Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series proposed by Maks Zechel, a 20-year-old Canadian cross-country skier embarking on his first season training abroad. In August, he recently made the big move to Norway, where he’ll be training and racing with Team Asker for the entire winter. Through these updates, Maks hopes to share his personal “observations, stories and lessons learned” to help close the gap between North American and Scandinavian nordic skiing. Previous posts: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6.
There is something about passion that drives people to push boundaries like nothing else. For many Canadians, this passion lies in hockey. If it’s January and you aren’t within walking distance of at least two outdoor hockey rinks, you probably don’t live in Canada.
I’ve never been a huge hockey fan, but regardless I still went through a phase as a 9 year old when I practised my stick-handling skills religiously, making marks against the garage door or the basement wall. Black marks and dented aluminum are the proud checkmarks of passionate Canadian youth (and the source of endless frustration for Canadian parents). Canadian hockey drives youth and even adults to fervently practice a sport that only a small percentage will ever play professionally. Even on a weekday night in the middle of winter, if you bring a stick and skates to any Canadian outdoor rink, you will be allowed to join a game of shinny. No matter your gender or age, whether you claim to have been a AAA hockey legend or have never skated before, whether your family has lived in Canada for generations or if you are a newly landed immigrant, Canadians are brought together by something that transcends sport.
National passion for a sport ensures that a large and diverse percentage of the population will actively pursue that activity in a multitude of ways. It encourages creativity and innovation. Similarly to hockey in Canada, albeit on a smaller scale, there are an astonishing number of Norwegian skiers who dedicate much of their time to just training and racing fast, even without sponsorships or national-team status.
This creates a field of close to 500 open men at the Norwegian national championships. In the 10-kilometer skate race at last year’s national championships, the top-100 racers were separated by 1:47.6 minutes, the top 200 by 2:33.2 minutes, and the top 300 by 3:31.7 minutes (note that the conditions were fast that day). The medal winners, and many of the skiers far off the podium, were World Cup, World Championship and Olympic medalists (Anders Gløersen won, Martin Johnsrud Sundby was second, Emil Iversen was 11th, Sjur Røthe was 32nd (full race results here). The depth of field at Norwegian and Scandinavian Cups and national-championships races rivals that of World Cup races, with many believing it to be more difficult to crack the top 30 in the aforementioned three than it is at most World Cups.
The success that we see in the Norwegian senior ranks begins with Norway’s junior skiers, and I am lucky enough to be training partners with some of these top-level athletes. One of Team Asker’s most successful junior skiers, Harald, has two medals from last year’s Junior World Championships. To put his level of skiing into a senior-racing perspective, he was 26th in the previously mentioned 10 k race at the Norwegian nationals — as an 18 year old.
It can be deceptive to see skiers who still look quite young, but to know that they are already skiing fast enough to potentially crack the top 30 on a World Cup. I believe that much of this ability stems from the incredible amount of maturity in Norwegian junior racers, although not necessarily in the traditional sense. Not all of them are obsessive about the small things; I have seen top Norwegian skiers down two Cokes per day at training camps, eat Nutella for breakfast and stretch as little as possible. Their maturity becomes apparent in how they approach training and races, ready to learn to push their bodies in the best way that they can.
With more skiers, you see more body types and different minds. My teammates have told me to expect many funny styles of double poling when I race Norwegian and Scandinavian Cups this winter. Already at the junior level, skiers spend hours working on their double-pole technique, not just doing exactly what their coaches told them to do, but practising different movements and seeing how it works for them. Double poling is a simple motion, in theory, but with different body types you can have countless different styles of double poling that all produce the maximum amount of power for those individual skiers.
With Team Asker, we discuss technique with our coach and we do group-technique sessions, but then we are encouraged to try things out by ourselves and see how we can adapt those basics of power transfer to how our individual bodies work. The same goes with training plans. The spectrum of what type of training makes someone ski fast is all over the place, and that is something that many Norwegian skiers seem to accept. Some athletes on Team Asker disagree with certain things that our coach says, but they are not criticized for this and are supported in altering their training as they see fit, although they are encouraged to discuss why they are making these choices.
