2011 USSA Cross Country Coaches’ Symposium

October 22, 20111


The USSA Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah

For the second year in a row, the coaches of the coaches of the US Ski Team (USST) and the United States SKi Association (USSA) have assembled a three day symposium geared toward the education of cross country ski coaches.  The sixty coaches who were invited to the symposium represent a mix of  high school, club, college and university coaches.

The conference is being held at the Center of Excellence (COE), a  new training center for the US Ski Team which was built in Park City, Utah, in the spring of 2010.  Yesterday was the first of three scheduled days of presentation by experts in the fields of nordic racing, psychology, nutrition, strength, recovery, and performance.

Yesterday’s speakers were Jon Nolting, Dr .Oyvind Sandbaak, and Dr. Troy Flanagan, followed by roundtable discussion including the USST strength coach, Alex Moore, and the USST nordic coaches, Chris Grover, Pete Vordenberg, Matt Whitcomb, and Brian Fish.

Nolting, who has been the Sport Education Director for the USSA since 2009, spoke on the topic of “Long-Term Athlete Development”.

Nolting followed the USSA Training System matrix and how a coach could use the matrix outline –  in conjunction with an individual athlete’s physical and biological development – to maximize the long term development and elite potential for each athlete.

Nolting related much of the development timeline to an athlete’s achievement of Peak Height Velocity (PHV).    In girls this period of growth spurt is not only longer in duration, but starts an average of age twelve, which is two years earlier than boys.

Nolting emphasized points in the timeline which he called a ‘training windows in development’.  Before PHV, junior development should optimize skills, agility, and speed development.  As the USSA matrix suggests, the younger the athlete, the more varied the activity they should participate in to promote a wide range of agility, balance, and coordination skills.

During PHV, girls and boys differ in that girls can maximize their early gains of speed, strength, stamina, and anaerobic power during the tail end of the PHV period.  Boys, however, acquire strength and anaerobic power in the 5th and 6th phases of development, which are after PHV occurs. In both genders, the most notable development opportunity is  in the period directly after PHV, when  gains in endurance training and aerobic capabilities are most available.   However, Nolting warned that without attainment of those early agility and coordination skills, it was much harder to gain aerobic capacity; technique after PHV would be much more difficult to master and therefore an athlete may  be more prone to injury and require more recovery for intensity.

Nolting wanted to make clear that junior development, training, and racing should not mimic that of senior or national athletes.  Training sessions  and races should be short enough in duration, so that the athletes can train and race at high speeds.  Training should focus on fun, teamwork, and agility through varied exercise.  For very young ages, Nolting suggests doing away with results-based racing and testing altogether, and focusing more on skill-based testing and skill-based rewards such as timing downhill runs, cone obstacle courses, corners, etc.

Nolting also gave some key tips on the learning process of young kids and juniors .  Most importantly, young athletes are visual learners. They can only store two or three pieces of information at a time, and so they are much worse at remembering and processing auditory commands.   Kids need to be doing, not listening. Also, their working memory is a progressive one, so in order achieve a certain skill sets they must work on one skill at a time and build slowly.

Nolting pointed to the importance of mentors and heroes for a young athlete’s motivation.

The next speaker, Dr. Oyvind Sandbakk , spoke on “Solving the Puzzle of Optimal Training for XC Skiing” and “Analysis of the Demands of XC Ski Racing”.  Sandbaak has a PhD in Human Movement Science with a BSc and a MSc in Sport Science and a BSc in Psychology and is currently responsible for research and development of the Olympic Committee in mid-Norway.

Sandbakk first wanted to dispel the myth that VO2 max was the most important statistic for determining an athlete’s capacity. Sandbakk explained that there were many other factors, including technique and snow friction.  He touched on this topic throughout his presentation.

Snadbaak highlighted a few differences in race performance and technique that distinguished the top elite athletes from those just below them.  In studies done on athletes in world cup sprint qualifications, Sandbakk has found that the period which includes the last part of an uphill slope and the transition over the top of that hill is the period with highest differentiation between abilities.

From this result, Sandbakk had several suggestions. First, do not always train your intensity on a similar slope. Using a steep incline for intervals has its uses during the early training periods, but as the training season progresses toward the race season it becomes more important to use the terrain that is most similar to that of a race course.  Sandbakk assures that training is not just about what intensity or heart rate you are achieving, but the techniques used during the process. VO2 max isn’t the only indicator of achievement, because in skiing – unlike running – there is such a grand variant in speed, along with the number of techniques used, in a short amount of time. Bottom line:  the most important aspect of using maximal aerobic capabilities depends on an athlete’s ability to produce power in varying terrain.

Sandbaak spoke about the ability of some athletes –  such as Petter Northug  – who could achieve top performances in both sprints and distance races.  Sandbaak believes that speed is becoming the greatest factor in nordic performance, and that both sprinting and distance racing (at least in the mass start events) require nearly the same aerobic and anaerobic demands.  With the amount of time spent in warm-up and cool-down and the number of qualification rounds, sprinting requires great endurance.  Conversely, a mass start endurance race will result in pack skiing for the majority of the race and will come down to who has the most sprint speed in the end.

What is Northug’s particular secret to speed gains?  Training more speed and in a more conscious way.  For instance, Sandbaak related a story of skiing behind Northug in a distance session wherein Northug inserted short speed bursts at random times.  By keeping the speeds short  in duration (10 seconds) and frequency (7-10 per session) , Northug could make gains in technique and impulse without any additional stress to his system.

