Saturday, 27 July 2013

Characteristics of an Elite Racer - Implications for Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

Helping kids get there fast...

It takes time really to become an elite racer - certainly not something that comes to a kid at 12 or 13 years of age.  To be a top performer in cross country ski racing, an athlete needs to be ready to work at it for 10 or 12 or 20 years - a long time.  There has been lots written about the physiological and lifestyle characteristics of an elite racer.  Heikki Rusko's 'Cross Country Skiing' (Blackwell Publishing, Malden, Mass. 2003) is a good example.  Elite cross country ski racers have some things in common.

High Aerobic Power - elite athletes can take in, transport, and use Oxygen (measured in L/min) at a higher capacity than non elite athletes.  They also have lower resting heart rates and higher stroke volume than athletes who have trained less.  Top performing cross country skiers have increased activity of oxidative enzymes in their muscles and a greater volume of capillaries in their muscles to bring blood to their muscles.

Capacity to train for long periods - successful ski racers train alot - 800 hrs/year is common - 2-3 hours/day for 10 or more years.

High Muscular Power - top performers are able to move large loads at a high speed - cross country skiing is predominantly a power-endurance sport.

High Muscular Endurance - top ski racers are able to perform repeated muscular contractions - over and over again for up to a couple of hours in duration (50km race)

Good Balance and Body Awareness - elite athletes are able to stay on top of their skis under demanding conditions - they are able to control their positions during various speeds, terrain, course and climatic conditions.

Good Muscular Control - top racers have developed autonomous generalized motor programs that help them to efficiently control movement - the neural pathways from brain to muscle and back are highly developed - this takes alot of time to develop.  Well developed neural pathways decrease the time lapse between presentation of a stimulus (an icy downhill corner) and the body's response to that stimulus (maybe lower centre of gravity).  Cross country skiers who have been at it awhile also are very agile - they have an ability to change direction of the body or body parts rapidly.

Reasonable Flexibility - to maximize power generation from extension or flexion of a limb, athletes must have reasonable flexibility so as to have as large a range of motion as possible.

Lifestyle Characteristics - Training is only one half of the preparation needed to ensure good performance in a race - top performers also have outside interests that provide another avenue for the athlete to focus on and in which to feel successful.

Personal Characteristics - elite racers often have an ability to pay attention to details - e.g. losing 1cm per stride over 5km amounts to a loss of 5m.  Its important to have an ability to concentrate as well - to focus on one objective - covering the course as efficiently as possible in the shortest amount of time.  Racers who have been successful have often developed an ability to concentrate completely on factors that he can influence and disregard others that are beyond his control. Being tough minded is important - having a strong mental approach is essential for success.  Top racers are also often top learners/students - they have learned how to focus on their own learning.  These athletes are often also dedicated, disciplined, patient, and resilient - they are able to stay focused on goals and adapt to set backs.

Top athletes love the lifestyle of racing - people continue with things that they enjoy.

This is a big list - and alot of characteristics that come together to help an athlete become a top performer.  The big question for those of us coaching adolescents is what pieces of this puzzle are most important to focus on.  It is precisely a coach or a club's response to the 'what should be the priorities' question that create talent hotbeds.  

So where would I start on this list...

- I follow the recommendations of our club's head coach - in our club we focus on fun, adventure, fitness, and technique - this includes a 'not too much too soon' approach to racing, travelling, volume, etc.
- I follow the recommendations of the Sport Canada's long term athlete development model - for 12-13 year olds this includes aerobic capacity, strength development, speed development, and a big emphasis on team building and social focus.
- I work on being explicit about developing a passion for racing

Having an idea of what to do and where to go with your coaching is a huge part of transitioning adolescent athletes from skiing because their parents want them to and embracing the lifestyle of being a racer and being your best.  It all takes time - and so much of it depends on the culture that you create as a coach - what you think is important comes through - kids talk to each other about it and they talk to their parents about it - in the end, its important to be organized, to communicate well, to be enthusiastic, to be a warm and caring adult, and to create some fun.  

Summer is here!  In my club, Canmore Nordic, we are working with our young athletes a few days a week to build passion and enjoyment of a great sport - cross country skiing.



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