being able to maintain a submaximal force repeatedly.

Source: SkiPost

Related Posts:


Skier Self Analysis

Place a check in the box on the right that best agrees with the statement on the left.

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Checks moving from upper left to lower right indicate strength in Endurance and a weakness in speed. Checks moving from upper right to lower left indicate strength in speed and a weakness in endurance. Checks pushed right in the middle of the graph indicate a high-end fitness weakness, such as low VO2, lactate threshold and/or poor economy. Only testing at a qualified lab can determine where your physiological weakness in this zone lies.

You can gain some beneficial information from analyzing your performances in your five best and five worst races. See if you can find trends that might help indicate your strengths, weaknesses (area’s of greatest opportunity) with regard to fitness, strategy, diet and your race and pre-race habits. Things to consider are the race distance, technique, individual or mass start, snow and weather conditions (cold/warm, soft/hard tracks), course type (hilly, flat, steep, gradual), strategy (start hard/easy, attack the hills or ski an even tempo), nutrition (general, morning of, day before), other (travel, sleep, emotional state, race size.)



Available Now | Cross Country Ski Performance Testing

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CXC Performance Center, Madison (WI)

By:  Peter Graves

MADISON, WI – For those that may have thought that sophisticated testing opportunities were strictly the domain of national team elite skiers comes exciting news about cross-country ski specific testing located in the heart of Wisconsin’s capital city. It’s easy to get to, and it’s better than ever.

CXC now offers the opportunity for skiers of all ages to ski indoors on a 10×12 roller skiing treadmill which offers testing amenities like a VO2 max and lactate analyzer, and innovative Dartfish softwear technology that features front and side view imaging and power pole.

CXC Executive Director Yuri Gusev said today that they are ready to roll out another exciting feature to the CXC training offerings saying….”We have a training facility now with rollerski treadmill, VO2 Max testing equipment and lactate. Last year we have developed poles, that have ability to measure force and power output. It is a finished product and have been used for testing by USSA staff, U.S.Paralympic Team and Russian Institute of Sports Innovations.  We have been also working on two other training/testing devices for cross country skiing. One is double pole ergometer with using actual ski poles and another one is double pole treadmill. We are also currently using this testing equipment for biomechanical analyses and technique efficiency. “

CXC Coaches including Bill Pierce, Andy Keller, Andrew Poffenberger and Gusev will personally analyze the data and make recommendations. Together they have used this equipment for elite athletes for eight years and have conducted an astounding number of test sessions of well over 500. Now this special opportunity is available to you.

“What we are simply saying” said Gusev, “is that measurement is a way to quantify the data, testing is the tool that allows us to make suggestions about strengths and weaknesses, and about quantity and value. Testing is also a way of establishing a baseline which is so important for athletes to know where they are at. Without these kinds of evaluations in endurance sports like cross-country skiing it is like playing basketball in a dark room and not knowing where the net is.”

The testing process also plays an important role in the quality of physical and technique improvement. If you are looking to make that next step forward in your training plan this off-season, we would love to hear from you.


Each session is priced at $150 for a full hour of testing. The price for an adult group is $500 per day, and $250 for a junior group.

Schedule A Session

Questions? Ask Us


Aerobic-Anaerobic Conditioning Test on a Track

The principal of this test is to determine if you are progressing in training, and not over-training. You will be able to have concrete distance-related data to correspond with your Heart Rate after doing this test. The test is easy to complete, and easy to replicate.

What is needed for this test:

1. Heart rate monitor that has capacity to set splits, measure and display average heart rate after each split and memory to store the data.

2. 400 meter standard track

Test Protocol:

1. Run first 400 meters at the easiest pace to set a base line for the test, measure your time and aver-age heart rate for the lap.

2. Set a recovery base line – like 110 beats per minute, for instance. Always use the same base line as recovery before you start next lap. This means as soon as you heart rate gets down to 110 beats per minute you will need to perform the next lap.

3. After you finish first baseline lap find out the average HR over that time. The next effort will be at your average hart rate from the baseline lap plus 10 beats. (Example: if you average heart on the baseline lap was 117 beats per minute than your next lap should be at 127 beats per minute.)

4. As soon as your heart rate gets down to the recovery level (our example was 110 bpm) start your second lap. Run at the pace to be as close as you can to Base+10 beats per minute (Our example is 127bpm). You don’t have to look all the time at your hear rate monitor but just once in a while. This will also teach you how to pace yourself. The more frequently that you do this test, the more consistent you will become.

5. Continue to perform the test in the same format and your last lap will be your maximal effort.

6. When you finish your test you will have 4 variables to compare for each effort: running speed, average heart rate, recovery time and recovery average heart rate.

7. You can plot your data on two graphs, first graph for performance and second one for recovery.

8. Next time you do a test you will be able to compare data to determine your improvements.