Before speed, however, one of the more important designating factors in elite performance is balance.  If an athlete is able to balance on their ski without expending extra energy to do so, they may then apply maximum power at the optimal time.

Sandbaak spoke on the gender differences between men and women when it came to peak performance, technique, and power generation.  He has done studies that show that men and women are similarly efficient, but he believes their difference comes from the capacity derived from upper body strength and aggressive technique.  Sandbaak also believes that culture has a large role in these weaknesses in women: wanting a womanly physique and not spending as much time in the weight room leads to less upper body strength.  Young girls not practicing with high speeds on corners and downhills for play, as their male counterparts may, results in deficiencies in these aggressive techniques and skills for women later in their racing careers.

Sandbaak’s last topic was on technique; how different body types and development stages should result in various pedagogies and implementation strategies.  For his first point, Sandbaak wanted to make clear that technique changes could only happen after the physical capacity was achieved.  Then he spoke on the difference of body types and how they may affect an individual’s optimal technique and could even lead to a perception of poor technique, when in fact it may be a position that is optimal for gaining power in that body type; a shorter torso may lead to a higher position over the ski whereas a longer torso may look as if it’s center of gravity is too far back.  Sandbaak warns against using too much video  in these cases, and says that the best way to get an athlete’s center of mass forward is helping them feel when they are in the right position.

Technique should be trained by teaching largest motor skills first, Sandbaak reminded.  In double poling, for example, the first concept to grasp is the forward lean. Once an athlete has achieved that, they can then move to utilization of stronger muscles (core muscles in “crunch” phase) and then smallest muscle groups last (triceps push in follow through phase).

Another factor in distinguishing elite athletes was seen in longer cycle lengths in technique.  Sandbaak pointed out that this factor cannot be taught directly, as cycle length is a product of power output, and is a result of training energy systems.  For this reason it is especially important in training juniors that they use specific methods for high velocity training (rollerskiing /bounding with poles for intervals and speeds) and less specific methods for recovery and easy training (biking, running, etc).

The third speaker was Troy Flanagan.  Flanagan was first the USSA’s Director of Sports Science and was promoted to the High Performance Director in 2007.  Prior to his role at USSA Flanagan worked as head of sport science at the Victorian Institute of Sport in Australia.

Flanagan’s presentation was on “Improving Performance and Race Day Recovery”.   He referenced his studies and work with various Olympic sports, including alpine, swimming, snowboard, aerialists, and cyclists to point to similar methods which could be used in nordic skiing.

Flanagan first talked about clearing lactate between multiple events (ie sprint racing for nordic skiing).  In studies done with alpine skiers, who have to complete multiple training runs, Flanagan found that walking in between runs was a fairly effective means to recovery, and produced more positive results than cycling, inactive rest, and compression clothing.

In another study performed on cyclists, Flanagan found that ice baths were the most effective recovery method, and surpassed other methods of active and passive recovery.  He has found that in general, ice baths are one of the best methods for recovery in all sports. In many cases this may be a way to best reduce an athlete’s core temperature when training in the heat, but Flanagan thinks the biggest effect from ice baths may be in the reduction of neural fatigue.   Flanagan points out that athletes and coaches have been using ice baths for years, knowing by feel and experience that the technique was good for recovery, but it is only recently that science has” caught up” and proven that ice baths are effective via scientific studies.

Flanagan talked about converse methods of altitude training: using altitude tents for living and sleeping while at low altitude, and using oxygen packs for supplementing sleeping, training, and recovery while at high altitude.

Flanagan then mentioned studies done on the use of caffeine and sodium bicarbonate in racing and recovery – two supplements that have long been thought to help performance.  He warns that these supplements cannot be effectively used if not administered very carefully by an elite staff, and that they have varying effects according to individual athletes.  Flanagan also mentioned a new supplement that may create buzz in the future, called beta alanine.

Hydration before competition.  A common mistake with athletes, Flanagan points out, is that they realize too late that they are dehydrated and they try to make up for that fact by gulping liquids right before bedtime, resulting in frequent bathroom usage throughout the night and less rest. Flanagan has developed what he calls the “hydration window of opportunity”, wherein he advises an athlete to consume a 16 oz bottle of sports drink at 5pm  and another 16 oz bottle of sports drink at 6pm.  By sipping the drink, the athlete should take a whole hour to finish the 16 oz bottle.  Because the body takes three hours to process liquid, the athlete should be done processing the two bottles by 10pm.  He usually advises that the liquid consumed be sports drink rather than water because sports drink serves two purposes – it further helps in hydration because it increases electrolyte consumption, and it also promotes carbohydrate absorption.

The last topic Flanagan touched on was the issue of hydrating during competition. Flanagan warned about over-hydrating, resulting in a condition called hyponatremia, which results in the over-dilution of electrolytes (namely, sodium) from an athlete’s body.  The stomach can only empty about 700ml of fluid an hour during competition, and if an athlete consumes much more than this they will be at risk for hyponatremia.

The symposium will continue today with presentations by Dr. Carol Dweck, Tara Fontenot , Dr. Oyvind Sandbakk, and Jon Arene Schjetne.


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One comment

  • jonengen

    October 23, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Great article Aubrey; an eye-opener and load to remember for the people attending and more than hats off to the USSA staff. Truly awesome. – Jon Engen, Sun Valley, ID

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