For Athletes, Shifting Sprint Distances Force a Fine Balance

Kieran JonesOctober 19, 2010
Kikkan Randall racing the classic sprint at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Since sprinting was first introduced, at the 2001 World Championships in Finland, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has constantly fiddled with the format.

The number of heats, the number of athletes in each one, and the total number who qualify for the rounds—all have been altered at one point or another. But one of the most contentious—and significant—changes has been the length of the sprint race.

Changes Were Necessary, Officials Say

According to FIS Cross-Country Committee Chairman Vegard Ulvang, the original guidelines for World Cup sprint distances called for courses of 1.2 to 1.6 kilometers. But in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, FIS officials proposed increasing the maximum length to 1.8 kilometers.

Ulvang said that the distance changes were suggested to ensure that courses could access terrain to include two big climbs, which would help deter the men from double poling the entire sprint on skate skis—thus defeating the use of classic equipment.

In a notorious case in Canmore in 2008, Norwegians Boerre Naess, Ola Vigen Hattestad and Eldar Roenning all dominated a sprint course that was laid out on insufficiently challenging terrain.

“To make good cross-country courses, with uphills and downhills, you need some flexibility on course lengths,” Ulvang said.

But for the athletes tackling the elongated sprint courses, the shifting distances can be frustrating. “Many of the racers I have talked to dislike the trend of sprints getting longer,” said Kikkan Randall, a U.S. Ski Team (USST) member and FIS athlete representative. “Most agree that the ideal sprint length is around three minutes.”

USST Head Coach Chris Grover—who used to be in charge of the squad’s sprinters—is in the same school.

“The sprint should be right around three minutes in length, and never more than 3:30,” he said.

Data from the International Ski Federation shows that the average time of the top 10 qualifiers in sprint races has trended upwards since 2006. Graphic by Joran Elias,


While the margin for error in any World Cup race is slim, in sprints, this rings especially true. In the men’s qualifier, the difference between first and 30th—the cutoff for entering the heats—is often no more than five seconds, leaving very little room for errors in training.

Athletes have to walk a fine line between speed and endurance to be successful, Grover said—and finding that physiological balance is tough.

“The two-minute sprint requires almost equal contributions from an athlete’s aerobic and anaerobic energy systems,” Grover said. “The four-minute sprint is weighted heavily on the aerobic side.”

As a result, the constant variation in distance has forced athletes to change their training to adapt. In the early years of the format, when races were shorter, sprint specialists followed regimens designed to maximize their speed.

“My generation of skiers—[those] who were successful in the early days of sprinting—changed the way they were training in order to accommodate the shorter sprints,” said the USST’s Andy Newell. “We changed the kind of intervals we did, the kind of volume we were training, more like you would for a race that’s that long, because back then they were only qualifying the top 15 or 16. If you didn’t have that speed, you weren’t going to be a successful sprinter.”

Data from the International Ski Federation shows a trend towards longer sprints since the 2005-2006 season. Graphic by Joran Elias, (Note: The International Ski Federation's results database contains some discrepancies with the distances displayed on PDF copies of results that are also available; while the trend of this graph is most likely correct, neither FasterSkier nor guarantees its accuracy.)

However, with races becoming longer, often nearing the four-minute range, “the coach’s challenge with each sprinter has been to find the balance between training the different energy systems,” Grover said. Athletes need the speed to qualify in the top 30, but if they don’t have the endurance, they can’t turn on the jets at crucial moments during semifinals and finals.

“Too much aerobic training and the sprinter will not qualify for the heats,” Grover said. “Too little aerobic training and the same athlete will not make it past a quarterfinal.”

Randall described the longer courses as “not ideal” for her, at least initially.

“I’ve had to adjust my training to increase my endurance and capacity,” she said.

“Sprinters now need to train a lot, just like a regular cross-country skier,” said Newell.


FIS officials have stated that the federation considers the needs of the athletes in its decisions, but growing and marketing the sport of cross-country skiing is also a priority.

At the spring FIS meetings in Turkey in June, Randall said she was told that “the longer sprint courses are more advantageous for the overall contenders, like [Petter] Northug and [Dario] Cologna, which allows them to qualify in the heats.  This, in turn, is seen as making the race for the Overall World Cup more exciting [for] more TV viewers.”

Petter Northug qualifying in the sprint at the 2010 Olympics.

Ulvang also noted concerns at FIS that shorter sprint distances would have split the sport of cross-country skiing into two distinct disciplines—sprint and distance. He acknowledged that sprints have been steered in the direction of endurance athletes over the past few years, which he said “allows some of our best racers to do all disciplines.”

But for Randall, the lengthening of sprints has killed some of the excitement.

“Especially in the men’s races, racers now stay together and ski slower, and then wait until the end to make moves,” she said.

Ulvang, however, assured FasterSkier that the longer distances made for a better fight for the overall World Cup competition. And while the fluctuations have left athletes frustrated, Ulvang maintained that the format was finally beginning to settle down. At the meetings in Turkey this spring, it was recommended that qualifier times be held to approximately three minutes.

Despite the challenges of adapting to the longer distances, Newell said that he liked the current format—and he also understands FIS’s rationale for pushing it.

“People who are fast at sprinting, and people who are fast at distance—everyone can compete at this distance, and that’s what FIS wants,” Newell said. “That’s what’s good for TV, and that’s what’s good for spectators.”

For Grover, the change in distance has not had as much of an effect on the excitement of the race as other variables. He maintained that the most exciting addition to the sprint in recent years has been “the advent of the 30-person round, and the lucky loser system.”

“Sprinting is in a good place…Each year the event seems to get cleaner and more fair,” Grover said.

–Nathaniel Herz contributed reporting.

Kieran Jones

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