Hugh Pritchard, Biathlete

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Hugh Pritchard
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Training on the Edge

I am not an authority on training, and if you or your coach or another expert disagrees with me, then I may well be wrong: please let me know!

The basic principles I try to follow when it comes to training are:

    • Plenty of volume
    • Plenty of variety – in mode and intensity
    • Plenty of fun – otherwise it is difficult to do the volume

There is a lot of information available on the basics of training, so what I intend to cover here is the more peripheral areas.

Strength

This is really a core area, but it is one that a lot of people are not fully aware of.

    Example

    Chris Richards, one of my London training partners, has done a lot of roller-skiing and has excellent balance. When we do a steady skate together we go happily at the same speed. But when we do a double-pole session, I leave him way behind. This difference is almost entirely due to strength. He has been doing quite a bit of double-poling in recent months and has improved, but still has plenty of scope for further improvement.

Most recreational ski-racers have fairly well-trained legs, if only from the accumulated years of running and walking around. In comparison, their upper-body muscles tend to be far less trained. There is therefore more scope for improvement, and quicker improvement to results is possible, by training the upper body rather than the legs. Remember that strength training for skiing is primarily about training the way in which the muscle fibres are recruited by the motor nerves. It is therefore important to train using a similar kind of motion to skiing, in terms of range and speed of movement.

Good ways to work on this are:

  • Double-poling uphill – being sure to maintain good technique, full range of movement and a reasonable speed of movement (so hills not too steep nor intervals too long)
  • Sit-ups, press-ups, dips (hands on a step or bench, with feet supported) – try to do a few minutes of these after any ‘legs’ session.
  • Kayaking – this can also give the upper body some endurance training which it does not often get. I was a junior international kayaker before I took up skiing and found that I could double-pole strongly from the start of my skiing career.
  • Gymn sessions – such as the circuit training sessions organised by most gymns – these are designed to be both safe and short enough to fit into a lunch break, so there is no excuse not to do them.

Balance

You cannot ski well without a good sense of balance, and there is a strong correlation between how quickly beginners pick up skiing and their balance. Balance is a skill that can be improved. When you see someone skiing very powerfully, look closely and you will invariably see that they are producing that power from a basis of excellent balance.

Some helpful exercises:

  • Skiing (snow or roller): try to exaggerate the glide (skate or classic), by remaining in balance over the gliding ski as long as possible (best on gentle downhills). I have been able to stay on one ski for 200 yards while doing this exercise.
  • Wobble-board: do the standard exercises that physios use for ankle rehabilitation; do these standing up and balancing, trying to keep the movement smooth and controlled; balance on one leg on the board; if this is too easy, try with eyes closed.
  • Get a piece of wood about 1 by 1½ by 10 inch, and stand on it (on a hard surface, in shoes; choose whether to stand on the wide or the narrow side according to how difficult you find it); practice just standing on it on one foot, and doing one-leg squats (skating style) while remaining in relaxed balance. Eyes shut makes this more challenging. Many people find the balance challenging enough just doing one-leg squats, without the bit of wood.
  • Standing on one leg, perhaps while stretching quads or gluteals. Concentrate on relaxation and minimal movement. Shut your eyes if it is easy with eyes open.
  • Standing and walking on beams and bars. This something that Fritz Fischer has his biathletes do for a few minutes after every training session at the biathlon centre, where there are some beams set up for that purpose.

A very few minutes a day will quickly produce improvements and enable you to ski more confidently.

Core Strength

Just as a car, kayak or bicycle that is not rigid works inefficiently (because work goes into flexing the frame), so an athlete with poor rigidity of the torso, hips and shoulders will find that his power-generating arms and legs are not able to provide their best propulsive effect because part of their work is dissipated in the body’s passive bending.

The muscles that maintain posture and the rigidity of the torso, shoulders and hips can be trained by means of isometric (static) exercises.

Examples:

  • Lie on your side; lift yourself up on one elbow, and hold the entire body straight, with only feet and elbow touching the ground. Concentrate particularly on the area around the pelvis. Hold this for a period (I do a minute at a time). You can also do this on your front (on both elbows); on your back, bring your feet back towards your buttocks and raise your back off the ground (so that only feet, shoulders and head are on the ground), concentrating on keeping the spine and thigh bones in a straight line.
  • Swiss ball (inflatable ball, about 2 feet diameter): these come with instructions for various exercises that do the same basic thing as the exercises above, but in an unstable environment so that the proprioceptors are also challenged. They are also more fun to do.

