An Athlete’s Guide to Race Day & Race Day Preparation
Skiing well in a race isn’t just a matter of skiing two fifty second runs well. In order to ski down the course in your best form you need to make a lot of things happen ahead of time. The process for race day begins on the last prior training day. We’ll start there and run through a race day. Remember that the level of precision you employ affects several things on race day, including how well you do and how much you enjoy it.
On your last training day prior to the race, there are several things that are important and affect how you’ll perform on race day. First, you should make a conscious attempt to finish your very last run of the day in very good form, skiing the same types of turns that the next race will bring. Imagine and visualize that racecourse just prior to taking your last run. As you are skiing down, pretend that you are making your turns around the gates. Second, after practice, you should examine your gear and note anything that’s going to need attention prior to the race like a big edge ding or hole in the base.
The Day Before
The day before, or several days before race day, several things need to happen. First, let’s talk about gear. Go through your gear (a starter checklist is on the website) and make sure everything is in order, and nothing is missing or broken, so that you’re not surprised the day before race day. If you have a shop tune your skis, now is the time to sort that out since even the best shops can take several days to get a pair of skis tuned. Weather. Check several sources and consider the following factors: check weather.com; check the mountain’s website; call up the local race club and consider snow temperature and air temperature and the previous several days and forecasted weather. Armed with all this information you can now make some decisions on what wax you want to use, how you want your base prepped, angles you want your edges at, etc. Take this information and your decisions to your tuning bench or to your local ski shop. (I’ll discuss this in greater detail in another article on tuning.) Get your skis’ edges done, base prep done, and at least one coat of the appropriate wax. Knowing the weather also lets you plan the right clothing. If it’s going to be raining or really cold, plan for it by bringing the right clothing.
If you run, lift weights or otherwise train in some manner for skiing or another sport, the day before race day should be a rest day. If you have to workout, keep it very light and no lower body weights or core muscle exercises.
Have a good, well-balanced dinner, rich in carbohydrates and get to bed at least 8 hours before you need to get up and moving in the morning. Get your gear by the door and ready to go. Everything should be packed. Do not put your skis or boots in the car overnight. You want your boots to be nice and warm and you want your ski wax to be soft enough for a morning scrape.
Race Day — at Home
Wake up early enough so that you can go for a very short, light run if you normally do (it’s a big plus) scrape your race skis, securely package them and get your gear in the car and have breakfast. You should wake up refreshed, not fatigued or tired. If you are routinely tired on race day, you are not getting enough sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep your body cannot be fully alert and focused. This reduces reaction time which is very important in ski racing. Getting some extra sleep on the way to the race is a good idea, but you should still try to get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Make sure you throw all of your gear and USSA card in the car. You don’t want to race in rental boots because you left them at home. You can usually have breakfast at the mountain, but don’t count on it, and the food available may be less than ideal. If you don’t have time to eat at home, consider packing a few key breakfast items like a Cliff Bar, bagel and a banana. Waiting for the kitchens at some mountains can literally eat into your time (your pre-race time and your race finish time). You should plan to arrive at the mountain early enough that you have time to get registered and dressed, get a bite to eat if you didn’t at home, and get up the chairlift within ten minutes of its opening without having to rush around.
Race Day — at the Mountain
Before we discuss what you need to do on race day, let’s take a minute to discuss our interaction with the host mountain. First and foremost, we must always treat the host mountain, its employees, race volunteers and anyone else we come in contact with with the most sincere and appreciative respect. Racers are bound by the USSA Code of Ethics. Whitetail racers are also bound by the WTSEF Code of Ethics. Please do your best at all times to ensure you are portraying a positive impression of yourself, your teammates and your sport. Saying thank you to lift operators, gate keepers, registration volunteers, etc goes a long way towards that image/impression we want others to have of us. If for any reason you have an issue/problem, talk to your coach or a parent before doing something potentially stupid that may reflect poorly upon you, your team and the sport. Use your head. Now back to the fun stuff…
Let me stress two things, rushing and eating. First, being late to the mountain and rushing around is not good for your mental preparation for a ski race. You need to be able to focus and concentrate to execute your plan and ski well. It’s very hard to do that when you are worried or stressed that you don’t have enough time to get everything done, can’t find a glove or wonder where you are supposed to meet your coach. Getting one course inspection and one free run will never give you as good a result as methodically following a race day plan. Second, when it comes to food and in particular the importance of breakfast, your parents and teachers are right. If you want to be at your physical best in the racecourse and if you want your muscles to respond they need to be fueled. Your breakfast should be mostly carbohydrates, not fat or protein. If you weren’t able to eat at home or in the car, then you absolutely should eat something at the mountain.
Race Day — going up the Ski Lift
Ok, so now you are at the mountain, have your bib, are dressed, have fuel in your stomach, have chatted with your coach and are ready to go up the ski lift, which opened just ten minutes ago. What happens between now and the Start is important. As women run first, their need to be efficient with inspection and warm-up is even greater than the men’s need is.
