Junior coaches may shy away from sprint and speed training for fear of pigeonholing their skiers or limiting their aerobic development. But many of the country’s top sprint coaches and athletes say that these kinds of training can be useful for budding distance skiers as well.
In an interview with FasterSkier, U.S. Ski Team Sprint Coach Chris Grover outlined three areas where juniors or young skiers could benefit from sprint-style training without detracting from their potential to be successful distance racers: strength, speed, and sprint-specific interval training.
“Every good distance skier you develop has an incredible aerobic engine, but also has to have an anaerobic engine as well,” Grover said. “You have to train a little bit of their weaknesses.”
FasterSkier spoke with Grover, 2009 World Championships sprint silver medalist Kikkan Randall, and Erik Flora, Alaska Pacific University program director, about the specific methods that coaches can use to develop their athletes’ sprinting skills before they reach the point where they can specialize in one discipline.
Before young athletes seriously dedicate themselves to skiing—from about seven to 11 or 12 years old—Grover said that there are already ways to begin to develop the coordination and balance required for sprinting.
“If you look at someone like Kikkan or [Andy] Newell, at that critical age, they were doing a wide variety of activities beyond the scope of traditional endurance athletics—they’re rollerblading, swimming, alpine skiing,” he said. “All of these are activities that challenge their proprioception [awareness of body movement position].”
It’s important for athletes to improve their proprioception early on, Grover continued, because elite cross country skiing demands such a high level of body control and precision in order to master its two techniques.
Speed training—short speed bursts of less than ten seconds, in different activites—can also begin to be incorporated at this age.
Strength, Speed, and Sprint-Specific Intervals
Once athletes get more serious about skiing, but before they’ve chosen a discipline, coaches can still begin to incorporate some sprint-specific training into a strength routine.
According to Grover, rather than relying exclusively on a circuit-based, general strength model, skiers should also be doing some maximal strength work in the weight room.
“Explosive general strength training, with high loads, low reps, and lots of recovery is one place where more sprint-style general strength training would apply to distance skiers as well,” he said.
For sprinters, Grover continued, the U.S. Ski Team ensures that the gains they make in the gym will transfer onto snow by making the exercises very specific—weighted dips, for example, or heavy double-pole pull downs on a weight stack.
Randall said that when she’s in the weight room, she’s still thinking about racing.
“When I’m sprinting, I like to be really explosive,” she said. “So when I’m in the weight room and doing a half squat, I’m trying to think of being really explosive, psychologically carrying the sprinting across some of the training that way.”
Speed training is another way to begin incorporating sprint-specific exercises into a workout. Grover said that while some coaches use the terms speed training and sprint training interchangeably, speed training actually refers only to maximal efforts of ten seconds or less.
Proper speed training, he said, should be periodized through the training year, focusing on technique or maximal efforts. These exercises are critical for budding distance skiers in addition to sprinters, Grover said, because many distance skiers are constrained by a “neuromuscular limitation—they can’t ski at a certain rate of speed because they’re extremely uncomfortable skiing at that speed.”
Like in the weight room, Randall does her speed training with her mind on sprint racing.
“Doing short speed work, even in distance sessions, I like to train as if I’m preparing for a sprint race,” she said. In her speed workouts, she said she’ll practice coming around corners, or even do sprint starts against others on her team.
Finally, sprint-specific interval training can also help younger athletes become more comfortable skiing at a high pace. This type of training usually consists of intervals between 30 seconds and three minutes in length—much shorter than typical intensity work for distance skiers.
These types of intervals can help athletes get used to working with lactic acid in their system, and they also have a different physiological cost. Even though they might be moving in and out of threshold, Grover said, skiers will still be logging time at threshold during sprint-specific intervals.
Putting it into Practice
One program that has integrated these different exercises into its development pipeline is the Alaska Pacific University club team.
For their junior programs, Director Erik Flora said, APU works both on developing a good aerobic base through distance training, but also on coordination and economy through speed work.
“What I’ve seen is that you don’t get a really good look into [athletes’] genetic disposition until they’ve had a few years of training,” Flora said. “We have that speed work in there so for the ones with the more distance-style genetics, we’re still improving their economy, and with the sprinters at that time too, it helps them because they’re moving pretty quick and working on economy and sprint-specific skill.”
At APU, when athletes mature to a point where he or she has developed a specialty, they can start training with either a sprint group or a distance group to hone their skills. Skiers who are strong in sprinting and distance follow a plan that allows them to touch on both.
Randall, who trains with APU, said the team will break up into the different groups on interval days.
“Often times the sprinters will do something a little bit harder and a little bit shorter,” she said, while the distance group will do something “more threshold-based.”
Once you make it to the international level, Flora said, skiers do make sacrifices by focusing specifically on sprint or distance racing.
“You start needing to specialize if you’re going to be competitive…and then you kind of see a detriment for the one [discipline] you don’t specifically focus on,” he said. “I think you can see that with Kikkan’s training—when I started working with her, we started to press on the sprint style of her training, and we saw the distance racing kind of stabilizing.”
“As she’s gotten a little more training base under her, we started to balance those two and bring the distance side up,” he continued. “I think it’s just kind of a trade-off—you just have to do it in phases.”
Grover said that all skiers have a different physiological make-up: some can rely on a strong aerobic system, while pure sprinters can get by with their anaerobic power.
“You have some sprinters that are also extremely good distance skiers…they’re not going to qualify super fast…but they’re going to really last well in the rounds,” he said. “Then you have the athletes that are really pure sprinters that have a really high anaerobic capacity, but maybe their aerobic capacity they have to focus on more.”
At the same time, though, it’s important not to get too caught up focusing on an athlete’s weaknesses.
“It’s really important not to forget what’s getting that athlete to that level, and to continue to nurture that set of strengths,” Grover said.
“When these guys get to a certain level,” he added, “they have to figure out how they got there, keep hammering on their strengths, and attack some of their weaknesses as well.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.