One of the most important skills a ski racer needs to be successful is a well-thought-out and practiced race day routine. From the moment you wake up on race day until the five second countdown before you explode out of the starting gate should be a perfectly choreographed, yet fluid, routine with the sole purpose to getting you ready physically, and more importantly, mentally to ski your best. You can do everything right the entire week leading up to the race, but if you spend the race day morning guessing and stressing without a plan, there is a good chance your race is already blown.

Before I continue into the four elements of a race day routine, let me begin by saying that a race routine is only a plan and all plans need to be flexible to changing conditions, schedules and unforeseen happenings. Having a routine that is too rigid and too planned is just as bad as having no routine at all. So, when creating and testing your race routine, remember that you have to be flexible and open to change because this is ski racing and things almost never go according to plan!

Doug Lewis preparing to race on a difficult day in Kitzbuhel.

One of the years I raced Kitzbuhel, the most insanely dangerous race on the planet which tests every racers ability to remain focused, the start time was delayed two hours by 30 minute intervals which threw all race routines out the window. Nothing was going to be routine about this particular race day and I needed to be flexible mentally. I remember the battle that went on in my head between wanting to race and wanting the race to be cancelled. I could see that this mental nightmare was also going on in every other racer’s head. So, I made the decision to believe and act like the race would be run and to prepare for that, instead of wavering and doubting and wishing it would be cancelled. I removed myself from the crowd of negativity and kept to my routine of keeping loose physically and visualizing the course. Sure enough, when we finally got the ruling that it would be run, I was positive, warm and ready to send it while many of the other racers were complaining and negative. I ended up getting fifth that race and I attribute that to my ability to stay fluid with my race day routine.

The importance of being flexible and open to what each race day will bring and not become dependent on a routine.

Tina Weirather: Right before the start I try to not have too many routines and habits. First, because I want to do what I feel is right in that moment as not every day is the same, and second, I don’t want to be dependent on rituals.

Ted Ligety: I try to stay away from getting too ritualistic. Every race has a different pre-race situation, so that’s why I shy away from being dependent on a single routine. I try to take a few runs before my first race run. If there are decent warm up courses, I’ll take a few laps on those. Then try to have some down time before heading to the start. Once I get to the start, which is normally 15 minutes before I run, I warm up and actively loosen up. I’ve figured this out from years of testing out what works best for me.

Mikaela Shiffrin: I don’t really have a ‘usual’ pre-race routine. I normally do what feels natural. I always make sure I am warmed up for my runs, but otherwise I just do whatever I feel is necessary to be prepared for the race. Sometimes I feel that very strict pre-race routines might hold me back. For instance, if I always listen to my music before I race, what happens if I forget my earphones, or my headphones die? I don’t like to risk being riled-up by things that have little to do with skiing on race day, so I just let everything flow the way it does. All I can control is my skiing and have fun!

1. First Thing in the Morning: A good schedule, healthy breakfast and some movement.

Your routine starts the night before your race by organizing your equipment and gear, setting your alarm and getting to bed early. In the morning it is critical to have a schedule planned that gives you plenty of time to do whatever it is you need to do. Keeping the morning relatively stress free allows your mind and body to conserve energy and stay focused on the race, and not on where you left your right shin guard!

World Cup athletes know that it is also important to get your body moving early. I always did a morning run on race days as it got my blood moving, took me out into the elements that I would experience all day, and made me feel like I was already “winning” by being up early and on the ball.

Nutrition is key on race day so a big healthy breakfast should be next on the schedule. It should be something that you are used to, enjoy, and will provide sustained energy. Don’t rush this as this is a great time to relax when at home or to communicate with your teammates when on the road. During meal times at our ELITEAM camps, we always tell our athletes to “Chew your food 10 times!”. Scientifically, I think the number is more like 30, but it serves as a reminder to not scarf down your food too fast. Chewing your food aids in digestion, and on race day, no one wants to deal with a queasy stomach all morning.

Travis Ganong: For me, the main thing is consistency. I try and get on a schedule where I wake up and do the same stretching/yoga routine, followed by a healthy breakfast of oatmeal and protein, and doing all of this so I can be early for my day’s events. I hate being rushed and like to take my time in the morning so I give myself some extra time so I can be very relaxed and calm and so I can save my energy and stress for when I need it: Race Time. 

Alice McKennis: I always start the day with a good physical warm up before I even leave for the hill. I might not race for several hours after the leaving the hotel and my body will need to be warmed up again, but I really feel great when I get the blood pumping earlier in the day and not just before my race run. 

Breezy Johnson: I wake up, get some breakfast and do a thorough warmup out of my ski gear. This includes a bike and other active stretching (active not static!). I also do 5-10 minutes of ladder agility just getting my quick twitch muscles and coordination (which is pretty terrible so it’s good for me to work on it) going early.