Why do you need to be up the lift within a few minutes of opening? You need to get a good inspection of the course. Inspection is much easier when you can see several sections down the hill. You can’t do that when the course is covered by 200 of your competitors. If you are up the chair within a few minutes of opening you can usually get two very high quality course inspections done before the course inspection is crowded and leave plenty of time for a look later at specific areas of the course and have time for warm-up runs. At an absolute minimum everyone needs two course inspections and two warm-up runs. You should head up the lift on your training skis or skis for the opposite event (if this is a slalom carry your prepped GS boards to the top). If you only have one pair of skis, reverse the L & R so that you are inspecting on a training edge, not the sharper racing edge. Grab your pack that has any tuning supplies, water, raingear, extra goggles, or whatever you might need at the top of the course and hop on the lift.
Now you are at the top of the course with plenty of time to execute your race day plan. Here we go. Stick your pack and race skis somewhere where they will be safe and won’t get stepped on or skied over. First, get a good look at the start ramp. Slide over to its base and look down the course. Imagine those first two skates and see the line into the course. Your first course inspection should be to get a general look at the course. Try and see the line in several sections. Close your eyes and visualize the way it will look as you race down it. Do this all the way down the course. Stop several gates above the finish and focus on the fastest line to the finish. Stop and visualize your finish. Get back on the lift and do it again, but this time look at the course in greater detail. Know where it gets tight; where it will bump up or rut out; where the direction changes are; where the rhythm changes are; where the hard section is; etc, etc.
Now you have a very good idea about what the course will be like. When you get to the top of the course this time it will likely be covered with ski racers. Now is the time to get your race skis on and take a run on them. If you are on the same pair of skis switch to your race edges. You should try for two runs at race speed and type of turns on the same hill as the race hill, and make sure you don’t shadow the course as that will disqualify you. Once you have taken two runs regroup at the top and get an idea if the race is going to start on time and when you need to be ready. You should not sit around at the top for an hour and a half waiting for your run. Take a few casual runs on your training skis or opposite edges of your race skis, but stay on the same type of ski for the event. Be at the top 30 minutes before you expect to run. Do any final prep work on your skis, like a brushing or flouro coating, stretch and visualize the course. Talk to your teammates that have already run the course, and be positive. Don’t obsess over a spot that everyone is talking about, a really icy spot or a big rut. If you run the whole course worrying about one spot, you will ski the whole course defensively rather aggressively. Five minutes before you run it’s time to get your warm up clothing off and click into your skis. After you get your warm up clothing off, run up the hill 25 feet. You need to increase the oxygen in your blood and get it to your legs. Walk back down, relax and click into your skis. Take your time and make sure that you have clicked in without ice and snow on the bottom of your boot. Make sure your goggles are free from fog and if it’s a rainy day, keep your goggles somewhere warm and dry until just before your run. Buckle up your boots. They should be very tight but not bone-crushingly so. You should not be able to move your foot around. Take the last five minutes to visualize the course and focus on what you want to do. Filter out distractions and other people. Get in the gate and go for it.
After your first run, head back up top to collect your gear and switch out skis if a family member, teammate or a coach hasn’t brought it down to the bottom. Check out the timing board and see where you are. This is important because you need to have a rough idea where you will start in the second run. Remember this is just part one of two. If your run wasn’t everything you wanted, focus on what went well and what can be improved for the 2nd run. Don’t dwell on any mistakes. Head back up the lift and up top offer words of encouragement and course conditions to your teammates. Don’t overly stress the negative or hard portions of the course. Ask your coach when the 2nd run is scheduled to start and tell your coach if you had any difficulties on the first run as your coach will be checking the DQ board in between runs.
The coach or athlete only has 15 minutes to lodge a protest so he or she needs to know if there are any issues. Go inside and eat a quick lunch. Eat smartly.
The Second Run
After eating lunch head back out and watch the 2nd run being set or take a couple of free runs. After the course is set do the same thing you did for the first run. You should have a rough idea where you finished so that you know where you are going to start in the 2nd run. Your coach should have a start order. Often they are given out at race registration or the timing shack after the 1st run. On the 2nd run you need to be extra attentive so that you don’t miss your start. It’s a good idea to write down the 15 preceding bibs on a note card or piece of paper so you can keep an eye out for your start position. Generally 15 racers will run in about 8-10 minutes. After your 2nd run, go back up top and try and help out your teammates. Give them words of encouragement or advice about the course. Again, don’t overly emphasize any hard parts or negative parts on the course. It’s good to mention a hard spot, but don’t describe it like the rut is huge, everyone is crashing there. Keep the emphasis positive. It’s pretty twisty and a little tight, but it’s fun. There is a pretty big rut about half way down the steep part.
If you look ahead you can ski around it. Carry your gear back down and teammates’ gear if you can. Even if you don’t place 1-3 it’s nice to support your teammates if they have, so try to stick around for the awards ceremony if you can.
Back at Home
When you get home think about what you did well that day and what you can improve next time. Being a ski racer isn’t easy by any means your day was the result of a lot of effort, so enjoy and be proud of your accomplishments. Dry off your gear and maintain your race equipment. Thank your mom and dad.
Above all remember that race day is and should be a lot of fun. It’s a chance to demonstrate your abilities and test yourself. There will be races where you crash or DQ despite your best efforts. It happens to World Cup racers that have very specific race day routines, so don’t worry about it. All the stuff above may seem like a lot of info, but it’s surprisingly easy to do and it will improve your finish results. Tweak and adjust your race day plan at every race and find what works well for you. Over time it will be second nature and automatic. And over time the attention to detail and precision will make you faster.