NNF’s speaker series kicked-off on Friday with Dr. Stephen Seiler, an American physiologist with an outsized role in coining the methods and nomenclature in use across the sport of nordic skiing– from “polarized training” to the “80%-20%” intensity breakdown. Throughout the talk, Seiler demonstrated a keen sense that his audience – some one-hundred and twenty on zoom call, with many more registrants waiting for the recording afterwards (now in your inbox if you registered!) – was current with the basic architecture of his ideas. As a result, Dr. Seiler focused more on pushing and pulling on the assumptions and practices that have resulted in the everyday use of his academic work, which resulted in a deeply interesting talk that alluded to how skiers came to train the way they train, and developments in research that will change training soon.

“I’ve spoken to many [audiences from many sports], but for me this work all comes back, in a way, to cross-country skiing” said Dr. Seiler at the outset of his talk. The story of Dr. Seiler first encountering nordic skiing is recounted in a Ted Talk, but essentially came down to Dr. Seiler, already a physiologist in the early 90s, meeting a Norwegian wife and moving to the country. With that exposition though, Dr. Seiler quickly pointed out that since he first saw skiers compete at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, the sport of nordic skiing had changed. “As you all know, there’s a much greater emphasis on strength, particularly in the upper-body – and that has catalyzed much of our thinking on training in the sport too.”

Having such a prominent physiological thinker talk in language nordic skiers understand was a novelty for many in the audience. It was also Dr. Seiler’s main point. He titled his talk “Towards a Shared Mental Model in Nordic Skiing,” defining a mental model as “working models of the world that humans create to achieve an understanding of their environment.”

Dr. Seiler’s presentation proceeded by reviewing the basic tenants of polarized training philosophy, complicating it according to the specific demands of nordic skiing. His jumping off point was that the physiological research that led to the development of the polarized training model was mainly done via “steady-state” exercises – running on a treadmill or cycling on a trainer – which doesn’t meld with the physiological reality of a skier who is pushing themselves on steep terrain while at rest on the way down.

That difference jumped off into niche corners of human physiology and how to train it. Dr. Seiler described how the typical zone training model could be divided up further to train skiers more specifically for the physiological reality of the sport. He also described current research into how ventilation rates can offer a more nuanced measure of athlete fatigue throughout a hard interval session than heart rate. “Ventilation and breathing is intuitive. We push based off how the guy next to us is breathing in a race, and yet, it hasn’t been looked at as a scientific indicator of fatigue until now,” said Seiler. This work was particularly interesting, with Seiler describing how there has been some experimentation with hyper-ventilating immediately prior to a hard anaerobic effort (such as climbing a hill) to “trick” the brain into seeking out more oxygen. Essentially, making oxygen intake anticipatory rather than reactionary.

That served as one of the more fascinating examples of Dr. Seiler’s straight-talking forward think throughout the presentation. The interest in moderator, NNF Board member, and US Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb drove home the cutting-edge nature of the discussion and the high-level that Dr. Seiler sought to impart to the American ski community.

Perhaps most poignantly though, was that even one of the world’s American physiologists asserted that the science in sport is only a guardrail. Application of even the soundest principle’s requires constant tweaking, constant coaching, constant input, and a constant humanness. It all adds up to a constant search – the appeal for nordic skiing, and the endless kilometers, tracks, and competitions it provides.

With its promising first talk, NNF’s speaker series will continue throughout the season to provide an accessible sport education program with some of the brightest minds in working in the sport today. Stay tuned for an announcement of our next speaker and exact date, to be expected in January. Participants from last Friday’s talk should have received an email with a link to Dr. Seiler’s recorded talk. Please contact [email protected] if you have questions or concerns on the recording. Thank you for making the first talk in our speaker series a success!


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