As cross-country skiers, we are constantly working to increase our speed and fitness. We log countless hours on our rollerskis and in our running shoes to build up an aerobic base; we go to the gym several times per week to increase our strength and power; we fine-tune our technique to become as efficient as possible; we push through hard intensity sessions to prepare for the race season; we practice our starts to shave off seconds from our race time.
Physical training is obviously important, and crucial, for being successful in our sport. However, there is another factor that greatly plays into our performance as skiers. This factor is our minds.
Just as with physical training, we cannot expect to show up on race day without having trained our minds and expect to have a high level of mental fitness. To truly reap the benefits of having a strong mind during a race, you have to put in the work beforehand.
There are countless ways to train your mind, and I believe it is a very individual process. However, just as we discuss the details of our physical training with other athletes, I think we should also be exchanging ideas on how we train our minds. Below I have outlined some of the exercises and thought processes that I have used to increase my mental fitness:
1)Find a Mental (verbal) Cue
Pick a word or phrase (think: “you’ve got this”,” I’m fast, I’m fit” or “come on”). Engrave this word or phrase into your mind and repeat it to yourself during intensity sessions and hard training efforts. When your legs start to burn and you feel the desire to slow down, repeat the phrase in your mind. When you’re nearing the end of an interval and you begin to fall off the pack, repeat the phrase in your mind. Having practiced using this phrase during training sessions will better allow you to effectively use this coping strategy during an actual ski race. Instead of filling your mind with thoughts of doubt during a race, your mind will eventually resort to your cue phrase and can greatly change the trajectory of your race.
(One of our rollerski races out in Lake Placid)
2. Believe in your training
Although straightforward, I have found this one to be very powerful. When you’re doubting yourself during a race, remind yourself of all the great training you’ve done in the past. Let that fuel you forward. For example, I have had moments of serious mental weakness while skiing up one of the big climbs at the Solder Hollow ski venue in Utah last year. While I was racing up this section of the course, I thought about all of the uphill classic interval sessions I had done with my teammates just weeks earlier in Bozeman. These thoughts gave me the confidence and the positive imagery to power up the hill instead of slowing down.
(L4 bounding intervals with the Sun Valley team during our last camp in Lake Placid)
3) Expect the hurt
This summer my team read a book together on mental training in endurance sports called “How bad do you want it”. One of the first chapters discussed the importance of expecting every race to be painful. Although it seems it would be beneficial to tell yourself that your race “won’t hurt too bad”, to build up confidence prior to a race, the book states otherwise. Telling yourself that a race or hard interval effort is going to be very hard and very painful prepares your mind and body for what is to come and decrease the risk of catching yourself off guard. The book explains that if an athlete accepts and commits to how hard a race is going to be or how bad it’s going to hurt, then performance increases around 15% and perceived effort is reduced by around 55% (Matt Fitzgerald). To summarize, the more discomfort you expect, the more you can tolerate.
(1k intervals on the track)
4. Focus on what you can control
There are many elements and variables within Nordic skiing: your fitness, your competition, the snow quality, the course, your wax, your skis, your competitor’s skis (etc.). Due to this, it is easy to quickly become stressed when you try to control all of these factors. From personal experience, attempting to control and think about all of these elements is a recipe for disaster, and quite honestly, self-sabotage. The best way to keep your mind clear, and stress free during a race weekend is to simply focus on the things that you yourself can actually control. These things could include the breakfast you eat before racing, getting in a good warm up, practicing positive self-talk, and taking the time to test your skis. If you focus solely on the controllable factors, you will save a lot of time and energy and reduce the risk of self-sabotage.
(Start line of our Sprint Quarterfinal race: Sarah Goble, Jessie Diggins, and Me)
5. Find your flow
Finding your flow is defined as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity (Matt Fitzgerald). We’ve all had races or moments while skiing that we’ve felt the flow- when we’re completely absorbed into the sport, not thinking about what we’re doing, and feeling a sense of invincibility. This is one of the best feelings to have during a race, but this “flow” can be hard to find. One of the ways to find your “flow” is to let go and reduce self-consciousness. You can do this by focusing on the external things going on around you instead of fixating on the pain in your own body. Reducing your self-consciousness will then reduce your bodies perception of effort which will allow you to push even harder during a race. There are many different techniques that can be utilized to find your “flow state” such as the other techniques listed above, so each athlete must figure out what works best for them.
(The BSF Pro Team during one of our adventure ODs this past week)