Learning how to learn
As an accidental athlete who discovered sport in my thirties, I’ve had to fast track the learning process to maximise the progress I can make in the time I have available. Here I share my strategies and techniques to help you do the same.
After my husband and I married each other in our late twenties, my husband was diagnosed as being severely sight impaired and therefore disabled. We’ve since started ski racing together (me as his ski guide), and together we have ski raced for Great Britain.
When James and I started ski racing together, our lives transformed. Instead of going to the pub on a Friday night, we tried to ease off the alcohol and go to the gym Saturday morning instead. We’ve tried to eat as an athlete ‘should’; we’ve changed our gym programme; we’ve used specific equipment and tried different approaches to training. We are very aware that we are older than many other athletes on the para alpine ski racing circuit, but also know that age doesn’t define us as much as it could in the able bodied ski racing circuit. For example, one visually impaired ski racer competed at the 2018 Paralympic Games in his fifties!
Our training hasn’t always been straightforward or easy, but I have learnt over time that there are ways to progress faster and safer in order to make the most of the youth we have left. Here I share the strategies I use. I hope they work as well for you as they have done for us.
1. Deliberate practice
‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson has been hugely influential for our progress. In his book, he describes the concept of ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice is possible where there are the following:
A field with highly developed, accepted training methods
Field is competitive enough that there’s a strong incentive to practice and improve
Fields are well established with relevant skills having been developed over decades or centuries
Field has teachers and coaches who have developed increasingly sophisticated training techniques that causes the field’s skill level to improve, which improves the quality of coaching in a virtuous circle
Deliberate practice requires focus and all your attention
You work on small, targeted areas to then add up to the combined whole, always building on existing skills.
So, what does this mean in real life?
James and I always try to train deliberately. We focus our full attention on the job at hand when on skis, and stop when we start to fatigue. Occasionally we may push through to improve our stamina, but we accept that our technique will worsen temporarily. So usually, when we start to view our progress as stopping during a ski training session, we will stop the session and then begin again afresh for the next one. It’s so incredibly easy to practice bad habits and build up the wrong muscle memory that we make a conscious decision, daily, not to and instead try to finish on a high.
In order to bring our best self to training, we also try to eat healthily and not drink (too much) alcohol. It doesn’t always work, but we definitely feel more sluggish in training if we’ve overindulged the night before. This is one of the areas we struggle with the most, but it’s a work in progress and we have far more understanding about what we need than we have done in the past.
We break down the huge goal (winning Gold at a Paralympic Games) into small, minute tasks, such as getting more forward on our skis when practicing slalom. By breaking down the seemingly impossible into bite sized chunks, we feel empowered and enabled rather than overwhelmed and helpless. Gradually, we start to build our knowledge and expertise up, step by small step.
We question when we don’t understand a concept, sometimes asking more than one person to explain it to us. More than once we’ve realised that we now actually understand something we thought we’d understood previously! We seek out experts in their fields, who can support us to be the best ski racers we can be. We want to work with experts who have experience of not only ski racing themselves, but of working with a variety of athletes and replicating results across a range of individuals. Our coach, Ben Reid, is incredibly supportive and has helped us develop much faster than we’d hoped.
We analyse the day’s training using video. Ben, our coach, will film our runs during the day and during the evening we’ll watch and analyse the videos. We’ll see what we’re doing well, see where we could improve and agree on a focus for the following day. It’s constructive to look at what we’re actually doing with our bodies and equipment, rather than just relying on what it feels like, which can be extremely different!
We’ll also look at professional ski racers’ techniques using online videos. By slowing down their skiing, we can see in detail exactly what they’re doing with their bodies, and how they gain the fastest speeds down a race course. Watching the professionals excel gives us a solid target to work towards.
In order to remember the small tasks we’ve been working on in and what our focus is going forward, we keep skiing journals. Every single time I ski I write down information about the session. What were we doing? What was my focus? What went well? What didn’t go so well? What do I want to continue working on? Do I need any additional support or to ask for help? Keeping a journal regularly helps keep clarity and focus in the training sessions, and limits the amount of mental noise that would otherwise distract me.
2. What’s right for me?
Another important element is figuring out what’s right for us. When we first started getting serious about ski training, we researched suggested diets for athletes, and ate accordingly. We gained fat more than muscle, and went up a couple of clothes sizes.
It took a while to realise that our weight gain was fat rather than muscle, but what took longer to figure out was why. It turns out that the research we’d been reading was based on full time, male rugby players in their teens or twenties. I was a female, part time athlete in my early thirties, so my energy need from my food was much, much less than I thought. By listening to the wrong advice, I’d accidentally become less healthy and my confidence decreased.
So now I think carefully about who to trust. Where has the advice they’re giving come from? Has it been tested on people like me? Is it appropriate for me? What is my body telling me? How have I seen the best results? Learning who to trust — and not — has been critical.
This has also filtered into who we train with. We’ve trained with a variety of different skiing clubs and the British ParaSnowsport Development Team. They’ve all been good in their different ways, and we’ve gained the confidence to know what we need at certain points in time. Due to that, last season we decided to ski independently for Great Britain and work with Ben Reid as a ski coach. Going independent was tough but we knew that we had to be brave and do what was right for us. The outcome? One year on and we’re stronger, fitter, faster and happier on skis than we ever have been. The uncertainty and anxieties have gone, and we now have control over our training program. We don’t regret a minute of it.
