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Well Prepared Athletes Tackle Cross Country Regional Elite Camps

By Tom Horrocks
July, 31 2019
Eagle Glacier
Athletes train on the Eagle Glacier in Alaska during one of the four recently held regional camps. (Seiji Takagi)

At the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins not only won the first gold medal in cross country skiing for Team USA, but they also put forth the belief that the United States can compete, and win, at the highest levels of international competition. It is that belief that is motivating the next generation of athletes to put in the hard work not only during the competition season but during the summer well before the first snowflakes fall.

In conjunction with the four cross country regions - Alaska, West, Central, and East - and supported by U.S. Ski Team staff, the recently held Regional Elite Group camps laid a solid foundation for the next generation of medal contenders on the roads of Park City, Utah; Lake Placid, NY; Ironwood, Mich.; and on the snow on the Eagle Glacier in Alaska. In all, more than 100 athletes took part in the four regional camps.

“Each generation of skiers is evolving with the sport and pushing the limits which builds a super inspiring and progressive training environment,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Cross Country Development Coach Bernie Nelson, who noted that the athletes were “well prepared” physically and mentally for the camps and ready to own “the process and explore new approaches.” 

“The main goal of these camps is a collaboration. We want the athletes sharing and learning from one another.”
 – U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross Country Sport Development Manager Bryan Fish.

Empowering local clubs in the overall development process, and involving the athletes every step of the way, are key to developing a pipeline to the national team. The Regional Elite Camps play a huge role in this process as the national team coaches and local clubs have the opportunity to work together. In addition, athletes are actively looking for areas to improve and learn.

“Our club programs are strong and our athletes are invested,” Nelson said. “I see a shift in ownership; athletes are more involved in the process, asking more questions about the training process and approach each session with a growth mindset.”

Summer is the time to build a fundamental endurance base with a focus on distance and technique training. That said, it is important throughout the year to touch on intensity, strength, and speed, Fish noted. The Regional Elite Group Camps, combined all of the training elements with each athlete's individual training program, to provide an opportunity to focus on improving endurance, strength, and technique through ski, and roller-ski drills, and time trials.

“Time trials throughout the summer are effective in stimulating intensity and speed and also allows for targeting mental and physical energy toward the elements of the sport we need to continue to improve upon in the closest environment we will face in the winter – in the arena of competition,” Fish said. “The camps provide a great place for such time trials, for it allows for athletes to review where they are in a particular training attribute in comparison to their peers.”

Adding time trials during the summer not only offers the athletes an opportunity to peg the needle a few times and check the engine with some friendly competition, but it also provides another opportunity to increase their overall training load. An increased training load is something Fish and the entire coaching staff has seen over the past six years. In 2013, the average regional athlete trained an average of 418 hours annually. That increased to 465 hours annually in 2017. And in 2019, the average regional athlete is on par to hit 468 hours of structured training time.

These numbers were provided by the athletes through three simple questions, including: How many hours total did you plan to train last year? How many hours total did you actually train last year? And, how many total hours do you plan to train next year? “These questions point towards setting goals and having a plan,” Fish said. “It also points an athlete toward consistent training year-round. The message is getting through, for we see our junior athletes more prepared at camps. They are more fit, more skilled, and more focused.”

This increased attention for form, fitness, and focus can be attributed to the skilled club and regional coaches that lead these camps and are putting in the lion’s share of hard work with these athletes at home on a day to day basis. In addition, current and past World Cup athletes also attended the camps to give back and help the next generation. Their attendance at the camps increases the focus of our junior athletes, but most importantly, they built on the belief that the United States can win at cross country skiing at the highest levels of the sport.