What might a cross-country ski racer learn from a 1,400 pound chunk of high-tech composite, space-age metals? As it turns out, there are more similarities than you might think, and the answer is: a lot.
Formula One (F1) cars are some of the most advanced pieces of machinery man has ever created. Their engines are nothing short of engineering marvels, and define the limits of combustion-engine performance. Although the engine itself is relatively small, they can run at nearly 20,000 rpm to reach their peak power, and this unbelievable power-to-weight ratio is one of the trademark characteristics.
It is no wonder that incredible amounts of resources, personnel, money, and time are poured strictly into the science of warming up these multi-million-dollar engines before a race. When that last red light winks off, they must immediately be capable of firing over 300 times per second, without failure. The engine temperature must be impossibly high before the race has even begun.
Surprisingly, the human body is very similar. It is, after all, a heat engine, our system of lungs, heart, muscle, and blood a very versatile machine, converting chemical energy into many forms of mechanical work. And just like those F1 cars, it runs best when piping hot.
For almost as long as I have been ski racing, my warm-up routine has been guided by some serious misconceptions. Well, perhaps “guided” is too strong of a word. When I think about it, I never really had much of a plan on race morning—I would go out, ski around for a while at an easy pace, and maybe throw in a few pickups if I was really feeling good.
The lack of structure showed. When it comes to sprinting, the qualifier has always been my Achilles heel. If there was an award for the ratio of saddest-prelim-to-best-final-result, I would have won it every weekend. As an older junior, I would routinely struggle to qualify within the top 30 at Junior Nationals, then often ski myself onto the podium in the afternoon. Because USSA and FIS points are both based on the prelim time, this meant that my points profile was, to put it nicely, disastrous. And when racing at the World Junior Championships, U-23’s, or U.S. Nationals, I would often miss out on the heats because I couldn’t get myself into the qualifying group.
I can confidently say that nearly all of those struggles can be blamed on one culprit: my warm-up.
It should have been more obvious, since I would ski better as the heats progressed. I knew I had the capacity. I knew I had the power, the speed, and the agility. But for years, I had been toeing the start line with a cold engine.
When I joined the APU team this spring, I brought coach Erik Flora a list of things I wanted to improve over the course of the season. For all practical purposes, my list had one line—it said “Sprint Qualifying.” With Flora’s help, I have formulated a simple and effective warm-up that is getting me to the line hot, and ready to ski as fast as possible.
Below, I will outline the basics of my new, extensive warm-up—including some random notes and explanations.
Arrive at Venue
T-90 minutes: 20 to 30 minutes of super-easy skiing. (I’ve been skiing around with my down coat over my normal warm-ups, plus super-thick gloves and a warm hat, even if it’s balmy out, to keep myself skiing slowly. Everyone knows that feeling, where the first 15 minutes of movement just feel awful. The point of this is just to get all of my blood flowing slowly, without actually making my muscles do a lot of work.)
T-60 minutes: Light stretching, grab my bib, check with coaches about skis and course, eat a PowerBar, etc. (I like to walk around a little bit and take care of all the necessary race-day business after I have already skied for a while.)
T-50 minutes: 15 minutes of level one skiing. (If the course is open, jump on it at this point and take a reconnaissance lap or two. It’s hard to ignore all of the hammer-heads, but I think it’s important to go your own pace. Going too hard at this point doesn’t usually pay off.)
T-30 minutes: One entire lap at conservative level three. (The pace on this one is also important; it is actually more difficult than you might think to stay down in level three here. This should be a distinctly different pace than the one you want to be skiing in the race.)
T-25 minutes: Ski around at level one for 5 minutes.
T-20 minutes: One entire lap at sprint race pace. (This might sound ridiculous. But your body needs it. This lap will probably be really painful, feel slow, and be generally depressing. However, that is the point. You want to open up the valves completely, moving the body past that terrible feeling. If you skip this step, then you will feel equally horrible during the prelim instead. This was the biggest step I was missing—I was afraid that feeling poorly was a bad sign, and that I shouldn’t be making my body tired prior to racing. Also, I have a hard time getting myself to complete a full lap at this pace, but I think it’s crucial to go all the way around. If there are skis to test, do it during this lap, while moving at race speed.)
T-15 minutes: Ski around at level one for five minutes. (I usually swing by the stadium and the wax table, gulp a PowerBar gel and some drink, double-check that I have my bib on, double-check that I don’t look like an idiot, etc.)
T-10 minutes: Two to three all-out sprints, about 15 seconds long. (This is just to get those big muscles snapping fast. It shouldn’t hurt, or be tiring. The idea is to move at speeds that exceed race pace.)
T-5 minutes: Walk to the start pen. At this point, the warm-up is over, and it’s up to you to go fast!
Of course, all of these times, lengths, distances, and paces are just suggestions. Basically, it’s like this: start out really easy for a while, then ski a tiny bit faster for a while, and then ski sort of hard for a few minutes, then ski super hard for a few minutes, and then go all out for a few seconds. There you are, revving hot and ready for the best qualifier of your life!
Next time you arrive at the venue with a sprint day ahead of you, just imagine yourself as a world-class race car. Okay, okay, maybe none of us can put out the astronomical power numbers that those fire-breathing autos might. But compared to the rest of the human population, we are indeed finely-tuned racing machines. And we have to be plenty warmed up in order to show it.