Friday, November 9, 2001 - Information
Mass Starts: An Essential Athlete Development Tool

- By: Stephane Barrette

Mass starts are making a come back. After failing the test back in the 1987 WC season (Castelrotto, where Pierre Harvey finished third), the FIS tried it again at last year's WC in Salt Lake City. The reason for that come-back is simple: selling the sport by enhancing it's image and sex-appeal has become a must to ensure it's survival in the "extreme sports" dominated environment.

Even though the motivation for FIS to reinstate this race format on the WC and at the Olympic Games is purely marketing driven, the awareness that it brings to the ski community nonetheless has great implications in terms of athlete development.

Indeed, beside the fact that mass starts sell well and are simple to organize, this race format offers a tremendous learning advantage to participants: skiers of all ages and levels have the opportunity to ski with the best, for a while at least, and with skiers of their level for the most part of the race. This context allows the development of many important performance factors. Here is a summary:

1- There is certainly a physiological factor that contributes significantly to the overall performance but technical efficiency is also a major determinant. In that regard, it's when you follow another skier at high intensity that you can best evaluate your own thechnical efficiency because the skier in front serves as a realtime and continuous benchmark (point of comparison). Therefore, you can make instant adjustments that allow you to either keep following with a decreased level of intensity or be able to pass that skier while keeping the same level of intensity. With time, this exercise refines your kinetic and physiological perception of technical efficiency, which allows you to ski as efficiently when you are by yourself on the track (as with individual starts for example) as when you follow an other skier.

2- Cross country skiing being an aerobic sport which, in competition, is practiced "against the clock", the level of effort in races is, of course, quite high. Maintaining a high aerobic intensity for long periods of time obviously requires psychological aptitudes like tenacity and pain tolerance. The problem though is that, unless you are really masochistic, the search for pain and discomfort needed to perform is trully against human nature. That is why, beside technique, you constantly have to be aware of your level of effort during the race. The fact that you are with skiers of your level or even stronger in mass start races favors the development of those mental aptitudes because you can contemplate "live", the immediate impact of the most minor easing of effort. As much as you can hardly perceive it when you are by yourself, the fact of "being dropped" by the skier ahead instantly calls you back to order. Once again, this repeated context over and over eventually develops an increased intrensic feeling of the optimal level of effort to maintain when you are by yourself on the track and without any benchmarks.

3- Finally, mass starts allow athletes to gain self-confidence. Less intimidating for one, the fact of starting your race in the anonymity of the stadium also offers you the opportunity to "try your luck" by keeping contact with the best skiers at the start of the race. Athletes then realize more often than not, that skiers that they considered out of reach are not extra-terrestrials afterall since they can follow them for a while at least. The difference often relies in being able to maintain that speed throughout the race. Before being ablle to maintain speed, these experiences often give a good dose of motivation to developing athletes that got a taste of the "big boys and girls" speed.

On top of all those factors that concern athletes personnally, mass start races also represent a great development and promotional tool of our sport for the following reasons:

  • the unfolding of the race itself is easier to understand for spectators and thus contributes to hightened interest in our sport in general,