Bryce Bennett: For me, I like to wake up early and give myself plenty of time to drink my coffee, eat a nice breakfast, and do a solid warm up. I learned through trial and error that when I don’t give myself enough time and I feel rushed, I’m not in a calm place mentally.

2. Warming Up On the Hill: Free-ski runs to warm the body and find the feeling early.

Your 30-60 minute warm-up time on skis, before or after inspection, is the time to find your flow, balance, comfort, technique and confidence on your skis. For me, this was when I could escape the tension of race day and just bury myself in that joy of skiing. Finding that good feeling boosts the adrenaline and race day vibes and puts you in the perfect race day mindset!

This is also a time to play that mental game with yourself. If you are feeling awesome during warm-up, you go into the race feeling super confident and that adds to the excitement and positivity of the day. If you’re not feeling great during warm-up, which sometimes happens, try to think about something positive and mentally override the tough warm-up experience. It could be the great training runs you had earlier in the week, or what you love about this particular venue, or a positive comment from your coach. Champions have learned how to turn a negative feeling into a positive one a matter of seconds!

Steven Nyman: I like to get a few runs in on a slope where I can really feel a good clean movement pattern. I like to remind myself I can ski!

Laurenne Ross: I typically try to take at least 2-3 free ski runs, one of which I do drills throughout the run – slow, focused drills to help my body get in the right positions and to regain that mind-body balance that is so easily forgotten overnight. I also listen to music on my ipod and try to escape from the racing scene–as it can be very stressful and create pressures that cause you to buckle while racing. I try to forget about the importance of what is going on around me and to step back and remember that I am there for fun… relaxing is an extremely important concept for me.

Jared Goldberg: When I get on the hill, I like to make 2-3 free-ski runs having fun, making big turns, but trying to get a little sweat going. I found that it’s easier in the morning to warm up doing something fun like easy free ski turns. I also try to do a bunch of turns in a row to get a little burn going in the legs to get them warmed up.

3. Inspection/Visualization: Confidence in the gate comes from a thorough inspection and visualization.

Inspection is vital to having a positive race. Standing in the starting gate, you need to know every inch of the course, the line in and out of every turn, what the snow conditions are at each gate, and the names of each sections, especially in speed events. You also have to have multiple plans in case you are faster or slower, or higher or lower on the line than you planned. There is no time during your run for indecision or for questioning your line, so your inspection needs to be solid.

After you inspect, it is time to visualize the course as many times as it takes for it to be rock solid in your mind. I would first do my visualization in the finish area. Then I would continue to visualize the course up the lift. And finally, just before I started the race I would review it again in my mind. As a junior, this took a long time, but by the time I was on World Cup, it was easy and fast and calming. As Downhillers racing Kitzbuhel, Wengen and Bormio, inspection and visualization were not only important for a good result, but it kept us out of the hospital!

Inspecting is a skill just like carving or pole planting and needs to be practiced as such. Take the time necessary during every training day to inspect just like you would on a race day. Draw the courses in your Ski Racing Journal each night. Visualize your training courses at night as well to practice the memorization you need on race day. Inspection doesn’t take fancy equipment, a special bevel, or a World Cup speed suit – it only takes hard work, practice and time.

Lindsey Vonn: The first thing I do is have a really good inspection. I try to use every minute of the inspection time to my advantage. Then I run the course over, and over, and over again in my head as much as possible before my run because knowing the course well always gives me confidence and allows me to attack the line I want to ski.

Alice McKennis: During inspection I take my time and really focus on what I need. I worry less about my friends during inspection and narrow in my focus on what I need to feel confident that I know where the best line is going to be.

Tina Weirather: The inspection is a very important thing for me, as you can already ruin your race if you don’t have a good game plan.

Travis Ganong: Once I get to the hill, I try and be one of the first into inspection and take my time so I am one of the last ones done. It’s a huge advantage for me to spend that extra time not only looking at snow conditions and line, but going over what different tactics I can use in different sections and what the risks/rewards of those different tactics may be. And, how I can use those tactics to gain an advantage on the field.

4. In the Gate:  The time to get in the right frame of mind to attack the course and execute your plan.

Finally, with two minutes until you start, it is time to get into the zone – that personal frame of mind that allows you to focus on what you need to do to perform to your potential. For some it is a time of high energy and intensity including chest beating and grunting like Henrik Kristoffersen. For others, it is a zen-like trance of clarity and calm like Tommy Ford or Mikaela Shiffrin. Whatever the state of mind, you need to find a way to get your head into the right place – and quickly.

For me, the final minutes before I exploded out of the starting gate was about focusing on a Mantra (or Cue Words) which would instantly take me to a place of intense focus. My starting gate mantra changed throughout my career, but I remember a simple one that I still use today which was “Be Aggressive”. These two simple words meant much more to me than to just attack. It was about being fiercer than anything a course could throw at me. It was about putting all the crazy energy pulsing through my body onto a single clean edge that would hold on any surface. It was about being more powerful than any force that would try to tear me apart and throw me into the nets.

