Technology is playing an increasingly more important role in the lives of ski racers both on and off the hill. This influence is, no doubt, both helpful and detrimental to their athletic, personal, family, and social lives. This article is the first in a three-part series exploring how technology impacts racers, coaches, and parents, and how its strengths can be leveraged and its liabilities can be minimized to the ultimate benefits of racers’ goals as both athletes and people.
Timed runs have become an almost daily staple of gate training in our sport. From aspiring juniors at ski academies and race programs around the U.S. (and the world) to the U.S. Ski Team, having young racers on the clock in training has become the rule rather than the exception when it used to be the reverse a decade ago. Clearly, coaches believe it is beneficial to their racers’ development. But a question I am often asked is, from a psychological and emotional standpoint, are timed runs helpful or harmful? My answer, as with most complex questions, is “It depends.”
Purpose of Timed Runs
To answer this question we should start with another question: What’s the purpose of timed runs? There are several. (Please let me know if I’ve missing any.)
- A great tool for seeing what works technically and tactically. Your times in training give you immediate feedback about whether something you’re working on actually helps you ski faster.
- Encourages you to focus on fast skiing rather than just good skiing.
- Bridge the gap between training and races. The theory is that the more that you are on the clock in training, the more comfortable you will be when you are on the clock at races.
Based on my experience spending countless hours on snow with racers, there’s no doubt that they approach training on the clock differently than when they aren’t being timed. There is often a shift from a focus on technique and tactics to a focus on speed. Racers are usually more deliberate in their preparations before timed runs. They raise their focus and intensity and adopt a more race-like mindset before they get into the starting gate. And racers charge to the first gate.
At the same time, I also notice the level of stress, doubt, and worry rise among racers. They know they are going to be judged by their coaches, their teammates, and, of course, by themselves. This awareness creates a shift from process to outcome and from self to others, both of which usually result in worse, not better, skiing.
To Time or Not to Time?
So now let’s return to our original question and my original answer of “It depends.”
Timed runs can do more harm than good if you succumb to the following pressures:
- You get overly competitive and focus more on trying to beat others than on your own skiing.
- Stresses you out.
- Causes you to focus on other racers.
- Frustrates and discourages you.
- Causes you to try too hard.
- Results in poor quality training.
If you respond to timed runs in training this way, it may be wise for you to go around the start wand or just not look at your times. Of course, another option would be for you to challenge your unhealthy reactions and retrain them, so you can gain the benefits of timed runs.
Conversely, timed runs can do more good than harm if you approach them in the following ways:
- Motivate you to ski as fast as you can.
- Encourage you to experiment with new technique and tactics.
- Help you figure out how to go faster.
Defining Success in Timed Runs
An important realization is that the times you post in training have only limited informational value in how fast you are skiing, particularly if you are comparing yourself to your teammates. If you are crushing them in timed runs, that can certainly boost your confidence, at least temporarily. But the results of the timed runs may not be accurate because you don’t know what they were working on or how reflective their times are of how fast they are skiing. If they are crushing you in timed runs, it may be that they are “bringing it” and you are focusing on technique and tactics rather than just going fast. In either case, you are often not comparing apples to apples, so the results can mean everything or nothing.
Whether timed runs are good or bad for you boils down to your attitude toward them and how you define success in training. Aside from some usually short-lived psychological boosts from “victories” in training, wins and losses in timed runs mean very little. They don’t impact your points or rankings, and the results don’t appear on the internet for all to see. So, in my view, success in timed runs has little to do with winning.
Instead, success in timed runs should be defined as:
- Staying focused on yourself.
- Being totally prepared to ski your fastest.
- Having a clear goal before every training session and run.
- Giving maximum effort, focus, and intensity every training run.
- Making progress toward or accomplishing your training goal.
- Having learned lessons to make you faster in the future.
- Being a better skier when you leave the hill.
If you can maintain this approach to timed runs, then you can gain a lot from their use and they will make you a faster ski racer.