Mental Skills

The mind drives the body. Doing all the physical training and neglecting the mental is like building a Formula 1 racing car and hiring a driver from the local minicab firm.

    Example

    In the national championship 10km free technique at Ruhpolding in 1999, I was having a great race, when my attention wandered while I was skiing the easy, flat section behind the Biathlonzentrum, and I planted a pole between my skis and fell onto my hands and knees. That I still won the race (by 1.3 seconds) was due to Craig Haslam (who was second) having had a similar mental failure: he had started to take a wrong turning before realising and righting his mistake.

In my kayak/canoe slalom days, I learned about mental rehearsal (imagery/visualisation), a hugely valuable technique, and use it now to address all mental performance issues – motivation, relaxation, planning, etc. It could have prevented certainly the second mistake above, and perhaps the first. Unfortunately I am lazy and do not always do it. I am therefore able to see what difference it makes whether I do it or not: and it makes a huge difference.

A glance at a sports psychology book will show that there are far more techniques available, and different techniques will suit different people and different situations. Many endurance athletes neglect the mental side of their sport, and it is that that makes the difference in many situations.

Flexibility

A degree of flexibility is necessary to execute optimal technique.

One needs to have more than this minimum flexibility because tight muscles and tendons are more susceptible to injury, both sudden tears and over-use injuries such as tendinitis and tenosynovitis. Stretching after a session helps to minimise overuse injuries, while more formal flexibility sessions are better for increasing one’s range of movement.

I have read (Peak Performance June 2000) that excessive flexibility training depresses performance; it was not clear whether this was due to excessive stretching immediately before the test, or excessive general flexibility. I am not sure how much significance to attach to this as the articles in this publication often appear ill-considered.

You should always be warmed up before stretching – at least a few minutes jogging to loosen up and raise the temperature of the muscles.

I use various twisting stretches which I find very effective in preventing and correcting back pain.

Nutrition

This has two distinct functions:

  • Providing fuel for exercise (ie a short-term function; mainly carbohydrate)
  • Providing the building materials that constitute the athlete’s body (a long-term function; mainly protein, vitamins and minerals)

There is plenty of published advice on the fuel side; there is not so much on the building side, presumably because of the long time it takes to do a proper study and the potential long-term adverse effects of being in the control group that gets the bad diet. I am lucky in that the kind of food recommended by the dieticians is almost exactly what I like. I just try to minimise fat (with the exceptions of fine olive oils and cheeses) and maximise everything else, getting plenty of variety of proteins; I almost never eat meat at home.

Peter Moysey has some firm views on diet: like many of us he craves the sweet stuff, but finds that abstaining rigorously brings a terrific improvement in general health - bouncing out of bed at 6am full of energy etc. In fact he attributes his triathlon World Championship win partly to this. Most people do not notice such a pronounced effect..

Health maintenance

You cannot train or race well if you are unwell or injured. This is obvious, but what it means is that avoiding illness and injury is just as important as training, when it comes to producing race results, and that is something that many athletes appear not to have twigged.

For illnesses, such basic precautions as washing hands frequently, never sharing drinks, keeping a window open and avoiding people with colds are very effective - I apply these as rigorously as I reasonably can, and very rarely suffer a cold. Dietary aids such as vitamin C are also supposed to help.

Injury avoidance is mostly a matter of discipline and conservatism – don’t do the Arctic Circle Race if you have spent the previous six weeks working all hours and not training.

Peter Moysey again has a rigorous protocol for illness avoidance: as soon as he feels at all 'under par' (and obviously you have to have a good idea whether you really are getting a cold or just stayed up too late last night), he goes straight home, has a good meal, goes straight to bed, misses the next day's training and then resumes as normal. He reckons it better to err on the side of caution and miss a few odd days than miss 5 days by having a cold. He also has a reputation as a hypochondriac, as he goes sick from work (in order to prevent a cold) but does not really catch the cold.

Conclusions

There are all sorts of peripheral bits one can do to enhance performance, which add variety, may be fun and have some benefit. However, you should always bear in mind when you hear that some great skier used to do a lot of kayaking or ballet or yodelling, the reason he is now good at skiing is not the yodelling he once did but the vast amount of skiing (and roller-skiing) he has done since.

A further caution against unaccustomed training is Steve Redgrave: perhaps the world’s greatest oarsman, he is notorious for not doing any of the fancy core stability work that is now recommended. The only time he has been known to use a Swiss ball was when he tried to stand on one a few months ago, fell off and broke his arm. Not the best preparation for Sydney.