First Timer FAQ

Ski Mountaineering racing looks really hard to some, but it is actually as hard or as easy as you want to do it.  Any backcountry skier can race in these events and have a blast, there are just a few things to remember to not only race your best race, but to have a great time.

Category

For most races there usually around 3 categories or races you can enter under.  There is a recreation category, which is great if you aren’t quite sure of your physical ability, or are unsure if you can finish the race category course.  The longer course is broken into two categories, the heavy metal and race categories.  Heavy setup?  No problem heavy metal is for you.  However, if you’re a bit more competitive regardless of your setup, join the race category to race against the pros.  In the end, Canadian races will have the final points in the National circuit combine both the heavy metal and race category racers together, so if your unsure, either one will do.

Racing

Team Canadas Melanie Bernier at Vertical World Champs 10
Team Canada's Melanie Bernier at Vertical World Champs 10'

1.  At the start line, everybody is going to blast out at the start of the race.  The elite athletes are jockying for position, and strategizing for the first climb, they will be going really fast.  Others are just really excited and will fall back quickly.  Start the race at the fastest pace you feel comfortable at, not the fastest you can go.  This way you won’t go into your red zone earlier on, and will feel great for the whole race, not just for the first half.

2.  While on the course, think about your pacing.  You should be able to talk to other racers, and breath comfortably.  If you are grasping for air, and having difficulty speaking, your going too fast and will not be able to finish comfortably.  For the rest of the race you are now racing yourself, not other racers, so if someone comes blasting by don’t blow up trying to catch them.  If you maintain this pace, you will probably be passing people for the entire race, as others tire and slow down.

3.  Use transitions as resting points, as well as descents, this will help bring your heart rate down, and give you a break.  Practice taking off your skins without taking your skis off.  This will not only shave a massive amount of time off your result, but will keep you more comfortable longer.  If you aren’t using a pair of tiny racing skis with a fancy race tip attachment, this is how to transition.

  • Lock both your heels down into the bindings, and do your boots up.
  • Take both poles in one hand, and use them for balance.
  • Lift your ski tail you aren’t balancing on, so it’s around your shoulder.  Now grab the tail clip and start to pull the skin down the rest of the ski.  As the skin rips off the ski, it will reach the halfway point, and probably won’t go any further.  Put the skis tail in the snow in front of you with the tip up, as if you were stretching, and flick the rest of the skin off.
  • Fold the skin over and put it in your jacket.  This will dry your skins, and make them easier to take out on the next transition where you need to pull them out.
  • Practice this before the race, as it does require some technique, but is very useful for days out touring, especially in deep snow.  There are also lots of great how-to videos on YouTube.

4.  If you do want to push yourself, and are feeling really good, find a racer who you know is faster, but think you can keep up with.  Try to match his or her strides by skinning directly behind them, this will not only push you, but help keep that rythym and give your body a bit of a break.

5.  Have fun, these races are addictive, and most of the elite athletes are easily approachable for tips and advice.

Nutrition

Nutrition is the biggest hurtle most people will encounter during a race.  Even elite athletes can forget to eat or drink in the heat of the moment, and will suffer the consequences later into the race.  Here are a few tips which will ensure you have a fantastic race, and these will make or break your race!

1.  Prepare to be out on the course anywhere from 1.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on the course and your speed.  Carry more food if you think you will need it, as its better to have a few extra energy gels at the end than to not have enough.

2.  Your goal is to ingest roughly 100-300 calories per hour.  Anything less will not be enough, and anything more may cause you stomach upset or cramping.  Make sure you have easily digestable food, and take it with water.  Most top athletes use gel, as it is easily digestable and easy to eat while on the move.  The best brands to buy are GU, Hammer, and CarbBoom as they don’t have high sugar content!

3.  Stay away from really sugary drinks or gels/bars.  They will cause you to crash.

4.  Make sure to drink enough water, bring 1L to 2L of fluid depending on how long you expect to be out on the course.  Make sure to drink a good amount, as you will be loosing liquid quickly, even in the cold.

5.  Electrolyte drinks help emmensly.  Brands such as Nuun, Hammer, Vega, and GU are fantastic, and don’t have massive amounts of sugar in them.  Gatorade is okay if watered down, but isn’t recommended.

6.  The day before make sure to eat lots of good quality food, and to drink lots of water.  Eat your breakfast the day of with enough time to digest it properly, and keep it simple.  Sausage, bacon, and eggs, aren’t the best choice for racing, whereas porridge, oats, or rice works wonders.

7.  Upon finishing the race now is the time you can eat something sugary.  Eat and drink some water within the first 15 minutes of being back, and you’ll feel amazing for the post race party!

Gear and Clothing

Reiner Thoni, World Cup Circuit 10
Reiner Thoni, World Cup Circuit 10'

Your going to be on the move constantly, and feeling pretty warm.  So dress for a day of cross country skiing, or as if you are going to be skinning for a long time.  Any extra warm clothes can be stashed away in your backpack, just in case.  But don’t worry about pulling them out for the descent, as you will be transitioning quickly back to your uphill clothing.  Make sure that you have a full length zipper on the front of your shirt, or vest, as this will be the main “pocket” to stuff your skins into while skiing down.

On your head you will be wearing a helmet.  Don’t bother with a hat, or a headband; a bandana will protect your ears but let your head breath much better.  Gloves can be difficult to choose, but starting with a thin pair such as a cross country, or neoprene bike gloves, will work really well for the entire race.  Layer just what you usually use for skinning in the backcountry with, anything else, you will keep in your backpack.

You backpack should have a ski attachment system on it as well.  Some backpacks will have a cool attachment system, that will allow you to put your skis on your back without even taking it off, others won’t.  However, a diagonal ski carry system works the fastest if you don’t have this racing system, and will have the least amount of fiddling at the transition, opposed to an “A-Frame” carrying system.  Bring an easily accessable water bottle and not a water bladder.  The water bladders tube will freeze, and almost always causes people problems, even with an insulated sleeve.  Most racers will use warmer water, to help combat freezing bottles, and brain freeze while racing.

If you do have adjustable poles, extend them a bit longer, to get a bit more push from them.  This will help on steeper terrain, and also help if there is a flat section of the course which requires any skating.  A classic cross country pole will also do the trick, as it will be lighter, stiffer, and comfortable to skin with for an extended period of time.

Training

Training is for those who either want to race more, and do better, but also does help pay off on those long days of backcountry skiing.  There is too much information on training to put into a faq but is easy to find online.  Go out for long days on a regular basis, don’t go as hard as you can, ski at a conversational pace.  Then once you’ve been doing this for awhile, you can throw in 2 interval sessions per week, with a break in between.  Make sure these interval sessions are on flatter terrain, and don’t exceed the 45min mark.  Intervals can be done in 30 second incriments, or up to 4 min increments.

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