Backcountry skiing is great fun. It is one of the best ways to spend time with your friends, to relax and to do what makes you happy. But from time to time we all like to try something different, to have a new challenge.
You can challenge yourself many ways. For me, ski mountaineering racing is one of the ways I like to challenge myself during winter months.
Skimo racing makes my life more interesting in couple of ways:
- Gives me an athletic goal, which I always like to have.
- Teaches me efficiency, which helps with equipment skills.
- Forces me to reach for my limits, which helps in moving them.
- Makes me participate in a community that by definition is very friendly.
- Introduces me to one of the nicest people I have ever known.
Whether you feel like trying something new or just wanting to improve in your next race here is a list of tips I consider essential (and in that order) to get the best out of your experience:
- Gear – check what you have and act accordingly
- Conditioning – your overall fitness
- Technique – practice the right moves
- Fuel and rest – quality makes or breaks your days
- Transitions – gaini time for free
- Speed – the icing on the cake
Gear – check what you have and act accordingly
I am starting with gear because without it we cannot backcountry ski. But since it is a whole another topic I am not going into much detail here.
I assume that you have either AT gear, telemark ski gear or a split-board for touring. The level of the gear (high-end, cheap, light, heavy…) doesn’t really matter if there is a will to try new things.
You don’t have to run into the store right away but a fact is that AT gear is the most efficient for skimo racing. You can learn about this from a personal experience of a current Canada Skimo Team member here – From tele to Team Canada: A telemark skier’s switch to AT race gear.
As with anything that involves going uphill lighter is better because it means faster climbing. And skinning up is the majority of the time spent when skimo racing (just like touring).
Besides that you should make sure your skis are in good condition, that your bindings work as they should, or that your ski poles ain’t going to collapse on you.
Simply check all your gear at least couple of days before a race and make necessary repairs or replacements.
Conditioning – your overall fitness
For skimo racing you don’t have to be super fit. Of course, the fitter you are the easier it feels but you don’t have to be able tour 5000 feet days in order to race. There are usually two categories at any event and you can sign up for the one you feel like doing.
The key with conditioning for ski mountaineering racing is to be active. You don’t have to be active racing or speed wise, just be used to spending time outdoors doing things you like – climbing, biking, hiking…
And just because you are getting ready for a race don’t panic about speed or interval training. Speed is only the icing on the cake. To get to a point where you should worry about speed training you need good overall conditioning.
So be consistent with your sport activities for at least couple of weeks before you even think about pushing the pace.
As strange as it sounds, you need to go slow in order to go fast. Everything that is very beneficial for health or racing purposes that happens in your body is a product of low paced activities (or workouts). The amounts of slow paced activities will determine your progress from year to year way more that any interval workouts.
Technique – practice the right moves
Even though good technique is very important for skimo racing, it will not save you if your basic conditioning is poor. Also, your gear will determine your technique efficiency as well.
Since the most time during ski mountaineering races is spent skinning up you should focus on developing an efficient stride. Don’t force yourself for the longest stride. Rather try to pick your frequency which some times means shortening your stride if your original one is too long.
Make sure to practice skinning on hard snow, up steep uphills and traversing.
One of the most important climbing skills for skimo racing are making efficient switch backs. There are switch backs sections on many race courses. On those you can loose minutes and lots of energy if you are struggling due to your technique. On the other hand you can effortlessly drop less skilled racers even if you are not as fit as they are.
Skiing with seized up legs and burning lungs is hard and some times dangerous but fun. The key for solid downhills is to practice skiing right after you climb a hill and rip your skins off. You need to get used to wobbly legs if you want to ski without stopping in races.
To make the skiing less taxing on your legs practice doing turns with big radius (20+ meters) rather than short and aggressive. Use “traversing sections” between turns to control your speed as oppose to pushing on your edges with your quads. On a 2-3min downhill the difference is only about 10sec but the energy spending is over the roof compared to a more mellow style.
Fuel and rest – quality makes or breaks your days
We all read many times one of these: “you are what you eat” or “your body works only as good as the fuel you put in it”. Of course, there are individuals that defy this. Heck, even I had some great races after downing few beers and eating a big sausage a day before an event
The point is that your eating habits and the quality of food you consume greatly determines your short term as well as your long term body functioning. The same goes for rest. You can find plenty of advice in sport and health nutrition books.
Based on my experience, for skimo racing, I will recommend not to eat meat starting the day before the race. Few slices of ham on a sandwich are OK but a steak is not very useful.
The night before the race have simple dinner – some veggies and lots of pasta or rice. Veggies will give you some variety in taste and pasta or rice will load your body with the desirable carbohydrates.
During the race drink a sports drink rather than just plain water, and you can consume an energy bar or a gel if you feel you are running low on your reserves.
If you are not getting enough sleep on regular basis, try to get in at least three 8h nights before your race. No engine is good if your brain is tired.
Transitions – gain time for free
Transitions between uphill and downhill modes (and vice versa) are parts of skimo races where you can gain lots of free time. If you are more efficient with your gear than a guy next to you, you will consistently drop him at every transition and he will be expanding lots of energy trying to catch up to you.
If not sure about your technique ask more experienced/skilled skimo skiers what works for them. Try it out and if it seems alright practice the moves. Once at the race you can observe the fastest racers how they transition in few seconds.
To give you something to shoot for I am going to give you some average times for transitions:
- Fairly efficient racer with no special AT racing gear needs about 1.5-2 min to go from uphill mode to be skiing ready. And it takes him about 2-3 min to put his skins on, and adjust his boots and bindings before he can march uphill.
- The fastest racers transition from climbing to skiing in about 20-30 sec, and are ready to hammer up after skiing in about 40-50 sec.
Technique, practice and gear makes the difference in transition areas.
Speed – the icing on the cake
Speed factor is last on this list because I don’t feel it is a necessary element to have a blast at your first race but we can discuss it a bit.
Your downhill times are mostly determined by your technique but climbing speed is mostly determined by your conditioning.
Climbing like a mountain goat is desired but not the most important thing at this stage.
However, if you really want to challenge for skimo podiums then you will need to put in some real hurting miles.
You need to teach your brain and body to push more for longer. This is achieved either by simply hammering every hill in your way or by very specific workouts.
Hammering based only on your gut feelings can take you only part of the way. Usually, it has a faster effect than the more “scientific” approach but is short-term lived as it is a very inefficient training method. And if practiced over long time with high frequency you are headed for injuries and illnesses.
For serious speed (fast) training talk to an experienced athlete or a coach and read some books from reputable people. Also, you need to understand that speed training without great overall fitness has very low success rate as you will never reach your full potential.
How are you going to challenge yourself this winter?
So are you going to challenge yourself differently this winter than your usual weekend powder hunting?
I challenge you to make your first race the Tiki Torch Dash in Golden on Dec 6. It is specifically made for those that just want a little taste of skimo racing. Nothing too hard, mostly a fun event where you can learn some tricks and meet new friends.
Ask, share and discuss in the comments below.