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Cross country skier Devon Kershaw

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UPPER BODY and CORE Technique in cross country skiing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years and it’s far more upper-body focused than it used to be. When Kershaw is double poling in a flat-out classic sprint, the biggest muscles in his upper body — his abdominals and latissimus dorsi (lats) — are what matter most. “Your legs aren’t actually doing that much when you’re double poling. It’s probably 70 per cent upper body,” Kershaw says.
MIND To win a cross country race takes a mind that is as strong, if not stronger, than the body. “You have to learn to embrace the pain,” says Kershaw. He uses “mindfulness training” to learn to empty his mind of random thoughts — ‘my legs feel like lead,’ ‘I need eggs at the grocery store’ — so he can focus on what matters. “When your mind goes, it’s so hard to stay positive,” he says. “A great race is when I’m so in the moment all I’m thinking about is how can I be more efficient in this single moment and the moments add up. How can I glide that one inch further every stride or make sure I’m lowering my shoulders. “Of course there’s pain, but when you break it down into such manageable, process-orientated goals the pain seems to be a secondary thing until it’s over.”
DIET With a three-hour run in the morning and a two-hour bike or gym session in the afternoon, Kershaw doesn’t have to count calories. He just eats a healthy, well-balanced diet, that includes a palm-sized serving of a lean protein like wild salmon or turkey breast, complex carbohydrates and vegetables with every meal. “I love vegetables,” he says. “I’m a parent’s dream.” He starts the day with a bowl of oatmeal, two eggs and a bunch of vegetables. If he’s feeling fancy he’ll make a sautéed vegetable omelette. Staples for lunch and dinner include potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, wild rice, “and really good bread, dark bread, not white Wonder bread, ever.”
HEART and LUNGS “No cross country skier is going to get anywhere without a big set of lungs and big heart pumping a lot of blood and oxygen to all the muscles working overtime to propel you over the snow,” says Kershaw. His VO2 max — a measure of the body’s ability to transport and use oxygen — has tested over 80. That’s about double what the average non-athlete musters.
LEGS and GLUTES Cross country skiing is all about efficiency, so Kershaw wants to use his biggest muscles as much as he can. That’s his quads and glutes. From May to November, Kershaw is in the gym twice a week building up those muscles. He does squats on a box (to remove the temptation to cheat by not going down the full 90 degrees) hurdle hops and Olympic weight lifting. But weight training is a balancing act for the five-foot-eight, 160 pound athlete. Bigger muscles aren’t better muscles. Kershaw needs endurance and the ability to race up steep hills in races, he can’t do that with speed skating-sized thighs. “It’s about having the strongest legs without having your legs get so massive and heavy that you’ve got to lug them around.”
SKIS and WAX Cross country skiing is art as well as science. “It’s not like running, where I can go out and do six 1-mile repeats and know exactly how fast or good I am.” Ever changing snow conditions — it could be sunny at the start of a race and raining by the end — requires choosing correctly between as many as 60 pairs of skis and a myriad wax options. That takes an expert ski waxer with a sixth sense about the weather. “If we get it right we can improve the result 3 to 5 per cent,” says Sacha Bergeron, who prepares skis for some of Canada’s national team athletes. “If we miss it, we miss it by 100 per cent. Even the best racer in the world with the wrong wax can’t do anything.”