All the athletes are all stripped down to their race suits and zooming around the course with laser focus. They are breathing hard; in fact, some of them seem to be skiing at max effort. If it weren’t for the lack of announcements, race bibs, and cheering from the crowd (pre-COVID, of course) you might actually think it’s race day – but it’s not. It’s actually the day before the race, and many of the athletes are performing their race-prep workout.
For most cross-country skiers, a race-prep workout entails skiing fairly hard, often involving a similar pace to that of the race the following day. This may seem counter-intuitive, as you might think that energy conservation is key to peak performance. I distinctly remember being a middle-school cross-country runner and taking the day before the race entirely off; my race-prep “workout” would then consist of 20 minutes of walking to ensure that my legs didn’t get “too tired”. Sadly, this leisurely myth was debunked, and I have learned over the years that race-prep the day prior is actually a great time to put in some harder efforts to optimize performance.
Here are a few of the reasons why it’s a great idea to push yourself out of your comfort zone the day before, and a few suggestions for improving your race-prep workout before your next race.
While rest is important, taking a day off can often make your legs feel heavy or sluggish the next day. This is one of the main reasons why it is important to get out and ski the day prior to a race, even if minimally. Many athletes opt to take two days prior to the race completely off instead.
One of the biggest goals of a race-prep workout is to help switch your legs on and avoid any lethargic feelings on race day. It is not uncommon for athletes to report feeling “terrible” and having heavy legs during a race-prep workout. Rather than serving as a bad omen for the race the next day, it actually can be a positive sign that both feelings and performance will improve on race day. That being said, the length of the race helps determine the intensity of the workout the day prior. The shorter and more intense the race is the next day, the harder the pre-race workout will be, and vice versa.
U.S. Ski Team member and soon to be two-time-Olympian, Rosie Brennan, offered her advice for a race prep-workout and how it differs depending on the type of race. Rosie excels at both sprint and distance racing; last season she won both the sprint and distance world cup races in Davos, Switzerland. Additionally, while many other world cup athletes specialize in sprint or distance events, Rosie’s race calendar consists of a mix, which has given her plenty of practice perfecting her race-prep.
“For sprint days, I do one lap of the course L3, take a break, and then one lap L4. After that I will run through a few speeds on key sections of the course.”
Before distance races, Brennan states that her preparation is a little more variable. “If I’ve been racing a fair amount, I will generally do one 10 min interval that is mostly level 3 and kicks up into level 4 the last few minutes. If I haven’t raced in a while or feel like I need to rev the engine a little more, then I will do something like 3×4 minutes progressive, starting in level 3 and moving into level 4 for the last interval.”
Race prep is also used to feel the rhythm of the course and practice corners, transitions, downhills, or other key spots on course at race speed. That is the beauty of skiing so quickly during these workouts – you can really get a feel for the way the course will ski the following day. Brennan says that race prep helps her to get a feel of how the course and snow might ski at race speed. “This allows me to better develop a race plan or do some visualization of how I want to ski on race day”, she states.
Although race-prep is often performed at a zone 3-4 pace, or just below/touching into anaerobic threshold, the total work time rarely exceeds 10-12 minutes. For elite cross-country skiers, a typical interval set is generally between 25-60 minutes of work time depending on the target heart rate zone. By keeping the total time of race-prep significantly lower than a standard interval set, it ensures that the overall fatigue is minimized while still allowing for adequate practice of critical spots on the race course.
Another goal of the workout the day before pertains to fueling. Muscle glycogen, or the major source of carbohydrate for energy during exercise, is pertinent to optimal performance. The greater muscle glycogen stores are, the longer the time to exhaustion, and the faster you can ski. Hard race-prep intervals serve as a stimulus for the resynthesis of muscle glycogen. Following this workout, muscle glycogen is rapidly replenished due to increased insulin sensitivity and cell membrane permeability to glucose. (1)
That being said, it is critical to adequately fuel post-workout to ensure that this happens. So, while the race-prep workout might be slightly taxing in the short term, it ultimately assists our bodies in jump-starting the fueling process and ensuring that our muscles are ready to perform an even higher-intensity workout (race) the next day.
Ultimately, race-prep helps prepare our bodies both physically and mentally for a race effort the following day. When performed correctly, the stimulus of intervals the day prior to a race can prime our muscles and spark our metabolism for peak performance. While your legs may not seem super fresh during the session, trust that race-prep helps pave the way for better feelings on race day.
1. Ivy JL. Muscle Glycogen Synthesis Before and After Exercise. Sports Med. 1991;11(1):6-19. doi:10.2165/00007256-199111010-00002
A long-time APU athlete, Jessica represented Australia at the 2018 and 2022 Olympics. She is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of New Mexico. When she is not ski racing or studying, you can find her out on her mountain bike exploring the trails.