At Mountain Endurance Sports we believe in improvement aimed at excellence, in evolution of the individual, in ascension. While it would seem to parallel our philosophy, programs aimed at U20 and U23 aged athletes referred to as “development” programs too often detract from, rather than contribute to this rapid improvement in this age. OK, we get it: development connotes patience, progress and giving athlete the time to grow. Obviously there is a place for this in endurance sport. In fact it is a requirement. However, is that place with 19 year old athletes? Our basic premise is that this period in a nordic athlete’s career should be aimed not at development, but instead at rapid achievement.
Development is a necessary element in any athletic career. In endurance sport, it is absolutely required in the early stages of understanding both technical and physiologic elements of training. Without development, basically an early chrysalis phase of processing sport requirements, athletes will struggle to ever perform training correctly. (This too, occurs with startling regularity in nordic sport in the U.S., but we are focusing on U20 and U23 training here). Development does not, by definition, mean improvement. While ascension indicates upward progress. A development period in training should be characterized by acquisition of skills, identification of training zones, and practicing good training habits, as contrasted to our proposed period of ascension aimed at excellence, which would be focused on achieving ski speed sufficient to meet athletic goals, perfection of technical nuances and ownership of training objectives.
So really, aren’t we just splitting vocabulary hairs here? Well, yes and no. Obviously U20 athletes will continue to “develop”. Our beef is not with the process, but with the terminology. “Development” in athletes 18 and older just feels like an excuse: the athlete is “only” 19, there is time, he is “still developing”. Even a cursory glance at international results will turn up an overwhelming amount of evidence that most successful athletes at least show the capacity for World Cup point scoring ski speed by that age. And we’re not driving simply at international results. Right here on the SuperTour, on the NCAA Carnival circuit, and at JNs, athletes who have success are skiing per km times within 2% of the winners by their U20 years, at least occasionally.
It is our supposition that athletes need to understand the opportunity that the U20 (and early U23) years provide them. Most athletes this age are still entirely supported by their parents. Most are enrolled in either high school (senior year), a ski club PG program, or at college. All three situations generally provide more support than most national-level athletes in this country will ever receive: room, board, structure, coaching, access to physical therapy, athletic training, weight room, travel assistance and a strong social structure. In addition, for male athletes, they will never have another period of potential physiological growth that comes anywhere near matching this time.
This is truly the period for rapid improvement aimed at excellence—however excellence is defined by the athlete. This is the time for ontogeny to trump phylogeny. We see this time and time again; the age-old story of the “late” bloomer. It is the time in an endurance athletic career that focus on training pays the biggest dividends. The time that training well begins to overtake “pure” talent.
It is for these reasons that we strongly encourage U20 athletes to focus on three specific areas:
1. Train for adequate ski speed to achieve set goals. If you want to sprint on the men’s World Cup, that means skating 1km faster than 1:51. Aiming for a women’s JN classic title? Better be able to average at least 3:25/km in most years (often faster for U18s). It doesn’t matter what your goal is, the raw speed to achieve it is a prerequisite. Train that speed often enough to be comfortable at that speed.
2. Gain a nuanced understanding of technique. Most athletes by age 19 have spent 100s of hours working on V1, V2, V2 alt, diagonal and double pole. They know how to do it by now. Chances are they’ve adopted a technique that is relatively efficient for them. But few have spent focused hours on these techniques across the full spectrum of possibility thrown at them by most race courses: off camber pitches, uneven grooming, plowing new snow, breaking suction klister skiing, etc. Even fewer have actively practiced and refined gears within techniques like herringbone, double pole kick, and tuck skating. Far fewer still have checked times over the same terrain in several different techniques to determine where they can gain speed at little or no cost. Take the time to acquire a nuanced understanding of your technique and timing preferences.
3. Take ownership of your training. Through the “development” years of most nordic programs (let’s call it U14, U16, U18), coaches almost exclusively dictate the training plan and the specifics of each workout. This is entirely appropriate in most situations for those ages. However, spending another 4-6 years doing the same, or very similar, training at ages 18 and up seems to us a sure fire way to stymie improvement. How often have we heard that skiing is an individual sport and that each athlete may need different stimulus? Yet, how often do we see this actually applied? It is your athletic career. Take the time to educate yourself about your reactions to training. Advocate for yourself. Use your coach(es) as a resource: they have your best interests in mind, but they are often much more effective with clear input from you about what has and hasn’t worked in the past. You have the best training computer in the world right between your ears. Take these years to learn how to use it.
Obviously nordic ski training for U20 athletes is vastly more complex than this set of suggestions. However, we believe that solid application of the principles above can help athletes excel rather than simply progress
At Mountain Endurance Sports we believe in performance through perseverance. We believe in patiently picking apart a problem in order to best achieve a route forward. We believe in the power of the individual to shape the outcome. We believe that training sculpts talent. We offer complete, individualized coaching services to a handful of individuals because that is the only way we know to truly succeed. No distractions, no excuses. To facilitate success for our clients, we are carefully adding an inventory of exceptional products for our focus sports.
Mountain Endurance Sports focuses on coaching, consulting and retailing select gear to athletes seeking to excel in nordic ski racing, trail running and hunting. Follow our blog here and on Fasterskier to learn more about our training philosophies.