However, for me slalom is a game of balancing physical and mental fatigue. I've found that one of the best ‘remedies’ for mental fatigue is change of environment. I love going on training camps, especially long ones. It’s about getting to change pace, change routine, whilst not really losing that sense of ‘home base’ which for me, is Scotland.
Last year when I started writing this, I’d begun working with Oscar on a new training method. I’ll try and outline it technically later on, but basically it’s an adaptation of “classic” British slalom training, to accommodate some pretty worn down tendons, a tired brain and a drive to “hurt” that hasn’t gone away since I was sixteen. Slalom is pretty special (I’m excited to see in the editing phase how many times I’ve said that) because there are so, so many different ways of training. Some nations choose to cross-train for the winter, entirely out of their boats. Other nations train all year round on whitewater. The German team spends a lot of time on flat water, and have produced some of the best paddlers in the world. There are literally hundreds of different, proven-to-work methods. I truly believe it’s about being confident that your way of doing it is the best. It leads to so many heated, awesome, “revolutionary” discussions on the best way to do something. Slovakia has produced three of the best C1 men in the history of slalom. It’s easy to ask why their other categories don’t have the same depth of field. It’s down to the individual athletes, and their approach.
So our method is adapted from the concept of USRPT. That’s Ultra Short Race Pace Training. It takes the full length of a race, so in slalom a full run comprised of around 20 gates and 100 second course, and divides it into four. We do ten repetitions of a quarter, so around 4-6 gates at between 20-30 second efforts. These efforts have to be performed at race pace or slightly above, so about 180-190bpm for me. I get 15 seconds rest between efforts. Then I try and do that for three sets. It’s brutal training, and very different to the long winter loops I’ve done in previous years.
The point of USRPT, is short bursts with relatively low rest times. It makes you super lactic, for a start. In slalom we love lactic training, because a full run is anywhere between 80 and 120 seconds long, so not long enough to get aerobic but definitely a really great length to build some horrible levels of lactate in your forearms. The more lactic tolerance training you do, the better you are at coping with it (disclaimer: you can definitely do too much). It doesn’t get less unpleasant - but your relative recovery time and speed endurance go up.
The other point, and the more significant one for me, is what Peter Andrews describes as “neurological failures”. Now in swimming, this means when you have two or more efforts where you fail to meet the pace time, so you have to stop the set. Obviously, in swimming this is easier to measure than in slalom, because you probably already know what your race pace is. So Oscar and I developed a set of rules, that indicate whether I’ve had a “neurological failure” or not. I think for other slalom athletes attempting this session it’s pretty important to have someone on the bank, who knows what your own personal neuro-failure looks like.
So when I’ve had a neurological failure, it’s when the messages from my input (feeling, vision, spacial awareness, fatigue) start affecting my output (speed, precision, presentation/attitude). Visually (for me), that manifests itself as:
- My core “bending” instead of rotating. Slalom paddlers will know what that looks like, but for everyone else it means basically instead of turning my body around with a straight spine, I’ll start leaning backwards and forwards with my neck at strange angles to get to a certain position.
- Touches (in slalom if you touch a gate you incur a two-second penalty). These are kind of a tough one because they can happen when you’re perfectly fine physically, so they’re not a reason to stop the set. So when I’m touching, sometimes it’s just a spacial awareness thing, and that can come from concentration, which isn’t entirely dependent on being fatigued. When it’s a fatigue thing, it’s usually when my paddle isn’t upright, or if I’m cutting lines with less speed. Again, important to have someone on the bank for that one.
- The times I get on each section getting slower than a second behind the initial race pace. This can be a really cool way to get through the session. Oscar shouts the time from each section to me as I complete it, so during the 15 seconds rest at the end of the effort, my brain literally only has time to process whether it was slightly slower or faster. Which is great for me, because I’m extremely reactive. Again, it’s dependent on the individual because that could be horribly distracting for someone else.
In our current block of training (which so far is like an extended summer "winter" block, as there are no races in the UK this year and our governing body has chosen to withdraw from the last two world cups and European Championships - which I might add, I agree with) we do two USRPT sessions per week. The rest of the sessions I do are tech-focused, with one "race simulation" per week and of course gym.
The reason I'm sharing this session is not because I think it's entirely new - I know that various methods of training flux in and out of being popular/effective. It's because when you're sitting in the middle of what was meant to be a long summer season, potentially repeating the same sessions over and over, it can be pretty cool to change things up a bit and try something new. USRPT or "intervals" is a difficult session, but it's not something you just grind away at. You have an opportunity to be super aware of your own body and brain, which is what I think slalom's all about.
I was super resistant to changing my week structure when I started this, but it's probably the fittest and most consistent I've ever been (again, hard to measure without a race - but it seemed to work last year!). I'm glad I stepped out of this particular comfort zone, because no matter what block you're in, it's a chance to start fresh again and again.