Building Faster Skiers »

Building Faster Skiers

Team Hardwood Head Coach Ron Howden reached out to Norway for coaching professional development opportunities and was invited to participate in a U26 Development Camp. Backed by the Cross Country Ski Ontario, and the Southern Ontario District, as well as his club, he headed to Norway in September.  This is his report.

September 16 had finally arrived. I packed my pole tube and backpack and headed to Norway on an nine-day adventure that prove to be more of an eye opening experience than I had anticipated. After writing to the Norwegian Ski Federation for an opportunity to come to a camp, I heard back immediately from Ulf Morton who said that I would be invited but they were just finalizing the schedule. I explained in my email that I have been coaching a strong junior crew of racers, and will be leading a group of U23 racers who one-day hope to be on our National team racing the world cups. With that information he paired me to a U26 development camp that has some of the most promising athletes in the world.

Right away I could see that this was no ordinary camp. Each athlete was there to see what the others were doing and how they measured up. The camp consisted of 60 athletes from five regional teams and the national recruit team. To put the quality of athlete in perspective, it would be like having Sidney Crosby and Wayne Gretsky at their first NHL training camp.

The schedule for the camp would challenge the athletes’ endurance as well as test their speed and stamina in three different intensity sessions with two of them being head-to-head racing. Day 1 started with a nice, easy ninety-minute run, that was full of talking and laughter of friends catching up after a long summer of training. The next day would be the first of the hard workouts - a hill striding session that was supposed to be around threshold but, as with any camp workout, the pace was more taxing on some than others but all worked together to make it a quality workout.

My role at the camp was just to observe; it was nice not having to coordinate details or tend to athletes. I was in a familiar setting but felt like a journalist rather than a coach. I was always looking for opportunities to ask questions and observe the daily activities. The coordinator of the camp, Brit Baldishol, has been at this game a while; she has been active in the Federation for years as well as being an athlete and coach herself. Brit introduced me to all of the coaches and set-up a meeting with me at the local ski gymnasium where I met Per Ola Gasmann and Trond Flagstad who explained the Norwegian development system in some detail. Along with this, I was able to find a few parents, club coaches and athletes who were open to sharing what they knew about the sport.

For those who think watching YouTube videos of training will reveal training secrets, they will see exactly what I saw. They push themselves hard in intensity sessions and go slow in distance. The fastest athletes still have technique flaws and work tirelessly on fundamentals the same as the slower ones. The coaches work closely with the athletes to find the best training and ways to push them to get faster and stronger. They are open to learn from other coaches and share ideas about technique and training.

So what is the magic ingredient that takes makes Norway the number one nation in the world for cross country skiing? Of course I can’t answer that. Not because I have been sworn to a Viking oath, it is because it is very complex. To understand how the ball got rolling, you have to go way back to 1988 when Norway had its most difficult year for winter sports and they dropped to 12th in the world at the winter Olympics with no Golds and only five podium finishes. The story goes that there was a movement to give athletes the chance to win. This was the genesis of OlympiaToppen which is a collection of great minds and great athletes for the purpose of excellence.

So does OlympiaToppen explain all the success? Well, it certainly is part of it. OlympiaToppen is an incredible resource for building a strong athlete support system to better support the elite skiers.

So it must be the number of skiers in Norway which makes them the best, right? I don’t disagree because it could be that for sure. But if that were true, then most of the best skiers should logically all come from the areas that have the most skiers which would be large centers like Oslo where they have world class facilities and 40 very strong clubs. I don’t know the background of each of the athletes, but from what I understand, many of the best are from very small towns. What does this say?

There is another possibility. In Norway, skiers get large corporate sponsors and endorse products on billboards around the country. So maybe it is just money and fame that forms the external motivation to keep the athletes training so that they are the best in the world. But from what I understand talking to the athletes and coaches, this is a very small possibility so many don’t think about it much.

After all the discussions, I made a list of things that I observed. They might not produce world champions but they do seem to be a part of the puzzle.

