Coaching and racing can be mutually reinforcing. As I raced Sunday, I noticed some things in other skiers around me and that I was doing, that could be done better. Here are a few tips and ideas to help improve your mass start racing!
Sunday’s (and Saturday’s) was a flat course and conditions were windy and fast, making it quite advantageous to ski directly behind the person in front of you, in their slipstream, because it requires significantly less energy than bearing the full brunt of the wind. I noticed many of the junior skiers (and perhaps one master – purple suit) letting small gaps of 5 to 10 meters open up, even at the beginning of the race and even though the skiers in front had not just suddenly accelerated.
Unless these skiers were in the red, that is working beyond their anaerobic thresholds and quickly building up lactic acid in their muscles, this was poor use of the skiers around them. It seemed as though people were sticking to a time trial, or running-style pace (their own rhythm, as though they were skiing alone) even though it was a group situation. Cross-country skiing is between running and cycling in terms of wind energy efficiency: accelerating to close a gap will require more energy than it will in cycling, but will not put you into an anaerobic state as will doing so in a running race, where even after you close the gap, there is little draft effect to bring the intensity back down.
In my case, a few of these gaps opened up on the first downhill before going back out into the field to end the first lap. I was second in a group of four, which was about 10-15 meters behind the lead group of three. The pace was easier than I could handle, but the skier in front of me would accelerate when I would try to pass, so I stuck behind him until the lap/finish lane. With much effort, I closed the gap with the lead group by the uphill leading out of the start/finish area for the second lap, but I let myself look down and a gap soon opened up again, only now I found I had overdone it and couldn’t actually keep up.
The lead group quickly gained ground and I found myself alone – not a good position. After a while, the second group of four began catching up, so I eased off the pace to let them join me. Again, the pace felt easy, but now that I knew I wouldn’t keep pace with the lead group, the smartest thing to do was to conserve energy and attack at the end to beat this group.
Right at about the moment where I was going to launch, on the second uphill with the hairpin bend, the young skier just behind me in third position attacked. I managed to get around the lead skier to get behind the young fellow. He slowed down again on the second part of the climb, but we had managed to open up a small gap – again, small. We maintained it to the end, but I wager more experienced skiers would have dug in and the group would have come together again.
At the finish, I hesitated and maybe didn’t have the strength to out-sprint him, but I think the best strategy for beating a skier who doesn’t quite seem as strong for longer bouts but can accelerate well and has slightly faster skis would be to wait for the sprint, but start early. There was a headwind on the finishing straight, which would diminish his ski advantage and sprinting early might demoralize him. All of this is in theory now of course…
TIP: keep your eyes up, that is far away up and constantly monitor the situation in front of you, so that you don’t let gaps open up, unless you are really in the red. It really is worth a short burst of speed to close a gap that has inadvertently opened up, though.
If you are leading, look over your shoulder frequently to see if you have opened any. If you have opened a gap without going full on, accelerate to deepen it. If it’s early in the race, and you open up a gap by yourself, consider slowing to take a few others with you. Don’t stay in the lead for too long in an escape group. Force the other skiers to take turns taking the wind.
2. Sprint/attack tactics:
When you go, GO. Feel out your opponent: Who has faster skis? Who is strongest and where? All of this is very instinctive and well, one of the best things about racing! When you decide the best way to beat your opponent(s), pick your moment and open up the throttle – as in, there is a grizzly bear behind you, or better yet, it’s ahead of you and has your baby child between its teeth. You may be surprised at just how fast you can go. Don’t worry about going into the red because even if you do, chances are your opponents are just as tired as you are, and even if you bonk on the next hill or passage, you will have demoralized them into thinking you can hold that pace, and now you have a gap – slow a bit to control your pace and then hang on until the finish. We all do this for physical and mental health, but winning a race is more about who wants it more than who is the fittest!
For instance, in my race, though I planned to pounce on the last uphill, the young fellow behind me had the same idea, so I got behind him to feel out his attack. I could have hammered more on the last part of the climb, but I knew he had faster skis and that we were opening a gap, so because getting around him would probably be pointless as he would catch back up on the downhill, I left my attack to the final sprint.
Have ever noticed your technique fall apart in a race, especially a mass start? Part of the reason might be inadequate relaxation of your mind and muscles due to nervousness and/or clothing. Personally, I think I was not wearing enough and was shivering at the start and during the first part of the race. I could feel my legs trembling, and boy was my technique all over the place.
TIP: I am probably repeating what most people know, but tense muscles are slow muscles. Use various mental and physical relaxation techniques to keep as loose as possible and use as little energy as possible to ski right behind the skier or group of skiers in front of you (remember, NO GAPS)
Also, poor technique keeps you from skiing your fastest.
TIP: in skating, remember to bring your leg back under you before your next stroke. I felt the temptation to put it down early and wide to avoid clipping the pole of the skier in front of me. And while perhaps some of the coaches would disagree with this technique, I might suggest skiing slightly offset to the skier in front of you, again to be able to ski as close as possible in behind without clipping your skis against his or her poles. But most importantly, as for the purpose of position and drafting, keep your eyes up. Your peripheral vision will be able to synchronize your movements with the skier in front of you, while you focus on the bigger tactical picture in front of or behind you.
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