For many of the top ski racers in the U.S. and around the world, the race season as already begun with World Cups in Soelden and Levi and FIS races in Colorado. For everyone else, your first races are anywhere from a few days to a few weeks away. At the beginning of the fall, I introduced you to Phase 2 of your prep period in which I encouraged you to ramp up your physical, on-snow, and mental efforts to prepare you for race season.
So, now is the time to enter Phase III, the final phase of your prep period, in which you will make a shift from training mode to race mode.
Training mode to race mode
This transition requires several important shifts in your focus and in how you approach your training:
- From focus on technique and tactics to focus on going fast;
- From details of skiing to big picture of skiing;
- From thinking to feeling;
- From lower intensity to race intensity;
- From training preparation to race-like preparation for training runs.
Speed is an acquired skill
Just like technique and tactics, I don’t believe that speed, that is going as fast as you can, comes naturally to many racers. Rather, it needs to be practiced and learned. When you first start focusing on skiing fast, you’ll feel out of balance, out of control, and uncomfortable. Your mind and body need time to figure out how to stay on top of a new level of speed.
In Phase III, when you shift your focus to going fast, you do the things you know you need to do to ski fast, for example, before a training run you may increase your intensity, use aggressive breathing, and get yourself fired up to attack the course. You also need to have the perspective that you may make mistakes when you ignite the afterburners and that’s actually a good thing because it means that you’re pushing your limits. When this happens, you need to remind yourself to be patient and stay committed because you know that, in time, your mind and body will catch up with the new speed and you’ll not only be faster, but you’ll also finish.
Train like you race, so you can race like you train
Let me introduce you to two essential rules for ski racing success that make it an absolute requirement for you to train like you race so you can race like you train.
First, whatever you do in races, you must first do in training. This seems obvious, yet is often neglected by racers. If you want to ski technically and tactically well in races, you better get that technique and those tactics down in training first. That’s what you focused on in Phase II. In Phase III, you need to ingrain the feeling of going fast in your training, so it comes more naturally in races.
Second, whatever you do in training is what you will do in a race. Ideally, the purpose of training is to develop effective skills and habits that will translate into fast skiing on race day. It also means developing the skill of speed. But here’s the problem: racers often practice bad skills and habits in training, whether technical, tactical, mental, speed.
So think about what you do on race day to get ready and do the same things in training as part of your training routine. For example, do a good skiing warm-up, inspect the course (don’t just slip it), get your body moving at the start, do mental imagery, grab your focus on going fast. Of course, you’re not going to spend 15-30 minutes getting ready for each training run, but you should take key elements of your race routine and shrink it down to a 1-2 minute training routine.
With all that said, let us return to my original question: Should you race like you train or train like you race? My answer is a resounding “YES!” You should train like you race so you can race like you train. The more you can make training like a race, the more you will ingrain in your body and mind the skills and habits to ski fast in a race. The ultimate goal of which is that when you get into the starting gate of a race, your body and mind automatically do what you do in training and you will ski fast in the race just like you do in training.
A really important shift you’ll want to make is in your mindset. When I talk about mindset, I mean what you’re thinking about 30-60 seconds before you get into the gate. In Phase II of your prep period, your mindset was probably focused mainly technique and tactics. But, in Phase III, your mindset should change to a focus on what you need to do to just ski fast.
With most racers I work with, this means adopting a more aggressive mindset. Key tools for getting an aggressive mindset include raising your physical intensity, use intense breathing (forced exhale), have aggressive self-talk (“Attack,” “Charge,” “Let’s bring it”), and use aggressive imagery in which you see and feel yourself attacking the course.
Find the threshold
Your goal in Phase III is to find the threshold of how fast you can ski. Many racers that I work with think they’re at their limits, but, when they really challenge those limits, they find they can ski faster than they thought they could. The only one way to do that is to cross the threshold and either make a mistake, ski out, or crash. When you cross that line, you can then back your speed off a bit and stay just within that threshold. If you think about it, that’s what makes Marcel, Mikaela, Felix, and Petra so good; they are able to stay just inside of that threshold every run of every race.
To find that threshold, figure out how you can go faster, whether technically, tactically, or mentally. Be willing to take risks to find more speed and recognize that mistakes and DNFs are good signs. And experiment with what you need to do to find another gear.
Use mental imagery
As you probably know from all of my writings about imagery, I believe it is a powerful tool to help you achieve your ski racing goals. It is also an essential tool in Phase III of your prep period. So much of going fast involves getting a lot of repetition in going fast and getting comfortable with a new level of speed. You can use imagery to accelerate that process.
As you progress through Phase III, regularly (say, three times a week) see and feel yourself just plain skiing fast. For 5-10 minutes in each imagery session, imagine yourself getting ready to ski fast before your training runs, doing what you’ve learned works in your on-snow. Then, imagine yourself being aggressive, charging down the course, and pushing your limits. With every imagery session, you will more deeply ingrain the image and feeling of yourself skiing fast in your mind and body. So, on race day, those same images and feelings will emerge and put you in “full send” mode.
To help you make this shift from training mode to race mode, here are a few exercises you can use in your on-snow training:
- Establish a consistent training routine that is a mini-version of your race routine to ensure total “race mode” preparation every training run.
- Physical (move body, breathing).
- Mental (imagery, self-talk).
- Incorporate several “race” runs (i.e., focus on just going fast) into training sessions.
- Make the first two runs of training “race” runs to train mind and body to go fast the first two runs (because that’s what has to happen on race day).
- Do off-snow imagery of upcoming race 3x/week.
- Focus on confidence/trust, aggressiveness, and feeling (not thinking).
- See and feel yourself skiing really fast.