I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading lately about how to train ski technique, or really complex skills in general. For the last couple of years we’ve identified our classic skiing as a weak point for the group relative to our skating. Now of course there are those individuals who are stronger classic skiers than skate skiers, but it seems like across the board we have not been as effective in classic technique, particularly when striding (our double poling improved significantly last year and seems to be continuing on that trend this year).
The first question when approached with a situation like this is to of course ask ‘why?’ The answers for us have come slowly over the course of the past two years. Last year we added some bounding work (60-75 sec race-pace ‘feel’ intervals) that we thought would help us to develop the power to handle the big hills, but that didn’t really pan out as hoped. With most problems there are a number of directions you can come from for the solution and experience would indicate that usually taking a variety of directions yields the best result. Skiing does not happen in a test tube, it isn’t that clean and there are multiple facets to solving the movement challenges that we are presented with. Logically our training will be more productive if we tackle one of those facets at a time rather than the whole bunch at once.
Bounding may have been one answer to it, but it was just a slice of the pie. In doing some reading about skill development (Talent Code, Bounce: great books about the subject, although a bit repetitive when read together), there were a couple of points that stuck out and applied specifically to skiing and technique. In no particular order:
1. You have to be training at the limit of your abilities: If you’re bobbling a little bit you are stretching your comfort zone. It is easy and nice and makes you feel good to practice what you know how to do, but if you want to improve those changes happen far more rapidly when you are pushing your limits. Be creative with finding means to do this.
2. You have to break the issue down into chunks. Assemble the whole slowly, piece-by-piece and gradually the large, fluid, complex skill will come together. For us that means a quick kick/early kicking impulse/beginning the kick from an extended position. It also means learning an effective body position and fundamental motions (pendulums) so that you are making the most out of the energy your body is creating and directing it as momentum down the trail.
Here’s how we approached it today:
1. Warm-up with an easy ski.
2. Grass games to finish up the warm-up. Games are awesome training tools if the athletes are into them. Playing a little ultimate on the grass took everyone’s mind off of what they were doing (good – helps make movements automatic and not too robotic) while still putting them in a competitive situation where they want to be able to move effectively immediately- in other words, without knowing it they are pushing the limits of their comfort zone. The grass is a tough surface because it is slightly uneven meaning you have to be on top of the kick and make it happen quickly – if not your ski rolls over and you lose your balance and speed.
As skiers in Alaska and in the interior in particular we suffer from the curious affliction of having awesome hard wax tracks on buffed-out, boulevard-like trails for virtually the entire winter. Pretty soon after we learn to ski it stops challenging us to have more skill as classic skiers – it’s easy to get grip and easy to balance. At the same time, we race on a variety of surfaces, so we need to be prepared and have the skills to adapt to all of them, or perhaps it is more correct to say we need to have developed a technique that is easily adaptable to a variety of situations. Beautiful blue/green hard wax tracks and rubber wheels (roller skis) on pavement are both surfaces on which it is easy to get kick. We need to push our limits there – enter klister skiing, enter grass roller ski drills, enter bumpy old single track trails, etc.
3. Core strength and stability: build a strong, stable connection between the limbs and the body’s center of mass. Today, planks in all directions and 30 push-ups. Not so specific to what we’re working on today, but a common link in effective technique that happened to fit in logically at this point of the training session.
Caught in still-frame, the picture above looks like a bunch of ugly push-ups. What we go after with push-ups is primarily creating a healthy, strong, effective link between strong arms and a strong core. Often for this we use some instability when a basic level of strength has been developed, but there are also many options one can use without any fancy toys. Today it was ‘butt-up’ push-ups, where one assumes the shape of an ‘A’ at the top of each push-up, before flatting out the body on the way down to the ground.
4. Technique and spenst. As mentioned above, today we were working on getting a feeling for a good early impulse – in other words kicking the ski from an extended striding position rather than letting our legs and arms come in towards the body before we get any purchase on the snow. This allows us a greater distance and a longer time to apply power and create momentum in each stride.
This skill is a little difficult to learn on skis, so we made it simpler with some spenst training. Single-leg classic bounds where you bound from an extended striding position on one leg and land again in that extended position. We focused on sticking the landing today – minimizing bobbles and bounces – because we wanted to work on being stable and in control when we are extended. If we are stable and in control, it is much easier to create that early kick.
5. Next we threw back on the rollerskis to work on hot feet. That meant grass sprints on the rollerskis where we tried to look not so much different than the second guy past the camera in this video.
6. Speed on rollerskis (pavement now). As practice wound wound down it was time to put the pieces together. Starting with hot feet to get up to speed and then quick, powerful full strides for 10 seconds or so once we’re up to speed.
7. Warm down.
A successful day: we started with simple goals, made that our purpose, built piece by piece and put it all together. Visible results in a couple of hours are always a big step forward.