One of the most important ideas I emphasize in my work with racers is consistency. In fact, it’s consistency that makes the great racers, like Petra Vlhova and Alexis Pinturault, so great. Day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, and year in and year out, they are able to ski their best and put up outstanding results.
Consistency is particularly hard during the long and exhausting season. Travel, cold weather, intense training, a lot of races, and having to balance school, friends, and ski racing can just plain wear you down. That’s why effective race management and rest are two of the most important things you need to do to help you maintain a high level of skiing from the start of your season as early as November to its conclusion as late as April.
Season-long Race Management
One of the most difficult tasks for you (and your coaches), from the development level to the World Cup, is seeing that you develop in a consistent and progressive manner. This process involves many decisions such as what is the appropriate level of off-season physical training, how much gate training you need, when you need to take time off to recharge your batteries, and how often you should race to reach your ski racing goals. The latter issue, namely, race selection, may be the most important because competition is the bottom line in your life as a ski racer.
Why responsible race selection? Responsible race selection is critical because the competitive season is long and physically demanding. This problem was illustrated by a recent member of the U.S. Ski Team who, in one year, had 60 FIS starts and became one of the top young racers in the world. Unfortunately, the next year he slumped considerably and developed a chronic injury that has sidelined him indefinitely.
Racing too much can cause fatigue, produce burnout, and, as demonstrated above, result in injury and illness. This is especially important because most of the important races are at the end of the year. It is all too common for racers to say “I can’t wait for these races to be over with” or “The season is almost over, great”. This is not a good attitude to have entering key races late in the season. Rather, you want to maintain your attitude, motivation, and health to ski your best to the very end of the season.
When to race. You should only compete when a race meets certain criteria. As a general rule, races should serve a specific purpose in fulfilling your seasonal goals. More specifically, first, you should compete when you need more race experience. Second, you should race when you need a start for qualification purposes. Third, when you have the opportunity to race against your peers or to gauge your progress. Fourth, competing is advisable when you need some starts under your belts before an important race series. Finally, races provide positive learning experiences that benefits your development.
When not to race. You should never race to build your confidence. Confidence does not come from competing, it comes from sound training and preparation. More often than not, racers will come out of a “confidence-building” race with less confidence than they had before.
You shouldn’t enter a race because you know you will win. This is, in fact, a no-win situation. If you win, little is gained because you were expected to win. If you have a poor result, it can be a severe blow to your confidence.
You shouldn’t race unless you are as prepared as you can be to ski your best. If you are not well prepared, either mentally or physically, you will not ski well and the experience may hurt you.
You shouldn’t enter a race to break out of a slump. If you are in a slump, racing is not the way to get out of it. The pressure you place on yourself to break out of the slump will almost ensure that the slump will continue. Rather, you get out of slumps by relieving yourself of the pressure, understanding why you are in the slump, and, through proper training, progressively raise your level of skiing.
Finally, you shouldn’t compete unless the race serves a specific purpose in your development.
In sum, you should, in planning your competitive schedule, consider these criteria and carefully select races that will facilitate your seasonal and long-term development. Ultimately, you should follow one basic rule: you should only compete when you have more to gain than lose.
The Importance Of Rest
Rest is perhaps the most under-rated training tool at your ski-racing toolbox. It is an absolutely critical part of any effective training program, yet it is often over-looked by racers and coaches alike. A common mentality that has emerged from the “nose to the grind” attitude is that more is better, for example, if six runs of training are good, ten will be better.
Many racers are conditioned to believe that not training is a sign of weakness. Typical fears about rest held by racers (and some coaches) include “I will lose my timing”, “I will forget how to ski”, and “I am lazy if I don’t train”. Yet, as exercise physiologists have demonstrated, rest following a period of training is the time when the actual physical gains are made. This is when the body, which has been broken down from training, can repair and build itself beyond its previous level.
Rest as part of training and competition. Rest is as important to competitive preparation as physical, technical, and mental training. Rest influences every aspect of your skiing: (1) over-all health (fatigue, illness, injury); (2) physical condition (strength, stamina, mobility); (3) mental state (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus); (4) ability to handle pressure; and (5) enjoyment in training and races.
In addition to the wear-and-tear of training, the pressure of regular racing schedule and daily stressors unrelated to ski racing, such as school, can also wear you down. Regular rest guards against the accumulated long-term effects of the grind of the race season. Even if you don’t feel tired, it doesn’t mean you don’t need rest.
Warning signs. There three clear symptoms of the need for rest that you should watch for. First, you are always tired, yawning a lot, falling asleep in the van, and dragging to training. Second, a loss of enjoyment, interest, and motivation to train is a sure sign of the need for rest. Third, lingering illness and injury that won’t quite go away suggests that the body does not have sufficient resources to repair itself at its current pace.
Incorporate rest into training. You must make rest a regular part of your training regimen. This can be accomplished in several ways. Mandatory rest days can be scheduled once a week. The Monday after a weekend of races is common. The intensity of training should also be varied depending upon the time of season, the upcoming race schedule, and how you are feeling. This process, called periodization, is the well-established trend in training.
I also recommend that you take extra days off following a stressful period of training or racing. For example, following a race series of six races in eight days, you shouldn’t train for up to three days. Coaches, if necessary, should force their athletes to rest even if they don’t want to. Finally, you should plan up to five days off about three weeks before a major race series or end of the season races. This will ensure that you are fresh and fired up for these races.
Finally, one of the most important lessons you can learn is to listen to your body. Your body is very good at telling you when you need to rest. The most difficult thing is for you to listen and do what your body is telling you.
It’s never too late to begin mental training during a race season. Take a look at my online mental training courses designed specifically for ski racers. Or, some personalized, 1:1 work with me might make the difference.