Noah Hoffman competing in the 50 k classic at the 2013 World Championships.
Noah Hoffman ran outside for 20 minutes on Wednesday. On Thursday, he hiked for four hours on a treadmill at a constant 15% grade. If that sounds like unconventional ski training, that’s because Hoffman, the top-ranked distance skier in the U.S., is now in the recovery phase for surgery he underwent on his left shoulder this spring. It’s the second time in three years he’s gone under the knife to prevent recurring shoulder dislocations, this time with the goal to eliminate the problem entirely.
Wednesday was Hoffman’s first day of running outside since mid-winter; on Friday he’ll be able to run for 30 minutes, and then 45.
“It’s tedious,” Hoffman admitted on the phone from Park City, Utah, where he does most of his summer training.
Hoffman completed the best season of his life last winter, which included a 15th place in the 15 k individual freestyle at World Championships. With the Olympics on the calendar in 2014 it may seem like the worst possible summer to be held back by surgery recovery, but Hoffman says hasn’t been held back at all. In fact, he’s already put in more training time this spring than ever before, including last spring when he was healthy.
“Being able to do [the surgery] in the spring allows me to do it without any setback,” he said.
Indoor training has given him more control over his workouts, which Hoffman considers a good thing for this time of year.
“One thing I would say about training indoors is, it’s definitely more consistent training, which I think is really good for base fitness,” he said. “I walked uphill today at four miles per hour at 15% grade, and added a couple micro pace-changes. It’s incredibly consistent. So for base fitness, I think it is really high level training.”
Though he considers his training unencumbered, Hoffman’s workout options are limited. He tried hiking outside in the weeks immediately after surgery but found the available terrain wasn’t challenging enough to elevate his heart rate. Since entering a more structured training period he has committed to working out inside the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence, where his physical therapy, lower-body strength and aerobic workouts can take place under one roof until he’s cleared for more activity.
Hoffman reintroduced running this week, and has until the twelve-week post-surgery appointment with his doctor to know when he can start rollerskiing and biking. He won’t attend the U.S. Ski Team training camp in Bend, Ore., next week but hopes to be allowed to ski on snow by the end of July.
So, does hiking on a treadmill for four hours — “a new personal record for longest consecutive indoor workout,” he wrote on his blog — get boring?
“I’m not worried about entertainment value; I’m going to do what’s planned out,” Hoffman said. “It’s not about having fun; I have fun when I’m not training.”
That said, Hoffman does allow himself TV to alleviate the monotony of the gym — he’s started watching ski races on an iPad while he hikes on the treadmill. During his recent four-hour session he watched the entire 50 k from World Championships this February, a two-hour race, and parts of the men’s and women’s classic sprints from Val di Fiemme.
“It was entertaining,” Hoffman said. “I hadn’t seen exactly what [Johan] Olsson did in that 50 k and of course it’s astoundingly impressive. It was a fun race to watch not having seen any video from that race.”
While his shoulder heals, Hoffman’s summer is still about progress — he doesn’t want to simply main fitness he had last season.
“It’s not just about getting back to where I was, but beyond where I was,” he said. “I’m going to use this process and physical therapy to add strength to my upper body.”
Technique development has been a major component of Hoffman’s training in the past, but in the face of limited ski-specific sessions at the moment he has broadened his focus to include upper-body strength as soon as he can lift weights again. He has four technique blocks planned at the end of the summer and fall, but independently of surgery Hoffman decided that strength and power is another component of his skiing he can improve.
“The technique is a focus, but I would say that it’s become clear to us that the strength and power deficiency, especially upper-body, has been a bigger limiting factor last season than my technique alone was,” Hoffman said. “I’m going to be able to make a lot of gains just by adding upper body strength and power, and I’m excited to work on technique again as soon as I’m able to.”
For the moment Hoffman is limited to 10-pound curls with his left arm, which has atrophied to a fraction of the size of his right arm since surgery. But his doctor adjusted his physical therapy protocol to let him build back strength more quickly than he did two years ago. Mobility and range-of-motion, which came before strength last time around in his physical therapy, is set to return more naturally.
“With strength and power being my big off-season goals, independent of the surgery, I’m really happy with the strength as a recovery tool,” Hoffman said.
Long-term, Hoffman views surgery recovery as a necessary part of the process in pursuit of his goal to eventually reach the top of the sport. He considers his improvement last season as step in the right direction, but is by no means entirely satisfied.
“It’s never a smooth, continual uphill process, that’s for sure,” he said in April. “I achieved some of my goals but not others this year; I guess I shoot pretty high. [A top-15 at World Championships] is just, to me, one step beyond being second at U23s. Those people that were in the top-10 with me [at U23s] have excelled as well, and many have had significantly better results than I’ve had since that race.”
With the Olympics on the horizon Hoffman is focused on making another step forward in the months ahead.
“The Olympics are big in the U.S., and big for any skier’s career, but I believe it would be a shock to win an Olympic medal for me next year,” he said. “I have other very lofty goals that I hope to achieve, and only one of them, to be honest, has to do with the Olympics. I want to continue improving next year and continue striving towards my goal and continue reaching the top of the sport. One of them is to win an Olympic medal, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in Russia; more in South Korea [in 2018].”