In Canada, I have often heard repeated “golden rules” to technique and training, things that are accepted by most coaches across the country. In Norway, I learn a new philosophy every time I speak to a different coach or athlete. For some skiers, it is important for them to train long and slowly in Zone 1 so that they have the energy to focus on interval workouts. Other skiers do short Zone 1 workouts, but push the workouts so that they are in high Zone 1 or low Zone 2, skiing closer to competition speed. Many skiers do sprints with every workout, even long runs, while others add sections of Zone 3 pickups in the middle of their easy workouts. I have a teammate who builds up to a period in the training season where he is doing 30 short sprints per day. I know Norwegian 16 year olds who are training more than 1,000 hours per year, but there are also World Cup skiers who are barely training 600 hours.
Some people think that too much base training (slow Zone 1) is a waste of time, so they do the bare minimum that is required to be able to absorb intensity training and the long race season. Johannes Klæbo’s big breakthrough in the past couple of years is said to have come from an emphasis on strength and sprint training, while Petter Northug has long sworn by doing intervals in “myra” (spongy and uneven bog/marsh), but for some people, those same things will make little difference to their speed on snow. Talent may have helped them in the beginning, but whether it was Klæbo or Northug, they didn’t reach the top level through talent alone, but by perfecting all the things that make them fast.
There are skiers, some point to Therese Johaug, who many think could do almost any type of training, and they will be fast simply from general fitness, but for most people training is not so simple. Fortunately for us mortals there is no limit to what we can achieve, so long as we are willing to take chances and use our brains rather than just succumbing to that “training junkie gene” that so many skiers possess. Each one of us is so different, that it is not possible for us to do the same things and achieve the same results.
Over and over I have heard coaches and athletes, who go to Scandinavia for a few weeks to learn the “secrets” of the best skiers in the world, come back and confidently tell us Canadians that “they do the same training as us” and therefore we can be just as fast as them. I agree that we can be just as fast, but from my first three months in Norway, I can tell you that we do not train anything like the Norwegians. We may do similar bounding, rollerskiing and running workouts, but training in Norway is taken to the highest level by the competitive dialogue that takes place among young skiers, old skiers, back of the pack skiers, and top skiers. From my perspective, training innovation and experimentation doesn’t happen in North America on the same small scale level as it does in Norway.
In Canada we look to those that are better than us, whether they are national-team members or World Cup skiers, and try to copy them from afar. This puts us decades behind the competition. A lot of the technique innovations that we will see on the World Cup in the next two decades will have come from the Norwegian junior skiers of today, but by the time North American skiers take note of these changes, and adjust their training, the next generation of Norwegian juniors will already be working on the technique advances for the next decade.
When I first came to Norway, the first thing I did was try to copy how the best skiers on the team double poled. I copied them for 12 weeks, but every time I looked at video footage of myself, I still looked completely different. It wasn’t until my coach explained a miniscule timing difference to me that I understood what the others were doing differently. With the switch flicked, my double poling has improved because of things that I could not figure out just by watching others ski. It is this type of interaction, between skiers and coaches of all levels, that causes breakthroughs in technique. Not all club-level coaches in Norway look to the Norwegian national team for advice on all aspects of skiing. Many coaches disagree with the common consensus on technique and training, and this opens up the discussion which is so important to moving forward.
Most skiers love to talk about technique and the finer aspects of skiing, but when I was in Canada, I found these discussions usually revolved around what faster people were doing. In Norway I find myself having more discussions on what we individually think we should be doing, and even if someone is superior at a certain aspect of skiing, they are usually eager to try what someone else thinks might be better.
As “Mad-Eye Moody” from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series would say, “Constant vigilance!” and adjustment are required in all aspects of our training if we want to succeed. We have to seek variation in training, and learn together to discover the things that make us go fast as individuals, or else we suffer individually under the repetition of uniform training that cannot meet all of our needs.
Norwegian Phrase of the Week:
Norwegian: “Jeg er ut å mate.”
Google Translate: “I’m out to feed.”
True meaning: “I am training a lot.” (slang)
About Maks: Maks Zechel is a competitive cross-country skier who secretly wants to become a professional mile runner. He loves hiking and going on canoe trips with his family, as well as peanut butter cups in ice cream. Johan Olsson is his favourite skier and he hopes to race the Cortina-Toblach stage of the Tour de Ski one day. He enjoys writing about his experiences. Follow him on Instagram @makszechel.