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You too can shave off a few seconds with a short sprint over the top of the hill

The photo shows Jacob Verdenius on his way up a hill, while Jonatan Engdahl from Nord University ensures that the photocell measurements are correct. Photo: SINTEF
The photo shows Jacob Verdenius on his way up a hill, while Jonatan Engdahl from Nord University ensures that the photocell measurements are correct. Photo: SINTEF
Skiers can gain on their competitors by having a detailed plan of what to do on the uphills. Timing their push at exactly the right moment is key to avoid expending too much effort.

Do you like skiing – and especially going fast? Then you know how important it is to optimize your power as a cross-country skier. Maybe you compete and have also wondered how you can gain valuable seconds.

Of course, a lot depends on technique and physical conditioning, but research also shows that you can profit from being smart in the right places during the race.

“A lot of skiers have gotten advice about the best way to get over hill tops,” says Trine Seeberg, a SINTEF researcher who is also a PhD candidate at NTNU’s Centre for Elite Sports Research (SenTIF).

It’s easy for coaches and assistants to give advice, but not as easy for the skiers to execute with the taste of blood in their mouth and a sky high pulse. Seeberg collaborated with other researchers from NTNU and Nord University to conduct a study to help cross-country skiers at all levels so that they can save time without using more effort.

The study clearly shows that skiers can save time – and that it’s easy to make them aware of how to achieve this without requiring too much effort.

“You don’t want to pour on the gas too much going up the hill. You should maintain a steady pace. As you reach the top, you accelerate in the right place for four to five cycles to get over the top, and then you need to quickly drop into a tuck position,” says Seeberg.

Research for Olympic gold

The perfect place for that extra bit of effort isn’t where the uphill just starts to flatten out. You have to wait until you’ve crested the hill, right before the downhill starts again.

“If you try to accelerate as soon as you reach the top of the hill, it’ll probably cost you too much energy,” Seeberg said.

On the other hand, by waiting until you are almost over the top, you can gain several seconds on competitors on the subsequent downhill.

“If you manage to hold back going up the hills, it can pay to exert a little more effort over the brow of the hill,” Seeberg said.

Elite level skiers are already familiar with this concept. NRK’s “Science behind the medal” (Vitenskapen bak medaljen) miniseries , for example, tells the story of how Didrik Tønseth worked with with top sports researchers to help him achieve the last step towards top-level performance.

What the researchers wondered was whether this knowledge could also be applied at the level below the very best – and whether it could be learned in a relatively short time.

Ski racer Emil Iversen

Cross-country skier Emil Iversen and Per Øyvind Torvik, head of sports education in Meråker, working with the researchers at NTNU and SINTEF. Here they are in Meråker on day two of the study. Photo: Trine Seeberg/SINTEF

Theory and practice

To that end, they carried out a study in the cross-country village of Meråker, which could provide them with high-level skiers who were students from the town’s specialized high school ski programme and sports students at Nord University.

The approximately 30 skiers completed a test run over ten kilometres.

The participants were equipped with wearable sensors, GNSS (global navigation satellite system), motion sensors and heart rate monitors. The researchers measured their precise speeds at certain points on the downhill slopes. The skiers were then divided into two groups.

“In the evening after the race, we had a 45-minute meeting with one group. We looked at the video of them one by one and showed them our data from the sensors. We pointed out things they could improve on,” says Seeberg.

This group put theory into practice out on the trail with the researchers the following day.

“They were able to try out different strategies for how to maximize their speed before they went into a tuck on the downhills. After each trial, they were told what speed they achieved, so they could see what worked best,” she said.

The other group received no training, but had a training session of similar intensity. On day three, everyone ran another race over the same ten kilometres.

Clear improvement

“We saw a significant change with the help of the training sessions, both in the skiers’ speed at the top and the time they spent on the entire downhill,” says Seeberg.

The skiers implemented the strategy not only on the two hills where they had trained specifically for it, but also on other parts of the trail with a similar profile.

In the video below, skier Geir Kristian Hoås demonstrates how it should be done.

“The skiers were able to generalize this knowledge and use it elsewhere,” says Seeberg.

The researchers were able to document that the selected skiers increased their speed on the downhills and between the hills, but showed no change on the uphills. So they lost nothing by reserving some strength on the uphills before increasing their speed over the tops of the hills.

The figures also suggest a significant improvement in finishing time for the skiers who received special training tips between races, but the correlation was not strong enough to satisfy the strict research requirements for drawing conclusions.

“That’s partly due to the fact that there weren’t that many participants and because of the changing snow conditions over the trial period,” says Seeberg.

Not all hilltops are suitable

Seeberg applies her own study results when she puts on her skis.

“I’ve benefited from the research when I do citizen’s races. It helps just to be aware of the results,” she says.

You might want to think about them too if you want to improve your own Strava segments. Or if you start running out of time before Sunday dinner. Just remember that not all hilltops are equally suitable for the strategy described.

Trine Seeberg

Researcher Trine Seeberg at SINTEF is a keen skier herself and uses sensors to study cross-country skiing. Here she is competing in the Norwegian Birkebeiner race. Photo: Sportograph/Birken

“This strategy won’t work on all slopes. If it’s too steep at the top, and you just immediately drop into the descent, you won’t be able to generate enough speed for it to be of any use.”

“The same is true if the downhill is so steep that you have to brake and slow yourself down. Then there’s not much point in having lots of speed at the top,” says Seeberg.

Watch a video that summarizes the article:

Trine M. Seeberg et al: Performance Effects of Video- and Sensor-Based Feedback for Implementing a Terrain-Specific Micropacing Strategy in Cross-Country Skiing. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, October 2022.