Noah Hoffman’s Progress

Like everyone else in the world (seemingly) I enjoy Noah Hoffman’s blog. Apparently he gets a little bit of a hard time for how often he posts, but I think it’s pretty remarkable how much he shares about his training and racing. A lot of athlete blogs will, quite understandably, shy away from sharing some of the lower points during their season. So I was struck by Hoffman’s post following the Sochi 50k in which he was quite open about questioning whether he should remain in the sport at all.

Part of the reason I found it interesting was that for a while now I’ve felt like Hoffman hasn’t been making much progress, and based on what I read elsewhere I don’t seem to be in the majority on that front. Obviously, as a fan of US skiing, I root for him, but form my very distant vantage point looking only at race results, I haven’t seen much sign of the dramatic improvement we’d like to see.

For instance:



This is all of his major international results. So you can see why I’d be puzzled by comments suggesting that his results have improved dramatically. Clearly the last two seasons have seen more good results, but his typical race hasn’t improved all that much, if at all.

Hoffman had an excellent race this past fall in what FIS now calls the pursuit at Kuusamo, and that certainly was noteworthy. But I’ve long felt that you can’t really generalize much from those pursuit races since so many skiers alter their pacing in response to the overall standings. Clearly Hoffman had a good day; I really wish he’d had that effort in an interval start race since that would be a much clearer signal of his ability.

Another example was the Sochi 50k, a race that Hoffman professed some disappointment with. He skied with the leaders nearly the whole race and had some bad luck near the end with a broken pole. On the other hand, by his own description he was basically toast with 5k to go and said that nearly everyone was leaving him behind. In the end he finished a little over a minute off the pace, or about 1.07% back. To say that a minute out in a 50k is pretty good is a bit misleading here. The fact is that modern mass start races (for the men at least) are essentially medium intensity cruisers with several kilometers of mad sprinting at the end.

I often joke that we might as well simply put the whole field on stationary bikes for a set period of time and then have them do a mass start 5k. A little bit more than a minute out in a 5k race doesn’t sound quite so good.

So you might say that I think that percent back in mass start events isn’t necessarily indicative of much. If I had better split data, a more informative metric would be a skier’s pace over the final 5% of the race, not their overall percent back.

Regardless, let’s try to take stock of where Hoffman is. I collected all top 30 men’s results in major international mass start, skiathlon and interval start races (so, yes, I’m dropping those misleading “pursuits”) over the past four seasons. For each person I calculated their median mass start percent back and their median interval start percent back. Here are the results, separated by whether they have ever achieved a top 5 result (in either type of race):



One thing this makes clear is that 1.07% back in the Sochi 50k is actually one of his better results, but it’s also clearly not been the rule. His other two strong mass start results were both held in North America.

All this isn’t meant to just rag on Hoffman. I genuinely hope he succeeds (if you don’t already count was he has done a success). But I was struck by his post-50k blog as being remarkable honest and clear eyed about his progress, which isn’t something I feel like we see very often expressed in public. I also think his coaches are right: he’s got at least two more Olympic cycles in him, and that’s a lot of time to work with. But I can’t say that we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in his race results…..yet.

Related posts:

  1. How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the F-Factor (Part 1)
  2. How I Learned To Start Worrying and Hate the F-Factor (Part 2)
  3. Noah Hoffman’s Pacing
  4. U23 Recap: Noah Hoffman, Andrew Musgrave and Kevin Sandau
  5. US World Cup Split Times

About Joran


6 Responses to “Noah Hoffman’s Progress”
  1. Annie says:

    In your first graph, it looks like this season and 2 seasons ago (2011-12) he’s been relatively consistent compared to 2010-11 and last season (2012-13). And it would appear that from 2012 to 2013, he made more improvement, thanks to some really good results among ones “all over the map.” Would his improved consistency this season potentially indicate less consistency but better overall results next year?
    I know it’s difficult to predict athletes, given sickness (like Simi dealt with last year, Tad Elliot this year) and overtraining (like Kris Freeman, though who knows if that’s the only problem…), but if Noah keeps improving, even at the current snail-pace, his average would be well within your “Good” range by PyongChang, if not approaching “Elite”…right?
    Thank you for posting this!! It’s always nice to see the statistics lay things bare.

    • Joran says:

      I sure hope so! Liz Stephen might be a good example to compare him to. She had quite a few seasons on the WC with mostly average results, and only in the last 2-3 seasons has she really started to improve significantly.

  2. Jamey says:

    I enjoy reading your posts. thanks for taking the time.
    i have wondered, what would be the expected improvement of a skier who, at some point, could be considered “elite”, from, say their first 10 world cup race finishes, until the period of having achieving “elite” status, expressed as %? My guess would be there really is not typically a tremendous amount (less than 5% or so?) of improvement, expressed in % back, from a racers first season or two on World Cup, until their “elite” year, but numbers would tell the truth. you would have to define “elite” – maybe top 20 overall ranking, or something? you might have to use judgment on throwing out suspected/proven doped results as well. (I’m talking about distance racing, races lasting longer than 5 minutes)

    • Joran says:

      There’s a fair bit of variety among different skiers on this, I think. Different people develop differently as skiers, as they say. Some folks are quite fast right off the bat, quite young. Others improve steadily throughout their early-mid twenties. The people who show long, steady improvement tend to be from less competitive countries, where it’s possible to be the best in your country, but not necessarily the very good on the WC. That’s harder to do in Norway.

  3. NIck says:

    Great analysis as always, and concur on your main points. Devil’s advocate might say that with USSA and FIS points being an average of the top 4 and 5 results respectively, the points game rewards a few outstanding performances over a consistent season (and then subsequent starting rights might lead to higher consistency). Of course, flip side is that prize money and glory rewards consistent excellence. A hypothesis with no data to back it up: great skiers are identified early by a the capability to earn a few excellent results, then subsequently, through years of maturation, become great. Reality (as you pointed out in “US Olympic Assessment”) – in order to move beyond a “holding pattern”, we need 10 Hoffmans, not 1.

  4. Offpiste says:

    I would be surprised to see a tremendous jump in performance in a clean athlete. I think a lot of the big jumps in performance that were common in the past were caused by doping. I think doping is still a big part of the game at the top end.

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