Race Preparation and Strategy

by Jennie Bender, 2014 US National Champion



Jennie Bender

“There, I signed up for _(name of race)_. I am sure I’ll be all set to go once I get on the start line.” Are you this person? From time to time, we all are, but this person is not the one who crosses the finish line first. Even if you have a habit of good preparation strategies, good can become better. Just like putting the time into your training, you need to train your body and mind to race.


Each person’s body responds to stimuli differently depending on genetics, physical tolerance, mental strength, and personal preference. What I do for a pre-race routine may not work for you. Garrot Kuzzy eats pancakes before every race. They work for him physically and mentally, and therefore he kicks butt when the gun goes off. I love pancakes, especially with real maple syrup, but before a big competition I think that would make me nauseous. However, if pancakes make me mentally happy (which they usually do), maybe it’s worth a try!

There is something to be said for sticking with what feels right for you, even if it is a bit quirky or superstitious. However, beware of getting stuck in a stagnant routine, and challenge yourself to try different warm-ups, foods, pre-race weekend workouts and strategies during competition.

Physical – Pre-event training options can be a personal preference, yet are usually based upon the competition intensity (distance). If you have a 30k on Saturday, you need to do very little distance the two days before. Heavy training should have happened way before this point, and getting in an extra two hour ski will only make you tired. Most athletes I know give their energy system a Level 3 warm-up workout two to three days prior with some speeds (10-20 sec) at the end. An example might be 4×6-8 minutes Level 3. The shorter the race, the harder I do this workout. If I have sprints on the weekend, I like to do an L4 sprint simulation, such as 2×4 minutes then 2×2 minutes hard. You only really need a total of 12-16 minutes, and it’s best to do those on the course you will be racing. Again, this is just what I have found works for me, it may not work for you. Two days before competition, there should also be an off or extremely short and easy ski. This gives your body a chance to rejuvenate and feel fresh.

Nutrition – Hydration should start long before race day. In the winter, we tend not to drink what our body needs because we are not sweating as much as in the summer. Look for other signs of thirst and dehydration. Some of these include dry skin, sticky mouth, constantly sore muscles (water helps flush waste) and feeling the need to eat when you are not hungry. When I have the “can’t find the food that will satisfy” craving, I have found it’s because my body is trying to get water from the foods I am eating, instead of sending the signal to drink because my body is not overheating. Once I drink a bottle of water, maybe with a little juice mixed in for flavor, that craving will be gone.

Carbohydrate loading becomes necessary the longer your race. As I studied this concept, I have realized our high school pasta parties where we overdosed on spaghetti for a 5k the next day wasn’t exactly necessary, other than great team bonding. If you eat a healthy well-balanced diet, you can get away with eating a healthy meal of your choice the night before 5k to 10k races. If you are a vegetarian or do not normally eat many carbs however, you should load the night before these events to increase your glucose stores.


Nutrition – It is best to eat breakfast 3 to 4 hours before race time so that your body has time to digest. Avoid heavy or fatty foods, but get glucose and a little protein into your system. This is why oatmeal with maybe some hard boiled eggs on the side is fairly common race food. I am a big fan of oatmeal with peanut butter on top for my pre-race meal.

Sports drinks such as Gatorade, PowerAde, or even Emergen- C are beneficial because they absorb quickly into your blood stream, hydrating and replenishing you before and after your warm-up. Fifteen to twenty minutes before the race is a good time to ingest a quick sugar with electrolytes for one last boost. I prefer GU, but thick sports drink works as well.

Physical – Remember how I said in the beginning to mix up your routine? This is a great place to start. Race morning warm-up can be a make or break, especially for the shorter distance races. If you train right, your body will have different speeds, aka “gears” you can turn on during the race. Therefore, you should warm- up these different gears after at least 20 minutes of L1 and L2. Many athletes will do a set of 3 x 3 minutes of L3 as their warm-up, with ample rest in between. If the first one or two feel sluggish, that’s normal. Think of it as getting this “wake-up” process out of the way so that it isn’t happening during the race. Dynamic (movement) stretching before and after your warm-up is encouraged, save the passive (sit and hold) stretching for after. The more flexible you are, the more your body is able to give and flow with the proper and powerful technique movements skiing demands. Again, don’t save this goal for race day. Work on flexibility and balance all year- round.

Mental – The mental aspect of racing, as well as handling race anxiety, should be practiced throughout the year. This is one reason teams do time trials in the fall, to simulate race stress. Key points are to find your focus, be confident, and practice mental imaging of yourself succeeding. As hard as they are to break, a stream of constant negative thoughts will only drag you down. Notice I didn’t say to relax. For a while I fought this concept, worried that I would become apathetic if I let myself relax day of race. However, I have found it is the separation of a focused mind yet calm and prepared body that looks relaxed to the viewer. Prepared is not stressed, not wasting energy, yet ready for battle.


Whether you are in a mass start or racing against the clock, utilizing tactics will make you faster. With trial and error, you will be able to make quick decisions mid race that will take seconds off; adding up to minutes, and places. Here are some key points to learn.

– Complete focus occurs when your brain is in the moment. Sometimes you can only see the corridor in front of you because you subconsciously block out distractions other than what’s in your path. This is the most desired mental race state. Search for it, harness it, and let it take you away.

– Mass starts are your friend. Use the people around as an advantage by holding on to someone’s pace, or drafting on the hills. Once you pass someone, never look back, but instead mark your next target. If you get passed, tuck in behind them for a while and even analyze what they seem to be doing that’s making them faster. If someone is using these tactics on you, accelerate around corners and over hills to pull away. The saying “out of sight out of mind” holds true, even if you are right around the next bend.

– Skiing transitions of technique and terrain will make the race flow much smoother. Increasing arm and leg turnover before you get to a hill should accelerate you into it, and giving a few extra pole pushes as you crest will send you down the other side. Use your power to no-pole skate down hills, and if you are going to tuck; tuck low. This means your back is flat, and your elbows are touching the knees.

– No matter who’s around you or what team you are on, cross country skiing is an individual sport because it’s only you and your thoughts out on the course. Maybe this is one of those things I shouldn’t share, but I will tell you that I am constantly talking to myself during races. We each have a devil and angel bickering on our shoulder, and when your body starts rebelling, it’s time to dig deep and remember what motivates you in order for the angel to be victorious.


This is my time to lecture. It makes me cringe when I see people finish a race, and go straight inside without a cool-down at all. This is only acceptable if it is -0 degrees F or colder outside. You just put in a hard effort, and now you are letting the lactic acid sit and pool in your body, consequently making you extremely sore and tired the next 48 hours. Even a ten minute slow ski after will suffice. Replace nutrients to your muscles as soon as possible post race to aid recovery and to assist your ability to train more efficiently the following workout. As your body temperature returns to normal, sweat will become cold against the skin. This consequently compromises your immune system just as much as the hard effort you put it through. Changing workout clothes, especially those close to your core, will help prevent you from getting sick, making all that effort you just went through to race a positive notch in the training belt instead of a stagnant, sniffling, coughing week with tissue stuffed up your nose. Be smart, train hard, race fast!

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