As a Downhiller, there is the added distraction that every time you charge out of the starting gate, you could end up in a hospital room with a major injury. So in the gate, not only are you fighting race anxiety, you are dealing with the fear of a season ending crash. Throughout my seven years running World Cup Downhill, I only was injured twice and NEVER blew out my knee or had surgery. I credit a little of that to luck, but also to a practiced, rehearsed and flexible two-minute starting gate drill that I could rely on and trust to put me in the best position to ski my best.

Hear Doug Lewis use his Mantra before fore-running down the 2002 Olympic Course for NBC:

Bode Miller: Just before the race its always the same. It’s only a few minutes and I do some breathing exercises and some focus drills, but mostly I think about the course and what I need to do tactically. 

Lindsey Vonn: When I am in the starting gate I just try to relax, breathing deeply to lower my heart rate, and I have one specific technical goal to think about (usually pre-determined the night before from watching video) and when I go out of the start I just let everything go and charge like hell.

Marco Sullivan: When I show up at the start I am focused on the job at hand and I know my plan. Once I step into my boards it is all business and I am completely focused on how I am going to go as fast as possible.

Travis Ganong: After one last course report, I block out everyone and just relax. I look out at the surrounding mountains.  Some people get super intense and jump around and get super excited.  I just stay calm and confident and then once I push out of the start gate, trust in my plan and go!

Alice Mckennis: When its my turn in the gate – only positive thoughts! Thinking about clean, fast and aggressive arcs, taking charge of my skiing and not letting the hill or course dictate where my skis go! Finally, letting it rip and having some fun on course.

How to learn it: Start now!

You are never too young to begin learning your Race Day Routine. As a U10/U12, it may consist of three things: favorite breakfast, free runs, and inspecting. However, as you progress, you will start to dial in everything from your schedule, equipment, warm-ups, nutrition, to your coach’s communication, visualization and race day mantras.

It begins by writing your Race Day Routine down in your Ski Racing Journal and communicating it to your parents and coach. Then it is all about practicing it and then tweaking it to find the right routine for you. And don’t forget to build in flexibility as every Race Day is a challenge in some way or another.

Lindsey Vonn: I found my routine by trial and error. Early on, I put tape on my race skis with my goals written on it to remind me what to do and what to focus on, which would also help me relax. Then, I just got older and more confident and I finally didn’t need the tape anymore. I just knew what I had to do. I have also tried different variations of my routine in the Off-Season and if I thought one technique made me ski better, I did it the rest of the camp and eventually it became natural. I think that for any young racer it is important to keep things simple and try not to worry about the outcome. I know from my own experiences that the second you focus on what place you will/should/ have to get it always makes you more nervous and less likely to accomplish your goals.

Steven Nyman: I found this out by trial and error.  I tried everything and figured out what works for ME.  Plenty of people will tell you what to do but you you have to figure out what works for you.  Feel free to try everything out but be smart with it.  Try it out in training, but use what works in racing.  

Alice McKennis: It can take years to figure out a routine, most importantly I think it is really key to focus on what works for you and not let anyone else dictate what you should do! If you need to step away from the crowd and do you our thing on race day, do it! If you need to hang with your friends to remain relaxed then do that! Each athlete likes something different. 

Breezy Johnson: I came about this gradually. I found that racing with cold muscles worked but it just wasn’t the same as when I was really warmed up. I try to keep sweating in the start because it means I’m really ready to go, and it keeps me warm in sometimes cold starts. I started doing warmups ages ago and I have just gradually added more and more until now. I think finding something like a warmup to do right and with precision before a race can also help me feel more confident and sure of myself.

Daron Rahlves: I’ve found out the best way for me to ski my best through lots of experience.  Take a few ideas from others, but ultimately everyone has their own method and routine for race day.  Once you find the right routine, stick to it and always doing that will put you in a relaxed mode.   If you’re relaxed you feel confident.  Then take that confidence and clear your head and attack.

Article Tags: Alpine, Contributors, Premium, Premium Opinion, Top Rotator, Top Story

What do you think?


Doug Lewis
ELITEAM Conditioning Camps Founder, U.S. Ski Team Alumnus and World Championship Medalist
- Doug joined the USST in 1981 and competed in the 1984 Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia and the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada. His greatest moment came at the 1985 World Championships when he won the bronze medal in the Downhill. Doug also collected two U.S. National Downhill Championships in 1986 and 1987. Today, Doug has been actively involved in every level of the ski industry as a broadcaster, TV host, ski celebrity, motivational speaker, product consultant, spokesperson, journalist, coach and trainer. In the Summer, Doug, along with his wife Kelley, runs ELITEAM Conditioning Camps in Vermont. ELITEAM focuses on educating young athletes on the importance of Sports Physiology, Sports Psychology, and Sports Nutrition. ELITEAM also offers Corporate and Group Team-Building, Leadership, and Risk-Taking programs.
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