Skieologians: Shoulder season secrets
How area athletes leverage shorter days and changing weather to get better
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better warm-weather biking, hiking and trail running haven than our valley. The winter sports offerings need no explanation. Going from one season to the next? That can be a little bumpy. Even though this column probably could have been published a few weeks ago, in the absence of our first ‘real’ powder day — and for those still trying to decide if they should slip on ski boots or running shoes — it still works
As a skier, runner and biker myself, I’ve formulated a certain shoulder-season mindset over the years, attempting to maintain motivation, develop discipline and foster fitness in spite of diminishing sunlight, colder temperatures and the annual disruption to the normal routes and routines. Curious if these strategies were shared by locals bearing more impressive athletic resumes than my own, I reached out to members of the endurance community. My hope: maybe reading this helps you get out the door.
Kim Dobson, runner
Athletic claim to fame: Pikes Peak uphill run women’s record holder. If it’s a climb, she’s probably better than all of us.
Erik Dorf, cyclist (road, gravel and MTB)
Athletic claim to fame: Raised two great kids, who are both fantastic students, and amazing athletes.
Genevieve Harrison, ultra-trail
Athletic claim to fame: 2022 UTMB Puerto-Vallarta 100 champion, 2nd in 2021 Leadville 100 trail run
Ryan Sederquist, cross-country skiing
Athletic claim to fame: In the 2019 Birkebeinerrennet 54k classic ski race, beating all the Norwegians and Swedes….in wave 12.
Have a goal
For athletes targeting summer races, winter goals often lean towards a process orientation. Harrison will peak at the UTMB Mont Blanc in France in late August and will also race the Tarawera 100-mile in New Zealand. In-between those key events, she’ll have stepwise goals, once she finalizes her spring racing calendar. The winter, however, is her off-season. The focus is building a base and accumulating vertical via uphill skiing.
Dobson, whose specialty is uphill running, is using this winter to get her body feeling “symmetrical, strong and pain-free.” Even coming off injury, though, she’ll touch base with her competitive nature by challenging herself with new winter sports activities, “so that later this winter I can hop into a random race, if able — perhaps a snowshoe race, classic cross country ski race, or an uphill ski hill event,” she said.
Dorf didn’t mention participating in winter fat bike races, and his primary goal for next year is another good result at the Steamboat Gravel 100. “I was outsprinted at the line by the legendary Ben Delaney last year,” he recalled of losing to the longtime cycling writer. “I need better tactics.”
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“Mike and Jake did a great job with this race the first time. I can’t wait to see what next year brings,” he said. Dorf knows neither off-road event will be won by hammering out FTP (Functional Threshold Power for non-exercise physiology dorks) efforts in November, so he uses the month to let go of some of his training structure.
“I do go to the gym two days a week. I love to workout with my daughter Annabel; we are winter gym rats together,” he said. “With regard to cardio, I try to get on the bike three or four times per week, but without any real goals. I ride easy and try to maintain at least a little base.” Since every bike-specific workout is indoors, Dorf enjoys watching action moves — “keeps my heart rate up,” he said — but once there is enough snow, he heads to the backcountry.
“Long weekend skins are the best.”
Personally, the winter cross-country ski race season makes January, February and March go by quickly. If you’re someone who has always been a mountain biker, swimmer or runner — don’t be shy about trying out a winter sports race The community is welcoming to all abilities, and there’s no better way to try out some new mountain-town trails. My first race ever was the 2018 Alley Loop (which has 5k, 10k, 21k and 42k options) in Crested Butte. Racing through the streets of this Colorado treasure makes for one of the best snow-lovers parties in the country. If surviving tough challenges are your thing, I’d suggest signing up for the Snow Mountain Ranch Stampede in early March — back-to-back 50ks (and usually one of the days is bluebird perfection and the other is, well…not) gets you a sweet rancher’s belt!
Searching for your secret garden
Few things deter focus than having favorite trails buried once snow falls in earnest. Reframing this as a chance to explore new places helps recharge the mental batteries for when those routes return. Endurance athletes especially would do well to remember that ‘variety is the spice of life.’
Harrison, who makes her money on uneven, dirt trails, uses the winter time to run roads, maximizing the stretch-shortening-cycle and turnover development only possible on harder, smooth, faster surfaces. “Eagle is amazing in the winter because they plow about 20 miles of bike paths,” she stated. She’s also a big fan of early-morning Arrowhead Mountain laps on skis and running the Boneyard loop in Eagle.
“It’s hard to find dirt, but Haymaker in Eagle is a good option if you go early while the ground is still frozen,” Dobson recommended. “For those looking for dry ground, this time of year is great for running some of the local road climbs, such as Bellyache Road off Wolcott or Bachelor Gulch. Running from the Sylvan Lake visitor center up to Yeomen or Sylvan Lake is another peaceful dirt road option in the shoulder season.”
For those already anticipating their first chance to lube a real bike chain, Dorf’s tip is to head down to Newcastle for spring rides. During the fall shoulder season, he tends to be a more conservative cross-trainer.
“I’ve seen so many injuries from early backcountry skiing that I’m a bit hesitant to get into the backcountry this time of year,” he said. “Snowsnakes in November are usually made out of rocks or wood.”
Embrace your shoulder secret
Like any training block, the shoulder season has a distinct purpose, but it’s different for everybody.
“It is important for me to have a season where my focus is turned away from racing,” said Harrison, who actually feels the less strict, “more random” nature of early winter training gets her more excited for sessions. She also uses the season to savor time with her family.
“My kids are getting older (2 and 4-years-old) and I want to enjoy the little years as much as I can.”
“It helps me to view the shoulder season as a time to reset, physically and mentally,” added Dobson. “It’s a great opportunity to get out of the mental rut I often find myself in and to go with the flow.”
For those lacking motivation, Dorf candidly echoed the sentiment of the masses, admitting, “it takes me some time to get psyched for next season.”
“I go through this every year. A solid month of chilling, not taking training seriously; getting psyched for Alpine skiing makes a world of difference. I usually get kinda fat over Thanksgiving and Christmas. At that point I’ll look in the mirror, feel shame and pick a couple of early season events to motivate me.”
Dobson is thankful for the bountiful indoor and outdoor options. “When weather throws a curveball, I can still get moving,” she said. “Having friends that will get outside and brave the single digits and darkness also help with motivation.”
One such friend reminded me of my shoulder secret while I was Nordic skiing recently in one of my shoulder season secret gardens — Turquoise Lake Road and Hagerman Pass in Leadville. The American Birkebeiner podium-placer from the 70s encouraged all skinny skiers tired of early on-snow opportunities on car-groomed gravel roads with this counsel: “Skiiing on this uneven, slow stuff will make those race courses feel like an interstate.” I couldn’t agree more.
Instead of whining about what you can’t work on, shift your mind to the elements these conditions organically bring to the fore. Focus on technique, balance and breathing as you embark on longer-than-normal climbs. Give yourself a pat on the back knowing If you can clip in after the sun sets, when the wind bites and the temps drop on some remote mining road, there is no course or weather forecast capable of discouragement on race day.
During shoulder season — even if your recharging or refocusing — something is receiving a training stimulus. Often, it’s not a muscle group, but character. If you can be tough now, you’ll be tough when it counts. Sometimes, that’s all the inspiration we need to get out the door.
Heated socks and a pre-workout mocha help, too.