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Observations from an Alpine Coach at a Nordic Ski Race

Even as a person who “wears many hats” the phone conversation with Alex Standen, Snowsport Scotland Nordic Performance Coach, came as a bit of a surprise. “Would you like to come to Sweden and help me with a camp for British Nordic Development Squad and Snowsport Scotland athletes?” “Ummm… Alex, you do remember I am an Alpine coach?”.

As it turned out, Alex needed a female coach (for safeguarding best practice) as he had a female athlete on camp and his first picks were unavailable, so he thought of me. Now, while I am an Alpine coach and ex-alpine racer, I actually started on cross country skis when I was a wee toot living in Norway and I have recently completed my Nordic/Roller Ski Level 1 Coach course. Not, therefor, a complete stranger to the discipline.

Nor a stranger to coaching performance athletes having done so in an Alpine setting. In addition, I had worked with several of the athletes who would be on the camp in a Strength and Conditioning Coach capacity (I told you “many hats”). So, I rearranged my schedule and said yes.

The camp in Idre Fjäll was three days of training followed by three days of racing.  Here are a few of my own personal observations from being an Alpine coach on a Nordic camp.  These words are my own thoughts and ramblings and not those of Snowsport Scotland.

Cross-country Ski Races Are Not Flat … In Any Way.  

To be honest, I did know this before I went. Particularly from having watched the last leg of the Tour de Ski “the final climb” on TV (a 9 km race with the final 3.5 km uphill, ascending 420 m!) However, seeing it first-hand does remind you just how hard these skiers have to work on the ascent but also the skills involved on the descent.

Talking of skills on descents, did you know Skier Cross on cross-country skis is an actual thing? And it will be one of the events at the European Youth Olympics this year.

Cross-country Ski Races Can be Massive!  
There were over 420 people racing in Idre, ranging from those competing in their first FIS races to racers having competed on the World Cup or looking to move onto the World Cup very soon.

Physical Preparation and Body Awareness. 
Due to the nature of the sport and the training required, the athletes seem to be very aware of their bodies and how they are feeling. Monitoring heart rates, and recovery times is standard and being aware of how to aid recovery, with both sleep, and what to eat and drink, seems an inevitable consequence.

A Culture of Mucking-in.
I’m not sure exactly why but both the athletes that were away on this camp and I think the discipline as a whole (certainly in the UK) are very aware of costs and keeping the sport as accessible as possible.  There is a culture of mucking in, preparing food both together and for each other, lending items of equipment and generally figuring out ways to make things work that does not involve just throwing money at the situation.  Maybe it is this that is a strength of British Nordic athletes? Not only making them more appreciative of the opportunities they have but also more mindful and more resilient in the process.

Double Sessions and Down Time.
Double sessions may be the case for higher end alpine athletes but for athletes of a comparable level it is much less likely that you’d be running double sessions.  Once again due to the demands of the sport, two sessions throughout the day is normal, including factoring in strength sessions and running sessions as well. This means there is more down time for athletes to recover, study or do whatever else they want to do. This was probably heightened as it was a race week and consequently the training load was lower.

It is gradually changing, but in the past Alpine Camps for home-based athletes probably did not consider physiological demands on athletes particularly well. A full day on the hill would be followed by an hour of fitness, ski prep and video work. This would often leave young athletes unable to fully benefit from the snow time because quite frankly they were knackered. Fitness/strength and conditioning/physical preparation, (whatever you want to call it) can and should be developed throughout the rest of the year when at home. (This is a bit of a generalisation and obviously different for Alpine based Alpine athletes without snow time restrictions).

Ski Prep.
Preparing Alpine skis, waxing and edging, can get complex as you progress however Nordic ski preparation is crazy, and at a much lower level than would be the case in Alpine. Which makes sense, if your race is going to take 35 minutes instead of 1 minute and 35 seconds, a set of slow skis is going to make a real impact on performance.  This means ski testing prior to racing is a necessity to find out which ski wax is the best for the conditions. A process that can be particularly challenging in variable conditions.

Same, Same but Different.
A teammate love is probably like no other caused from living constantly in each other’s pockets, often for a number of years whilst working towards the same goals and sharing the ups and downs that come with it. The characters appear to be the same; the quiet one, the loud one, the team joker, the smart one and the one that always asks questions or makes comments or statements before they’ve thought them through.  Teenage athletes (and those in their early twenties) have very similar banter regardless of which sport or discipline they are from.

However, I think Nordic athletes are still very much individuals, perhaps more so than Alpine athletes.  They say that endurance athletes can be selfish or self-absorbed. While this is probably true of any performance athlete, it especially makes sense when you’re out on a 15 km course for 40 minutes. That is a long time to be essentially on your own, with just your thoughts and no one else to really impact how you are skiing other than a few occasional words of encouragement from the side.

Ultimately, I had a fantastic time in Sweden, well done to all of the athletes, with pretty much everyone scoring best results, and some making criteria for European Youth Olympic Games and/or World Juniors.  Thanks to all the athletes for making me feel so welcome and putting up with my random questions. I would thoroughly recommend that other coaches get out of their comfort zones and try observing or coaching another sport or discipline.


(Athletes: Cameron Cruickshank, James Slimon, Oliver Newman  and  Hamish Wolfe)