  • The athletes are “all in”. They train lots, recover well, borrow money to pursue the sport and focus during the workouts. The show up on time, do more than asked and communicate with their coaches to ensure that they are getting the most out of their training. At the heart of it, cross country skiing is an endurance sport so putting the time in is absolutely essential.
  • The coaches are committed to their athletes; they care about them as people as well as athletes, they seek out help for them by working with professionals and ensure they have what is needed to be at their best for training and racing. They are on the road for more than half the year traveling to summer camps and winter races around Europe and Scandinavia.
  • The Norwegian sport federation wants to win - that is clear in the way they conduct camps, recruit the best coaches, negotiate large corporate sponsors, have cutting edge equipment technology and support the national and regional teams.
  • The training is simple - it is comprised of a steady state running and roller skiing, there are strategically placed intensities, simple strength programs and long workouts. The difference is that from a young age the athletes are taught how to design their own programs. One coach said that the athlete is the captain and he is the navigator. Athletes get to know how workouts affect them and recovery helps them so that each is given the same importance.
  • The athletes test their own skis at a young age so they get to know which are best. They learn to know the difference between a klister pocket and a long low ski and which works best for them. They are expected to wax and clean their skis for training.
  • The kids are encouraged to race but not to be focused on results. The NSF has a policy that even if a 16-year-old skier was to win every event at the Norwegian junior championships they would not be allowed to be named to the Norwegian junior team and go to the world championships.
  • They are truly concerned with athletes’ health. Athletes are required to fill out questionnaires and get a medical from the doctor to ensure that they are eating properly and their body is in shape to be able to handle the training and racing.
  • There are programs were kids can get skis for a very low price from a ski exchange and there are many ski areas in Norway which are all available at no cost. This makes it a perfect sport for a family of any income.

I know you were looking for something that you can grab from this and rub on skis to make skiers go like Northug. Here is a list of things that I think we can do to help build faster skiers:

  1. Identify skiers with the drive to win and the love of the sport – the best skiers in the world had ok results when they were young but they always raced to win. The desire to win helped them improve and keep striving for greatness ‘till they achieved it. The desire to win fueled their desire to train to get better.
  2. Coach athletes on how to coach themselves – This seems counter intuitive but when an athlete knows the purpose of each training session they can work with the coach in a more meaningful way to design the program that is right for them.
  3. Race – we don’t know what we don’t know. Racing will tell us about: the athlete’s desire to win, their training, their race skills and their race readiness. This information will give a good base to go on when coming up with areas of focus for training sessions and workouts that will benefit them. Races also are very important to build confidence and teach the athletes about head-to-head racing.
  4. Support Local and regional races – Local racing is the foundation of national and international competition. In Norway, all club skiers compete in local racing and Ontario cup level series up to the age of 16; this builds a strong local race culture. The importance of the local and regional racing is to learn to race fast every time they race and to get used to racing so that the big races are less stressful.
  5. Quality Practice – Ulf Morton has coached many of the great sprinters. He said that every workout Tor Arne was always looking for opportunities to beat his team mates on downhills and corners, so it was no surprise that he won a world championship medal by beating the field around a corner. Kristian Skrodal, who coaches some of the best up and coming skiers in Norway including Petter’s brother Evan, says that Petter never wasted a training session, he was always trying to get the best from himself at every session.
  6. Ask other coaches for help – the greatest coaches in Norway were always asking other opinions so that the could see things from a different angle so that they didn’t miss anything.
  7. Be the most prepared team at the race – good preparation takes time, experience and some funding. The Norwegians leave nothing to chance. They send people over to race sites to check everything from accommodation to food. As a province it would be prudent to send a representative to a major event to source the best accommodation, shopping, car rental before we send the coaches and athletes over. Athletes were prepared for every training session, and they started on time with the right equipment. They were prepared to do the session, eat and drink during and recover afterwards.
  8. Train with the athletes when you should, observe when you should – On warm-up runs, long distance workouts and strength sessions the coaches were training along side the athletes. When it came to technique sessions they followed them for hours in a car so they could do ad-hoc video and provide support for clothing, drinks and equipment.
  9. Stick to the basics – Being the best is about putting in hours, mastering fundamentals and racing hard. The best skiers trained slow on distance so they could go fast in intensity, they were diligent on recovery and built their life around skiing. Their diet was built from a solid foundation of good food with tasty treats and snacks added in from time to time.

Even though the Norwegians swear there is no secret, there is and it is hidden in plain sight. It is the indigo blue cross outlined in white on any red background it can find in the ski world. The secret is the pride that the Norwegians bring to every major ski competition to cheer their athletes on and be part of their success. We need to make being Canadian mean something in the ski world - as coaches we need pump our Canadian heros to our athletes, so that every one want to be fast to be like them. We need to make the maple leaf part of our ski clothing and our ski culture. By thinking Nationally and acting locally we can do our part to come together and make this a great ski nation. Remember the Canadian Pride in Vancouver 2010? We were ranked number one.

Ron Howden, Head Coach and Technical Director, Team Hardwood


I have uploaded a video to Youtube of the video I took :

And Brit uploaded a camp video at: