Skip to content

WC Race Speeds Over Time

Someone emailed me with this question, which is a common one that I’m sure I’ve written about multiple times before. But it’s an easy graph to make, and just posting it again is easier than finding one of my old posts.

The question is how have race speeds changed over time. As you might expect we’re going to limit ourselves to a single race format and distance for consistency, in this case 15/10km interval start events for the men & women respectively:

One women’s race from the 1990’s that is a significant outlier has been removed; I’m quite sure it’s been mis-recorded on the FIS website somehow. The trends are just linear fits to the data. If you really want to squint at the scatterplots you could try to fit a smooth curve and try to spot places where it “jumped” but skiing races are just too variable to cleanly identify that level of change, and the linear trends obviously describe the data quite well.

Just eyeballing the graph, all four events (men & women, freestyle & classic) have improved by around 15%; some a little more, some a little less. It’s easy to brainstorm all the various causes for this improvement:

  • skiers train better, eat better, have better technique
  • better waxes
  • better skis
  • better, more reliable grooming (this is my favorite explanation and the most commonly overlooked in my opinion)
  • faster courses? (This is kind of an oddball one, but I wonder about it sometimes. Old time ski courses were narrower, with fewer longer loops and more twisty (maybe?), particularly before we had to accommodate skating and mass starts. Those kinds of courses with constant transitions and turning were possibly slower to ski than today’s trails that look like super-highways.)

Every time I make this graph, or something equivalent I have the same somewhat entertaining thought: what sort of courses would we need to have on the WC circuit to force current athletes back to the average speeds of the 1990’s? The 1980’s? It’s kind of amusing to think about what the courses would have to look like to add 10, 20 or even 30 seconds per kilometer to today’s top skiers.