Adam St. Pierre is an exercise physiologist at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Boulder, Colorado. He is also the head coach of the Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team. In this article, St. Pierre outlines a strategy for athletes to gradually implement technique changes.
Technique is an important component of cross-country skiing, but it is often difficult for athletes to make technique modifications once their motions have become habitual. As coaches, we often find ourselves telling the same athletes the same things, over and over again—“get your hips forward; drive your knee; don’t twist so much; hands wider; hands narrower”—only to have the athlete reply in frustration, “I thought I was doing X, Y, and Z.” It can be difficult for athletes to make changes to their technique because they can’t see it or feel it.
When implementing a technique modification, the new way of skiing feels different to the athlete initially. As the athlete continues skiing, even if she
concentrates on maintaining the new technique, she is likely to revert to her old technique eventually without knowing it—that is what has been hardwired into her muscles by hours and hours of skiing and rollerskiing.
A skier’s body recognizes repetitive motion as a pattern. Once this pattern becomes established, the motor neural firing patterns required to perform this technique become ingrained. At this point, the technique feels natural, and any changes will feel foreign. The body will naturally revert to what it is comfortable doing, meaning that a skier will revert to old habits unless the body can be re-patterned with the appropriate technique.
When making technique changes, it is important that a skier is able to recognize the different sensations of the old style and the new style. After a few seconds of attempting a new style, a skier often reverts to old habits unconsciously. By forcing a skier to switch back and forth between old and new styles frequently, she will learn to recognize the differences between the two. This will make it significantly easier for her to make technique modifications in the long run. Capturing both old and new styles on video will allow the athlete to make a visual comparison as well. And since the body will most readily recognize the differences at the transition between old and new, skiers should frequently switch between old and new styles when making a technique change.
At the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, physical therapist Tim Hilden successfully uses a specific method of neuromuscular retraining to teach runners to alter their gaits to prevent or treat injury, and to improve performance. It takes anywhere from four to six weeks to make permanent a change in running technique. With my skiers here in Boulder, I use this same method with great success. Below are some guidelines:
Weeks one and two: Ski “new” style 50 percent of the time, and “old” style 50 percent of the time. Go back and forth between “old” and “new” styles every 30 to 45 seconds. In the first two weeks, you are focusing on teaching the body what the two skiing styles feel like. This is a great time to do video review as well, so that skiers recognize what the two styles look like. Seeing the transition from one style to the other on video can be a very valuable tool for both athletes and coaches.
Week three: You should spend 75 percent of the time in your “new” style—about 90 seconds in your “new” style and 30 seconds in your “old” style is ideal. In this week, you are gradually moving toward skiing with your “new” style, but keeping the “old” style around a little to keep the differences apparent.
Week four and five: You should ski completely “new” style.
After six to eight weeks, the “new” style should have become the default. An athlete should not have to consciously think about skiing in the “new” style by this point.
It is easiest to make a technique change in this manner during relatively low-intensity training periods. Switching from an old technique pattern to a new and improved technique pattern requires a great deal of concentration on the part of the athlete, which can be difficult to perform during intensity workouts and races. Ideally, this technique modification method is performed at least two to three times per week during easy skis, and during warm-up and cool-down periods. I undertake technique modifications throughout the summer and fall on rollerskis, and will again during early on-snow sessions to fine-tune my skiers’ mechanics.