3. Be sport specific
Before I started ski racing, I used to run. And before that, I cycled daily on my commute through central London. I knew I was quite fit, but I didn’t know anything about training for ski racing.
Since then, I’ve chatted with people who are doing exceptionally well in their ski racing careers, and have found that they do very sport specific exercises. As I also have to work in a day job, I don’t have all day (or unlimited energy) to spend in the gym, so I have to be realistic about what I can achieve.
In terms of ski training, the exercises I do focus on:
strength in my legs (lots of squats!)
plyometric exercises (jumping)
I need strength, stability and balance to perform my best on skis, but also to limit the chance of any injuries while ski training. Skiing is a risky sport, and the chances of injury are much higher if I’m not strong and flexible to begin this. I know, because in 2017 when I was less fit, strong and flexible, I snapped my ACL and tore my MCL. Physio was long and boring and not something I’d like to do again if I have any choice. Prevention of injuries is key.
4. Look at the research
It’s very easy to get swayed by media articles and the latest fad, particularly when it comes to recovery. Spinning on bikes to flush out the lactic acid, ice baths, eating certain foods within 20 minutes of exercising, rolling on balls and foam rollers, the list goes on.
Christie Aschwanden has written a brilliant book titled ‘Good to Go: What the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery’ which examines the evidence base behind the most popular — and often expensive — methods of recovery. In the book she tries out each type of recovery and examines the robustness of evidence for each. It’s an illuminating read.
I’d been told to cool down and spend five minutes on the bike after every training session to try and flush the lactic acid out of my body. I was told to do mobility exercises and to try and eat as soon after exercising as possible.
In reality, sleep is by far the most powerful tool for physical — and mental — recovery. I always felt knackered after a training session, not only physically, but mentally too after guiding James safely but quickly down training courses. I was wiped, but I battled my strong urge for an afternoon nap to instead to lie down and foam roll.
Reading ‘Good to Go’ gave me the confidence and knowledge to do what I know is right for my body. Yes, it’s good to cool down after a training run so we normally take a final run to lower our heart rate and cool down gradually. I do still want to increase my flexibility, so I stretch while my muscles are warm. I also take time to warm up properly so I can get the most out of our training sessions.
But I also sleep. A LOT. Which means that when I turn up for the next training session, I feel refreshed, recharged and good as new. In fact, I can now train intensely with two training sessions a day for 6 days in a row without burning out. Previously, I could only do about 4 days of single sessions before I needed time off. When ski training in the Alps, I know I need to sleep approximately 10 hours a night to wake up feeling refreshed. And now I have the knowledge — and confidence — to do so.
5. Keep it fun
Ultimately, if we didn’t enjoy ski racing, it would be an incredibly expensive way to feel s***. We don’t get paid to ski race and there is no prize money for our races so we have to foot all the costs ourselves. Fortunately we are able to — just about — do so, but this also means that enjoying ourselves is important if it’s going to be a sustainable activity.
Because of that, we’ve decided to keep it as fun as possible. We try to laugh instead of crying. We live out of a van with our two cats when ski training and racing, so take our home with us, as it were. We relax in the evenings and enjoy the odd beer after a challenging day on the slopes. We try to be positive and surround ourselves with positive people who won’t negatively impact on our mental health. We also try to have the odd skiing holiday, where it’s just the two of us and our two cats, having fun in the mountains. We remember why we’re doing what we do, and fall in love with the sport all over again. It’s definitely worth taking a few days out to do.
6. Use a growth mindset
Carol Dweck’s ‘Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential’ has been a massive help in our lives in general, not just for sport. Dweck argues that ability can be increased with practise, and that what a lot of us consider to be talent is actually the result of hard work over time.
When ski training, it’s hard to not compare ourselves to other ski racers, most of which are younger than us. But we try to resist this, and instead focus on our journey. We have more life experience, motivation and autonomy than some others, and try to use this to our advantage instead.
We also focus on the learning process, and firmly believe that there are no mistakes as long as we learn from them. It might be the snowiest, coldest, most miserable day on the mountain with funky snow, but it’s a great training opportunity for dealing with challenging weather and difficult snow. We might not be communicating well together one session, but we learn what we could do instead to communicate better between us. It might be a painful experience, but we’ll be stronger as a result.
Focusing on the learning is critical for us — and probably saved our marriage too!
Ultimately, we feel incredibly lucky that we’re healthy and happy every time we step on skis. We have had amazing opportunities ski training and racing and have already exceeded our wildest goals. When we first started out, our dream was to accompany the national team on one training camp. We’ve now raced internationally for Great Britain, have reached Europa Cup in slalom and are working towards a Paralympic Winter Games.
Time is not on our side, but we still have a huge amount of potential and are motivated and committed to doing as best as we possibly can. We won’t give up ski racing until we absolutely have to, and are excited to see just how far we can go.
I hope our learnings help you on your journey too. We’d love to hear about them so please do comment below.
This post was first published on Medium on 06/1/2020.