This morning, I heard a bird chirp.
I heard a bird chirp moments after I had slipped out the door to be welcomed by moderate temperatures and a sun that rose before I got out of bed. Birds, warmth and sun can only mean one thing: Championship Season.
Late winter is a special time in the year of a Nordic skier. Glitter shimmers, klister kicks and dance music echoes through stadiums and the minds of junior skiers everywhere. Low levels of training pair with high levels of intensity, several bibs and several “last chances” that throw skiers at every level into a month-long physical and emotional state unlike any other time of the year.
Championship Season can be characterized and identified by the experience of any (but most likely all) of the following phenomena:
By the time we get to March, we’ve had enough race starts to sharpen our quick twitch muscles without having to try too hard. Speaking from the body of someone who has worked for years to hone in on speed, I revel in the mere weeks where I can finally bunny hop off the line.
- Low training load
I kind of think that ‘peaking’ is a myth (more on that later). You know what’s not a myth? Resting. According to the internet, it takes about three weeks to establish positive adaption (i.e. fitness) from a VO2 max increasing workout. According to the same corner of the internet, it takes about as long for athletic stress to start losing its effect (i.e. falling out of shape) [and, because training volume is generally so high for cross country skiers, those numbers are often increased]. To review, if you have less than three weeks left in your season, you will neither gain nor lose fitness from the workouts you do (or, don’t do).
What does that all mean? That, finally, after we’ve been told a million times that the hay is in the barn, this is the time of year that we can actually believe it. This is when we get to do little more than race and rest. And it’s awesome.
I put peaking in quote marks because, as I alluded above, I don’t totally believe in it. Can you crop training to target a certain period of time where you body can perform at its speediest? Yes. Do we have varying results, ups and downs, based on that training? Le duh. Does that mean that just because you’ve chosen a set of races as your goal, that your training will come together and you will perform? Uh. No.
Peaking, while supported by all kinds of physiological science that I believe, is, more than anything, a state of mind. If you’re in a space of gratitude and excitement, respect for the work you’ve done and your competition, you’re gonna have a good time.
**Before I get going on this, I’d like to acknowledge that Nordic skiers have impossible body expectations and that “fat” in the Nordie way is actually still Olympic chisel in laymen understanding.**
One of our two Championship oxymorons (closely followed by happy-sad, below), skinny fat is the last physical phase of the Nordic year. When racing load is high, it’s more important than ever to take in loads of high-quality calories to fuel hard efforts. However, lower training load can lead to us losing muscle, while our overall fitness begins to fade.
Lack of training, loss of muscle bulk, the end-of-season tireds and maintenance of a healthy race diet results in hollowed cheeks, loose spandex, and a light layer of fat to replace the muscle we’ve lost. It’s a time where we’re both boney and squishy, strong and thin. Yes, you really can have it all.
- Chill, breh.
In line with speed and “peaking,” the chill, breh racing attitude comes at the end of a long season. By this point, we’ve worn dozens of bibs, crossed as many start and finish lines and moved past early season pre-race nerves. Pressure-filled qualification races are behind us, and everything before us is just extra. Also, we finally have our race skis dialed, which is nice.
- The tireds
Admittedly, the tireds can happen at any time of year. However, seeing the metaphorical finish line of the season gives us the go-ahead to truly express our fatigue. While the rest of the season encourages extra intervals, perfect strength technique and an all-about-it-all-the-time attitude, championship season allows us to walk the hill a little.
- THE DANCE
I’m going to refrain from going into detail on this one. Can’t know til ya go. But, I will say, there is nothing quite like a collection of Nordic skiers letting loose after 11-odd months of training regimens, weekly travel, worrying about illness, avoiding excess energy expenditures and, for the most part, sobriety.
The end of the season inevitably brings on a slew of emotions that can only survive to the soundtrack of Green Day’s “Good Riddance” (aka the time of your life song that made each and every 90s child cry at high school graduation).
You’ve made it through another winter, accomplished your goals, or survived not accomplishing them, finally got to make out with your season crush and can commit to social events outside of the nordic scene for the first time in a year. These things make us happy.
On the flip side, you’ve finally hit your stride in racing and could use a few more starts, you don’t want to wait until West Yellowstone to get the chance to continue to woo your crush, you actually have intense social anxiety that comes along with the idea of being around non-Nordies, and, of course, you really, really like ski racing and don’t want to see it end. These things make us sad.
Some might say that experiencing high-level athletics is itself a constant embodiment of happy-sad. High highs, low lows, etc. I think those feelings are particularly heightened at the end of the season. At no other time am I more excited, more overwhelmed or more grateful to be a Nordic skier.
Ultimately, the most notable part of Championship Season is that it creates the memory to pull us through the next training season. Those moments of speed, rests in gratitude and celebration of it all are the final imprint on your year, the last note. For you, I hope it’s a high one.
Best of luck in your end-of-season pursuits,